Many in the traditional churches of India and the West have been offended by the celebration of the Maha Prasad among Jesu Bhaktas. This criticism has arisen because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Maha Prasad is. It is not a celebration of the Lord’s Supper; it is its own thing.
Christian Views of the Lord’s Supper
In traditional Christian theology and practice, there are two fundamental views of the Lord’s Supper. The historic churches (e.g. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran) view it as a sacrament. They understand that God is conveying grace and forgiveness through this rite. For them, baptism and membership in the church are the necessary requirements for participating in the sacrament. Members will typically go to the altar to receive the bread and the wine from the officiants, expressing the idea of meeting the Lord there.
The Protestant church fathers rejected this reading of scripture and objected to the emptiness of the ritual for uninformed, unbelieving participants. As with baptism, they required a personal commitment of faith. Protestants call the rite an ordinance, observing it as a commandment from Jesus: “Do this in remembrance of me.” For them, the rite is primarily an act of fellowship with one another as mutual followers of Jesus. Therefore, they typically receive the bread and the wine (or grape juice) passed around to their seats.
With both traditions, the specific “words of institution” are recited: “On the night in which He was betrayed, he took the cup….” For the sacramental churches, this recitation is blessed by God with His promised grace. For Protestant churches, this recitation is a reminder of their common faith. This recitation must be done by an ordained priest/pastor in sacramental churches and is almost always done by an ordained clergy in Protestant churches.
The Maha Prasad as practiced by Jesu Bhaktas follows neither of these traditions:
- The words of institution are not recited.
- No bread and wine/juice are used.
- There is no distribution from the hands of the officiant.
- There is no following of either the sacramental or Protestant traditions.
- Any Jesu Bhakta may conduct the rite.
The Maha Prasad is its own thing. It is rooted in the symbols of traditional Indian culture and Hindu forms using objects like a coconut, flowers, fruits, and incense. Roles are played by males and females following traditional cultural norms. The usual ritual goes as follows:
- The leader, usually male, begins the worship with the responsive chanting of Christ-centered bhajans between him and the participants.
- After some time, he delivers a homily.
- At the conclusion of the homily, he refers to Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross.
- He takes the coconut and strikes it with a small hammer. With each strike, he dramatically recounts the suffering of Christ. He might say something like this: “His body was violently broken for us (strike); He offered his body as the ahudi (material thrown in the fire during a sacrifice) [strike], as a prayaschitta (atonement) in that maha-yajna (great sacrifice) [strike].
- At this point, he opens up the coconut, as the milk flows out, saying: “And by the pouring out of His blood, He has made us white as coconut,” showing it to the participants.
- A mixture of coconut milk and bananas has been prepared, either by some female Bhaktas or by the person conducting the Maha Prasad.
- Participants will either come forward to receive the mixture or one person will walk around to distribute it to everyone. They eat the banana and milk and then pass their hand over their head to symbolize receiving the grace.
- The rite is concluded by having some senior member of the community scattering rice upon the participants and reciting a blessing.
The term “Maha Prasad” means “great grace”. In Hindu rituals, “prasad” is the food (or sometimes flowers, ash, or sweets) placed at the altar and then consumed after the worship, with the understanding that it has been blessed by the deity. The participants are receiving the gift from the deity and consuming it, accepting blessing from the deity.
The practice of Maha Prasad by the Jesu Bhaktas is an adaptation of the Hindu tradition. It is not rooted in either sacramental or Protestant traditions. It is adapting traditional Hindu gestures and symbols to worship of Jesus. In this, the Maha Prasad is part of the general Jesu Bhakta movement in seeking to develop a genuinely Indian form of faith in Jesus.
In summary, the rite has major differences from each of the Christian traditions:
- It is not derived from a command and instituting by Jesus.
- It is a spiritual identifying with Jesus and an openness to receive His Presence in one’s life.
Traditional Christians can participate in the Maha Prasad, while also participating in the Lord’s Supper according to their own traditions. It is simply a different way of worshipping Jesus.