How Asia remade Jesus: A new book presents intriguing insights into the story of global Christianity

During the age of European colonialism, Jesus was first seen by many Asians as a tribal god of the firangis, or white Europeans. But as his story circulated, Asians remade Jesus, at times appreciatively and at other times critically. In a recently published book called Jesus in Asia, Professor RS Sugirtharajah situates the historical Jesus beyond the narrow confines of the West and offers an eye-opening new chapter in the story of global Christianity.

Sugirtharajah demonstrates "how Buddhist and Taoist thought, combined with Christian insights, led to the creation of the Chinese Jesus Sutras, and explains the importance of a biography of Jesus composed in the sixteenth-century court of the Mughal emperor Akbar. He also brings to the fore the reconstructions of Jesus during the Chinese Taiping revolution, the Korean Minjung uprising, and the Indian and Sri Lankan anti-colonial movements", the synopsis for the book explains.

Sugirtharajah, emeritus professor of Biblical Hermeneutics at the University of Birmingham, spoke to Firstpost about the need to salvage Jesus from Western scholars, the revolutionary approach in theology that postcolonial study has meant and why he apologised for a statement he had earlier made about Hinduism’s interactions with Jesus.

When you say ‘historical Jesus’, what do you mean by it and how has this idea taken shape in South Asia?

The phrase ‘historical Jesus’ refers to the actual flesh and blood Jesus who lived in first-century Palestine. This search — which is known in scholarly circles as the quest for the historical Jesus — began in the West in the 19th century, especially in Germany, and went through different phases. This quest produced different biographies of Jesus depending on theological and ideological perspectives of a particular scholar. What Western scholars call the historical Jesus is a series of imaginative constructs based on the Gospel narratives.

The idea of searching for the historical Jesus has not developed in South Asia because the contextual needs which prompted such a quest did not exist here. The Western pursuit for Jesus was undertaken at a time when rationalism, scientific methods, nationalism, and democratic processes posed a threat to the powerful influence of the Church. It was against this forceful and intrusive secular mood and culture that the quest was undertaken to seek a Jesus who could offer a radical alternative to the emerging civil society. The Western quest was pervaded by a desire to protect and promote Jesus as a secure shield against the threat of modernity. Asian Christians did not face such threats and questions. Their question was how to de-colonise the Jesus who came with the invaders. So, there was no interest or impetus among the scholars from South Asia to embark upon a search similar to that of the West. As I demonstrated in the book, only a few Asian scholars pursued this out of their personal, theological and political need and interest.  Incidentally, the search for the historical Jesus and search for the colonies happened at the same time.

Chinese depiction of Jesus and the rich man (Mark 10), 1879, Beijing. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Chinese depiction of Jesus and the rich man (Mark 10), 1879, Beijing. Image via Wikimedia Commons

How has postcolonial study redefined the approach to writing about and studying Jesus? Can you cite examples?

Although Jesus was from West Asia, he did not come to this continent as a Mediterranean peasant but as a tribal and triumphalistic God of the West. He was proclaimed as the Cosmic Christ, the one who rules and controls the whole world. He was presented as God’s anointed agent who wielded sovereignty over Indian Gods and Goddesses.

What post-colonialism tries to do is to interrupt such hegemonic and totalising forms of European interpretation. Secondly, it exposes imperial impulses embedded in the teachings of Jesus. What one fails to notice is that buried behind the anti-colonial oratory of Jesus there lurks an imperial thinking which speaks the language of control, supremacy, and judgment. The Kingdom of God/Heaven that he announced was just as imperialistic as the Roman empire. The kingdom is a worldwide empire under the God of the Christians. In an increasingly multi-religious world, such a claim is arrogant and paternalistic. Thirdly, post-colonialism questions the notion of a single divine hero saving the world — a notion perpetuated by the Western search which limits humans experience of God. Post-colonialism would like to throw open this access to include historical events, cultic remembrances, everyday occurrences, and natural manifestations. As Swami Vivekananda said, it is vain to “gather all the peoples of the world around a single personality”. What post-colonialism does is to portray Jesus as a complex and complicated figure.

You mention in the context of India that most texts available are those that deny Jesus’ existence. What is the counterargument to this assertion, and why do you find these texts faulty?

This is not true. My volume contains the works of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Ponnambalam Ramanathan, the Sri Lankan politician and legislator, who were appreciative of Jesus. Of course, they did not simply accept the missionary version of him but reconfigured him as a Christian Vedantin in the case of Radhakrishnan and Judean Jani in the case of Ramanathan.

The anti-Jesus texts are faulty because those who engaged in such a venture uncritically imported the works of the Jesus deniers in the West in order to discredit the missionary propagation of him. The Jesus Myth theory originated in the West as a response to rationalism. But hurt by vicious and relentless attack on Hinduism by missionaries in colonial India, Hindu apologists like Thakur Kahan Chandra Varma, Dhirendranath Chowdhury as I have demonstrated in the book cleverly marshalled the arguments of the Western Jesus deniers to discredit the exceptional claim missionaries made for Jesus.

What these men did in colonial India is now replicated in the writings of NS Rajaram, Ram Swarup, Sita Ram Goel.  They depend on secondary sources and latch onto any self-criticism or self-questioning found in Christian writings as signs of weakness on the part of Christianity. The internal contradictions in the portrayals of Jesus in the Gospels are seen as sign of his non-divine origin.

Prof RS Sugirtharajah's Jesus in Asia sharply contests the historical quest of Jesus in the West. Image courtesy Penguin India

Prof RS Sugirtharajah's Jesus in Asia sharply contests the historical quest of Jesus in the West. Image courtesy Penguin India

In the introduction you mention a previous statement you had made on Hinduism’s interaction with Jesus that you wanted to correct. Can you elaborate further?

In a volume I published on Jesus called Asian Faces of Jesus, I made an unwisely exaggerated claim that among other faith communities than the Christian, Hindus approached Jesus with affection and appreciation. This injudiciously inflated claim was largely due to my narrow and limited reading at that time. It was only when I was exposed to anti-colonial polemics that I came across a vicious attack on the personality and teachings of Jesus, especially in colonial India. This attack was to remedy the defamatory preaching of the missionaries. What this present book tries to do is to repair the earlier faulty impression and present the Hindus’ attitude towards Jesus as a complex and complicated one which varies from antagonism to admiration, and from censure to celebration.

Compared to India, how has Jesus appeared or manifested in other south Asian countries? What has impressed you most in some of these and what do you wish would be re-written?

There are many examples of Asians trying to grasp Jesus dynamically as they wrestle with the meaning of their very existence.

Indonesians have developed a Javanese Jesus based on a local popular end-time messianic figure called Ratu Adil who is a “deliverer”, and "harmoniser" of society. Asian cultures which have the influence of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and Shamanism have reimagined Jesus as the bodhisattva, the Way, a Confucian scholar, and a Shamanistic priest.

What impressed me most was the Korean construal of Jesus as a minjung (mass of people) More pointedly, it rescued Jesus from the single-saviour narrative and made him a collective persona whose identity was inseparable from and entwined with that of the Minjung. What is clear is that these images will be unrecognisable from the Jesus found in the Gospels.

What I wished to see re-written is some of the Asian portrayals which mindlessly imitate Western ideas without paying attention to Asian sensibilities.

Prof Sugirtharajah

Prof Sugirtharajah

In the book you hardly touch upon Christianity’s rise in Kerala, why? Why, according to you, has the southern part of the country taken to the faith in such large numbers?

My purpose is not to write the history of Christianity. My objective in the book was to trace the historical personality of Jesus pursued in various Asian writings, which I find entirely lacking in Kerala. Kerala Christians have produced challenging images of Jesus, but they are confessional or pietistic — not historical.

Why the southern parts of India have taken to Christianity is beyond my professional expertise and probably we need to ask anthropologists, historians and cultural critics for the answer.

Why is there a need to move beyond the western scholarship on Jesus? In a predominantly Hindu and Buddhist mainland, how has the idea of Jesus survived, and grown?

There are a number of reasons to go beyond the Western search. Firstly, the Western search is obsessed with history, narrative and raw facts whereas the Asian search is about myths, morals and meanings. From Rammohun Roy to Radhakrishnan, Hindus were more interested in the ethical precepts Jesus espoused than the earthly, historical personality. While the West is after a historical figure, Asians are after a meaningful Jesus.

Secondly, Jesus is not the sole property of Western scholars. During the colonial period in India, Hindu reformers relentlessly reminded the missionaries that Jesus was, as Rammohun Roy put it, an “Asiatic.”  Keshub Chunder Sen in his Calcutta Town Hall lectures used to harangue the Europeans with his stirring oratory: "I am an Asiatic, was not Jesus an Asiatic?". Swami Vivekananda reminded the Western Christians that with all their "attempts to paint him with blue eyes and brown hair, the Nazarene was still an oriental."

The survival and growth of Jesus in Asia was largely due to the imaginative ways Asian Christians used their indigenous resources — the very sources they were asked to disparage and discard by missionaries — to produce a series of stunning sketches of Jesus. They took Jesus out of his Semitic context and placed him along with Buddha, Krishna, and Confucius. Such an altered perception allowing him to co-exist with other Oriental sages enabled his thoughts to live and thrive. After all some of his teachings resonate with Hinduism and Buddhism. What he said and did was not particularly original. The redeeming activity he was engaged in has several counterparts in the Asian mythological world. His call to love your enemies was already familiar in his own Jewish circles and not his own invention as the Christian church claimed. The renunciation and the ascetic life he advocated has several parallels in Hinduism and Buddhism. His declaration that the kingdom of God is within you resembles the Upanishadic teaching that atman is within you. His future survival and growth depends on seeing him as one of the Eastern seers rather than a stern clannish, powerful and privileged God of the firangis.


Updated Date: Jun 20, 2018 17:13 PM

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