The historical roots of the Hindu-Christian encounter are buried in the uncertainty of traditions about the Apostle Thomas and the gradual growth of a Christian community in South India in the early centuries of the Christian era. Intrigues between Roman Catholic and Protestant missions and this indigenous Christian community are outside the scope of this paper, and little from the documented history of the St. Thomas Christians is of interest in the area of Christian mission among Hindus.
So the history of Christian mission in India is about Roman Catholic and Protestant missions that arrived in India in conjunction with European colonial powers. That mission among Hindus is intertwined with colonial history is an emotionally charged reality that is best faced from the start. There are both Hindu and Christian voices that stigmatize Christian missions among Hindus as an aspect of colonial domination.1 This simplistic paradigm will not influence this paper.
Colonial realities massively impacted both missionary Christianity and Hinduism. The very term and construct of a world religion called “Hinduism” developed during the colonial era. Standard textbooks on world religions and Hinduism all wrestle with the complexity of “Hindu” as a religious designation, and most call for “contextual specificity” as the generic “Hindu” label is so broad as to be nearly meaningless.2 Geoffrey Oddie (2006) has shown how the consciousness of a Hindu religion developed among Indians in reaction against missionary criticisms of what the missionaries imagined about a monolithic religion called “Hinduism.”
Christianity’s implication in the colonial enterprise moved a steady stream of disciples of Jesus to seek distance from at least colonial realities, and at times from Christianity itself.3 Thus the disputed nature of Hinduism is not the only complex variable in considering Christian mission among Hindus.
There is no simple way to outline a subject as vast and complex as Christian mission among Hindus, but some arrangement of data is needed. Due to significant differences in approach and in results, this paper will divide the subject according to the social status of Hindus engaged by the Christian mission. The low castes, among whom success was significant, will be considered first; the high castes, among whom success was limited and among whom approaches went through various changes, will then be discussed.
It was particularly among the lowest of caste groups, today known as Dalits, that Christianity took root in India.4 Among a few dozen Dalit peoples, “mass movements” developed whereby over a period of years and decades many thousands professed the Christian faith. R. E. Frykenberg gives a good summary of how these movements developed.
Only by means of agents through whose efforts that message could be translated into locally understandable idioms that were acceptable and attractive, and only after a period of incubation within a potentially new host culture and community, did such movements explode. Only after the new early converts had absorbed and acculturated the Gospel message, together with new and modern technologies that helped them to transmit their new world view, was there a release of spiritual energy that turned and then transformed whole communities. (2008:241)
John Webster suggests that “the modern Dalit movement began with what Christian missionaries called the mass movements” (1992:33). These movements are responsible for the origins of Christianity as it exists in most of India today and define the events taking place where Christianity is currently growing in India. There is a voluminous and growing literature on these movements, and numerous points of fascination and controversy that can only barely be mentioned in this paper.
It is now clear that the early Dalit people movements were not about attaining freedom and dignity so much as finding better patronage from influential foreign missionaries. Two quotations will need to suffice in support of this statement, taken from studies in the far north and far south of India.
There is furthermore no clear suggestion in the sources that the labourers became Christians because they wanted liberty from the caste system as such. Rather, they converted because they believed the new masters would treat them better than the old ones. Likewise, there was no question of the converts looking for greater mobility within Christianity, even though this was what they actually gained in the long run. (Bugge 1994:163)
The evidence is that Chuhras, accustomed as they were to patron-client relationships, sought to adopt the missionaries and missions as new, more benevolent patrons. It is equally clear that this was a role that the missionaries did not relish and that they resisted. (Webster 2002:103f)
This change of faith and patronage on a large scale forced the development of indigenous leadership and indigenous patterns of faith and life. Yet it also almost necessarily included Westernizing tendencies, often quite ironically with locals pressing for Western forms and patterns as they desired distance from their former socio-cultural contexts. Again two quotations will make the point.
Some in the West would question whether the “Gothic” architecture, with enormous structures and lofty spires pointing heavenward, that congregations at such places as Megnanapuram and Nazareth erected with their own hands, in competition with each other, could truly be seen as “Indian” or “indigenous.” The retort made by local leaders was that, as former slaves, Shanars (aka Nadars) were not about to copy the styles of temples used by their former masters and were only too glad to find, adopt, or copy new forms for the expression of their faith in buildings that they had erected for their Christ. (Frykenberg 2008:225)
Paradoxically, Westerners had urged an Indian to indigenize according to Indian paradigms that the Indian believed inappropriate; and the Indian adopted Western dress opposed by Orientalizing Westerners. (Harper 2000:142)
Christian education was a major focus of mission among Hindus, among the poor due to their need for development and among the higher castes as an evangelistic strategy (to be noted further below). Higher level education became a powerful source of Westernizing tendencies in Indian society, and also among the more elite Christians who qualified for higher education. The devolution of missionary authority to national Christians in the mid-twentieth century tended strongly to the advantage of the urban elite Christians, to the detriment of the truly Dalit rural masses of Christians.
The churches that have resulted from the people movements of past generations are thus not closely related to Hindu cultural norms. Christianity is effectively locked out of thousands of Hindu castes and communities in modern India, with ongoing mission work still very much focused on the many and various Dalit people groups. The problem for non-Dalit Hindus is well summarized by Herbert E. Hoefer:
Christian congregational organisation, modes of worship, names, customs of dress (especially among women), styles of church art and architecture, religious language, eating habits, selection of religious leadership, approaches to religious nurture and propagation, attitudes towards Indian history, and expectations on personal habits often differ significantly from the mainstream of the society. Yet, few will today attempt to defend these differences on the grounds of theological necessity. These practices are simply the developments of the Western missionary tradition over the past several centuries. The effect, however, is the same as that of insistence on beef and pork eating, and on circumcision and Sabbath observance: change of cultural habits along with change of faith. (2001:151)5 This continuing issue of the relevance of current (and historic) Christianity to Hindus leads to the discussion of attempts to engage higher caste Hindus with the message of Christ. Often this is what is in mind in discussions of Christian mission among Hindus, but these attempts to find relevance in relation to classical Hindu traditions need to be understood in light of the fruitful propagation of Christianity among lower caste peoples.6 Robert de Nobili’s pioneering work in Madurai is well known and almost iconic among those focused on the higher castes of Hindus. Nobili distanced himself from Europeans and their foreign ways and religion and radically adapted to high caste religio-cultural ways until his work was halted in 1612 due to controversies surrounding his methods.7 Similar sentiments were expressed and experiments attempted at other times in Christian mission among Hindus. A striking example from a decidedly different theological perspective is from the Protestant decennial missionary gathering in 1892:
The principle I contend for, then, is this: that the books which we publish should be carefully related to Hindu thought, expressed in its terms, done in its style, adopting where it can its positions, and leading on, still in Hindu fashion and in its terminology, from points of agreement to essential points of difference. In this way we may, perhaps, be able to furnish an effectual exhibition of legitimately "Hinduized Christianity." (Haigh 1893:667, italics in original)
Christian higher education in India was developed in the mid-nineteenth century with a very different perspective. There was a clear focus on the evangelization of high caste Hindus, but with a simplistic understanding of Hinduism as a false religion. There was also a desire to undermine and destroy this ill-conceived “Hinduism,” as indicated by the patriarch of Christian higher education, Alexander Duff:
While you [evangelistic missionaries] engage in directly separating as many precious atoms from the mass as the stubborn resistance to ordinary appliances can admit, we shall, with the blessing of God, devote our time and strength to the preparing of a mine, and the setting of a train which shall one day explode and tear up the whole from its lowest depths. (Smith 1881:68)
This negative, even cynical, view of Hinduism and of Christian mission among Hindus was prominently held and vigorously advocated for throughout mission history, and is by no means extinct even at the present time.8 But in the development of Christian higher education, more liberal views came to dominate. There were some success stories of individuals coming to faith in Christ, but not to the extent that early educational missionaries had hoped. And as John McKenzie well stated,
It was not only the flow of converts to the Christian Church that was seriously checked; Hinduism was proved to be not a mass of rock that might be mined and blown up, but a living plant with many roots, that was capable of eluding the art of the sapper and miner. (1929:91.)
Christian higher education came to be commended for its suffusion of Christian principles into India and into Hinduism. There is no question that Christianity impacted Hinduism, and by the mid-twentieth century that reality became part of the focus of a new Christian approach to Hindus, dialogue.
But changes in Christian attitudes to Hinduism in the nineteenth century influenced more than just educational missions. A dominant new paradigm emerged, presenting Christianity as the crown or fulfillment of Hinduism. Fulfillment was a central idea at the Edinburgh 1910 gathering, as noted by Wesley Ariarajah:
In summing up its findings, the Commission reiterated its conviction that the Christian attitude to Hinduism, notwithstanding the elements which the Christian must reject, should be one of understanding and sympathy. It said that the Christian should seek the noble elements in non-Christian religions and use them as steps to higher things, for Hinduism in its higher forms “plainly manifests the working of the Holy Spirit.” The “merely iconoclastic attitude,” the Commission said, was condemned by the majority of its correspondents as “radically unwise and unjust.” (1991:27, quoting from Commission on the Missionary Message: Hinduism, II, Bound Manuscripts, WCC Library, pg. 267.)
The fulfillment motif came to dominance because it affirmed the centrality of Christ (or Christianity) while also being respectful towards other religious traditions. It was also, however, conveniently hazy, and there were a number of different angles by which to define exactly what was being fulfilled by what.9 In the heart of the fulfillment era another iconic figure appeared. Brahmabandhab Upadhyay was not noted at Edinburgh 1910, partly due to his not being Protestant and partly due to his having fallen from favor even with his Roman Catholic Church. But Upadhyay’s radical adaptation of Hindu forms (both cultural and intellectual) was powerfully influential in what has been called “the Calcutta School” in the 1930’s and became yet more prominent when promoted by the founders of the Sacchidananda Ashram (1948; Jules Monchanin and Swami Abhishiktananda) in Trichy (south India). The fresh breezes welcomed into Roman Catholicism by the Vatican II Council allowed Upadhyay to be widely recognized as a prophetic forerunner in Christian mission among Hindus.
Upadhyay sought to maintain a Hindu identity while being Roman Catholic; troubles with the church, not entirely unlike those of Nobili centuries earlier, ushered him into full identity with Hindus. Protestant Manilal C. Parekh walked a similar path; into Christ and the church and then out of the church and into an ambivalent state as a Hindu lover of Christ. The missiological ferment that produced fulfillment theology and striking figures like Upadhyay and Parekh also sparked the growth of Christian ashrams, an attempt to alter the foreign face of Christianity in India.
E. Stanley Jones was among the enthusiastic promoters of Christian ashrams and made a clear distinction between Christ and Christianity in his evangelistic work among Hindus. But the Christian ashram movement failed to develop into the transformative force its proponents aimed towards.10 The complexity of the Hindu-Christian encounter precludes simple solutions (such as a Christian ashram movement), and Christian mission among Hindus remains fraught with strains and struggles in many directions.
The last decades of the twentieth century brought transformations to the entire concept of Christian mission among Hindus. From the Indo-centric project outlined in this paper, globalization and its accompanying migrations brought mission to Hindus to the doorstep of churches across the world (though most still seem oblivious to this) while opening new channels for international Christian influence into rapidly urbanizing India.
Sensitive Christians alert to the complexities and challenges of this history and current reality have called for and engaged in interreligious dialogue, some seeing this as part of the Christian mission among Hindus while others would define it as parallel to mission. Dialogical efforts, however, remain marked by elitism and distrust. Let me again give two supporting quotations.
It seems to me that negative stereotypes, some deeply and almost unconsciously held, haunt both sides of most well-intentioned attempts at Hindu-Christian dialogue. (Taylor 1989:124)
There are few Hindus who are interested in (contemporary) Christian theology, and there are fewer still who have a desire to enter into a dialogue with their Christian counterparts....Celebrations and affirmations of dialogue notwithstanding, there seem to be few new ideas; there seems to be little progress. (Klostermaier 1989:265)11 Christianity in its encounter with Hindus today is marked by theological diversity, if not conflict and confusion.12 Mission among Dalits (and tribal peoples) proceeds with vigor, usually under Indian Christian initiative and leadership, creating massive controversy as many Hindus react against what they perceive to be proselytism.13 Dialogical efforts continue between Hindu (high caste, generally) and Christian leaders, while Hindu discipleship to Jesus outside of Christianity is “increasingly pervasive and influential” (Frykenberg 2008:465). A century after Edinburgh 1910, vigorous debate and activity continues to mark Christian mission among Hindus.
References Cited Ariarajah, Wesley
1991 Hindus and Christians: A Century of Protestant Ecumenical Thought. Currents of Encounter. Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi and Grand Rapids, USA: William B. Eerdmans.
1994 Mission and Tamil Society: Social and Religious Change in South India, 1840-1900. Nordic Institute of Asian Studies. Richmond, UK: Curzon Press.
1994 “Hindu-Christian Studies as a Necessary Luxury in the Context of Today’s Pluralism.” Hindu Christian Studies Bulletin Vol. 7, pp. 39-44.
Dharmaraj, Jacob S.
1993 Colonialism and Christian Mission: Postcolonial Reflections. Delhi: ISPCK.
1988 India and Indian Missions: Including Sketches of the Gigantic System of Hinduism both in Theory and Practice. Delhi: Swati Publications.
Frykenberg, Robert Eric
2008 Christianity in India: From Beginnings to the Present. Oxford History of the Christian Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Goel, Sita Ram
1989 History of Hindu-Christian Encounters. New Delhi: Voice of India.
1893 "Vernacular Literature." In Report of the Third Decennial Missionary Conference held at Bombay, 1892-93, vol. 2. A. Mainwaring (ed.). Bombay: Education Society's Steam Press. Pp 664-674.
Harper, Susan Billington
2000 In the Shadow of the Mahatma: Bishop V. S. Azariah and the Travails of Christianity in British India. Studies in the History of Christian Missions. Grand Rapids, USA: William B. Eerdmans and Richmond, UK: Curzon Press.
2001 Preparation and Fulfilment: A History and Study of Fulfilment Theology in Modern British Thought in the Indian Context. Studies in the Intercultural History of Christianity. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Verlag.
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1999, 2000 Divali, Festival of Lights: Prayer for Hindus. Richmond, VA: International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.
1989 “The Future of Hindu-Christian Dialogue.” In Hindu-Christian Dialogue: Perspectives and Encounters. Ed. Harold Coward. Maryknoll, USA: Orbis Books. Pp. 262-274
1929 “Higher Education.” In The Christian Task in India. Ed. John McKenzie. London: Macmillan and Co. Pp. 85-102.
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1994 Missionaries in India: Continuities, Changes, Dilemmas. New Delhi: ASA Publications.
1881 The Life of Alexander Duff, D.D., LL.D. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
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1993 Christian Ashrams: A Movement with a Future? Delhi: ISPCK.
1999 Conversion: National Debate or Dialogue? Anand, India: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash and Delhi: Media House.
Webster, John C. B.
1992 The Dalit Christians: A History. Delhi: ISPCK.
2002 “Dalits and Christianity in Colonial Punjab: Cultural Interactions.” In Judith M. Brown and Robert Eric Frykenberg (eds.), Christians, Cultural Interactions and India’s Religious Traditions. Studies in the History of Christian Missions. Grand Rapids, USA: William B. Eerdmans. Pp. 92-118.
Young, Richard Fox
2002 “Seeking India’s Christ-Bearing Word: Some Reflections—Historical, Indological and Theological—on the Quest for a ‘Christian’ Vedanta.” International Journal of Frontier Missions vol. 19 no. 3, July-September 2002, pp. 19-29.
2 I am indebted to Richard Fox Young (2002) for the phrase “contextual specificity” in reference to the many varieties of Hindu religious (and non-religious) thought and practice.
3 Examples to be noted further on in this paper include Robert de Nobili, Brahmabandhab Upadhyay, E. Stanley Jones, and Manilal Parekh.
4 The name Dalit, which means the oppressed, is of recent coinage. Other names for these peoples were/are untouchables, scheduled castes, panchamas, harijans, pariahs, etc. The government of India still uses “Scheduled Castes,” a term rooted in a schedule (list) originally drawn up by the British government in the 1920s. There is considerable debate about whether “Dalit” should apply only to the castes on this list, or if it can/should also be applied to the Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Castes, etc. There is also debate in some circles regarding the validity of counting Dalits among Hindus; this paper takes the traditional view that these are Hindu peoples.
5 Hoefer is discussing and commending Hindus who follow Jesus without formal alliance with Christianity or the church, on the lines (noted below) of Brahmabandhab Upadhyay and Manilal C. Parekh. There is of course vast diversity of church organization and practice in India.
6 This paper juxtaposes the high castes and Dalits, each roughly 20% of the population of India. Half the population is the very diverse and hard to define “Other Backward Castes” (OBC, government of India official designation) or middle castes or Shudra castes, many of which are basically Dalit, many others basically high caste; all such rankings are severely contested in Indian social contexts.
7 The controversies were not stirred by Hindu objections, but by objections from another European Catholic priest.
8 Duff wrote of Hinduism that “Of all the systems of false religion ever fabricated by the perverse ingenuity of fallen man, Hinduism is surely the most stupendous” (1988:204). Note a recent similar sentiment that stirred controversy in India: "More than 900 million people are lost in the hopeless darkness of Hinduism, worshipping 330 million gods and goddesses created by the imagination of men and women searching for a source of truth and strength" (International Mission Board 1999:1). Note that a later edition of this booklet, without any indication that a change had been made, altered this opening line to “More than 900 million people seek healing from disease, salvation from natural disasters, definition of their place and role in life, acceptance in their communities and meaning in life through the path of Hinduism” (International Mission Board 2000:1).
9 Discussions of fulfillment theology point out this conundrum; note Paul Hedges’ broader analysis of the haziness of fulfillment theology in his discussion which begins with this line: “The question as to what fulfillment theology is immediately encounters a very great problem, namely, the vast range of thought that has been classified under this title” (2001:26).
10 The first Protestant Christian ashrams were established in the 1920s. Roman Catholic ashrams have proliferated since the 1960s. The failure to significantly impact either the church or Hindu society is often lamented by ashram advocates. See Vandana 1993 for example.
11 For further examples on these lines see Prasad 1993, Clooney 1994; cf. Robinson 2004, “despite general Hindu reluctance to initiate dialogue, there are some exceptions” (155).
12 The rather simplistic categorization of exclusivist, inclusivist and pluralist Christian theologies at least clarifies the breadth and depth of the diversity.
13 For an example of the negative reaction, note Conversion is Violence (Saraswati 1999). For a brief and balanced discussion of the issue, see Vempeny 1999.