Second Encounter in Tamil Nadu

While a heated dialogue between Hinduism and Christianity was going on in the North, with Maharshi Dayananda in the forefront, another dialogue was taking shape in South India.  Its centre was in the Cauvery Delta, particularly the District of Tiruchirapally, which had witnessed the first Hindu-Christian dialogue nearly 175 years earlier.  This stronghold of Hindu learning had invited concentrated missionary attention since the days of the Portuguese pirates.  One foreign mission after another had descended on the scene and mounted assaults on Hinduism in various forms.  The flow of Christian finance and manpower from abroad was unceasing and in ever-increasing quantities, as it remains today.

We have seen already how the British sponsored Royal Danish Mission (RDM) had set up a station at Tranquebar in 1706 under the leadership of Ziegenbalg.  The same mission set up another station at Tanjore in 1732.  In the same year, the Society for Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) started operating from Tiruchirapally and Tanjore and the Society for Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) from Tiruchirapally.  The region remained disturbed during the next fifty years due to English and French intrusions and internecine wars among native powers.  But as soon as conditions became favourable for missionary work, the SPCK set up a second centre at Negapatinam in 1785.  It was followed by the London Missionary Society (LMS) which started working from Kumbakonam in 1805.  In 1825 the SPG set up a second station at Tanjore and the Church Missionary Society (CMS) began work from Mayavaram.  In 1833, the SPG set up its third and fourth stations at Tranquebar and Negapatinam.  Meanwhile, the Methodists had arrived at Negapatinam in 1820 and Melanattam in 1830.  They extended their activities to Mannargudi in 1835, Tiruchirapally in 1847, Tiruvarur in 1859, Karur in 1861 and Dharapuram in 1881.  In due course, they were to become the dominant mission in this area.  But other missions were not slack.  In every case, the headquarters was only the starting point for reaching out into the interior.  By the beginning of the ninth decade of the nineteenth century, the whole region had become honeycombed with mission stations.

The message which the missionaries carried everywhere was very simple.  “That all might understand,” reported Dr. Elijah Hoole in 1824, “I spoke plain and loud, and set forth the value of the soul and the importance of its salvation, and that my business was to raise concern for its welfare in all to whom I had access; that by sin we are exposed to death and hell, but that the one true God who had made us, not willing that any should perish, had found a ransom, at the same time giving us true Vedam, teaching us how to obtain and keep the blessings purchased for us by Jesus Christ; that the truths of the Bible were the object of faith, and the precepts of it the rule of practice.”1

The missionary view of Hinduism had remained stable since the days of Ziegenbalg.  According to a missionary report of 1821, “an immense population lies enslaved in the grossest darkness.” Hindu temple worship was “calculated to corrupt the heart, to sensualize the mind and to lead to every description of vice.” James Mowat, a Methodist missionary wrote in a letter to his headquarters at London, “I never had so plain demonstration of depravity heathenism binds upon its votaries in the shape of religion.  The principal pagoda abounds with the most obscene and polluting representations, and decidedly proves, if proof be necessary, how greatly this people need the hallowing light of Christianity.” Naturally, the Hindus invited “tenderest pity” from the missionaries who used “all their means to rescue them from impending destruction.”2

The missionaries were fully equipped to undertake the task.  “They visited Choultries, market places and bathing tanks, preached in the city streets, under the shadow of idolcars, under the canopy of country-trees, in the open square of the villages and other places where they could meet a good number of people.  In the villages situated in the immediate neighbourhood of each mission station, the Gospel was preached very often, while places more remote were visited less frequently.  These visits were generally undertaken by missionaries accompanied by a staff of native preachers.  A tent would be pitched at a suitable centre and the whole neighbourhood would be visited.  The singing of Christian lyrics and hymns accompanied by musical instruments soon attracted a congregation.”3

Amore effective weapon in the hands of the missionaries was their network of educational institutions.  The South Indian Missionary Conference held in 1858 had left nobody in doubt as to what the missionary schools and colleges were trying to achieve.  “The object of all missionary labour,” proclaimed the Conference report, “is, or should be not primarily the civilization but the evangelisation of the heathen.  Schools may be regarded as converting agencies, and their value estimated by the number who are led by the instruction they receive to renounce idolatry and make an open profession of Christianity; or the principal object aimed at may be the raising up of Native helpers in the Missionary work.  Each of these is a legitimate object of Missionary labour and the value of any system of education as a Missionary Agency, must be tested by its adaptedness to accomplish one or more of these objects.”4 The Bible was compulsory reading in all missionary schools and colleges.  A Christian atmosphere was created all around by daily public worship, conversations and essay competitions on theological themes, textbooks which praised Christianity and denounced Hinduism, and employment of as many Christian teachers as possible.

Missionary education was showing results in Hindu homes.  “The nation regrets,” wrote The Hindu Reformer and Politician of Madras, “that money and trouble are spent on young men who return to their household with contempt for the practices and beliefs of their relations and ancestors, and the young men regret that their homes and community are attached to what seems to them to be foolishness and superstition.”5 Only a few Hindus who attended missionary schools and colleges came out unscathed.  Among these few there could be found some spirited ones whose self-respect had been hurt by the missionary campaign against everything they cherished most and who harboured in their hearts nothing but contempt for Christianity.  But they were helpless because the missionaries had a monopoly of educational institutions.

Hindus did try to meet the challenge with whatever means they could mobilise, but there was no question of matching missionary resources.  Their ancient and catholic culture inhibited them from descending to the level of the missionaries, either in language or in demonstrativeness.  The missionaries were aware of these tolerant and civilized inhibitions and were able to exploit them until the Theosophist leaders, Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott, arrived on the scene in 1878.  They knew Christianity A to Z and had witnessed its rapid decline in the West due to the humanist and rationalist examination of Christian scriptures, Christian institutions and Christian history.  Their sympathies were entirely with Hinduism which they honoured as the most ancient and profound religion known to man.  From their headquarters at Adyar, Madras, they started publishing magazines which described the missionaries as “thickskulled, bigoted bloodhounds” and Christianity as “the purest idiotic trash.” The Bible for them was “senseless gossip”, “the most disgusting filth”, and the “obscenest book ever touched by human hands.” The captions and conclusions were backed by evidence from Christian sources.  The writings of Bradlaugh, the anti-Christian British labour leader, also became known to the Hindus around this time.

The cumulative result of all these developments was the formation of the Hindus Tract Society in 1887.  It had its headquarters in Madras.  “We have painfully witnessed,” said the founders of the Society, “the injustice done to our religion by foreign and native Christian missionaries.  Baseless charges were trumped up against it; and relying on the poverty of the masses and the ignorance that generally prevails among them regarding their own religion and their own traditions, those apostles of foreign creeds have, by means fair or foul, attempted and even succeeded to some extent in leading our poor brethren astray.  This aroused in us the instinct of self-preservation, and made us see the need of some organisation like the present one; and since the Christian propaganda could only thrive by destroying the better religion bequeathed to us by our ancestors, we were obliged to use against the missionaries their own weapons.”6 The Society soon engaged itself in publishing tracts, sending out Hindu preachers and arranging open air lectures.

We do not have any of the tracts before us, but a quotation from one of them published in 1888 shows the trend.  “How many hundreds of thousands,” it said, “have these padres turned to Christianity and keep on turning!  How many hundreds of children have they swallowed up!  On how many more they have cast their nets!  How much evil is yet to come upon us by their means!  If we sleep as heretofore, in a short time they will turn all to Christianity without exceptions, and our temples will he changed into churches... When Christianity has laid waste the land, will a blade of Hinduism grow there?  When the flood rushes up over our heads it will be too late.  It is because of our carelessness that these strangers insult our gods in the open streets during our festivals.”7 The names of the tracts which followed in 1889 are interesting – “Jesus only a man”, “Are we also sinners?”, “Is Jesus Christ God ?”, “Supporting idol-worship and refuting Christianity”, “Why should missionaries despise other religions without examining their own?”, “History of Christianity”, “Women’s position according to the Bible”, “The evil disguises and inconsistencies of the Salvation Army”, “Jehovah’s character according to the Bible”.

The Hindu Tract Society was followed by the Advaita Sabha of Kumbakonam formed in 1895 and the Shaiva Siddhanta Sabha of South India formed in 1896.  They met the missionary challenge in their own ways.  More and more skeletons were brought out of Christianity’s cupboard.  The missionaries found it hard to hide them.  They were being given a taste of their own medicine.  Rev. Woodward had observed triumphantly in 1887 that “Christianity and Hinduism are in deadly conflict” and that “Hinduism is being put on its mettle.”8 By the end of the decade, his brethren in the various missions were moaning that Hinduism was shedding its traditional tolerance and showing hostility towards a sister religion!


1 Quoted by S. Manickam, ‘Hindu Reaction to Missionary Activities in the Negapatam and Trichinopoly District of the Methodists, 1870-1924’, Indian Church History Review.  December 1981, p. 84.

2 Ibid., p. 82.

3 Ibid., p. 83.

4 Quoted in Ibid., p. 91.

5 Quoted in Ibid., p. 95.

6 Quoted in Ibid., p. 88.

7 Quoted in Ibid., p. 89.

8 Quoted in Ibid., p. 87.

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