How Being a Christian Shapes My Being Indian

Priscilla Jebaraj   |   August 18, 2021 

On Independence Day, I was asked to share in my church how being a Christian has shaped my being an Indian.  I thought about this question for a few days as I went around central Delhi in the course of work, seeing the Central Vista area all lit up in preparation for Independence Day, and reporting on the PM’s speech from Red Fort for my paper. I also had conversations with my friends Sakhi Scott and Esther Ghosh about it, and some of what I'm sharing is based on those discussions.

One thing I realised is that my being a citizen of India is shaped by the fact that it is not my primary identity. My first identity is as a child of God and that shapes everything else in my life.

This means that I am able to see all Indians, in all our diversity and irrespective of their religion, as human beings made in the image of God. That perspective comes from being a Christian.

Being an Indian Christian means being part of a tiny minority community. It means that more than most Indians, I value the country’s constitutional commitment to secularism, the lack of an official state religion and the right of freedom to worship. It’s a part of the Indian ethos that seems under threat these days, so I feel it’s important to safeguard and practice our rights as Indian citizens.

As a Christian in India, I feel I am often negotiating the overlaps between religion and culture. Which parts of Indian culture -- its festivals, customs, rituals, stories and even clothing -- am I free to adopt? Do some of them clash with my identity as a Christian? How do I join in celebrations without compromising my faith? My answers to these questions have changed over the years, but it is something I am often aware of.

I’m also hyper-aware that I am an ambassador for Christ’s kingdom in this nation of mine. In many work and friend settings, I may be the only Christian in the group and people are often watching to see how I act, and fairly or unfairly extrapolating those actions as a reflection of what Christians are like. Living in integrity, being a witness through word and deed isn’t optional.

I know many non-Christian Indians who are ardent in the fight for justice, for upliftment to the oppressed. Still, for me, it is my Christian faith that motivates me to do these things. It is the call to follow a Saviour who was anointed to proclaim good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives, and release from darkness for the prisoners. This is what drives me to write about issues of poverty and injustice and expose oppression and corruption.

Being a Christian and loving my fellow Indians, makes me want to share the good news of the gospel with them and pray for their salvation. I pray for the peace, prosperity and salvation of India’s peoples. I pray for wisdom for India’s rulers and that the decisions they take may enable us to live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

I also pray, knowing that the one I pray to is the One who is in control. That the God who holds the world in his hands also holds India in His hands. Being a Christian means that when a lot of my friends are panicking about all the ways this country seems to be falling apart, I can remind myself that there is no need to fall into despair because my God is the true ruler of India’s destiny.

I’ve been fascinated ever since I realised that that was the meaning of the phrase Bharata Bhagya vidhata used in the national anthem. Rabindranath Tagore actually got into a bit of trouble when the song was first sung, as many people accused him of writing it in praise of the British Emperor George V.

He responded by saying that a senior British official had asked him to write a felicitation song for the emperor. Then he said: “The request simply amazed me. It caused a great stir in my heart. In response to that great mental turmoil, I pronounced the victory in Jana Gana Mana of that Bhagya Bidhata [ed. God of Destiny] of India who has from age after age held steadfast the reins of India's chariot through rise and fall, through the straight path and the curved. That Lord of Destiny, that Reader of the Collective Mind of India, that Perennial Guide, could never be George V, George VI, or any other George...I should only insult myself if I cared to answer those who consider me capable of such unbounded stupidity as to sing in praise of George the Fourth or George the Fifth as the Eternal Charioteer leading the pilgrims on their journey through countless ages of the timeless history of mankind.”

Here’s the thing -- I do know this Lord of Destiny, this Perennial Guide. He is my Saviour and my friend, the Lord of hosts to whom all the world’s praise is due. And so this is how being a Christian shapes my being an Indian: I can sing Jana Gana Mana as a prayer song to the Almighty in all truth. I can give thanks for His salvation and hail His eternal victory. This is the English translation of the song:

Thou art the ruler of the minds of all people, dispenser of India's destiny.
Thy name rouses the hearts of the Punjab, Sind, Gujarat and Maratha, of Dravida, Orissa and Bengal.
It echoes in the hills of the Vindhyas and Himalayas, mingles in the music of the Jamuna and Ganga and is chanted by the waves of the Indian Sea.
They pray for thy blessings and sing thy praise.
The saving of all people waits in thy hand, thou dispenser of India's destiny.
Victory, Victory, Victory to thee.

 

Photo by Sikandar Ali on Unsplash

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Priscilla Jebaraj

Priscilla Jebaraj is a journalist living in Delhi, a city she loves for its sense of being rooted in a storied history and rushing forward into an unknown future at the same time. Some of her favourite things: books, travel, books, baking, books, children and did she mention books?

5 comments on “How Being a Christian Shapes My Being Indian”

  1. Wow Priscilla! It’s been really long since I saw the English translation of the national anthem. I never really paid attention to it while I’ve sung a million times. Now I can sing it as a payer song too. Thank you for sharing.

    1. I know what you mean, I was really struck by the meaning a few years ago too. And that realisation that whether or not Tagore knew it, God is the dispenser of India's destiny, so really this could be a praise and worship song!

  2. Reading this has greatly encouraged me. May I have permission to share it with my church in Texas?

    No matter your answer, I have prayed with gratitude for your witness, your protection and deep blessings for you to continue to grow in the lovely, true faith of Our Holy Father. His Son, Jesus Christ & His precious Holy Spirit.

    1. Sure, you can share it in your church. I'd be curious what they think actually. I imagine there are ways in which being a Christian in Texas is very different from being a Christian; and ways in which it is exactly the same.

    2. Sure, you can share it in your church. I’d be curious what they think actually. I imagine there are ways in which being a Christian in Texas is very different from being a Christian in Delhi; and ways in which it is exactly the same.

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