by P.N. Benjamin
India is the homeland of four world religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. The ancient sages have from time to time formulated different perceptions of the Almighty. Almost all the non-Indian religions set foot on Indian soil right from their very beginning. Even in their own lands of origin, Christianity and Islam faced stiff opposition in the battle for survival. In contrast, in India, these two religions received hospitality. The mainsprings of India’s emotional unity did not arise from its religions, but from its very cultural base. The cultural superstructure was supremely capable of containing all religious systems in all their genuine fullness and grandeur.
The modern Indian State does not sponsor or foster any one religion at the expense of the others. This is in keeping with the genius of India, which through the ages has followed the path, not of mere tolerance, but of acceptance of diversities of creed and practice. Of course, this process of assimilation has to go on continuously. There have been periods when Hinduism has been mainly on the defensive, building up walls, mostly caste regulations, to protect itself from the inroads of other faiths. But there have also been glorious periods when at least creative individuals have cast aside protective shells and entered into faithful intercourse with other faiths, resulting in significant mutations and advances in the nation’s culture and progress.
Christians in India are unique
Delivering the first Stanley Samartha Memorial lecture in October 2001 in Bangalore, Francois Gautier said:“Christians in India are unique: not only did the first Christian community in the world establish itself in India but before the arrival of Jesuits with Vasco de Gama in the 16th century, they developed an extraordinary religious pluralism, adopting some of the local customs, while retaining their faith in Christ and accepting the existence of other religious practices. Even though they constitute only less than 3% of the population, they wield an enormous influence in India through education mainly because many of India’s top educational institutions are Christian and also because of the quality care in Christian hospitals and nursing homes.”
“The most precious freedom that Indian Christians enjoy is to hold Jesus Christ as their saviour, as the Son of God, as the “only true divinity”. It is their absolute right to cherish that belief. But the moment Christianity tries to impose this belief of only one true God- Jesus Christ- on the world, then it is itself impeaching upon the freedom of others. For this belief of onlyness of our God as the real one and all others are false is at the root of many misunderstandings, wars and terrorism.”
Right to convert
The Indian Constitution guarantees to every citizen the right to propagate religion subject to public order and morality as also the freedom to change religion. But neither of these or even the two taken together can be interpreted as the “right to convert”, says the distinguished jurist and retired judge of the Supreme Court, Justice K.T.Thomas in his Stanley Samartha Memorial Lecture in October 2007.
Those Christians who hold the view that a primary Christian obligation is to convert others into the Christian religion and use the words of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel according to Mathew 28:19 to justify it may find Justice Thomas’s position rather confusing, if not totally unacceptable. But a closer look at that frequently invoked Gospel text may suggest that it was not an exhortation to add to the numerical strength of the Christian religion or any of its many branches. For one thing when Jesus gave this command there was no Christian religion. But more than that, it is necessary to reflect on the essence of the mission of Jesus to understand the true import of his farewell message. Jesus was a Jewish teacher and my understanding is that he was challenging the Jewish people to think of God, the creator of all things, not as an exclusive Jewish deity, but as the loving and caring Father of human beings of all nations and all ages. If Jesus is seen as the messenger of this all inclusive view of the human family, then conversion ceases to be the main concern of Christians and the commandment to love neighbours, with all their differences, including religious ones, takes precedence.
If the essence of religion is the quest for truth, and it is natural that different individuals and groups have but partial perceptions of truth, religious conversations and dialogues will continue. This is more so where one lives in a context of religious plurality as in our country. But religious conversations then cannot be just fault-finding exercises, and certainly not condemnations. Rather, they must be the search for greater understanding of different positions and expositions remembering that religious truths have frequently been communicated through variety of idioms, figures of speech, and often through myths of different ages and cultures. It is not an easy task. The Indian Constitution guarantees the freedom to pursue this line as also to change one’s position if it leads to that.
Conversions with foreign-funded charity
Large scale conversions have been taking place since 1947 resulting in significant changes in religious demography in various parts of the country It has created resentment and social disharmony in the society in several parts of our country.
It is absolutely true that the fundamentalists Christian evangelists cannot separate their charitable work from spreading their faith. “It’s not a crafty attempt to proselytise. It’s an earnest attempt to share what they hold most dear. That’s true of all the proselytising religions. The evangelical Christians, carrying food in one hand and the Bible in the other, are generously funded by American churchgoers. To them, humanitarian relief is just a cover. Their basic motivation is conversion. These groups train workers to go in under the guise of relief to convert people away from their faith.
The reasons for the continued insurgency in the North East are not far to seek. The insurgents have been recipients of foreign funds and arms in massive quantities. In all fairness it must be said that the role of Christian missionaries in the secessionist activities in North East India has not been above reproach. In 1970, in the Rajya Sabha, the late Mr. Joachim Alva had reminded the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi: “foreign money was poured into India’s borders and the Nagaland problem was damaged by the flow of funds from Churches abroad.”
Violence against Christians
The alleged attacks against Christians in recent years in some parts of India have been justifiably condemned by all patriotic individuals. The real source of danger to the Indian Christian community is not the handful of Hindu extremists. Most of the violent incidents have been due to aggressive evangelising. Other than this there have been few attacks on Christians. Finally the sensitive and sensible Christians must realize that acts of certain varieties of Christian evangelists who denigrate Hindu gods and abuse Hindu rituals as barbaric are the root cause of tension between Christian and Hindu communities. Christian leaders known for their erudition, equipoise and empathy should come out in the open to disown such acts of intolerance.
A brilliant Danish Professor, Dr. Kaaj Baago, in the United Theological College, Bangalore, made history when he said in the 1960s: “Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists should never give up their religion to join the Christian Church”. On the other hand the Church should humble itself and find ways of identifying itself with other groups, taking Christ with them. Christ, he said, was not the chairman of the Christian party. If God is the Lord of the universe he will work through every culture and religion. We must give up the crusading spirit of the colonial era and stop singing weird hymns like “Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war”. This will lead to Hindu Christianity or Buddhist Christianity.
It must involve the disappearance of the Indian Christian community, but he reminded us: “a grain of wheat remains a solitary grain unless it falls to the ground and dies”. Needless to say, the Indian Christians were furious. He left the College, the Church and the mission and took refuge with the Danish Foreign Service!! He later returned to India as his country’s Ambassador and died in harness in 1988.
An Exclusive and Expansionist faith
When Christians have an exclusive and an expansionist faith and happen to j live in a pluralistic society they need to have their own self-control. If not, in the interest of social harmony, state should interfere and curtail such expressions of faith in public arena. The Christians are thoroughly muddled over the business of conversion. The vast majority of the church often moves in the direction of prosleytization – planning for the “harvest of souls, devising new strategies – much like the multinational corporations”.
The Commission to preach the gospel is usually quoted by all Christian groups. But, they conveniently ignore the fact that there are other very important elements in the teachings of Christ. “Forgive your brother not seven times but seventy times seven…Love one another as I have loved you…”
Terms such as “evangelistic campaign”, “missionary strategy”, “campus crusade”, “occupying non-Christian areas”, a “blitzkrieg” of missionaries, and sending “reinforcements” sound more appropriate to military enterprises than to Christian witness to God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ. The statistical approach implied in the words “the unreached millions” is derogatory to neighbours of other faiths.
“Unreached” by whom? When Indian Christians themselves use these phrases, which have originated outside the country, to describe their neighbours living next door to them in the community, Christians should not be surprised if the nehigbours are offended. (Dr. Samartha).
While everyone has a right to invite others to an understanding of their faith, it should not be exercised by violating other’s rights and religious sensibilities. At the same time, all should heal themselves from the obsession of converting others. Freedom of religion enjoins upon all of us the equally non-negotiable responsibility to respect faiths other than our own, and never to denigrate, vilify or misrepresent them for the purpose of affirming superiority of our faith. Errors have been perpetrated and injustice committed by the adherents of every faith. Therefore, it is incumbent on every community to conduct honest self-critical examination of its historical conduct as well as its doctrinal/theological precepts. Such self-criticism and repentance should lead to necessary reforms inter alia on the issue of conversion. While deeply appreciating humanitarian work by faith communities, it should be conducted without any ulterior motives. In the area of humanitarian service in times of need, what we can do together, we should not do separately.
A well-known Hindu scholar has urged that Christians must criticise Hinduism out of knowledge. They must try to understand what Hinduism is. Make an honest attempt to agree as far as you can and state your honest difference in a decent way. This would improve the image of Christianity in India, as the greatest devotion for the personality of Christ. Hinduism has admitted prophets born elsewhere into its own grand galaxy of Avatars. There is no doubt whatever that Jesus Christ was a great avatar in the eyes of Hindus. Every Hindu will bow down before the image of Christ. There is no question of the purity of that great Sage. No Hindu will ever question this. But if the Mission of Jesus is to succeed, it is an obligation on the part of professing Christians not to do anything that will in anyway mar the luminous, beautiful and grand image of Jesus Christ.
Unless Christians in this country share the sufferings of the people they have no word of the gospel to them, whatever true things they might say. Revival songs they sing long prayers they pray and long sermons they preach amount to lip religion and at the same time they swallow widow’s houses. This is how Jesus Christ charactrises hypocrisy.
I strongly believe that Christians in India need not too much worry about the acts violence against them in some parts of the country by the so-called Hindu extremists, but should worry about the internal cancer it carries within its body. The Christians in India will never be protected by international supporters. They are being protected by the majority Hindus and they should be thankful to God for the majority of Hindus who are tolerant and open in spite of the aggressive postures of Christians. How unfortunate it is that even some well meaning Christians become so arrogant, self righteous and even give themselves to hate in the name of Christ who came to show a new way of LOVE. I wish the Christian brothers and sisters would engage in serious reflections and identify the causes for the growing antagonism of people of other faiths against certain Christian groups in India.
Being a liberal Christian and raised in a non-fundamentalist tradition, I am able to perceive little or no contradiction between the tenets of Jesus and many of the seminal concepts of Hinduism and Buddhism. The priceless affirmation in the Hindu scripture which says “one truth, but discerned differently by the wise” is somewhat similar to one of Jesus’ sayings, “in my Father’s house, there are many mansions, if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare one for you”.
Another of Jesus’ sayings which affirms that: “I and my Father are one” is similar to the Hindu Mahavakya, “Aham Brahmasmi” (I am Brahman). The “born again” attribute necessary for a Christian’s salvation as required by Jesus is no different from the concept of “dwija” or twice-born in Brahman (often misconstrued as Brahmin).
There are also several references in the New Testament indicating that Jesus and his disciples believed in both karma and reincarnation. It appears that the belief in reincarnation has persisted over the years, as evidenced by the continuing belief of Christian fundamentalists in the second coming of Jesus. The Acts of Thomas which were excluded from the New Testament, contain concepts prevalent in the advaita of Hinduism.
Asato Ma Sadgamaya,
Tamaso Ma Jyotirgamaya
Mrityor Ma Amritamgamaya
Om Shanti hi, Shanti hi, Shantih hi