Impact Of Christian Missionary Activity

3345 words (13 pages) Essay

17th May 2017 Religion Reference this


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Colonialism in the nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries was part and parcel of the world history, whether one was part of the Colonial empires or countries under colonial rule. Colonialism was not simply a social and economical form of oppression but also cultural, mostly religious for those who lived under its grip. Indeed from the British Raj to the French rule around the world, religion acted as a backbone to infiltrate and convert en masse or divert locals or ‘natives’ from what was believed to be ‘erroneous’ religions. Christianity in this way became an important import for colonies around the world. India is such an example. Under British rule since the 18th century, India was subjugated for three centuries until its independence in 1947. This rule has obviously left a big impact on the Indian landscape namely on the cultural and political scene because of education and the counter reaction of Hinduism. This essay will thus attempt to gauge the extent of Christian Missionary activity in India and its modernizing effect if any. The different ways in which Christian missions operated will be analysed as well as its impact on education and Hinduism. This will be undertaken by describing the concept of modernity from a western perspective and how it applies to the Indian case. The impact of Christian Missions on education will be accounted for as well as the debate over the Hindu Renaissance of the 19th century and whether it was indeed a renaissance. Moreover this essay will assess the impact of Christian activities as having been conducive to the Indian nationalist movement and how this subsequently led to India’s Independence from British Colonial Rule.


The concept of modernity is western and a term devised and applied in the West because of the shift from the medieval era to the modern since the Enlightenment. Thus to speak of modernity in the Indian context, one needs to define what modernity entails. Firstly modernity for Marx was to be associated with the rise of capitalist commodity production and for Weber, in the’ abstract principle of rationalization of the world’ (Kaviraj, 2000 p137). Modernity sees a state possess several features like a capitalist industrial economy, modern state institutions like the army and forms of democracy. Moreover the community of the traditional society tends to be replaced by the individual enterprise whilst religion tends to be overshadowed by secular values. (Kaviraj, 2000 p137) .Whilst all of the mentioned elements do not have to operate at the same time for a modern society to take shape, they are the prerequisites for one. Furthermore, it is believed that due to prerequisites like democracy, capitalist industrial economy ,etc ,that modernity tends to replicate itself around the globe as it supplants the traditional environment and replaces it with new set of practices altogether. However, this idea does not take into account the plurality and diversity of some places (Kaviraj, 2000 p138) India is such an example. Modernity does not operate on a tabula rasa but rather has to work along existing cultures and beliefs. Moreover, modernity in the Western perspective tends to suggest an image of homogeneity, where rationality prevails over economic, political and cultural spheres. This is rather far from the truth as one can see in India’s case, where plurality and diversity have always been present and in fact regions make up this vast country. Therefore, modernity cannot be applied to all cases in the same way and does not replicate itself around the globe through a common pattern. Even western countries had rather diverse trials and errors path towards modernity.India for instance is an extreme culturally fragmented case. The notion of being Indian did not take shape until British Colonial rule. Also, the social fragmentation of class and castes and royalties controlling parts of India made it hard to translate into a nation. However, British rule did contribute into putting perspective to the various religions and their differences. India first of all came under British rule due to the lack of a central state and lack of forms of democracy. Initially starting as a corporation enterprise, the East India enterprise very quickly saw itself acting as a state mostly by collecting revenues, production of statistics etc (Kaviraj, 2000 p143). In this way, British rule sought to transform the Indian colony into a western type state. However India’s diversity and class/caste ridden society could not follow into the Western tradition. India at that point was too embedded by religious and traditional beliefs to be turned into a modern state

The modernity that beset the West socially, economically and culturally could thus not be repeated in India. The district of Bengal for instance saw a definite cultural revolution in the 19th century, where Western rationalization of thought seemed to have taken place. However the lack of infrastructures and material prospects could not emulate Western Counterparts so that Bengal could be termed as modern (Kopf, 1979 p9-11). Modernity in 19th century Bengal was allowed by the implementation of rising communication such as printing, education in the form of missionary schools. Moreover, the rise of Bhadraloks and the consolidation of intellectual elite as Ranmohun Roy witnessed a shift from the traditional to the modern. However this was concentrated mainly in urban areas and reserved for the privileged, mostly the middle class. Calcutta is such an example whereby the Bengali Renaissance found itself being the preserve of the few intellectual elite and not one to touch base with most people in general. The next chapters will thus determine whether India turned into a modern state under Christian Missionary activity or did it only see a cultural revival. It is essential to start with education as it became the first port of call for missionaries in India to use as weapon for conversions.


The printing of ancient texts revived a spark of interest in Indian traditions and texts even from British scholars and missionaries. In effect comparative studies became a key tool into understanding the Indian tradition and values (Killingley, 2003 p509-14).A world completely different from the homogeneity of religion and languages of the Western world, understanding the Indian society and transforming it into a Western project as was the British agenda could be achieved only by instilling western values of religion namely Christianity. This was to be attempted by mission school and missionaries which were meant to bridge the religious gap between Christianity and Hinduism and also Islam. Although initially banned for fear on treading on local beliefs and traditions, missionary schools soon became more popular than anticipated and can be said to be conducive to Indian modernity through the revival of Hinduism (Bellenoit, 2007 p369). Missionary education would also be a catalyst for the Independence movement for it enabled men as Mahatma Gandhi to formulate their political discourse for Indian and Western audiences as well.

Missionary education was set up by the British as means to be promote Western education, mainly the notions of rationalization but also to separate the ‘false’ religions from the ‘real’. Indeed, Christianity in the late 19th and early 20th century had become the most widespread religion through colonies and in the Western World, the religion de facto in a sense. Western education in India was to thus boost Christian morality as opposed to the myriads of myths and ancient rites of Indian society. Practices like Sati, the Caste system with its unfair treatment of untouchables and the subordination of women in general became a cause for concern for some of the missionaries. Mission schools were thus intended to be centres of spiritual and religious dialogue as well as centres of academic learning but more importantly a way to impart Hindus the right Christian and moral ways ( Bellenoit,2007 p371) The colonial enterprise in India was a Christian enterprise above all.

Missionary schools became increasingly popular, especially North India. They became synonymous to better life opportunities and social status. At the heart of these schools, lay religious debates and comparative lectures between Hinduism and Christianity. Through the comparative studies, missionaries wished to universalize Christianity by finding common things with Hinduism and help the pupils dispel traditions and mythical beliefs which went against the core values of Christianity. These schools moreover relied also on Indian agency and enterprise rather than British administration, which was thought to be conducive to Indians as being part of the Western modern family. However, these comparative studies only served to destabilize the imparted Western knowledge at these schools .Indeed, rather than concentrating on the religious curriculum these schools became centres of academic pursuits by most students. Conversions being the ultimate goal were viewed suspiciously by parents who sometimes threatened to pull their children out of these schools. Protests were often made by parents who feared that their children would turn Christians and any Christian activities would be frowned upon, seen as a disregard to Hindu culture and values (Bellenoit, 2007 p372) The Christian education only appealed to Indians for it automatically secured better life opportunities and social status within Indian society. Students meanwhile seemed to develop dual allegiances, one to their rational westernized education and the other to the beliefs of their ancestors, seeped in myths and traditions. Mission schools thus were subject to protests and Indian agency from parents to administration and were not just a passive process where Indian pupils imbibed Christian lessons and forgot about their traditions. In Northern India for instance, missionary schools became a way for Indians to contest the so called superiority of Western knowledge and Christianity especially when it came to the issue of the dvaita (duality) nature of God which both Hindus and Christians believed in (Bellenoit, 2007 p373-374) The mastering of English language enabled students to forage into Western literature and philosophy. This allowed for Indians to seek and re read their own sacred texts as well as ancient writings which showed the richness of Indian culture and lost traditions of reason and logic which had predated the Italian Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Western notions of rationalization and education in effect helped shape the Indian enterprise for learning and by extension helped them revive or discover what would eventually shape Indian modernity and the process of Independence. However these mission schools were reserved to a few privileged. Moreover, the issues of caste and class still persisted. The interesting outcome of the missionary schools is that they were marked by interdependency and contestation between Europeans and Indians and that this was also a side of colonial rule and that Indians did not allow themselves to be culturally subordinated (Bellenoit, 2007 p393) In this light, it can be said that Christian activity did bring some forms of modernity in India, mostly in the form of Western style schools and education. Indians, mainly the privileged classes saw the benefit of this system. India’s vast middle class would be formed by this Christian education. However, the outcome of mission schools also meant the revival of Hinduism pupils now armed with English language could compare the West and their own culture. A cultural modernity seems to have taken place with the activities of Missionary schools.


It has been pointed out that missionary schools were set up to bridge the gap between Hinduism and Christianity. The presence of Christianity in India was subject to coexistence and conflict. This conflict/ coexistence relationship thus allows for individuals to stay within their religious boundaries or to try synthesising both. The presence of Colonial rule in nineteenth century India forced Hindus to reanalyse the fundamental structure of Hinduism. The threat of missionary schools and the en mass conversion of low caste groups became a turning point for the future of Hinduism which had until then been free from any pressures except for Islam through the Mughal empire. Christianity in India was present through the Church and it was a force to be reckoned with, for it had a clear structure and hierarchy unlike the multifaceted one of Hinduism This then encouraged Indians to congregate and to create a semblance of unity for political aspirations and discourses (Beckerlegge 2004 p145). The creation of the Brahmo Samaj by Ranmohun Roy and the Dharma Sabha and Swami Vivekananda Ramakrishna Math and Mission are such examples. Although these groups are western in form, they were effective in regrouping like minded men, although mostly from upper classes to find ways into counter attacking British policies and rules. Moreover it helped into bringing about changes within Hinduism. (Beckerlegge, 2004 p149). Missionary activity thus sparked a Hindu revival that would follow in the European traditions of rationality and intellectual thought. Faced with an ever present Christian force, Hinduism would face change from the inside as what is known as the Hindu Renaissance.

The Hindu Renaissance.

The Hindu Renaissance can be described as a time marked by the ‘reformulation of Hindu thought, practice and organization’. It started roughly in 1820’s and lasted until India gained its independence from Britain( Beckerlegge,2004 p138) The Hindu Renaissance is extremely important as it shaped modernity in India and allowed for charismatic leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Sri Aurobindo to formulate their political discourses thereafter. The Hindu Renaissance promoted a different style of Hinduism ,namely a ‘modern Hinduism ‘ , a ‘neo Hinduism’ characterized by the relationship between religion and nationalism , the majority of its thinkers having been exposed to western thought , Christianity and education (Beckerlegge,2004 p 139)Placing greater importance on the individual similar to the Enlightenment rather than traditional authorities , the worship of idols and belief in old traditions became a burden. Moreover the traditional Hindu concepts such as dharma and yoga were reinterpreted, even gaining International recognition. This new style Hinduism also sought to be at the service of humanity and to its betterment (Beckerlegge, 2004 p 139) As Sarkar points out, the Hindu Renaissance appealed to the middle class for it was created by a middle class which saw the movement as a transitional shift from medieval times to a modern one (Sarkar in Beckerlegge,2004 p 140)

The Hindu Renaissance saw the emergence of figures as Ranmohun Roy, Swami Vivekanda and the prominence of cities like Calcutta acting as intellectual hub. People like Roy and Vivekananda tried to incorporate the elements of Christianity and Hinduism into their discourses and writings believing it would not only educate Hindus but also Christians. ‘The precepts of Jesus’ by Roy are such an example. The Hindu revival aimed into seeking the universality of religions, by finding their common link, a supra power. Roy saw in Christian teachings the universal truth found in all religions but that the greatest form was in Hinduism, namely the Advaita Vedanta. Similar to the traditions and practices that had beset Hinduism, he thought Christianity had been riddled with the Trinitarian theology and supernaturalism (Beckerlegge, 2004 p 151). Similarly Swami Vivekananda’s attempt to an inclusive and dynamic Hinduism made him accept the person of Jesus and his teachings. He believed individuals and religions were aiming for the same destination albeit at different times and places. The truth of religions was found in their convergence rather than their historical differences. Figures like Roy and Vivekananda were referred to as ‘Hindu Christians’ or ‘tacit Christians’. However this is a rather Eurocentric view. Hinduism was then reformulated by social and political context of the 19th century Calcutta and the clash of Indian and colonial rule.

The Hindu Renaissance also posited a fundamental question, the relationship of the colonized versus the colonizer, a debate which made Indians question why they had been colonized in the first place and why Hinduism had been threatened by the advent of Christianity. The colonial project was an inherently Christian enterprise. The works of Roy and Swami Vivekananda aimed at answering this fundamental question by finding a common ground through the universality of religions. (Van der Veer, 2001 p44-8, 66-70,72-4). It is the western quality of these writings appealed to Western and Indian audiences alike. But these western type discourses were motivated by a ‘Hindu spirituality’ not to be found in Christianity (Van der Veer, 2001 p44-8 ,66-70,72-4). However the Hindu Renaissance was not a fundamental break from its past. The issues of castes, namely the Untouchables was not abolished. This Bengali renaissance culture only spread in urban areas and amongst the upper middle class bhadraloks. Some of Hinduisms rigid lines when it came to castes and hierarchy were still very traditional and still pervade (Sarkar, 1990 p 95-105).Moreover it took a longer period from the Hindu Renaissance to the actual independence of India , meaning the Hindu Renaissance was not as planned but rather occurred on an ad hoc basis. The Hindu Renaissance did not transform Indian society in a modern one.

Christian Missionary activity in India had a modernising tendency to the extent that it brought a western style education through mission schools and the Church. Missionary activity acted as a binding factor for India as it made Indians think of themselves as Indians for the first time. As seen above, modernity entails a notion of statehood as well as industrial and economic growth. The weak links of Hinduism were introspected as well as the clear lack of hierarchy and structure that Britain possessed. A major question was to ask why India had been allowed to be colonized in the first place and how different was it from the West’s state structure. This in turn brought about the Hindu Renaissance with clear western features but imbued with a ‘Hindu spirituality’ and essence. Morever it allowed Hinduism to possess a more rational and intellectualized discourse through men like Ranmohun Roy and Swami Vivekananda. They wished to syncretise Hinduism and Christianity to prove the universality of religions and thus demonstrate that colonialism was a discriminate and unfair venture on the West’s behalf. Missionary schools as highlighted above allowed Indians agency and contestation as education gave a platform to voice out opinions about Christianity and the colonial rule. Hinduism was thus further reinforced by western educated voices rather than traditional and illiterate ones. Although not advanced infrastructurally by comparison to its western counterparts, India had entered a new era of political and cultural effervescence under the pressure of Christian missionaries and colonial rule. Those activities helped modernity trough key figures as Gandhi and Nehru who would eventually help India gain independence. It can be concluded that Christian mission activity helped India culturally modernize itself and think as a nation although marked by major regional differences.

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