Monday, June 22, 2009

seminar: Social History of Christianity

Social Theory Series-2

"Rethinking the Social History of Kerala Christianity"

Paper Presented by

Prof. Mammen George Suku
(Historian & Rtd. Professor, St. Thomas College, Kozhencherry)
Prof. Dr. Sanal Mohan
(Historian and Professor, School of Social Sciences, MG University, Kottayam)
responded to the paper.

Date: 2.30 -5.30 pm, Saturday, 4 July 2009

Venue: Pennamma Bhavanam (Amalloor Road, Manjadi, Tiruvalla)

The new theoretical understandings of society and the new trends in Historiography challeneges many of our commonsensical understandings of social realities and historical processes. At this juncture, the history of church and Christianity face several questions that challenege its foundations . Re-reading the history of Christianity and the traditions of the church in the new historiographical contexts is an important task to redifine the meaning of Christian witness today. This lecture attempted to situate the history of Christianity as embedded in the social history of Kerala.

The Key Arguments:

Prof. Mammen George Suku

I. Backwardness of the theories used now
a) In the current methods religion and communities are not tried to be understood as historical social evolutes, subject to the general social dynamics and processes. Instead they are treated as pure processes and idea systems appearing in some moral and cosmological firmament.
The transcendal dimension is not something unique to religious experience. But at present this area - the study of dynamics of religious and non-religious realms is ignored by secular historians and treated as ahistorical by theologians. For example Mar Thoma (St Thomas) has been a non-linear language of dynamics and ideology and has to be understood as a Malankara experience and phenomenon - a human social experience and hence something that can be converted into social knowledge.
b) Different dimensions of religion are not properly distinguished. That is the dimensions of transcendal dynamics, the dimension of social power and its ordering etc. are now confused and treated as a single phenomenon. A textualisation of these undistinguished phenomenons by power wielders in the frame of the accepted theological moral and political ideology is treated as 'the history'. Hence history becomes a subjective narration of theological and political events. The rationale for the visibility of these events and their structuring is treated as absolute. So community history is reduced to church history and church history into theological history. So questions like the social origins of the MarThoma Church in the 19th century or Mar Thoma church as a medium of dynamics in the modern history of central travancore etc. are never taken up.
c) Kerala historians - both secular and ecclesiastical - have treated Christianity and Islam as something added to the mainstream history from outside. There is no such special treatment of Hinduism because the history of Hinduism is considered as the natural mainstream history. This is due to viewing religions as the most fundamental basis of identity. So there can only be either a plural Indian civilization (as the congress/ communists argue) or the Hindu civilization and its guests (as RSS thinks). Our opinion is that the fundamental canvas is the materiality and culture of a society in which all religions in that realm mould themselves. This is what I call the ‘pool of common condition and environment'.
d) Christianity is pictured as something unchanging for example, ideas/ experiences like 'conversion' 'evangelism', 'christianity' etc are discussed in this frame of non- specificity. Actually if we look at the descriptive narration of each occasion of the expansion of Christianity, we can see that they all had different motivations, ideologies and patterns.

There are legends and cultural relics to prove that . Malankara (religion and caste) came into being partially due to an evolution of Dravidian (ie folk) cult spots and Baudha - Jaina Pallies when the original urban caste guild with Nestorian sacred centres came to dominate the trade routes and invested in cash crop cultivation. The religious side of this process, in the first millenium could have been something similar to the four religious expansion patterns then existing and then socially possible - the Shaiva bhakti pattern, the Baudha - Jaina pally pattern, Brahminical temple pattern, the Guru pattern. Mechanisms of integration of new elements ( for instance, did pathinezhu parishakal join the urban caste guild with Nestorian sacred centre?) , question whether idea of religious community and religious membership was possible in the Indian context etc. will have to be taken up. Stories like that of Manarcaud Muthi will have to be looked into.

II. Historiography of Syrian Christianity
(My interest is confined to the Syrian community since they were a group who resisted colonial Christianity and was a religion/ community which naturally evolved in the Kerala Conditions)

a) There is a total dependence on records, textualisations and concepts of the colonial church historians. This leads to a distortion similar to the distortion created by the indologists and their total dependence on Brhaminical, Sanskritic and religious records. Like the indological reduction of Indian civilization to spiritualism, vedic brahminism and Sanskritism, the Church indologists reduced past Malankara to a chruch on the model of the Western Church and this ideology influenced the creation of the present Malankara.
b) There has been a stagnation in the development of therory, data collection etc. after the colonial period.
c) Structural elements of this colonial school
1) Self images ( that of a religious community history as church history)
2) Events:- Unsystematic memory of 5 elements ( the number is based on the histeriographic tradition of the protestant Marthoma Syrian church, it varies from church to church). These events have a chronology but no sociology. Concept of time and space ( ie time and space as change ) is absent. There is a single ideological and theological structure for all events.
3) Methods to discover/invent sources and understand are neither developed nor adopted from the academic world. Instead old unsystematic approaches to facts, time, sources, narration etc. are followed.
4) Idealism (Eg. No attempt is made to historicize missionary activity, rice of Syrian protestant and catholic churches etc.)
5) Glorification (Eg. Tarisappally plate, a donation to a foreign guild is interpreted as donation to all Malankara.
6) Absence of geography, culture, power equations, ideology, dynamics (spirituality) as variables. (Eg. Why that is not a single old Syro Malabar church is found between Tiruvalla and Kundara/ Ayoor region. Even from Kottayam southwards the only two exceptions were Changanassery and Champakulalm, why?)
7) Absence of demographic studies (Eg. To understand the path lineages and formation of towns and villages.)
8) Backwardness of the questions raised. (Eg to which church did Syrians belonged before the synod of Diampore? Such questions try only to project the present to the past. There can be question about ecclesiological connections, nature of the ordering of the sacred centres and priesthood etc. of the pre Portuguese period.

III. How to make Breakthrough in Theory and Methodology
a) Using now available sociological and anthropological theories.
b) Taking a new serious look at Myths and legends.
c) Going for walks along ancient land and riverine routes, ancient angadies and desams, ancient centres where desathu pallies are still found, to gather information about eco-social roots, to collect legends and ideas of history, to hunt for cultural and architectural relics, epigraphs, manuscripts etc.
d) Analysing the rituals, theology and if luck permits also the architecture of ancient Desathu Pallies.
e) Should study church/community history as part of Eco-social and political history of Desams and Nadus- Should study demographic history and formations of towns and villages (g. Even the church divisions and socio-economic cultural differences of the Syrians of different districts where these Syrian churches concentrate points to the need of not only such a study but to the need of understanding the Church divisions on the basis of eco-political/social history also.The study of the journey of lineage ( the seven Thomas Churches of the legends, thekkar and vadakkar, Mahodayapuram and Kollam etc.) also has to be such a study. In modern times Syrian Christians and churches have played a substantial role in the evolution of current Keralam. But usually understanding about this is reduced to ‘missionary activity’. It has to be understood as eco-social history.
f) Syrian Christian resistance to colonialism is likewise reduced to an ecclesiastical struggle. Actually it was the earliest broad socio-political-cultural anti-colonial struggle in Asia. A mere study of Varthamana pusthakam or Syrian Christian Padiyolas (political decisions) will reveal it. But it has not been recognized as such by both secular and church historians and no serious studies have been made about this using academic tools.
g) Collection of old Syrian Christian names, folksongs, murals, sculptures, old writings and such cultural relics.
h) Listing of all existing primary and secondary works, epigraphs, archeological sites and artifacts and people doing such studies.
i) Textual criticism of all existing medieval and modern texts.

IV. New Hypothesis and tools for reconstructing Malankara and Mappila (Syrian Christian) history
a) The idea of Malayala Chetti rather than a religious community:- Beginning in the transactional (products exchange) groups of port cities and riverine inlands of the Sanghom age- Evolution of guilds as castes of Chetties in the second Chera period – investment in land in the post Chera period (the Jati-Desam-Nadu period) Movement along riverine roads.
Palliyogam as angadi (ie professional and town oligarchal realm) - desam- jati unit and Malankara Yogam as its trans- Nadu organization. These were secular or lay institutions with sacred centres.
b) Mechanisms of integration of new necessary groups- Integration into the jati rather than sacred cult. It was Jati rather than a religious community. The whole jati was converted into centralized religious community finally only in the 19th century under the centralized and beurocratic Catholic, Jacobite, Protestant and Travancore Kochi Nation State influence.
c) The sacred centre:-
d) The original folk cult spots and boudha Jaina centres evolving into Malankara folk /elite religions under Nestorian influence and ecclesiastical connections. Budhism was declining due - according to Kosombian School- to the decline of the second Indian urbanization. Urbanism was regenerated according to them under Middle Eastern influence coming through Islamic-Nestorian-Jewish Varnas (varna- category. None of these were monolithic social groups). Hence the smooth way budha centers could become Nestorian or Islamic.
e) Nestorian Malankara and folk Malankara. – folk having no religious membership but only caste membership and special rights on the rituals of the sacred centre (Pally). Documented proof is available for this.
f) Malankara as a Bhoomika of Keralam.
g) Colonial and renaissance periods: Need to study colonial mechanism, mechanisms of integration, collaboration and resistance.-origins of modern social and church phenomena.