Vinoth Ramachandra

Who Am I?

Posted on: April 24, 2009

On a train journey last month in Denmark, my wife engaged our neighbour in conversation while I hid, as usual, behind a magazine. On learning that we lived in Sri Lanka, he turned to me and asked, ‘So are you Sinhalese or Tamil?’ I hesitated, and replied: ‘Tamil’. ‘You can’t be,’ he shot back, ‘Tamils are dark-skinned.’

Stereotypes die hard. I shall return to my hesitancy later.

Most Europeans, unless they happen to move in specialist scholarly circles, cannot begin to fathom the sheer complexity of Asian societies, their histories and their politics. It is easy to settle for the ‘sound bytes’  of the popular media. So I was impressed by our companion’s knowledge. In Britain it is customary for all those from the Indian subcontinent to be  lumped under the general purpose category of ‘Asian’, while in the US the latter term designated (until fairly recently) Koreans, Japanese and Chinese. Events since 9/11 have forced some people, however, to break free from their Anglo-/Euro-centric views of other peoples and to actually read their histories in order to understand their own.

Ever since the civil conflict in Sri Lanka first came to the attention of the global media in July 1983, it has been routinely described as an ‘ethnic conflict’, and even at times a ‘religious conflict’ (as most of the majority ethnic group known as Sinhalese are Buddhists, and most of the minority Tamils are Hindus). But conflicts in the complex societies of Asia are rarely this simple.

Tamil is primarily a language, one of the oldest in the world. There are three Tamil-speaking communities in Sri Lanka: the ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’, living predominantly (but not exclusively) in the north of the island, who assert the historical reality that they are no less ‘sons of the soil’ than their Sinhala-speaking fellow citizens (an independent kingdom in the north existed continuously from 1215 for about four hundred years); the ‘upcountry Tamils’ who were brought as indentured labour in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by the British colonial rulers to work on the tea and rubber plantations; and the ‘Muslim Tamils’ of mixed Malay and Moor descent (comprising ten percent of the population) who stress their distinctive religious identity while speaking the same language as the other Tamil peoples.

It is only the first group of Tamil-speaking people, and again not all of them, who embraced the demand for a separate Tamil state in the north of the island. The movement for a separate state became more popular and more violent after the anti-Tamil pogrom in the south in July 1983. It splintered over the next decade into several factions warring with each other over strategy, as well as deep-seated differences based on caste, region, and personalities. The Tamil Tigers emerged as the most powerful and best-known internationally among the various Tamil militant factions. They quickly and ruthlessly asserted their dominance over all other groups They perfected the art of suicide-bombings and assassinated several prominent Tamil public figures who dared to question their methods or political agenda.

It is unlikely whether the Sinhalese-speaking people of Sri Lanka ever thought of themselves as ‘Sinhalese-Buddhists’ until the dawn of the colonial era. The last king of the ‘Sinhalese’ kingdom in Kandy was a Tamil, and the most bitter conflicts within that kingdom were based on caste and dynastic loyalties, rather than ‘religious’ or ‘ethnic’ differences. Today, among many middle-class Sinhalese, the Indian ‘holy man’ and ‘miracle-worker’ Sai Baba enjoys a popularity that far exceeds that of the Buddha. Politicians, business leaders and army officers make regular treks to his ashram in Bangalore, for Sai Baba gives them what they want- religion without repentance, power without morality.

The biblical understanding of sin gives us insights into the nature of human conflict. We make ourselves and our desires the centre of things. Trapped in such aspirations to deity, we see others as competitors to be suppressed, or as simply means to further our own ends, or as threats to our well-being. We have an innate bias towards defending and advancing our own interests. Consequently, we tend to speak of the wrongs we have suffered at the hands of others, but very rarely of the wrongs we have ourselves done to others. This estrangement often turns inwards, so that we even become strangers to ourselves, not understanding our motives and passions, let alone the true ends for which we exist.

In the Sri Lankan context, many Sinhalese intellectuals continue to blame the suffering of the nation on European colonial powers, the IMF/World Bank nexus or ‘Tamil nationalism’; rarely on their own political mismanagement and lack of a pluralist vision for Sri Lankan society. The vociferous Tamil ‘diaspora’ in the West, including many intellectuals, have been silent on the disgraceful ways Muslims were treated by the Tigers or the greater suffering of poor Southern Sinhalese villagers and the plantation Tamils.  Discussion of the terrible discriminatory practices within communities is always suppressed.

Why did I hesitate to answer my traveling companion’s question? My ancestry on both sides is Tamil, but I grew up speaking English as my first language. While I read and understand Tamil very well, there is a huge gap between literary and spoken Tamil. So I speak Sinhalese better than I do Tamil. There are many anomalies like me around, here and abroad: people who live on boundaries, not being ‘at home’ in any one culture.  Where do we fit into the ‘peoples-group’ classifications that some (usually American) missiologists are promoting? (One reason, among others, to be cautious about such methodologies).

We all have multiple, overlapping identities. Which we consider primary or basic depends on how we integrate the different stories that our ‘selves’ indwell. My integrating centre is Christ, which makes my primary identity Christian. But since that term too is so misunderstood today, using it publicly conveys very little. So, who am I? I think I know, but cannot say it. Perhaps I can only show it.

11 Responses to "Who Am I?"

Great post and really fantastic closing thoughts. I have many friends in London (I live in the far more sparsely populated Dublin) involved in mission particularly aimed at sub-groups within the wider population. Recently I was talking to a Sri Lankan Anglican priest who is doing mission with Tamils in London but I have other friends reaching out even to “lifestyle groups” like goths, not merely ethnic sub-groups.

Have you any thoughts on the dangers of this kind of mission to homogeneous groups becoming defined by their homogeneity?

Is there a risk, do you think, that these groups, being reached together and worshipping together won’t feel a need to live with Christ and not their ethnic or cultural identity at the centre? Does this kind of mission run a risk of losing the diversity that is perhaps a hallmark of the church?

(Apologies if the question is too dense- I am still trying to work it out in response to your post).

Dr. Vinoth,

Thank you for giving us a window into your biography.

You mention that Christ is the integrating centre of your life and you take a critical view of missiologists promoting ‘peoples-group’ classifications.

I am keen to read a bit more about your conversion to Christ story.

The word ‘conversion’ has a lot of negative baggage. Also there is the concept of being spiritually born-again, what does that mean for you?

Missions organization both Western/International but also indigenous/national want to get the job done, fulfill the Great Commission.

Also there are the global missions programs like ‘Save Billion Souls’ initiative with the backing of millions of US dollars who want nothing more for your country than the conversion of all Buddhist and Hindu to Christ. Only that kind of mass evangelistic effort will really solve the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka I am told.

How does what you write about economics and other social issues connect with the fundamental issue of saving souls from hell?

Thank you,


Philip, my ‘conversion story’ is still unfinished.

I am sure you know the answers to your own questions! They are pretty big anyway and there are hundreds of books that address them. My own contributions can be found in, say, Peskett & Ramachandra, The Message of Mission (in the BST series, IVP, 2003). My discussion of the Great Commission can be found in the article ‘What is Integral Mission?’ at

Homogeneous churches are an oxymoron. The Church is where the risen Christ is at work breaking down the dividing walls of class, ethnicity, etc. So unless the neighbourhood itself is culturally homogeneous, homogeneous ‘churches’ are nothing more than religious clubs. While, in evangelism, we reach people where they are (within their own culture), we don’t leave them there. Conversion is about moving people on a journey where they repent of their ethnocentric and other social prejudices. I often wonder what ‘baptism’ or ‘conversion’ means for people in homogeneous ‘churches’, which Jesus they think they are following!

My critique of ‘peoples-group’ methodologies of ‘church growth’ is thus both theological and sociological.

Dr. Vinoth,
Thank you for the response, esp. the insight that our conversion story is unfinished. Makes me wonder if the absence of this understanding of conversion, and instead ‘conversion as results’ understanding that underpins ‘peoples-group’ approach to church growth.
Also your question about ‘which Jesus?’ I feel is key… Our understanding of Jesus must be informed by Scripture, but that understanding has to be transformed through deep cross-cultural relationships in the Body of Christ. An insight I gained through reading Newbigin.

I find your comment on ‘peoples-group’ classification quite interesting. And even more interesting in your comment on homogeneous churches. Northeast India is packed with different peoples group, and each of those groups would establish ‘churches’ based on their tribal ethnicity. The coming of Christianity could not unite the century old hostility brewing between different tribes. Occasionally they butcher each other. (The recent Naga-Kuki clash is an example). I have no doubt that homogeneous unit churches oftentimes reinforce ethnocentric attitude. So, I quite understand your point.

My concern, however, is regarding the identity of these tribal groups. Identity as in the sense of language, cultural traditions, history etc. There is this fear that mixing with others will undermine their identity. Study of tribal theology also reinforces the idea that tribals should rediscover their unique tribal identity. But that unique tribal identity can be preserved by staying away from others, and therefore the argument in favour of homogeneous churches. Because for many tribes church has evolved to be the most important institution from preventing the tribe fall apart. Would you like to make any comment for such tribal groups and also the study of tribal theology?

Philip, I am not Vinoth but let me say few lines about your last question. I think even if economics and other social issues are not connected with saving of souls from hell, they should bother followers of Jesus Christ. In India the Naxalite terrorists that wage ‘war’ against the state, which leads to death of thousands of people, is primarily because of socio-economic reason. The insurgency which killed thousands in Assam, Tripura and other parts of India and hundreds of suicidal cases of farmers, and dying due to hunger in terms of millions worldwide are all due to socio-economic reason. Should not the God of the Bible be concerned with all these deaths? And if He is concerned, should not I be concerned too?

I think all these issues, however, have a direct impact on evangelism. If the individual Christians in Sri Lanka, instead of living together as one in Christ, support their ethnic groups and fight it out to death, they won’t do evangelism. If like the Nagas in India thousands of youth take up guns to assert their political identity who will do the mission work? Can we expect starving illiterate Christians to do evangelism or should someone speak to the authority on their behalf? I think Kingdom of God is the grand story of the Bible, not saving of soul from hell.

God bless!

Naga churches in Nagaland, I can understand. But in Delhi or Mumbai, let alone Chicago? Same with exclusively Tamil, Malyali and Mizo “churches”.

Here are 3 questions you could put to your northeast friends: (1) when does love for tribe/culture become idolatrous? (2) how is their understanding of identity different from, say, the RSS or Sangh Parivar? 93) what does it mean, practically, for them to follow Jesus’ teaching in Matt 5:43-48?

Thanks Vinoth for shedding more light onto the complexity of the situation in Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan Diaspora, and for integrating your historical sketch with the theme of your own identity.

Yes, becoming who we are meant to be in Christ, is a mystery because the goal of life is not so much for our souls to be saved from hell, as Philip has responded recently, but for our bodies, minds, spirits, emotions, wills, sexual, cultural and national identities, and personal histories to be healed, integrated and drawn into everlasting communion with the living God who is Three and One. And what makes the mystery of our new identity all the more hard to grasp is that it is simultensously hidden with Christ in God, and, unfolding (or “showing” as you put it) in the particular places and with the genders, names and languages that we have received in our creaturely identity.

So the nuances and ironies that you describe as part of your Tamilness resonate with those of my South Africanness and Africanness. My great-grandmothers were both Afrikaaner grandchildren of the Great Trekkers in the Free State. Their husbands were a Glasgow born working class adventurer, and a London born soldier, respectively.

My parents then grew up with Afrikaans mothers, and English speaking South African fathers. Afrikaans and English have shaped my identity, as has the very strong ideology of Apartheid which dominated the education I received in the 70s. Studying alongside black South Africans for the first time in the 80s and discovering South Africa’s true story – unlike the one I learnt in school history, turned my sense of who I am upside down during those years. I found myself caught up in the liberation struggle, identifying very strongly with my black compatriots, and in great tension with my Afrikaaner and very conservative English upbringing.

South Africa’s spectacularly beautiful landscape is undoubtably part of my soulscape. As a result I don’t feel at all out of place when I travel in Kenya, for example, or Namibia, or Zimbabwe. There is some kind of inner GPS that tells me I am not far from home. Black South Africans have also shaped my identity, sense of humour and my embodied freedoms in corporate worship. My sense of uniqueness as a person is heightened with black friends because of how similar and different they are to me. I am at ease with a sense of being an African as I interact with my students from West Africa or South Africa. A sense of shared Africanness has somehow crept into my self-understanding.

Having followed Christ in the complexities of South Africa, through conscientious objection to military service in the 80s, then in the euphoric period of the reconstruction and development era of the new South Africa, and now into the increasingly painful era of massive HIV/AIDS mortalities and a fairly rapid corrosion of South Africa’s social sustainability, I think I can begin to see the mystery of my identity unfolding.

Marriage and becoming a father has had a wonderfully formative effect too, I’m sure. And the South Africanness that our boys will grow up with will be so different to ours. Herein lies so much more…

To end then, I know I am living more and more loosely with my South Africanness, but at the same time with greater depth and commitment to being just who I am. And I hope, with more responsiveness to Christ to steadily lay hold of the mysterious free gift he promises of wholeness.

the link works but should be used without a period at the end, like this:

Thank you Dr. Rammachandra,

Your conclusion “So, who am I? I think I know, but cannot say it. Perhaps I can only show it” reminds me of a phrase by Ludwid Wittgenstein. In the Investigations he make the following comment: “I know more than I can say.” This brings to the fore the implicit truth that knowledge, of the self, God, world etc. cannot be contained purely within the propositional. The integrated person does not necessarliy express everything in logical or propositional form. There is a deep awareness of the rational faculties combined with explicit attention and concentration on the fact that one is embodied and must therefore not only speak, but embody what is spoken.

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April 2009
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