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.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Christian Missions in India: "Education" and Misrepresentation

Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy

Two questions require separate consideration in any discussion of Christian missionary activity in India; these are, first, is missionary effort justifiable at all, and second, are the methods employed defensible? ...It is impossible in a short essay to cover the whole field of missionary activity in India. I propose to deal with two special points, viz: Education, and Misrepresentation.

In India, any man may preach any doctrine, even upon the temple doorstep. He may believe what he will, if only his practice does not undermine the structure of organized society. There has never been a conflict between science and religion, for science has always been religious, and religion philosophical. It is a debated question whether there has ever been serious religious persecution in India; it is certain that it was the regular practice of Buddhist, Hindu, and some Muhammadan rulers, not merely to tolerate, but to support all sects alike. The missionary uses such tolerance to spread his own intolerance. His aim is to win souls for Christ; on him no other duty, principle or right can be allowed to interfere with his efforts to accomplish this end...

Missionaries in the last resort rely on force. This is notoriously so in China. "Force," says Lafeadio Hearn (quoted Modern Review, III, 234), "the principal instrument of Christian propagandism in the past, is still the force behind our missions... We force missionaries upon China, for example, under treaty clauses extorted by war, and pledge ourselves to support them with gunboats and to exact enormous penalties for the lives of such as get themselves killed." It would be the same in India, did not Hindu tolerance (apart from 'India held by the sword') make it needless; but even Hindu tolerance may some day be overstrained. If it be intolerance to force one's way into the house of another, it by no means necessarily follows that it would be intolerance on the owner's part to drive out the intruder.

The use of physical force is now indeed rejected; but all that money, social influence, educational bribery and misrepresentation can effect, is treated as legitimate. With all this is often combined great devotion and sincerity of purpose; the combination is dangerous in the extreme.
Education as a tool for Proselytisation

The most subtle, and in a certain sense, I suppose, effective proselytising agency in India is the Mission School. When adult conversion was found to proceed too slowly, it was decided to reach the children; hence the education bribe. The magic word itself stills opposition and enquiry; everyone is convinced that India needs educating, -it would be intolerant to deny to Christians a right to share In reply to: this noble work, impertinent to doubt their capability. A deliberate effort is being made to "keep the education of girls predominantly in Christian hands for perhaps a generation," as it is thought that "upon the character and extent of the education provided for girls during the next few years will depend the spread of the Christian faith amongst all the higher castes of India." Let us see what this education of girls in mission schools implies.

The education is undertaken with an ulterior motive, that of conversion. The first qualification of a teacher is therefore good sectarian Christianity; but for educational problems, - in these it is only necessary that she should be interested as a means to an end. However, the qualifications next desired are the ordinary qualifications of an English school-teacher; and in some cases the teacher may even be an University graduate. Such persons are sent out after a preliminary theological training, to teach in, or to take charge of, a mission school for girls. It is sometimes not decided until nearly the last moment to what part of the 'mission field' the teacher is to be sent. In any case she is not prepared for her work of education by a sympathetic study of local ideas, culture and traditions; if she studies the heathen religion at all, it is mainly in books written by those who do not sympathize with, and therefore do not fully understand it. Upon arrival, she finds herself in an altogether unfamiliar mental atmosphere; and she has only her Christian dogma, and at the best a good English education on classical lines, as her resources. Unless she is to be a preaching missionary, which as a teacher she is not proposing to do, she will probably learn no more of the mother-tongue of her pupils than suffices to direct her servants; the mission is short-handed, and she has to devote her whole time to class work and management... However keen her educational instinct, she has but one course to follow, - to create a spiritual desert in which to plant the Christian dogma. The greater part of the educational work of a mission is thus destructive.

Why then send our girls to mission schools? It is, I think, unwise. But some of us are so convinced of the importance of education that we are driven to take what we can get. In desiring for our girls the kind of education given in mission schools, it may be that we have accepted, at your valuation, that which has no value. It is true that Indian women are not even now uneducated or non-educated; but their education is highly specialised; it is rather culture than learning; it is not recognised as education by the modern world. The education of Indian women in the past fitted them to satisfy all the demands of a beautiful social ideal. Moulded upon the national ideals of character enshrined in the heroic and romantic literature familiar to Indian women, the beauty of Indian womanhood is beyond the breath of criticism. But the time has come when new demands are made upon the Indian people; in the national and civic synthesis in progress woman must play her part, as she has done in other syntheses before. Hence the need for an education no longer so exclusively specialised in relation to the home and to religion; the need for a scientific, geographical, historical synthesis. Recognition of this need has led to the desire for 'English Education.' Hesitation as to the real aims of the education offered has kept many from seeking it; it might have been well had it kept more, for too often have those who asked for bread been given a stone. Be that as it may, English education is now desired by many; that which purports to be this thing is offered at low rates in missionary schools.

The motif of the parent is not always a pure desire for education; it is sometimes a desire, not elsewhere unknown, to get something for nothing; sometimes a wish for mere material advantage for the girls. "Education is valued in India," says the Archdeacon of Madras, "not so much because it is enlightening as because it is profitable," and the missionary provides the easiest and cheapest avenue to the attainment of it. The first statement, in so far as it is true of modern India, is in direct opposition to Indian tradition, and to all that is best in Indian educational ideals.

Alas for wasted opportunity! To share in the true education of the Indian women were indeed a privilege. Behind her are the traditions of the great women of Indian history and myth, women strong in love and war, sainthood, in submission and in learning. She is still a guarded flame, this daughter of a hundred earls. She has not to struggle for a living in a competitive society, but is free to be herself. Upon her might be lavished the resources of all culture, to make yet more perfect that which is already most exquisitely so... You that have entered on the task so confidently, with the ulterior motive of conversion, have proved yourselves unfit.

Lay no blame on India for her slowness to accept the education you have offered to her women; praise her rather for the wise instinct that leads her to mistrust you. When you learn that none can truly educate those against whose ideals they are blindly prejudiced; when you realise that you can but offer new modes of expression to faculties already exercised in other ways; when you come with reverence, as well to learn as to teach; when you establish schools within the Indian social ideal, and not antagonistic to it- then, perhaps, we may ask you to help us build upon that great foundation. Not I trust, before; lest there should be too much for the daughters of our daughters to unlearn.
Demonisation of India and Indian religions

I speak now of Missionary misrepresentations. There is no part of the Christian code of ethics more consistently ignored in missionary circles, than the commandment, "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour."

It has been said, "By their fruits ye shall judge them." Now if the fruits are grapes and figs, obviously the plants cannot be thorns or thistles. Hence the necessity for seeing and describing the fruits of Hinduism and Islam not as grapes or figs, but as something more appropriate to the missionary conception of the plant. The result is a relentless and systematic campaign of vilification of all things Indian. When I say, 'necessity,' I do not mean to say that the missionary quite deliberately falsifies the facts; on the contrary, he deceives himself as well as others; this is easy, for when the plant is already identified as a thistle, it is difficult to see figs upon it, even if they be there. The missionary is not aware of his false witness; he does generally present things as he sees them, but he sees through highly-coloured spectacles, which he removes when turning for comparison to inspect a Christian society at home. Thus he blackens India's name, in all good faith, if one may call it so, and with the best intentions.

Those who wish to understand the process should study missionary literature, attend meetings, or read what missionaries say of those who see India in a different way. The method is simple and even obvious: Indian society, being like all others, mixed good and evil, the missionary (by no means free from the ordinary prejudices of other Anglo-Indians) sees and describes only evil; much that is merely strange he mistakes for evil, or notices only because it is strange; much he argues from particular instances to be universal; and all he sets down to the vile nature of the Hindu religion or of Islam or Buddhism as the case may be.

It is as if a Chinese visitor to England, courteously received, were to describe to his friends in Pekin, the effects of drink and poverty, agricultural depression, the overcrowded slums with their moral and physical results, sweated industries and dangerous trades, baby farming, street prostitution, the unemployed, and the idle rich, and ascribe all together to the vile nature of the Christian dogma. How easy it would be for him to do this has, by the way, been suggested by Mr. Lowes Dickinson, in his 'Letters of a Chinaman.' In just this way the missionary home on furlough preaches his mission sermon or gives his mission lecture; and the collection is swelled by the contributions of a sympathetic but uncritical congregation, not quite free from a suspicion of gratitude to God, that they are not as other (heathen) men. Missionary literature is similar. A typical volume is Miss Carmichael's 'Things as they are in Southern India', from which I have already quoted. No volume could be a more impressive monument of the unfitness of the ordinary missionary to concern himself with the 'civilization' of India.

When in another man's heart you can see only blackness, the fault is likely to be your own; when in another civilization you can see unutterable vileness, it means that you have not understood the parable of the mote and the beam. The method of such a book is simplicity itself; ignore the presence of virtues in non-Christian, and of vices in Christian, communities; describe all individual and local instances of evil known to you in a heathen society as typical; add violence of language and morbid religious sentiment, suggest all that you do not say, and the volume is completed

Missionary Literature: Hate Campaign

I shall now quote some examples of missionary mis-statements from various less extreme sources. Easily refuted, such statements perhaps do less harm, except amongst the most ignorant, than do those which contain some element of truth, or extend a local or particular instance to cover a whole race of country.

Here is a statement absurd upon the face of it, yet given as an absolute fact, without any qualification at all: "The Hindu Christian (sic), who is going to disgrace his family once for all by breaking caste through baptism, will be quietly poisoned by his nearest relative to avert such a catastrophe." Another statement in the same article perhaps explains the value of such a writer's evidence: "Students of non-Christian religions must consider Heathenism on its worst side, if only to counteract the sentimental fancies of some who chatter about 'the beautiful religions of the East.' "

I take an even more serious example of very special pleading, from a more widely read volume 'Lux Christi', published for the Central Committee of the United Study of Missions. This book in 1903, the date of my copy, and the year after first publication, had already been reprinted seven times; I do not know how often since. Here we read (p. 211):

It should be borne in mind that the mighty systems of paganism in India, whether Hindu, Buddhist, or Muhammedan, are alike destitute of all those fruits of Christianity which we term charitable, philanthropic, benevolent. Where are the hospitals, dispensaries, orphanages, and asylums for the leper, the blind, the deaf and the mute? They have no place in the heathen economy.

Such a statement hardly needs refutation; but since there must be persons able to believe it, let me answer it by quotations from a single volume, the Sinhalese Mahavamsa. King Duttha Gamani (161-137, B. C.) on his death-bed could say:

I have daily maintained at eighteen different places, (hospitals) provided with suitable diet, and medicines, prepared by medical practitioners for the infirm.

Buddhadasa, (A.D. 339) was himself a physician. Out of benevolence towards the inhabitants of the island, the sovereign provided hospitals for all villages, and appointed physicians to them. The Raja, having composed the work Sarattha-sangaha, containing the substance of all medical science, ordained that there should be a physician for every twice five villages, and set apart one-twentieth of the produce of fields for the maintenance of these physicians. Parakrama Bahu (A. D. 1164-1197) built a large hall that could contain many hundreds of sick persons:

To every sick person he allowed a female servant (nurse), that they might minister to him by day and night, and furnish him with the physic that was necessary, and with diverse kinds of food... And he also made provision for the maintenance of wise and learned physicians who were versed in all knowledge and skilled in searching out the nature of diseases... And it was his custom, on the four Pohoya days ('Sabbaths') of every month, to cast off his king's robes, and, after solemnly taking the five precepts, to purify himself and put him on a clean garment, and visit that hall together with his ministers. And being endued with 'a heart full of kindness, he would look at the sick with an eye of pity, and being eminent in wisdom and skill in the art of healing, he would call before him the physicians that were employed and enquire fully of the manner of their treatment... also to some sick persons he would give physic with his own hands... unto such as were cured of their diseases he would order raiment to be given... In this manner indeed did this merciful king, free from disease himself, cure the sick of their diverse diseases from year to year.

Vijaya Bahu (A.D. 1236) "established a school in every village." Such refutations could be multiplied indefinitely, but the association of charity with religion in modern India is too familiar to require proof. It is unfortunate that libels upon nations and religions cannot be punished, as can libels upon individuals. At any rate, it is obvious that missionaries capable of making such statements are unfitted to be teachers in India; whether by ignorance or insincerity, it may be left to them to explain.

Commoner than the simple lie described above, is the half truth or misrepresentation. Many of these relate to the position of women. Sister Nivedita says that she has heard the following thirteen statements made and supported in a single speech; each statement has a familiar ring to the student of missionary literature. They were as follows:

(1) That the Hindu social system makes a pretence of honouring women, but that this honour is more apparent than real; (2) That women in India are deliberately kept in ignorance; (3) That women in India have no place assigned to them in heaven, save through their husbands; (4) That no sacramental rite is performed over them with Vedic texts; (5) That certain absurd old misogynist verses... are representative of the attitude of Hindu men to their women-folk in general; (6) That a girl at birth gets a sorry welcome; (7) That a mother's anxiety to bear sons is appalling; 'her very wifehood depends on her doing so'; (8) That the infanticide of girls is a common practice in India; (9) That the Kulin Brahman marriage system is a representative fact; (10) That parents unable to marry off their daughters are in the habit of marrying them to a god (making them prostitutes) as an alternative; (11) That Hindu wedding ceremonies are unspeakably gross; (12) That the Hindu widow lives a life of such misery and insult that burning to death may well have seemed preferable; (13) That the Hindu widow is almost always immoral.

It would be waste of time to give the answers to these thirteen statements here; but I may, as Sister Nivedita does, classify them. Nos. 1, 3, 7, 11 and 13 are entirely false; Nos. 2, 5 and 12 are the result of misinterpreting or overstating facts; Nos. 4, 8, 9 and 10 may be true of certain limited localities, periods, or groups, yet are spoken of as representative of Hindu life as a whole. The last class is the most important; take only one example, No. 8; it is true that infanticide was at one time common amongst a certain class, of Rajputs; but "it is in no sense a common Indian practice, any more than, if as much as, it is a common London practice." Indeed, in almost all these cases a terrible tu quoque can be alleged, -not to speak of vices peculiar to the Christian West.

Vulgarising Hinduism

I briefly review some other common missionary statements. The sacrifice of goats to Kali is condemned, - though they are slain at a blow. The scene is described in all its horror; the simple English audience is led to think of it as typical of heathendom; and to forget their slaughterhouses and their rabbit coursings, the 'accidents' that happen to the carted deer, and the young ladies of the country-house who assist at the death of carefully imported foxes, only too happy if the bloody tail is their reward for a successful chase. The mode of worship of Hindus and Buddhists is called idolatrous; whereas every missionary must know that this is in direct opposition to the statements of the Hindus and Buddhists themselves. This is not the place to enter into a discussion of the rationale of image-worship; suffice it to say that the distinction between a symbol and a fetish is, to the Protestant missionary, nil. Hindu literature is said to be gross and impure; to those who see in sex-love merely the gratification of an animal passion, this may seem to be so, for certainly, like Shakespeare and the Old Testament, Eastern literature is not fettered by the conventions of Victorian England. Bishop Caldwell has said, "The stories related of Krishna's life do more than anything else to destroy the morals and corrupt the imagination of the Hindu youth.": but honi soit qui mal y Pense... the stories of the child-Krishna delight the mother-heart of every Indian woman, the love of Krishna for Radha typifies to Indian men and women that ideal love which Dante felt for Beatrice, and the love of the soul of man for God; the teachings of Krishna in the Gita, are the consolation and guide in life alike of the learned and unlearned, the 'New Testament' of Hinduism.

Of caste, only evil is spoken, its trade-guild and eugenic aspects being altogether ignored. It is related as horrible that men are divided into groups that may not intermarry; as if the situation were not almost identical in Europe, only there the rank depends more on wealth than on descent; and as if the missionary did not himself belong to the most arrogant of Indian castes, the Anglo-Indian. How many missionaries would care to see their daughters marry an Indian of any caste?

Finally we have the misrepresentation of Hinduism itself; or of Buddhism, or Islam as the case may be. "Sometimes," says an English writer "a faint suspicion... haunts us that Englishmen are constitutionally unable to realise the spiritual life of any other people." It is perhaps worthwhile to briefly illustrate both the ignorance of bare facts, and the incapacity to understand unfamiliar religious experience by one or two typical quotations from missionary books. One writer says:

The fundamental error of Hinduism is to judge God by our own standard. The doctrine of Maya is pure imagination, utterly opposed to common sense... Christianity, on the other hand, affirms the reality of the universe, and the trustworthiness of our senses... Every one of our five senses... bears witness to the reality of the objects around us. To any man endowed with a grain of common sense, the opinion maintained by some of the schools that the soul is infinite, like akasa must seem the height of absurdity. Other views held are scarcely less extravagant, that it is eternal, svayambhu, self-existent. Not a single character in the Hindu pantheon, or in the pantheon of any other nation, has claimed the position of one who offered himself as a sacrifice for the benefit of humanity.

The author of 'Holy Himalaya,' a missionary book of the worst type, writes:
Hinduism has no system of moral teaching, with definite sanctions or adequate basis.
It would be cruel to continue making quotations, which illustrate the 'constitutional inability to realise the spiritual life of any other people.' Suffice it to say that those who suffer from it are not fitted to educate the Indian people, and it is questionable whether we do well to permit them to do so.

Simple Solutions

The question of our attitude towards the Christian missionary is not an academic one. His misrepresentation of India at home, and miseducation of Indians in India, do us serious injury by suggesting that it is England's God-given mission, not only to rule, but to civilise and to convert us, and by raising up a generation of 'educated' Indians who are indeed strangers in their own land. What is to be our course of action in relation to these facts? The answer is fairly simple. The power of the missionary at home to misrepresent is being continually lessened with the increasing knowledge of Indian religion and Indian civilisation contrasting so markedly with the indifference of even ten years ago. The funds of missionary societies in America were considerably lessened for a time subsequent to the speeches of Swami Vivekananda at the World's Parliament of Religions; "if that is what Hinduism means, why are we helping to destroy it? We wish to know more", they said. Just now in America, the keenest interest is now being taken in Indian religion and philosophy, and the tables are indeed turned by the presence of Hindu missionaries in California and New York.

In respect of education, the remedy is almost altogether in our own hands. Let us cease to allow ourselves to be pauperised by sending our sons and daughters to schools supported by the contributions of those in far off lands who know nothing of us, but are quite sure that we are living in the deepest spiritual darkness. It is shameful for us to allow these worthy people to do for us, so badly, what we could (if we would) do so much better for ourselves. The subject of National Education is perhaps the most important of all before us, for it lies at the root of all other problems.

We must not rest content for a single moment until the whole of Indian educational machine, is taken out of the hands of Government and the missionaries, to be controlled by ourselves. And as at present so many of us are almost as unfitted by the existing systems of so-called education as the missionaries themselves to do this work, let us prepare ourselves for it, by studying the most important educational movements going on in the West, and especially by studying the educational systems of small and important independent nations, such as Denmark, Hungary; but above all by deeper knowledge of our own country, which contains within itself all the elements of a cult more profound and a faith more reasoned than that of any other land.

A most clear recognition of the true character of missionary activity, and a most determined resistance to its aims and methods are needed now. The author of 'Holy Himalaya' writes:

The true friends of India are those who would change its root ideas... the bogey of religious neutrality... will have to be laid to a considerable extent... else in the end we shall have to make the confession that we as a nation have no rational objects in India beyond commercialism and exploitation.

It has been well said that the nonconformist conscience is the greatest barrier to Indian freedom! In a recent number of the School Guardian, the editor refers to the Church Missionary Society's school at Srinagar as follows:

1,400 boys - mostly Hindus and a large proportion of them of high caste - are being changed from superstitious, cowardly, idle, and untruthful beings into manly Christians.

As a commentary on these characteristic statements, and in illustration of the effects of the policy they reflect, the following extract is given here, from an article by Lala Har Dayal:

"The missionary is the representative of a society, a polity, a social system, a religion and a code of morality which are totally different from our own. He comes as a belligerent and attacks our time-honoured customs and institutions, our sacred literature and traditions, our historical memories and associations. He wishes to give us a new name, a new place of worship, a new set of social laws. He has declared war to the knife against everything Hindu. He hates all that we hold dear. Our religion is to him a foolish superstition: our customs are the relic of barbarism, our forefathers are to him black heathens condemned to burn in the fires of hell for ever. He wishes to destroy our society, history, and civilization. Our Shastras, Darsanas and Vedas are for him so much waste paper. He regards them as monstrous machines devised by misguided priests to prepare millions for damnation in the next world. He condemns our manners, pooh-poohs our holy love, laughs at our heroes and heroines and paints us as black as the devil to the whole civilised world. He is the great enemy of the Hindu people - the Principle of Anti-Hinduism Incarnate - the Ravana of today who hates all that we cherish, despises all that we revere, all that we are prepared to defend with our very lives...

He looks forward to the time when the Smritis shall be unknown to the descendants of present day Hindus, and the Ram Lila shall have become a meaningless word in their ears. He shall cover India with acres of burial-grounds; cremation is anathema to him. He is the arch-enemy who appears in many guises, the great foe of whatever bears the name of Hindu, the ever-watchful, ever-active, irreconcilable Destroyer of the work of the Rishis and Maha Rishis, of that marvel of moral, intellectual and civic achievement which is known as Hindu civilisation. Let us labour under no delusions on this point. You may forget your own name; you may forget your mother. But do not for a moment forget the great, all-important, outstanding fact that the missionary is the most dreaded adversary you have to meet.. the greatest enemy of dharma and Hindu national life in the present age."

In these words there may be exaggeration - they do not apply throughout to the work of every missionary; but there is nevertheless essential truth; and it is resistance in this spirit which missionaries must expect in the future, if they persist in their mistaken aims and methods.

A time will come when Christian missions, as at present understood, will seem to Christians as wide a departure from the true spirit of Christianity as the crusades appear to us today. Meanwhile, the missionary must not be allowed to 'educate,' until he really understands the Indian people and desires to help them to solve their own problems in their own way; he must not be allowed to teach, until he himself has learnt.

[Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, one of the greatest Indian Art-Historians, was Chairman of the National Committee for India's Freedom. Hw was also the foremost interpreter of Indian culture to the West in his day. The extracts published here are from his inspiring collection, 'Essays in Indian Nationalism', 1909. His book 'Myths and Legends of the Hindus and Buddhists', co-authoured with sister Nivedita, was reprinted recently by Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata.]


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