Encounter in Tamil Nadu

Ziegenbalg who was “the most aggressive evangelist of this period”1 came from the Lutheran seminary at Halle in Germany.  Ostensibly, the Lutheran mission to Tranquebar was patronised by Frederick IV, King of Denmark.  But its real sponsor was the British Government who financed it through the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK), floated in 1798.  This is obvious from The Epistle Dedicatory which J. Thomas Philipps attached to his English translation of Ziegenbalg’s Conferences with Brahmanas.2 The Epistle is addressed to the King of England.  “The following Conferences,” wrote Philipps, “being an essay to recommend to the Heathens in the East Indies that faith, of which Your Majesty is the Glorious Defender, I have humbly presumed to lay them at your Royal Feet, as a pledge of the indefatigable labours of the Protestant Missionaries sent thither by the King of Denmark.  One of the Missionaries had the honour to be graciously received by Your Majesty here in London on his return to India.  They have already acknowledged the charitable assistances they have received from Your Majesty’s subjects both in Europe and in the East Indies.” The British invaders of India did not want to be known as patrons of Christianity till a more opportune time.

The places where Ziegenbalg had built his mission stations were in the vicinity of great centres of Hindu learning such as Srirangam, Tanjore, Madura, Kanchi, Chidambram and Tirupathi.  He travelled around, established contacts with the Brahmanas, and held as many as 54 conversations with them.  He recorded the conversations in some detail and passed them on to Halle which published them from 1715 onwards.  “In a notable debate,” writes P. Thomas, “held under the auspices of the Dutch in Negapatnam, Ziegenbalg disputed with a Brahmin for five hours and far from converting the Brahmin, the missionary came away with an excess of admiration for the intellectual gifts of his adversary.”3 Sometimes, the Brahmanas visited Ziegenbalg and held discourse with him.  Only thirty-four of these conversations were translated and published in English in 1719.  The Preface to the English translation sums up the Brahmana’s “Divine Law sent from Heaven” in the following eight Precepts:

I. Thou shalt not kill any living creature whatsoever it be, having life in the same: For thou art a creature of mine and so is it: Thou art endued with soul and it is endued with the same.  Thou shalt not therefore spill the blood of anything that is mine.

II. Thou shalt make a covenant with all thy five senses.  First, with thy eyes, that they behold not things that be evil.  Secondly, with thy ears, that they hear not things that be evil.  Thirdly, with thy tongue, that it speaks not things that be evil.  Fourthly, with thy palate, that it takes nothing that be evil; as wine, or the flesh of living creatures.  Fifthly, with thy hands, that they touch not things defiled.  

III.  Thou shalt duly observe the times of devotion, thy washings, worshippings and prayers to the Lord thy God, with a pure and upright heart.

IV. Thou shalt not tell false tales, or utter things untrue, by which thou mightest defraud thy brother in dealings, bargains or contracts; by this consenage to work thy own peculiar advantage.

V. Thou shalt be charitable to the poor and administer to his need, meat, drink, and money, as his necessity requires, and thine own ability enableth thee to give.

VI. Thou shalt not oppress, injure or do violence to the poor, using thy power unjustly to the ruin and overthrow of thy brother.

VII. Thou shalt celebrate certain festivals; yet not pampering thy body with excess of anything; but shalt observe certain seasons for fasting, and break off some hours by watching, that thou may’st be fitter for devotion and holiness.

VIII. Thou shalt not steal from thy brother anything, however little it be, of things committed to thy trust in thy profession or calling; but content thyself with that which he shall give thee as thine hire; considering that thou has not right to that which another man calleth his.4 

Yet according to the same Preface, “there is not, perhaps, a more wicked race of men treading upon God’s earth.” “The Brahmanas”, it continues, “are the greatest impostors in the world; their talent lies in inventing new fables every day, and making them pass for incomprehensible mysteries among the vulgar.”5 Whatever be the facts, Christian conclusions remain the same.  That is because Christianity is compelled by its doctrine to be at war with other cultures, howsoever superior.

The next thing which Ziegenbalg did in 1712 was to send a large number of letters to a selection of Hindus Brahmanas and non-Brahmanas - inviting answers to a number of questions.  “The purpose of this correspondence,” writes Dr. H. Grafe, “as stated by Ziegenbalg, is three-fold:

1. To make for increased publicity of the missionaries’ work,
2. To reach people whom they are not able to meet personally, 
3. To get better informed about Hinduism and particularly about Hindu objections to Christian Faith.  In short: Publicity, evangelism and religious research, all these were in Ziegenbalg’s mind.”6

Ziegenbalg attached to these letters a printed booklet, Abominable Heathenism, which described Hinduism as a state of ajñAna (ignorance) and accused it of five sins-idolatory, fornication, fraud, quarrel, witchcraft and laziness.7 It was “the very first product of the Tamil Press at Tranquebar ‘inaugurating the modern era of Tamil book-printing’,” as H.W. Gensichen puts it.8

The letters which Ziegenbalg received from Hindus in reply to his questions were translated by him into German and forwarded to Halle in two batches of 58 and 46.  The theologian, A.H. Francke, who scrutinised them, flared up, “The missionaries were sent out to exterminate heathenism in India, not to spread heathen nonsense all over Europe.” When Ziegenbalg received the reprimand, he wrote back, “We should be of the opinion that such materials quite Certainty are suitable for communication to the public.  Should you, however, find anything about which you have hesitations to communicate it to the public you have always the liberty to change, to improve, or omit the same in this as well as in other tracts.”9

Finally, 99 letters were published, 55 in 1713 and 44 in 1717.  Five letters were totally suppressed.  No one knows how far the published ones were edited.  The publication of the first batch, however, carried the following introduction: “On our part we could not decide in favour of withholding the Tamil correspondence from the public.  True, it contains much which is partly foolish, partly detestable.  Especially, it tells of fornication and impurity with which idol worship of our own past as well as Tamil worship are concerned.  However, if we had omitted such things and communicated those good things only, which the heathens still recognise and possess by the light of nature, some might conceive of the false idea, that heathenism is not so bad and corrupt after all.”10 

We shall give only a summary of opinions which, according to these letters, Hindus had of Christianity.

The most common reason given by Hindus of why they despised Christianity was that most Christians led a very unclean life - slaughtering and eating cows and other animals, guzzling strong drinks, not washing after easing themselves, not brushing their teeth before or after meals, spitting around in their houses, mating with their wives in menses, etc.  One correspondent was more forthright.  The Christians, he said, “beat and kill one another, swear, fornicate, play, do not give any help to travellers and pilgrims and concern themselves only with eating and drinking, beautiful dresses and the decoration of their houses.”11 Ziegenbalg had himself observed that Christians were “so much debauched in their manners” and “so given to gluttony, drunkenness, lewdness, cursing, swearing, cheating, cozening” besides being “proud and insulting in their conduct” that many Indians, judging the religion by its effects upon its followers, “could not be inclined to embrace Christianity.”12

Tamil Hindus were also telling Ziegenbalg that there was something seriously wrong with the doctrine which inculcated such beastly behaviour, particularly in the converts who were leading disciplined lives before they became Christians.  Christian writers dismiss these Hindu observations as “superficial objections.” But Mahatma Gandhi, as we shall see, noticed the same behaviour of converts and advised the Christians to demonstrate by their living rather than preaching that they had a better doctrine.

Hindus also pointed to the “hatred and persecution between various Christian sects”, leading to doubts as to which of them represented real Christianity.  But more serious doubts were raised about Jesus, the god of the Christians.  “To our reason,” they said, “it does not appear very sensible that they believe in a God who was tortured and killed by his own people.”13 One correspondent asked, “Why did he at last have to hang on the cross like a thief? How is it possible that he being true God could die?”14 Another correspondent put it more plainly: “Does it not seem the height of unreasonableness to suppose him to be the saviour of the world who was of mean parentage, had as mean an education, was persecuted by his countrymen, and at last was hanged by public Authority upon an infamous cross?”15 Hindus found it hard to believe that Jesus was God and Son of God and Holy Ghost at the same time: “How is it possible that God who is only one nevertheless is threefold?”16

Hindus had no use for the Christian doctrine of original sin.  They held that “the bad sins spring out of one’s own wickedness, vice, evil will, haughtiness and corrupt desires of like nature,”17 rather than inherited from Adam and Eve.  They rejected outright the doctrine of free grace: “Nobody attains salvation for nothing, because God does not give his grace to those who are lazy and live like animals.  There must he good works, sacrifice, worship, faith and love.”18 One correspondent observed, “I have never seen hitherto any of all you Christians taking any care of the saving of his own soul by doing Penance for his sins: whereas we Malabarians undergo many tedious and long Penances, denying ourselves all the pleasures of this Life... But I see no such thing practis’d among you Christians.”19 Another asked, “Will nobody else be saved in the world except Christians?” 20

The doctrine of ever-lasting punishment for “unbelievers” was found repugnant: “Seeing that we live in this world but a few years and our sinful Actions are, as to their Duration, transitory; why then should the Punishment be Eternal?  The necessary proportion attending distributive justice, is not observ’d here.”21 One correspondent asked, “If the evil ones are being condemned to hell, do they have to remain in hell or may hope for salvation afterwards?”22 Another juxtaposed the Hindu doctrine of mukti for all creatures: “(It is) firmly believed, among us, that not only mankind but all Birds, and Beasts of the Fields, shall be Eternally Happy after many repeated Nativities or Regenerations, qualifying them for the Enjoyment of God.”23 The central Christian sacrament also came in for criticism: “When they administer the Sacrament, they say that the bread is the holy body and they drink the holy blood of Christ, which I am at a loss to grasp.”24

That exhausted the list.  There was nothing else in Christianity which Hindus could examine specifically, however verbose Ziegenbalg might have been about the merits of his creed.

Next, the Hindus turned to a defence of their own Sanatana Dharma.  The first thing they said was that “we have a venerable Antiquity on our side” and that “we are an Ancient Nation, whose Religion is as old as the world itself.”25 There was an implied advice that Christianity which was born only yesterday should have some sense of humility.

Religion, it was pointed out, was not such a simple matter as the missionaries had assumed.  It needed deep deliberation.  “Every religion,” said one correspondent, “claims to be the only true religion.  There is even dispute among the Tamilians whether Vishnu or Siva is the highest god... how can we accept a strange religion as long as we do not properly know the truth in our own.”26 In reply to Ziegenbalg’s question, “why do the Tamilians not leave their false precepts and convert to the true precepts of Christianity?”, another correspondent replied, “You have to prove the presupposition of the question.”27

Ziegenbalg’s most serious charge was that Hindus neglected One God and worshipped many others.  One correspondent replied, “The One God is not being neglected even where a multitude of Gods is believed in because in them he alone is being worshipped, after they have obtained salvation through him.”28 Another observed, “We teach the people to worship one only, and not many Gods; and the Notion of a plurality of Gods comes hence, viz., because God is variously represented under different names; Yet he is still but One God as Gold is but one, as to its kind, tho’ wrought into a Thousand different figures.”29 Yet another replied, “Siva is not more than one, but has many names, Vishnu is not more than one… and one is all in all, and through him alone we attain to salvation, but not through anybody else.”30

Hindus pointed out repeatedly that different religions are suited to different temperaments so that different nations have different religions.  Chiding Ziegenbalg for prescribing one religion for all, a correspondent said, “Everything you write and speak amounts to contempt and total rejection of our religion and our worship of God… God is manifold in his creatures and manifold in his creations.  Hence he wants also to be worshipped in manifold way.”31 Another correspondent said the same thing more concretely: “For as Christ in Europe was made Man, so here our God Wischtnu32 was born among us Malabarians, and as you hope for salvation through Christ, so we hope for salvation through Wischtnu, and to save you one way, and us another, is one of the Pastimes and Diversions of Almighty God.”33

One of Ziegenbalg’s questions was whether “Hindu worship exists in external rites only or whether there is something in one word to it which is done from the heart of hearts.” One correspondent replied, “Yes, Love, Faith, and Faithfulness, or in one word Bhakti are much more important than rites, and all external works are useless and vain without love, faith and faithfulness towards the Lord.”34 Another explained, “Although the Supreme Being is present in all souls and there is faith and faithfulness in many men, whatever religion they adhere to, still this faith and faithfulness cannot be perceived and recognised in their hearts.  It must find outward expression.”35 In other words, a good life alone proves that there is inner faith.

There is no evidence that Ziegenbalg ever pondered over what the Brahmanas had told him during his conversations with them or what his Hindu correspondents had conveyed to him.  What we know is that he used the conversations as well as the correspondence for compiling two books Genealogy of Malabar Gods completed in 1711 and Malabar Heathendom completed in 1713 - in which he repeated all that he had said in his earlier book, Abominable Heathenism.  The dialogue with Hindus had gone completely over his Christian head.

In his Preface to Malabar Heathendom, he wrote: “Meanwhile, the clear exposure of this Indian heathenism may be regarded as a sign that God, at this time, intends to do some special thing for these heathens, and to visit them by granting them grace to be converted.  He will thereby also try the Christian people in Europe to whom this is made known, if some will pity their condition, and think of means through which the Word of grace and all the means of salvation may be offered unto them effectually for their conversion.” Again, whatever be the facts, the conclusions drawn by Christian missionaries remain the same!

The latter-day Christian historians, however, have understood what had really happened.  “This encounter shows,” comments Dr. H. Grafe, “that Hindus seriously examined the challenge to their religion that came from Christianity.  They were drawn into a dialogue of asking and replying, of accusing and excusing, and of trying to understand... However, although some subjects treated show considerable depth in spiritual quest, on the whole one cannot escape the impression that politeness and cautiousness exerted some restraint and the whole exchange was regarded as a sort of vanguard battle at which not all ammunition was used up.”36 Dr. Arasaratnam observes, “It was now clear that Christian evangelism was going to be a hard, rigorous, intellectual grind and missionaries would come up against the custodians of Hindu tradition who would present the case for Hinduism.”37


1 S. Arasaratnam, op.cit., p. 20

2 Thirty-Four Conferences Between the Danish Missionaries and Malabarian Brahmans (or Heathen Priests) in the East Indies, London, 1719.  The Brahmanas referred to were really from Tamil Nadu.  But Christian missionaries in that period were too full of Malabar to make the distinction.

3 P. Thomas, op. cit., pp. 153-154.

4 Thirty-Four Conferences, pp. v-viii.

5 Ibid., pp. iii-iv.

6 ‘Hindu Apologetics at the Beginning of the Protestant Mission Era in India’, by H. Grafe in Indian Church History Review, June, 1972, p. 48.

7 Ibid., P. 64.

8 Ibid., p. 58.

9 Francke and Ziegenbalg quoted in Ibid., p. 46.  Emphasis added.

10 Ibid., p. 47.  Emphasis added.

11 Ibid., p. 55.

12 R. C. Majumdar (ed.), The History and Culture of the Indian People, Volume X: British Paramountcy And Indian Renaissance, Part II, 2nd edition, Bombay, 1981, p. 150.

13 Quoted in H. Grafe, op. cit., p. 56.

14 Ibid., p. 57.

15 Quoted in Richard Fox Young, op. cit., p. 24.

16 Quoted in H. Grafe, op. cit., p. 56.

17 Quoted in Ibid., p. 63.

18 Quoted in Ibid., p. 56.

19 Quoted in Richard Fox Young, op. cit., p. 24.

20 Quoted in H. Grafe, op. cit., p. 57.

21 Quoted in Richard Fox Young, op. cit., p. 24.

22 Quoted in H. Grafe, op. cit., p. 57.

23 Quoted in Richard Fox Young, op. cit., p. 24.

24 Quoted in H. Grafe, op. cit., p. 55.

25 Quoted in Richard Fox Young, op. cit., p. 23.

26 Quoted in H. Grafe, op. cit., p. 61.

27 Quoted in Ibid., p. 64.

28 Quoted in Ibid., p. 60.

29 Quoted in Richard Fox Young, op. cit., p. 24.

30 Quoted in H. Grafe, op. cit., p. 66.

31 Quoted in Ibid., p. 65.

32 The missionary spelling of Vishnu.

33 Quoted in Richard Fox Young, op. cit., p. 23.

34 Quoted by H. Grafe, op. cit., p. 66.

35 Quoted in Ibid., pp. 66-67.

36 H. Grafe, op. cit., pp. 68-69.

37 S. Arasaratnam, op. cit., p. 33.

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