A Page From History
The Bait and the Cross
All national leaders opposed conversions
By Anirban Ganguly
An early proponent of the concept of cultural-nationalism, Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947) warned - without caring to be politically-correct - a century ago on the subversive missionary activities and the Hindu’s proverbial tolerance of it, ‘...all that money, social influence, educational bribery and misrepresentation (of and by missionaries) can effect, is treated as legitimate...but even Hindu tolerance may some day be overstrained.
Swami Abhedananda and his group were, in a sense, far more global than those who at every occasion today seek to represent ‘mankind.’ Being universalists they were yet firmly rooted and committed to the soil of India, and to the vision of her future when she would finally truly express and assert her civilisational identity and disseminate her civilisational message.
DISCUSSING essential Hindu religious experiences in his thesis on India and her people, the redoubtable Swami Abhedananda made a striking observation. For Hindus he wrote, ‘Both Krishna and Râma are manifestations of the same Vishnu, the Lord of the universe. This is a difficult thing for Western minds to grasp, and for that reason they think the Hindus polytheists. But they are not polytheists. They worship One God under different names and forms. Sri Râm was the incarnation of Vishnu, and so was Sri Krishna. In their spiritual essence they are one and the same, but in their manifestations they are different.’ (Swami Abhedananda, India and Her People, Vedanta Society, New York, 1906, pp. 59-60).
This defining essence of the core Indian religious experience has been negated by Christian missionaries in India and has been one of the principal sources of discord and disharmony in the country. Swami Abhedananda exposed the missionaries’ skewed approach to this essential truth thus, "The Christian missionaries...not understanding the Hindu form of worship, have misrepresented these statues (of worship) and called them idols. Here let me assure you (his audience in the West especially Christian groups) that there is no such thing as idol-worship, in your sense of the term, in any part of India, not even among the most illiterate classes. I have seen more idolatry in Italy than in India. The Italian peasants even beat the Bambino (image of infant Jesus) when their prayers are not answered, but in India you will not find such spiritual darkness anywhere. There (India) the people worship the ideal, not the idol." (Ibid., p.60).
Swami Abhedananda’s analysis of education in India then (1900-1906) and its use by Christian missions to further their agendas of conversion and disruption has a rather contemporary ring to the whole affair. Talking of the missionary efforts of educating Indian girls in the absence of any Government effort towards it, he castigated both, their approach and method. He said, "The missionaries (are) trying their best to educate native girls in the tenets of Christianity, denouncing the religion of their forefathers and condemning everything of Hindu origin or which had to do with Hindu society and religion." They did this with the boys as well. This he saw as one of the greatest drawback in the missionary method of education. "They condemn everything that is outside of their religion, their standards and their ideals. They are too narrow to see good in any but their creed and dogmas. They do not consider the Hindu religion as a religion or the Hindu Saviours as Saviours; but they think that the Hindus are all going to eternal perdition... The poor Hindu boys and girls come to study and learn something, but instead of receiving the blessing of true education, their minds are filled with superstitious and unscientific doctrines and dogmas, and they are forced to leave the community of their parents and relatives and become converts to Christianity". (Ibid., p. 201)
On his return from the West in June 1906, after ten years of imparting the Vedanta there, Swami Abhedananda landed in Colombo and received, like his leonine spiritual-comrade before him, a rousing welcome. Addressing the Hindus of Colombo at a reception given in his honour, he made a telling point on the Christian religion, a truth that is actually gaining greater credence today in the West. "We must not believe the foreigners (though there are now in India equally well trained and equipped indigenous foot soldiers for carrying out proselytising projects) who do not understand our philosophy and the Vedas when they say ‘You will go to eternal hell if you do not believe in this.’ In (the West) thinking people no longer believe in eternal punishment or hell. The intelligent classes do not go to church because the churches preach eternal hell-fire doctrine. They are now in doubt and that doubt can never be removed except by philosophy and the teachings of Vedanta." (Abhedananda in India-in 1906, Ramakrishna Vedanta Math, Kolkata, 1968, p. 24)
Interestingly a few years back the Pope Benedict XVI, is reported to have lamented the weakening of churches in Europe, Australia and the USA. "There’s no longer evidence for a need of God, even less of Christ," he told a congregation of Italian priests. "The so-called traditional churches look like they are dying." Penning the report, Noelle Knox of the USA Today, wrote that, though ‘many Europeans say they consider themselves Christians, far fewer actually attend services. One need only see the overwhelming number of gray-haired heads in church pews to know attendance will keep falling if something doesn’t change dramatically... the Pope and other leaders of traditional churches admit that their struggle for souls in Western Europe is their greatest challenge..." (Noelle Knox, ‘Religion takes a back seat in Western Europe,’ USA Today, August 10, 2005, cited in Expressions of Christianity, with a focus on India, Vivekananda Kendra Prakashan, Chennai, 2007, p. 584).
To arrest the decay, countries with large youth populations, especially of the ‘third-world’ are thus increasingly targeted. The result of this heightened targeting is that the ‘third- world’ has begun increasingly supplying the clergy-evangelist army. Catholic churches, especially in Europe ‘rely on priests from the Philippines and India.’ And while church attendance has sunk to ‘single-digits in Western Europe’ pushing Europe as a whole towards becoming perhaps a ‘post-Christian society’ and North America is a ‘moderately observant’ nation Asia, Africa and Latin America remain ‘passionately devout.’ (John O’Sullivan, ‘Saving Our Religions: What may keep us praying’, in National Review Online, July 25, 2002, cited in Expressions of Christianity, op.cit., pp. 574-575). It is to retain these geographical landmasses within the fold of this devoutness that Christian missionaries keep themselves active and organised and the instrument of conversion keeps being re-invented and restructured for effective usage.
Swami Abhedananda made the observations on the workings of Christian missionaries in India long before any-to use a favourite term of the media and left-intellectuals, activists, ‘Right-wing Hindu’ groups were even conceived of or organised. He did not form part of any political-ideological group, as an itinerant scholar-monk and a nation-builder in the realm of the spirit, he forcefully, cogently and unequivocally described what he witnessed around him in the country. Swami Abhedananda and his group were, in a sense, far more global than those who at every occasion today seek to represent ‘mankind.’ Being universalists they were yet firmly rooted and committed to the soil of India, and to the vision of her future when she would finally truly express and assert her civilisational identity and disseminate her civilisational message. Had he uttered these words today; Swami Abhedananda would have perhaps been hauled to court, or be accused of human rights violation, or of violating rights guaranteed by the Constitution or would simply be railed at for disturbing communal peace and engineering religious disturbances! But, as I had argued earlier, in the long run historical truths can never really be silenced and rarely expunged.
Our true nation-builders never cared to be politically correct, especially when it came to the destructive habit of proselytising and converting. In a lecture delivered at Detroit, USA, on 21st February, 1894, Swami Vivekananda, displayed that carelessness for politically-correct terminologies when he told the audience, ‘You train and educate and clothe and pay men to do what? To come over to my country to curse and abuse all my forefathers, my religion, and everything. They walk near a temple and say, "You idolater, you will go to hell." But they dare not do that to the Mohammedans of India; the sword would be out. But the Hindu is too mild; he smiles and passes on, and says, "Let the fools talk." (Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works, vol.8, Advaita Ashrama, 15th imp, 2008, pp.211-212).
As another of our nation-builder in the realm of art and culture, an early proponent of the concept of cultural-nationalism, Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947) warned - without caring to be politically-correct - a century ago on the subversive missionary activities and the Hindu’s proverbial tolerance of it, ‘...all that money, social influence, educational bribery and misrepresentation (of and by missionaries) can effect, is treated as legitimate...but even Hindu tolerance may some day be overstrained. If it be intolerance to force one’s way into the house of another, it by no means necessarily follows that it would be intolerance on the owner’s part to drive out the intruder.’ (Ananda Coomara-swamy, Essays in National Idealism (1909), Munshiram Manoharlal, 1st Indian ed. Delhi, 1981, p.131)
Coomaraswamy has been recognised as and remains for all times a true Universalist but his words today would have created a hue and cry and if empanelled even he would have been perhaps denied an honorary doctorate/award by some ignorant political minion holding a so-called august constitutional post!