P. Solomon Raj


Christus bei den Flüchtlingen von BangladeshP. Solomon Raj: 
Images in the Bible and
How the Church in India had made Use of
the Cultural Iconographic Symbols in it's
Communication of the Gospel

The Eastern Orthodox Church and its use of Symbols

Until I made a brief study of the eastern orthodox iconography I did not realize that the Byzantine artists made such an important ad profuse use of symbols to express great doctrines of their faith. The three stars on the image of Mary to indicate her thrice virginity, the adult robes of baby Christ as he sits on the lap of his mother to suggest his pre-incarnate existence, the thumb and first finger joined together as he gives his blessing as an expression of his two natures, divine and human and many more symbols are used by the Greek iconographers. It is a wonderful process of election and variation of existing symbols and making also some new symbols. No wonder that the Greek Orthodox Church has called these icons the windows to heaven.

Indian Church and its use of Cultural symbols.

Jesus, der LehrerNow we consider what the church in India has done with the Indian cultural symbols. Like in all cultures where the Gospel went in the world there was always an encounter between the Gospel and the host culture. But the Indian church was always a little hesitant to use the local cultural idiom whether it is in the song dance and drama or with the pictures. The Gospel has been brought to us in a western pot and we did not break the pot to let the Gospel plant grow in Indian soil. Some one has said that the Indian Church has not offered even a decent heresy to the universal church. Our hymns are translations of the western hymns sung to western tunes, our creeds and liturgies are carbon copies of their western counterparts, and R.S. Boyd has called this the Latin captivity of the Indian Church (see R.S. Boyd, Indian Church and Latin Captivity). 

Our fear has been that of syncretism. Indian symbols, images and cultural expressions to us are all Hindu. We do not see the symbol of light and joy in the festival of Deepavali, we quickly think of the demon killed by Hindu Gods. But these myths and archetypes, like the myth of the flood, coexisted in several cultures and we never gave our meaning to some of these Indian symbols. ALL this to us is Hindu and 'heathen'. It is not unfair to say that some of the older missionaries who came from puritanical background had no time to study the Indian culture to see what is good in it. The Lotus for example, is a wonderful symbol for new life, Asathoma Sadgamaya: „Lord, lead me from darkness into light, from untruth into truth and from death into life.” I had not problem to use the lotus symbol in my pictures.

The „Church of Resurrection“ in Germany had asked me to create a picture for their altar on the theme of Resurrection. I made a picture including Lotus and preached on the 30th anniversary of this parish. This was accepted with joy as shared from another culture. The Hastha mudras or hand gestures of Hindu iconography are excellent to express „Our faith in Christ“, „He is the comforter and he is the giver of the gift of eternal life“. 

Our problem in this respect was on two counts - one were the already mentioned older missionaries who had no idea of an openness to our culture, and the other problem is that we Christians in India are still living centuries behind times, and we think we are conservative. Fortunately there is a happy change coming. One scholar has discovered that the Lotus idea has become almost Christian now for what it signifies (Daniel Johnson Flemming, Christian Symbols in a World Community. Friendship Press New York). Many schools and colleges in India have the Lotus in their logo: 

  • The Dornakal Cathedral, which owes its inspiration to Bishop Azariah, has banana flowers at the top of its pillars. 
  • The logo of the Church of South India has Lotus prominently in it. 
  • Artists like Jyothi Sahi, Fonseco have tried inculturation with symbols. When Jyothi Sahi made Christ figure as dancing on the tree, our fellow Christians have said it is Hindu and they see Shiva and not Christ. But thanks to Sydney Carter’s Hymn of the dancing Christ the idea is not too objectionable now. 

When I made once the Christ image with a third eye on the forehead even our Christian intellectuals did not see that I am speaking about the all seeing eye of the cosmic Christ. Once I made the Gospel story in Indian dance form with Hindu girls most willingly dancing away the deep messages of the Gospel. But my church people saw the most unacceptable idiom in that. They thought that the dance is not biblical, and unbaptised girls have no right to tell the story especially in dance, which is all Hindu temple-related and associated with temple prostitutes. Many of my people do not know that the tunes to some of the best Western church hymns we sing come from pubs and dance houses.


Symbols will stay with us as tools of communication along with the spoken word and the written word. We can not exist without symbols of one kind or another. One may even say that symbols will one day replace all languages, certainly replace the printed page monopoly in course of time. Symbol language by definition is a hidden language but for the same reason it is also an open language of liberation and freedom. A symbol speaks different things to different people, which should be the same truth viewed from different angles. If one day humanity speaks one single language, that will be the symbol language reversing the curse of Babel. Then may of our communications problems will be solved and I think it will be a picture language like the hieroglyphics of the old Egypt.

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Copyright & Impressum  Dr. P. Solomon Raj, 1999-2007;  Web-Design:  Gerhard Ruediger  07.09.2007