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Catholic Parishes Adapt Hindu Ritual To Initiate Children To Education

Updated: October 25, 2007 05:00 PM GMT
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Father Joseph Alexander and a few other Catholic priests became quite busy on the day Hindus in Kerala state initiated their children to alphabets.

Father Alexander´s Madre de Deus parish has been organizing programs on this "special day" for the past four years, and this year he personally attended to about 200 children in his parish in the southern Indian state.

For Hindus, it is auspicious to begin learning on Vijaydashami (victorious tenth day), the tenth day after the new moon in their month of Kaartika. In Kerala, they organize special temple ceremonies for vidyarambham, the start of learning day, which fell this year on Oct. 21.

Hindus traditionally bring children to temples and socio-cultural leaders to help them write the first few letters in local Malayalam language. Whoever initiates the ritual uses the child´s index finger to draw letters hailing Hindu gods on a platter of rice paddy.

Kerala people have come to view the ritual as a socio-cultural event for people of many faiths. In the past two decades, media houses and cultural clubs have organized functions to initiate children. Hindus and Christians now attend those functions, though the initiating letters remain unchanged.

A few Christian parishes also have the function that same day, but their children write a sentence hailing the name of Jesus.

Father Alexander, a priest of Trivandrum Latin-rite archdiocese, told UCA News such functions "no way dilute" Catholic faith but only "help people grow in faith." This year, he said, heeven initiated a few Hindu children to letters. Trivandrum is the old name of Thiruvananthapuram, the state capital, 2,815 kilometers south of New Delhi. The archdiocese retains the old name.

Father Alexander insists he has not compromised faith or diluted liturgical traditions. "We are doing a good thing," he said. "Children who begin to learn letters need God´s grace."

Christians account for just 19 percent of Kerala´s 31.8 million people, but they trace their local presence to apostolic times. They keep close social and cultural links with Hindus, who account for about 55 percent of the state.

Some Christian denominations in Kerala now organize functions to introduce children to alphabets, but not without some resentment. Some laypeople, for example, have expressed "reservations" about Thiruvananthapuram´s St. George´s Orthodox Cathedral Church organizing the ritual in the church. Thomas Mathew, a parishioner, told UCA News that unlike the last four years, the parish this year organized the function at a daycare center for about 30 children.

Mathew and other Church leaders see no basis for such resentment. Several customs that Christians now follow, he said, are "deeply rooted" in local Hindu traditions, especially marriage ceremonies, so "I don´t see anything wrong" in children bring initiated in learning by "priests in our church."

Father Paul Thelakat, spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar Church, also defends the practice. If there is "no dilution of faith," he told UCA News, "there is nothing wrong," and the Church should promote the ritual in "a Christian way."

Echoing that view, Father Prasad Jacob, a Scripture scholar, said people should understand that culture and religion are "two different things." Noting that Christians consider the incarnate Word as God, he said "there is nothing wrong in a child beginning his learning process" by writing and uttering the name of Jesus and "seeking his blessings."

T. K. Jose, a high-ranking Catholic civil servant, recalled Hindus, Muslims and Christians joined together in a child-initiation ritual a decade ago, but said people should not bring religion in such activities.

Jose told UCA News: "Our culture is deep-rooted. We should not mix religion with culture. When we do that, we are negating our roots."


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