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Marist Bulletin - Number 86

 

A conversation with Brother Chinna and Victor in Trichy India
07.08.2003

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“IT IS THE SPIRIT WHO PRAYS.”

Bro. Lluís Serra

Chinna, 46, is the Sector Superior of our Marist life and work in India. Victor is a Marist candidate about to become a Postulant. He’s 24 years old and come from Karayur in Tamil Nadu. Before joining the Marist community, he studied for his BA and worked as an accounts assistant.

People in the West often dream of traveling to India, your homeland, in search of spiritual enlightenment. What’s your secret?
Chinna: The ‘secret’ about human life that Indian sages discovered three thousand years ago is that ‘God is within us’ as well as beyond. This has led to the practice of active spiritual seeking, not through religious ritual but rather through meditation. There is a long tradition of ‘gurus’ of the spiritual life, including the present generation of ‘living saints’. Yoga masters are a good example of this tradition, seeking inner peace and ultimately union with God through control of the body’s energies. Westerners on a spiritual search often visit and stay at ashrams – both Hindu and Christian – where emphasis is on meditation and a simple life. These are some of the reasons why Westerners come to our country – but some of us smile when we see them in saffron robes!

Victor, I would imagine that you and your Brothers here find it relatively easy to meditate and cultivate the interior life. Could you give us some advice on how we might improve our own interior life?
It is true that there are some aspects to our culture that encourage and support an interior life. However, one should not think that all the Brothers practice yoga and transcendental mediation daily! For us in India as is true everywhere, it is the Spirit who prays. Techniques of meditation are merely a means to an end: to a higher level of consciousness, of harmony of body, mind and spirit, of emptying of the self, of openness to the love of God. First you need to achieve a balanced life, a calmness of spirit, and a degree of asceticism. At the moment of prayer, stillness can be helped by body posture and rhythmic breathing, and by the use of a mantra.

India is a land of contrasts – on the one hand it is technologically advanced and has the atomic bomb, and on the other large concentrations of poverty. How do you think that it’s possible for these apparently contradictory realities to exist side by side?
Victor: India has extremes of wealth as in many other countries. The continuing poverty of a great number of our people has many causes – corruption, low return on agricultural commodities, extreme weather, political leadership that is self-serving, a large population competing for resources and opportunities, and so on. The fact of having a bomb or not does not change the reality of life for most people – but we have a very large and expensive military force. Moreover, sad to say, defense remains a national priority. China and Pakistan have both fought India over border matters and both are nuclear powers. So, there was a felt need for developing an Indian deterrent. Furthermore, our country has one of the highest concentrations of IT people and scientists in the world, so the capacity was never in question.
Chinna: For a country that spent such a long period under a colonial power, the possession of a nuclear bomb capacity is a source of national pride. In a land as vast and diverse as India, there are many contradictions and confused priorities!

In a population of over 1 billion, of whom only 2.3% are Christian, what difficulties do you contend with in belonging to such a small minority?
Chinna: Generally speaking, especially at village level, there is communal harmony between the people of different religious faiths. Over recent years, however a movement, called Hindutva, is promoting the idea that to be a true Indian one should be Hindu – the others can leave! This movement has been labeled fascist as well. They promote the idea that the Constitution has given too many privileges to minorities at the expense of the majority.
Victor: The political party associated with this movement is in power nationally and in some States, so they can change the environment in which we live. Just last year, for example, in the state of Tamil Nadu where we Brothers are, an anti-conversion law was passed that seeks to control conversions to Christianity and Islam, particularly of women and dalits, the low caste people.

How did Marist life start in India?
Chinna: The ‘founder’ of the Brothers in India was a layman, Mr. Louis Joseph!! Inspired by the friendship and spirit of some Sri Lankan Brothers with whom he studied at university in Trichy in the 1960s, he recruited four young men for the Brothers who began a community in Trichy in 1974. Originally, then, and until the civil troubles in Sri Lanka in the early 1980s, the Indian Marists were members of the Sri Lankan Province.

The Brothers have a primary and secondary school at P. Udayapatti and a small high school near Dindigul, both in Tamil Nadu. Who attend your schools and what do you offer them?
Chinna: A conscious choice was made to work with people in isolated rural areas as well as socially disadvantaged groups. We can do this because the government pays some of the teacher positions and so school fees can be kept low. The school population is 85% Hindu, 10% Muslim and 5% Christian. Most of the children are from families of small farmers, craftsmen, small businessmen and landless day laborers. Each day a good number of students receive a free mid-day meal provided by the government. Many students move on to higher education or trade training. In addition, the school at PU operates a vocational training annex for young people who have left school early.

Victor, what fascinates you and other young people in India about Christ and about Marcellin, leading some of you to choose our Marist life?
Young Indian Christians believe Jesus is our brother. We see Him as love, peace, joy, mercy, and compassion; as a revolutionary who is simple, gentle, humble and meek. We believe Jesus to be fully man and God. We try to imitate him and surrender to him. We look upon Marcellin as a hard worker who shows simplicity, family spirit and a great devotion to Mary. He inspired Brothers to give Christian education, working in rural areas and having a particular concern and love for the poor. There are plenty of such people in India! He emphasized the need to treat all people equally and respect all groups of people. This is a particular need in our country where there are still elements of the old caste system.

How are the Brothers in India implementing the General Council’s call for us to dedicate ourselves to the poorest of children and young people?
Chinna: By maintaining our commitment to isolated and socially disadvantaged groups. We are a small number and it is not easy to do this. Also we encounter real challenges at times and it takes faith and courage to persevere in our ministry.
Victor: Presently the Brothers are planning to establish a residential center for children whose lives are affected by AIDS.

What does the future hold for our Marist presence in India?
Chinna: The harvest is plenty but the laborers are few. We look forward with hope to a continued growth. There are 20 professed Brothers at present, 11 of them in post-novitiate formation. Each year we can rely on new candidates. We have begun to look beyond Tamil Nadu into other States of India for candidates at this stage, but with the idea of eventually expanding our presence there as well. But we remember, “Unless the Lord builds the house …”

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