In the long history of Christianity in India spanning millennia, the Christian faith came to be rooted in the multicultural pluralistic tapestry of India, and was articulated and found expression in multiple ways depending on specific contexts. During the course of its journey, Indian Christianity became complex and multilayered and known for its adaptations, collaborations and contestations with the local culture and history. Indian Christians, who are statistically small and unevenly scattered across almost all parts of India, have rich and varied narratives and the Christian community is not a ‘monolithic, homogeneous, and static’ entity, as has been increasingly acknowledged in the recent past.
For long, the history of Christianity in India was treated as a part of ecclesiastical history or Church History and was a neglected area in mainstream Indian history. From the 1970s onwards, however, research outputs with rich contents on the longer histories and processes that went into the making of Indian Christianity took firm root in academia, bringing to the fore that Christianity is no longer a mere appendix of Indian
history. Gradually, much interest has been generated by social scientists who began to break fresh ground exploring the theme of the formation of Christian identities and the nature of its implications on the history of Christianity in India. The rise and growth of Hindu Right Wing mobilization in India during the past three decades, and its systematic militant manifestations, have further renewed vigour to explore this theme. As a result, there is now a growing number of scholarly works on Indian Christians that have begun to appear in the wake of Hindutva perceptions of Christianity as foreign, alien and anti-national. That is what the present book under review underscores in the context of increasing interest in Christian studies on the ‘localization or vernacularisation of Christianity’.
This absorbing volume is the product of an international conference on the histories of Christianity in India held at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, in February 2011. The resultant twelve papers by eminent academics and young scholars from across the globe, presented and discussed at the conference, and a relevant article, cover a variety of perspectives and reflect on varied ways in which Christianity was expressed in local contexts, bringing coherence to the key issues debated. Organized around four thematic parts, the central argument of the book, as the editors point out, is to break up ‘an entrenched notion of a monolithic and seamless Indian Christianity’.
The first part, ‘Historiographical Issues and Problems for Indian Christianity’, opens with a single essay by John C.B. Webster, who has had a long association with India as an academic and Presbyterian missionary. Proficient in Dalit Christian history, he traces the major developments in the writings of Dalit Christian history till recently and shows how it has become a fairly ‘well-established field of study’ and clearly a dominant focus in the history of Christianity in India. Webster argues convincingly that in Indian Christian historiography Dalit Christian history should occupy the centre stage for many reasons, the most crucial among them being that Dalits are the majority numerically. He writes, ‘Since Dalits constitute a majority of the Christian population, historians might be well advised to view Christian history in India as a whole through a Dalit lens’ (p. 17). However, what is likely to be problematic here is that Dalit Christians are drawn from different religions, castes, cultures and language groups and they do not see themselves as a homogeneous group within the Indian Christian community.
A set of seven essays clustered around the second theme, ‘Narratives of Conversion, Missionaries and Indian Converts’, explores a range of issues concerning the interconnection between the missionaries, converts and the local milieu in the process of conversion to Christianity, and the intricate ways in which converts identified and shaped their spiritual and material spheres of life. The contexualized narratives of converts reveal different kinds of manifestations among the Christian communities while seeking spiritual, material and social gains. ‘We are One Caste, One Disease, and One Religion: Biographies of Christian Conversion in a South Indian Leprosy Colony’ by James Staples, focuses on the ‘variations in Christian beliefs and practices’ that existed among the inhabitants of ‘Bethany’, a leprosy colony in coastal Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh, whose residents chose to identify themselves predominantly as Christians. Endorsing the view ‘Christianity in India is—and always has been —flexible, multiple and changing’, Staples, in his essay, highlights the significance of contexualized biographies of converts in understanding this phenomenon.
The piece by Joy L.K. Pachuau, ‘Christianity in Mizoram: An Ethnography’, provides a descriptive analysis of the local manifestations in the development of Christianity in Mizoram, where there are distinctly local versions of Christianity. Though Christianity plays the role of a unifier in the State as the vast majority of the population—nearly 94%—are Christians, Christianity here is not a homogeneous narrative and is shown to be heterogeneous, with differences along the lines of denominational affiliations and their local determinants. In his essay, ‘Change and Continuity: An Analysis of the Interaction of Khasi Traditional Religion with Christianity’, B.L. Nongbri examines the way in which the Khasi converts in Mizoram have treated themselves as subjects of their own destinies rather than solely as subjects of the missionaries, and how they arrived at a unique local version of Christianity for themselves by negotiating changes and continuity in relation to their traditional beliefs and practices.
Saurabh Dube’s ‘Colonial Registers of a Vernacular Christianity’ delves deep into the texts, chronicles, accounts, and reports scripted by the catechists in Chhattisgarh and the vernacular translations of the texts rendered by them, unfolding the making of a ‘vernacular and a colonial Christianity’. He provides a rich understanding of how the catechists’ renderings proclaim in no uncertain terms a ‘particular Christianity’ that is distinctly Indian and local whatever might have been the entanglements of Christianity with the colonial power and the mission project ‘Christian civilization and Western progress’. Putting together the articulations of the fine elements of vernacular Christianity and acknowledging the catechists’ crucial role in the shaping of the designs of a vernacular Christianity in Chhattisgarh, Dube observes, ‘It should not surprise us, therefore, that the stipulations of the catechists’ ideas, the provenance of their faith, and the determinations of their arguments are not a world apart from exemplary expressions of an Indian Christianity in Chhattisgarh today’ (p. 95).
Continuing the debate on the localization of Christianity in the North East, Lalsangkima Pachuau, in his essay ‘“Assistants” or “Leaders”? The Contributions of Early Native Christian Converts in North-East India’, reassesses the converts’ engagement with the making of Christianity in a region with an extremely diverse linguistic and cultural composition. Though the initial momentum was given by the missionaries, it was the converts’ participation which set in motion various dynamics by leading the missionaries to new territory and spreading and making the Gospel intelligible to the local population. This eventually led to the expansion of Christianity in this region and ‘enabled a more natural translation of the Christian faith to the worldviews and ethos of the people thereby making the message of Christianity comprehensible to the people’ (p. 114).
‘Sinners and Confessors: Missionary Dialogues in India, Sixteenth Century’ by Ines G. Zupanov, stems from an intense study of the scope and nature of Tamil Jesuit dialogical texts of catechisms and manuals written in the second half of the sixteenth century for the Parava community of pearl fishermen and traders who inhabited the long sandy beaches between Kanyakumari and Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu. It was among the Parava community that the first Jesuit Mission in India gained the first converts to Christianity. Their pastoral care, combined with ‘pious Jesuit literature’ produced for ‘teaching the converts to think, feel, talk and act in Christian way’, was highly successful in organizing the Paravas into a ‘pious and devoted Christian community’. Zupanov focusses on one particular text, Confessionairo, a confession manual translated into Tamil by Henrique Henriques and printed in 1580. It is a code of conduct meant for regulating ‘both individual conscience and communal morality’, and also acted as an instrument to ‘order the social relations within the Parava community, especially regarding economic and legal transactions’. What is significant is that the dialogical structure of the text apart from describing and prescribing an ‘ideal Parava social structure and body politic’, allowed the Paravasa to manage their community themselves and negotiate with their local social and cultural traditions. Such appropriation or assimilation contributed to the building of a ‘new, non-European Christian community’.
The third part of the volume consists of three essays centered around the theme ‘Formation of Identity and Discourses’. Sangeeta Dasgupta’s ‘From “Heathen Aboriginals” to “Christian Tribes”: Locating the Oraons in Missionary Writings on Chhotanagpur’ analyses the missionary acquisition of knowledge of the people of Chhotanagpur and how they ‘grappled with and reconstructed their notions of the “tribe” and Oraons in 19th and early 20th century Chhotanagpur’. Their initial assumptions and hopes belied, the missionaries began their attempts to ‘identify, understand and thereafter convert’ the ‘authentic’ (non-Hinduized) Oraon. Searching for the ‘authentic’ aboriginal race/tribe, religion, language, myths, folklore, they were forced to rethink their ideas of ‘tribe’, ‘race’ and ‘aboriginality’ and the Oraons ‘became part of a universalistic category, the ‘tribe’. Missionary modes of representation of the tribals influenced colonial ethnographic literature, though interestingly, as Dube notes, ‘Paradoxically, the voice of the missionary is marginalized once the official ethnographic text is created; it becomes a part of bureaucratic memory’ (p. 145). By the early 20th century, ‘the voices of missionaries and colonial ethnographers/administrators interpenetrated’ and Chhotanagpur emerged as a ‘window’ to understand rural India.
The essay, ‘Strategic Interventions for Structural Changes in the Bettiah Christian Community: A Study of Purposive Action for Community Development’, by Jose Kalapura, charts the course of socio-economic change effected in the Bettiah Christian community over 265 years through the community development programmes set in motion by two Catholic missionary organizations, the Capuchin Order and the Patna Jesuit Society. A community of Catholic converts based in Bettiah in North Bihar, the Bettiah Christian community has more than common religious affiliations. Over the years it became a distinct ‘new ethnic community’, cutting across caste and region, as its members—a large number drawn from the higher castes, a substantial number from the ‘middle castes’, a sprinkling from the lower castes and Muslims and also some converts from the Newar caste in Nepal—intermarried, strengthening their religious bond and ethnic ties. The missions carried out well-managed material and spiritual interventions among them and brought the community to the threshold of modernity particularly through educational activities, cooperative credit societies and financial institutions. The success of such missionary initiatives produced remarkable changes not only in the occupational pattern of the community but also in the general progress of the Bettiah Christian community as Kalapura puts it: ‘The process of Christianization produced a new worldview, lifestyle, ethic and self-consciousness, which, in turn, indirectly facilitated the process of modernization’. The strategic interventions of the Bettiah Mission ‘effected substantial changes in the economic, educational, occupational life of Bettiah Christians, which in turn altered the social status of the community’ (p. 177).
David Mosse’s ‘Accommodation, Reconciliation and Rebellion in the History of Tamil Catholicism’ considers the long term historical processes at play in the interaction of Tamil Catholicism and caste society, referring particularly to the village of Alapuram. He recounts the way in which the Catholic church, brought to rural Tamil Nadu by the Jesuits in the seventeenth century, came to be embedded in Tamil society and accommodated local Tamil social and ritual forms and local political affiliations in its forms of worship, festivals, ceremonies and rituals. In fact, as Mosse points out, the Jesuit tradition ‘developed by becoming part of and reproducing a local socio-political system’. The same tradition also incorporated ‘distinctive Christian elements’, such as ‘Christian modernity’, ‘transformations’, and the ‘idea of radical change’ which were to be ‘the seeds of local change’, but for two hundred years the church failed to ‘generate cultural clique or social emancipation’. Caste was tolerated and accepted as ‘a condition of Tamil society’ and ‘secularized caste distinctions’ were allowed to exist within the church. Mosse shows how ‘what it means to be a Christian’ and ‘what it is to be a Dalit Christian’ are products of ‘shifting socio-political and institutional conditions that can be studied’ and delineates various issues related to the problem of untouchability and Dalit consciousness and
mobilization against broad trends in the Catholic church and
Tamil society. In the case of Alapuram, it was the missionaries who backed the Dalits (Pallars) when they pressed claims to ‘equal rights and honours in agrarian caste society’ and it was only as Christians that the Pallars ‘gained access to the public domain and first acquired a political voice’. In the post-Independence, post-missionary period, however, ‘Christianity weakened as a vehicle for Dalit
advancement and the mobilization for Dalit liberation arose from the experience of Dalitness within the church.’ Mosses points out: ‘In villages such as Alapuram, the Catholic religious system
provided the first arena for a Dalit (Pallar) politics of dignity as
early as the 1910s, as well as the context in which Dalits acquired organizational skills for public action later used in civil rights
activism’ (p. 193).
The last part titled ‘Conflict and Dialogue’ contains three essays. ‘The Contemplative Gaze: Bede Griffiths and the Needs of Post-Independence Indian Christianity’ by Christopher G. Harding focuses on Fr. Bede Griffiths as the author takes a fresh look at the pros and cons of the attempts made by five individuals from the West in the post-Independence era, to deepen and promote the ‘Indian-ness’ of Indian Christianity, a quest already begun by the pioneering Indian Christian leaders. In the process of finding solutions for the indigenization of Christianity, a range of experiments had led to the Christian Ashram movement. A westerner, Griffiths’s quest for the revival of the Ashram with devotional experience and contemplation reflected on efforts towards integration of Christianity with Indian spirituality. Unfortunately, his project moved away from attempts at inculturation, towards the direction of ‘interpreting Indian spirituality for a Western audience’, and what could be described as ‘inter-religious dialogue’ and ‘new age’ spirituality, attracting and depending on Indian and western visitors interested in a ‘novel ashram experience’. Harding raises the relevant question: ‘What does it say about these five and about the nature of Christianity and religious politics in India during this period, that they failed to generate interest and support amongst India’s Christians on a large and lasting scale?’ (p. 210) and suggests that an exploration of a comparative analysis of the successes and failures of Griffiths and the others could bring to ‘life an under-appreciated period in the history of Christianity’.
Ulrike Schroder’s ‘Globalizing Religion, Localising Christian Mission: Robert Caldwell and Colonial Discourse in Nineteenth-Century South India’ provides an analysis of the writings by the Anglican scholar-missionary Robert Caldwell (1814–1891), which the author depicts as striking examples of ‘global, but embattled transfer of knowledge and practice’ in the colonial period. His scholarly ethnic and linguistic accounts of South Indian religion and culture, particularly about the Shanars/Nadars, and local forms of Christianity that emerged out of his missionary work in Tirunelveli, show how local and global levels of colonial discourse are intricately connected.
The final essay by Pius Malekandathil, ‘Living Religion in Emotional Turbulence: A Study of the Religious Fluviality of New Christians of Cochin and the Inquisition, 1546–1565’ illustrates how, in an age of commercial expansion, a religious institution was manipulated to invoke and enforce an inquisitorial process for economic and commercial reasons, rather than for any gross genuine religious transgressions. The victims against whom inquisitorial proceedings were initiated in mid 1546 were ‘New Christians’—Jewish converts to Christianity—who had come as migrants from Portugal to Cochin. They were primarily traders and mingled with the traditional Jews of Cochin with whom they collaborated in trade and commerce. This association increased the religious fluviality of the New Christians who revived some Judaic practices and rituals; it also gave them extraordinary commercial success leading to unmasked resentment on the part of the traditional Jewish traders of Cochin. They became highly resentful of the inroads made by the New Christians into their once exclusive trading domain and looked for opportunities to eliminate their new commercial rivals. The die was cast. Malekandathil unfolds the story of the conspiratorial machinations that were, most likely, deployed by the traditional Cochin Jews, possibly along with other commercial competitors of the New Christians, to invoke the wrath of the Church against the New Christians. Provocative and blasphemous anonymous notes appeared in churches and the needle of suspicion fell most naturally on the New Christians whose revival of Judaic practices were considered aberrations by the official church. All the New Christians of Cochin were arrested and an Inquisitorial court was set up in Cochin in 1557, for the first time in India. After the proceedings that lasted for several years, the now impoverished New Christians were deported to Portugal. Thus a vulnerable new commercial player in Cochin was successfully wiped out using institutions of the very religion to which they belonged, presumably through the machinations of well-entrenched traditional traders.
This scholarly, yet intensely readable collection of articles will stimulate and inspire further research on multiple histories and processes that have gone into the making of Indian Christianity. It is a fruitful intellectual effort with fierce contestations that challenge the stereotype—a representation of Indian Christians as a monolithic entity, as also a serious blow to the wild charges that the Indian Christians are un-Indian or anti-national or unpatriotic, a subject of the deep ideological agenda that guides the politics of the Hindu Right.
Vincent Kumaradoss, a former Professor of History, Madras Christian College, Chennai is the author of Robert Caldwell: A Scholar-Missionary in Colonial India and an editor of Halle and Beginning of Protestant Christianity in India (3 Vols).