Christianization of Sindoor—a Possibility, not a Problem

Posted: April 7, 2022 in General

We live in a multi-religious context; hence, we should be open to the realities around us. A closed outlook to the surrounding realities shall lead us to impossibilities in the midst of possibilities. We should navigate our thought-patterns as optimists rather than remaining pessimists and refraining from the cultural realities in the world. One of the marks of a mature Christian identity is openness to the conceptual and ideological framework lie beyond our own. Christian mission in the Indian context is a herculean task and at the same time it has multiple possibilities. Possibilities can be channelized if we involve diplomatically and engage dynamically within a culturally and ideologically rich world. We should consider Sindoor as a possibility rather than a problem.

Sindoor is called mang in Hindi and simandarekha in Sanskrit. Usually, women apply it in their parting of the hairline. The parting of hair is symbolic of a river of red blood full of life. Sindoor was part of Hindu culture from the Harappan civilization about 5000 years ago. It can be symbolically identified as a mark of unique Christian living in India. I do not mean that Sindoor should be considered as a mark of Christian identity; but rather the argument is that we should not go against this cultural practice.

Though Sindoor has several mythological and superstitious roots, it is accepted as a cultural norm in the Hindu society. As it was practiced among the Hindus during a long span of time, it has deep-roots within the Hindu culture. While Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923) maintained that culture is the soil of religion, Paul Tillich (1896-1965) believed that religion is the soul of culture. Here we see both Troeltsch and Tillich attribute an integral relationship between religion and culture. In that sense, religion cannot flourish without having a cultural framework. Hence, we Christian theologians and missiologists in India need to appreciate the positives of the cultural symbols and ideologies rather than suppressing them altogether. It is one of the general principles we need to adopt as we live in a multi-religious context.

Richard Niebuhr understands Christ and culture through a dynamic relationship at five levels. If we take the position of “Christ against the culture,” a clash between the gospel and the culture is unavoidable. The “Christ of the culture” model enables the interpreter comfortable to find the interpretability of Christ in context. In the “Christ above culture” paradigm, Niebuhr considers “cultural aspects are basically good and they can be perfected by Christian revelation and the work of the church.” In the model of “Christ and culture in paradox,” the tension between Christ and the Culture does not advocate a total negation of culture but rather simultaneously embracing and rejecting certain aspects of it. In the paradigm of “Christ transforming the culture,” a transformation is suggested with the accompaniment of the culture rather than doing it away from it. These five paradigms of Niebuhr should be properly placed in order to understand the gospel and culture interlocking in a pluralist and multi-religious context.

Nothing under the sun is a hindrance to the gospel. In the Corinthian context, Paul was strategic and diplomatic in implementing the Christian principles. If at all Paul gave any strict rules to the community, he did it because of the weaker sections of the community. Paul considered some of the socio-cultural elements to build his Christian ideology as a ‘third space.’ A ‘third space’ can be built based on the ideals and the principles of the ‘first’ and ‘second’ spaces. In postcolonial terms, an “accommodation and disruption” methodology can be well placed in the Indian context. For example, Sindoor has a lot of positives rather than the underlying negatives. It exists as a cultural practice over 5000 years because of its foregrounding positive aspects. In Christian mission and praxis, we can accommodate the positives and disrupt the negatives. There is no insistence from anybody that Christians should use Sindoor; but, for the sake of Christ and for a new missional paradigm, we should widen our perspectives and scope toward Sindoor in our multi-religious context.

In Hinduism, Sindoor signifies that wife is the property of the husband. It symbolizes her never dying love toward her husband. In another sense, Sindoor was used to please men in the male chauvinistic society. If a 2000 years old Christian Scripture has a large number of male chauvinistic denotations and connotations, how can we expect a 5000 years old culture and practice free from male chauvinistic ideology? In Christianity, we metaphorically place Christ as the bridegroom and church as the bride. The same metaphor is idealized even when Paul talks about family, husband and wife relationship, and household codes. Indian Christians can adopt Sindoor as a symbol with a claim that the church belongs to Christ. It is not necessary to implement it as a legal requirement within the church; but we should take initiative to teach the church about the significance of Sindoor as a symbol with Christian connotations.

Sindoor can symbolically mean that a woman is unclean during her periods. In the Bible, women during their periods were considered as unclean. The Pauline passages like “women should be submissive to their husbands” and “women should be silent in the church” are dictums of the male chauvinistic culture. If we can interpret these Pauline passages in favor of women with a hermeneutics of suspicion, we can progress steps further with a prospective hermeneutics of Sindoor. It is not a compulsion to accommodate it or practice it; but, we can at least deter from going against this cultural practice that has a lot of ethical and moral concerns and principles.  

The mark of Sindoor communicates a message that the one who uses it is no more a virgin, but a grown up and married lady. This symbolism of Sindoor is pregnant with Christian ideologies. Radha, intense beloved of Krishna, and Sita, wife of Rama, wore Sindoor not as people without personal identity but as people devoted to their husbands and as ideal women lived in human history. Radha and Sita were/are considered as ideal women, wives, and powerful ladies in par with their men counterparts. In Christianity, we refer to the mark of Christ and the seal of the Holy Spirit as symbolical expressions to reveal our identity as bride of Christ or “married to Christ.” Such accommodative ideas are welcome in a multireligious context to unravel the Christian identity.

Sindoor is considered as a woman’s holiest mark as she begins her journey as a bride. It is also considered as a woman’s validation as a married woman. Put on by the husband during the wedding rituals, Sindoor is then applied by women every day to mark his presence in her life. It is a mark of female energy as in Hinduism marriage is a ceremony with a lot of hope about the future. It is in several ways true with Christianity as we hope new heights with our marriage. Marriage is one of the overarching metaphors used in the Bible to demonstrate the relationship between Christ and the church. The nuptial relationship between Christ and the church is our future hope. The mark of Sindoor and its denotative and connotative semantics play a significant role in Christian hermeneutical endeavors.

Sindoor is thrown in the air as a sign of prosperity and honor during festivals like Holi. Studies prove that Sindoor enhances people’s concentration and it has medicinal value. According to Hindu understanding, Sindoor is a mark of strength, blood, fire, and life. Here again we see several reminiscents between the Hindu understanding of Sindoor and the Christian understanding of Jesus’s blood. In Christianity, Jesus’s blood is considered as a mark of power and strength and as a symbol that transforms human life. As Sindoor is a mark of fire, Christians conceptualize fire as a symbol of purity and Holy Spirit. Just as Sindoor is a mark of a life-stream, Jesus came to give us life in its abundance. The symbolic representation of Sindoor cannot be disregarded in the process of interpreting Christian ethos in the Indian context.

Sindoor has a global appeal. In several Hindi movies, Sindoor is used with a positive appeal (for example: “Sindoor” [1987]). Several female characters in Hindi movies have been shown with utmost power and courage due to the Sindoor being marked on their forehead. Priyanka Chopra promotes feminist ideology while bearing thick Sindoor and choodas. The ideology of Sindoor goes well with the Christian understanding of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The blood of Jesus transforms, rejuvenates, purifies, and empowers people. Similarly, Holy Spirit empowers people for mission and cleanses them so that they may be holy and transformed. A lady who has Sindoor on her forehead and committed to do the will of her husband demonstrates her servant-leadership model in the family. Christ came as a servant-leader to transform the world. As her commitment and sacrifice build the Indian family ethos, Christ’s commitment and sacrifice build the family of God. A woman with a Sindoor on her forehead can be considered as a Christian personality existing beyond the Christian borders.

Sindoor is part and parcel of Indian culture with several positive values. Christian mission initiatives without considering its positive significance and value are attempts to develop a rhetoric of distance. A rhetoric of distance is a hindrance in witnessing Christ in a pluralistic and multi-religious context. In order to avoid extreme levels of syncretism, Biblical interpreters and missiologists can adopt a rhetoric of difference. Keeping away from the cultural practices shall lead Christian theologians and interpreters to anachronistic missional endeavors with resultant frustrations ahead rather than missional possibilities. Exact representation of one word, concept, culture, ideology, religion and philosophy in other contexts is impossible. Hence, missiologists and theologians should employ a dynamic equivalent approach to interpret the linguistic and cultural aspects. In that sense, Sindoor is a possibility rather than a problem in the Indian Christian hermeneutical endeavors.

For Further References:

Marbaniang, Domenic, 2014. “The Gospel and Culture: Areas of Conflict, Consent, and Conversion.” Religion and Culture. Hong Kong Baptist University.

Niebuhr, H. Richard, 1951. Christ and Culture. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Soja, Edward W., 1996. Third Space: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Malden: Wiley.

Tillich, Paul, 1959. Theology of Culture. Ed. Robert C. Kimball. London/Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thomaskutty, Johnson, 2022. “Culture-Dynamics in the Johannine Community Context.” One Gospel, Many Cultures. Ed. Arren Bennet Lawrence. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (Forthcoming).

Troeltsch, Ernst, 1977. Writings on Theology and Religion. Eds. and Trans. Robert Morgan and Michael Pye. Atlanta: John Knox Press., accessed on 6 April 2022., accessed on 7 April 2022., accessed on 6 April 2022., accessed on 6 April 2022., accessed on 6 April 2022., accessed on 7 April 2022.

Prof. Dr. Johnson Thomaskutty

The United Theological College

Bengaluru, India


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