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May 08, 2011

Page: 30/36

Home > 2011 Issues > May 08, 2011

In Focus
Proselytising in the name of social service
How it repels against Indian tradition

By Anirban Ganguly

NATURAL calamities in any age and clime have always been periods of great distress which materially and emotionally dislocate and unsettle large number of people. The continuing plight of Japan has been excruciatingly painful for the world community and has united it in extending support to that valiant nation and its people. While most among the civilised global community do not see such heart-rending events as opportunities for self-aggrandisement, Christian proselytisers usually perceive these as god sent opportunities to cast the net wider.

At least that’s what it appears when one reads the astonishing statement of proselytiser par excellence KP Yohanan. Yohanan, the founder of the multinational proselytising agency the ‘Gospel for Asia’, whose Wikipedia page claims that he had surrendered his ambitions to the Lord at an early age and could never forget the millions of needy people in India and the neighbouring nations, had nearly jumped in excitement when the news of the tsunami was received in December 2004. He saw the cataclysmic event as ‘one of the greatest opportunities God has given us to share His love with people.’ (Iain Buchanan, The Armies of God – a Study in Militant Christianity, Citizens International, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia, 2010, p. 244).

Such utterances and perceptions are in fact a veritable assault on human dignity and on the right to a dignified life and living. But because he is an important component in the huge effort at Christianising Asia, Yohanan’s and his co-proselytisers’ words, similarly expressed, usually go unrecorded or unchallenged.

The proselytisers’ attitude and their understanding of God’s love had really disturbed some of our best minds, minds who had ceaselessly worked to protect and preserve our cultural, religious and civilisational roots. One such giant mind – whose 150th birth anniversary is being celebrated under the aegis of an officially formatted programme – was himself deeply troubled by the attitude of the Gospel’s soldiers. Rabindranath Tagore, expressed his deep disapproval to a proselytiser who was readying himself to come to India and spread the light and message. In a letter of July 1931 he had certain strong points to make. ‘I have read your letter with pleasure’, wrote the courteous poet and, ‘I have only one thing to say: it is this: Do not be always trying to preach your doctrine, but give yourself in love…Christ never preached himself or any dogma or doctrine; he preached the love of God.

The object of a Christian should be like Christ – never like a coolie recruiter trying to bring coolies to his master’s tea garden. Preaching your doctrine is no sacrifice at all – it is indulging in a luxury far more dangerous than all luxuries of material living. It breeds an illusion in your mind that you are doing your duty – that you are wiser and better than your fellow beings. But the real preaching is in being perfect…If you have strong in you your pride of race, pride of sect, and pride of personal superiority, then it is no use to try to do good to others….On the spiritual plane you cannot do good until you are good. You cannot preach the Christianity of the Christian sect until you be like Christ – and then you do not preach Christianity, but the love of God, which Christ did.’ (Sisir Kumar Das ed., English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, vol.3, Sahitya Akademi, rpt., 2008, New Delhi pp. 796-797.)

Deeply spiritual by nature and rooted to the Indian cultural traditions, Tagore was greatly disturbed by what he saw as a debilitating intrusion into the nation’s collective way of being. The Indian Social Reformer of Mumbai seeing the letter’s content saw it necessary to reprint it in its July 11, 1931 issue with the hope that the letter ‘will be read with interest and should be carefully considered. (Ibid.) The internationalist and global citizen in Tagore did not prevent him from perceiving the divisive threat that proselytism posed to his country and to the people and society. He would have been appalled today at how many of these home-grown and trained proselytisers attack the very identity that he embodied and so eloquently described throughout his life.

Raja Rammohun Roy (1772-1833), seen as one of the sustaining pillars of the Bengal renaissance was also deeply perturbed by the missionaries’ activism in misinterpreting the Hindu faith and generating social tensions and divisions. This aspect of the Raja’s activism is often suppressed or overshadowed by ‘secular’ readings of his life and works. Present historians, especially those concerned with the makers of modern India, seem to be oblivious of this side of the Raja’s personality. In 1821 Rammohun published a bilingual magazine in Bengali and English called Brahman Sebadhi or The Brahmanical Magazine ‘to defend Hinduism and to criticise the missionary activities.’ In his first piece in the paper Rammohun launched a frontal attack on the habit of proselytising. ‘This country’, wrote Rammohun, ‘has experienced more than half a century of British rule…[but] during the last twenty years some Englishmen, known as missionaries, have been trying to get Hindus…to forsake their faiths and be converted to Christianity. Firstly, they print books and pamphlets abusing the gods and saints of the Hindus, [secondly], they stand either in the front of the doors of the people or in the main street and declare the superiority of their religion and the inferiority of others. Thirdly, if any man of low caste becomes a Christian for the greed of money or for other motives, they offer him employment and maintain him to allure others.’(Sisir Kumar Das, The Shadow of the Cross, Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi, 1974, pp.33-34)

Rammohun tried his best to ‘expose the unfair tactics of the missionaries in the propagation of their faith.’(Ibid.) He argued that they could have never adopted such methods and postures in a free country.(Ibid.) He would have been deeply pained, though, to see how on achieving freedom, official India usually turned a blind eye to this pernicious practice and termed ‘reactionary’ all those who spoke against it! At first the proselytists did not spare Islam either, but ceased when they could sense that its abuse would invariably provoke violent reactions. In fact, Felix Carey (1785-1822) son of the ‘father of the modern missions’ in India William Carey (1761-1834) had to hastily leave Dacca in 1806 after clashes following his provocative statements against Islam. (Ibid.)

Rammohun’s criticism invited the wrath of the proselytisers and their minions. One such, writing under the pen-name A Christian, called ‘the Hindus ungrateful because they had forgotten that they were indebted to the Christians for their civil liberty and education.’ In his reply Rammohun, while declaring ‘his indebtedness and gratitude to the British administration for the introduction of useful mechanical arts’ argued that the world ‘was indebted to our ancestors for the first dawn of knowledge.’ (Ibid., p.37)

Interestingly, this indebtedness to the ancestors is a point that is today disputed by those very people, who invoke Rammohun to support their initiative of ‘deconstructing’ an ‘imagined’ Hindu religion, nation and society.

Such views expressed by the above thinkers are hardly discussed, especially by those who profess to uphold the scientific and rational temper in academics and public life. Thus in keeping with the established attitude of being politically correct these views have never adequately seen the light of discussion or narration and have instead been continuously burnt at the stake of political expediency.

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