The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Missionary's Swastika: Racism as an Evangelical Weapon

By Aravindan Neelakandan.S.
Date published: 05/14/2001

We reject the historical interpretations, which date back to the eighteenth century, that continue to be imposed on South Asian culture history. These still prevailing interpretations are significantly diminished by European ethnocentrism, colonialism, racism, and antisemitism. Surely, as South Asian studies approaches the twenty-first century, it is time to describe emerging data objectively rather than perpetuate interpretations without regard to the data archaeologists have worked so hard to reveal.' [1]

Of the various theories of history that have over the years been discredited for lack of evidence, ill-founded or baseless assumptions, or have been simply undermined by superior scholarship, few have been dismantled quite so thoroughly as Aryan Race Theory. Yet, as historian James Schaffer notes above, few other discredited theories have so stubbornly and inexplicably retained credence among the public, the media, and even some academic circles, in spite of direct evidence to the contrary. Aryan race theory is a fabrication, evolved into a myth, that survives today as an unexamined 'truth.'

And few other spurious 'truths' have been so insidious -- or so destructive. Responsible for subjugation of millions of Indians under British rule, Aryan Race Theory continued its wretched legacy well into the twentieth century, mutating into the horrific pseudo-science that rationalized Hitler's Final Solution, and lingering in the bloody ethnic convulsions of modern Sri Lanka, Rwanda, and other troubled areas of the post-colonial world.

Far from being merely an academic exercise, though, Aryan Race Theory is in fact the brainchild of Christian evangelist-scholars, fashioned and tempered in the nineteenth century as a weapon for European expansionism in India. Promulgated to generations of Indian children in British-created schools, it created, like so many other Western creeds and dogmas, social divisions where none had hitherto existed, resulting in jealousy, mistrust, and suspicion among communities where peaceful coexistence had been the norm. This theory, which posits the invasion of ancient India by a white-skinned race (the 'Aryans') who conquer an indigenous, dark-skinned population, therefore worked ingeniously with the British divide-and-conquer strategy for rule in India. The theory and its variants continue to be used today by the Vatican and other Christian enterprises in their campaign to 'harvest' tribals and other vulnerable communities of Hindus. For these spiritual imperialists, spurious racial theories still hold their divide-and-conquer appeal.

The roots of the theory reach back much further than the pseudo-scholarship of European missionaries, however. As early as 1312 CE, the Ecumenical Council of Vienna declared that 'the Holy Church should have an abundant number of Catholics well versed in the languages, especially in those of the infidels so as to be able to instruct them in the sacred doctrine.' This not only defined the early Church's strategy for evangelizing the 'infidels,' but also established the very study of language, and the linguistic and philological scholarship that would emerge in later centuries, as tools of evangelism. Thus, when the university (as with society's other institutions) was recruited into the national effort of empire-building, its agents -- many of them pious Christians and nationalists, trained in a predominantly parochial (Catholic, Anglican, etc.) academic system -- enthusiastically pursued knowledge not for the sake of truth, but for the sake of Christianity.

Throughout its history, Christianity has never been above the endorsement of fabricated 'truths' in order to spread its creed throughout the globe. So, it is not surprising that when the Boden Chair for Oriental Studies was established in Oxford University in 1832, Colonel Boden, who bequeathed 25,000 pounds (a generous sum for that time) to establish that chair, stated explicitly that the aim of study of Sanskrit literature was not for the sake of knowledge, but natives of India to the Christian religion.' It was the Boden chair which later emerged as the academic epicenter of Aryan Race Theory.

In fact, it was an Oxford Professor of Sanskrit who vigorously propagated the notion of the Aryan race. Fredrich Max Muller, a staunch German nationalist and Christian missionary, was Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford labored for years translating the Vedas into English. Muller would comment unequivocally regarding the motives of his life's work,

'. . . [t]his edition of mine and translation of Vedas will hereafter tell to a very great extent on the fate of India and on the growth of millions of souls in that country. It is the root of their religion and to show them as to what their root is, I feel sure, is the only way of uprooting all that sprang from it during the last 3000 years.' [2

Muller's objective, it is seen, was not to make the achievements of Hindu civilization accessible to his European fellows, but to expose them to the scrutiny of his fellow evangelists, so that they may become better in deconstructing them.

In 1851 Muller wrote his first article in English wherein he used the word 'Aryan' for the first time in the sense of a race. Max Muller's good friend and fellow Indologist Paul then popularized the word 'Aryan' in France. Soon many Christian scholars were seized upon by the theory of Aryan race. In 1859 Swiss linguist Adolph Pictet wrote that the Aryan race was the

'. . . one destined by Providence to reign one day supreme over the entire earth . . . They were the race of Aryans. . . . The religion of Christ became the torch of humanity. The genius of Greece adapted it. The power of Rome propagated it. Germanic energy gave it new strength. The whole race of the European Aryans came to be the main instrument of God's plan for the destiny of mankind'. [3]

Wrote Ernest Renan, the French historian of religion in 1860, '[t]he Semites are incapable of doing that which is essential. Let us remain Germans and Celts; let us keep our eternal gospel Christianity . .. . After the Semitic race declined, the Aryan race alone was left to lead the march of human destiny.' [4] The notion of 'Aryan' had become, in a few short years, the emblem of European manifest destiny over the world, a signet coined in the language of scholarship which gave Europeans a racial and religious mantle of superiority.

Not all scholars of the time accepted Muller's ideas, however. In 1861, after Muller gave three lectures titled 'Science of Languages' in which he justified his theory with quotes from Vedas, American historian Louis B. Synder noted that

'Max Muller repeatedly hammered away at the idea that the terms Indo-European and Indo-Germanic must be replaced by Aryan because the people who lived in India and who spoke the Sanskrit language called themselves Arya. This primitive Aryan language indicated that there was an Aryan race, the common ancestors of Germans, Celts, Romans, Slavs, Greeks, Persians, and Hindus.' [5]

Synder then went on to remark that 'all attempts to correlate the Aryan language to Aryan race were not only unsuccessful but also absurd'. [5] Even at that time many academics opposed the Aryan invasion theory. Noted scholars such as Jacoby, Hillebrant and Winternitz strongly opposed the racial theory, noting that Indians themselves had had no idea about any distinct Aryan racial identity in their own literature.

Why, then, was a theory that had no grounding in fact so readily accepted and promoted in the Western academic circles and imposed on Indians? Because the theory of the Aryan race and its invasion of India were formulated, and then vigorously promulgated, by Christian missionaries.

As W. W. Hunter, another well-known Indologist of missionary persuasion, candidly admitted, their

'scholarship is warmed with the holy flame of Christian zeal.' [6] As an example, some elements of the theory are clearly attributable to Biblical scripture. For instance, ideas like the existence of an Aryan proto-language were associated with and inspired by the Biblical myth of the tower of Babel. Even the date of creation of the Vedas was fixed by Max Muller to tailor-fit a Biblical creation time scale. [7] Clearly, those members of the academic establishment who promoted the theory had vested political and religious interests in mind, and the propaganda of religious and racial superiority sanctified by Aryan Race Theory served those interests well. This marriage of racial superiority and the 'holy flame of Christian zeal'

would ensure the future development of the ugly racist theories that would culminate in Europe's concentration camps and final solutions.

The primary political motive of nineteenth-century Britain was, of course, expansion of its empire, and the theory of Aryan race provided a veneer of benevolence that justified colonial rule in India. Protestant missionary John Wilson, President of the Asiatic Society of Bombay from 1836 to 1846, wanted the Indian population to be divided into Aryan and non-Aryan groups so that special target groups like tribals could be easily identified by the missionaries for conversion. In 1856 Wilson delivered a lecture titled 'India 3000 years ago,' in which he preached the Aryan invasion of India and the theory of Aryan race as historical facts. Wilson declared

'[w]hat has taken place since the commencement of the British rule in India is only a reunion, to a certain extent, of the members of the same family.' Naturally, this happy reunion had now brought India into contact 'with the most enlightened and philanthropic nation in the world.' [8]

The racist 'scholarship' conducted by the missionaries also helped to diminish any of the pride Indians had developed for their own heritage. Max Muller in his address to the International Congress of Orientalists openly remarked that, thanks to the work of the missionary-scholars, 'a more intelligent appreciation had taken the place of the extravagant admiration of the work of their old poets.' [9] In other words, Indians' appreciation of their own epic literature was to be cut down to size by an application of 'proper' critical scrutiny, righteously applied by Muller and his Christo-centric cohorts.

British cultural 're-education' of the Indian populace was accomplished through imposition of a colonial educational system. To do this the indigenous system of education had to first be eradicated. By the first half of the nineteenth century, the colonial rulers along with their missionaries had already destroyed the vast network of indigenous schools which for generations had proven more efficient and effective than the contemporary British educational system. Parliamentarian Keir Hardie observed, based on the strength of official documents and the reports of missionaries in the field, that prior to British occupation of India, in Bengal alone there had been 80,000 native schools, meaning one school for every 400 of the population. This would change radically once colonization was underway. Ludlow, in his History of British India, says, '[i]n every Hindoo village which has retained its original form all children were able to read, write and cipher, but where we have swept away the village system as in Bengal there the village school has also disappeared.'

The 1823 report of the British Collector of Bellary, A. D. Campbell, is telling. He first lauds the indigenous education system, saying:

'The economy with which children are taught to write in the native schools and the system by which the more advanced scholars are taught to educate the less advanced and at the same time to confirm their own knowledge is certainly admirable and well deserved the imitation it has received in England,'

but he then goes on to remark, '[o]f nearly a million souls not 7000 are now at school.' The decimation of the Indian education system thus created a vacuum that then had to be filled. Into that vacuum, eager and waiting, went the missionaries, who swiftly set up their own church-sponsored schools and taught Indian children their own literature and history according to the gospel of Max Muller.

It is by now a well-established fact that education was a means to Christianize and 'domesticate' the native population and render it loyal to the British empire. Thomas Macaulay, member of the Supreme Council of India and instrumental in destroying the indigenous educational system and in introducing English language education in India, remarked in his now famous Minute of 1835,

'. . . the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India contain neither literary nor scientific information,' and thus were not worthy of preservation. However, Macaulay's interest was not educational, but decidedly religious. In a letter to his father he proclaimed, 'It is my firm belief that, if our plans of education are followed up, there will not be a single idolater among the respectable classes in Bengal thirty years hence.'

Macaulay's boastful predictions, fortunately, would not come to pass. But as the eighteenth century came to a close, Aryan RaceTheory had been taught to millions of Indian children in schools operated by the Macaulay-Missionary axis. The damage was done. The effect of indoctrinating generations of young Indians with a fabricated, racist interpretation of their history was the division of Indian society into 'Aryan' and 'non-Aryan' communities, polarizing North and South India. In South India, Anglican Bishop R. Caldwell began promoting the idea that South Indians were descendents of a non-Aryan 'race,' called Dravidians, who were racially different and culturally superior to the Aryans from the North. Soon many South Indians had accepted these theories, and their new alienation from the Hindi-speaking ('Aryan') North lead to deep political division. Dravidian political parties were formed which, in opposition to the 'Aryan' mainstream, were decidedly pro-British. These parties passed resolutions demanding, among other things, that the British should not leave India, even as Indian nationalists were fighting for their country's freedom.*

After independence, racial theory continued to be used by the Church as a ploy to further balkanize the Indian populace. As late as the 1950s and 1960s, high Church officials continued to publicly assert that Dravidian Race Theory was a 'time bomb' planted by the Church to destroy Hinduism. Though Macaulay's predictions failed, zealous proselytizers still nurse their bigoted ambitions to eradicate 'idolatry.'

Today, insurgency and terrorism in Northeast India continue to be enflamed by the divisive propaganda of Christian missionaries. In neighboring Sri Lanka, the violent ethic conflict can also be directly traced to the promulgation of racial theories by Christian missionaries among the Sinhalese and Tamils, who had previously lived together in relative peace. Ana Pararaja Singham, secretary of the Australasian Federation of Tamil Associations, remarked while discussing the ethnic conflict in the island,

'. . . While legends and myths of the [founding of Sri Lanka] formed the basis of Sinhala nationalism, the present nationalism is also due to the considerable influence wielded by Europeans throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. This dealt with racial concepts such as 'Aryan'. The notion that the Sinhalese were an Aryan people was not a Mahavamsa inspired myth, but an opinion attributable to European linguists who classified the languages spoken by the Sinhala and Tamil people into two distinct categories.'

The racial polarization of Sri Lanka began as early as 1856, when Robert Caldwell, in his A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian South Indian Family of Languages , argued that there was 'no direct affinity between the Sinhalese and Tamil languages.' Max Muller, meanwhile, weighed in with his Lectures on the Science of Language (1861), in which he declared that after 'careful and minute comparison' he was led to 'class the idioms spoken in Iceland and Ceylon as cognate dialects of the Aryan family of languages'. Though contrary views were expressed by other scholars, Muller's Aryan Race Theory was lent support by a number of prominent European scholars, and the theory therefore held sway.

Kamalika Pieris , a Sinhalese intellectual, agrees. In his article, 'Ethnic conflict and Tamil Separatism,' he examines the origin of the conflict and traces it to the race theories proposed by the missionary-scholars:There developed the notion of an 'Aryan race' consisting of anybody who spoke an Aryan language, the Dravidian race consisting of anybody who spoke a Dravidian language, and the Jews who spoke neither. Max Muller, the German linguist spoke of the 'Aryan Race' in 1888. Earlier Robert Caldwell had spoken of Dravidian languages in 1856. The Portuguese and the Dutch brought into Sri Lanka the prejudices available in their countries. Notably the Christian antagonism to Islam and other 'heathen' religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. But the concept of 'race' was introduced to the country during the British period, in the 19th century. The British labelled the Sinhala community as 'Sinhalese race' and 'Tamil race' in 1833 or 1871. 1833 saw the first communal representation in the Legislative Council and 1871 was the year of the first British Census of Ceylon. [10]

A century later, the fruits of Aryan Race Theory would be clearly seen in Sri Lanka, with devastating results. One of the first Sri Lankans to realize the enormous political gain to be reaped through exploiting the Mahavamsa mindset was S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, who, ironically, was a member of the elitist Christian Bandaranaike-Obeyasekera clan. At the general election of 1956, Bandaranaike ' bulldozed his way into political power by successfully marshalling popular Sinhala support on a chauvinistic platform.' [11] The polarization of the Tamil and Sinhalese communities would eventually lead to the civil war which ravages the island to this day.

It is not only the Indian Subcontinent where Christian evangelists have used dubious pseudo-science to foment racial division. Missionaries have concocted numerous versions of the Aryan RacialTheory, tailored to the history and circumstances found in various ex-colonial 'target' populations. For example, commenting on the recent Hutu-Tutsi conflicts, the French anthropologist Jean-Pierre Langellier reveals:

'The idea that the Hutus and the Tutsis were physically different was first aired in the 1860s by the British explorer John Speke. The history of Rwanda (like that of much of Africa) has been distorted by missionaries, academics and colonial administrators. They made the Tutsis out to be a superior race, which had conquered the region and enslaved the Hutus. Missionaries taught the Hutus that historical fallacy, which was the result of racist European concepts being applied to an African reality. At the end of the fifties, the Hutus used that discourse to react against the Tutsis.'[12]

The horrific ethnic cleansing that occurred in Rwanda in the early 90s, then, can be directly attributed to a mindset of racial superiority engendered by Christian missionary-scholars.


Racial theories and pseudo-science continue to be vigorously employed today by the Vatican and other Western evangelist enterprises in their ongoing campaign to harvest souls for Christianity. But it is not only in the remote corners of the Third World where the unexamined 'truths' of Max Muller and his missionary-scholar contemporaries are still used as weapons of propaganda. Aryan Race Theory is alive and well in the United States.

Take, for instance, white supremacist David Duke, who in one of his recent books speaks of the hordes of Aryans pouring into ancient India:

'Aryans, or Indo-Europeans (Caucasians) created the great Indian, or Hindu civilization. Aryans swept over the Himalayas to the Indian subcontinent and conquered the aboriginal people. (. . .) The word Aryan has an etymological origin in the word Arya from Sanskrit, meaning noble. The word also has been associated with gold, the noble metal, and denoted the golden-skinned invaders (as compared to the brown-skinned aboriginals) from the West. (. . .) The conquering race initiated a caste system to preserve their status and their racial identity. The Hindu word for caste is Varna, which directly translated into English means color.' [13]

Never mind that Duke is only regurgitating a spurious and discredited interpretation of history. The lies of Aryan Race Theory are as useful for white supremacists today as they were for the Christian missionaries a century ago in their campaign not only to convert the infidels but also to justify the colonization of 'heathen Hindoostan.'


1. James Schaffer (Case Western University) concluding his article, 'Migration, Philology and South Asian Archaeology,' in Aryan and Non-Aryan in South Asia: Evidence, Interpretation and History, edited by J. Bronkhorst and M. Deshpande (University of Michigan Press, 1998). [back]

2. The Life and Letters of the Rt. Hon. Fredrich Max Muller, vol I, edited by his wife (London: Longmans, 1902), 328. [back

3. Adolphe Pictet in Essai de paleontologie linguistique (1859), quoted by Michael Danino in his The Invasion That Never Was (1996). [back]

4. Ernest Renan, L'Avenir religieux des societes modernes (1860), quoted by Michael Danino op. cit. [back]

5. Louis B. Synder, The Idea of Nationalism: Its Meaning and History (New York: Von Nostrand, 1962) [back]

6. See 'Genesis of the Aryan race Theory and its Application to Indian History' by Devendranath Swarup, published in Manthan - Journal of Deendayal Research Institute (New Delhi, April-September 1994). [back]

7. N. S. Rajaram, Aryan Invasion of India, The Myth and the Truth (Voice of India, 1993). [back]

8. Sri Aurobindo, 'The Origins of Aryan Speech,' The Secret of the Veda, p. 554. [back]

9. Quoted in Arun Shourie's Missionaries in India - Continuities, Changes, Dilemmas (New Delhi: ASA, 1994), 149.[back]

10. The article can be found at

11. Ana Pararasasingam, 'Peace with Justice.' Paper presented at proceedings of the International Conference on the Conflict in Sri Lanka, Canberra, Australia, 1996. [back]

12. Quoted by N. S. Rajaram in his book, The Politics of History (New Delhi: Voice of India, 1995). [back]

13. David Duke, My Awakening (Mandeville, LA: Free Speech Press, 1999), 517-518 . [back]


*As more and more secular scholars studied these racist theories they started questioning the integrity of Max Muller. During the 1880s Muller began refuting his own racist interpretation of the Vedas. The damage, however, had already been done. [back]

Further Reading

Missionaries in India - Continuities, Changes, Dilemmas by Arun Shourie (New Delhi: ASA, 1994).

An excellent book written by a famous Indian intellectual who examines the methods used by missionaries in spreading Christianity in India; how they aided and in turn were aided by the British; how they destroyed the vast existing network of indigenous vernacular language schools to introduce their own schools; how they then used their educational institutions to indoctrinate the students with Christianity, and how the same mindset continues to this day in India. A must read for anyone who wants to understand what Christianity actually stands for in India.

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