India is a Secular State with no State Religion. But religion in our country is characterised by a diversity of beliefs and practices. Apart from the world’s four major religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism — which gave birth in India, the two non-Indian religions include Islam and Christianity. However, when it comes to Christianity, though it is non-Indian religion, there is one particular Christian community which is completely Indian. This is Mar Thoma Syrian Church, with a global presence.
The Most Rev. Dr. Joseph Mar Thoma, the 21st Malankara Metropolitan and the current Primate of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church, was in the city recently to inaugurate the new building of St. Thomas Institutions.
Star of Mysore Features Editor N. Niranjan Nikam spent an hour interacting with this 88-year-old man of God, Wisdom and Words at Hotel Southern Star where he articulated clearly about the rich history of his community, the logo of the Church, his association with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Sabarimala and on religious conversion. Excerpts. —Editor
By N. Niranjan Nikam
Star of Mysore (SOM): Your Holiness, is this your first visit to Mysuru?
Metropolitan: This is not my first visit to Mysuru, though I have not come here in the last ten years. I have been the Bishop for the last 45 years and since the past 13 years I am the Metropolitan. I have come before many times as Clergyman and as Bishop. I was engaged in the upbringing of St. Thomas Institutions right from its inception.
SOM: What is the difference between a Bishop and a Metropolitan?
Metropolitan: Metropolitan is the Head of the Church and our Episcopas are the Dioceses’ Bishops. There is a Greek word ‘Metropolis’ and it is derived from this. Episcopa is an overseer and they are being appointed as Diocesan Bishops Sby the Metropolitan.
SOM: You have a history that dates back to 52 AD when St. Thomas came to India and founded the Church in Malabar called the Mar Thoma Syrian Church. But do you have any connections with the Pope in Rome?
Metropolitan: No we do not have connections with Rome. St. Thomas has a tradition that he has visited the Jewish community in Malabar Coast and so Peter has gone to Jewish community in Rome — both are traditions, there are no historical documents that can be produced of their visits. On historical grounds, in 182 AD there is a historical record of a Bishop’s visit from Egypt, Alexandria and that is the first historical record and others is only traditions. But the presence of a Christian community during that time is the witness of being documental evidence and for 14 centuries the Church was one, independent and National without any foreign association with any Church. But we too have relationships with three Patriarchate of West Asia — One is Patriarch of Alexandria, that is Gothic Church, the Patriarch of Jerusalem and the Patriarch of Antioch and we treat them as Brothers in Christ, but no domination. When the Portuguese came they wanted to Latinise St. Thomas Christians who were known in Kerala as Nasranis, the followers of Nasareen. The Western Syrian is the language spoken by Christ when he lived in West Asia.
SOM: Mar Thoma Syrian Church is a global Church and you are in charge of 13 Dioceses which includes 1,224 Parishes and congregations with about 1,200 clergies, administer spiritual and other needs of approximately 1.6 million members of the Church. How is this humanly possible for you to do all this?
Metropolitan: Because of modern communications. This diaspora has come only after 1970s and 80s. Before that we were concentrated in Kerala alone and after independence many people moved out of Kerala. So actually the first migration has come after the independence when people went overseas. I do have 11 Bishops and each person has been given a territory to look after and the Diocesan Bishops manage them. But I am the appellate authority of all the Bishops and I also look after one of the Dioceses which has 100 or 110 Parishes.
SOM: Metropolitan, you will turn 88 on June 27 this year (Born: June 27, 1931). How do you look at this long journey of yours?
Metropolitan: (Pauses) I came from a family where leaders of the Church of the past generations were there during the last two centuries. I am the fifth in succession of Metropolitans in 200 years and when all dominations and customs have come, my great-grandfather Abraham Malpan (Theological Professor) along with another Professor Geevargis Malpan were enlightened about the customs that were prevailing in the Church at that particular time which are not in coordination with the Biblical teachings. So they were reformers like Luther in the Malakara Church (Old Malabar). Some people stick to the old traditions but we stood for reform ideals parallel to that which happened in the Western Churches. Our Church defines itself as “Apostolic in Origin, Universal in Nature, Biblical in Faith, Evangelical in Principle, Ecumenical in Outlook, Oriental in Worship, Democratic in Function and Episcopal in Character.”
SOM: But how do you feel about this long journey of yours?
Metropolitan: Our ancestors were very much in conformity with the freedom struggle. Our Clergy and even Bishops were in the forefront. The Dewan of Travancore tried to arrest the Bishop but the people fought against this and later our leaders like T.M. Verghese, K.A. Mathew and B.G. Verghese were in front of this District Conference of Travancore. There was one Titusji, a Marthomite, who participated in Salt Satyagraha. His statue was recently unveiled by the present Prime Minister in the Sabarmati Ashram at Gujarat. When the Dewan of Travancore was for independent Travancore, the Mar Thoma Church was against it and Abraham Mar Thoma was charged to be arrested.
Later, during Emergency Juhanin Mar Thoma Metropolitan wrote personally to Indira Gandhi objecting the elections under the environment of Emergency and there were moves to arrest him but the wise counsel from the people of Kerala said don’t touch him. Then she turned to be a great friend of his till her death. He used to send her Christmas cards with personal hand signature. And I have been a part of all this. We think it was a wise decision that Travancore and Cochin joined the Indian Union and became a part and parcel of Bharat. People like John Mathai was the Union Finance Minister and M.O. Mathai was Jawaharlal Nehru’s Private Secretary. Many Mar Thoma Church members were in the Indian Cabinet also.
SOM: You yourself studied in St. Thomas School at Kozhencherry. There is St. Thomas Institutions in Mysuru which was established 54 years ago. How did you feel when you entered the institution to consecrate the new building?
Metropolitan: See from the inception I am very much associated with this School, watching the development and helping them in their journey towards progress. I was gratified to see the development here and it is nice to see the Higher Secondary Block being dedicated to house the higher secondary division of the School. We do have the CBSE stream and the State syllabus.
I remember the humble beginning about 54 years ago when our Metropolitan Mathews Mar Athanasius started the School with one student in the first year and now it has grown up to the present stage. That first student Jacob Eapen is the husband of Sobhana Eapen, who is teaching in St. Philomena’s College.
SOM: The Church claims to maintain good relations with Hindus, Muslims and other religious groups. What is your view on conversion?
Metropolitan: Our Indian Constitution has given freedom to opt for one’s own religion after the age of 18. But we are not in favour of conversion by any means of coercion or any other influence. If one gives an affidavit that he or she deserves to have the Baptism, we demand an affidavit on Rs.100 stamp paper saying that there is no coercion in her changing the religion and the name. We will not ask anybody to change the religion because they are working in one of our institutions and we do have Hindu and Muslim community in Kerala.
For festivals we share the joy in exchanging the greetings. Even Onam is a festival remembering the past glory of Kerala where no religion, caste or discrimination was there at the time of Mahabali. Still we are looking for that age to come back. Every Mar Thoma Church celebrates Onam during that season all over the world. Even in our Liturgy we pray for the President, the Prime Minister, the Parliament and also State Ministers irrespective of religious considerations. We did have it during pre-independence time for the rulers. In Gulf, England or in the United States where our people reside, we pray for the leaders of that country too.
SOM: As a Metropolitan you cannot lead a conjugal life but I believe as a priest you can. Does it mean that you had decided early in life that you will not enter holy matrimony?
Metropolitan: No, no. But at the time of the Ordination when the Church calls our names for a celibate life, I was obedient to that call and that is God’s call. This is not by parents dedication or even by coercion but by own personal conviction that I selected this.
The tradition behind this is, no Bishop can own property of his own and no relatives can claim bank accounts as that belongs to the Church’s Trust. When the Bishop dies, everything is transferred to the Church. No father, brother or sister or any relative can lay claim. We do not have a salary but only living expense is being given by Church. You may wonder, the Metropolitan gets Rs. 25,000 per month. There is also the cook, driver and clerk whom we have to take care of. We all eat in a common mess. And even for our Diocesan Bishop, it is Rs.20,000 and the other Rs.5,000 to entertain the guests.
Service, service, service
Whatever we get we give to certain projects through the Church. We too have projects for physically, mentally and economically challenged persons and educating transgender boys and girls, who are thrown out from their families.
Every year we distribute Rs. 5 lakh of interest from the Rs. 5 crore collected during my 80th birthday celebrations for the Snehakaram (Hand of Love) Project where people who have chronic illnesses like heart, kidney and other diseases and also HIV patients are treated. For those affected during the recent floods in Kerala, we are giving 100 houses costing Rs.7.5 lakh each and repaired 50 houses costing from Rs. 1 lakh to Rs. 3 lakh irrespective of caste, creed, religion or language.
SOM: The first Prime Minister of the country Jawaharlal Nehru in his “Glimpses of World History” says that Christians came to India long before they went to England or Western Europe. What do you make of his statement?
Metropolitan: I think St. Thomas has raised intellectual doubt about resurrection. He said it is not enough for me to see and to hear and to touch but I must put my finger into this wounded hand, also the wound on the right hand side. Otherwise I won’t believe. So he cast the intellectual doubt and he is the person sent by the Holy Spirit to India where religious philosophies exist. And it is the place where Adi Shankara has come from. When Shaivism and Vaishnavism combined together in the great mythology, a new child has come out with the slogan Tat TVam Asi and that is Sabarimala Ayyappan.
In Sabarimala when a devotee puts the beads on his neck till the 41st day of the celebration, he loses his own name and everybody addresses each other as Ayyappan. That is the symbol of Secularism — no religion, no caste or no language — and that is the glimpse of the Keralites to have the day of Mahabali back.
SOM: Since you are on the subject, what is your view on women entering Sabarimala temple about which there is so much of controversy?
Metropolitan: Till recently there was no illumination, no wash-room; it was thick forests for the women. It was not secure for young ladies between that age to go over there. Only because of security issue that custom has come. There is no prohibition for the women to go to Sabarimala. Anyway after menstruation (menopausal stage) a woman can go. It was a politicised view that was unnecessary which happened to unite the people who longed for oneness of humanity. When there was transportation problem and people had to walk the distance, Christian houses welcomed Ayyappa devotees to cook and share the food. And during the Christian Maramon Convention, lakhs of people visit and during this time even the Hindu houses are open for people to come and stay. That was the tradition that was prevailing then. But it was unfortunate that divisive forces entered into it to gain votes. That is a shame for Democracy. Groups of Ayyappa devotees have come and rested over in my family house and gone to Sabarimala.
SOM: Metropolitan, we heard that you were the only Christian to be invited by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the swearing-in ceremony on May 30 this year. How did you feel about this honour?
Metropolitan: I do not know about that. On the day before the swearing-in, I had got a call from Delhi that Prime Minister wants me to be there and my VIP pass was being handed over to Delhi Diocesan Office. So I immediately made the arrangement for the ticket and returned the next day. I do have close association with Narendra Modi as I said earlier, Sushma Swaraj, L.K. Advani and Rajnath Singh also.
The swearing-in at Rashtrapati Bhavan was really beautiful and very homely. I was able to see all the leaders there. However, it was impossible to meet the PM on that day. I was with the Delhi Bishop for whom I had requested for a pass to assist me to walk. My principle is to be open to all confessions, accept the things which we can accept and respect the things which we differ. That is my basic principle.
Mar Thoma Church logo & PM Narendra Modi
SOM: The Logo of Mar Thoma Church is very interesting. It consists of a Shield emplasoned with a Christian Cross with representation of Ashoka Chakra at its centre. It is flanked in the right and left by a Lotus and a Hand Lamp respectively. The Motto ‘Lighted to Lighten’ is written in English over the Cross.
Metropolitan: I explained it to Modi when he invited me for a high tea when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. I said that this is our emblem, the Ashoka Chakra in the centre and left side is the Light, our motto is ‘Lighted to Lighten’ and that is how it is. When you were in Jan Sangh, Lamp was the symbol on the Flag, now you have left the Lamp and taken Lotus. That is what we too have on the right hand side. We hold both ‘Lighted to Lighten’ and the symbol of Lotus, which takes the energy from the mud but all that matters is the beautiful flower.
SOM: But you met him when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat?
Metropolitan: Yes, I met him (Modi) in the Chief Minister’s house and told him about this. Now, I have gone so many times and I am very close to him.
SOM: But the official colour of the Logo is Red. Now, many things intriguing here are the Ashoka Chakra, the Lotus and the Hand Lamp — all Hindu symbols?
Metropolitan: They are not Hindu ones but Indian symbols. We use this traditional lamp which is a National Indian symbol which we use in our Churches. These symbols were there long before. When we consolidated we had taken all this from the Indian traditions. We are Indian by Nationality and also independent without any foreign domination and the Head of the Church is an Indian National. Now we have become a global Church.