God's Wrath in India?

Hindu resentment over Christian activity in India fuels religious explanations of tsunami tragedy.

As the world attempts to tackle the tragedy in South Asia, the focus for the vast majority of South Asians has been on relief. But the tsunami has also magnified already-existing tensions between Hindus, Christians and others in the devastated region. In India--a country often seen as a spiritual battleground, where religions fight over the souls of the poor and dispossessed--some conservative Hindus have used the tsunami to criticize both a Hindu leader's arrest and the presence of Christian missionaries in India. Meanwhile, evangelical Christian groups may proselytize as they help tsunami victims.

Last week, a

column

on the widely-read Indian news site Rediff.com suggested that the tsunami was a sign of retribution against Christians, whose activities are seen as betraying India's essentially Hindu character. (Full disclosure: I work for a publication owned by Rediff.com, and my articles occasionally appear on Rediff.) Columnist Rajeev Srinivasan pointed to several religion-related factors he sees as pertinent. Referring to the earthquake as the "Christmas quake," he implied that the timing wasn't mere coincidence. He also noted that the tsunami hit a church at Velankanni, one of the most significant Christian pilgrimage points in South India, resulting in the death of 50 people. Finally, he connected the tragedy to what many see as the recent mistreatment of a revered Hindu leader.

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In November, a holy man known formally as Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswathi was

arrested

in connection with the murder of a former official of his religious order. Hindus around the world decried the arrest, even organizing mass email petitions maintaining that the entire affair was politically motivated and related to a longstanding fight with the current head of the state government of Tamil Nadu, where the most tsunami-related deaths later occurred. Before long, the Shankaracharya's sympathizers had solidified their opinion that anti-Hindu forces were to blame, with some going so far as to point fingers at the Vatican.

For Srinivasan, the Shankaracharya's arrest seemed the most plausible explanation for the subsequent disaster. "The devastation by the tsunami in Tamil Nadu, could it be a caveat from Up There about the atrocities being visited on the [Shankaracharya]?" he asked. "About adharma"--evil--"gaining ground?" In summarizing, he wrote, "It is said that the very elements can be affected by the mystical powers of sages who have acquired superhuman powers through meditation and sadhana. I think we should all tread carefully, for now we are treading on things we do not know."

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