By Tony Joseph
APR 13, 2015
If you have been following Indian mass media or social media in the last few months, you couldn’t have escaped the narrative being spun by the Hindutva right-wing. It goes something like this: “Christianity is posing a growing and serious demographic threat to Hinduism by converting large numbers of Hindus through aggressive proselytising. This effort is heavily funded by Christian organisations in the West that see India as being ripe for large-scale conversions. Since proselytising and conversions are not part of Hindu tradition, or that of any religion that originated in India, the playing field is tilted against Hinduism, and this is causing serious societal friction. This sometimes leads to spontaneous and violent reactions.”
There are about four individual assertions in there, so let us take them one by one, put them to the test of data and historical evidence, and see which ones hold up, and which ones do not.
Christianity Poses a Serious Threat to Hinduism
To put it bluntly, this assertion would be laughable if its consequences were not so destructive of social cohesion. The fact is, the story of Christianity in India is a story of dismal failure, demographically speaking. No believing Christian would like to admit this in this manner, but both they and their detractors should open their eyes to the simple fact that stares them in the face: that India has mostly passed up Christianity, and that there is no other country in the world that has proven so resistant and so impervious to it as India.
And not for lack of effort on the part of the Christians, or for lack of listening on the part of the Hindus. Very few regions in the world have provided Christianity as much freedom to tell its story and propagate itself as India, and in no other country has Christianity tried to spread its message so hard and for so long—for nearly 2,000 years to be specific—which is about half as long as Indian civilisation itself.
And so, what does Indian Christianity have to show for its humongous effort in terms of men, money and material, over two millennia? Almost zilch—or somewhere between two and three per cent of the population. And that number is on the way down, not up—from 2.6 per cent in 1971 to 2.3 per cent in 2001. The census figures for 2011 have not been officially released yet, but leaked figures suggest that there may have been another small decline.
To put that in numerical perspective, think of this. The first Hindu probably landed in London only about 200 years ago, not 2,000 years ago. So what would you expect the Hindu population of the city to be today? Half a per cent? One per cent? Two per cent? The actual figure is over five per cent, more than twice as big as the presence of Christians in India. London is just a city, one might say, so let’s look at the figure for the whole of the UK. Then you come up with 1.3 per cent. If you add those who identify themselves as Sikhs (thus bowing to the wishes of the Hindutva right-wing to treat all Indian-origin religions as essentially one group), then the number goes up to 1.9 per cent, quite comparable to the percentage of Christians in India. And mind you, the Hindu figures for the UK are on the way up, not down. And the UK is no exception. Here are some other figures—New Zealand: 2 per cent, Canada: 1.6 per cent, Australia: 1.28 per cent, Malaysia: 6.3 per cent and Indonesia: 1.69 per cent. This is without even considering our immediate neighbours such as Sri Lanka or Bhutan, or countries such as Fiji or Mauritius, where the figures are, of course, much higher.
So the accurate and insightful question to ask is not why Christianity is expanding in India, but why it is NOT expanding. A full answer is beyond the scope of this article, but if one were to pick out one reason, it would be this: Christianity, probably for the first time, came up against a philosophy and culture that did not feel the need to persecute other faiths, did not find the Christian messiah and his teachings either objectionable or exceptional, and therefore, didn’t see why anyone should convert either. This embrace-cum-rejection was such a novel experience for it that Christianity probably didn’t know quite how to respond. After all, the Church is so used to growing amidst persecution that theologian Tertullian’s statement in second century AD that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” has not yet been forgotten.
There is no better way to bring this situation to life than to quote the knighted Sanskrit scholar Monier Williams, an avid supporter of Christian evangelisation in India, who wrote this in 1878: “The chief impediment to Christianity among Indians is not only the pride they feel in their own religion, but the very nature of that religion. For pantheism is a most subtle, plausible and all-embracing system, which may profess to include Christianity itself as one of the phenomena of the universe. An eminent Hindu is reported to have said: ‘We Hindus have no need of conversion; we are more than Christians already.’”
The last sentence, in this writer’s opinion, captures the essence of the situation, and you see that in action again and again, when even those Hindu intellectuals who had taken a particular liking for the teachings of Jesus found no reason to accept baptism. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is an example. He had no difficulty whatsoever in citing Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount as one of the great influences on his life, but neither had he any difficulty in plainly telling Christian missionaries, who would never cease their attempts to convert him, this: “I am not interested in weaning you from Christianity, and I do not relish your designs upon me, if you had any, to convert me to Christianity. I would also dispute your claim that Christianity is the ONLY true religion.” It is not surprising, therefore, that the limited successes that Christianity has had in spreading its message in India has come from communities that were regarded as outside the hold of mainstream Hinduism, such as people in the Northeast or tribals in central India.
To fully appreciate the exceptional nature of the demographic defeat that Christianity experienced in India, one has to look at its track record in the rest of Asia, which itself has been a difficult terrain for Christianity in comparison to other regions such as, say, the Americas or sub-Saharan Africa where the Christians today form over 60 per cent of the population. So here is a partial list from Asia—Indonesia: 9.8 per cent, South Korea: 29.3 per cent, the Philippines: 85.5 per cent, Sri Lanka: 7.5 per cent, Myanmar: 7.9 per cent. Even giant China, where Christianity arrived centuries later than in India, has been a far more fertile ground, despite the Communist dictatorship severely restricting religious freedom. The most reliable estimates are that Christians today form 4-5 per cent of China’s population, more than double the figure for India.
What if we pulled back a little now, and took a global view? Would Hinduism be under threat then? Nope. Hindus today form 15 per cent of the global population, compared to 7.1 per cent for Buddhists, 23.2 per cent for Muslims and 31.5 per cent for Christians. And the number for Hindus is inching up, not sliding down—a century ago, Hindus formed less than 14 per cent of the world population. In other words, if any religion has to worry about its future, from a national or global perspective, it is not Hinduism, but Christianity.
More and more Christians are turning to atheism, agnosticism and alternative spirituality (think Deepak Chopra, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Swami Dayananda) in Europe and the US. Already in the UK, for example, people who identify themselves as Christians have come down to 59.3 per cent. In fact, churches in Europe are now being repurposed as shopping malls and office spaces as the number of worshippers fall, and priests are being imported from countries such as Korea, Vietnam and India, as priestly vocations decline. The fast declining Christian population in the US today stands at 77 per cent, compared to the Hindu population in India of 78.3 per cent, which means both the UK and the US are less Christian nations today than India is Hindu, and they will be even less so in the future.
So the next time you see a Hindutva right-winger painting a scary picture of Christianity posing a growing, serious threat to Hinduism, you have to assume one of only two possibilities. One, he or she has not taken the slightest effort to know the facts, or two, he or she knows the facts, but doesn’t want them to get in the way of a good, well-running hate campaign.
Religions of Indian origin do not proselytise or convert. These ideas have come from outside.
Really? Want to think again? The first-ever proselytising, world-conquering religion that history has seen owes its origin to India, and it is called Buddhism. When Emperor Ashoka became a Buddhist a couple of hundred years before Christ was born, and put his considerable resources, influence and support behind the idea of propagating his newly adopted religion beyond the limits of his empire, the first world religion and its learned monks got off their mark in a manner that inspires awe even today. Ashoka’s son and monk Mahinda, who took the religion to Sri Lanka; Sage Nagasena, who debated with and converted King Milinda of Bactria; Santaraksita, the abbot of Nalanda who helped establish Buddhism in Tibet—the list of Buddhist heroes of proselytisation is very long and even more impressive.
There is no cultural/intellectual/philosophical export from India that comes anywhere near Buddhism in the way it has influenced, and continues to influence, human activity in the world. There are about 350 million people who identify themselves as Buddhists now, the vast majority of them outside of India, and they are standing testimony to the fact that proselytisation, first and foremost, was an Indian invention, along with its accoutrements such as an order of celibate monks/missionaries; prayer and preaching routines; codes of behaviour for the monks and the laity; seminaries and retreat centres. If there had been a patent on proselytisation, we would perhaps be the richest country in the world!
And it’s not just Buddhism. Hinduism spread itself out too, though not over as vast a region as Buddhism and not mainly through monks and missionaries. The men who carried Hinduism beyond the borders of Bharatvarsha were empire-builders and traders who conquered many regions of Southeast Asia. They took their religion with them and then popularised it among the local people. The hundreds of ancient Hindu temples in Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam and elsewhere and the continuing traditions among their populations bespeak the fact that Hinduism too obtained new adherents in areas far from its region of birth. The earliest historical record of Hinduism in Southeast Asia is in the island of Borneo (now divided between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei), where Sanskrit inscriptions of the late 4th century talk about the performance of Vedic sacrifices by Brahmans.
According to a Tamil commemorative inscription, Chola king Rajendra Chola I launched naval raids on Srivijaya in present-day Indonesia in 1025 AD, and conquered territories. In fact, successive Chola kings occupied coasts as far as Myanmar and Vietnam, and became dominant players in Sri Lanka through multiple invasions and occupation. (Aside: the common tale that Hindutva right-wingers often tell, of Hinduism and Hindu kingdoms going into decline around the 8th century with the beginning of Arab invasions, betrays an exclusively northern Indian Hindutva perspective; South Indian Hindu kingdoms were still reaching for the heights of culture, influence and riches in the eighth century, and were hundreds of years away from reaching their peak yet!)
It’s not just outside Bharatvarsha that Hindu religion got new adherents. Hindu proselytisation within India has also been very much part of our tradition, and this took forms ranging from Adi Shankara’s epic mission throughout India to defeat Buddhism ideologically, to what sociologist M.N. Srinivas called Sanskritisation and others call the Hinduisation of tribal societies. The ghar wapasi movement now in vogue is nothing new either; it has a history going back at least 100 years to Swami Dayananda Saraswati and his Shuddhi movement.
The story would not be complete without taking into account the cutting edge of Hindu evangelisation today: the new-age gurus who have very large global followings and the commensurate funds to sustain their missions. Just one of them, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, claims 20 million followers worldwide for his Art of Living Foundation. Nobody explains the phenomenon better than probably the most influential right-wing columnist today, Swapan Dasgupta. This is what he wrote in 2004: “There is a thriving tradition of what can be called evangelical Hinduism. It comprises the likes of Asaram Bapu, Murari Bapu, Swami Ramdev, Amma, Satya Sai Baba, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, and many others who feature on the various religious channels on TV. They are the Pat Robertsons and Billy Grahams (controversial evangelical Christian movement leaders in the US) of modern Hinduism.”
So historically, or even in a contemporary sense, it is highly inaccurate and facile to say that proselytisation and gaining new adherents is an idea foreign either to Indian-origin religions in general, or to Hinduism in particular.
The playing field is tilted against Hinduism, because Christianity is heavily funded by foreign donations that Hinduism cannot match.
The problem with this argument is this: if the playing field is tilted in favour of Christianity, how is it that Christianity has been such a resounding demographic failure for over 2,000 years? Logically, there are only four possibilities: the playing field is not tilted as charged; the tilt is too minor to be of consequence; the tilt has no role to play in determining outcomes; one side is too weak in other, more important ways to take advantage of the tilt of the field.
But let’s leave that aside and still try to figure out how much money flows to Christian missionary organisations in India in a year. One would think this is an easy question to answer. After all, donations to anyone in India are controlled by the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), and organisations receiving it have to provide information to the government under the Act. So one would think the government would find it easy to give the answer, especially since BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power at the Centre for about 10 years over the last four decades, or about a quarter of the period in question. Since foreign donations to missionary organisations is such a sensitive issue for the BJP, one would think this is something over which the party would have kept a hawk’s eye, at least when it is in power. One has to wonder why it has not.
In the absence of official data on this, one is forced to do guesswork. The total amount of money that comes in under FCRA for non-governmental organisations in the country annually is about Rs 11,000 crore (the figure has more or less stayed stable since (2006-2007). It is received by about 13,193 organisations. This includes Christian organisations such as Believers Church India (Rs 190 crore), Hindu organisations such as Mata Amritanandamayi Math (Rs 98 crore), Islamic organisations such as Aga Khan Foundation (Rs 110 crore), and secular organisations with a variety of objectives like the Public Health Foundation of India (Rs 130 crore) or Greenpeace or the Shiv Nadar Foundation.
How much of this money goes to Christian organisations? According to one study which looked at all ngos receiving more than Rs 1 crore in 2010-11, about 30 per cent of foreign contributions could be going to Christian evangelical organisations such as Gospel for Asia, and another 10 per cent to other organisations focused on charity rather than proselytisation, but have a strong Christian identity such as World Vision. Let’s go with the higher figure for argument’s sake. Forty per cent of Rs 11,000 crore is Rs 4,400 crore. No one has yet attempted to figure out how much of the remaining funds go to Hindu religious or religiously-inclined organisations, and until we have that figure, it is difficult to decide to what extent the playing field is unlevel.
But there is another proxy indicator that one can use, to check how big a factor Rs 4,400 crore is in terms of the overall religious donations and spending in India. The country’s largest single temple trust had a revenue of Rs 2,262 crore last year, which is nearly twice the foreign donations received by the 10 biggest Christian and Christian-affiliated organisations in 2011-12.
Christian organisations in the West see India as being ripe for large-scale conversions and are gearing up for a great harvest of souls.
This assertion is both right and wrong at the same time. It is correct that there are Christian organisations in the West, mostly independent evangelical churches, that believe India is ripe for a great ‘harvest’ of souls for Christ. But what is wrong about the assertion is that it suggests this is something new. Christian missionaries have been preparing, planning and acting for the great harvest in India for at least half a millennium—ever since Vasco da Gama set foot on Kappad beach in Kozhikode in 1498 (and discovered there was already an independent, flourishing and prominent community of Christians in the region, who had known Christ for far longer than the Portuguese themselves and were determined to keep their own independence, but that’s a different story!)
The narrative that the intending harvesters build is always the same, whether they are writing/speaking in the 15th century, 17th century, 19th century, or 21st century, and it goes like this: “Christianity has been an utter failure in India until recently for a variety of reasons, but all that has changed! Now the time has come for the great harvest, because a new window of opportunity has opened! So please open your hearts and wallets!” This is so partly because the missionaries do not readily want to admit defeat, and partly (and perhaps more importantly) because they are in fact trying to raise money and resources, and you can’t do that without giving hope!
Here is one such passage from a book written by James Vaughan, a missionary who spent 19 years in Calcutta, writing about the coming total victory of Christianity in India. This was written in 1876, and makes a prediction about what would happen 150 years hence, or in other words, by 2026! This prediction about a great turnabout in the fortunes of Christianity in India comes after long explanations of why Christianity had made no headway in the country for the previous 18 centuries!
“If we compare the statistics of 1852 and 1872, in a period of twenty years, the native Christians have multiplied at a rate of 150 per cent. Suppose this rate of increase were to continue, and, say, in less than 150 years, the Christian community will be equal to the present population of India, say 250,000,000. But it will still be observed that the ratio of increase in the last of the two decades is much greater than the former; thus it is quite supposable and, indeed, probable, that each succeeding decade will show a proportionate advance in the ratio. If, therefore, any of our readers prefer figures to faith, and numerical probabilities to a quiet reliance on prophetic assurance, they may readily satisfy themselves that the prospect of India’s evangelisation is neither so visionary or so remote as many persons imagine!”
Examples like this abound over the entire period of colonialism. If any Indian of any faith had the interest of Christian donors abroad in mind, this is what he would tell them: “Brothers, don’t be fools! Don’t get taken in by these false hopes and propaganda! Stop throwing good money after bad! There must be other parts of the world where you can get better returns on your investment!”
Vivekananda, in fact, said something similar. “As to the way of converting, it is absolutely absurd. The money the missionaries bring is accepted. The colleges founded by missionaries are all right, so far as education is concerned. But with religion it is different. The Hindu is acute: he takes the bait but avoids the hook! It is wonderful how tolerant the people are. A missionary once said: ‘That is the worst of the whole business. People who are self-complacent can never be converted.’”
There is no better place to see the absurdity of the whole Christian conversion effort and debate than the state where Vivekananda was born, Bengal. Bengal was the first large province to fall under the complete control of Europeans (after the Battle of Plassey in 1757), and it later became the seat of British power in the subcontinent. No other region in India has seen such forceful, concerted conversion efforts by well-funded foreign missionaries, learned scholars, builders of institutions and veritable heroes in the annals of proselytisation. Some of the country’s earliest English schools, colleges, printing presses, all came up in Bengal. The state also saw many leading intellectuals, such as Keshub Chandra Sen and Kali Charan Banerjee, falling under the spell of Christianity.
In the post-Independence period, this powerful missionary tradition was carried forward by Missionaries of Charity founded by the Albanian nun Teresa, who acquired a larger-than-life image in India and the world for her charity work focused on the poor and the homeless in Calcutta. With all that background, and keeping in mind the statement made by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat that Teresa’s services were motivated by the desire to gain Christian converts, you cannot blame anyone for thinking that Bengal would be a veritable citadel of Indian Christianity.
So what do the numbers say? Hold on to your chair please—00.64 per cent of the West Bengal population is Christian, according to the latest census figures available! And that leaves one wondering, where have all the converts that the great missionaries of their age and, most of all, Teresa of Calcutta, were supposed to have won, disappeared?! I think neither Monier Williams nor Vivekananda would have been surprised.
So to come back to the fourth assertion, that Western evangelists are all preparing for a great Indian conversion: of course they are! They have been in preparation for centuries, and the harvest is no nearer now than it was in 52 AD, 190 AD, or 1757 AD! If the Christian evangelical efforts in India pose a threat to anyone, it is to the pockets of Christian donors in the West.
But this does not mean there is no problem. There are evangelical activities that pose serious irritation to Indians of all religions (or no religion). For example, there are cringe-inducing videos up on Youtube and other social media of Christian pastors moving around poverty-stricken areas, talking into the camera for the benefit of potential donors in the West, patting their own backs about the great job they are doing of converting Hindus to Christianity, and explaining why they need support in terms of ‘prayers’ and perhaps, some greenbacks as well. A new breed of independent, evangelical churches that has sprung up in recent decades, unaffiliated to the long-established mainstream churches such as the Catholics or the Anglicans or the Protestants, are particularly to blame. In their single-minded focus on money-raising, they seem no different from some of the godmen who have gained notoriety for their devotion to mammon.
There are also other practices that some proselytisers resort to that are either dubious or deeply annoying: holding ‘faith-healing’ meetings that are indistinguishable from plain old quackery, for example. It is perhaps time for the mainstream churches that are not into these practices, but are probably feeling tempted to use them as they lose some of their own flock to these new-fangled churches, to wield their influence and powers of moral suasion to create a code of ethics for all Christian organisations or, if that is not feasible, at least create a public distance between themselves and those who violate that code, in order to put more social pressure on them.
To sum up, the Hindutva right-wing narrative of a growing, serious threat from Christianity to Hinduism does not stand the test of data and evidence. In fact, India is that exceptional country that listened to all that Christianity had to say without feeling threatened, and we know from history that this confidence was justified and it continues to be so. There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that aggressive proselytisation efforts of a limited number of new evangelical churches is causing annoyance, but that is probably not reason enough to start a concerted hate campaign with violent overtones against a mini-minority of the population. Constitutional amputation for remedying what is essentially irritation to public order and good sense would probably be an over-reaction; but fanning hatred against fellow citizens of a different faith is indeed an abomination not worthy of us.
(Tony Joseph is former editor of BusinessWorld. The author, who bears a Christian name, ceased to be a believer of any religion in his early 20s, and considers himself an atheist with a liking for the original teachings of the Buddha.)