Saturday, June 4, 2011






Over the last forty years I have been involved in a process of imagining the Christian Faith in relation to Indian Cultural forms. This process has taken place at different levels. There has been the process of translation. Culture here has been understood as providing a language of images, and in order to make the Biblical narrative intelligible to people who belong to a culture that is very different from the cultural context  in which the Biblical texts were  originally written,  it is important to find imaginal’* forms that might embody the spirit of the Bible in familiar images. But then, at  another level of exchange, the Biblical Text is seen not only as something given, but as requiring to be re-enacted. This entails what is called liturgy, or celebration, and brings us into the domain of performance. Here what is being addressed is not only image as memory, or tradition, but a much wider power of the imagination as evocative, creating a new world of thought and action. Finally, this process of enacting the narrative, is re-telling the story in a new way, requiring an embodiment of the world of the imagination in spatial terms, and elemental materials derived from the local landscape, which can be understood in terms of a vernacular architecture. Here we shift from the idiomatic, to the concrete realization of an imaginal world which is a total theatre, involving not only what is spoken, or seen, but also what is constructed in special and tangible terms. In other words what has been called “inculturation”* functions on these three levels:

  1. The trans-literal metaphorical world of the imagination which creates translations of sacred texts into local languages
  2. The liturgical, or performed dimension of re-enactment in the lives of those who have internalized the images and words, and are now acting this symbolic world in their day to day lives
  3. Finally at the level of built forms, where such performances can be “staged”, so to say in the context of local landscapes, and ecological constraints.


It has been suggested that the efforts of various Christian missionary organizations, notably the Bible Society and Christian Literature Society (CLS) to translate the Bible into many languages, and thus make the Bible available to people in different lands, helped in the process of relating the Biblical narrative to other cultures*. Languages are not just ways of communicating ideas in the form of propositional statements. Language is also a vehicle for culture, that is it embodies symbols, or metaphors, that are culturally rooted. Every word carries with it certain resonances, which are beyond the so-called literal meaning of what is said. This has been an important understanding of language as the basis for an aesthetic experience. In India this notion of resonance, or implied meaning is called Dhvani’’*. The concept of Dhvani emerged out of an earlier understanding of Rasa, or essential or experiential significance underlying what one might term the poetic power of the word, and also the image.* The word, together with the image, point to a meaning which lies beyond the immediate literal or rational sense, or empirical semantic meaning of what is being expressed. The implied, experiential meaning is like the nexus of memories, or lived experiences that underlie every visual or verbal statement. It is this implied significance that is culturally conditioned, and gives poetic life to what otherwise would only be documentary evidence.

What might be termed a hermeneutical principle, is that every statement whether in a text, an oral tradition, or in a visual form of expression, has several layers of meaning. This is what the early biblical interpreters who were linked to the school of Philo, or the Jewish-Greek scholars of Alexandria, stressed as the several meanings behind every Biblical text*. There was the obvious meaning, taken in the semantic sense, which is the literal meaning of the Bible. But underlying this surface meaning, there are other layers of signification, which are contextual symbolic, metaphysical, or mystical.  These meanings are not easy to translate. The literal meaning can be conveyed into another language, using a dictionary. But the inner poetic meaning is often lost in translation, because this inner experience of the word belongs to its implied meaning. What is lost in translation lies implicit in the context from which the word or image has arisen, bearing the memories, myths, metaphors which are the underlying source from which every language has emerged. Every text, like the oral tradition from which it derives, is addressed to a particular audience. The written text transcends that original audience, now bringing the word as document to new readers, unfamiliar with the original cultural context from which the text has sprung.  Already translation implies transformation, in the minds and hearts of a new audience, so that any living translation is by necessity a re-telling, and re-interpreting of the original narrative.

There have been some attempts in India to use the concept of Dhvani as a tool to re-interpreting the Bible from an Indian point of view.* What images has the translated Bible evoked in the minds of new readers of the text ? How have these texts been related to the lives of those who are now a new audience, situated in a different culture, and historical time, and trying to make sense of the relevance of the text within another living context ? In recent times a number of important modern Indian artists have represented Biblical themes in their art. These artists have not necessarily been Christian believers, in the sense of belonging to any particular Church. Many have understood their Faith as Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim. And yet, the Biblical text has spoken to their imagination. It has evoked resonances with their own cultural and historical situation. For example, the theme of suffering, and sacrifice has appealed to nationalist inspired artists who saw in the Biblical story a spiritual call to liberation. It was in this context that the artist Jamini Roy painted Jesus as a Santali tribal, whose cultural aspirations seem to relate to the message of Jesus. Scenes like the conversation between Jesus and the Woman at the Well, or Jesus as a Guru and Healer, whose feet were washed and wiped by Mary of Magdala, have appealed to Indian artists, who have found in these events interesting parallels with Buddhist or later Bhakti images representing the relation of disciple to teacher. Or again the story of the Risen Christ walking with his troubled disciples on the road to Emmaus, has also been treated by Indian artists.  In images such as these an “Oriental Christ” is being portrayed, in a way which is very different from the Christian art that developed in Europe.

Thus there was an issue of BibleBhasyam (An Indian Biblical Quarterly) devoted to a ‘Dhvani’ interpretation of the Bible” (Dec. 1979) .

I myself responding to this initiative among Indian Biblical scholars wrote an article for the Visvabharati Quarterly (Founded by Rabindranath Tagore, Volume 47, May-Oct 1981) entitled “Indian Christian Art and Rasa Dhvani of the Gospel”.

As noted earlier, the fact that the Biblical texts were being read in local Indian languages, gave rise to images which now themselves re-interpreted the text. Image takes on the part of giving a new significance to the word. If Jesus was represented in translation, as speaking to his disciples in a local Indian language, those reading the Gospel narrative in their own mother tongue, naturally imagined Jesus in their own local landscape, dressed in the clothes, and living in the homes that they were familiar with. Jesus was now represented looking like an Indian among disciples who were Indian. The language led to an Indian image of Jesus, incarnated in a new way,   into an Indian cultural world. This one might say, becomes the literal implication of the translated text. The question arises however, that this way of imagining the Jesus of history, seems to deny the historical and geographical rootedness of the Gospel narrative in a land and culture which is quite alien to the people who are now reading the Biblical text in their own native language. Jesus, the literal school of critics now complain, was not an Indian, any more than he was Chinese, or African—or European for that matter!. He was Jewish. The problem is that the imagination does not function in a rational, or historical way. The imagination is always based on a lived experience. We visualize a reality in terms of a world which we are familiar with. There is no way in which a person born in another culture, another time, another place, can imagine what the Jesus of history looked like. Even the gospels are singularly unhelpful. Nowhere do we find a description of what Jesus or his disciples looked like in the sacred text.

The very metaphors used in translation, now convey more than was originally intended in the Biblical text. For example, in one Indian translation of the words “Behold the lamb of God, he who takes away the sins of the world” the word “sin” is translated into the Indian term “Karma”. This is because there is no comparable word for “sin” as understood in the Biblical sense, in Indian languages. The word “Karma”, seems to come closest to that idea of a burden of cosmic blindness to the Truth of Revelation, which is implied by the concept of “Sin” in the Bible. But “Karma” is also an important term in Indian schools of philosophic thought. Every profound word, in that sense, has itself a history, and many layers of meaning.  By using this word, the other Indian spiritual implications of this philosophical concept, now enter into the Biblical meaning of the text. The same might be said of even Biblical words, when the Gospel was rendered in Greek. For example even the term Logos, applied to the Primal and Creative Word of God, has many meanings coming from Greek philosophy.

Sadhu Sundar Singh* is reported to have said: “ I want to drink the waters of Eternal Life in an Indian vessel”. But can the vessel so easily be distinguished from what is poured into it ? The Indian disposable clay cup which was used in the old days for holding tea, gave its flavour to the tea. Form and content in any culture, are intimately linked.

And yet, as John of Damascus was to argue at the Second Council of Nicea, in his famous “Defence of Holy Images”,* the image is a vital witness to the Incarnation. The God who became a human being, was not only reaching out to the particular group of disciples who lived in that short period of historical time when Jesus was alive on earth, but his incarnation has a universal reach and scope. Jesus is incarnated for all peoples, and for all time.  And so, it is vital to imagine the Divine present in the human. In the parable of Matthew 25 31-45, Jesus speaks of the last Judgement, when the Son of Man will say:

“Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see the hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee ? And when did we wee thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’”

This passage, which has played a very important role in the way the whole Gospel has been understood in an Asian context, clearly relates the figure of Jesus, the ‘Son of Man’, to all those who are in some way marginalized and suffering in society, wherever they may come from, and whichever culture the might belong to. This concept of the imago dei in every human being, who is Christ-like in the sense of carrying the image of the Son of Man in the historical conditions of their humanity, is at the very heart of the apostolic council to imitate Christ. Jesus, the New Adam, is the image of a redeemed humanity to which all are called, and this is the ultimate meaning of the Incarnation.

Liturgy; the life of Christ lived in the community.

Here we come to the second principle that underlies the relation of Gospel to culture. It is not just a matter of translation, but of finding in the story of Jesus, and by extension the whole narrative tradition of the Bible, a paradigm for community life, which is seen as the coming of the Kingdom. Here we go deeper into the text or image as document, to find its implication for life experience which in India has been termed Rasa, or Dhvani. Indian aesthetics is fundamentally oriented to performance; that is the way the world of the imagination transforms our life experience. The image or text is not just something external, an objective world that is viewed as something to be seen or read, without being involved, or participating in what is expressed through art forms. Every art form involves those who ‘witness’ to the truth of the image or word. Bhakti, or devotion, is participatory in that sense; it draws the actor and audience into a total experience which is an aesthetic re-living of what is being ‘represented’. Here the principle underlying the experience is a new way of seeing and being, which is transforming. In other words, it is not the incarnation, or the embodiment of the divine in the human that is the guiding principle, so much as the way in which the human is divinized, and taken up into a world which transcends the normal world which we apprehend with our senses.  Perhaps what one could find here as the basis for art is transfiguration and resurrection. A new form of life is signified, and the literal meaning has to be interiorized, and made into the basis of life experience. The world of the imagination is not just a spoken word that we listen to passively, or a visual image that we observe with our physical eyes, or touch with our hands. We ourselves are transformed by what we hear and see, our very lives are changed by this experience which comes to us through the senses.

Liturgy as enactment of the mysteries represents a deeper level at which we encounter the vision which informs the Bible. In what way is this Gospel now related to the cultural world of different communities? Certainly not in the sense of a mere external adaptation, which is what is implied by the concept of translation. Culture itself has to be distinguished from a tradition, something given, and pre-disposed. The imagination now expresses a way of seeing by new forms which cannot be determined by anything that belongs to the past. This means that art goes beyond the set forms that have grown up out of history, and the social context of communities, to demand a change, a new way of perceiving the world in which we live.

Liturgy draws on various ritual practices. These embody the sacramental life of the community. What in Christian tradition has been termed the “Divine Liturgy”, referring specifically to the Eucharist, is one aspect of the Liturgical tradition. However central the Eucharist might be to a total understanding of the liturgical life of the Christian community, the fact that its institution is closely bound to the cultural context of Jesus’ own life and times, means that it cannot easily be adapted to forms of expression in other cultures. The Eucharist does have a universal significance, in that it relates to the basic significance of food, and the shared imagery of the body. But there is also something unique, and distinctive about the Eucharistic meal, that lies central to the Christian tradition. Still, there are other dimensions of the liturgy which relate to various forms of Blessing, and what in the wider world of ritual practices are called rites of passage. Liturgical arts encompass all these aspects of Faith in practice.

At the local level, there are often many folk rites that are incorporated into the main body of liturgical life. In South India, for example, pilgrimage, rites of healing and transformation, play a very important role in all expressions of spirituality. It is a common practice, taking one example of popular religiosity, to shave all the hair off a person’s head as a symbol of a spiritual vow taken before going to a shrine on a special occasion. Another common practice is to decorate a symbolic chariot or Theruwhich is either pulled along on wheels, or carried on the shoulders of pious believers, enshrining the image of a saint, or Christ (such as for example the figure of the Sacred Heart) and taken on procession through the streets of a village, or urban neighbourhood. Such gestures of devotion are understood by everyone, and similar acts of ritual worship can be found in the practice of people belonging to different Faiths. We find among Muslims similar expressions of Faith at the time of Moharam, to take another example. 

Festivals are an important aspect of the liturgical life of the community. These, again, can be shared occasions, when people of different Faiths feel happy to join in, and experience the celebration of one particular faith community. Christian Feasts such as Christmas, or Easter, can be understood and enjoyed by people who are in the community, but are not themselves Christian. Here again we find a largely unconscious world of shared ritual practices. Among Christians in South India, to take another example, we sometimes find that pots with newly sprouted grain are used to decorate the Christmas crib. This is a practice which is also prevalent among popular Hindu worshippers, during new year celebrations, symbolizing new life, and the blessing, and prayers for a full harvest in the year to come.

A ritual in India which has been incorporated by some into Christian practice is the widely respected rite of Arathi. This ritual observance, which again crosses over the boundaries of different Faith communities, entails the waving of lighted lamps, along with other auspicious signs of offering, such as flowers, incense, fruits of the earth and so forth. This waving of a tray filled with ritual gifts, before persons or places, symbolizing the act of greeting, through the gift of auspicious signs of life, has also a cosmic meaning. The whole of Creation is being consecrated by the act of a ritual movement, which is even the basis for dance. The waving of lights and other offerings, is done in a circular, clockwise gesture, which reminds one of the circular movement of sun, moon, and other lights of the heavens. Here the movement of the body is seen to participate in a universal movement that activates the changing seasons, the ever flowing motion of all creatures, from birth to final dissolution. Time and all created forms are forever caught up in the cycle of change, that is the eternal path followed by all temporal forms.

There are other gestures, which relate to dance. Circumambulation of a sacred place, again going clockwise and the act of prostration, or greeting with joined hands as a symbol of obeisance; the giving of the whole body as a sign of humility and wonder, is a very natural way of expressing a deep faith. These gestures, like language, are culturally understood. But they are also universal, in the sense that at heart everybody can understand their significance, and feel their ardour, from whatever culture they might spring.

Dance as a rite of spiritual experience goes back to the very origins of human body expression. We find dance playing a central and vital role in tribal and also folk cultures.  Forms of music, and the power of primal sounds to stir the heart, like the beating of drums, or the blowing of wind instruments, are also consecrated to the act of worship in all cultures, but have a particular significance in the symbolic world of each specific culture.  The local and the universal here intertwine, and though each expression of joy, sorrow, wonder, or humility, might be culturally specific, there is an aspect of these elemental signs that can be understood and internalized by every person being essentially human, and therefore common to all.

This might lead us to reflect on the place of universal and elemental symbols such as the tree, flowing and life-giving water, the form of particular numinous rocks, the very earth itself, and the inner meaning of flowers, fragrant scents, sweet tasting fruits, that can be used to express the part played by the physical senses, in divining the Presence of the Creator, in the whole of Creation. It is these elemental signs that link the act of worship, and the life of the community, to the natural environment. Food plays a very important part in all festive occasions. To eat together is the ultimate sign of fellowship. It is also a communion with the dead. Often at the time of the passing away of a member of the community, people come together to share a meal, and in that way express a solidarity with the ancestors.

Holy Ground

Word, Image, and ritual life finally bring us to the most fundamental of all imaginal forms: the concept of space itself. Space here is understood as the total theatre of human and cosmic action—what in Buddhist Mahayana philosophy is sometimes termed “Alaya”. It is what the Greeks called the Oekos, the whole inhabited world of Creation. In Hindu Tantric thought, this dynamic concept of space might be thought of in terms of Akasha, the fifth “element” which is fundamental to all other elements. This “space” can be also understood as “empty” (Sunya: the Void) into which Creation is manifested as a kind of radiance, or glory (‘prakash) which manifests the playful energy of the Divine. All spiritual philosophies have tried to understand the meaning behind this primal space, which is the stage, so to say, on which all acts of the creative imagination are performed, and which is experienced in the ever changing patterns of both planet and cosmos.

It is this conceptual space that is conceived of as the plan underlying all that we understand as sacred space. It is universal, but also the basis for understand the local, or microcosm. The geographically localized becomes the threshold for a reality which transcends both time and space. The “temple” or “shrine”, is a doorway through which we perceive a boundless spiritual dimension through the immediate, and embodied reality that is apparent to the physical senses.

The relation of a spiritual vision to a cultural matrix, relates to the way in which we experience the landscape, and the geographic differences created not only by our planet’s physical terrain, but also by the climatic conditions that prevail in a specific place. All that lives and grows on this planet depends for its diversity on both the variety of earth forms, and climate determined by the interaction of elemental forces of earth, water, air and heat. Art celebrates the elemental, and it is in this sense that it also expresses the “spirit of a place”. The creative impulse is never dis-embodied, abstract in the sense of not engaged with the reality of objects as things; responding to phenomena through the experience of texture, movement, colour and living vibrancy.  This, I would suggest, is the meaning of the Sanskrit term ranga’, which connotes both local colour, and the cosmic stage. In the understanding of sacred space as Holy Ground, the particular and the universal intersect.  The horizontal of the earth-plan or map, is comprehended in terms of what is erected on it, as a built structure which has elevation, pointing upwards to the outer space of the empyrean.

“Inculturation”, I would propose, is not just about tradition, about human institutions, or even language, but about this basic relationship between the earth and the heavens. It is about embodiment which is always in the process of change, and transformation.  Culture is never static, but it does always relate back to the elemental reality of the here and now. Culture is finally speaking, finite. It comes out of a particular landscape, responding to materials that are locally available, and to the cycle of the seasons that determine patterns of growth and diversity in the local habitat. Any given culture has its boundaries, its horizon. But creative imagination always goes beyond culture, in that its very scope seeks to cross over boundaries, and to reach for higher levels which are like a super-structure, above the foundational conditions at the level of the ground. It is a principle of edification, of lifting the eyes above the earth to the spiritual heavens which can never be contained by local, or physical constraints.

Art and spirituality

Spiritual art is in this sense prophetic. It works with local cultures, traditions, in the same way that it is concerned with local materials.  But the purpose of art is to step beyond boundaries. It is in that sense that the imagination creates what might be called other worlds, or a sub-creation, which is related to God’s Creation, but is also an inner landscape of the heart. It has been called a heterotopia’ *, in the sense that it is not just an “ideal” world, or utopia, but another virtual world, a world of the imagination, that acts as a threshold to our understanding of this world of physically verifiable phenomena. The imagination engages with this world, but it also confronts, and questions the cultural forms that have limited and encaged human understanding, preventing people from thinking beyond the mould of tradition. Art may respect a tradition, but it is also a challenge to tradition.

It is in this sense of a spirituality of the imagination, that human cultures can transcend their specific boundaries, but also religious structures can be broken down to make room for the excluded “other”. Walls may be constructed to contain, but they also function as barriers, as ways of excluding those who are not within these bounds. The creative spirit  reaches out to what lies beyond the limits drawn by geographic and cultural domains.

The creative work of a Faith, understood in this way, is not just about incarnation, or embodiment, but is directed towards human transformation, change, and Resurrection. Faith in that sense, is the imagination; it is a way of seeing another reality, and working towards its realization. Jesus spoke of not putting new wine into old wineskins. The new wine of vision, cannot be accommodated in the old skins of tradition.  The imagination is transformative, in that it is always seeking to see reality in a new way. The imaginative power of Faith looks for new sources of inspiration. As the Upanishads put it : let good thoughts come to me from every side. Faith should never be blind; Faith is re-visioning, what in Indian thought is called ‘darshana’ or seeing. The spirit, we are told, cannot be contained. It blows where it pleases, and no one can define where it comes from, and where it is going. The tendency in any religious institution, or traditional way of living, to prevent the challenges of spiritual exchange, or inspired dialogue, is always an insult to the free spirit of the imagination.

A spiritual art is concerned with dialogue. This dialogue is not only with other persons, it is also with the very elemental world of creation with which we are constantly having to engage. The artist dialogues with his materials. We are dialoguing with the very landscape in which we are living, with the climatic changes that are affecting our lives, and threatening our livelihoods. We are in dialogue with the cosmos.

In the Old Testament this dialogue is understood as ultimately a dialogue with the Creator, with the Lord of History, and Space. The Prophet speaks with God. This is the I-Thou relationship which is the basis for a covenant between God and his people. We are all involved in that dialogue which interrogates the very nature of what we are, and how we understand our identity.

Dialogue is not just a process of talking to the Other, to a person who is of another culture, another Faith, another mind set, or world view. Dialogue ultimately means addressing oneself. Who am I ? What is the meaning of my own existence ? Dialogue leads to self-discovery.

It is in that sense that I feel the concept of emptiness, Sunya, is so important. We cannot dialogue unless we are willing to become empty. It is only the empty vessel that is able to receive something new. It is only when we realize that the total theatre in which the ritual of life and community liturgy is enacted, is an empty space, that we can be open ourselves to something happening that is not in the script, that has not been planned beforehand. The drama of the imagination is spontaneous, it is not pre-scripted. True celebration is always a moment of discovery, of the wonder of a new heaven and a new earth. It is a space for such an openness to experience that the art work tries to create a space for. The sub-creation of the imaginal, is a world of infinite possibilities. That is also what might be understood as the dimension which we call myth. Myths of creation are not just about what is given. The myth attempts to narrate how the eternal is continually breaking into the structures of time and the present.

As the poet Tagore might have put it : To that world of freedom let my country, my Faith, awake !!!!                                                  Jyoti Sahi.

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