Last updated on 1-Aug-2017
Given below is a recent comment exchange I had on a Facebook post discussing the sensitive among Hindus issue of Shiva lingam being interpreted/misinterpreted as a genital organ. The Facebook post on which the comments were exchanged is not public but it is a share of this public post about the Shiva lingam interpretation/misinterpretation: https://www.facebook.com/Mahadevlok/photos/a.222432907885876.48201.221487684647065/1289472541181902/ dated 28th July 2017.
C Andrew Barker wrote (and was OK with public sharing; slightly edited):
Not sure what all the fuss is about. Lingam means phallus in Sanskrit, but hopefully not many rational people think of a penis when they see a Shivalingam. Being as how genitalia is the quickest way to distinguish masculine and feminine attributes, it make sense to have a Lingam representing Siva/purusha and yoni representing shakti/prakrti. Is there something inherently negative or evil about human genitalia in Hindu culture? No, more likely a vestige of colonial Victorianism that would make such a big deal about something so natural. The ancient art of India depicted naked gods and goddesses and obviously thought it completely acceptable and right. A truly spiritual person should not get caught up in such trivial semantic nonsense, but go to the heart of Shiva/Shakti, and become One with that essential power. To do otherwise is a waste of precious human life.
Ravi S. Iyer responded:
Very well said. One must bear in mind that Shiva linga worship in India is millennia old! Even Rama Avatar worshiped Shiva! And Rama is said to be around 20,000 years back according to enlightened spiritual masters who speak from intuitive knowledge about these matters (as against history scholars).
My view is that Shivalinga worship emerged from a tribal culture. And in a tribal culture, offspring were vital for survival and sustenance - they even had to fight wars with other tribes to survive and so needed a regular supply of young warriors besides young workers. Viewing divine power of creation as emerging from a divine phallus would be utterly natural and utterly appropriate for tribal people who viewed sexual procreation in a NATURAL and healthy way without associating any kind of sin with sexual procreation.
It is the attitude of worship of the divine that counts and not the sophistication with which the divine is visualized.
However, as Hindu society got more sophisticated, the sophisticated sections of these societies seem to have viewed the Shiva lingam not as a divine phallus but more like a divine and endless pillar of light - an example of that is there in the Hindu puranas, if I recall correctly - with the lingam being a small representation of it to make it convenient for humans to worship.
The British colonizers of India made a mockery of these views and tried to portray such Hindu worship in a very negative way, and instead tried to promote their British ways of worshiping the divine as superior. As India is nearing 70 years of independence from British rule, India is also rapidly throwing away such British imposed views about ancient Hindu worship and reconnecting with original Hindu views about such worship.
I would also like to mention that the essence of the views that I have given above were confirmed to me around 2003 by my spiritual master in an appropriate way. So what was my conjecture earlier became my strong belief after my spiritual master confirmed my conjecture.
C Andrew Barker wrote:
This explanation makes a lot of sense Ravi. Of course given how far back in time we are talking about with the origins of what is now called Hinduism, it must be as you say largely conjecture. The evolutionary model you propose seems to accord most naturally with how the culture would have looked in that long ago time and place,and more clearly fits that context than models that impose more recent European mores and judgments on the iconography of an ancient culture. When one reads of the barbarism and pettiness of the God and His people in the Old Testament, it becomes clear that it is impossible for us to know or understand much of the sensibilities and motivations of our ancestors without doing injustice to the reality of those times. Not only in India, but also in China, Africa and the "New World' did Western clergy, business men and politicians grossly distort their interpretation of indigenous people for the purposes of justifying the horrific treatment of the people they wished to subjugate and colonize.
Ravi S. Iyer wrote (slightly edited):
Thanks for your response C Andrew Barker. Well, I think Western clergy presumed their religious knowledge to be the "true" knowledge and all other religious knowledge to be false knowledge which needs to be replaced by their "true" knowledge. The colonization and subjugation part was there too, of course. But I do think the Western clergy genuinely believed that they were right about religion and the rest of the world was wrong with their religious and spiritual traditions, and had to be "rescued" from their wrong religions and brought to the "only true" religion of the Western clergy.
And I think it was the same with waves of Islamic conquest prior to the European dominance of the world, where the conquerors tried very hard to replace what they viewed as the "false" religion of the conquered with their "only true" religion.
I guess the military might and the military victories of the conquerors made their religions look "right" and "divinely blessed" to them.
But then time is the great test of all things including "only true" religions. In India's case, over time the conquerors either got ejected out of the lands they ruled or got absorbed into the civilization including religious and spiritual traditions of the lands they conquered which also expanded/evolved to accommodate the new religions of the conquerors. It is fascinating to read about the impact Islamic Sufism and Hindu Bhakti + Hindu Advaita traditions had on each other over centuries of Islamic rulers in many parts of India, especially north India.
Regarding the Old Testament and New Testament and European mores imposition on indigenous people: Christianity entered India far before Europen Christians did, through Saint Thomas, one of the apostles of Jesus Christ. The Syro-Malabar Catholic community, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syro-Malabar_Catholic_Church, "is the largest of the Nasrani denominations with around 5.01 million believers and traces its origins to the evangelistic activity of Thomas the Apostle in the 1st century." Jewish communities have lived in India since ancient times, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Jews_in_India. I personally have had Syro-Malabar Christian Indian friend(s) as well as an Indian Jewish friend in the past. I mean, these are not just theoretical things. Real people who come from these traditions live in India and I have directly interacted with them.
European Christians came into India with their brand of Christianity over a millennium after Saint Thomas is said to have started the Syro-Malabar Catholic communities in South India! If I recall correctly, it was the Portuguese who first tried to spread their brand of Christianity in India and came across these Indian Christians with a longer Christian history than the Portuguese Christians! From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_in_India: "Christianity was introduced to India by Thomas the Apostle, who visited Muziris in Kerala in AD 52. There is a general scholarly consensus that Christianity was definitely established in India by the 6th century AD, including some communities who used Syriac liturgies, and it is possible that the religion's existence extends as far back as the purported time of St.Thomas's arrival."..."Roman Catholicism was first introduced to India by Portuguese, Italian and Irish Jesuits in the 16th century. Most Christian schools, hospitals, primary care centres originated through the Roman Catholic missions brought by the trade of these countries. Evangelical Protestantism was later spread to India by the efforts of British, American, German, Scottish missionaries to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ among Indians."
I think the European Christians due to their technological and military superiority then (certainly in mastery of sea faring and in naval warfare) were able to dominate the older Indian Christians in South India and Indians of other communities. So they were able to impose their notions of European mores and judgements not only on Indian Hindus and Muslims but also on Indian Christians who traced their history to Thomas the apostle coming to India! We must not forget that Jesus Christ was an Asian and not a European, and that India was well connected to the Middle East during Jesus Christ's times through both the sea routes from Middle East to South India and longer land routes to North India.
European brand of Christianity would have brought European view of Christianity, including Roman Catholic Church doctrines, Protestant denomination doctrines including Anglican church (church of England) doctrines I guess, and tried to impose that over other religions in India including the far more original and older Syro-Malabar Catholic denomination.
Today in the early 21st century we are in a far happier situation than in earlier colonial era, as Asia has achieved significant technological and economic progress. With that its religious traditions INCLUDING ITS VERY OLD CHRISTIAN TRADITIONS are expressing themselves freely and in a very articulate way. Thus we can see the nice and not-so-nice aspects of all religious traditions whether European or Asian or from some other parts of the world. And the Internet allows us to explore and share these matters with so much convenience and ease!
C Andrew Barker wrote:
Wow Ravi! Bravo! Refreshing to see such scholarship and enlightened commentary here on FB. Certainly the situation is much more complex than my quick and hastily thought out comments might suggest. As a student of cultural anthropology, I am concerned with being as fair and clear as possible with regard to discussion of other cultures and spiritual practices. I suppose I would have to include the Abrahamic religions as well, since I know little about them. As a practicing Buddhist, with definite Advaita leanings, I am quick to see Christianity, etc in an unfavorable light. It is hard to avoid these feelings in the present moment living in the US, with the rise to power of the odious Christian Right Wing jihad. However to your point, it is a complicated situation with the impact of colonial domination of previously well-established indigenous cultures and civilizations. It is unfair to see only good guys and bad guys in the history of these interactions. And, as you say, things are much better these days, regardless of the monumental injustices of the past.
Thanks Andrew for the kind words. Well, I am not a scholar but I am crazy about religion and God, and do a lot of reading & (video) viewing of those topics, and do some writing on social media (blog & Facebook). I found your starter comment of this thread to be very interesting and so got engaged in this conversation in a serious way. I find some posts & comments of my Facebook friends to be stimulating and so get engaged in serious conversations on them. I also use many of such comments of mine directly or indirectly as material for my blog posts thereby sharing my views to a slightly larger audience.
Very interesting to know that you are a student of 'cultural anthropology' (had to look up the wiki for that as I knew of only anthropology earlier :-) ) as well as a practicing Buddhist (with Advaita leanings).
Noted the last sentences in your comment. I think countries like India and China are certainly well into a post-colonial era now. Indian history scholarship today is replacing previous Eurocentric Indian history theories with a more Indian 'Indian history' scholarship! I am sure something similar would be happening today in many countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa.
Now about the part of your comment related to rise of Christian Right Wing today in the USA. My Hindu faith, very fortunately, does not come in the way of me worshiping Lord Jesus Christ as a divine figure with extraordinary mystical powers as well as being a great teacher for social harmony. I strongly believe in a God/Divine power who intervenes in human affairs typically in response to intense prayer from his devotee(s) though the response may be in a different way from what the devotee(s) may have prayed for. I admire the evangelical Christian faith in USA as well as in many other parts of the world, including India, which shows intense faith in Lord Jesus Christ.
I must also say that I do object to any efforts by any evangelists to aggressively sell/impose their faith on others. But so long as they don't do such aggressive proselytization, I find their faith in Jesus to be inspiring. Honestly!
However, some Christian preachers take extreme positions which I don't think have a good basis in a proper interpretation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as expressed in the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Telling people of not only other faiths like Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, but also of Christian denominations that are significantly different from theirs, that they will burn in Hell forever for not believing in and worshiping Jesus Christ in the same way that they do, is an example of the extremist positions of some Christian preachers that I vehemently disagree with. I also find the prosperity gospel, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosperity_theology, to be somewhat at odds with what I understand as the message of the life and teachings of Lord Jesus Christ as revealed through the four canonical gospels. So I prefer to be inspired more by a Mother Teresa and humble missionaries like her than by some of the super wealthy Mega Church pastors in the USA.
I think the USA, especially rural communities in USA, have many good Christians who try to lead lives of faith and ethics. I am very supportive of such good Christians in the USA. I have lived in Nashua, New Hampshire, USA in the 1980s for over a year and a half (over two stints), going for software consultancy work to Lowell, Massachusetts and while I did not participate in any Christian congregation then, I found the people I interacted with in these towns/cities to be mostly good people, and I have very happy memories of that stay in New England, USA.
The current political scenario in the USA (which I have been following to some extent) is an extraordinary situation. I do think that President Trump has good intentions to improve the lives of Americans and I support those good intentions. What is crucial though is how Trump converts those intentions to governance and legislation. The manner in which politics is being practiced now in the USA Congress and USA White House is quite worrying. One hopes and prays that democratic processes, rule of law and USA being a nation of laws not men as recently said by Sen. Lindsay Graham, are given their just value even if these processes may be slow and somewhat cumbersome. I recall that former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India talked of unforeseen/unanticipated consequences of major policy decisions (being a worrying factor). USA Congress must ensure that at least the easily foreseeable consequences of new legislation/amendments of old legislation are well understood before they are enacted into law. In particular, the Healthcare legislation attempts this year, which I followed quite a bit as the lives of millions of poor and lower middle class Americans would be impacted by it, have been very worrying.
But I do think that USA politics today is dominated by social and economy related issues than evangelical Christian issues per se. These social and economy issues impacted the evangelical Christian communities as well and so they may have supported Trump (and still support Trump) in a big way, to give him a chance to solve these problems from an outsider successful businessman point of view, which I think was his main election campaign platform.
An Indian correspondent hailing from the Indian Syrian Christian community wrote over email (and was OK with public sharing):
The better known term is Syrian Christian and it dates back to at least the 4-5C if not to the time of St Thomas. For centuries the patriarch of this church was in Antioch (I think). Much more recently, the church had its own bishops and so could consecrate priests. To my knowledge there was no evangelisation. The church later split into factions (e.g. the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox) and today there are a few dominant ones.
Roman Catholicism came to Kerala via the Portuguese much later, as you rightly point out. There are plenty of RCs in Kerala today, some with Portuguese-sounding names like de Souza. This is all much more recent.
I (Ravi) responded (slightly edited):
Now in my comments (which are put up on the blog post) I had planned to use the term Syrian Catholic church or something like that but when I looked up the wiki I saw that there is some ambiguity issue with that term! See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syrian_Catholic.
I had a quick look at the page and felt that Syriac Catholic would not match Indian Christians and so used the next Syro-Malabar Catholic church (not realizing/noting that the last entry Syro-Malankara Catholic church also dealt with Indian Christians).
And as I think about it, it seems to me that while we Indians may have used Syrian Christian in the past to refer to Christians from Kerala having some links to Syrian church in the past, today I think that term may not be appropriate for bloggers/social media writers like me to use. Non Indians may get confused with the term. In fact, some Indians too may get confused with the term.
The wiki has the term, Saint Thomas Christians, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Thomas_Christians, for "Syrian Christians" or "Nasrani" Indians. But I don't know how much currency that term has.
Indian Syrian Christian may be one unambiguous way to refer to this community. Or Saint Thomas Christians of India. Plain Syrian Christian is too close to Syriac Christians which seems to refer to a larger set of Syriac Christians from Middle East AS WELL AS India.
But to refer to the Indian Syrian Christian church is another issue, as there does not seem to be one such church or one (united) set of churches. The original Syrian church, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syriac_Catholic_Church, is related to, in the past at least, with Indian Syrian Christian churches, but seems to be distinct from them today. Perhaps a more accurate term would be "Indian Syrian Christian churches like the Syro-Malabar Catholic church and the Syro-Malankara Catholic church". A mouthful but accurate!
Syrian Christians refer to themselves in Malayalam as 'Suriani' to distinguish themselves from other Kerala Christians. There are many subdivisions: Mar Thoma, Orthodox, Malankara, and so on. But these are often unseen and unknown by others.
I can see that others may find it confusing to read about 'Syrian Christians' who have nothing to do with Syria. Indian Syrian Christians sounds right. After all, there are still Syriac words in the church services and many of the practices come from the early church.
I say all this with some hesitation: my Malayalam is poor and I am not religious. But I think I have got it right.
[I thank C Andrew Barker whose comment on the above mentioned Facebook post started this conversation and wikipedia, and have presumed that wikipedia will not have any objections to me sharing the above extracts from their website on this post which is freely viewable by all, and does not have any financial profit motive whatsoever.]