Returning to India’s Religious Mix: Ph.D. Student Heads Home
by Kent Annan
“I’ve always liked being part of the learning process,” says Vazhayil Sakariah Varughese, PTS Ph.D. candidate in the history of religions program, “because I’m always encountering something new—new groups of people, new ideas. I also like to study other religions, because there’s always the possibility of a
Vazhayil Sakariah Varughese
During college at the University of Kerala in South India, Varughese majored in chemistry and thought his anticipated teaching vocation would involve chemical compounds and the elements of the periodic table. Instead it will focus on the world’s religions. As reason for this change, Varughese cites the death of his brother, Vazhayil Thomas. When Varughese was in college, Thomas was a missionary in Bihar, a remote part of northern India that was too far from adequate healthcare to save his life when he became ill. “It became a challenge for me,” says Varughese, “to carry on that line of ministry.”
So after completing a B.S. in chemistry, he earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theology before being sent by the Mar Thoma Church to Princeton, where he earned a Th.M. and is completing his fourth year of Ph.D. work. He hopes to finish his dissertation before returning with his wife, Gigi, to India in the summer. His time in Princeton has been enjoyable. And though he is far from his small village of Kidangannur in central Kerala, Varughese has found reminders of home on Princeton’s main street.
“I like walking on Nassau Street and in Palmer Square,” he says. “It reminds me of my village. Growing up, we used to go to the main street there and spend many hours. I also like sitting on Nassau Street and watching people. It’s an informal education, to see how people behave in an open cultural space. The way they act in public reflects their cultures.”
This interest in cultures is also reflected in Varughese’s dissertation, which focuses on how Christian missionaries affected the culture of Dalits (the lowest caste in India) in Kerala and their emancipation struggle from 1870 to 1940. Their story is interesting, he says, because “the Christian mission gave the epistemology that provided the basis for the Dalits’ reassertion of their identity, but the Dalits didn’t all become Christian. They instead created their own identity and moved out of the ‘untouchable’ identity that was forced on them.”
Varughese’s academic work will likely lead to his appointment as a professor in a seminary in southern India on his return. The placement is up to his denomination—the
Mar Thoma Church, which claims its roots in the first-century missionary work of the Apostle Thomas and which has a unique blend of “an East Syriac tradition and a Protestant missionary outlook.”
But even if placed in the academy, he will stay in close contact with the local
church. After seven years in the academy, all Mar Thoma professors must then spend at least three years in the parish before returning to teaching ministry. “In the academy, you are teaching future ministers,” he says, “so you need contextual knowledge. Also, local parishes need academics to bring their perspectives to congregations. We want a constant dialogue between the academy and the church. Otherwise, we might create an elite culture in the academy, and then the students we train won’t be ready to minister in the parish.”
Contextual knowledge crucial to both academics and parish ministers in India includes understanding both religious diversity and fundamentalism.
Fundamentalism (Hindu, Muslim, Christian, etc.), as in many parts of the world, has been on the rise in India in recent years. Varughese says this fundamentalism is characterized by exclusive claims, an idealized self-understanding alongside the reinvention of a glorious past, a positioning of oneself over and against “the other,” a consideration of “the other” as a threat, and a fear of the cultural disorganization that comes from change and outside influences.
He hopes to help students understand and respond positively to the challenges of this religious landscape they will minister in.
“The basic thing I want to stress to my students is a view of inclusive pluralism,” he says. “Pluralism is a gift from God. Diversity is part of the created order, part of its strength. We should seek to understand other religions, and then give to the community the best of our own religion—without falling into syncretism. I want my students to open themselves to other religions, learn the ethos of other religions, and understand how that is different from fundamentalism.”
A sort of chemistry, then, Varughese will end up teaching after all: how to combine the various combustible elements of religion without yielding explosive results.