Christian missionaries have become increasingly visible and controversial in India. As I grew up as a Christian, I would like to share my observations from a personal angle.
When it comes to religion, I noticed that Indians tread cautiously. Care is taken ‘not to offend the sensibilities’ of the followers of other religions. Well, I should specify: Hindus take care not to offend the sensibilities of Christians and Muslims. As those are in the minority, it is argued, they need special consideration so that they don’t feel threatened by the Hindu majority. It is true that those religions are in the minority in India, but worldwide, both religions are very powerful with great financial and political clout to achieve their objective which is to bring as many people as possible into their fold. This clout is reflected even in the Indian media and politics. Just observe how mainstream media report on minorities. I can’t help feeling that there is a clever Public Relation strategy behind the scenes. In contrast, Hinduism clearly has no PR strategy. ‘Truth will triumph’, is the motto here, never mind if it takes ages.
Sometimes I hear the following argument for a laid back attitude: ‘Just because missionaries despise Hinduism, it does not become bad.’ This is true, but it would not harm anyone and might benefit many, if Hindus would refute the obnoxious accusations that Hinduism is a primitive, polytheistic religion, as it certainly is not. One can present the profound tenets of Sanatana Dharma, as Hinduism used to be called before foreign rule, if not point out the shortcomings of the dogmatic founder religions.
Pointing out the shortcomings of other religions seems to be a taboo for Hindus. I wonder why. Debates on religious issues were common in ancient India and were of the highest order. Women also took part in those debates, which are recorded in the Upanishads. Adi Shankara challenged the Buddhists in debates. Yet today there is not much discussion on religion or philosophy. One reason may be that a part of the intellectual class in India has been influenced by the British to such an extent that they adopted the view that Hinduism is primitive without ever reading any of the ancient scriptures. It is a small, but influential group that is ever ready to defend the minority religions.
Often, Hindus declare that all religions are equal as they all believe in the same God as there is of course only one. Yet are they equal? Christianity (and Islam, too) refute this view. It declares that it is not only superior but “the one and only way” and therefore everyone needs to join it to be saved. TheChurch claims that Jesus Christ himself commanded to go out and convert. So they have the ‘duty’ to convert the whole world population to their ‘professed truth’. And the Church goes about it with great zeal and dubious means.
Of course every religion has good points. They all point to the Highest; they all stress the need for anethical life. They all give hints how to connect with God. Yet one should be very wary if there are also ‘bad’ points, like if a religion divides humanity into those who are saved and those who are eternally damned.
So what distinguishes Christianity from Hinduism so that it feels superior? The main point is the status of Jesus Christ. It is just not enough to see in him a great enlightened sage or an avatar. He is claimed to be the only son of God, whom God had sent to earth and who, through his death, has saved mankind. This of course is difficult to understand and cannot be understood. It has to be believed. It is a dogma and dogma means, there is no proof. So why should one believe it? Because it has been decided in some council some 1700 years back that this is the truth and Christians have to believe it.
Unfortunately Christians do believe it. I, for example, ‘knew’ already in primary school in a small town in Germany, that we, i.e. the Roman Catholics, were ‘right’ and all others, including the Protestants in the neighbourhood, ‘wrong’. As a teenager, however, I started questioning and almost lost faith in God. I could not believe in the personal God anymore who loves his Church and sends all heathens to hell. One uncle happened to be a priest and in his library I read about the history of the Church. It was an eye-opener – the decadence of the popes, the bloody conversion of South America, the literal killing of any dissent, the scheming for power and wealth… Together with religion I was about to throw out God as well, as He seemed inextricably linked with it.
Then I read an article on modern physics. It said that the whole creation basically is one energy. “This means there is a God!” I realized. God cannot possibly be biased towards one group against another. He has to be the ground of everybody and everything.
When I came to India, I was amazed how profound her ancient wisdom was – a wisdom that does not have any dogmas and does not divide people into us versus them. ‘Brahman’ or ‘Tat’ of the Vedas is not a personal God that has likes and dislikes, but the invisible, conscious basis of all forms and names in this creation. This basis is there also in our own person and can be experienced, is claimed and this claim does not go against reason. “Enquire and experience” is recommended.
In contrast, Christianity demands belief and certainly does not encourage enquiry nor experience. A Church that branded her own mystics, who realized their oneness with God, as heretics cannot teach anything to India. She only can divide. Missionaries try by hook or crook to get converts and target especially the lower classes and even children. It seems as if they have a quota to achieve. They claim that Christianity is the right faith and Hinduism very wrong. The phrase “divisive forces” is used freely in India, but strangely I have not heard it in connection with missionaries where it were appropriate.
Christian theologians would do well to study Indian wisdom with an open mind. It would give them a deeper understanding of Jesus’ sayings, as many of them are cryptic, yet from a Vedantic angle easy to interpret. They would realize that dogmas are a hindrance in the process to uncover truth. Such openness would make religion spiritual. Mystics would be appreciated. No “us versus them”, no borders, no God who belongs only to one group and who condemns the rest, just a genuine search for the One Essence beyond name and form…
To expect broadmindedness from Church representatives seems a long way off. As of now their course is set on confrontation and Hindus are too polite to question the ‘one and only way’ bogus. While in the west many leave the Church, in India many join for reasons that have nothing to do with religion. Those converts may initially get some financial benefits but the price is high. They have to confess a belief in dogmas, in which they don’t believe. They have to despise the faith that they had held dear. They or at least their offspring will become convinced that they alone have the right faith and will look down on those who go to temples. In the process they lose their integrity and will become hypocritical, like so many in the west. And if conversion is not restrained, together with her children, Bharat may lose her integrity. Truth will have no place anymore.
by Maria Wirth
Maria Wirth is a German, who came to India in 1980 and happened to discover what many modern Indians are not anymore aware of: the amazing spiritual and philosophical depth of India’s ancient tradition and the beauty and vibrancy of its manifold expressions in daily life. As she knows both – eastern and western – societies intimately, she portrays with clarity the basic differences between Sanatana Dharma (today known as Hindu Dharma or Hinduism) and the dogmatic religions and between the Hindu mind set and the mind set of people who believe in dogmas.
Maria Wirth has the German equivalent of an MA degree in psychology and has authored two books in German, written numerous articles for magazines, and contributed chapters to several books. At present, she writes mainly on her blog: http://mariawirthblog.wordpress.com/