Skip to main content Accessibility help

Pedagogies of Prayer: Teaching Orthodoxy in South India

  • Vlad Naumescu (a1)


This article focuses on religious pedagogies as an essential part of the practice and the making of modern religion. It takes the case of the Syrian Orthodox communities in Kerala, South India to examine how shifts in pedagogical models and practice have reframed their understanding of knowledge and God. The paper highlights two moments of transformation—the nineteenth-century missionary reforms and twenty-first-century Sunday school reforms—that brought “old” and “new” pedagogies into conflict, redefining the modes of knowing and religious subjectivities they presuppose. For this I draw from historical and pedagogical materials, and ethnographic fieldwork in churches and Sunday schools. The paper diverges from widespread narratives on the missionary encounter by showing how colonial efforts to replace ritual pedagogies with modern schooling were channeled into a textbook culture that remained close to Orthodox ritualism. The “new” pedagogy turned learning into a ritualized practice that continued to emphasize correct performance over interiorized belief. Contrasting this with todays’ curriculum revisions, I argue that educational reforms remain a privileged mode of infusing new meanings into religious practice and shaping new orthodoxies, especially under the threat of heterodoxy. This reflects a broader dynamic within Orthodox Christianity that takes moments of crisis or change as opportunities to turn orthopraxy into orthodoxy and renew the faith. The paper engages with postcolonial debates on religion, education, and modernity, and points to more pervasive assumptions about what makes Orthodox Christianity and the modes of knowing and ethical formation in Eastern Christianity.


Corresponding author


Hide All
Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Bandak, Andreas and Boylston, Tom. 2014. The ‘Orthodoxy’ of Orthodoxy: On Moral Imperfection, Correctness, and Deferral in Religious Worlds. Religion and Society: Advances in Research 5, 1: 2546.
Bate, Bernard. 2009. Tamil Oratory and the Dravidian Aesthetic: Democratic Practice in South India. New York: Columbia University Press.
Bate, Bernard. 2010. The Ethics of Textuality: The Protestant Sermon and the Tamil Public Sphere. In Pandian, A. and Ali, D., eds., Ethical Life in South Asia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 101–15.
Bayly, Susan. 1990. Saints, Goddesses, and Kings: Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society, 1700–1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bennett, Brian P. 2011. Religion and Language in Post-Soviet Russia. New York: Routledge.
Bloch, Maurice. 2005. Ritual and Deference. In Essays on Cultural Transmission. New York: Berg, 123–38.
Brahinsky, Josh. 2012. Pentecostal Body Logics: Cultivating a Modern Sensorium. Cultural Anthropology 27, 2: 215–38.
Bryant, Rebecca. 2001. An Aesthetics of Self: Moral Remaking and Cypriot Education. Comparative Studies in Society and History 43, 3: 583614.
Cody, Francis. 2013. The Light of Knowledge: Literacy Activism and the Politics of Writing in South India. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Crapanzano, Vincent. 2000. Serving the Word: Literalism in America from the Pulpit to the Bench. New York: New Press (distributed by W. W. Norton).
Devika, J. and Varghese, V. J.. 2011. To Survive or to Flourish? Minority Rights and Syrian Christian Community Assertions in Twentieth-Century Travancore/Kerala. History and Sociology of South Asia 5, 2: 103–28.
Engelhardt, Jeffers. 2017. Listening and the Sacramental Life: Degrees of Mediation in Greek Orthodox Christianity. In Luehrmann, S., ed., Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 5879.
Engelke, Matthew. 2009. Reading and Time: Two Approaches to the Materiality of Scripture. Ethnos 74, 2: 151–74.
Flood, Gavin D. 2004. The Ascetic Self: Subjectivity, Memory, and Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gade, Anna M. 2004. Perfection Makes Practice: Learning, Emotion, and the Recited Quran in Indonesia. Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press.
Graham, William A. 1987. Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Haeri, Niloofar. 2013. The Private Performance of Salat Prayers: Repetition, Time, and Meaning. Anthropological Quarterly 86, 1: 534.
Handman, Courtney. 2014. Becoming the Body of Christ: Sacrificing the Speaking Subject in the Making of the Colonial Lutheran Church in New Guinea. Current Anthropology 55, S10: S205S215.
Joseph, M. P., Balakrishnan, Uday, and Perczel, Istvan. 2014. Syrian Christian Churches in India. In Leustean, Lucian N., ed., Eastern Christianity and Politics in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Routledge, 563–99.
Joshua, T. J. 2002. Edayante Paathayil: Sabha Pravarthararkkoru Sahayi (In the footsteps of the shepherd: guide for ministers of the church). Kottayam: Divyabodhanam Publications.
Kan, Sergei. 1999. Memory Eternal: Tlingit Culture and Russian Orthodox Christianity through Two Centuries. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Kaviraj, Sudipta. 2016. Disenchantment Deferred. In Bilgrami, Akeel, ed., Beyond the Secular West. New York: Columbia University Press, 135–87.
Keane, Webb. 2007. Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Keane, Webb. 2008. The Evidence of the Senses and the Materiality of Religion. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 14: S11027.
Keller, Eva. 2005. The Road to Clarity: Seventh-Day Adventism in Madagascar. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Kenworthy, Scott. 2008. To Save the World or to Renounce It: Modes of Moral Action in Russian Orthodoxy. In Steinberg, Mark D. and Wanner, Catherine, eds., Religion, Morality, and Community in Post-Soviet Societies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2154.
Kormina, Jeanne and Luehrmann, Sonja. 2017. The Social Nature of Prayer in a Church of the Unchurched: Russian Orthodox Christianity from Its Edges. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 86, 2: 394424.
Krueger, Derek. 2014. Liturgical Subjects: Christian Ritual, Biblical Narrative, and the Formation of the Self in Byzantium. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Kumar, Krishna. 1988. Origins of India's ‘Textbook Culture.’ Comparative Education Review 32, 4: 452–64.
LaDousa, Chaise. 2014. Hindi Is Our Ground, English Is Our Sky: Education, Language, and Social Class in Contemporary India. New York: Berghahn Books.
Laqueur, Thomas Walter. 1976. Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and Working Class Culture, 1780–1850. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Leustean, Lucian, ed. 2014. Orthodox Christianity and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Southeastern Europe. New York: Fordham University Press.
Luehrmann, Sonja. 2011. Secularism Soviet Style: Teaching Atheism and Religion in a Volga Republic. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Luehrmann, Sonja, 2017. Authorizing: The Paradoxes of Praying by the Book. In Luehrmann, S., ed. Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 120–39.
Luhrmann, T. M. 2012. A Hyperreal God and Modern Belief: Toward an Anthropological Theory of Mind. Current Anthropology 53, 4: 371–95.
Mahmood, Saba. 2001. Rehearsed Spontaneity and the Conventionality of Ritual: Disciplines of Salat. American Ethnologist 28, 4: 827–53.
Mathew, Reji Fr. 2008. A Palm Sunday Service with Shorter Palm Leaves. ASEETHI (80). A tribute to the Octogenarian Rev. Fr. Dr. T.J. Joshua. Kottayam: Orthodox Syrian Sunday School Association of the East, 131–37.
Mar Barnabas, Mathews. 2008. Moral Education. In ASEETHI (80). A tribute to the Octogenarian Rev. Fr. Dr. T.J. Joshua. Kottayam: Orthodox Syrian Sunday School Association of the East, 2327.
Moore, Leslie. 2001. Learning in Schools. In Lancy, D. F., ed., Studying Children and Schools: Qualitative Research Traditions. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 207–32.
Moore, Leslie. 2006. Learning by Heart in Qur'anic and Public Schools in Northern Cameroon. Social Analysis 50, 3: 109–26.
Naumescu, Vlad. 2007. Modes of Religiosity in Eastern Christianity: Religious Processes and Social Change in Ukraine. Berlin: Lit Verlag.
Naumescu, Vlad. 2016. The End Times and the Near Future: The Ethical Engagements of Russian Old Believers in Romania. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 22, 2: 314–31.
Naumescu, Vlad. 2017. Becoming Orthodox: The Mystery and Mastery of a Christian Tradition. In Luehrmann, S., ed., Sensory Spirituality: Prayer as a Transformative Practice in Eastern Orthodoxy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2953.
Orsi, Robert A. 2005. Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Pandian, Anand. 2010. Interior Horizons: An Ethical Space of Selfhood in South India. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 16, 1: 6483.
Perczel, Istvan. 2009. Four Apologetic Church Histories from India. The Harp 24: 189217.
Pop, Simion. 2017. Orthodox Revivals: Prayer, Charisma, and Liturgical Religion. In Luehrmann, S., ed., Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 216–41.
Raman, Bhavani. 2010. Disciplining the Senses, Schooling the Mind: Inhabiting Virtue in the Tamil Tinnai School. In Pandian, A. and Ali, D., eds., Ethical Life in South Asia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 4360.
Raman, Bhavani. 2012. Document Raj: Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Richards, William Joseph and Stock, Eugene. 2010 [ca. 1908]. The Indian Christians of St. Thomas, otherwise Called the Syrian Christians of Malabar. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger Publishing.
Sancho, David. 2015. Youth, Class and Education in Urban India: The Year that Can Break or Make You. London: Routledge.
Sarangapani, Prema. 2003. Constructing School Knowledge: An Ethnography of Learning in an Indian Village. New Delhi: Sage.
Scheer, Monique. 2015. German ‘Shouting Methodists’: Religious Emotion as a Transatlantic Cultural Practice. In McLisky, C., Midena, D., and Vallgårda, K., eds., Emotions and Christian Missions: Historical Perspectives. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 4572.
Sedra, Paul. 2011. From Mission to Modernity: Evangelicals, Reformers and Education in Nineteenth-Century Egypt. New York: I. B. Tauris.
Sengupta, Parna. 2011. Pedagogy for Religion: Missionary Education and the Fashioning of Hindus and Muslims in Bengal. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Seth, Sanjay. 2007. Subject Lessons: The Western Education of Colonial India. Durham: Duke University Press.
Shetty, Parinitha. 2008. Missionary Pedagogy and Christianisation of the Heathens: The Educational Institutions Introduced by the Basel Mission in Mangalore. Indian Economic & Social History Review 45, 4: 509–51.
Srivastava, Sanjay. 1998. Constructing Post-Colonial India: National Character and the Doon School. London: New York: Routledge.
Starrett, Gregory. 1998. Putting Islam to Work: Education, Politics, and Religious Transformation in Egypt. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Vallgårda, Karen. 2015. Imperial Childhoods and Christian Mission: Education and Emotions in South India and Denmark. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Varghese, K. George. 2004. Writing Family Histories: Identity Construction among Syrian Christians. Economic and Political Weekly 39, 9: 897900.
Visvanathan, Susan. 1993. The Christians of Kerala: History, Belief and Ritual among the Yakoba. Madras: Oxford University Press.
Vrame, Anton C. 1999. The Educating Icon. Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press.
Ware, Kallistos. 1991. The Orthodox Church. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Zachariah, K. C. 2006. The Syrian Christians of Kerala: Demographic and Socio-Economic Transition in the Twentieth Century. Hyderabad: Orient Longman.



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed