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Christianity in India: The fastest growing alternative to Brahminism for two centuries
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Christianity in India: The fastest growing alternative to Brahminism for two centuries

pvv vijay kumar

 

P Victor Vijay Kumar

pvv vijay kumarOfficially, the Christian population in India is a little less than 2.5%; it grew from around 0.5% in the 1870s, thus being the fastest growing of spiritual faiths in India. This article endeavours to bring to light how and why this faith grew to such levels, how it succeeded as an alternative faith to Brahminical Hinduism, and what kind of obstacles are created in order to restrain the propaganda of Christianity that was spread by the English East India Company, followed by the British Govt., how missionaries suffered ordeals all through in illiterate and brahmin-supremacist India. The basis of these inferences and facts have been culled from various documents related to several missionary reports and other documents dating back to pre-independence times, which are given in the bibliography.

The Indian freedom movement was more of an endeavour to protect religious/casteist faiths and less about anti-imperialist nationalism

Indian society is strongly influenced by its faith systems. It is very pertinent to state that there has been no earnest anti-imperial nationalist movement in India, rather it was a struggle carried out by native dominant brahmin/zamindari/Nawab sections for garnering a larger chunk of their interests from the British Govt. Such a mobilisation by these native dominant sections was based on reasons related to interference with their own faith systems. The historical Sepoy Mutiny was instigated and abetted mainly on the grounds of apprehensions that East India Company was interfering in the respective faiths of Hinduism and Islam. Without these apprehensions, the 1857 mutiny may not have occurred, or, at least, been postponed much beyond its actual date. At the actual date of occurrence, two-thirds of the British Army comprised privileged castes and a handful of Christian converts. As one can see throughout its history, as the mutiny continued, Sikhs withdrew from it, due to their fears that Mughal rule would be re-established, with Bahadur Shah, a reluctant king, as the leader.

This fact reaffirms that the base of so-called First Independence movement was religious faith, and not really anti-imperialist fraternal association. This is alluded to here, in order to understand that even the most patriotically projected Sepoy Mutiny in India was simply a matter of negotiating the warp and weft of religious faith in its fabric. Indian history was majorly composed of uprisings by, and oppression of, religious faiths over the past couple of centuries. In fact, the much-touted infamous ‘Doctrine of Lapse’ implemented by Dalhousie, was actually in vogue under the East India Company since much before Dalhousie. Dalhousie was not in favour of paying huge pensions to the “retired” kings/queens, as the East India Company had been doing all along. The prospect of social degradation was scarier to these savarna rulers than that of economic degradation. It needs to be noted that the ‘Doctrine of Lapse’ was not a problem of the common masses who remained in the same state before and after British entry, except for certain taxes related to peasantry. The disappointment of Hindu and Nawab rulers at this doctrine peaked after Dalhousie left India, which added further heft to the revolt that emerged on the basis of faith systems. (This Sepoy Mutiny was centred only around Delhi; the Army in the South, Madras Presidency, neither participated in it, nor acknowledged the Sepoy Mutiny.)

Entry of Christian Missionaries into India

Though the East India Company entered India in the early 17th century, it consolidated its military and political grip on India only after the Battle of Plassey in 1757. In fact, the British Government had little control over the rule of the Company, which was controlled by its own Board/Court of Directors in its day-to-day affairs. As the East India Company sensed that trade in India would continue smoothly, as long as dominant sentiments were not disturbed, it did not allow any entry of Christian Missionaries into India. Despite the resistance, the Christian Missionaries, who sincerely believed that India urgently needed the Gospel of the God as it was inflicting itself with ‘low morality’ constituted by caste and several Brahminical superstitions and practices like Sati, and engulfed by idol worship, dared to reach India illegally. These missionaries could reach India through the then Danish Colonies in Kolkata and Tamil Nadu (this was before Danish colonies were ceded to British after the defeat of Napolean war in 1815). Renowned Missionaries like William Carey from England reached Kolkata, which was under Danish rule then, while the British East India Company was adamant in not allowing missionaries into its Indian territories.

As the renewal of Charter granted to the East India Company by the British Parliament was due in 1813, there was tremendous pressure built up in the British Parliament to allow missionaries into India in the form of about 908 petitions and nearly 5 lakh signatures. This forced the British Government to have its say in East India Company rule. Eventually, the 1813 Charter Renewal Act became a milestone in the religious history of India. This also prompted British Government to allot Rs. 1 lakh to promote education in India besides formally allowing Christian Missionaries into India, in submission to the general demand from the British public. After this relaxation in entry for missionaries, they gradually widened their activity and started fighting the superstitious sentiments of Brahminical Hindu India

Christian Missionaries and reforms in Hindu Society

The demand for the abolition for Sati was resolutely driven by the missionaries supported by the evangelist William Wilberforce, who was also an elected MP of England. During this time William Carey, who was spreading Christianity in Indian from Serampore, Bengal, had already influenced Raja Ram Mohan Roy to oppose Sati. William Carey, a cobbler by profession, who had lost his wife, to a debilitating mental illness and a child to dysentery, was one of the first missionaries to India. He managed to enter into good terms with the upper caste elite sections through the Asiatic Society, based out of Bengal (I will talk about this in succeeding paragraphs). In fact, in 1802, it was not primarily due to Raja Ram Mohan Roy or any other Hindu reformer, but due to vehement recommendations of the Christian Missionary William Carey, based on his systematic findings, that efforts were made to ban the Hindu practice of female infanticide. This was in vogue, most notably at Sagar Island, effected through the drowning of female children. Subsequently, Lord Wellesley passed a regulation considering female infanticide as murder (the continuing murders were prevented by the military at Sagar Island, where Ganga river meets the Bay of Bengal, as the “Pujaris” and “Police” were found to be encouraging the practice by taking bribes).

The stamp of approval from Governor General Lord Bentinck to abolish Sati from Hinduism came in the form of Raja Ram Mohan Roy (though the missionary William Carey and others had been continuing this opposition for a long time) and thus Sati was abolished in 1829. This was manipulated by local Brahminical sections to make it appear that the East India Company was meddling with local dominant Hindu sentiments. The point is that, but for the missionaries lobbying and carrying prudent campaigns against it, using upper caste echelons, the practice of ‘Sati’ would not have been abolished in India at that time. This was the first and major blow to Brahminism from the Christian Missionaries that instilled a practice of questioning of wrong practices. One should take note that every foreign invader who came to India, including Moghuls and East India company rulers, could only strike a compromised pose with Brahminism in India, and no one could dare to go against them. Only the contact with Christian Missionaries could bring about this initiative by displeasing Brahmanical forces, while also creating friction with the rulers.

Instances like the indigo farmers’ movement show that Christian Missionaries stood on the side of poor Indian farmers firmly and fought against European plantation owners. Christian Missionaires entered this movement while spreading the Gospel among poor agrarian communities who were severely distressed by famines and their immediate priority was to find a solution for the same. The fight was based on a simple dictum of ‘injustice should be condemned’. CMS Missionary James Long, who was arrested for supporting the ryots, was considered as a hero of the poor and oppressed.

Resistance by East India Company/British Government against growing missionary activity

The Vellore Mutiny of 1806, that arose due to changes in dress code implemented by the British for better military appearance, was widely seen as being the result of meddling with Hindu and Muslim customs and sentiments. The mutiny confirmed to the East India Company that as long as they refrained from meddling with the sentiments of the natives, the exploitation of Indian resources by them should not be a problem. Interestingly, there was no mission working out in Vellore in 1806, except for a small branch of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) mission. The East India Company used this instance in England as a caution against allowing Christian missionaries into India by sending some copies of the pamphlets of this mission to the Parliament. When the Vellore Mutiny was unfoundedly seen by Brahminical /Zamindari forces as an attack on Hinduism carried out by East India Company, people like Edward Parry and Charles Grant (who were parliamentarians as well on the Board/Court of Directors of the Company), in their personal capacity, managed to convince the entire Board to understand the issues at hand practically, and thus mellowed their fears against missionary activity in India.

Meanwhile, there was continuous lobbying from missionaries, especially Baptist ones, whose followers were Members of Parliament and their friends in various Government positions. The East India Company, on one hand, was bogged down by hostile reactions from Brahmins and Muslims in India, while on the other hand, it was forced to put up with the weight being thrown around by the missionaries from England. This entire history clearly shows that the East India Company and subsequent British Governments were only trying to prioritise brahminism, at the cost of slowing down the progress of missionary activities, wherever possible.

There were some one-off cases of individual senior Christian officers like Colonel John Munro, who, by virtue of their influential positions, did not really follow the rule book of the East India Company, in order to encourage the spread of Christianity in South India. The Queen of the Travancore kingdom Gowri Lakshmi Bayi, who appointed Munro as her Dewan as well as Resident, followed his advice in appointing Syrian Christians (who are of a privileged class) in important positions, including judicial ones, as she too was expecting reciprocal support from him. Munro was also a member of the Christian Mission Society (CMS) and encouraged their gospel activities. The entire scenario was reversed the moment Munroe left the country in 1819. Except for a very nominal number of individuals working in the East India Company, there has never been an established institutional support lent to Christian Missionaries, contrary to popular belief.

It is amply evident that the uprising of the independence movement was more on the basis of religion, caste, sentiments and superstitious beliefs, not a real anti-imperialistic one in nature. The spread of Christianity met with stiff resistance mainly from Brahmins and upper caste sections, all over the country, while the East India Company and subsequent British government remained near-silent spectators.

Persecution of Evangelism

Christianity met with severe hostility in many places in the country inasmuch as the East India Company felt that it may lead to political instability. They were more inclined to support Hindus and Muslims to the extent of not accepting any criminal cases reported at Police Stations, prolonging or quashing the cases filed by Christian converts or missionaries in the courts. The short-lived encouragement to the Christian Gospel provided by Munro in South India disappeared and clashes between high caste and low caste converts began virulently as the latter refused to follow temple honours, rituals, festivals, etc. The first notable violent attack on Christians in South India occurred when low caste Shanars (presently known as Nadars ) started defying the law that ordered their women to keep their bosoms uncovered. This ‘breast cloth’ controversy outraged Brahmins, leading to riots in 1827-28. The military was deployed to contain these. As a result, 24 Christians were falsely charged with murder and assault. The East India Company declined to interfere in support of the Christians, as the matter, in their consideration was related to Hindu customs and sentiments.

As the missionaries prepared for more sacrifices and continued to adhere to the word of the Lord, the persecutions of converts increased manifold. Many lower caste converts were denied essential services of barbers etc., their houses were burnt and many organised attacks were conducted on their churches too. In 1832, a pig was placed in a mosque of Cuddapah and it was alleged that Christian Missions were trying to convert Muslims. Several sepoys and a Deputy Collector were killed when they tried to rescue a missionary’s family that had been attacked by a frenzied mob. Officially and unofficially, there was a ban imposed on employment of converted Christians in public offices and army. A gross injustice meted out to Christian converts was in the form of ‘law of inheritance’, the provisions of which were not applied to converts, which meant, that if any Hindu or Muslim got converted, he or she would be denied of any inheritable properties. Until 1831, this law was in vogue, and upon strong opposition to this discrimination by Christian Missionaries, the pressure was applied against it through the British Parliament and eventually a law was passed curtailing the same. One of the first remarkable victories to be documented came to Christian Missionaries when one Mr.John Devasagayam, first Indian Christian Missionary, filed a case, reportedly in the early 1820s, against Hindu Brahmanical elements for burning his school and succeeded in getting punishment executed through courts.

The Brahmin-led ‘Vibhoothi Sangham’ in the Tirunelvelli area was at the forefront in ensuring the en masse conversion of a bunch of villages to Christianity in the 1840s did not happen. They resorted to attacks and plundering the homes of the converts before setting them on fire. The ‘Dharma Sabha’ in Bengal, formed by Brahmins and upper caste zamindars carried out injurious acts to ensure Hindus do not convert to Christianity. In the year 1845 alone, there were nearly 7000 conversions in Tirunelveli area, which outraged caste Hindus. ‘The sacred ash society’ and ‘The four Vedas society’ that had been formed to confront Christianity organised mobs of several thousands in attacking houses, prayer school halls, and churches. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed and looted, women were raped, men beaten, with the criminal cases were eventually dismissed by the then judge. There are numerous atrocious incidents in history that were carried out solely to prevent the conversion of Hindus (including notional Hindus like Dalits) to Christianity.

Modernising Brahminical India

As far as education was concerned, in 1830-40s, the missionary schools numbered over 8000, while Govt aided schools were about 3000. Missionary schools encouraged female education without any hesitation. In 1818, the first girls’ school was opened by the London Mission Society in Chinsurah in Bengal. Initially, the girls from lower classes used to attend the school while the upper caste sections vehemently refused to admit their girls into the schools as education was, in their perspective, meant for dancing girls and prostitutes. The wives of missionaries like Mrs. Barenbruck, Mrs. Dawson, Mrs. Stephen Trawin, Mrs. Mundy, Mrs. Farrer played a major role in starting the girl’s schools. Unfortunately, such progressive stands by Missionaries were viewed as contradicting prevailing Hindu and Muslim sentiments in India and the rumoured apprehension that the British were supporting missionaries was strengthened on these frivolous grounds. Lord Dalhousie was the first Governor-General who dared to take a stand against the East India Company’s conventionally tacit support to Hindu and Muslim population. In fact, Lord Dalhousie, on finding that modern education was rebuffed by Indian Brahminical sections, openly stated, ‘We carry the principle of neutrality too far. Even from the political point of view, we err in ignoring so completely as we do the agency of ministers of our true faith in extending education among the people.’ Though he did not do anything to Christian missionaries, specifically, he picked up the pace of modernising India, introducing any reform that would confront Hinduism without any hesitation. Introduction of modern thinking at such a pace was another blow to Brahminism, opening up influential sections of society to the prospect of considering alien faiths. Lord Dalhousie passed the Caste Disabilities Act, 1850 and the Widow Remarriage Act, 1855, which were only viewed as interference with Hindu practices rather than as measures for the betterment of society.

Missionaries in backward brahminical India also used medical evangelism as a means to bring people into the Christian faith. The democratic means used by missionaries were acknowledged by Ambedkar in his work titled ‘Religion and Conversion’. The instances of Missionaries forcing someone to convert to Christianity are really a myth. No British Government had supported them in spreading Christianity or aided them with any apparatus to spread Christianity. Christian missionaries felt there was a strong scope to spread the Gospel as laid out in the Bible, and found superstitious and caste-ridden India as one of the most deserving target to lead to God. Though educational institutions and hospitals were promoted by them with the main purpose of spreading the word of God, there was not one instance of falsely luring them into Christianity, as they believed firmly that temporal temptations would not secure the will of anyone to live in God forever. However, these institutions did help them in acquainting the natives with a new faith and showcasing the humanity of the faith they believed in. The spread of Christianity has been, on some occasions, aided by individual-level support by British officers/East India Company officials due to friendly relations existing between them and the Christian missionaries from England, such as parliamentarians like William Wilberforce (a renowned abolitionist, who drove the movement to abolish slave trade). Though the missionaries sought non-monetary favours like land allotment and permissions from the British Government in setting up educational institutions and hospitals, the British Government too considered it necessary to have educated Indians under their control without them being a direct financial burden on the Government. Hence, it extended land and permissions to the Missionaries. It is very pertinent to note that Mughal rulers could not dare to interfere with the caste system and appeased brahmins in all possible ways. The case of the East India Company/British Government in this regard was almost similar. However, having a Christian born ruler, though driven by their imperialist needs, set a tone to understand and, at least, could not despotically prevent to process the requests of missionaries.

The missionaries, who did not have large numbers, faced several challenges in the form of learning local languages, geographical difficulties arising out of tropical climate alien to their general living conditions, vast distances to be covered with primitive means of transport like bullock carts, highly unhealthy environments, threats of contagious diseases, etc. They were not uncritical of Hinduism while spreading the Gospel as they felt an urgent need to reform the Hindu brahminical society plagued with several discriminatory practices and self-harming rituals, all supervised and advocated by Brahmins. Lord Minto observed the Christian Missionary activity to be “the only successful engine of sedition in any part of India”. People like William Carey, who lost his wife and son during the course of spreading the Gospel, also set up the first printing press in illiterate India and the first degree-granting University at Serampore, Bengal. The founder of the Baptist Mission in India, Carey had translated the Ramayana into English, as advised by the Asiatic Society, (comprising the elite, educated sections of Hindu society)? to defray the expenses of missionary activity.

Caste as an obstacle in the path leading to Christian faith

A.F. Lacroix, originally from Switzerland, was a fierce street preacher who joined the London Missionary Society (LMS). While writing to his headquarters in 1830, he observed that the principal obstacle for conversion of Hindus to Christianity was caste. In fact, by the time they had entered India, there had already been examples like Guru Gobind Singh, who had been killed by Mughals for refusing to convert to Islam, and who had preached repudiation of caste and traditional observances of Hinduism. This was before the missionaries could even think of attacking caste and Hinduism. There were also fierce stories of the repressive conversion of people to Islam by Tipu Sultan, before them. They took up the challenge of reaching India, as they believed it to be their responsibility to bring more souls into the abode of the Lord and thereby save them, at least, in the British Colonies. They marched towards this objective despite meeting social opposition, coupled with strong commercial interests and imperialist expansion of their bourgeoise sections. When conversions started, the idea of inter-caste marriages gained ground, and in 1802, the first inter-caste marriage occurred when a Brahmin named Krishan Prasad, after conversion, married a non-brahmin convert named Ananda. In these early times, it could be that in order to tame social dominance and/or lessen violence against conversions, Catholic missionaries such as J.A. Dubois did not insist on fighting caste. They felt that the fear of losing social status right at the first step could diminish initial enquiries into the Christian faith. However, this point of argument could not last long, as the ground reality was that outcastes were looking for spiritual support in overwhelming numbers, compared to caste Hindus, who were negotiating with Christianity on retaining social status. Revered evangelists like Rev. Rhenius took a fiery view that those who got converted into Christianity should not give any place to caste, by which time, through practical experience, missionaries had come to terms with the fact that Indians made no concessions to these prejudices. At many places like Cuddapah, Missionaries started industries (providing looms and cattle) so as to employ the converts, who were otherwise socially denied their means of livelihood.

Conclusion

‘God, who is almighty and supposed to have infinite power and kindness, and created this world, men and women, does not prefer to lie in the chest of one human being alone and would like to reach every soul that is on earth and get everyone close to him’ is the basic principle believed by the followers of Christ. As per Mark 16:15, “And he said to them, ‘go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.'”. As Ambedkar noted ‘Religion is not a matter of rules but principles’, Christian missionaries followed the principles of humanity to preach their faith rather than create a rulebook for following the religion. One can live with this faith with all their infirmities and there are no rules on how to dress, the process of worship, no methods to understand God, etc. as long one has faith in the Grace of God and in Jesus’ sacrifice for his people.

Christian Missionaries in England had a strong bent of mind to spread the Gospel in all British colonies. British colonies could give them a chance to hear, at least, which was not the case otherwise. They could not even make an attempt when the Mughal rule was prevalent in India. They were able to use their church connections and personal friendships to influence the decision makers to reduce their antagonism of the spread of Christianity. However, they were incapable of institutionalising their individual relations with East India Company officials and in making the British Government supersede their imperialist interests. Neither the East India Company nor the subsequent British Government rule was able to extend their mindful cooperation to them. It is their persistent and stubborn lobbying that could get them formal entry into India through the “Pious clause ” in 1813.

The first challenge before them was to weaken Brahminical philosophy and idolatry-driven casteism. Initially, they got to befriend the Savarna sections through the Asiatic Society, in order to meet their running expenses and gaining a stand in the land. As they moved on, it was only the lower strata of society who were hungry for the solace of spirituality, and hence, could be attracted to them. Added to this, the Missionaries who were fairly supported by their funders in England were able to impress people through their immaculate activism in the form of educational institutions and medical evangelism. Unlike as campaigned by majoritarianists, missionaries never believed in force to convert anyone, nor in bribing anyone, as such means could only be momentary. They were harassed by Brahmins and zamindari sections for developing independent spiritual thinking among marginalised sections, which was met with abominable nation-wide attacks on Christians. The 1857 mutiny was no exception to this. As the army, which mostly consisted of upper caste sections, went on a rampage to destroy churches in Agra, Meerut and other places, they eventually proceeded to overthrow the East India Company Government.

Many missionaries who came to India anxiously wishing to spread the gospel were subjected not only to harassment but were also tormented by the local unhygienic working conditions, tropical climate and horrendous connectivity between villages. They lost their lives and families in the process of spreading the Gospel. Ambedkar acknowledged their sincere commitment to their faith and exhorted caste Hindus to challenge them, if they could, in adopting the untouchables to spread Hinduism. Ambedkar observed, ‘A people and their religion must be judged by social standards based on social ethics. No other standard would have any meaning if religion is held to be necessarily good for the well-being of the people’. And the Christian Missionaries proved their social ethics by being one of the top reformers of Hindu society in India by encouraging widow remarriage, inter-caste marriages, the abolition of female infanticide and sati. They did their bit in their sphere of influence, though they were not aggressive and militant as per their terms. They did not mind compromising with Savarna sections here and there to make things possible and reduce their troubles.

It is a very notable feature of Indian society that Brahmins dominated the society during the Mughal rule, as well as during the British rule. They got into key administrative positions during these times and their social dominance and influence were never curtailed through any social change. Christian Missions, as institutions, posed a big threat to them when they campaigned against Hinduism, at no place uncritical about it. Brahminism stood as a deterrent to the modernisation of India and every progressive move was seen as a threat to Brahminism.

Christianity destroyed the slave mentality among the downtrodden people and highlighted them as “accepted” and “dear ones” to God as he had chosen them by shedding his blood. The Church, till today, has become an informal institution of (marginalised) caste gatherings on every Sunday. The victims in the Tsundur and Karamchedu caste riots were Dalit Christians whose unity, self-respect and awareness was aided by the Church. The morality and morale of these sections underwent a dramatic change over a period. Post-independence too, people like Graham Staines, who worked with tribals in Odisha, were burnt alive along with their families. It is reliably known that at least 700 attacks only in and around Hyderabad on Churches and Pastors have occurred (in the last five years: see Dalit Pastor Attacked Brutally by Hindutva Goons). Still, Christianity has remained the fastest growing religion attracting many more into its fold from Brahminical society.

(My sincere thanks to my friend, writer and journalist Lenin Dhanisetty, for helping me with all the material and support)

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Bibliography

(a) Watts, Richard. Church Missionary Gleaner. Crown Court: London, 1842.
(b) Evangelical Lutheran Christian Missions. Semi-Annual Reports of Our Missions, 1914.
(c) Hibberware, G. Christian Missions in the Telugu Country. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts: Westminster, 1912
(d) Carson, Penelope. The East India Company and Religion, 1698-1858. Boydell Press: Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2012
(e) Ingham, Kenneth. Reformers in India (1793-1833): An Account of the work of Christian Missionaries on behalf of Social Reform. Cambridge University Press, 1956.
(f) Bogue, David. A sermon on the death of the Reverend George Cran, Augustus Desgranges, and Jonathan Brain, missionaries in India from the London Missionary Society. Samuel T. Armstrong: Boston, 1811.
(g) Rauschenbusch-Clough, Emma. While Sewing Sandals, or Tales of a Pariah Telugu tribe.Hodder and Stoughton: London, 1899.
(h) Pass, Andrea. British Women Missionaries in India (1917-1950). D.Phil thesis submitted at Magdalen College, Oxford University, 2011.

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P. Victor Vijay Kumar is an investment banker with an interest in social writings.

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