Westhead: India's new Bible wears a bindi

The Virgin Mother in a sari, Joseph donning a turban. These are just some of the depictions in an Indianized version of the Bible. The controversy that followed means a toned-down second edition this year
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MUMBAI, INDIA–When Mary and Joseph discovered a power-hungry king was hunting their son Jesus Christ, they escaped to the safety of Egypt. But before Christianity's first family fled, barefoot Mary slipped into a sari and put a bindi on her forehead, while Joseph tied tight his long loincloth and turban.

At least, that's how their flight is illustrated in a Bible produced for Indians.

Released in India last year by the Roman Catholic Church, the "New Community Bible" became an immediate sensation – and lightning rod for controversy.

Thanks to pictures of Biblical characters in traditional Indian clothing and a commentary that drew references to Bollywood, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Hindu scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible sold out 15,000 hardcover copies within weeks.

Yet amid its success, the New Community Bible also became ensnared in controversy. Right-wing Hindu groups accused the Catholic Church of laying the groundwork for illegal conversions, while Protestant Christian groups alleged it misrepresented original texts.

A year on, a longtime priest at the Society of St. Paul in Mumbai, who was a driving force behind the Bible's release, is scrambling to release a second edition. This time, Father Devassy Athalathil envisions a print run of 50,000 copies with gilt-edged pages distributed in each of India's 28 states.

Publishing a second edition has proven vexing since inflaming religious tensions is a constant worry for church officials in India.

But Athalathil says he's not anxious. "I wasn't worried before the first edition came out and I'm not worried now," said the 60-year-old, leaning back in a chair in his second-floor office, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling high stacks of books such as The Eight Beatitudes, My First Catechism and The Picture Book of Saints.

"It's up to people whether they want to follow Jesus. Our job is to put the truth before the people. And these problems that we had weren't God-made problems, they were man-made ... They weren't real problems."

Still, Athalathil seems prepared to release a more toned-down version of "the truth" this time around, paring out references to Hindu texts.

Scheduled to be excised from the latest Indian Bible are references to Mahatma Gandhi's mantra of civil disobedience, and a comparison made between the Biblical Ten Commandments, and 10 basic precepts of the Indian scriptures, which include ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth) and brahmacharya (celibacy).

Quotes from the Bhagavad Gita are also gone, as is a narrative from the New Testament book of Luke on resurrection; in the first edition, the Bible's commentary suggested the Hindu belief in reincarnation might cheapen the value of life.

But Athalathil says some of the key elements of the first edition will remain, including 27 Indian-themed pictures, such as a family living in a slum in the shadow of a skyscraper, and a portrait of Mother Teresa.

Religious experts say there's little doubt why the church has released its Indian version of the Bible. India's population is surging and the number of Christians as a percentage of the country is in danger of slipping.

Today, about 2.5 per cent of Indians, or 24 million people, are Christian. It's worrisome enough that in the southern Indian state of Kerala, the Catholic Church has encouraged Christian families to give birth to more children – even as the federal government urges fewer babies. In some instances, the church has provided treatment to infertile couples and even paid for women to reverse tubectomy procedures.

"The church has always looked at India as fertile ground," says Mathew Schmalz, who once lived in India and now teaches religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

"It tends to lead to a great deal of tension," he says. "The church will never say it's trying to win new converts, but it clearly is."

That approach has often led to violence.

In the summer of 2008, in the state of Orissa, Christians were blamed after a Hindu monk and four of his associates were killed. In the ensuing violence, 122 Christians were either killed or went missing, and hundreds of homes and churches were razed.

To be sure, the Christian church sometimes doesn't do itself any favours in its mission fields. Drivers in New Delhi tell stories of missionaries coming to their villages with free textbooks and medicines. But after a while, there was a catch: some missionaries would continue their good works only if locals agreed to convert.

There are more recent examples of Christian shenanigans in India, which years ago banned foreign missionaries.

A Canadian trade official recently scheduled a meeting with someone he thought was an executive from a U.S.-based food and beverage company. "We sat down to lunch and I had this guy's card and wanted to talk business," the trade official said. "He said to me, `You know I'm not really here as an executive, right? I'm a missionary.'"

In his office in New Delhi, Archbishop Pedro Lopez Quintana, the Holy See's representative in India, concedes he's worried about the prospect of a new Bible sparking more violence. He says that when religious fanatics, "put venom to the people, sometimes they create a monster you cannot control."

And while he doesn't enthusiastically embrace Athalathil's bid to publish another Indianized Bible, the 56-year-old Spaniard sounds like he wants to support the effort.

"Conversion is a human right," he says, fiddling with a large crucifix around his neck.

"We cannot refuse to others our beautiful way of life."

 
 
 
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