Missionaries and secular apologists: a reality check
By Saurav Basu
The Christian missionary drive has in recent years acquired a new academic dimension. The mission to uproot tribals from their ancestral roots and impose an alien way of life has the full blessings of our secular journalists. Harvard sociologist Pitrim Sorokin observes: “During the past few centuries the most belligerent, the most aggressive, the most rapacious, the most power-drunk section of humanity has been precisely, the Christian Western world. During these centuries western Christendom had invaded all other continents; its armies followed by priests and merchants have subjugated, robbed or pillaged most of the non-Christians. Native Americans, African, Australian, Asiatic populations have been subjugated to this peculiar brand of Christian “love” which has generally manifested itself in pitiless destruction, enslavement, coercion, destruction of the cultural values, institutions, the way of life of the victims, and the spread of alcoholism, venereal disease, commercial cynicism and the like.”
Indian journalist Karan Thapar had the temerity to claim conversion is nothing more than exchanging one set of gods for another and an escape route for tribals and dalits who have been exploited by caste based Hinduism. This simplistic accusation disregards more complex social realities of pre-modern India and the dynamic relationship shared between tribals and caste Hindus.
The natural counter-argument to the assumption of missionary benevolence would be – how exactly have Christians treated naturalist, animists, pagans in their sphere of influence? The bloody persecution of Hindus, tribals and dalits of all shades and colour by the Portuguese during the prolonged Goa Inquisition is open testimony to the historical intolerance of the Church in India. The Church in India has publicly conceded that it practices caste based discrimination and exclusion within its organization. Then what is the moral high-ground for approving conversions?
William Dalrymple, in a visit to Dang in 1999, despite his bias understood the tensions generated by American-inspired Pentecostal missionaries who desired wholesale conversion of tribals. After interviewing recent converts, he frankly admitted that conversions took place not out of religious conviction but material benefits, predominantly medicine. Yet Christian medical graduates in India are not even a fraction of the total. The fact then remains that Christian quacks are operating in the garb of witch doctors in the tribal belts, unless they want to make improbable claims of having outsourced their task to Hindu doctors.
Pseudo-academicians like Angana Chatterji demonize Hindu activists who provide selfless service through Ekal Vidyalayas in tribal belts. In “The violent gods of Hindu nationalism” she makes spectacular allegations of forced conversion by Hindu missionaries. She wishes to justify the murder of Laxmanananda Saraswati by alleging him to be party to forced conversion, even as he repeatedly faced life threatening attacks before being finally eliminated.
Ramachandra Guha believes that missionaries, Maoists and Hindutva groups regard Tribals as a vehicle for increasing their social and political influence. His narrative rests on the presumption that the Nehruvian policy of allowing Tribals to develop along the lines of their own genius was dispensed by successive governments which created the developmental vacuum for other forces to exploit. Their economic development is hampered because the state usurps their lands to provide water to “Hindu farmers”, writes Guha. More problematic is his underlying assumption that Tribals cannot be Hindus!
The bigger questions we encounter include the historical relationship between the ‘Hindu’ and the ‘tribal.’ Who should be held responsible for the current socio-eco backwardness of the tribal? More importantly, who has the right to convert a tribal? There is no dearth of authors who believe contemporary Hinduism is an 18th century construct, loosely defined as a mosaic of different religious beliefs with certain commonalities. Ironically, this non-Hindu definition of Hinduism can be easily reconciled with tribal paganism, but orthodox Brahmanical Hinduism (whatever that means) is used as the standard of comparison against Tribal paganism!
Tribals and monotheists
Tribal groups have been marginalized throughout the monotheistic world. In America, the White Settlers committed several Native American genocides. Until 1824, killing American Indians was not a crime, as reflected in the saying: “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Ward Churchill, professor of ethnic studies, University of Colorado, noted that the reduction of the North American Indian population from an estimated 12 million in 1500 to barely 237,000 in 1900 represents a “vast genocide…, the most sustained on record.” Right Wing Christian apologists claim divine providence; a natural genocide through smallpox and plague to which the natives were pathologically vulnerable with no group immunity.
In Australia, native aboriginal children were forcibly removed from the breasts of their crying mothers through acts of parliament, all in the great cause of establishing ‘white supremacy.’ ‘Stolen generations’ is the epithet referring to these children, a process which continued until 1970.
Tribal pagan faiths were subject to extreme torture by Christianity once it became Rome’s state religion. Thousands of witches were burnt in the cause of Christianity. The Western European governments’ track record towards unconventional pagan religions continues to be a cause for concern.
Early Indologists transplanted similar theories of aboriginal persecution on the Vedic Indians. The thesis of original people and invaders persists today among certain Dalit-Marxist intelligentsia. Yet Western scholarship after critical studies of the Rig Veda is coming round to the view that there was no Arya-Dasa physical or racial hostility. David Lorenzen discovers “no evidence of this modern racist view in Vedic literature. There is no evidence that the Rig Vedic Aryas regarded the Dasas and Dasyus as either biologically distinct or as innately inferior in terms of intellect or strength or as divinely cursed to become slaves. The Vedic evidence does suggest, however, that the Aryas sometimes regarded the moral behaviour and character of the Dasas as inferior and certainly Dasa religion as inferior to their own.”
New anthropological studies falsify the white man’s view of non-indigenous upper caste Indians opposed to native aborigines, which was uncritically appropriated by communists and social movement leaders in colonial India.
Tribal persecution as a general phenomenon in India is untenable. Mainstream Hindu and Adivasi religion shared a dynamic relationship with interchange and intermingling in theory and practice. Koenraad Elst explains: “There exists a profound continuity between literate Brahmanism and the illiterate ‘animism’ of the tribal communities which gradually joined Brahmanic society in the past.” Hinduism has been described in a pre-independence Census Report (1901), as ‘animism more or less transformed by philosophy, or to condense the epigram, as magic tempered by metaphysics’. This echoes what archaeologist S.R. Rao said about the Harappan religion, ‘ranging from very elevated philosophical and ethical concepts down to a crude animism’.
Marxist historian D.D. Kosambi gave several examples of bloodthirsty tribal goddess cults sanitized by the hand of Brahmanism which replaced sacrificial blood with vermillion marks. Hindu gods and goddesses like Ganesha, Varaha and Narasimha (avatars of Vishnu) have provenance in tribal counterparts. Sandhya Jain (“Adi Deo Arya Devata: Panoramic view of Hindu-Tribal Cultural Interface”) says Vishnu evolved out of several distinct deities, notably Vasudeva, supreme lord of the Vrishni/Satvata tribe, Krishna of the Yadava clan, Gopala of the Abhira tribe and Narayana of the Hindukush mountains. In Orissa, the evolution of Hinduism is most conspicuous. Jagannath was first worshipped by the Sabara (Savara, Saora) tribe and ‘miraculously’ appeared in Puri much later. Till today, Daita (Daitya) priests, descendants of the original tribal worshippers, alone have the right to dress the god, move him, and regularly renovate his wooden image. At the Lingaraj Temple in Bhubaneswar, tribal Badu priests alone are allowed to bathe and adorn the deity.
This is true testimony to the power of syncretism and lack of exclusiveness in Hindu thought. Kosambi saw a “process of syncretism” in the absorption of “primitive deities,” a “mechanism of acculturation, a clear give and take,” which allowed “Indian society to be formed out of many diverse and even discordant elements.” It allowed the admission of many a “primitive local god or goddess into the ancient Brahmanical system.” But through the lens of dialectical materialism, Kosambi found this syncretism objectionable as this (Arya-tribal) unity was secured at the cost of stagnation and subjection to a regime of superstition and primitiveness.
Still, the process of Sanskritization encouraged tribal groups to accept the higher civilizational ethos of Brahmanical Hinduism, including renunciation of beef and even meat, mantra-based worship, abstinence from bloody sacrifices, and acceptance of mainstream Hindu deities. Victorious kings played a role in promotion of Sanskritization as it helped in integrating the subjects of the newly acquired kingdom by assimilating their theological icons and beliefs. Says Kosambi: “The tribe as a whole turned into a new peasant jâti caste-group, generally ranked as Shudras, with as many as possible of the previous institutions (including endogamy) brought over… The Brahmin often preserved tribal or local peasant jâti customs and primitive lore in some special if modified form… This procedure enabled Indian society to be formed out of many diverse and even discordant elements, with the minimum use of violence.”
This process of integration suffered a death blow in periods of Islamic and British colonization, which tribals resisted fiercely. Kosambi notes how Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq during a march to Bengal narrowly escaped being killed by a tribal uprising. British missionaries faced the brunt of several tribal uprisings including the famous one led by missionary educated Birsa Munda.
After independence, the traditional way of integrating the tribal with the mainstream through a natural, humane and non-discriminatory process of acculturation and Sanskritization was the cherished desire of most. Guru Golwalkar proposed that for the integration of tribals and untouchables, the same formula applies: “They can be given yajñopavîta (…) They should be given equal rights and footings in the matter of religious rights, in temple worship, in the study of Vedas, and in general, in all our social and religious affairs. This is the only right solution for all the problems of casteism found nowadays in our Hindu society.” Unfortunately that didn’t materialize.
Who is responsible for Tribal Backwardness?
Contemporary socio-economic backwardness of tribals has been uncritically blamed on caste Hindus though they had no political role in the periods of Islamic and British colonization.
Remember the jibe – ‘Hindu rate of growth’? It applied to the Soviet-style socialism of Nehru and Indira Gandhi. But when the growth rate surged past the double digit mark under a supposedly Hindu nationalist government, the title of Hindu rate of growth became inconvenient; now growth rate is secular.
The Nehruvian genius in leaving tribals to their stultified status through euphemistic appellations is the real reason why the tribal problem exists today. For 50 years, his party followed this paranoid policy and when the failures became overwhelming, blame was dumped through Marxist intellectuals on caste Hindus!
The hyper anti-Hindu stance of this class of writers, like Guha, is most explicit when he considers water-logging tribal areas as part of a process of supplying water to ‘Hindu farmers.’ Since when did secular state commissions under all but one “Secular” government base national policies on the basis of religion? Guha’s Hinduphobia is more a reflection of his anti-Gujarat government sanctioned Narmada Project (after duly compensating tribal landowners); not one word of condemnation escaped his lips for Nehru commissioning the Bhakra Nangal project to supply water to Sikh farmers while submerging lands of poor Hindus!
This developmental vacuum created scope for tribal exploitation through Maoists and Christian missionaries. The Niyogi Commission warned the Nehru government of the impending danger of missionaries and the means to check them, but the Hindu-phobic Nehru ignored its recommendations. Often it was treatment through quacks who baptized tribal children on their deathbeds in exchange for their lives. Maoists had their more violent methods. Both feed on poverty and exploit its victims in their quest for hegemonic power! Both have now come together to form a common coalition against Hindu tribals. Both are against development as it would put their very existence in jeopardy. It is a direct consequence of their combined terror that prevents government-sponsored educationalists, doctors and engineers from working in these landmine-infested areas. Recently, an entire medical team was blown up by Maoists from Midnapore.
The secularist charge that Hindu organizations operating in tribal areas are as much a missionary force as the Christian is outrageous. True, tribals do not follow the Vedas, but that is only a very orthodox definition of Hinduism. How do you explain an Advaitin who virtually denies all gods a place in the Hindu pantheon as an ultimate illusion? The Sankhya and the Nyaya Vaishika, one of the six astika philosophical systems, pay at most a lip service to God. The plurality of Hindu thought is rooted in the Vedas: ‘the truth is one, but the sages call it with different names.’ In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Vidagdha Sakalya asks Yaynavalkya how many gods are there. Yajnavalkya at first replies 3336; probed further by Sakalya he reduces them to 33, then 6, then 3, then 2, then 1.5 and finally 1!
Christianity is the antithesis of all tribal religions. While tribal culture is attuned to nature, and respects and worships its profound sacredness, the Christian faith exhibits total non-interest in nature as illustrated by the near-total absence of wildlife and rural scenery from the strictly urban setting of Paul’s Letters or the Acts of the Apostles and the subsequent propagation of the new faith in the cities of the Roman empire.
Ecologists blame Biblical religions for lack of respect for nature and its desacralization. Irrespective of the Christian contribution, the fact is the European mind was single-handedly responsible for eco-disasters and extermination of species even prior to the Industrial Revolution.
In Hindu India, despite immensely higher population density, no species mentioned in the Vedas has died out in the intervening millennium. Elst believes that by being less savage and more civilized, Hindu India managed to preserve its species diversity much better than hunter-gatherer cultures in the “New World,” forget the anti-naturalistic Christian world.
Finally, from a Christian or Islamic viewpoint, any differences between tribal “animism” and Hinduism are purely academic as by all accounts both are polytheistic-Pagan.
If we accept “conversion of tribal to Hindu,” we discover it to be a most amicable exercise. Conversion to Christianity invariably involves a high tension divorce from roots. It does not mean exchanging one set of gods for another, as Karan Thapar and Shashi Tharoor would claim; it means renouncing an entire social identity, culture and way of life. Gender sensitive tribal traditions like mother goddess worship and belief in Vandevis are ruthlessly suppressed by an alien ultra-patriarchal and anti-naturalistic faith.
Jesus can replace Hanuman only by reducing the latter to an object of hate through unethical missionary propaganda. This creates social tension and separate identities, and consummates in violence as in Kandhamal where converted Panis and Hindu Kandhas are locked in internecine struggle.
Hindu missionaries arrived in tribal areas only to counter the draconian mass conversion drives of missionaries and Maoists and many sacrificed their lives in the process, such as Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati.
Christian missions receive millions of dollars from Western Church-based groups to harvest Hindu souls. The Project Joshua movement which began as AD 2000 & Beyond and later morphed into Joshua Project I and Joshua Project II, was designed to be a sledgehammer, decade-long steamroller campaign that would set the stage for a systematic, sophisticated and self-sustaining “harvest” of the “unreached people groups” in India in the 21st century. Is Project Joshua spending billions of dollars out of love for scheduled castes and tribals?
Christians can claim additional privileges through Articles 29,30, such as operating their own educational institutions which were indicted by the Niyogi Commission Report as active agents of conversion. Hindu converts to Christianity rarely register themselves as Christians during Census as that would mean termination of their Scheduled Caste affirmative action/reservation benefits.
Hindus are severely hampered by lack of funds, especially as temple grants which could be used against Christian propaganda are usurped by “secular” governments under the pretext of the Religious Endowment Act which applies only to Hindus. Finally, anti-Hindu bloodthirsty Maoists operate parallel administrations where even police fear to venture. They have made common cause with Christians against Hindus.
Oxymoronic groups like the “Catholic Secular Forum” openly threaten Hindus that it is their God-ordained duty to convert infidels, even if it means violating the unequivocal full bench verdict in the Stanislaus Vs State of Madhya Pradesh, AIR 1977 SC 908 which prohibits any conversion propaganda under the guise of freedom to practice one’s religion.