My Indian Journal: Exploring Interfaith Connections
by Catherine McCann (ISPCK, €8.00; ISBN 978-81-8465-529-2; available from Veritas, Dubray and Easons)
They say that there are two ways to get to know the heart of a country: either make a brief intense visit, or spend a lifetime there. Anything in between may well leave one confused about the place. In her new book Catherine McCann chose the first option.
She is already well known as a writer on spiritual themes, and as the creator of the Shekina Sculpture garden, down in Wicklow, a place of meditation for all.
She has been long interested in interfaith relations, mainly focused on the Holy Land and Palestine. In this journal she records how, on what might have seemed a sudden whim, she joined a friend on a journey to India to visit the Saccidananda Ashram down in Tamil Nadu, the prosperous state in southern India (the Madras of colonial times).
This place is famously associated with Bede Griffith, who did so much to introduce to Western Christians some of the ideas of the Indian religious tradition.
Her stay here was the main part of her trip, but she then travelled on to another ashram near Varanasi (the Benares of colonial times, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh – the old United Provinces). Though now an elderly lady she was undaunted and resolute, and persevered in rereading and listening to learn something new every day.
All through the book there are interesting observations. The books of Judaism, Christianity and Islam rely on the power of the word as a medium in coming to know God. For Hindus, however, that medium “is images, also ritual and what a multiplicity of images they have, and all usually in vivid bright colours”.
Some people might call this “heretical idolatry” – but recall the facades of our own medieval cathedrals were treated the same way, and the images to be found on and around such edifices were the way in which many Christians gained their ideas about the Faith.
In another place she quotes a friend as saying that the language of God is silence; hence the importance of silence in our lives – something so hard to achieve these days.
In conclusion she says “I came away seeing many similarities between Christianity and Hinduism particularly in regard to the first line of our Creed ‘I believe in one God’ as well as their and our sense of believing in a God that dwells within us”. We could learn from their wisdom tradition, while Hindus might learn more about our tradition of charity, especially love of our neighbour.
What interested me was how the presentation of Christianity through other traditions, rather than European custom, opened upon for many new and previously unconsidered aspects of the Gospel message which was never thought of before. This in itself is a profound truth. If the Gospel is for all it cannot just be expressed in our old, and often worn out customary manner. Though short, this is a dense and thought provoking book.
One aspect she does avoid: there is a passing reference to the election of Narendra Modi, the leader of the ultra-nationalist BJP, as prime minister. Already there are signs of conflict beginning among the peoples and religions of India. If the present Muslim/Christian face off seems appalling, the possibilities for Indian Christians in the opinions of many commentators do not bode well.
(Readers wishing to learn a little more about Hinduism might do so through The Hindus: An alternative History, by Wendy Dongier (Oxford University Press, £16.99), a long but lively scholarly account which caused dismay to many traditional Hindus, who have a fixed idea of their religion, which she suggests bear little connections with the historical realities – a familiar situation among Christians too. The book was withdrawn and pulped by Penguin India after legal pressure from Hindu Nationalists – an event that caused a worldwide scandal. Also to be recommended is Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s Hinduism: A Religion to Live By, a critical work which was even more upsetting to established notions (London: Chatto & Windus, 1979), still widely available second hand, an important book by one of modern India’s greatest writers, a man well worth reading in any case.)
… And from India to Ireland
Irish Days, Indian Memories: V. V. Giri and Indian Law Students at University College Dublin, 1913-1916
by Conor Mulvagh (Irish Academic Press, €12.99)
Over a century ago some Irish politicians, such as John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Party, were keen on contact with the “White Empire”, the by then independent Australia and Canada. Less was said about Ireland’s relations with the Black and Brown Empires, with African and India.
But given the number of Irish soldiers who were stationed for periods of years in India some relations were quite close, but remain largely uninvestigated.
In this book Conor Mulvagh has opened another seam of Irish-Indian connections, in the lawyers from the sub-continent who studied here. His focus is on a group of legal student around Varahagiri Venkata Giri, later fourth president of the Republic of India.
Such lawyers, almost exclusively from the Bengali origin, were important in the rise of the Congress Party, though they did not in fact truly represent the complex nature of Indian society – V.V. Giri (pictured) himself was from the Telugu people.
Giri was expelled from Ireland because of his involvement in 1916; but went on to become a member of the Congress Party and an associate of Ghandi. This is a really interesting book, presenting a new aspect to the Easter Rising, which introduces people who experienced our revolution as a preparation for theirs.
But in recalling the Indian patriot V.V. Giri, we should not forget Sergeant Kimball O’Hara, of the Mavericks, the Irish father of Kipling’s famous character in his Indian masterpiece Kim, a member of the Imperial Armed Forces.
The sergeant and his kind ought to be brought back to life as well, reminding us that Irish blood flows in many Indian veins. Conor Mulvagh has set a fine example.
It is to be hoped that others follow up his lead in new directions.