New Labels for Old Merchandise

The emergence of Catholic ashrams in several parts of the country is not an isolated development. These institutions are links in a chain which is known as the "Ashram Movement", and which different denominations of Christianity are promoting in concert. The Protestants and the Syrian Orthodox have evolved similar establishments. Taken together, these institutions are known as Christian ashrams. Several books and many articles have already been devoted to the subject by noted Christian writers.

The Ashram Movement, in turn, is part of another and larger plan which is known as Indigenisation or Inculturation and which has several other planks. The plan has already produced a mass of literature1 and is being continuously reviewed in colloquies, conferences, seminars, and spiritual workshops on the local, provincial, regional, national, and international levels. High-powered committees and councils and special cells have been set up for supervising its elaboration and implementation.

What strikes one most as one wades through the literature of Indigenisation is the sense of failure from which Christianity is suffering in this country. Or, what seems more likely, this literature is being produced with the express purpose of creating that impression. The gains made so far by an imperialist enterprise are being concealed under a sob-story. Whatever the truth, we find that the mission strategists are trying hard to understand and explain why Christianity has not made the strides it should have made by virtue of its own merits and the opportunities that came its way.

Christianity, claim the mission strategists, possesses and proclaims the only true prescription for spiritual salvation. It has been present in India, they say, almost since the commencement of the Christian era. During the last four hundred years, it has been promoted in all possible ways by a succession of colonial powers - the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, and the British. The secular dispensation which has obtained in this country since the dawn of independence has provided untrammeled freedom to the functioning as well as the multiplication of the Christian mission. Many Christian countries in the West have maintained for many years an unceasing flow of finance and personnel for the spread of the gospel. The costs of the enterprise over the years, in terms of money and manpower, are mind-boggling. Yet Christianity has failed to reap a rich harvest among the Hindu heathens.

"It is a remarkable fact," writes Fr. Bede, "that the Church has been present in India for over fifteen hundred years2 and has had for the most part everything in its favour, and yet in all this time hardly two in a hundred of the people has been converted to the christian faith. The position is, indeed, worse even than this figure would suggest, as the vast majority of Christians are concentrated in a very few small areas and in the greater part of India the mass of people remains today untouched except in a very general way by the christian faith. It is necessary to go even further than this and to say that for the immense majority of the Indian people Christianity still appears as a foreign religion imported from the West and the soul of India remains obstinately attached to its ancient religion. It is not simply a matter of ignorance. This may have been true in the past, but in recent times there has been a remarkable revival of Hinduism, which is more or less consciously opposed to Christianity, and the educated Hindu regards his religion as definitely superior to Christianity."3

The state of things described by Fr. Bede would have caused no concern to a normal human mind. There is nothing obstinate about Hindus remaining attached to their ancient religion which has given them a large number of saints, sages and spiritual giants, and enriched them with an incomparable wealth of art, architecture, music and literature. There is nothing wrong with Hindus who find their own religion more satisfying than an alien faith brought in by imperialist invaders. Moreover, Christianity has yet to prove that it has something better to offer in terms of spiritual seeking, or vision, or attainment. But the missionary mind, unfortunately, has never been a normal human mind. It has always suffered from the hallucination that it has a monopoly on truth and that it has a divine command to strive for the salvation of every soul. That alone can explain why the mission in India, instead of dismantling itself, is making determined efforts to regroup and return for yet another assault on Hinduism.

Coming to the causes of Christian failure in India, one searches in vain for a single line in the voluminous literature of Indigenisation which tries to examine the character of Christian doctrine vis-à-vis what the Hindus expect from a religion. In fact, the doctrine is never mentioned in this context. It is assumed that the doctrine has been and remains perfect and flawless. What is wrong, we are told, is the way it has been presented to Hindus. "These facts," continues Fr. Bede after mourning the failure of the mission, "which can scarcely be questioned, suggest that there has been something wrong with the way in which the gospel has been presented in India (and the same remark would apply to all the Far East) and especially in the relation which has been established between Christianity and Hinduism.

We shall review at a later stage the relationship which Fr. Bede envisages as correct between his religion and that of the Hindus. The literature of Indigenisation has a lot to say on the subject. What we must find out first is the mistake which, according to Fr. Bede, the mission has made in presenting the gospel. "When we consider the number of conversions to Christianity over the last four hundred years," observes Fr. Bede, "we must admit that the Christian mission has largely failed. As soon as we ask why, I think we find the answer quite clear before us: the Church has always presented herself to the eastern world in the forms of an alien culture. A culture is the way people naturally express themselves; it embraces their language, music, art, even their gestures, their ways of thought and feeling and imagination. It is their whole world. In every case the Church has come to eastern people in an alien form."4 It may be noted that Fr. Bede has excluded religion from his definition of culture which he regards as a people's "whole world". This is not an oversight as we shall see. It is deliberate and calculated design.

What is the way out? It is obvious, say the mission strategists. Christianity has to drop its alien attire and get clothed in Hindu cultural forms. In short, Christianity has to be presented as an indigenous faith. Christian theology has to be conveyed through categories of Hindu philosophy; Christian worship has to be conducted in the manner and with the materials of Hindu pûjâ; Christian sacraments have to sound like Hindu saMskâras; Christian Churches have to copy the architecture of Hindu temples; Christian hymns have to be set to Hindu music; Christian themes and personalities have to be presented in styles of Hindu painting; Christian missionaries have to dress and live like Hindu sannyâsins; Christian mission stations have to look like Hindu ashramas. And so on, the literature of Indigenisation goes into all aspects of Christian thought, organisation and activity and tries to discover how far and in what way they can be disguised in Hindu forms. The fulfilment will be when converts to Christianity proclaim with complete confidence that they are Hindu Christians.

The only alien way which does not seem to call for Indigenisation is the finance of the mission. There is, of course, an occasional speculation whether the mission can do without foreign finance. Off and on, some romantics raise the protest that Christianity can never pass as an indigenous religion so long as it does not learn to live on indigenous resources, but the point is never permitted to be pressed home. The realists know that the mission will collapse like nine-pins if the flow of foreign finance stops for even a short time or is reduced in scale. The theme is brought up once in a while in order to maintain the pretence that the mission is not unmindful of Hindu misgivings on this score. The controversy always ends in a compromise, namely, that "the foreign support should be maintained just for the purpose of getting rid of it".5 In other words, Hindus should become Christians if they wish to see the mission freed from foreign support!

In the end one finds it difficult to withhold the comment that the literature of Indigenisation reads less like the deliberations of divines than like the proceedings of conferences on marketing and management convened by multinational corporations. The corporation in this case is old and experienced. It commands colossal resources in terms of money and manpower and prestige. It is also conversant with and employs the latest methods of salesmanship. But the problem is that its stock-in-trade is stale and finds few buyers in Hindu society. At the same time, the corporation is congenitally incapable of producing anything new and more satisfying.

The solution to the problem, as the Board of Management sees it, is to invent spurious labels which can hoodwink Hindus into believing that a brand new product is being brought to them. That is what the Christian theologians, historians, sociologists, artists and musicians are working at today. It makes no difference that they pull long faces, look solemn, and invoke the Holy Spirit whenever they come together in conference, or deliver pep talks, or pen pompous phrases. The business remains as sordid as ever. It is true that there are still left among them some simple souls who believe sincerely that there is no mansion outside the Church save hell; but, by and large, they know what they are doing and that they are doing it because their own jobs and positions and privileges are at stake.


1 U. Meyer lists as many as 196 articles published in 8 major Christian journals from 1938 to 1965 (Indian Church History Review, December, 1967, pp. 114-120). Books and reports of committees and conferences, etc. which constitute a sizable segment of this literature, are not included in this list. The literature has tended to become more and more prolific in years subsequent to 1965.

2 Mercifully, Fr. Bede does not repeat the currently fashionable Christian story that Christianity was brought to India in 52 A.D. by St. Thomas. He opts for sober history which records that the first Christians came to Malabar in the second half of the fifth century.

3 Bede Griffiths, Christ in India, Bangalore, 1986, p. 55.

4 Ibid., P. 179

5 U. Meyer, op. cit., p. 102


Back to Contents Page    Back to VOI Books    Back to Home