Religion

#ItMatters: Interview with Archuna Ananthamohan

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Written by Nathan Olsen

Archuna Ananthamohan is the founder of #ItMatters, a national movement of young people raising awareness of mental health through creative means. Archuna is also a Christian, coming from a Hindu background. I became Twitter friends with him due to our shared interests in Greenbelt Festival and the Student Christian Movement! Today I’ll be asking him about the relationship between Hinduism and Christianity, how faith is related to mental health, and how faith is portrayed in popular culture and on campus.

Hi Archuna, thanks for agreeing to do this interview with me. Now, we’ve talked before about how you came to become a Christian. Could you give a brief summary of your faith journey for people who don’t know you?

Yes! Coming from a Hindu family, I enjoyed reading the colourful stories of the Mahabharata. However, I never particularly warmed to the overly ritualistic and superstitious aspects of Hindu culture. There were so many wonderful things about Hinduism, but there were also many problems I found within the religion. I abhorred the societal division caused by the caste system and I had become wary of the racial supremacist narratives that underlie many key stories, such as the story of Raman and Sita. As someone who was always sceptical, I became increasingly disillusioned with religion when I saw supposedly holy men turn out to exploit their followers for their own selfish gain.

Meanwhile, I increasingly felt mesmerised by the story of Jesus. Attending a C of E primary school and being immersed in Western Christian culture, I was in awe of the loving message of Jesus. He was humble and cared for the weak, but also challenged the blindly dogmatic. He was killed by Empire and the religious authorities as a result. The humble path of the Divine was something I had never encountered before.

His Love had clearly affected so many people and this was evident in the radical inclusivity of churches. In many of these churches, there was no division by caste, creed or colour. That fundamental message of grace, a restoration of human dignity and equality, inspired me. The evangelistic message of being able to have a ‘personal relationship’ with God was empowering. While actions were important, the Christian emphasis on God’s love for all of us and grace was liberating.

My own understanding of Christianity was heavily challenged when I became exposed to fundamentalist Christianity. During a Christian summer camp, I found myself increasingly at odds with their teaching and attitudes. The exclusivism, privilege and the blindness of scriptural interpretation did not seem to come from the same Christ I once felt compelled to follow. As I rebelled against their chilling stances on women, LGBT+ and class divide, I discovered God’s call to righteousness. For in rebellion, I discovered Christ.

Today, I’m wary of religion but am a strong believer in God. My Hindu cultural background is no longer at conflict with my Christian faith. They both instil purpose and strengthen my connection with God.

Do you think there are many similarities between Hinduism and Christianity? And, should we do more to build bridges between the two communities?

Absolutely. It is a great shame when people are only close to those who come from the same religion as they do. It is even more troubling when people try to justify this using Scripture, failing to realise the damaging consequences of such tribalism. We should build bridges, as I think Western colonial ignorance has contributed to stereotypes about Hinduism.

Non-Hindu Westerners often assume Hinduism is polytheistic, when most Hindus believe in one God. At school, everyone would ridicule the Hindu tales involving animal gods. This was ironic as they often found the idea of Jonah being swallowed by a whale and surviving, as well as a donkey speaking in the Bible, perfectly plausible. However, no one explained how these stories were often never to be taken literally. No one told me how Truth need not always be factual, but metaphorical.

Hinduism is a very ancient religion and has been able to retain much of its ancient mysticism, in ways Christianity has not. Christians must be wary of how their understanding of ‘biblical truth’ may have been distorted by the influences of Western enlightenment materialism, capitalist individualism and Platonic dualism, for instance. The oral tradition and collectivist lens of Hindu teaching can help restore our ancient Christian lens.

Hindu mysticism and the mysticism of Jesus (especially in light of John’s Gospel) are deliberately similar. The powerfully spiritual force of  ‘I Am’ that permeates throughout Scripture and the Universe is identical to that of ‘Aum’ in Hinduism. The early Christians did not call themselves Christians but ‘followers of the Way’. The contemplative ‘Way’ is seemingly intertwined with Hindu orthopraxy. When New Testament Scholar Prof. Jey Kanagarej proposed how John’s Gospel shows merkabah mysticism, it had stemmed from his cultural exposure to collectivist Hindu culture. Most biblical scholars rejected Kanagrej’s proposition. However, upon closer reading of the Dead Sea Scrolls, their views started to change. It just comes to show how we can learn from the ancient mysticism of Hinduism. My meditations on the Gayatri Mantra and Hindu prayers brings out the inward-dwelling nature of the Christian faith and the Christ-consciousness.

You’ve talked about Sister Act being an inspiration for you to become a Christian, how do you feel about representations of faith, and Christianity in particular, in popular culture?

I think representation of faith in popular culture is important as it speaks to so many people from such backgrounds. Even if you are not overly religious or dogmatic, faith can still play a role in your life. In the last few years, we have seen a fantastic representation of Christianity. I think of the poignantly Christian message of forgiveness seen in Philomena, which starred the fantastic Judi Dench. I think of Call the Midwife and even Dark Money. However, I do not see enough representation of Hindu faith and I think that is something creatives need to explore.

I know that, like me, you’re a big fan of the work that the Student Christian Movement does. Yet, the predominant Christian presence on university campuses is in the form of Christian Unions. Is this an issue? If so, what can we do about it?

I’m a great believer in the broad church and how we can all learn from each other’s respective traditions and disciplines. My issue with the Christian Union is that it is not always a ‘Union’. While some Unions are great, others are simply fundamentalism in disguise. I’ve seen Christian Unions that have been more cultlike than Christlike. Instead of being genuinely open-minded, sometimes the Christian Union serves to brainwash people and deliberately censor the breadth and depth of theological discussion from its young members. They’ll encourage people to ask questions but only ever indoctrinate them with their highly selective answers. Going to University can be a very daunting process and young people can be vulnerable, in dire need of a community. It is deeply irresponsible for Unions to exploit that.

I find it interesting that the Student Christian Movement and Christian Union both originated from Oxford University at roughly similar times. Nowadays, many rightly reject the blind dogmatism, patriarchy and latent homophobia of evangelical Unions. The Student Christian Movement can help ostracised and disillusioned Christians find their own community in light of this.

Finally, I’d like to ask you about mental health and faith. As I mentioned at the beginning, you are the founder of ItMatters UK, a national non-profit organisation run by young people, using the creative media to change society’s approach to mental health. Could you tell me what impact, if any, having a faith has had on your mental health? And, do you think that religions in a general sense should be doing more to address the global mental health crisis?

When you’re struggling with your mental health, please remember that you have not abandoned God for not ‘feeling’ the right way. God isn’t a mere emotion. I think many people are beginning to realise how mental health should be on a par with physical health. In the same way, we wouldn’t just say ‘prayer’ will cure a bleeding wound, we should realise that faith is not always a cure for mental health issues. Prayer is for healing, in my view, as opposed to curing.

Religions should do more to address the global mental health crisis, but perhaps they should first look at themselves. We must all ask ourselves whether our religious societies have been complicit in spiritual abuse. We must ask ourselves whether theologies preached in our respective societies have been deeply corrosive to the least of our brothers’ and sisters’ mental health (e.g. non-affirming theology). And then we must repent and love better. That is how religion can address the global mental health crisis.

At a time when the world can feel so atomised and lonely, the communal aspects of religion and its contemplation can do a tremendous amount of good.