By K.M. Seethi
Paulos Mar Gregorios (1922-1996)—whose centenary falls on 9 August—was a unique spiritual-philosophical luminary. Though heading various spiritual abodes of the Orthodox Christianity of India—one of the largest denominations in the country with nearly 2 million followers—and leading the international fora like the World Council of Churches (WCC), Mar Gregorios was a cosmopolitan in letter and spirit with all traits of a global citizen sustaining an abiding spirit for peace, freedom and wellbeing of humanity. Former Supreme Court of India judge Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer characterised him as “a cultural wonder and global wanderer with a head and heart full of spiritual ware and moral corals.” Iyer wrote, “what brought me closer to him is the crimson spirituality whereby socialism meets with humanism and both blend with the Supreme Light.” Indeed, the intellectual life-world abounds in memories of Mar Gregorios, a great soul of India.
I first met Mar Gregorios nearly forty years ago at a conference in Delhi when he was invited to speak on world peace, apparently after his attending the UN General Assembly Special Sessions on Disarmament. Mar Gregorios was the bishop of the Delhi Diocese at that time, besides holding many positions and responsibilities in India and abroad. It was an amazing experience to interact with him on a variety of subjects, both spiritual and material. My close interaction with him began when he came down to our town in Kottayam, to speak to a small audience of our International Relations students. The School of International Relations of Mahatma Gandhi University at that time was housed in a building in CMS College, one of the oldest colleges in Kerala, which was hardly two kilometres away from the Orthodox Theological Seminary. Mar Gregorios was also officiating as the Principal of the Seminary, and he was instrumental in setting up the Sophia Centre attached to the theological institution. Sophia Centre became an abode of intellectual life in Kottayam and our university’s first national seminar on India’s foreign policy was held at this centre. Mar Gregorios was not only an institution builder but a great inspiration for many movements, inter-faith dialogues and peace conferences. His visits to the University kindled precious thoughts for all disciplines and their votaries as his subjects for discussion and debates ranged from Philosophy, Theology, Literature, and International Relations to Science and Technology.
A humble beginning with a passion for freedom
Mar Gregorios had a difficult time pursuing studies in his younger days. So, he had to take up a journalist position at the younger age of 16, working for the Roman Catholic daily Malabar Mail. Then he spent nearly two years in a transportation and shipping company in Cochin until he joined the Indian Posts and Telegraphs department. It was during this tenure that he became Associate Secretary for Travancore-Cochin of the All-India Posts and Telegraphs Union, and Mar Gregorios helped coordinate a major nationwide strike against the colonial administration. He wrote in his memoirs that as India’s freedom movement was gaining momentum, “Christians were not very enthusiastic about it. The majority among them thought that British imperial rule would be preferable to self-rule. After all, the Colonial Masters were also Christians! I was not persuaded about this point of view.” He further said that as the Quit India Movement erupted on 9 August 1942, he was in Madras and his “patriotism was properly kindled” and he “joined groups of protesting University students in Madras to shout with gusto: ‘John Bull, Quit India, Inquilab Sindabad’ (Urdu for Long Live the Revolution). I even joined college students who were pulling down alarm chains on local trains in order to disrupt traffic… It was exhilarating, but doubly dangerous, because we were supposed to be ‘most obedient servants’ of the British government.” For Mar Gregorios, Mahatma Gandhi was an inspiring personality. He remembered Gandhi as “truly Indian and truly universal, the best specimen of humanity our world has produced in the last couple of centuries.” Moreover, “Gandhi embodied uncompromising integrity with genuine love and compassion for all. He was closer to the poor and suffering masses of India, identified with them in utter simplicity, deeply religious, and politically astute all the same.”
Even as India began experimenting with a long-cherished dream of political independence, Mar Gregorios left the homeland to take up a teaching post in a school in Ethiopia. He wrote that the three years in Ethiopia (1947-1950) taught him “a great deal and the years were eventfilled, turbulent and productive.” He realized at this time that he should attain higher education as his age advanced. Spending four years in the United States (1950-54) was worthwhile as he received his graduate degree (from Goshen College) as well as his master’s degree in Divinity (from Princeton Theological Seminary). He acknowledged that one of his “richest experiences as an Eastern Orthodox layman was serving as Assistant Pastor in two Black Baptist churches in Elkhart, Indiana and Princeton, New Jersey during that first four-year sojourn.” Mar Gregorios returned to India in 1954 and began a new teaching career at the Union Christian College, Aluva, near Kochi. It was at this time that he became active in Student Christian Movement of India.
Meanwhile, in 1956, Ethiopian emperor Haile Sellassie visited India and travelled to different places, including Kerala. Already Mar Gregorios had got into the good book of the emperor while working as a teacher in Ethiopia. Haile Sellassie made considerable effort to take him into his personal staff but Mar Gregorios declined the offer due to his interest in pursuing higher education. Haile Sellassie met him in Kochi and Kottayam, and the Orthodox church was persuaded by the emperor to prevail upon him. Though persistent in his position, notwithstanding pressures from the South Block, Mar Gregorios finally agreed to go to Ethiopia again, this time as Personal Assistant, Liaison Officer with India, and Special Advisor to emperor Haile Sellassie of Ethiopia. He remembers that at the position, he “received many insider’s insights into how a government structure works, though the Ethiopian system was not the most developed.” After three years, he resigned his position and decided to go to Yale University for further studies in theology and philosophy. He later went to Oxford to do D.Phil. He writes: “Though Oxford disappointed me – too staid, too dogmatic, too insular, too pompously unauthentic for my taste,” he had “great teachers there like Michael Polanyi, who initiated me into some of the problems of human knowing and intellectual certainty. My philosophical pilgrimage, which began with an introductory course at Goshen, and had substantially developed at Princeton and Yale, reached a new level of maturity at Oxford. My mind developed by reacting critically to teachers like Gilbert Ryle and Ian Ramsey, Henry Chadwick and R. C. Zahner.” Even as he continued to pursue studies at Oxford, he had an invitation to join the WCC staff in Geneva. According to him, “I had to say … that I found the WCC too uncongenial, as being too western and too Protestant. He then “turned the offer down, politely disclaiming my ability to do what was required, and insisting on my need to complete the studies at Oxford.”
When the Third Assembly of the WCC was held in New Delhi in 1961, Mar Gregorios was invited to be one of the three main Bible Study leaders. He accepted the invitation, and it became “a great occasion” for his entry into the Ecumenical Movement. From 1962 to 1967, he served as Associate General Secretary and Director of the Division of Ecumenical Action. During his tenure, he visited Protestant and Orthodox churches of the World, to serve as an Observer at the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church and to get inside knowledge of the Christian churches of the world. In 1967, he left Geneva to serve as Principal of the Orthodox Theological Seminary in Kottayam, Kerala.
Meanwhile, Mar Gregorios was serving as a member of the Central Committee and of the Executive Committee, Moderator of the Commission on Church and Society (1975-83), and one of its Presidents (1983-91). The WCC delegations to major conferences including the UN General Assembly Special Sessions on Disarmament (1983,1988) were headed by him. This was the time when Mar Gregorios constantly challenged war, apartheid, colonialism and neo-colonialism. He also served as visiting Professor at Denver, Harvard, Wooster, and Princeton. And a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study at Shimla, the vice-president of the Kerala Philosophical Congress, and the president of the Indian Philosophical Congress.
Shepherd of the Poor
Mar Gregorios’s passion for philosophy made him a critical insider in his own church. His life and exposure to the living conditions of the people across the world taught him many lessons. His Love’s Freedom: The Grand Mystery A Spiritual Autobiographyunfolds many such moments and insights. According to him,
In a human person’s life, suffering is the most personal and intimate experience. Descartes definitely took the wrong starting point when he began with his “I think, therefore I am.” For most ordinary people, barring the academics, what they could say would be more like: “I think, therefore I am, I think….” They would lack that Cartesian certainty about their thinking activity, which is easier for thinkers far removed from everyday life. Whereas, if he had started with “I suffer, therefore I am” he would probably have come to quite different conclusions; at least he would have made more sense to common people. Because my suffering is my own, in a particularly intimate way, and I can never doubt it, even if others do not quite see it. The universal I is much more a sufferer than a thinker.
What the Christian tradition has taught me is not to ask for the cause of individual suffering, or to resolve philosophically the problem of unmerited suffering. My task is to use suffering that comes my way, for the exercise of self-discipline and compassion. I do not know why we have to suffer, but I know that where there has been no suffering there is no development of character. I know that compassion is learned and taught by entering into the suffering of others and by letting others share one’s own suffering, to a certain extent. Suffering seems to be Love’s way, at least in this world.
Mar Gregorios was also critical of the movement which he represented. In a letter to Fr. Dr. K. M. George, he said that “there are some important issues facing humanity which the WCC should take up on a priority basis. The most important is laying the foundations for a new and more humane civilisation to replace the present inhuman urban technological – industrial-consumerist-nuclear-developmentalist civilisation, of which the disrupted life environment and war are two major products. The WCC leadership lacks the will and the vision to make the churches pick this up as an ecumenical task – including an examination of the theoretical foundations of all our academic disciplines and of our science and technology.”
Mar Gregorios further said that “the ecumenical movement needs a new kind of leadership -decentralised and distributed in different parts of the globe – not bureaucratic offices, but of praying ecumenical communities, living and sharing in koinonia. The bureaucratic pattern does not fit, either for Church leadership, or for WCC operations. We have to make full use of our best lay leadership, both female and male, but not let loose some feverish activists furiously tearing each other and themselves apart.”
In his tribute to Mar Gregorios, Fr. K.M. George wrote:
His cosmic vision unfolds from his faith in the perfect union of divinity and humanity in Christ, “without confusion and without separation.” On the basis of this authentic meeting of the Creator and the Created, Mar Gregorios incessantly sought to make borders transparent and transform them to be places of communion rather than lines of demarcation and discrimination. He stood up in prophetic anger against demonic borders and “pernicious dichotomies” that human arrogance erected between the white and non-white races, between the power brokers and the poor of the world, between Patriarchal males and abused women, between the custodians of mainstream culture and the Aboriginal – Indigenous – Adivasi – Dalit victims of our world order. His fight with an arrogantly smug Christianity, especially with its western brand, and with its agents and allies elsewhere was fierce. His mediatorial self-understanding took him as a messenger of peace to many places where conflict and violence reigned. He flew over many a border of nations and cultures and became the herald of a new order, committed to the cause of humanity.
Mar Gregorios wrote that he also “learned a lot from the communists-that most avowedly atheistic wing of the European Enlightenment; I have learned from their weaknesses and failures just as much as from their apparent successes.” He said that he “cultivated them especially for two reasons: (a) their social goals were more compatible with the Christian idea of a just society than that of liberalism and its capitalist ideology; (b) my Christian brothers and sisters in the West, especially the Roman Catholic Church, but also Protestants, were vilifying everything the communists were doing.” He “found anticommunism anti-Christian, and therefore decided to associate and work with the communists so long as they were committed to just societies in which oppression and exploitation was reduced to a minimum and in which all human beings could live with freedom and dignity.” He further noted with a critical insight: “Alas, the communists became as dogmatic, corrupt and power hungry as the Roman Catholic Church and dug their own graves. But I still remain committed to socialism as the nearest alternative to the society I am envisaging as a Christian.”
P. Govindappilla, a Marxist thinker of Kerala recollects his contribution: “ It is a matter of great significance that, in spite of his deep involvement with and marvellous grasp of European taught and science, Dr Paulos Mar Gregorios was among the very few distinguished modern philosophers in India, who were not tainted by Eurocentrism. His theology is distinctively Eastern, as was Jesus Christ himself. Even in science and its application, in medicine and other branches of practice Mar Gregorios resisted the snares of Euro-centrism.”
Three years before his demise, Mar Gregorios reminded: “And Christ’s love is for all humankind, not just for Christians. It is for the whole of humanity that he has died, not just for Christians alone. He lives for the human race, and he is the lover and Saviour, as well as Lord, of the whole race of humankind.”