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In Conversation: Prof. T.K. Oommen

Edited transcript of Prof. T.K. Oommen's reflections on Easter in India, recorded in April 2014 in Gurgaon, Delhi NCR

I think if one wants to understand the real importance of Easter, one must begin with the festival of unleavened bread. This is actually a Jewish custom, and Jesus was born and brought up as a Jew; Christianity arose only after his death. The ‘Last Supper’ was what the Jews also used to refer to as the Passover meal, when the families, or in the case of Jesus, the 12 disciples he brought together, and it was there he broke bread and asked them: ‘You take a piece each, this is my body’. Then he took a cup of wine and asked them to drink it, and said: ‘This is my blood’. The symbolisation starts there. This was on Maundy Thursday.

 

Then events moved quickly. He was arrested, crucified on what came to be designated as Good Friday. It is called ‘good’ in a very symbolic sense: it is a day of mourning, but at the same time it is good because through the crucifixion of Jesus, Christians believe that he has redeemed humanity of its sins. So, it is a day of redemption. He was buried in a tomb which belonged to a rich person who was known to him. This happened on the evening of Good Friday. His women disciples went to see him, probably to put some incense in the early morning of Sunday, the Easter Sunday. And his body was not there! There was a panic all around. There had also been guards put by the state authorities, but even without their knowledge his body had disappeared, according to the narrative. So, the guards were in great distress, they went and told the High Priest or Rabbi, who advised: ‘You simply say that you were sleeping and the body was stolen by his disciples, so that you can be spared’. The necessary bribing was done.

 

What is important is that the risen Christ, or the Christ after Resurrection according to the Christian believe, appeared before his disciples—not all of them together, but in small groups of two or three—and obviously they were overjoyed. And those who were criticizing him⸻the Jewish community’s important people, the state authorities, the priests, were surprised at what had happened.

 

Why Easter is celebrated? Many people think that it is a celebration because it is associated with the Resurrection of Christ, and that is partly correct. But also put oneself in this situation: somebody very dear to us, whom we loved and respected, we saw him being crucified and then put in the grave—such a person has risen from the grave. So, you can very well imagine the joy of the people associated with him, to refer to the mere human aspect of joy. Imagine your father or mother died, and then came back to life.  Admittedly we   can empathize with the disciples. That is one aspect.

 

The other aspect is symbolic, namely that it is God’s design that Christ should have been crucified, and that he would certainly rise from the grave to redeem humanity of its sins, not simply that of Christians alone.

 

The most important dimension according to me—I am not a theologian—is that Easter Day is the day on which a new religion called Christianity was born. It happened with the resurrection of Christ and with his commandment to the disciples: ‘You go all over world and baptize people as Christians in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit’. This Trimurti as we say in India or in Hinduism, this Trinitarian Doctrine is very important even in Christianity. God is the Father, Jesus is his son and there is the Holy Spirit which envelops the entirety of the Universe. Easter Day was the day Christianity as a religion was born, and the spread of Christianity through baptism, through conversion, begins.

 

So, there are two dimensions which are encapsulated in Easter celebrations. One is the human aspect, people are overjoyed. The other is the symbolic aspect, of the origin of a religion, and the possibility of its spread all over the world.

 

Then we must also look at Easter as a ritual. I distinguish between three types of ritual. Canonical rituals are always based on a belief system, for example twice-born Hindus have what is called the upanayana ceremony. Similarly, Christians of all denominations have baptism, then the marriage ceremony, and rituals associated with death. Thus, canonical rituals are rituals associated with the life cycle of human beings. Both, Christmas and Easter are life cycle rituals. In that, the first is associated with the birth of Jesus and the second with his death and resurrection. Easter is also a canonical ritual because it is deeply embedded in certain beliefs, and Christians everywhere in the world subscribe to these. There is no canonical ritual which believers will ignore, even if they may not scrupulously adhere to it.

 

What I call social rituals are quite different, for example Onam is a social ritual common to the entirety of the population in Kerala or Malayalis, because it has something to do with the origin of Kerala, although the personages involved in that narrative were Hindus:  Parashuram responsible for the origin of Kerala, is a hero from the Hindu context. And yet, all Keralites irrespective of their religious background, who endorse Kerala as their ancestral home land, celebrate Onam.

 

There are many instances of social rituals. Some may have a slant towards religion; for example, think of Vishu, one of the most important things is that at the dawn of the New Year one must first see Lord Krishna. It may not be followed in that sense by Christians or Muslims, but dakshina, the practice of giving a few coins, is common to all; we all used to receive it as children. Social ritual, I would suggest, is a ritual which transcends all religious communities. Hence, Onam is more a social ritual than a religious one. But a ritual may be partially observed by some as in the case of Vishu. Then these days we also have political rituals—Independence Day, Republic Day—these are rituals in which all the citizens of India are involved, irrespective of religion, language, caste, race, gender and the like.

 

The crucial point about a canonical ritual is that it is global: a particular Hindu ritual will be celebrated not only in India but by the twenty million Indians in the diaspora. A canonical ritual in its very nature is global, but you cannot ignore local conditions. If you want to celebrate Easter in New York, it will take one turn as compared with how I would do it in a village in Kerala. So the global ritual is also localized, and of course social scientists use the term ‘glocalization’, the merging of the global and local that takes place, to refer to it.

 

There are two tendencies here, one is indigenization, where we try to draw from our own native traditions, and there is hybridization. Hybridity is a very important aspect of culture. My favourite example of hybridity is from Kerala: when the Syrian Christian women  marry they also have the ceremony of thali kettu, which is not a European custom.  But if you look at it carefully, there is a cross attached to the thali.  Many a time in India culture is not displaced, but there is a process of accretion. When a ritual like Easter is celebrated in whatever part of the world be it Indonesia or India, and within India in Kerala, it takes another form; that kind of hybridization or indigenization is common. And there are many people who think that such practises are deviations from fundamentals. They fail to understand that human action and belief systems are always to be seen in relation to their contexts. When rituals are celebrated, there occurs a lot of contextualization. And, therefore, the manner in which a Punjabi Christian celebrates Easter would be somewhat different from the manner in which a Malayali Christian celebrates it. Not in its fundamental belief, that is intact⸻the manner in which Christ was crucified, and that he rose on the third day, but the embellishments, the festivities would be different. We don’t have unleavened bread of the kind mentioned in the Bible, so for Malayalis pesaha appam is its functional equivalent. What the Bible indicates is that the bread for the last supper should not taste sour. When believers insist on doing things ignoring contexts they indulge in fundamentalism.

 

Even among Indian Christians when it comes to celebrating a ritual like Easter, there are wide variations. It would vary according to caste, tribal background, and for Anglo-Indians. There would also be regional variations, how the Maharashtrian Christians celebrate would not be the same in its details as the Tamil Christians. While the kernel of belief is maintained, the practices around it would vary. Very frequently we say that the Hindu practices are an embodiment of diversity. This is also true of other religions: pluralization of practices is an important aspect of rituals.