FATHER CHAVARA REPRESENTS INDIAN CHRISTIANITY AT THE BEST
(His Excellency the President R. Venkataraman’s address of
Father Kuriakose Elias Chavara stamp
Release Function, Trivandrum, December 20, 1987)
I deem it an honour to participate in this function which commemorates the great pioneer in social reforms, Father Kuriakose Elias Chavara. I must congratulate the Department of Posts for having decided to issue a stamp in memory of the great soul.
It is well over a hundred years since Father Chavara left us. And yet he is a living inspiration for thousands and thousands of persons. He is gratefully remembered as a profound scholar, an educationist, a builder of institutions for the underprivileged, the illiterate, the destitute and the needy.
Few people have been able to combine the contemplation of God with the service of man as naturally and creatively as Father Chavara did. There was in fact no dichotomy in his mind between the world of faith and the world of action. Father Chavara was both a mystic and a man of action at once. Capable of withdrawing into his inner most being, Father Chavara was a the same time a motive force for the establishment of a social order in which every one could live in dignity and faith. It is only appropriate that His Holiness the Pope Declared Father Chavara “Blessed” during the Papal visit to India in 1986.
Father Chavara lived at a time-the nineteenth century- when our society was passing through a period of intense depression and gloom. An alien power which ruled bothered little about the living conditions of the people. The roots of our culture and tradition had been shaken by an insidious propaganda which sought to highlight our weaknesses but undermine our strength. The result was that a great sense of inferiority and despondency came over our people. Father Chavara was one of those precious persons who knew how to link India’s past with her future destiny. He turned to the Vedas and Sacred Tamil texts, studied Sanskrit and Tamil and brought our ancient wisdom in direct touch with all that he imbibed through Christian theology. He wanted to share his knowledge with the people. He therefore recorded for posterity his experiences over forty years in the chronicles which is an authentic history of Kerala from 1829-1870. He also wrote the biographies of Fr. Thomas Palackal and Fr. Thomas Porukara. These latter form a worthy supplement to the history of Kerala in the latter 18th and early 19th centuries. He also wrote for the common people documents unsurpassed in their sincerity and practical wisdom.
Education was an activity close to his heart. Religious and general education was for him sides of the same coin. Father Chavara regarded education as a means of uplifting the poor. Drawing inspiration from the lives of Father Thomas Palackal and Father Thomas Porukara he ensured that all parishes maintained schools as auxiliary to them. Going further, Father Chavara threatened to close down those parishes which failed to comply with his instructions regarding the maintaining of schools. It is remarkable that his schools were open to members of all communities who sought admission, including Harijans. It was indeed a revolutionary act at that time.
Father Chavara's vision anticipated modern developments in yet another field: the role of women. As early as 1864 Father Chavara laid the foundation for the Indian Congregation for women, thereby accelerating the great change that has come about in the status of women. Father Chavara thus represented a major manifestation of the Indian Renaissance, which was to raise our underprivileged, alleviate distress and infuse our people with a sense of pride in themselves. It was Father Chavara’s unique privilege to do so through the great medium of Christianity. The first President of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad has observed on the antiquity and significance of Christianity in India as following:
“……..Remember, St. Thomas came to India when many countries in Europe had yet to become Christian and so those Indians who trace their Christianity to him have a longer history and higher ance4stry than that of Christians of many of the European countries. And it is really a matter of pride to us that it so happened”.
Father Chavara represented the Spirit of Indian Christianity at its best and the Malabar Church at its most resplendent.
It has rightly been said that St. Peter’s founding of the Roman Church and St. Thomas’ founding of the Malabar Church are equally distinguished in terms of chronology and their pioneering character. St. Thomas set foot in Cranganore in 52 A.D. From then on until the present times, when Mother Teresa’s example has shone on our soil, Christianity has become a part and parcel of the Indian ethos.
South India offered hospitality to Christianity from the earliest decades of the Christian era. The consolidation of the Syrian Christian Church in Malabar by Mar Thoma and Mar John in the fifteenth century; of the Latin Catholic Church by St. Francis Xavier in the sixteenth century; of the famous Madurai Mission of Jesuits by Fr. Robert de Nobili in the seventeenth century; the Protestant Mission in Tranquebar under Danish inspiration in the 18th century; the London Mission society in Travancore in them 19th century and a host of other missions and brethren churches in the following decades, bear this out.
But the establishment of these missions all over India by itself would not have held significance were it not for the fact that the initiators of these activities also started schools and colleges under the aegis of these missions. The educational initiatives of Father Chavara take their place in this distinguished tradition.
This development led, in course of time, to the building up of powerful intellectual aspirations. Historians have traced the origins of some of our powerful reformist movements such as the Brahma Samaj and Arya Samaj to the example and influence of the Christian missionary enterprise.
Christian missions worked among the adivasis, the aboriginals and among the Harijans in a practical implementation of the Christian ethic of service. Few people have exemplified this dimension of Indian Christianity as memorably as Father Chavara.
The Christian community in India, though small, has always been in the forefront of all national activities. Eminent men of this community have adorned many public offices and private institutions. They have always been in the vanguard of social equality and social reform.
Friends, as you are all aware, India has given unto itself a Constitution which, before mentioning the political freedoms-liberty, equality and fraternity-introduced the concept of “Justice” social, economic and political. Justice was to be paramount. The Constitution also brought into operation the unique Directive Principles of State Policy which, though not justifiable, were to be “fundamental in the governance of the country”. In pursuance thereof the country embarked upon an era of planned development.
But if Constitutions and Plans are to work, there has to be harmony among the people. The national movement tapped our underlying unity and gave political shape to our ancient genius for blending and synthesizing, despite diversity. The partition of India in 1947 has essentially to be viewed as a one-time departure from this process: the debris of a departing empire. But we have witnessed these tendencies and others continue to threaten the unity and integrity of the nation stability of its political edifice.
Whenever external challenges have threatened us, such as in 1962, 1965 and 1971, Indian unity has blazoned. But without such stimuli we would not be able to stand and pull our weight together in the war we are waging against poverty.
The time now calls for the adoption of shared goals, broad political convictions and attitudes that address themselves to the task of raising the socio-economic levels of our people. In this task, the distinguished Christian community, which can trace its origins from the times St. Thomas and de Nobili, through the work of Blessed Souls such as Father Chavara right up to present times will doubtless play an important role.
I conclude with an expression of thanks to the organizers for the opportunity afforded to me to participate in this pleasant function. May the faithful of all faiths derive inspiration from the stamp that is released today of the Blessed Soul Father Chavara.