NEW DELHI — When Bombay architect Charles Correa designed the modern Roman Catholic church in his home city a few years ago, he said he tried to capture the grandeur of the heavens with a simple, unadorned statement.
He chose for the main altar a magnificent slab of rough-hewn granite, illuminated by crossing shafts of sunlight from skylights.
However, parishioners at the Salvacao Church, a central place of worship for Bombay's 500,000 Catholics--many of them, like Correa, immigrants from the former Portuguese colony of Goa--avoided the main altar. They complained to priests that they had come to worship God and the Virgin Mary, not a piece of rock.
Small Chapel Set Up
As a compromise, Correa set up a small chapel to the side of the main church, with an ornate candle-lit altar, burning incense and realistic, fully clothed dolls representing Jesus Christ and the Holy Mother. It soon became more crowded than the larger main church.
Even non-Christians, including Hindus from surrounding neighborhoods, began to visit the side altar. They left traditional offerings, or \o7 puja\f7 gifts--pieces of molded butter, flower petals and colored grains of rice--to the statues. In fact, the gaily dressed figurines did resemble models of Hindu gods. With a little imagination, they could be seen as Lakshmi, goddess of fortune, or Krishna, the beloved incarnation of the god Vishnu.
"There is a strong influence from Hinduism on the church in India," said Father Edward R. Hambye, a Belgian Jesuit priest and church historian who has lived in India for 35 years. "There is a definite inclination to Hindu devotion piety--what they call \o7 bhakti."\f7
Such is the hybrid Christianity that Pope John Paul II will find when he begins his first visit to India on Saturday. His 10-day journey will take him the length of the subcontinent, from the cool, misty tribal areas of northeast India, once a haven for headhunters, to the steamy south, where Christianity dates from the 1st Century and the Apostle Thomas.
Land of Religious Diversity
India is often depicted as a land of religious diversity and tolerance. Two of the world's great religions, Buddhism and Hinduism, were founded here. For several centuries, India was an independent Islamic empire. Even today, there are more Muslims here than in any other country except Indonesia.
Countless other sects, faiths and cults exist here: fire-worshiping Zoroastrians; gentle Jains who practice nonviolence, or \o7 ahimsa, \f7 toward all living things; the martial, always armed, Sikhs of Sikhism; tribal animists. . . .
There are also, astonishingly, 22 million Christians, including the 12 million Catholics whom the Pope is coming to see. That is about 3% of India's masses, with the Catholics forming 1.6% of the total.
Despite this seeming diversity, however, and a disproportionate Christian influence on education and health services, the central element of Indian society is its nearly 500 million Hindus. There are as many Hindus in India as there are Catholics in all of South America and Europe.
An Inexorable Force
Hinduism, a faith of many gods that is maintained through a rigid caste system, controls the social order here. Historically, it has been an inexorable force, a massive, glacial power that has swallowed up other religions flowering in its path.
In contrast, Buddhism, which began here and was the faith of the Mauryan emperor Asoka (273-232 BC), is no longer practiced here except in regions of the Himalayas influenced by the Tibetan culture.
In recent decades, the power of Hinduism in India has been bolstered by the emerging Hindu fundamentalist movement embodied in two main groups, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Council, and the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak, or National Volunteers. The fundamentalist movement has made Hinduism a jealous, protective faith and taken the shine off India's reputation for religious tolerance.
"One of the fascinating aspects of India was the lack of religious xenophobia that existed," said Father Hambye, the historian. "Now this Hindu fundamentalist movement has changed things."
Assassination of Gandhi
Mohandas K. Gandhi, the nonviolence-preaching hero of India's independence movement, was assassinated in New Delhi in 1947 by a Hindu fundamentalist who objected to Gandhi's ecumenism. Lately, the fundamentalists have launched campaigns in several states to expel foreign missionaries. Recently, 10 Catholic missionaries were expelled from the central state of Madhya Pradesh.
The fundamentalist groups have organized protests against the Pope's visit. A Hindu rally against the papal visit is planned for New Delhi tonight, the eve of his arrival. Organizers say they will use it to push for a national law prohibiting religious conversions.