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My life as a virtual Christian

Meenakshi Jain
The Weekend Observer
November 27, 1999
Title: My life as a virtual Christian

Author: Meenakshi Jain
Publication: The Weekend Observer
Date: November 27, 1999

There has of late been a spate of statements by a vociferous group of missionary-educated Indians, extolling the virtues of the education they had received In these institutions.  Implicit In them declarations is the belief that Christian institutions are superior to all others in the country and that they produced the largest number of successful men.  The alumni of these schools ha" also been quick to absolve their former tutors of covert or overt bids to tamper with their faith.  Almost to a man, they have sung paeans to the secular disposition of their educators.

This certificate of health must come as a surprise to countless other pupils of missionary schools, whose experiences have not been as rosy.  The most lasting memory I have of my own convent school education Is Its overpowering Christian character.  It hit one hard and strong - one struggled instinctively to conform to its Christian ethos.  The holy sisters spared no effort to save their flock.  Under their strict vigil, I spent my years at my alma meter (located in a snug corner of the capital's Diplomatic Enclave) virtually as a practising Christian.

Short of format baptism, there was little to set me apart from Christian fellow students. I might add that my experience In India was diametrically opposite to that in England, where the religious preferences of teachers never interfered with their secular calling.

All told, in the Indian convent, we non-Christian students chanted Christian prayers no less than 21 times every single working day.  Multiply has regimen five times a twelve months a year (minus holidays) for 12 years (kindergarten to Class XI).

To my mind, it works out to be a formidable proselytisation programme.  The Indoctrination began in right earnest even before we reached the portals of our Institution.  When the last child had boarded the school bus in the morning, we collectively prayed to the "Angel of God" to deliver us; safely to our destination.

From here on, it was a non-stop praying spree.  The morning assembly involved "Our Father, who art in Heaven".  At the beginning of each class, we beseeched the Lord to enlighten our minds, and each period ended with a plea to the Almighty to help us retain the lesson.

Both before the mid-day meal and after, we prayed for the Lord's blessings and "these Thy gifts" which we receive as "Thy bounty".  We said a final prayer on the ride back home.

It must be emphasised that there was nothing non-denominational, or secular, about these prayers.  They wore Christian through and through.  And yet, without murmur, we chanted them 21 times a day, without fall. I make this point because the recent hue and cry over the recitation of Saraswati Vandana at an Education Ministers' conference was a cruel reminder of how hyperactive other religions are in protecting and advancing what they perceive as their turf, and how lax Hindus are in comparison.

"Our indoctrination was not limited to the recitation of Christian prayers.  We followed the Christian litany and made the sign of the cross on our body after each prayer, in imitation of our Christian teachers and fellow students.  Some of us even wore silver chains with a dangling cross, which we reverentially kissed on conclusion of our prayers.  We were well aware of the leading figures of the Bible - Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and of course

Jesus Christ, whose birth and resurrection we approached with due solemnity.  Many of us hung up stockings on Christmas eve, which we found empty the following morning.

But our overtly Christian behaviour did nothing to enhance our status vis-a-vis Christian students.  Tho4jgh a small group, the latter enjoyed a visibly special relationship with the faculty.

It was de rigueur to say one was a non-practising Hindu.  We were defensive of the profligacy we perceived in our religion and were quick to disclaim any active association with it.  Most of us; were well-acquainted with just certain interpretations of popular stories, for instance Draupadi's polyandrous marriage to the Pandavas, and Gandhari's extravagant pregnancy that gave birth to a hundred children.

As young children raised on a diet of arid Christian morality, we were embarrassed by such 'facts'.  We grew up deprived of the magnificence, magnitude and message of the epics.  That the Mahabharata, along with the Ramayana, was the life-breath of Hindu civilisation: contained all that was wise and noble in our culture; served to knit the populace in a unity that ever baffled outside observers, we experienced long years after leaving the convent.

Our missionary school made no effort to acquaint us with the rich tradition of Indian mythology.  We had but a faint idea of the significance of various Hindu festivals.  Though we could sing endless carols, we learnt not one non-Christian prayer during the years there.  It would be no exaggeration to say that we were victims of a systematic attempt to cut us off from our roots, to denationalise us in the deepest sense of the term.  In my case, as in that of numerous others, a Marxist-dominated college curriculum later completed the alienation process.

Convent education did make us proficient in English language and literature.  But it simultaneously inculcated disdain for Hindi and an utter disregard for Sanskrit.  Needless to say, many students of my generation remained weak in both languages.

Today, as I watch my public school-going son effortlessly recite the Gita and other scriptures, participate with fervour in Krishna Janmashtami, Dussehra, Diwali and other festivals, learn Hindustani classical music, while retaining a reasonably good command over the English language, I am overwhelmed by the havoc missionary education wrought on my generation.

In its defense, however, it must be said that the sterile missionary education fitted well with the barren non-Hindu ethos of post-Independence India.  The two wastelands reinforced each other.

It is no accident that as India increasingly began to come into her own, large numbers of city-based Indians began to turn their backs on such education and consciously opt for public school education instead.  Missionary schools are now no match for good public schools.

Most of them have now set their sights on the economically less, privileged sections of society, which, ensnared by the lure of English education, are more susceptible to missionary propaganda.

Apologists claim that most outstanding Indians in the 19th and 20th centuries were products of English education.  But there is a major difference between western education and missionary education.  It was in India, and not in Britain, that I learnt the Lord's prayer.  Few missionary-educated Indians can honestly say their education gave them an appreciation of their civilisational heritage.

(Dr Jain is a Reader at University of Delhi)

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