In the second part of her interview, the eloquent and elegant Mary Suresh Iyer, a Christian by birth, shares her challenging journey towards embracing Hindu/Sanatana Dharma. She candidly admits that while it was a transition fraught with risks, challenges and uncertainty, she finally has found her peace as a practising Hindu/Sanatani.
Q. How is evangelical Christianity different from denominational Christianity?
A: Evangelical Christianity is more radical, fundamentalist and cultish. It is agenda-driven because one wants to keep people in a certain frame of mind where you can easily mould their thinking. Evangelical Christianity is an expansionist movement that gains foothold by mass proselytisation and forced conversions. While denominational Christianity is also evangelical, currently, they have come to a stage where they do it indirectly through other systems such as education and healthcare. Thus, they have fronts to do it.
But evangelical Christianity is totally different. In denominational Christianity, only designated people such as pastors, priests and nuns are given the right to preach. However, in the evangelical movement, even a five-year-old child is a potential converter! Everyone is trained in the thought process of conversion and hence describe themselves as laymen evangelicals! Every single church member of an evangelical church is on an agenda to convert more people! That’s the agenda!
Q. Your marriage to Suresh Iyer “set the church on fire.” Could you explain the repercussions?
A: My father had always wanted to become a full time Christian pastor. He wanted to give up his career and devote himself wholly to leading a church. Hence after I graduated, he relocated to a small remote town in coastal Andhra. From a vibrant city life to small town, I lost my physical connection to my friend Savitha. Savitha was also worried that the remote posting would deprive me of higher education.
As was her concern that my parents would get me forcibly married to a church person of their choice! She would openly voice her concerns to me and even my parents! When my parents reassured her that such a thing would never happens, she told them that they could get me married only after she personally approves the choice of the groom!
I had enrolled for my Master’s in Human Resource Management at Kakatiya University, Warangal, and travelled often to Hyderabad on project work. I began to spend more time with Savitha’s family. However, Suresh was away elsewhere on work and so I heard more about him than actually heard or saw him! However, Savitha’s tragic death in an accident was a turning point in my life. I came to condole Suresh on his sister’s death. Something clicked between us and a few months later, we were married.
Around this time, I was openly voicing my displeasure against the church, I was angry with my father of having displaced us from Hyderabad. I refused to participate in church-related activities. However, not attending church was not even an option as that is hard wired into us! But I persisted with my silent protest and withdrew from participating in cultural activities associated with the church.
Meanwhile, my father’s younger brother, one of the saner voices of the church, broached the idea of getting me married as there were several suitable boys he knew. However, my father, who was by now a pastor in the church, believed that it was the prerogative of the church elders to decide my marriage!
My mental dissociation from the church was already taking place. Savitha’s untimely death and my radical marriage created the caricature that I was unhappy with the church and therefore my marriage was an act of rebellion against the church. The church saw it as a war I had declared against the institution by getting married to a Hindu! However, it was mostly circumstantial. It was just not my marriage to a Hindu that bothered the church. I have a natural ability to influence people because of my ability to articulate and my different perspectives on various issues. Hence the church was afraid that many other girls would try to imitate me!
Parents with daughters of my age (I was 23 years when I got married) told the church elders that they had to step in and organise the marriages (the church believed that girls must get married only when they are 28 or 30 years!) or else they would marry out of religion! My marriage set the church on fire because it upset their expansionist plans. Every educated boy or girl is a potential ally, who would then undergo evangelical training and plant churches across the country! At that point I had my Master’s and so was a potential earning member who could find a job anywhere.
Layman’s Evangelical Fellowship ( the church to which we belonged) had a training centre for pastors to become effective church planters. A girl like me, professionally qualified, was an ideal target for the church. They saw me as a potential provider who would ensure that food was on the table, and thus freed the partner to proselytise! In addition, if the church also trained me well, together we could build a church! Hence the church was upset because the modus operandi was sabotaged.
The evangelical church’s diktat was that a girl could marry only within the evangelical community. Marriages with other Christian denominations were also a definite no-no! It was only when I married Suresh I released I was with so much more than what the church had planned for me! Suresh was highly qualified. He was an engineer from REC, Trichy and a management graduate from, IIM, Lucknow.
In many ways, my marriage to Suresh set the bar very high for other Christian girls from the evangelical church. It opened their eyes to several possibilities and not just settling for what the church offered you! Parents began to openly ask, “If Mary can marry such a nice boy, why should our daughters marry a stupid evangelist?” Hence several people left the church. It caused considerable churning in the church and marriage was the reason for people to leave the church.
The church lost its stranglehold on marriages of its followers and the ones they presided over with compulsion did not last. Until my marriage, people unquestioningly followed the church’s compulsion. For instance, even when there were issues in the marriage, the church would normalise it because the partners were doing the work of God! My marriage, and the harmony it generated, emboldened parents to look for suitable alliances for their daughters outside the evangelical church.
Q. How did your family react to the marriage, given that the church exerted such a stranglehold on the lives of its believers?
A: Until my marriage, we were an integral part of the church. The elders in my family, converted by my father, were very subdued regarding their opinions on the church. When I got married, except my immediate family, no one else knew. My extended family acknowledged that my father was sold out to the evangelical church. Yet when they heard of my unconventional marriage, they said that they would have found a “good” Christian boy outside the evangelical church!
Ironically, my father himself had conducted the weddings of his nieces and nephews. Yet when it came to his own daughter’s wedding, he experimented and outsourced the responsibility to the church! I don’t know how he normalised all this nonsense. I found this difficult to come to terms with.
However, when my immediate and extended family met Suresh they were overwhelmed. They said to me and particularly my dad, “What the hell is wrong with you? Do you think you could have got a better boy than this?” They assertively told my father that the marriage must be conducted at any cost. When my father confessed that the church would object, that’s when they realised how deeply entrenched he was in the church. Until then he had never permitted his brothers to question his involvement with the church. My mother too stood up for me and spoke about how the church had circumscribed and controlled her life too. That was another eye opener for the family and until then my mother had not spoken openly about it.
My father’s allegiance to the church was absolute. It was easier for him to admit he was helpless. Its not that he didn’t mean well for me. According to him, except for the religion, he had nothing against Suresh! However, this also did not mean that I had his approval, not even tacitly.
Q. How did your parents in law and the extended family react to the news of your marriage? What were some of the challenges you faced and how did you address them?
A: My parents in law were welcoming. Since they knew me earlier, and especially after their daughter’s death, I was an extension of their daughter. In other words, I jumped in and took off from where Savitha left off.
Q. You’ve said that it took you 18 years after marriage to embrace and openly acknowledge your Hindu identity? What were some of the pitfalls and challenges during this journey?
A: Even as a child, I was a natural caretaker because of my father’s attachment to the church. I used to put things together for my mother; her voice in a sense. The church also had its tentacles spread into even areas such as the family’s financial security. For example, even having an insurance policy was a sin! As was building a house! The church rhetoric was, “Why do you need a house? The house has to be built in heaven!” Earthly possessions were regarded as a sin.
Thus, all disposable income was never put aside, for the future. My father was always in a giving mode. Thus, despite his well paid job, we led a pay check to pay check life. The church had an agenda, which they drive through my father, who was the implementer. ‘Is this good for my children or not?’ – that was something he could not even consider. The church gave him a template and he was implementing it in the family. My mother did not have the power and courage to navigate this and hence I was the person who had to always stand up to him for the sake of the family.
Meanwhile, my two younger brothers were growing up and naturally, they looked up to me for career guidance. Suresh was supportive and guided them in making career choices. It was as if the family had acquired a different flavour, so to speak. The intellectual stimulation in the family was now high.
Incidentally, after my marriage, my brothers too dropped off from the church. They had no problems with the marriage as long as we kept up the Christian image. My father began to feel isolated from the family as my brothers preferred to go to Suresh for career guidance. My brothers relocated to the US to work and study. Suresh was a non-ritual person and implementing Hindu traditions was not a non-negotiable for my parents in law. When they visited, they held on to their customs and traditions but never compelled me to abide by them. Even if they wondered why I did not join them for the puja, they never verbalised it.
Whenever my parents visited our home, in our stupidity, we would de-Hinduize our home by removing the vigrahams and putting them away. They even believed that although their son in law is a Hindu, their daughter was slowly converting him! Suresh was easy going and participated in all our family functions. So, I sort of created the image that we were not Hindus and we (Suresh) were on the path of embracing Christianity. However, my parents got on amicably with my in laws. Except for the religion, we were all one big normal functional family where we never worried about the religious difference. However, my father was the only one who had this huge hang up about the religion.
However, after my marriage, the church side-lined my father. He was no longer an active member of the church. However, my family did not give up their allegiance to Christianity as a faith. This went on for several years and there was no reason for any of us to disturb the cart. I too didn’t use obvious Hindu markers such a s wearing a bindi. Hence as long as that didn’t happen (although I was practising Hindu customs), at least I didn’t look like a Hindu.
Q. What then made you decide to openly acknowledge your Hindu identity?
A: This. For my father, as long as I did not openly proclaim my Hindu identity, he was fine. Meanwhile, my father renewed his association with the church. He wanted to leave my mother behind and start the church at another place. That’s when I openly declared war! I began to blog about the unreasonable ways of evangelical Christianity in a widely read blog (http://lefwhistleblower.blogspot.com/) where I also explored their funding patterns and exposed sexual abuse in the church.
However, nobody knew my identity as I write anonymously. In response, several readers told me about how they too had been exploited by the church. Ironically, people thought that I was a Christian trying to revolt against the church and trying to save the institution. Thus, at that point, I decided to come out. At my son’s upanayanam, I finally found the courage to declare openly , “I am done with Christianity!”
Q. What was it like for you when you decided to make a clean break with your Christian past?
A: That was really hard. That’s when I realised my parents and brothers too found it hard to continue with the relationship as before. As long as I fought the individual church, my family was OK. However, when I began to question the wider belief systems and the eco system of Christianity, and my critical writings against the church, that was certainly not OK. It has caused considerable rift within the family and there is a strained formality in our relationship. I was a parent figure for my siblings and now our relationship ruptured. That was a huge price to pay.
Q. Can you describe your coming out of the closet to embrace Sanatana/Hindu Dharma?
A: One part of it was my own internal struggle. As a Christian I was entrenched in the Christian religious belief system that God was someone who was constantly watching over you, checking your rights and wrongs. Any happiness was the result of pleasing God; and misery, because of displeasing God. So, the concept of God as someone who constantly monitors us and has the power to reward or punish us was deep rooted. In other words, God was moral police. ‘Idol worship’ or idolatry is regarded as a cardinal sin in Abrahamic faiths. We were told that ‘idol worship’ was an evil because there is a demon behind every idol.
Murti puja, however, is central to Hindu Dharma. It thus took me several years to break away from my internalised Christian beliefs and permit myself to accept, believe and embrace that Hindu Dharma was also a valid path. I am unable to articulate or rationalize what I went through. However, the fear that you are making the real God unhappy by bringing in these so-called fake Gods was entrenched in my system.
It was a profoundly isolating journey and I had to navigate my own fears. Learning and practising the rituals and traditions of Hindu Dharma was hugely challenging for me. I dealt with this dilemma by exploring and studying philosophy of Hindu Dharma. I read extensively. Suresh and my brother in law (Suresh’s brother) Jayakumar were very supportive too.
For example, if I went to a temple and then fell ill, my internal dialogue would be, “See! The real God is punishing you because you went after a fake God!” It took me several years to bypass these deeply ingrained fears. Despite my ability to articulate and rationalise, it was so hard for me to get past this barrier. Added to this was my fear of being isolated from my family. I’ve found my peace now. But I’ve paid a great price.
Q. What values of sanatana dharma do you resonate most with and why?
A: In Christianity, God is an external figure. The miserable fallen person forever tries to reach out to God, who, however, will look at him only if he chooses. He is somewhere out there. Christianity believes that people are inherently sinful and at birth one is separated from God. Therefore, constantly begging before God is the only way one can lead a virtuous life. Whereas in Hindu dharma, divinity is within you and you recognise the divinity within you; not somewhere outside. Self-realization and attunement with the Divine is a sadhana; a process,; an everyday practice.
Q. Could you tell us about the temple renovation you have undertaken in your ancestral village?
A: Most people believe that Christians in Hindu don’t have a Hindu past. We are believed to be ‘natural’ Christians. There is a conscious strategy on the part of the Christian church to minimise, deny, trivialise or gloss over this important fact. If at all our Hindu past was referred to, it would be in derogatory terms. Therefore, in an attempt to search for my Hindu roots and re-connect with my Hindu heritage, I took up the renovation and consecration of the grama devata (village deity) temple in Malkapuram, my ancestral village in Andhra.
Q. Last but not least, how do you think we can effectively address the left -liberal pseudo secular ethos that is so widespread in the country, even among Hindus/Sanatanis? As a nation, we seem to have no pride in our Sanatani nature and character and instead appease religious minority people!
A: Ironically, the Hindu Dharma view that all paths are legitimate empowers the evangelical Christian missionaries and the Christian ecosystem. For instance, in your mind, you think you are a good Hindu. If someone gives you a Bible and you read it and then the missionaries make a conversion attempt, the knee-jerk Hindu response is, “There’s nothing wrong in it! They are just speaking about God! They are not asking you to do anything wrong! What’s wrong with our religion that I have to follow your God?”
This silence and absence of resistance lends credence to the Christian view point that “Hindus know that their God is fake and that’s why they don’t even stop us!” If an evangelical missionary goes to a temple and distributes Christian pamphlets, the temple priest does not question the person concerned; the devotees don’t stand up to them. “Neither do the Hindus offer resistance nor do their Gods punish the proselytizing missionaries as their God is not powerful,” is the evangelist mindset. Our [ Hindu] tolerance and our lack of confidence in our own ways is seen as our weakness. We, Hindus, therefore have to be unapologetically assertive about our religion.
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