On December 3, 2020, protests erupted in front of the headquarters of the Archdiocese of Pondicherry-Cuddalore at Puducherry as Dalit Christians demanded justice in the appointment of Dalit priests and total exclusion of Dalit Christians from the management of church affairs. The very word "Dalit Christian" is an oxymoron as Christianity boasts profusely about its egalitarian nature with no scope what so ever for any discrimination.
“We have come here to dialogue with the diocesan administration to eradicate caste discrimination and the untouchable practices in the archdiocese especially in the appointment of the Dalit priests,” —Mary John, Tamil Nadu State Leader for Dalit Christian Liberation Movement
Protests like these expose the naked discrimination these converts from Hinduism endure after embracing Christianity. This brings to the question whether the focus of the Church in India is social justice (as professed) or conversions? Has Christianity ever tried to ensure social justice even as it went about converting Hindus in India?
Was Christianity ever egalitarian?
The earliest Christian clergymen to arrive in India were from Europe. 16th Century Europe was not a society well known for its egalitarianism. On the contrary, several sections of the society were ostracised, treated as outcasts. The treatment of Roma gypsies, who had migrated from India to various parts of Europe around 600-800 years ago is a case in point. Their discrimination continues to this day with massive pogroms and attacks. Under Nazi Hitler, at least 15 lakh Roma were put to death.
The Cagots of Europe were treated as outcasts and forced to live on the edge of the villages. The Cagots were subjected to hate-filled discrimination for nearly 700 years. Shunned as lepers, pagans, and even cannibals, they were forced to live in ghettos called cagoteries where they were only permitted the occupations of carpenter, butcher, or executioner. When they were permitted entrance to a Church (in many cases they were refused admittance), they were segregated from the rest of the congregation, and the Eucharist was handed to them at the end of a long stick. They were compelled to wear the sign of a duck or goosefoot in red.
Church's cruel history in India
European clergymen arriving in India were part of a society, which openly practised discrimination against certain sections of the society, where hanging to death of non-Christians was officially sanctioned and where women routinely executed for practising witchcraft (last witch execution took place in Scotland 1727). Execution of those practising non-Christian beliefs continued till 1826. Intolerance of non-Christian faiths, social discrimination were an integral part of European society at the time of arrival of earliest Christian missionaries were landing in India. It is no wonder that they never tried to create an egalitarian Christian society in India. On the contrary, they used caste divisions in Hindu society for furthering their objective of conversions into Christianity. One such Christian missionary was Robert de Nobili.
Deception as method to convert gullible Hindus
The methods adopted by Robert Di Nobili to convert Hindus and expand Christianity in India are a case in point. Born in 1577 in Italy, he came to India as a priest of the Society of Jesus. He arrived in India in 1605 and moved to Madurai in 1606. He found that existing methods of converting Hindus were not effective. He adopted new ways which bordered on deception to convince Hindus to convert. He donned saffron robes, shaved his head, leaving a tuft of hair, wore wooden sandals and called himself 'Tattva Bodhagar' – Teacher of Wisdom. He called himself a Roman Brahmin and wore the sacred thread. The Bible became Vedam, Church became 'Koil' (Tamil word for Hindu temple). The pastor became 'Guru'. He mastered Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu languages. This attracted a large number of Hindus who genuinely believed that what Robert De Nobili was teaching was yet another branch of Hinduism. He appeared as the Teacher of the fourth Veda, a Veda revealed indeed by God not to the Rishis of India, but to the messengers of God's only son. He insisted that he was a Sannyasi from Rome. He called Christianity as 'parangui kulam' (Parangui = Firangi or Foreign).
Robert di Nobili practised blatant caste discrimination to further his objective- convert Hindus into Christianity. Since he was pretending to be a Roman Brahmin, if a Paria got sick, de Nobili would not see him in his wretched hut, but he insisted that he should be brought out of the house. He used to meet fellow Jesuit priests only at night, in total darkness.
Inquisition of de Nobili and approval of Pope
The methods adopted by De Nobili viz., creating caste wise missionaries, churches and allowing Hindu caste marks to be used even after conversion to Christianity attracted the attention of church authorities and an Inquisition was held against him. Archbishop Menezes declared himself in favour of the new methods and said 'he would be ready to allow wearing 100 Brahmin chords for the salvation of one soul'.
One hundred and eight learned Brahmins added their testimony to de Nobili's testimony and fully confirmed his interpretation of their marks and customs.
In January 1623, the methods and tactics of de Nobili were approved by Pope, Christianity's highest office…! Caste and caste marks were officially allowed in Christianity. A more amusing aspect of the Papal sanction was creation of Christian yagnopaveetam (janeu) and "Christian Upanayanam" or sacred thread ceremony which will be performed in the Church…!
The Cagots of Europe were treated as outcasts and forced to live on the edge of the villages. The Cagots were subjected to hate-filled discrimination for nearly 700 years. Shunned as lepers, pagans, and even cannibals, they were forced to live in ghettos called cagoteries
The approval letter reads: "The chord should not be received in the temple, or from one of their priests, but from a Catholic priest, who upon conferring it, should recite the prescribed prayers". The pagan prayers and mantras which used to be learnt upon receiving the chord, should not be learnt, but rather should be confined to perpetual oblivion... The chord, made up of three strands, should not be made so in honour of their idols, but rather in honour of the Blessed Trinity. The converts, who have already received the chord, should burn the old one, and receive a new one from the Catholic priest. Thus untouchability which finds neither mention nor sanction in Hindu religious scriptures just got the seal of approval from Christianity's highest office – The Pope! This clearly demonstrates that social justice and social reform were of little importance to the Church when the goal is to harvest souls. The Inquisition against him concluded "We judge it altogether expedient, in order that our holy religion may be propagated in those lands, that the Brahmins and others, who are being initiated, be allowed to wear those marks, which more than religious signs, may be deemed to be signs of caste, nobility or wisdom. If something superstitious has been added, let it be dropped, and let the intention be purified."
All the while, Hindu religion was going through a phase of internal renewal and renaissance with the rise of a number of great social reformers like Basavanna, Ramanujacharya and the rise of Bhakti cult. These reformers and saints strived to eliminate undesirable customs and social practices that had crept into the Hindu society. No such efforts on the part of Christian missionaries in this direction are found. Even the temple entry movements, the abolition of untouchability movements were led by Hindu social reformers themselves.
The invention of ‘Brahmin' and 'Pariah'
Robert de Nobili created two distinct classes of native missionaries- Brahmins and Pandaraswamis. The latter were drawn predominantly from what is described as 'Pariah' castes and used to proselytize amongst them and prepare catechumens from amongst them. The first of these Pandaraswamis were Father Balthazar da Costa and Emmanuel Alvarez. The Brahmin missionaries sporting Brahmanical attire with sikha and sacred thread used to proselytise amongst upper-caste Hindus. The first Brahmin missionary was Father S. Maya. He always accompanied di Nobili whenever the latter went to meet royals, nobles and Brahmins. Di Nobili was always attired in saffron robes, sacred thread, carried Kamandala, while his disciple carried the deerskin and the umbrella of honour.
A ground plan of the Church constructed by di Nobili shows how caste and untouchability were made part of church architecture. The plan shows that the main church entrance was reserved for high castes, while the pariah castes had to use a different entrance. Every aspect of worship – altar, communion, confession room, common space, kitchen and even courtyard were strictly segregated for high castes and pariahs. The pariahs had to listen to the mass through an opening in the wall which segregated them from high caste converts. This is extremely shocking even by standards of the day and reveals the complete indifference of the Church towards social inequalities. On the contrary, such inequalities were skilfully exploited to further the cause of conversions.
Thus for more than 400 years, the Church has given priority to conversions rather than social justice. Caste inequalities were exploited for furthering soul harvesting. The result is there for all to see. In 2008, violent clashes broke out in Eraiyur in Tamil Nadu between Christians from OBC and SC castes. The clashes were a fall out of Dalit Christians starting their own Church in protest against discrimination and practice of untouchability in churches and seeking recognition from the Diocese. In the police firing that followed, two people were killed. Several churches in the area were locked up by Dalit Christians. There are many instances of walls inside churches and cemeteries. In 2011, clashes erupted in Thachur village, 80 km from Chennai on the issue of burial of Dalit Christians to which the Reddy Christians objected. According to an article published in The Frontline magazine, the Church is constructed with a star shape. The central portion is reserved for Reddy Christians who manage the Church while the sides are earmarked for converts from SC castes like Adi Dravidars and Arundathiyars who have no role in the management of the Church. In another cemetery in Trichy, the deceased Christians are buried on either side of the wall depending upon their caste.
A ground plan of the Church constructed by Di Nobili shows how caste and untouchability were made part of church architecture. The plan shows that the main church entrance was reserved for high castes, while the pariah castes had to use a different entrance
Christians across the world bad mouth evils of Hindu caste system and lose no opportunity to blame Hindu religion for the same, completely ignoring that caste, segregation and untouchability were given sanction by the Pope as seen earlier. The Church does not object to the continuation of the use of Hindu caste suffixes as part of the name, several generations after conversion to Christianity. In Andhra Pradesh, one can find third or fourth generation Christian converts using suffixes like 'Reddy' 'Chowdary' etc.
In the 21st century, if people like Mary John are forced to launch agitations through like Dalit Christian Liberation Movements, it is because the Church did not work towards social justice but exploited social inequalities to further its cause of conversions.
(The writer is a Sr. Associate at Centre for South Indian Studies, Hyderabad)