Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: "Saranam, Saranam"

History of Hymns: "Saranam, Saranam"

By C. Michael Hawn

"Saranam, Saranam"
Traditional Pakistani, translated by D.T. Niles;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 523

D.T. Niles

Jesus, Savior, Lord, lo, to thee I fly:
Saranam, Saranam, Saranam;
Thou the Rock, my refuge that's higher than I;
Saranam, Saranam, Saranam.*

During the 1950s and 1960s, the movement to include culture in the discussion of the music and worship of the Christian church was in its early stages. Daniel Thambyrajah Niles (1908-1970), a native of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), was one of the first to encourage the use of indigenous musical idioms for congregational song.

D. T. Niles’ grandfather was a Methodist minister. The son of district judge W. D. Niles and Rani Muthamma, Niles was educated at Jaffna Central College, Ceylon, and at United Theological College in Bangalore, Karnataka, India, between 1920-1933. Returning to Jaffna to teach until 1935, he was ordained in 1936 and became the District Evangelist for the North District of the Methodist Church of Ceylon.

An international figure in the ecumenical movement, Niles was evangelism secretary of the World YMCA in Geneva (1939-1940), Chairman of the Youth Department of the World Council of Churches (1948-52), and its evangelism secretary (1953-59). Niles helped found the East Asia Christian Conference beginning in 1957, becoming its first General Secretary, and later Chairman in 1968. His scholarship was widely recognized as was evidenced by the invitation to give the Lyman Beecher Lectures (1957) on preaching at Yale Divinity School, published as The Preacher’s Task and the Stone of Stumbling (1958).

Niles was a widely published author in the areas of mission, evangelism, and preaching. His major books include Upon the Earth: the Mission of God and the Missionary Enterprise of the Churches (1962), Buddhism and the Claims of Christ (1967), and The Message and Its Messengers: Missions Today and Tomorrow (1966).

His theology of contextualization may be summed up in the following quotation:

The Gospel is like a seed, but when it is sown, the plant that grows up is Christianity. The plant must bear the marks of the seed as well as of the soil. There is only one Gospel, but there are many Christianities, each indigenous to the soil in which it grows . . .. We must resist the attempt of those who would treat the Gospel as manure for the trees that are already growing in the various lands . . .
. . . When you sow the seed of the Gospel in Israel, a plant that can be called Jewish Christianity grows. When you sow it in Rome, a plant of Roman Christianity grows.
You sow the Gospel in Great Britain and you get British Christianity. The seed of the Gospel is later brought to America, and a plant grows of American Christianity. Now, when missionaries came to our lands they brought not only the seed of the Gospel, but their own plant of Christianity, flower pot included! So, what we have to do is to break the flowerpot, take out the seed of the Gospel, sow it in our own cultural soil, and let our own version of Christianity grow.

Asian hymns are often the most neglected repertoire in our hymnals. Many people enjoy the lively rhythms of African songs and the beautiful melodies of Latino tunes, but find Asian music to be too far removed from their experience.

Hymns in Asian musical idioms are rare. The normative practice in Asian churches is to sing Western hymns in translation or use contemporary Christian choruses. Because of their experience with many Western missionaries who did not encourage composition in Asian musical idioms or the use of Asian musical instruments, Asian Christians have usually neglected compositions in their own styles.

Niles felt that singing hymns in one’s own musical idiom as well as in one's mother tongue was a way for the gospel to be “planted into the local soil” of the people — a way to experience the Incarnation of Christ on one’s own cultural terms. In an effort to promote Asian hymns, Niles edited the E.A.C.C. [East Asia Christian Conference] Hymnal in 1963.

Niles was not a reactionary, but had a true ecumenical spirit, ecumenical in the sense of oikoumene, the Greek root for the word – a word that does not refer to Christian denominational differences, but to “the whole inhabited world.” It was in this spirit that Niles spoke of music in the Western context: “Thanks to our English education, we are in a position to drink deep at western fountains of music and poetry; but having drunk deep, there is still a thirst which only our mother’s milk can satisfy.”

"Saranam" first appeared in the E.A.C.C. Hymnal, most of which consists of hymns in Western musical idioms. Niles contributed 44 hymns, translations and adaptations to this hymnal. They were an initial, but important, step in the development of a truly Asian hymnody.

The Pakistani melody PUNJABI has been arranged in the harmonies of a Western gospel song. Yet something of another culture comes through in the singing of this lovely hymn. Taiwanese ethnomusicologist and composer I-to Loh (b. 1936) contextualized the melody in a Pakistani musical idiom and published it in the Asian hymnal, Sound the Bamboo (1990, 2000).

"Saranam" is a Tamil word for “refuge” or surrendering oneself fully to deity. In this hymn, Niles sees this deity as the one, true God. I-to Loh, a Taiwanese ethnomusicologist and hymnologist, notes that the word “saranam” is repeated in a mantra-like fashion similar to a Hindu incantation. The prayerful text for refuge is rooted in texts like Psalm 61:1-2, "Hear my cry, O God; attend unto my prayer. From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I."

While on a sabbatical study leave in 2008, this author heard this song sung at Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary, Madurai, India. It was ccompanied on the harmonium, a small keyboard instrument played by the right hand and powered by bellows activated by the left hand. I noted that the hymn was sung quicker than I had heard it in the United States, and it was supported by an energetic rhythm. This rendering was much different than the slower harmonized version composed by Niles and found in The United Methodist Hymnal. Regardless of the performance style, this Asian hymn is a song for all Christians.

* © Christian Conference of Asia. Used by permission.

C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

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