Images Of Jesus In India

M. Amaladoss, S.J.

Christological reflection starts with the faith experience of the living Christ.  Though  “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever”  (Heb. 13: 8),  our experience of him varies according to the person who experiences and the social-context of the experience.  The experience of a mystic is different from the experience of an ordinary Christian.  Sometimes even members of other religions claim an experience of Christ.  The social context is the life-situation in which Christ comes as the Saviour.  In India three elements of this context are important:  India is a poor country weighed down with various kinds of inequalities; it is characterized by a passionate search for the Absolute at various levels; it is multi-religious, leading to a clash of Absolutes.  The cultural background provides the media - language, worldview, philosophy, images and symbols - through which the person is able to understand and reflect on the experience.  In this manner there are many factors that contribute to a differentiation of Christological reflection.

While this pluralism in Christological reflection seems evident to us today, it was not so in the past.  Christian missionaries not only proclaimed Christ, but also imposed a theology considered universal.  Robert de Nobili was open to Indian culture as a way of life and as a medium for translating the truths of the faith.  But he was polemical with regard to Indian religions.   However, for over a hundred years now, Indians have tried to experience Christ and to express and reflect over their experience.   I shall focus on these efforts and then suggest a possible way in which they could enrich Christological reflection.  This would also offer an occassion for some methodological observations.

Before proceeding, however, I have an important preliminary remark.  One cannot think of India without thinking of religious pluralism.  One is then led to a theology of religions.  In the context of such a theology, the Christological reflection tends to focus on the question of the uniqueness and universality of Jesus Christ as Saviour.  While I recognize the importance of this problem, I am not focussing on it here.   It is not specifically an Indian (nor even an Asian) problem.  There is certainly an Indian perspective on it.  That will necessarily come through as we explore how the Indians, in their multi-religious context, have experienced Jesus.  But my primary attention will be on the impact and significance that Jesus has had on Indians.  The multi-religious context emerges as a question at a second level of reflection and is better kept at that level.

In giving an account of the Indian experience of Jesus I shall try to be typological and representative rather than exhaustive or historical.  I shall also try to avoid too many Indian words and concepts.  They are not really necessary for our purpose.

The Christian Experience

Brahmabandhab Upadyaya (1861-1907) called himself a Hindu-Christian:  Hindu with regard to culture and Christian with regard to religion.  He tried to live and speak about this difficult synthesis.  He was deeply Christian.  But he felt that Indian philosophy, especially that of Sankara, should replace Greek philosophy as the medium of expression for and reflection on Christian faith in India.  He used the termSaccidananda - Sat-Cit-Ananda (Truth-Consciousness-Bliss) - to refer to the Trinity and strongly affirmed the divinity of Jesus by identifying him with Cit  He rejected the popular Indian term avatara to refer to the incarnation, though many others will use it later in varying meanings.  He tried to explain the personal unity of Jesus by using the framework of Indian psychology.  His hymn to Jesus is worth quoting in full as indicative of much of Indian tradition in the matter.

The transcendent Image of Brahman,
Blossomed and mirrored in the full-to-overflowing
Eternal Intelligence -
Victory to God, the God-man. 
Child of the pure Virgin,
Guide of the Universe, infinite in Being
Yet beauteous with relations,         
Victory to God, the God-Man.          
Ornament of the Assembly              
Of saints and sages, Destroyer of fear,               
Chastiser of the Spirit of Evil -       
Victory to God, the God-Man.
Dispeller of weakness                    
Of soul and body, pouring out life for others,
Whose deeds are holy,               
Victory to God, the God-Man.  
Priest and Offerer                     
Of his own soul in agony, whose Life is Sacrifice,
Destroyer of sin’s poison, -    
Victory to God, the God-Man.
Tender, beloved,                    
Soother of the human heart, Ointment of the eyes,
Vanquisher of fierce death, -
Victory to God, the God-Man.

The hymn will have to be heard in Sanskrit to catch all the allusions to Indian tradition and the resonance of Indian terminology like Cit, Hari, Brahman, Saguna, Nirguna,  etc.  It is a litany  of evocative symbols and attributes, that make at the same time a theological point.  It is the fruit of a dialogue between two philosophical traditions but in deep and conscious fidelity to a single tradition of faith and even of dogma.  Brahmabandab may be said to represent the  inana marga (the way of knowledge) tradition.

A.J.Appasamy  (1891 - ) preferred the bhakti marga (the way of devotion or love).   He had no difficulty in seeing Jesus as  an avatara, though as the only true one.  The avatara tradition is best described by the Bhagavad Gita:

Whenever there is a decline of law and an outbreak of lawlessness, I incarnate myself.  For the protection of the good, for the destruction of the wicked and for the establishment of the law I am born from age to age (IV: 7-8).

For the Christian believer, of course, Jesus is the only avatara: God become Man.  Appasamy also saw Christ as the antaryamin, the ‘indweller’ in the heart of everyone, though others would use this term to refer more directly to the Spirit.

The Christian bhakti tradition, based on a personal experience of love, evokes many other relational images.  H.A. Krishna Pillai (1827-1900) sings of Christ as the river of life (Ganga) from heaven, the mountain of salvation, the ocean of bliss, the cloud that showers the rain of grace, life-giving medicine, gem of gems, and mother.

In form the peerless Mother of all good deeds
And all worthy to be praised.

The image of the mother is also used by Narayan Vaman Tilak 1862-1919):

Tenderest Mother - Guru mine,
Saviour, Where is love like Thine?

More recently Christian believers increasingly see Jesus as the liberator.  One could see them, in the Indian tradition, as opting for the  karma marga (the way of action).  Jesus identifies himself with the poor and the outcast in order to struggle with them towards inner and outer freedom and wholeness.  The salvation that Jesus brings is not merely other-worldly, but challenges us to a commitment to promote social development and liberation.  Jesus offers not only a motivation for struggle, but also a model.  First of all he sets the goal of development and liberation in the context of the Reign of God.  Secondly, his struggle is non-violent.  In the words of Mahatma Gandi, Jesus is the perfect Satyagrahi.  The term Sat, meaning Truth and Being, to which one is passionately attached (grahi), indicates the fullness of Reality,Brahman.  It stands for the Father in the Trinitarian term Saccidanannda.  Thus the pursuit of liberation is set in the context of the quest and realization of God.

The Hindu Experience

This may be the place to refer briefly to the way that Hindus have experienced Jesus in India.  In the background of the avatara doctrine referred to above, they have no difficulty in accepting Jesus as an avatara, as a manifestation of God on earth.  They admire his teachings.  They appreciate his religious experience.  Some will be ready to take him as their Guru or spiritual master.  They see him as one of the humans, like the Buddha, who has realized the full potentialities of divinity hidden in each person, and as such He is a way and a model to follow.  It is not rare to see a picture of Jesus alongside those of Krishna and Buddha in Hindu homes.  One can see two approaches mixed up here.  While some see Jesus as a divine manifestation, others see him as the perfect man.  There is no basic contradiction between these two approaches, though the first is devotional-religious and the other is philosophical, since, according to Hindu anthropology/theology, every human is  potentially divine and there is no radical differentiation between the divine and the human.  Such a Hindu view of Jesus is not anti-Christian polemic, but the integration of Jesus and his significance in the pluralistic Hindu cultural and religious universe.  One should not forget at the same time that, whatever be the orthodoxy of such views in Christian eyes, Jesus has had and still has a very positive impact in the lives of many Hindus.

The Cosmic Christ

The Indian Christian understanding of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in the context of religious pluralism tends to be of two kinds.  Many will acknowledge today what is positive in Indian religious traditions.  Some tend to adopt a comparative and evolutionary perspective and see Christ as the fulfillment of other religions.  The basic paradigm is the biblical one of preparation-fulfillment.  Others suggest the image of the cosmic Christ.  Already in the New Testament Paul and John move from the experience of Jesus, especially of the risen one, to the mystery of Christ.  Paul sees him as “the firstborn of all creation”, in whom “were created all things” who “is before all things” and in whom “all things hold together”.  (Col. 1: 15-17)  John sees him as the Word who was in the beginning, through whom all things came to be and who is the true light which enlightens every one.  (John 1: 1-9)

Christ therefore is the cosmic mystery, the Word, whose salvific power reaches out to all human beings in ways unknown to us (Gaudium et Spes, 22).  The Word becomes flesh and the paschal mystery of his death and resurrection is the historical concretization of God’s saving action.  This means that one can encounter Christ also outside the visible Christian community.  One should be careful not to confuse the ‘cosmic Christ’ with the ‘Christ of faith’ who is distinguished from the ‘Jesus of history’ in certain traditions of biblical interpretation.

The Indian Artists:  Hindu and Christian

The final group of Indians that I would like to evoke are the artists, both Hindu and Christian.   More than 20 Hindu artists have painted pictures of Christ.  Their preferred motif is the suffering Christ.  The Hindu Gods do not suffer.  It is the passion of Christ that attracts them and in it they see the passion of humanity.  This is certainly a Christological statement.  As one of them, Arup Das, who also claimed to have had a vision of Jesus, put it powerfully:

These paintings of mine owe very much to the theme of Christ.  I chose Christ, to Gandhi, quite unconsciously in the beginning and then I realized that nobody suffered as much as He in all history.  His crufixion was transcendental and his agony unparallelled.  In fact Agony is the theme of my paintings.  Agony,not of Christ and Gandhi alone but of Man, miserable man.

The Christian artists have painted themes from the life of Christ in a context of bhakti.  Christ has been painted with Indian features in Indian dress and in Indian natural sorroundings.  Some have also used Indian symbolic motifs and colour schemes.  This seems to be an affirmation that Christ is as much Indian as he was Jewish: he is universal.  At least in some cases there may be, besides, a reference to his cosmic dimension.  One of the modern artists, Jyoti Sahi, has moved beyond such external  Indianization to see and paint Christ through Indian religious symbols.  Thus we have the Yogi - Christ, Nataraj  (the dancing God)-Christ,   Trimurti  (the Indian Trinity)-Christ,  Baby Krishna - Buddha-Christ,  Ardhanariswara  (half man - half woman) Christ, etc.   More recently he is discovering the prophetic vocation of the Christian artist and his Christs relate to the oppressed tribals and untouchables.  This is a strong affirmation of the mystery of the incarnation.

The Apophatic Christ

The last person I wish to refer to is Swami Abishiktananda.  Though he was French by birth, he had become thoroughly Indian by his experience.  He tried to have an authentic Indian experience of God and all through his life he tried to integrate his Indian and his Christian spiritual experiences.  He saw Jesus as the perfect advaitin, united with the Father in perfect non-duality.  He felt that every Christian was called to share, in and through Christ, in this experience of non-dual unity.  He constantly struggled with Indian and European thought patterns to express his experience.  But towards the end of his life he had concluded that his experience is really beyond expression and became apophatic, though the experience itself had transformed him.  His experience was at a mystical level, not accessible to the normal Christian. But he is a contemporary Indian Christian witness to the apophatic dimension of God-experience, which we should keep in mind even as we explore the images of Jesus in India.

Towards a New Methodology

After this brief historical and rather typological survey, I would like to return to the task of Christological reflection in India today.  It is a fact that many of the people whom we have been talking about, were or are in the periphery of the Church.  Our theological language is still largely western.  Our reflection still moves at the level of translation and comparison.  Christological reflection itself  seems caught up with the questions of the uniqueness and universality of Christ.  So in a second part I would like to explore future, more creative, avenues of Christological reflection in deep continuity with the past that I have recounted.

I think that to start with we need a new methodology.  I shall outline this briefly.  The starting point is faith-experience.  In our case, it is the experience of Jesus.  This Jesus is not found in the pages of the Gospels nor in the creedal formulae of the Church.  He is experienced in the life of the community of faith,  in the dialectical interaction between the Jesus of tradition and the reality of the others in the world.  The others, especially the poor, are the mediation of Jesus in our lives today (Mt. 25: 31-46) and the story of Jesus in the tradition of the community helps us to discern the presence of that same Jesus in the reality of the present moment.  This is how Jesus becomes significant and meaningful to us here and now.

Our experience finds expression in image, symbol and story - just  as the Gospels are made up of the stories told by the disciples who first encountered him.  Images and symbols come from the natural, human and historical experience of the community   Thus Jesus is experienced as light, living water, good shepherd, prophet, messiah.  All these become names for Jesus.  They are not just labels but mediations of lived experience.  In the Indian context our particular religious and cultural traditions would be - or should preferentially be - the source of images, names and symbols.  Such symbols can highlight newer aspects of the mystery of Christ.  Symbols do not have a fixed meaning even within a tradition.  They are certainly open to reinterpretation across traditions.

Symbols give rise to reflection.  But the reflection is hermeneutical, interpretative, not systematic.  While systematic thought starts from first principles and proceeds according to a rigorous logical method, hermeneutical thought depends on the experiential context - both person/community and the life-reality - of the interpreter(s).  Its claim is not to abstract universality and objectivity, but to relevance.  There is also room for pluralism, not only because interpreters and their contexts can differ, but also because symbols themselves tend to be polyvalent.  The multiple references and allusions of a symbol can be sources of enrichment.  Starting from one’s experience one is also freed from the burden of questions and answers that may have arisen in a different cultural and experiential context.

The normative point of unity is of course the primordial experience as lived in the faith of the community.  But this unity is a dynamic one, experienced in the dialogical interplay of a variety of experiences, symbols and interpretations.  Reflection based on experience and symbol can also integrate the popular and elite components in a given community’s faith experience.  One needs to contemplate a symbol before reflecting over it.

It is in the background of this methodology that I would like to evoke some images and symbols for Christ in contemporary Indian experience.  My evocation is in the context of the Christian community in India.  But I am prescinding from a comparative, even a dialogical perspective - unless one can talk of an interior dialogue between two or more traditions that have been inherited by the community.  My intention is not to be exhaustive, but indicative.  I propose today for our contemplation and reflection four symbols: the Guru, the Mother,  the Dancer and the Avatara..

Jesus, the Guru

The Guru in Indian tradition is the master, the guide, the teacher, the initiator.   He can  speak about God because he has himself experienced him.  He can show the way to God-realization because he has walked along that way and has arrived.  He teaches not so much in a multiplicity of words, but more often through example.  Silence can be a powerful way of communication too.  He does not communicate mere knowledge, but facilitates an experience.  His guidance is adapted to the needs and capacities  of the disciple.

In Indian tradition, since every human person is potentially divine or is capable of union with the divine, the Guru is some one who has realized such unity with the divine.  That is why  gurus, even while alive and when they are dead, become objects of  worship.  In the tradition of the worshipers of Shiva (Saiva Sidddhanta)  God himself comes in the form of the Guru when the disciple is ready, after a period of ascetical preparation, for guidance and initiation to the path of ultimate realization and union.  Relationship to a Guru is a very personal one, that transcends structures of any kind.

Not only Hindus, but many Christians have seen Jesus as their Guru.  To indicate his uniqueness as the way to God they call him the Sadguru -  the True Guru. One could say that he alone has all the qualities that are characteristic of a guru.

In the Gospels Jesus calls himself the Way. (John 14:6)  He speaks of God from his personal experience of oneness with God. (John 3:31-32)  He alone has seen the Father.  He invites the disciples to share the unity of life that he has with the Father.(John 6:57; 17:21)  But they have to follow the way of the Cross that he himself has trod, (Mark 8:34-35) dying and rising with him.  (Romans 6:4)  He is more than a teacher or master or prophet in the tradition of Israel.

To see Jesus as the Guru is to think of Christian life as a discipleship, that focuses not merely on knowledge, but on life and experience.  Union with God is mediated through a deep personal relationship with Jesus,  The experience of Jesus as the Sadguru does not necessarily do away with the need of usefulness of other human gurus, but radically relativizes their role.

Jesus, the Dancer

One of the best known symbols of God in Indian  religious tradition is that ofNataraja, the King of the dancers.   The dance is symbolic of the divine activity of creation, destruction and re-creation in the cosmos.  Dance is the symbol of dynamism, of joy, of creativity, of fulfillment.  The cosmic dance is seen also as a victory over the principle of evil and over the inertia of matter.  Indian tradition underlines the gratuity of God’s creative action by seeing it as lila - play.  It evokes imagination, inventiveness, spontaneity, and constant newness.

A contemporary Christian artist, Jyoti Sahi, has often portrayed the risen Christ as a dancing Christ..   I think that there is a profound intuition and intention here.  A certain tradition in Christianity tends to focus on sin and suffering and on the image of the suffering Christ.  Our experience of suffering and need for forgiveness is real.  But the real message of Jesus is the joy and hope of the irruption of the Reign of God in his own person, especially symbolized by his resurrection.

The dancing Christ is therefore a symbol of hope that challenges us to creative newness, to collaborate with God who is making all things new.  (Rev. 21:5)   It is an invitation to participate in the creativity of the Spirit, (Rom. 8)   Christ is indeed at the head of a cosmic movement that leads to a recreation of all things, in the heart of God’s own being and life. (1Cor. 15:28)  The goal of life is this communion of all in God which is the source of unbounded joy - ananda.  Dance is the symbol and expression of this joy.

Dance is also the symbol of integration.  Sacred dance is the primordial liturgical activity of tribal groups.  It not only unites a community of people in the dynamism of rhythm and movement.  It is also a unity of melody, rhythm and meaning, thus mediating and realizing the integration of the body, the mind and the emotions.  the dancing Christ is therefore the symbol of wholeness, of hope, of joy, of the fullness of life.

Jesus, the Mother

I have referred above to two Indian Christian poets who have experienced Jesus as mother.  This is not a common symbol for Jesus, though even in European tradition Juliana of Norwich has called Jesus ‘mother’.

Contemporary feminist movements tend to speak of the femininity in God, who is Father and Mother.  Sometimes one also speaks of the Spirit in the Trinity as the feminine principle.  To speak of Jesus as mother may be unhistorical.  But symbols transcend history.  Motherhood seems the best symbol to point to Jesus as the compassionate one.

Jesus is God with us - Emmanuel.  He is the human face of God, but of a humanity that is poor, suffering and oppressed.  But God becomes human in Jesus, not simply to identify himself with our suffering, but to bring about a transformation.  But death precedes the resurrection and Jesus dies with us.  This is really the measure of his compassion, which literally means suffering with.  There is no other adequate human symbol for this except the Mother with her suffering child.

In Indian tradition the Mother Goddess is a complex symbol: of origins and roots, of wisdom and wealth, of power and dynamism, of victory over evil, of grace and tenderness, of healing.  Even in Buddhism, by the side of the image of the Buddha in interiorizing contemplation, his compassion is  symbolized by the Goddess of Mercy.  The ‘mother’ symbol is not a sexual one, but highlights certain aspects of the mystery of God in relation to us.

In Christian tradition, Mary, the mother of Jesus, has become the symbol of God’s compassion, especially in popular piety.  However the compassion of Jesus comes alive in two other symbolic mediations.  One is the symbol of the Heart of Jesus, a symbol of suffering love and compassion.  It may be significant that the Sacred Heart is probably the most popular image of Jesus in India, even among the Hindus.  The other symbol of the life-giving compassion of Jesus is the Eucharist: the symbol of love and self-gift, of sacrifice and sharing, of life and communion in body and blood.

Jesus, the Avatara

The final image of Jesus that I wish to evoke today is that of Jesus as the  avatara.  Avatara literally means ‘descent’, but is popularly used to refer to the manifestation of God in human form.  Technically it does not have the same meaning as the incarnation, which means becoming human and not merely taking on a human form.

But such differences of meaning are not adverted to in popular devotion and the term avatara is used to mean incarnation in some of the  Indian languages - in Tamil, for example.  However, I am not using the term  avatara in its technical sense, but as a symbol, as it is often lived at a  popular level, whether Hindu or Christian.

God becomes an avatara, not only to be near us and to share our human condition with its suffering, but rather to liberate us.  As we have seen in the text from theBhagavad Gita that I have cited above, the historical context of the avatara  is a world where there is an ongoing conflict between Good and Evil, in which Evil seems to be dominant.  God then intervenes as the  Saviour, to liberate the world from Evil and to re-establish  dharma or right order.  Thus liberation is not an alienation so that one is rescued from an evil world, but a rectification in which the moral order is restored.  God appears as the guarantor of the moral order.

The image of the avatara also recognizes the reality of conflict and the need to struggle.  Dharma is not something given.  One has to fight for it.  But the image of Jesus as avatara highlights the need for this conflict to be non-violent.  Englobing love, for God and the others and for right order (righteousness of justice in Biblical terminology) is the context of the inevitable struggle and opts for creative, not passive, non-violence.  The means are not justified by the end, but must be in consonance with it.  Perhaps the person who understood this Christian perspective best and practised it was Mahatma Gandhi.  His roots in Indian tradition certainly helped him to understand more deeply and follow Jesus, the supreme satyagrahi.


One could further multiply symbols.  One could speak of Jesus, the perfect Yogi, for instance.   But that is not necessary for my purpose here.  I hope to have shown that symbols rise out of faith experience in the context of life-situations in a particular culture and tradition.  These symbols lead to reflection.  More even than that, they motivate and inspire us to action.  Thus symbols not only give us an insight into the mystery of God, the humans and the world, but mediate the integration of history into the mystery that God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ. (Eph. 1: 3-14)