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Foreign Missionaries - Hindu Vivek Kendra

Ashok Chowgule, ()
October 98.

Title: Foreign Missionaries
Author: Ashok Chowgule,
Publication: Hindu Vivek Kendra
Date: October 98.

The issue of foreign missionaries has to be seen in the context of
religious conversions. Otherwise, it is not possible to look at their
role in the proper perspective, given their history in India and in the
rest of the world. Although there are attempts to rationalise and
sometimes negate the history, there is no denying that Christianity
spread essentially through the power of state. There has been
vandalism, both physical and culture, that has followed in the wake of
Christianity. If people just acknowledged history, certain emotions of
shame and defeat would not be driven underground, ready to surface at
the least provocation.
What distinguishes man from other forms of beings is that he has a mind,
which needs not mere physical sustenance, but spiritual as well. This
is expected to take the person to a higher philosophical level. A
religious conversion means that the person is not satisfied that his
present set of beliefs will achieve this goal. It does not necessarily
mean that there is anything intrinsically wrong with this set, but that
the person feels that there should be something better. This is truly a
spiritual conversion, where a person has made a deep study of not only
of the beliefs that he converts to, but also the beliefs that he is
presently practising. Hence there cannot be any objection to it.
To explain the issues in more simplified terms, one can look at
conversions in a secular context - for example, when a person changes a
job, there is, in a sense, a conversion. He thinks that in the present
job his ability is not being fully exploited, and in the near future
such opportunities will not be available to him. There is also a
possibility that the change is being made for pecuniary reasons, or even
for a reason of achieving a higher social level. No company should
stand in the way of the development and advancement of an individual.
In any case, if it does, the performance of the individual may well
deteriorate on account of the compulsions that he is faced with.
However, in certain cases, the change in the job can well mean a
repudiation of the past. For example, when a salesman switches to a
competing company, he has to start saying that what he was selling
earlier is not as good as what he is selling now. This can cause a
state of confusion in his own mind and the clients that he visits. Of
course, today all this is accepted, and not many eyebrows are raised.
The same liberty is not available when religious conversions are made,
particularly where groups go around asking for conversion by saying bad
things about the beliefs the people are presently holding. There is an
even greater problem when this type of conversions is done on the basis
of fraud or inducements. The problem with inducements is made worse when
the target is in a state of weakness due to physical or psychological
reasons.
Why do people go out to convert? Some feel that they have been
commanded by a higher spiritual authority that commands him that he
should go out and convert people to his set of beliefs. When this is
done by explaining to the people on a logical basis, without trying to
pervert the people's existing beliefs, or trying to give an impression
that there will be some sort of an award, such propagation does not
create any adverse response. In all other cases, there will be a
problem, and invariably sets out a reaction.
While the command to go out and convert exists in some monotheistic
religions, two which do not are Judaism and Zoroastrianism. A notable
feature for both these religions is the way the Hindus treated them. It
was only in a Hindu land that the Jews were never persecuted. In case
of Zoroastrianism, it was only in a Hindu land that they were permitted
to preserve their religion, when they had to run away from Persia due to
religious persecution. In all the other places that they fled to, they
had to adopt to the religion of their new homes.
Monotheistic religions which do convert are invariably aggressive in
their desire. The unique path for salvation that they propagate is a
major compulsion for this condition. A member of monotheistic religion
believes that followers of a different path will invariably land in
hell. If one such follower is a good friend, then he will be failing in
his duty as a friend in not making an attempt to convert. This
aggressiveness become troublesome when it is institutionalised through
the hierarchy of the religion.
A polytheistic religion believes that there are multiple paths towards
salvation. For its followers, conversion is an irrelevant activity, and
they may not want to believe that there is a compulsion to convert in
the aggressive monotheistic religions. However, what is important is
the way the followers of the monotheistic religions see themselves, and
the way they interpret their own scriptures. For political or strategic
reasons, they may not exhibit the aggressiveness in certain situations,
or try and undertake their activity in a subtle way. It is said that
India escaped the forcible conversions practiced by the Christian
missionaries in other parts of the world, because of the social and
religious reforms that had taken place in Europe by the time the
colonial powers were able to establish themselves here. The crude
tactics used in those places would have created a huge adverse reaction
in the home countries.
The essential role of a clergy is towards those who are already the
followers of their religion. They conduct the various rituals of their
religion, and act as the intermediary between man and god. In certain
cases they also ensure that their flock is not diminished either due to
the desertion by individual members or through 'poaching' by other
groups. These can be considered to be legitimate activities, undertaken
in the interest of their own religion.
In the case of the proselytising religions, an additional role is to
seek an increase in the numbers of their religions. If it is done in a
truly spiritual way, this role does not create a conflict in societies
where polytheism is practiced by the majority of the people. However,
it creates a conflict in those societies which are also monotheistic,
whether proselytising or not. The members of such societies see the
conversion role of the missionaries as an attack on the society.
If a non-spiritual way is followed, even polytheistic societies react
adversely to the conversions. The anger is greater if it is perceived
that there is fraud or inducement for conversions. Mahatma Gandhi had
called this activity as rice conversions, particularly since there was
an increased activity of the missionaries whenever there was a natural
calamity.
Since aggressive conversions involves repudiating one's past, there is a
certain amount of alienation from the society that is created. When the
converts are a minority in an area, they tend to ghettoise themselves.
Some say that they are forced to ghettoise by their leaders - both
spiritual and secular - so that they can be controlled. Where they
become a majority, it invariably leads to separatist tendencies.
Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar had said, "By joining Islam or Christianity, the
Depressed Classes would not only go out of the Hindu religion, but also
go out of the Hindu culture....Conversion to Islam or Christianity will
denationalise the Depressed Classes."
In his recent book about Islamic countries, Sir Vidiadhar Naipaul dealt
with the issue of conversions. He suggests that conversions 'occur when
people have no idea of themselves, and have no means of understanding or
retrieving their past.... For the new fundamentalists..., the greatest
war was to be made on their own past and everything that linked them to
their own earth.' He also says, "Islam is the most uncompromising kind
of imperialism because it seeks as an article of the faith to erase the
past."
A letter writer in India responded to this. He said, "Being an advanced
research student of Islamic theology and Semitic language, let me
explain the background for this. Islam's aversion to the past should be
viewed from the perspective of conversion. Islam aims at destroying the
past completely lest it should hark the converts back to the pre-Islam
days. There is always a fear of the past which threatens to jeopardise
the very existence of Islam. The "fear of recantation" is more often
than not dealt with violent measures. Since conversion is not without
its past, Islam tries tooth and nail to expunge all the traces and
remnants of the past."
Sir Vidiadhar's views and the response applies to all proselytising
religions. The same programme of denial of the past is equally
applicable to Christianity. The biological ancestors of the people
targeted for conversions have to be projected in a bad light. In India,
the Christian churches falsely arrogated to themselves the role of
modernisers, civilisers, etc. They say that their so-called service and
reform activities has improved the socio-economic position of the people
of this land.
Secular conversions are also not taken lightly. When a person leaves a
company, some conduct exit interviews, to understand if there is an
environment which has caused the person to leave, or whether there is a
genuine reason to change. In some cases, the company may well try and
induce the person to reconsider and remove the causes which has made him
consider the change. In some high profile jobs, the company may have a
non-competition clause in a person's term of employment.
The past experience of the Parsis has also made them very sensitive when
members of their fold leave. As it is their numbers had been greatly
reduced not only in their original homes but also in the lands where
they had to flee to. When two young Parsis, studying in a missionary
school, converted to Christianity in 1839, the community made strenuous
efforts to dissuade them. They tried to win back the two converts with
threats of violence and immense money of-fers. The Parsi Panchayat - in
vain - filed a suit before the High Court. The number of pupils in the
missionary school (primarily Parsis) sank from 500 to 60-70.
In Islamic countries, conversions are actively discouraged.
Undertakings are forcibly obtained from the missionaries that would not
indulge in conversions. Mission programmes have been asked to close
down in Indonesia, Bangladesh, etc. In Israel, a law seeking to ban
conversions from Judaism, was dropped only when the various Christian
churches gave an undertaking that they would not proselytise. In
Russia, a law was enacted to recognise only Orthodox Christianity,
Islam, Judaism and Buddhism, as religions to be practiced. This would
have made not only eastern religions like Hinduism illegal, but also
Catholicism and other branches of Christianity too
It is also interesting to note the behaviour of the Christians when
members leave one sect and join another. The Pope calls the Protestant
missionaries in South America as wolves and said that one of his reason
for visits to the continent is to protect his flock from being reduced.
Here is a case where a person still believes that Christ is the only way
towards salvation, but thinks that another church meets his requirements
of spiritualism better.
Christians are not at all happy when their flock desert them and join
religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. The methods applied by the
International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) movement of
earlier times created a large reaction. One Christian sect advised its
members to even adopt illegal methods to wean their children away from
ISKCON. The methods of ISKCON were unconventional as far as Hinduism is
concerned, but were in conformity with the methods of Christianity.
They have been drastically moderated in recent times.
Members of Christian hierarchies always talk negatively about both
Hinduism and Buddhism, because a large number of thinking Christians
have been attracted towards these faiths. It has to be stated that
Buddhism, and even more so Hinduism, do not aggressively go out to seek
members of other faiths. Prior to his recent visit to Sri Lanka, the
Pope had come out with a book in which he criticised Buddhism. The
Buddhist clergy in that country refused to meet him unless he
apologised. No apology was forthcoming, so the meeting did not take
place.
In the same book, the Pope has asked his flock to seriously consider
their Christian heritage before setting it aside and adopting other
religions. His concern for the 'welfare' of his people is touching.
But, it exposes his hypocrisy since he has no compunction to ask Hindus
and Buddhists to set aside their even longer spiritual heritage and
adopt Christianity. There is also a need to ask the Pope the way he
would classify Protestant missionaries in India, since he considers them
wolves in South America.
At least one Christian activist has come to recognise the anger felt by
the Hindus about conversions. In an article in a Catholic weekly from
Mumbai, she said, "So what is it that makes missionaries different, I
wonder. I asked my Hindu husband and other Hindu friends - educated,
perceptive adults - and I was shocked at the anger I uncovered. They
just don't see Christians as Indians; they see us as an alien 'other',
minions of a white, Christian world that is synonymous with spiritual
and racial chauvinism. Our cathedrals, our culture, and our worships
set us apart. Poland has shown us that the dividing line between
spiritual and political control can be very fine. The red flag,
however, is conversion. It rakes up old hurts of a colonial religion
that not only cut off a people from their rich spiritual heritage and
destroyed their cultural roots, but created pseudo-western Indians that
looked down on the 'natives' and their 'superstitious',
'idol-worshipping' religion."
The Hindus who have talked to the Christian activist are her own Hindu
husband and their Hindu friends, who would definitely like to place
themselves in the so-called secular camp. However, the sentiments that
are expressed by this group of Hindus are identical to what the
so-called hard-line Hindutvavadis are saying. Most Hindus find it
difficult to understand the aggressive self-righteousness of
Christianity and Islam and their insistence on converting.
In a very subtle way, the Catholics try to pass of the fiction that
there is a change in the way they look at other religions after the
pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council in the late 1960s. It is
said that this document has accepted that there is a possibility of
achieving salvation in other religions as well. However, we need to
look into what the present Catholic hierarchy has to say and what they
do. It is not only the Pope who projects the exclusive position of
Christianity, but the other members of the hierarchy concur with him.
In 1985, a senior member of the Catholic clergy in Vatican said, "Jesus
Christ, the Son of God, made man, is our saviour....He ascended to
heaven but not before he had carefully prepared his apostles to bring
salvation to all men, of all times, in all places.....Interreligious
dialogue would be unnecessary if all men believed in Jesus Christ and
practiced only the religion which he estab-lished." This has been
confirmed in 1997, when another senior member of the clergy said, "A
true dialogue with other faiths should not be a journey into emptiness,
but a search for the eternal truth revealed in Jesus."
The primacy of the evangelisation programme of the church is confirmed
by the hierarchy itself. One senior member of the clergy said, "Has the
Church anything else to do? No. Evangelisation is central to the mission
of the Church. The task of evangelising all people constitutes the
central mission of the Church. The Church has no other assignment."
This also places the issue of compulsion to proselytise in the
perspective explained earlier.
So far we have not specifically dealt with the foreign missionaries,
although that is the title of this article. What has been done is to
lay down the basis of asking ALL the missionaries not to undertake the
proselytising activity, given the way it creates tension in the social
fiber of the society. In these circumstances, the role of foreign
missionaries becomes automatically redundant, since it is axiomatic that
the needs of the existing members of the community should be best met by
the clergy drawn from within. If sufficient qualified members are not
available, then there is some inherent problem with the religion itself.

In all the Christian countries, the churches are facing major problems.
Church attendance has drastically fallen, and various churches are
closing down. A Church of England report says that the number of
practising Muslims in the United Kingdom may well be higher than the
number of Anglicans in the not too distant future. It is reported that
in Austria there are only 20% practising Christians, and about 40,000
people are leaving every year. At this rate, in another 30 years there
will be no Christians in that country. Just as the churches are closing
down, so are the seminaries where the priests are trained. With the
lack of new entrants, the population of priests is ageing. With fewer
priests, the work has to be spread out, and a priest in many countries
has to take charge of more than one church and parish.
Would it not be more appropriate for the foreign missionaries to stay
back home and ensure that the number of Christians does not reduce any
further? Would it not be appropriate to ask why the Hindus should adopt
Christianity when Christians themselves are rejecting it? How is it
more superior to the existing faiths? Hinduism is a vibrant system -
Christianity is really not so.

(Ashok Chowgule is the President, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Maharashtra.)


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