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GOA, India (ChurchMilitant.com) - Catholics in the former Portuguese colony of Goa, which was evangelized by St. Francis Xavier, are invoking Hindu gods in a ritual dance before each Lenten season.
The syncretistic ritual, which takes place every year on the Monday before Ash Wednesday, begins with an all-male Catholic troupe gathering at a chapel in the Goan village of Chandor to invoke the Hindu god of destruction, Shiva.
Clad in traditional attire, with ankle bells on their feet and turbans on their heads, the men perform a mussollam fhel (pestle dance) before the village cross — believed to have been built on the ruins of a Hindu temple.
The ceremony begins with Catholic prayers, followed by an invocation seeking the blessing of Shiva. The troupe then marches to the nearby St. Tiago Chapel, where a short litany is said and the first dance is performed.
The troupe then performs the rite in front of every house in the village, and the lady of the house comes out with a lamp to welcome the dancers. The dancers pray for the repose of the souls of the dead if a family member has died in the past year.
"It is a perfect example of syncretism, which is a process by which elements of one religion are assimilated into another religion," educator Avril Antao writes in O Heraldo, Goa's newspaper.
"The dance is aimed at driving away evil by invoking the gods," she adds. Local Catholics believe that a calamity could befall families that don't send a participant to the dance — or that the village might be the scene of a horrific visitation if it is not performed.
The Catholic villagers dance to the beat of the ghumot (a percussion instrument made from an earthenware pot) and pound the earth with their pestles, singing:
When the ground is hit with the pestle,
it vibrates beneath the feet.
Beware, the army of Harihara is on the march!
Yes beware, the army of Harihara is on the march!
Pound the enemy!
It's Harihara's dance.
Harihara's dance is swirling outside the fort walls.
"Harihara" is the fused characterization of the Hindu deities Vishnu (Hari) and Shiva (Hara). The term is also used to denote the unity of Vishnu and Shiva as different aspects of the same "ultimate reality" called "Brahman," leading both major sects of Hinduism (Vaishnavites and Shaivites) to worship Harihara as a form of the supreme god.
Images (see featured picture above) portray the conjoined deities (with Shiva on the right holding a trident and Vishnu on the left holding a conch shell and a discus). Some villagers said Harihara was the name of an ancient Hindu king and the dance celebrates his victory over the Chalas.
In his monograph Mussol Dance of Chandor, researcher Zenaides Morenas explains the Hindu background to the ceremony:
The most popular Goan Hindu festival is Shigmo, which falls in the month of Phalguna of the Hindu calendar. The mussoll dance, which is essentially Hindu in character, came to be associated with Carnival, as it precedes the Christian Lenten season and invariably falls in the month of Phalguna.
It also evokes the pre-Aryan religio-cultural ethos rooted in the worship of Mother Earth — a cult successfully integrated into Hindu religious practice in the form of Shakti worship. The significance related to Hindu mythology is found in the invocation of Lord Shiva, which asks for his blessings and the gift of the sat shegun, or seven cardinal virtues.
The Catholic dancers sing (in veneration of Shiva):
Hail the supreme artist! O lord Shiva,
infuse us with the seven cardinal virtues.
May thine consort riding on a brilliant elephant
Enrich us with her grace, O lord!
"This is a clear case of syncretism, a shocking compromise of God's First Commandment. The archbishop of Goa needs to address this urgently," Goan priest Fr. Melroy Mendonca, who serves in the neighboring archdiocese of Bombay, told Church Militant.
Church Militant contacted the offices of Abp. Filipe Neri Ferrão, primate of the East, and Fr. Simão Rodrigues, parish priest of Chandor, asking if clergymen had made attempts to stop the syncretism and catechize local parishioners. There was no response as of press time.
However, medical doctor Aubyne Savio Fernandes, a faithful Catholic, told Church Militant that syncretism in Goa and other parts of India is widespread and even encouraged by the hierarchy in seminaries, formation houses and churches in the name of "inculturation."
Dr. Fernandes cited the example of Goan composer and priest Fr. Peter Cardozo teaching Catholics to sing bhajans (devotional songs) to the Hindu deity Ganesha.
Cardozo, a priest of the Society of the Missionaries of St. Francis Xavier (Pilar Fathers), led his troupe from St. Anne's Church, Agonda, to sing before the elephant-headed idols of Ganesha over the festival period of Ganesh Chaturthi, which lasts for 10 days.
"The aim was to sing bhajans to the Hindu deity, especially the Ganesh idol, which is revered by Hindus with great faith, pomp and gaiety," Fr. Cardozo told O Heraldo.
"Such was the appreciation by the Hindu community that the troupe led by Fr. Cardozo was then invited to perform before many other sarvajanik ("public") Ganesh idols during the last 10 days in the village," the Goan newspaper reported.
"The people of Agonda are peace loving, and it was our cherished endeavor to share in the celebrations of Hindu festivals by our Hindu brethren in the village," Cardozo remarked. "In the past, we used to visit Hindu houses during Ganesh time or, for that matter, during any other festivities."
While based at the SFX headquarters in Pilar, Fr. Cardozo was part of various groups visiting and singing bhajans at Hindu homes during the Ganesh festivities, O Heraldo added.
Goan Catholic Francisco Colaco from Margao praised the syncretism as "a unique gesture of interreligious harmony."
"The Church ardently implores the Christian faithful to maintain good fellowship among the nations and to live in peace with all men/women so that we may truly be sons/daughters of the Father Who is in Heaven," Colaco wrote in a letter to the Navhind Times.
Leaving Rome for India on April 7, 1541, St. Francis Xavier landed in Goa on May 6, 1542. He spent his first five months in India evangelizing Hindus and ministering to the sick in the hospitals. He walked through the streets ringing a bell and gathering children to hear the word of God.
The mortal remains of Xavier's body have been preserved in Goa at the Basilica of Bom Gesu since 1624. Before it was brought to Goa, Xavier's body was buried in three different countries. Each time the body was exhumed, it was found to be fresh and incorrupt.
Goa, known as the "Rome of the East," was incorporated into India in 1961, over two decades after India gained independence from British colonial rule in 1947.