The Christian Ethic...

Missionaries such as William Carey translated books in Indian languages to English. Picture shows professor Sunil Chattopadhaya looking at the 200-year-old manuscript of a dictionary of 13 different Indian languages by Carey at Serampore College in West Bengal.  

My father only reluctantly carried his father’s ashes to Banares, mostly to respect my grandfather’s annual pilgrimage there. The reluctance was understandable, since my father’s sacred geographies, richly varied, were strongly anchored in the south, beginning with the Panduranga temple he visited daily to annual trips en famille to Banswadi Anjaneya in Palani and to Guruvayur as well as to the local Bhagavathi shrines in his ancestral village. As a ritualistic Hindu, he participated as enthusiastically in appeasing the goddess with the spectacular goat sacrifice as he did in daily worship. He had little in common with my mother’s scriptural orientation: her daily circumambulations were confined to Tamil, Malayalam, Sanskrit and English texts.

Nevertheless, my parents’ generation fostered a long, intimate and nurturing connection with Christianity, particularly for their children. Born in St Philomena’s Hospital, Bengaluru, I was saved from “double pneumonia” at the age of two in an oxygen tent at the Zenana Mission hospital. All my schooling was at Bishop Cotton Girls’ School, which, with the Boys’ school, served a long line of my siblings. I thoroughly enjoyed daily chapel attendance at school, but only because it allowed me to hear the piano and to sing. Two staunchly Catholic Pre-University and Degree institutions saw me through college. As an adult, when I was misdiagnosed in one of Bengaluru’s large private hospitals, I took refuge in St. Martha’s Hospital. And my sunset years may well be spent in one of the Christian old age homes around Bengaluru.

Devotion and scepticism

This autobiographical indulgence is a riposte to the anguished hand-wringing of our Home Minister, who sees the threat of Christian conversion in every gesture of compassion. It also counters the poisonous outpourings of assorted members of Hindutva organisations. Given that the most important rites of passage of my life were via Christian missionary institutions, I should have long joined that religion’s embrace. Yet, hundreds who similarly passed through the institutions I have named — and they came from a variety of religions — were usually strengthened in their original faith. My friends and siblings have remained devout and unwavering in their religious persuasion; others, like me, after an intimate acquaintance with religion both at home and in the world, have developed a scepticism of it altogether.

I am hard pressed to think of anyone who actually joined the flock.

Did this range of outcomes from prolonged exposure to Christian missionary institutions occur because of or in spite of it? I believe that the answer is both because it helps us to stave off the inevitable response: that I belong to a caste and class that was exempt from of the institutions’ proselytising zeal. That Indian Christians have contributed to education, health, and social work immensely bears reiteration. But it is also worth remembering that present day Christianity, unlike its 19th century forebears, does not place conversion at the heart of its programme. Or where it does, as in Pentecostal Christianity, its proselytising success is counted among other Christian sects.

Certainly, there are strong historical and geographical roots to this assertion, since south India has been hospitable to many varieties of Christianity for much longer than any other part of the subcontinent. Each southern language owes a great grammatical debt to the systematised efforts of a C.P. Brown (Telugu), a Ferdinand Kittel (Kannada), a Hermann Gundert (Malayalam) or a Constanzo Beschi (Tamil). No doubt the interest of the missionaries was to master alien languages in order to write and distribute their biblical tracts in the lay tongue, but the interest in, and passion for, Indian native languages continued even when the fruit of such labour — in terms of saving souls — was far from certain.

The overwhelming presence of Christian missionaries in the worlds of education, health and social work, combined with the relative absence of government in these spheres, gave people like my parents their only opportunities to pursue their broader aspirations of quick upward mobility for their children.

In spite of all this, we are not Christians. Or have we always been “Christian”, if we take this to mean that we have developed the resources for public morality and a spirit of toleration, delinked from religion?

(Janaki Nair is professor, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU.)

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2021 8:25:12 PM |

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