“Jesus in Asia” by RS Sugirtharajah


East is East, and West is West, but the twain did meet and influenced each other unpredictably. For instance, the post-colonial Asia encountered Christianity during its first interactions with the West. The fruit of such a meeting is the post-colonial religion that is practiced in different parts of the continent as Christianity. Jesus is a protagonist of the stories of transformation of thought and practice of the religion in Asia.

In his book Jesus in Asia, RS Sugirtharajah explains how these metamorphoses came to be. With the help of key texts from several thinkers in India, China, Korea and Japan, Sugirtharajah discusses how Jesus took on several attributes that would seem alien to Europe and the rest of the Christian world. What is common to these Asian texts is the way the authors interpret and reconstruct Jesus’s life to respond to their regional crises and concerns. It is admirable that Sugirtharajah brings together these Asian voices in his book because “these situationally based articulations were dismissed by Western scholars as culture-specific, gender and racially biased, and confessional and mission oriented.” These regionally rooted takes on Jesus, his life, thought and “work” have been up for all kinds of appropriations. Sugirtharajah’s book provides glimpses of that course in three domains—politics, economic hardships and spirituality. These overlap in several places but are good to work with for a quick overview.

Hong Xiuquan, the leader of the nineteenth-century Taiping rebellion in China, imagined Jesus as “a shadowy and a darker figure who slays demons, curses people, and orders the execution of those who fail to uphold right ideals and conduct.” Ahn Byung Mu, the pioneer of Korean minjung theology, saw Jesus as a collective event, as a Messiah of the minjung or the oppressed, poor masses. His interpretation is situated in the dictatorship of the 1970s, connecting the struggle of the common people in his place and time with the suffering of Christ. Christianity has been used to fight oppression and anti-colonial activity equated with the exercise of driving Satan away. However, not all commentaries on Jesus’s life were positive or accepting. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Indian reformers Kahan Chandra Varma and Dhirendranath Chowdhuri argued that Jesus was a literary creation, not a historic figure, developed out of ancient Greek and Roman myths; their aim was “to attack the historicity of Jesus and confute claims for the supremacy of the Christian message”—the message that came accompanied the justification of colonization.

For the Church of the East missionaries, the Nestorians, whose presence in China  can be traced to as far back as seventh century, Jesus was “a teacher of wisdom, concerned with a larger humanity, rather than one who confines himself to the limited interest of the Jewish people.” The eighth-century Nestorian monument, a stele erected near Zhouzhi in China, and the texts of the Jesus Sutras, depict Jesus as an eclectic figure drawing from the teachings of Confucius, Buddha and Tao to relate Jesus to the Chinese context.

The Sri Lankan Hindu thinker Ponnambalam Ramanathan portrayed Jesus in the light of Tamil Saivism. Manilal Parekh, the convert from the Indian religion Jainism, saw in the Cross an expression of the Jain principle of sacrificing the self for the others. Former Indian President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan “projected a Jesus who basically embodied the spirit of the Vedanta,” the ancient Hindu thought. The Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo sought


to redesign the Christian faith so that it fits more like a Japanese kimono than the Christianity that … came in the form of ill-fitting Western garb.


He envisions Jesus not as “the patriarchal figure who came with the padres, but one who catered to Japanese sentiment, which understood the motherly, not the fatherly, love of God.”

With the exception of the Indian reformers who had an anti-Christian agenda, and the Portuguese Jesuit Jerome Xavier who wanted to convert the Mughal Emperor Akbar, these Asian thinkers wanted to “extricate Jesus from his historical moorings so that he could live at any time, including in the present.” Sugirtharajah sees these Asian thinkers and the Asians they could be seen as representing as “a colonized people, when faced with defamation and humiliation, can summon and enlist indigenous resources to resist the colonizer from an alternate center, a center that has a different set of rules and is not itself easily neutered or co-opted.” What emerges is a series of Jesuses—an amalgamation of Buddha, Tao and Confucius, a motherly figure, a champion of the minjung, a Jain pilgrim and a Hindu mystic, to name a few.


Jesus in Asia, RS Sugirtharajah (Havard University Press, February 2018)
Jesus in Asia, RS Sugirtharajah (Harvard University Press, February 2018)

The reasons behind such transpositions are not very difficult to imagine. What Sugirtharajah points out for the Church of the East easily applies to all the other contexts: that Asia had rich and erudite culture, literature, and intellectual debates and complex religious practices. Asians were “underwhelmed” with the Christian worldview. The reinterpretative  exercises that emerged after initial skepticism and resistance comprise some of the texts that Sugirtharajah documents. The premise behind such makeovers is that


Christianity was essentially an Eastern religion that had been gradually taken over and infused with the Western muscular spirit. They emphasized Christianity’s Eastern orientation in order to show that Dharmic religions like Hinduism or Buddhism were not in any way inferior to the biblical religion.


Once again, the East and the West did meet. In the sphere of religion, one of the results was an attempt to de-literalize and personalize Christianity for Asian ways of being. Sugirtharajah brings these texts together because he sees a common thread in what the thinkers behind them sought to do:


They did not approach the text with the heavy artillery of historical criticism, though some of them were familiar with it. Nor did they use the well-tested criteria that Western scholars  routinely employ to assess the accuracy of the stories and sayings of Jesus, such as “multiple corroboration,” “criterion of dissimilarity,” “criterion of coherence,” or “criterion of coherence” or “criterion of multiple attestation.” Instead what they often used was an unspoken criterion—”continental self-reference”—an intentional, deliberate, and dignified method of self-discovery and decolonisation in the face of colonial degradation. Asia was their anchoring point for the correction or removal of the West’s negative perception of indigenous culture. They unearthed and rediscovered Asia’s spiritual treasures as an anti-colonial strategy, approving some for their own purposes and rejecting others. They reflectively used the continent’s cultural resources, at times essentializing them as an instrument of mediation and thus declining to recognise the inferior role assigned to them by some missionaries and orientalists. Their articulations can be seen as a notable early attempt at “provincializing Europe” and a rejection of the notion that only the West can prove the pathways to understanding Jesus. These Asian thinkers demanded a different foundation for faith than history, logic, and neutrality.”


These perspectives on Christianity are of immense value in this century, especially in India because, like Muslims, Christians are sidelined as outsiders and often viewed with suspicion. Bringing such texts together changes the way Christians are framed here. Instead of dismissing Christianity as an alien religion and practice, Sugirtharajah shows that Christianity has become Indian because the Indians have questioned its tenets rigorously, and adapted it to regional sensibilities.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.