Gregory of India: A Profile


Seldom in our time has the spirit of Orthodox Christianity found such creative expression in response to as many human concerns as through the life and work of Metropolitan Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios. Defying the serious physical discomfort in recent years, and until the peaceful end on the morning of the 24th November 1996, he was incessantly at work and prayer, not only for his Diocese and Church, but also for ”all humanity in truth and love” to use his own words.

Though filled with enthusiasm, young Paul Varghese was not in a position to continue his studies, yet he kept up his early love of reading and journalistic writing on current affairs. He accepted employment first in a private firm, and then in the post and telegraph department at Kochi, his birthplace. Soon he became known as an efficient worker and an active trade union leader. It was an exciting time in the mid-1940’s when political freedom could be seen coming. For his part, he wanted “to serve humanity” though at that stage, the way ahead was not clear. Coming from a traditional family of practising Christians, he was aware that the Church was a natural source of inspiration for his idealistic ambition. He also felt that for drawing upon the spiritual and moral resources offered by the Church, it was not always necessary to become a priest. Much later, in 1961, he accepted priesthood. Looking back, he said of his life: “One thing led to another”; yes, logically and to a divine design, as we now see.

Quite by an accident of circumstances, he was offered the post of a school teacher in Ethiopia, waiving the condition that the candidate should be a college graduate. He was 25, and he accepted the post. This was a turning point in his life. News of his capability and enthusiasm reached the Emperor, who was impressed by his work as well as by the speed at which he could master the local language, Amharic. But the teacher opted to be a life-long student. After three mutually useful years in Ethiopia, he went to the United States for further studies.

After receiving his BA from Goshen College in Indiana, he continued his studies at Oklahoma University, at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, at Princeton (Master of Divinity), and at Yale (Master of Sacred Theology). He did his doctoral studies in Oxford and Muenster in Germany, and received his Doctorate in Theology from the Serampore University.

His doctoral dissertation centered on the profound writings of the 4th century philosopher-bishop, Mar Gregorios of Nyssa (in the West Asian Province of Cappodocia, a part of present-day Turkey). Following the official approval of Christianity by Emperor Constantine in 313, the early era of Christian martyrs came to an end, and the Church was in a position to give expression to its faith about its life here and now in this world, without being content of thinking about the other world alone. The Church was free and had to take a responsible role in politics, in education, and in culture. That was the context of the creative concern of Gregory of Nyssa – a “teacher of the faith”, accepted by both Eastern and Western Christendom – with the present and future of the human race in relation to God and the historical world. His thought and teachings provided a foundational framework for the thought and work of his 20th century student, Paulos Mar Gregorios.

Returning to India, Paul Varghese worked as an honorary lecturer at the Union Christian College in Alwaye, as an Associate General Secretary of the Student Christian Movement (1954-56), and as the General Secretary of the Orthodox Student Movement (1955-57).

Haile Sellassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia, visited India in 1956, and he persuaded Paul Varghese to return to Ethiopia as his Aide and Advisor. While in Ethiopia (1956-59), he involved himself in education in Ethiopia, promoted Indo-Ethiopian diplomatic relations, and lectured at the Addis Ababa University.

Around this time, Paul Varghese decided that the time had come for him to return to his Church back in India, particularly in view of the peace being restored to the Church, following the 1958 settlement between the Catholicos of the East and the Patriarch of Antioch. He was ordained as a priest by the Catholicos H. H. Baselios Geevarghese II in 1961.

Fr. Paul Varghese’s field of work soon shifted to Geneva, with the World Council of Churches. There he headed the Division of Ecumenical Action as an Associate General Secretary. Later, he was 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). He led WCC delegations to major conferences including the UN General Assembly Special Sessions on Disarmament (1983,1988). In WCC forums and beyond, he persistently opposed apartheid and the old and new colonialism. He chaired the World Conference on Faith, Science and the Future in Cambridge, USA (1979). He was the vice-president of the Christian Peace Conference (1970-90).

In 1975, Fr. Paul Varghese was elevated as a bishop with the name Paulos Gregorios. He took charge of the newly formed Diocese of Delhi, a position he held until his death. He established the Delhi Orthodox Centre, where he began such ambitious projects as the Neeti Shanti Kendra for promoting peace and justice, and Sarva Dharma Nilaya for inter- religious dialogue and cooperation.

Concurrently, Mar Gregorios was the Principal of the Orthodox Theological Seminary at Kottayam, the premier teaching and training institution for the priests of the Church. He raised it to a college recognized for the award of graduate and post graduate degrees. He established the Sophia Centre linked to the Seminary.

A member of the Senate of the Kerala and Serampore Universities for a number of years, Mar Gregorios was a visiting Professor at Denver, Harvard, Wooster, and Princeton. He was 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.

Among the honours and awards received by Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios are honorary doctorates in theology (Leningrad, Budapest and Prague); Hall of Fame Award for Extraordinary Service to Peace and Human Unity (USA); Certificate of Merit for Distinguished Service and Inspired leadership of the World Church, Dictionary of Informational Biography (Cambridge); Order of St. Vladimir (USSR); Order of St. Sergius (USSR); Order of Mary Magdalen (Poland); Order of Bishop Fransiszek Hodur (Poland); Otto Nuschke Prize of peace (German Democratic Republic); Soviet Land Nehru Award (India); Man of the year Award 1990, American Biographical Institute (USA); Bhai Param Vir Singh International Award (India); Golden Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement (USA); Eminent Ecumenical Education Award (India); Distinguished Alumnus Award (Princeton Theological Seminary); Oscar Pfister Award, American Psychiatric Association (USA); Social Service Award, Goshen College (USA). The honours made him happier for the cause, but humbler for himself.

The unusual versatility of Mar Gregorios consistently found expression in several ways:
A capacity to transmit the essence of spiritual, philosophical and socio-political concepts with a lucidity springing from the depths of his own study and reflection.
A constructive compassion, rooted in an ancient faith, that reaches, farther than just help, to those in various forms of oppression and helplessness, to ways of social restructuring through an ethical-intellectual renewal, to address the deeper causes of the human condition.
The illuminating search for the fundamental principles shared by the different religions of the East as a possible basis for common understanding and endeavour.
A spontaneous interest in natural and social sciences, as well as in historical processes, resulting in holistic contributions to contemporary thought.
Mar Gregorios will be remembered by the members of the Church as a modern teacher of their ancient faith, and by the reading public for the many books and papers he wrote in several languages, particularly in English and Malayalam. The recurring themes of his writings reflect the quest for truth and love, freedom and creativity, peace and justice.

He was not for other-worldly mysticism which ignored man’s sinful reality; nor was he impressed by secular humanism that was unconcerned about ‘the source of our being.’ As he wrote in his book Cosmic Man, The Divine Presence with reference to the teachings of Gregory of Nyssa, “Thought is not scholastic to the extent of eliminating the element of mystery; but then neither is it an unintellectual mysticism” (p. xviii).

Mar Gregorios was of course sensitive to the need for urgent response to human suffering compounded by many-sided poverty. Of this, his modest efforts for the stonecutters of Tughlakabad in Delhi and the orphaned boys at Thalakodu in Kerala are examples. What concerned him more basically was the futility of “swabbing the floor without closing the tap.’’ He wanted the socio-economic system that regularly reproduced poverty to be altered. This explains his life-long interest in politics. He was not in politics but of politics.

Whenever he found time, he dialogued with the leaders of both the political Right and Left. Not surprisingly, he had a better wavelength with the latter. He held up a mirror to them to show how India, in particular, was impoverished not only for historical reasons but also by an ecological crisis and the so called ‘secularization.’

Way back in 1978, he stated in his book, The Human Presence, “The affairs of the world are largely in the hands of people who are expert at making money, waging war and playing politics”, and proceeded to present “An Orthodox view of Nature.” On Secularism, so fashionable among some intellectuals, he was equally clear and sharp. In a recent essay, he wrote: “Secularism creates communal conflict because it brutally attacks religious identity, while pretending to be tolerant of all religions. It claims to be neutral towards all religions, equidistant from them, but it refuses to acknowledge itself as basically a religious ideology with a powerful propaganda machine” (India International Centre Quarterly, 22-1/1995).

In his book, Enlightenment: East and West (1989), he develops a critique of European Enlightenment. He asks the elite in India, who have so easily borrowed from the liberal humanism and technological civilization of the West, to step back and take a second look:
“We need to face all three forms of the European Enlightenment now confronting us — Enlightenment liberalism, imperialist pragmatism, and socialist humanism. We have to learn from all these, but critically so. …..The better values of European Enlightenment are embodied in socialism, but we need to deepen them by putting them on a more secure and more transcendental foundation. ….. We have the (spiritual) resources hidden away among our people to meet that challenge. They are waiting for some new light that can quicken their creativity. This new light cannot come from top down. The job of our elite is to enable our people to become the co-authors of a new enlightenment.”
The book was acclaimed in the West.

Mar Gregorios did not share the view that all religions said the same thing, but agreed that religions had common elements. Therefore, inter-religious dialogue for cooperation had untapped potential. During his 20 years in Delhi, he had extremely cordial and productive relations with the spiritual leaders of the Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jain and Sikh religions.

Mar Gregorios had an abiding interest in education, which he maintained through children’s easy access to him, through the schools run by the Church, and by interaction with educationalists, besides working as the principal of the Theological College. Also, he was for reviving the tradition of women’s active involvement in church affairs.

The illness during the closing years of his life seemed to have re-activated his interest in ‘holistic health and healing.’ He organized a major International Seminar in February 1995 in Surajkund (near Delhi). The papers prepared for it, including those by him, and its report (on which he was personally working in his last days) are valuable for the alert public as well as for medical practitioners from the different systems of healing. Bringing them together to re-examine their assumptions was a purpose which the consultation substantially achieved. Mar Gregorios sought a healing touch to a wounded society.

In the course of his life-long spiritual-intellectual quest with a social purpose, Mar Gregorios has authored a number of books, besides those cited earlier: The Joy of Freedom (1967, 1987), The Gospel of the Kingdom (1968), The Freedom of Man (1972), Freedom and Authority (1974), The Quest for Certainty (1975), Truth without Tradition? (1978), Science for Sane Societies (1980), The Indian Orthodox Church: An Overview (1982), The Meaning and Nature of Diakonia (1988), A Light too Bright (1992) and A Human God (1992).

Apart from numerous periodical articles, contributions to symposia and encyclopedias, and lectures in scores of universities worldwide, Mar Gregorios was the chief editor of the quarterlies, Star of the East (New Delhi) and Purohitan (Kottayam).

Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios lived a full life. True to his name, Gregorios, he remained ever awake. Yet such was the ambition of the agenda he set for himself, his work will have to be continued by those who share his convictions and interests. There are few countries he has not visited in his search for knowledge and friendship. The world was his neighbour. He was proficient in at least a dozen languages, modern and ancient, of Asia, Europe and Africa. He was equally at home in the East and the West, but he wanted Eastern enlightenment and the critical rationality of the West to maintain a dialectic relationship instead of the overwhelming one way flow as at present. While he respected critical rationality, he also believed in revelation, in miracle, and in transcendence. The Orthodox tradition does not see these in conflict. He was essentially an activist for peace and justice, scholarship and contemplation being only a means to higher social and spiritual goals. He had the courage of his Christian conviction. He cherished freedom for others as much as for him. He seldom compromised and always forgave. He was unmoved by calumny. He worked to a plan and had little time to waste, an impatience which somtimes would appear brusque. He knew his limitations and did not hesitate to publicly own them, as a corrective for himself and possibly others. Until the very end, he worked hard for peace and unity among Orthodox Christians in India.

Mar Gregorios was a lover of art, architecture, and music. These were, he would remind, a part of the authentic tradition of Eastern christians. He established the Shruthi school of music at the Theological Seminary in Kottayam and started the School of Orthodox Sacred Music at the Orthodox Centre in Delhi.

Above all, Mar Gregorios was a seeker after Truth, and as he explains in an early book, The Faith of Our Fathers, truth has to be perceived in the light of tradition, which in his case, the Orthodox Christian tradition. Even the Holy Bible, of which he was a lucid teacher, has to be understood in the light of sacred tradition, and not interpreted at will. It is only through the realisation of truth that peace and justice, freedom and equality, the oneness of the human family and harmony between man and nature can be expected to come. Only this way, can the original concept of the word Orthodox – the right glorification of God – find expression in this world. What kept up his spirits was his trusting confidence that “When the spirit of truth comes, He will lead you to the complete truth.” (John 16:13)

(From a publication of the Delhi Orthodox Centre, Dec. 1996)