Memorial Lecture on ‘Archbishop Mar Gregorios: His Vision and Contributions to Social Development and Secularism in India.’ at the Vatican Oct 17, 2015
Your Beatitude Mar George Cardinal Alamchery,
Your Eminence Leonardo Cardinal Sandri, Representative of HH the Pope,
Your Beatitude Mar Baselios Cardinal Cleemis,
Brothers and Sisters,
I am here on a pilgrimage to one of the holiest of holy places, as desired by His Beatitude Baselios Cardinal Cleemis Catholicos. I consider myself doubly blessed that this pilgrimage is to pay a tribute to Archbishop Benedict Mar Gregorios, who touched my life in many different ways. I have been a beneficiary of his vision and his contributions to social development, particularly education, and secularism in India.
Archbishop Mar Gregorios gave me my first ever employment in the Mar Ivanios College, of which he was the Patron, and gave me my first pay check. It was there that I met my bride and married her with his blessings. When I embarked on my Foreign Service career, he gifted me a fountain pen “to make peace, not war”, which is one of my prized possessions even today. My close association with the Malankara Syrian Catholic Church and the Mar Ivanios Institutions continues till today.
The birth centenary of Archbishop Mar Gregorios has coincided with the period that His Holiness the Pope has dedicated to the great souls of the Catholic Church and it is in this context that we remember him today. This commemoration also coincides with the historic synod at which the church is looking at the kind of issues that Mar Gregorios grappled with in the past. As a worthy successor to Archbishop Mar Ivanios, who led a congregation of Christians to return to the fold of the Catholic Church, Archbishop Mar Gregorios has made a great contribution to the international Catholic Community. But my topic today is not his spiritual attainments, but his vision of a prosperous and secular India and his personal contributions to bring it about. The ultimate objectives of his prayers, love and sacrifice were for the good of the human kind.
Secularism in any individual depends on how strong his faith is in his own religion, because every religion teaches tolerance, brotherhood and love. Fundamentalism and obscurantism drive people away from the roots of their religions and alienate them from the one God that every religion expects us to worship. In the case of Archbishop Mar Gregorios, secularism was fundamental to his faith and commitment to Christianity.
In Kerala, we take pride in the fact that Indians embraced Christianity long before Europe did. We welcomed every civilization and every religion, as we discovered that none of them contradicted the basic concept of “Vasudhaiva Kudumbakam” (The whole world is a family) The Indian way of life, named Hinduism, was enriched rather than diluted by the waves of thoughts that came to our shores.
Archbishop Mar Gregorios belonged to the “Sannyasin” or ascetic order of the Malankara Church, which followed in letter and spirit the words of the Bhagavad Gita, “One who is unattached to the fruits of his work and who works as he is obligated is in the renounced order of life, and he is the true mystic: not he who lights no fire and performs no work.” While many Hindus saw “Sannyas” as the last of the four age based stages of life, namely, Brahmacharya (student) Grihasthasrama (householder), Vanaprastha (retired) and Sannyas (renunciation), the Bedhany Ashram founded by Mar Ivanios went from “Brahmacharya” to “Sannyas” and the Mar Gregorian thought transformed “Sannyas” from a period of introspection and meditation into a period of action in the service of the Lord.
Steeped in the history and culture of India, symbolized in the ochre robe he wore, Mar Gregorios did not consider Christianity to be alien to the land he belonged to. The land where he was born and chose as his sphere of activity shaped his life as much as his Christian thought. Secularism, therefore, was an integral part of the Gregorian way of life. His life was that of a “Karma Yogi” envisaged in the Gita and the Upanishads. More than tolerance of other religions and faiths, he integrated them into his own faith and way of life.
Even in societies, in which secularism and freedom of expression are guaranteed, it is possible to have frictions arising out of a sense of offence caused by different religious beliefs and practices. On occasions, such a feeling of offence, whether real or imaginary, erupts into conflicts and violence. Mar Gregorios not only condemned such tendencies, but also stepped in to smoothen the feathers in his own inimitable manner and restored peace and harmony. It was not in his nature to tolerate violence and bloodshed. He directly intervened in some of the communal conflicts in and around Trivandrum and succeeded in bringing the communities together again. His secular credentials were such that his opinion was respected by every community. No wonder the former President of India, Mr.K.R.Narayanan, characterized him as the symbol of secularism in India.
Secularism for him was not just a matter of religion. As the salt of the earth and light of the world, his compassion and love were not confined to any particular section of the people. He believed that, like Jesus Christ, the Buddha, Gandhi and Narayana Guru and many others, his mission was to wipe every tear from every eye. His vision was to eradicate poverty, hunger and disease from the face of the earth, which led to his sustainable development agenda. He used his own hands to plough the land and to sow the seeds. Fifty years ago he spoke and worked like His Holiness Pope Francis does today. He came down to the people, worked with them in every area of development and introduced a new culture of service of the poor as the service of the Lord.
Education was a vocation he loved and embellished. Teaching came natural to him. As a teacher and Principal of Mar Ivanios College, he built a first rate institution which continues to be a model for private public participation. He built several new institutions, beginning with kindergartens to higher education, including technical and vocational programmes. He introduced skills development in education, which has now become a national priority. He saw education as integral to the development of the soul and body and as a resource to find solutions to the problems of the society and to make life meaningful, noble and purposeful. Like Narayana Guru, he gave attention to the head, the heart and the hand in his educational endeavors. He stressed the need for education to change with the times and to use the most modern teaching methodologies and technology. His contribution to liberate education from political interference, corruption and indiscipline is of equal significance.
In my current efforts to reform higher education in Kerala, I am inspired by the Gregorian concept of education as the tool for nation building. The beginnings he made in making education an instrument of social change can be seen in the educational institutions he built. Many years before the IT revolution, he introduced technology-based education. He saw skil development as one of the essential components of education and demonstrated how to build a holistic education system. When the Oommen Chandy Government created autonomous Colleges in Kerala for the first time in history, the Mar Ivanios College was one of the first to be selected as it met all the criteria stipulated by the University Grants Commission for conferring autonomy. He had introduced many reforms in higher education, which we see today as the integral part of an education for the twenty first century.
As a trained economist, his focus was on planning and development of every sector. He saw the linkage between knowledge and environment when the awareness of the need for environmental protection was non-existent in education. His attention turned to farming, not just as a means of providing livelihood to people, but as restoring ecological balance. His constant quest was for new trees and plants wherever he went and he brought seedlings of rare trees from as far away as the United States and popularized them in the villages of Kerala. In his scheme of sustainable development, education, agriculture, industry and trade were equally important and he considered them as part of his mission in the service of God.
Science was very much a part of religion for the Archbishop. Nature was his laboratory and he brought in the most modern scientific techniques In horticulture, fisheries, sericulture and others. Low cost housing was a passion for him and he discovered the genius of Laurie Baker, who brought in innovative housing, which adorns Kerala today. He inspired a new generation of architects who cared for the environment and maximized the blessings of the Kerala climate in affordable dwelling units.
The industrial units he set up provided jobs for the poor, particularly women and opened new frontiers of production and export. He discovered the potential of the garment industry long before India developed textiles as a major export under the facilities opened up by the World Trade Organisation. Every activity for sustainable and holistic development was part of his development agenda, which enriched the educational, scientific, agricultural, industrial, and commercial fields in Kerala and provided a model to the rest of India.
To encapsulate the multifaceted genius and the veritable rainbow of activities of Archbishop Mar Gregorios is no easy task. An enlightened spiritual leader, an embodiment of secularism and Indian culture, a practical economist, an outstanding educationist, a modern agriculturist, an innovative entrepreneur, a compassionate healer, an eminent linguist and a perfect human being, he defies all definitions. In my view, he should be remembered as a Karma Yogi, who gave a new meaning to renunciation and priesthood. In his own words, “Priests are not mere worshippers of God. They are committed to convey the grandeur of God to all creations and to bring them closer to the Almighty. A man, who lives a full life in the service of God is a gift from God.” We should be grateful to God for giving such a gift to us in the person of Archbishop Mar Gregorios, who gave us his love in abundance and enriched our lives. We are fortunate to have seen his life and work. Future generations will scarcely believe that one person has accomplished so much in one lifetime.