Friday, November 25, 2011

Staff Post: Program Assistant Jonathan Pinckney on our Visit to a Monastery- Ashram

ISP student Adam Freed at the entrance gate at Shantivanam.

 “Christianity, though universal in principle, is in its actual structure a Western religion. It had its origin in the Middle East and grew up in a Semitic culture with a specific Jewish character, but it then moved out into the Greco-Roman world, where it developed a Western structure based on Greek philosophy and Roman Law. All the structures of Christianity today, though they have their roots in the original Jewish tradition, are characteristically Western in their language, their mode of thought and behavior.” 
– Fr. Bede Griffiths, OSB
Om, the sound the universe and all things makes, a traditional Hindu symbol, on a cross outside the chapel.

On the quiet banks of the Caveri River in southern Tamil Nadu a group of Benedictine monks are re-envisioning what Christianity looks like in India.  Inspired by the teachings of Father Bede Griffiths, an English monk who came to India in the 1960s with the dream of contextualizing Christian faith here, the monks have adapted many practices typically thought of as exclusively Hindu and incorporated them into their liturgy and mindset.  The monks wear the saffron robes typical of Hindu holy men, chant in Sanskrit before the Eucharist, and model the architecture of their chapel after a Hindu temple.

The chapel at the ashram with traditional Hindu temple sculpture. The figure in the center, seated between the bull and the lion, is Saint Benedict.

In the spirit of St. Ignatius’ saying that “All truth is God’s truth” the monks of Shantivanam also seek to bring together Eastern and Western modes of thought – melding the ideas of traditional Christian orthodoxy with the highest spiritual principles of India particularly as articulated in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.  They see Hinduism not as a “false religion” to be disproven but rather as a partial revelation of God’s truth.  From their perspective the life and teachings of Jesus, rather than existing in opposition to Hinduism, are the insights which complete Hinduism’s highest spiritual strivings. 

Jesus as Lord of the Cosmos, on the screen in the chapel.
It’s a controversial stance to say the least.  Many Christians describe Shantivanam’s theology as “watering down” of the gospel or even downright heresy, particularly as the monks are reticent to say that Jesus is the only way to salvation or that Jesus has an exclusive claim to divinity, both central tenets of orthodox Christianity.  Many Hindus as well object to the idea that Hinduism is only some sort of “incomplete Christianity” and see the Ashram’s appropriation of Hindu symbols as some sort of trickery to lull unsuspecting Hindus into the church.     

Christ in all four directions, a sculpture in the meditation chapel.
ISP was privileged to visit Shantivanam a couple of weeks ago.  Our students admired deeply the strength of the monks’ conviction and the beautiful simplicity and quiet of their lives but were also challenged by the controversies inherent in the monks’ position between two major faiths.  In discussion afterwards students were encouraged to wrestle with the many questions that arise for Christians in this context. Is Shantivanam’s way of worship appropriate for Christians? To what extent does Christianity need to be freed from its western background and where do you draw the line?  None of these questions have easy answers, but wrestling with them can give us deeper insight into the foundations of our faith and lead us to a deeper and more mature spirituality.   

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

{photo from our recent trip to the weaving village of Nehemem}

While it may not *feel* much like the Christmas season here in Coimbatore, our students are wrapping up their studies in the classroom, taking finals, finishing their papers, evaluating courses and looking forward to our two-week travel component with much anticipation. It's not snowing, turkeys are in short supply and the tradition of cutting down and decorating evergreen trees isn't common here. However, in the midst of the crazy and the different, we look forward to Christmas and the next few weeks with excitement.

We leave in a week for our trip, and will be traveling to Calcutta, Varnasi, Jaipur, Agra and Delhi to visit various NGOs, see the sites (yes, we'll be stopping by the Taj Mahal) and taste an India similar, yet very different from our little corner here in Tamil Nadu.

Please keep our students in your prayers as they finish their academics in the classroom. We're hoping and praying for restored health, enough rest to feel rejuvenated for our whirlwind tour and an ability to stay engaged and invested in our trip as our semester winds down and the holidays approach.

Thank you, as always, for reading. We'll post a bit more about what we'll do up north this next week, and try to stay updated from the road as much as possible!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Weekend Trip: Tanjore

This past weekend we traveled to the town of Tanjore, about a 6 hour drive (provided all the roads are operational) from Coimbatore. While there, we saw the UNESCO World Heritage Site Brihadeshwara Temple, built in 1010 by Rajaraja Chola I (who wins the award for the best name ever. His name means "king of kings.")

While visiting the temple, several of our students gave a few rupees' donation to the temple elephant, who then blessed them with his trunk. Two of them even got to sit on the elephant for pictures! It's crazy to think that we live in a country where elephants (and peacocks and cobras) live in the wild. 

We happened to be visiting on an evening where a dance troupe from Chennai was performing Bharatanatyam, a traditional dance from our state of Tamil Nadu. Some of the dancers looked as little as 7 or 8 years old, and all of them were quite talented!

On Sunday, we visited an ashram which seeks to present Christianity in such a way that it can be understood in a Hindu cultural context. We'll write more on that later this week, as it deserves its own post.

To see more photos from our trip to Tanjore, please visit our Facebook album here.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Field Trip: Visit to a Weaving Village

Last week, we visited a village called Nehemem, where 300 families are involved in weaving handloom saris. We met with the coordinator who takes the orders and then sells the saris to the government handloom emporiums and he answered our questions about production, design and volume of sales.

We were able to observe several villagers weaving and spinning warp and weft threads from looms and spinning wheels in their homes.

Our visit to the handloom weaving village was a great perspective trip for each of us, especially as we think about where we buy our clothes and who makes them. The 'readymade' clothing market here in India has dramatically affected weavers, and being able to meet with people who have experienced globalization in a very personal way was both interesting and humbling.

To see more pictures from our trip to Nehemem, please visit our Facebook album here.

Student Post: Kali Fairchild on Monsoon Season

Kali Fairchild wrote this blog post recently, before monsoon season ended here in Coimbatore. Enjoy!
I wish I could have everyone understand monsoon season here in Coimbatore.
Everyday around 4 or 5pm the rain comes. It comes suddenly and does not come gradually. I always seem to get stuck in it. Thursday it came as we walked home from class, and last night it came right when Becky and I got off the bus to pick up our new glasses. Within minutes the streets flood and pond like bodies of water form.  Autos, 2-wheelers, and cars brave the storm and drive through the foot of streaming water. Stores instantly take out there plastic covering to salvage their merchandise.  Most of the Indians crouch under any covering they can find. Then, there are those silly Americans aka me.

Can't stop the auto.
I’m bound to get wet so why not just go for it? Rather than go around the ponds of water I simply trend through them. Umbrellas are of no use when you are treading through ankle deep water, although I wear my rain jacket in hopes of keeping ½ of me slightly dry.  I of course run through the dark brown water in case any snakes or creatures are luring beneath.  This does cause stares and laughs to surface among witnesses but what to do? It is reassuring to know the origin of some of the unidentified brownish material; for I did see that child “going” into the open drainage earlier and that man “relieving” himself by the tree a few minutes prior.

Oh yes.
The rain lasts an hour or more and then ceases.  I venture back home and hang up my wet clothes and wash my dirty feet in the shower. I lay out my soaking wet books and hang my backpack up to dry. Just another day here in Coimbatore and loving every minute of it.

Friday, November 11, 2011

3 Weeks Left in Coimbatore

{photo from our recent trip to kerala}

Things have been a little quiet around these internet parts lately, for which we apologize. Rest assured this is not because things here at ISP have been quiet! Quite the opposite, in fact.

We're in the process of finalizing a list of students for next semester (already!), planning for our two-week travel component (departure t-minus 3 weeks from today!), paper writing, learning and talking about contextualization and cultural relevance and how to make the most of our remaining few days of this semester. We're planning for two more visitors for the ISP lecture series next week, as well as planning our final weekend trip leaving tomorrow morning- bright and early at 5am!- for Tanjore. (Also, because of the monsoon rains and lots of meetings, our internet access has been slim, but that's a side note. :))

{photo from ISP staffer Kandyce Pinckney's trip to Varanasi in 2008}

We really can hardly believe that we're already talking of wrapping up our time here in Coimbatore. We're excitedly looking forward to traveling to Calcutta, Varanasi, Delhi, Agra and Jaipur in the north, but looking toward the end of our classroom academics, paper writing and project presenting with a little bit of that crazy busy feeling. While we can't wait to see Mother Teresa's 'Mother House' in Calcutta and take a boat ride down the Ganges in Varanasi, we're not looking forward to saying goodbye to our professors, friends and neighbors here in our little city. This semester has flown by!

This past Tuesday we visited a village called Nehemem, where 300 families in the village are all involved in the weaving and production of saris that are then sold in government cooperatives. We're hoping to have those photos posted early next week, followed by those from this weekend and more notes from our ISP lecture series. Stay tuned for those, and thanks for understanding our silence!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

We're Halfway There

-Mark Twain

It's hard to believe we're past the halfway point of our semester. We've been looking back on how far we've come, looking forward to Christmas and thinking about how to talk and think about our experiences here after we return, and we're excitedly anticipating our two-week travel component to North India in just under a month. 

Thanks for reading, friends, as we journey together through this semester and onwards!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

ISPers meet the press

{photo of rajasthani puppets from our recent visit to the neighboring state of Kerala}

On Monday, ISP students and staff had a chance to chat with members of the press (local and national) and answer a few questions regarding food, studies, culture and their experience thus far with ISP, as well as to talk about our partnership with Bishop Appasamy College.

To read the article, please visit The Hindu's (newspaper) page here.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Student Post: Melissa Braunschweig on Diwali!

{Adam, Erin, Kali, Brooklyn, Renee, Melissa, Becky and Natasha
react as a firework booms in the street behind them.}

{Melissa, Adam, Becky and Erin model proper ear plugging techniques as fireworks thunder through the sky in a 360 degree circle around them.}

We recently celebrated Diwali, the Festival of Lights. For Hindus, this is one of the most important festivals of the year. It is equivalent to our Christmas, just to give you a better understanding of the intensity of celebration going on over here. 
{Traditional clay diyya lamps filled with oil}

It involves lighting small clay lamps filled with oil to signify the triumph of good over evil back when the demon Naraka was vanished by Lord Krishna and his wife Satyabhama. Everyone celebrates by wearing new clothes, decorating their homes, sharing snacks with family/friends, and setting off ENDLESS amounts of fireworks! We loved it, though they really put the 4th of July to shame. 

{Watching 'fountains' shower sparks down in the middle of the street.}

People started lighting off fireworks a week before the official day of celebration! And they started getting a lot more intense at about 5:00 the morning of the actual day. It sounds like a warzone over here! Our fantastic neighbors brought us sweets all week and are let us help with their decorations.