“Inter-r eligious

R eflection on Con Reality”

Co nf erence on

ver sion – As sessing the

Organised by

The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Vatican

The Office on Inter-Religious Relations and Dialogue, World Council of Churches, Geneva
Velletri (near Rome), Italy : 12-16 May, 2006 *****

A Hi nd u P er spec tiv e b y S udhee ndra Kulk ar ni
(Political activist and aide to former Prime Minister of India, Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee)

***** What humankind offers to God Almighty is a bouquet, not a bunch of flowers of the same colour; and God accepts prayers from every pure heart, irrespective of creed.

May all of us get “converted” to the true, uniting, ennobling religious spirit It’s truly an honour to be invited by the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, Vatican, and the Office on Inter-Religious Relations and Dialogue, World Council of Churches, Geneva, for an inter-faith meeting. I take it mainly as an opportunity to learn from other participants, and will feel gratified if I am able to contribute my little bit to the fruitfulness of the deliberations. I have indelible memories of my first visit to the Vatican in 2000, as a member of the delegation of former Prime Minister of India, Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was on an official visit to Italy. Thanks to the kind courtesy of my friend Father Felix Machado, who took me on a guided tour of the Vatican, I was able to experience the spiritual grandeur of the greatest House of Christ in the world. What I felt there were the unique vibrations of a confluence of beauty, divinity and the unbroken tradition of temporal organization, through the agency of the Pope, of a great religion. I am a Hindu by faith and culture. My faith teaches me to respect every other faith in the world in the same way, and to the same extent, as I respect my own faith. Going beyond, it also teaches me to pray to God from every house of worship that I happen to visit. Hence, when I found 1

myself in the sublimely beautiful Church of St. Peter, I offered my heartfelt prayers. And I experienced the same peace and tranquility within myself as when I used to feel when visiting the Don Bosco church in the vicinity of my home in Bombay every week, with my little daughter Tapas holding my hand. In my personal explorations on the need and usefulness of inter-religious dialogue, I owe a debt of gratitude to Father Felix Machado for another reason. Years ago, a friend of mine presented to me a book authored by Father Machado. It was titled ‘Jnaneshwari – Path to Liberation’. Jnaneshwari is a highly revered rendering of the Bhagwad Gita from original Sanskrit into Marathi by Saint Jnaneshwar, one of the greatest exponents of bhakti marg (path of devotion) in India’s medieval history. The first thing that struck me was that the book was written by a reputed Christian priest. Far more notable was the quality of scholarship and deep love of the subject that informed the book. Commending the book in his illuminating preface, Raimundo Panikker, a celebrated author of over 50 works on spiritualism, writes: “The entire book is carried by an inner vision of the divine which shows that the way to God is not by despising anything of the splendour of the creatures, but only in discovering the true order of things, which require bhakti, karma and jnana – or in Christian language love, faith and hope.” Father Machado hails from Vasai, a distant suburb of Bombay on the Arabian sea and a town that emits the fragrance of peaceful co-living between Hindus and Christians. Last year, I was invited by ‘Suvarta’ (it means ‘Good Tidings’), a reputed church journal in Marathi (the language of the state of Maharashtra, which is spoken by most of the Christians living in Vasai) to participate in an interactive session with a large gathering of devour church-goers. For me it was a highly satisfying interaction, the more so because I went there as the representative of an Indian political party that is associated with the majority Hindu community and is often projected as antithetical to the Muslim and Christian minorities. I think I was able to allay at least some of the misgivings of the audience. The wooden carving of Jesus Christ on the Cross, which was presented to me by Father Debrito at the function, still adorns our drawing room, placed by the side of a statue of the Starving Buddha. ***** ‘T r uth is One; the W ise Inter pr et and E xpr es s It Dif fer entl y’

India is a nation of immense diversities. Religious diversity is one of them. We are proud of the multi-faith character of India. Almost every faith in the world is represented in Indian society, and each has an honoured place. Although our Constitution declared India to be a secular state after it attained independence from British rule in 1947, secularism has been ingrained in the culture, 2

spirituality and, at most times in our history, also in the statecraft of the countless kings and emperors who ruled India. This is because, since time immemorial, India has welcomed people of every faith that found their way to her shores or traveled to her plains overland. And within India, there has been no persecution of any people on the grounds of their faith – or any new faith that they might have accepted voluntarily. Contrary to what was encountered in history of Europe, secularism in India is not understood as separation of the state from the ‘church’, there having been no organised religious establishment that exercised temporal power. Rather, secularism in the Indian context is recognized as sarva panth samaadar (equal respect – respect, and not just tolerance -- towards all faiths) and the state having a non-theocratic and non-discriminatory character (on religious or any other grounds). To a very great extent, this belief in secularism stems from the cultural and spiritual traditions of Hinduism, which holds that the Truth is One, and the Wise Interpret and Express It Differently (Ekam Sat Viprah Bahudha Vadanti). The concept that any one path or faith is superior to others; or that it is the exclusive prerogative of any particular religious community to be granted salvation by the Almighty; or that any single book, however holy, contains the full and final truth about God and His creation is alien to the Indian mind – both modern and ancient. In this context, another salient and distinguishing feature of Hinduism needs to be mentioned. It is not an organised faith that is based on its followers’ allegiance to any single book or to any single spiritual authority. Although the Vedas and the Upanishads are the earliest scriptural sources of enlightenment and inspiration to the Hindus, there have been many subsequent spiritual traditions that have either interpreted these and other sources differently or have even challenged some or the other aspect of the scriptures. Buddhism, Jainism and, in more recent centuries, Sikhism are the various offshoots of the spiritual explorations in the Indic tradition. And there have been numerous branches and sub-branches within what is generally considered Hinduism. These are products of various reform movements or spiritual seeking by evolved souls. But almost all of them, over time, have overlapped with one another, and nourished and influenced each other with their distinctive life-enriching qualities. The cumulative effect of all these internal transformations and social, spiritual and cultural interactions has been to produce a society of immense diversity, but one that exhibits an equally incontrovertible underlying unity. This Unity in Diversity has been the ever-changing but ever-same signature tune of India since her birth in the unknown depths in time. Islam and Christiani ty in I ndia: T wo sides to their intr oduction


India’s interaction with the two principal non-Indic faiths – Christianity and Islam – may have introduced some new variations to this tune, but have not changed the tune itself fundamentally. Today Islam and Christianity are as much an integral part of India’s social fabric as the different Indic faiths. Historically, the introduction of Christianity and Islam to India has followed two trajectories – political and socio-spiritual. Insofar as Islam came with the trader and the saintly sufi, its simplicity and message of equality had an appeal to a section of society that embraced it. But when Islam gained converts on the coercive strength of the sword of the invader or the intolerant ruler, who often did not hesitate to destroy Hindu temples in his iconoclastic zeal, it left a scar. The former kind of Islam enriched India’s society and spirituality. However, the latter kind sowed the seeds of separatism, domination and bigotry, which in course of time led to India’s bloody partition in 1947. In an entirely different way, Christianity’s introduction to India also present two contradictory features. Where it has reached the Indian mind and heart with its piety and nobility, and with its limitless love of humanity, it has made India’s spiritual soil more fecund and its social fabric more suffused with the ideal of service of God and Man. Some of the greatest sons and daughters of India have showered their high appreciation for Christianity, even though they continue to remain true to their own faith. The most celebrated example is that of Mahatma Gandhi who said: “And because the life of Jesus has the significance and transcendence to which I have alluded, I believe that He belongs not solely to Christianity, but to the entire world; to all races and people, it matters little under what flag, name, or doctrine they may work, profess a faith, or worship a God inherited from their ancestors.” Another example, this one derived from Millie Graham Polak's book Gandhi, The Man. Henry Polak and his wife Millie Graham Polak were quite to close to Gandhiji during his years in South Africa. Mr. Polak, then a young lawyer and editor of a journal, "Critic," presented John Ruskin's book "Unto the Last" to Gandhi which greatly influenced him. Ruskin's "Lead Kindly Light" was his favorite prayer. "Is Mr. Gandhi a Christian?", a visitor once asked Millie. Ms. Millie asked for further clarification -- whether she meant one converted to Christianity or one who believed in the teachings of Christ. The visitor emphatically told she meant former. She was talking about him with some friends and they were wondering that Gandhi knew Christian scriptures so well, and fond of quoting words of Christ frequently and hence her friends thought he must be a Christian. Ms. Millie brooded over. What the visitor said was true. Mr. Gandhi frequently quoted the sayings and teachings of Jesus. The lesson of the "Sermon on the Mount" seemed to work constantly in his mind, and was a source of guidance and inspiration to him. There was a beautiful picture of Jesus Christ that


adorned the wall over his desk. (There was no picture of the Buddha or of Krishna in the office, but in the center of his office room was the face of Christ.) When asked why he did not embrace Christianity, Gandhi has said that he had studied the scriptures and was tremendously attracted. But eventually he came to the conclusion that there was nothing really special in the scriptures which he had not got in his own, and "to be a good Hindu also meant that I would be a good Christian. There was no need for me to join your creed to be a believer in the beauty of the teachings of Jesus or try to follow His example," he said. Ramakrishna Paramahansa, a great Indian saint of the modern period, believed in the essential unity of all religions. He not only preached this ideal, but actually practiced it by ‘becoming’ a Christian and experiencing how it feels to be a follower of Christ, ‘becoming’ a Muslim and experiencing how it feels to be a follower of Prophet Mohammed, etc. Bhagwan Das, a great inter-religious scholar, disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, recipient of the highest civilian award ‘Bharat Ratna’ and author of the highly acclaimed book Essential Unity of All Religions, writes in its introduction: “While compiling this book and revising it again and again, the compiler has prayed constantly to the Great masters of all the living religions – Manu, Krishna, Vyas, Zoroaster, Moses, Isaiah, Laotse, Confucius, Buddha, Jina, Christ, Muhammad, Nanak, and the Spiritual Hierarchy to which they all belong, for the guidance of his fingers in this effort to serve his fellow men and women of all countries.” It is believed that the earliest Christian community in India took birth after St. Thomas, one of the twelve closest disciples of Jesus, came to India – on the western coast of Kerala -- in the first century. The community there has evolved since then in a natural, unobstructed manner, retaining its distinctive identity but also contributing in a proud way to the common wellbeing of the larger society of which it has been a part. In other parts of India, too, many individuals have embraced Christianity out of their free choice. Among the notable personalities is Pandita Ramabai (who was the first Indian woman to study modern medicine by going abroad). British imperialism and the spr ead of Chris tianity in I ndia

But the growth of Christianity in India has also followed a different trajectory, determined, firstly, by the British colonial rule and, later, by the aggressive evangelical work of some missionary organizations. This has sometimes created tension between Christians and non-Christians, and given rise to misgivings about Christians in general and missionaries in particular. In his seminal book Missionaries in India – Continuities, Changes, Dilemmas, Arun Shourie, a prominent intellectual, member of Parliament and a former


minister in the BJP-led government, has extensively dealt with both aspects of the trajectory. Significantly, the book was a product of Shourie’s interaction with distinguished representatives of the Christian community when he was invited to share his views at a conference organised by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India in 1994 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the CBCI. With voluminous documentary evidence, Shourie shows that conversion of the “heathens” to Christianity, and thus “saving their souls”, was an important objective of the British rule in India, especially in its early period. And those who were engaged in this activity from this standpoint were unanimous on the following points: India is a den of ignorance, inequity and falsehood; The principal cause of this state of affairs is Hinduism, which is a false religion; Charles Trevelyan, a high-ranking British officer, wrote: “Hinduism is not a religion that will bear examination. It is so entirely destitute of anything like evidence, and it is identified with so many gross immoralities and physical absurdities, that it has give way at once before the light of European science.” He also wrote: “Of all the religions which mankind have invented for themselves, Hinduism has gone furthest in deifying human vice and holding out its impersonations as objects of imitation and worship.” Even Max Muller, a great scholar of Sanskrit, had a very low opinion about Hinduism and believed in the mission of Christianizing India. He described the rites and customs of Hinduism as “revolting” and said that Hinduism “belongs to a stratum of thought which is long buried beneath our feet. It may live on like the lion and the tiger, but the mere air of free thought and civilized life will extinguish it.” Hinduism is kept going by the Brahmins; As the people are in such suffering, and also because Jesus in his parting words has bound us to do so, it is our duty to deliver them to Christianity; For this it is Hinduism which has to be vanquished; For this, it is “the walls of the mighty fortress of Brahminism” which are to be “encircled, undermined and finally stormed by the soldiers of the Cross”, so that “the victory of Christianity must be signal and complete”; For this, the missionaries have to focus particularly on the outcastes and tribals, since these are the ones who are most oppressed and therefore most in need of the saving-touch of Christ; The foremost target group – the tribals – were declared to be not Hindus, but “Animists”. To do so the most effective weapon of course will be the enlargement, consolidation and indefinite prolongation of British rule. (“Every young 6

Brahmin…who learns geography in our colleges, learns to smile at the Hindu mythology,” wrote Lord T.B. Macaulay, a famous British historian. Role of pa triotic building Chris tians in India’ s liber ation and na tion-

Of course, this was not the only side of the reality, as far as the relationship between the British rule and Indian Christians was concerned. Many eminent Christians joined the Freedom Struggle, fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with their non-Christian brethren. Some foreigners like C.F. Andrews, upon coming in contact with Mahatma Gandhi, became participants in India’s Freedom Movement. Gandhiji gave him the title ‘Din Bandhu’ (‘Brother of the Poor’), and said of him: “He preaches through his life as very few do, and he preaches the purest love.” Another close collaborator of Gandhiji was Joseph Chelladurai Kumarappa. Many such examples can be given of Christians’ participation in the Indian people’s common struggle for national liberation. It is also undeniable that the humanitarian work of many church-based organizations in the fields of education and healthcare has been a model for other communities to follow. The devotion and spirit of selfless service that many Christian missionaries bring to bear upon their work, often conducted in the most difficult of geographical areas, is truly commendable. W ha t Maha tma Gandhi said a bout pr osletiza tion

Nevertheless, the proselytization activities of the missionaries remained a sticking point in India – both before independence and after. Even Mahatma Gandhi, who cannot be accused of having any ill-will towards Christianity, was constrained to say the following: “I disbelieve in the conversion of one person by another. My effort should never to be to undermine another's faith. This implies belief in the truth of all religions and, therefore, respect for them. It implies true humility.” (Young India: Apr. 23, 1931) “It is impossible for me to reconcile myself to the idea of conversion after the style that goes on in India and elsewhere today. It is an error which is perhaps the greatest impediment to the world's progress toward peace. Why should a Christian want to convert a Hindu to Christianity? Why should he not be satisfied if the Hindu is a good or godly man?” (Harijan: January 30, 1937) “I hold that proselytisation under the cloak of humanitarian work is unhealthy to say the least. It is most resented by people here. Religion after all is a deeply personal thing. It touches the heart… Why should I change my religion because the doctor who professes Christianity as his religion has cured me of some disease, or why


should the doctor expect me to change whilst I am under his influence?” (Young India: April 23, 1931) “As I wander about through the length and breadth of India I see many Christian Indians almost ashamed of their birth, certainly of their ancestral religion, and of their ancestral dress. The aping of Europeans by Anglo-Indians is bad enough, but the aping of them by Indian converts is a violence done to their country and, shall I say, even to their new religion.” (Young India: August 8, 1925) “My fear is that though Christian friends nowadays do not say or admit it that Hindu religion is untrue, they must harbour in their breast that Hinduism is an error and that Christianity, as they believe it, is the only true religion. So far as one can understand the present (Christian) effort, it is to uproot Hinduism from her very foundation and replace it by another faith.” (Harijan: March 13,1937) “If I had the power and could legislate, I should stop all proselytizing. In Hindu households the advent of a missionary has meant the disruption of the family coming in the wake of change of dress, manners, language, food and drink.” (Harijan: November 5, 1935) Vatican II and it s implica tion f or e vangeliza tion in India In the post-independence period, there has been much welcome change but also significant continuity in the proselytization work by Christian missionaries in India. The most important change has come about due to the reformulation of the Catholic Church’s relation to other religions in the world, after the historic Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, or Vatican II, opened under Pope John XXIII in 1962 and closed under Pope Paul VI in 1965. For the first time, it was acknowledged that redemption may be attained through other religions too. Whereas earlier the “others” used to be considered “heathens” living in torment, Vatican II recognised non-Christians as those “in whom the Spirit has also worked wonders.” In the aftermath of Vatican II, the Church in India has started to lay far greater emphasis on four elements -- “contextualisation”, “localisation”, “inculturation” and “dialogue with other religions”. The earlier exclusivity of Christianity has been de-emphasised. Christian rituals have been considerably de-Latinised. Bhajan and aarti, both quintessential rites associated with the Hindu way of worship, have become common in many places. CBCI has acknolweged way back in 1994 that “the building of a truly local Church has become an urgent and primary task in our mission agenda. The radical questioning of the foreignness of our identity should not be left to those who oppose Christianity. It must begin with the missionary Church itself.” In my view, these changes inspired by Vatican II are highly welcome. Nevertheless, some basic questions still remain. These are: 8

Freedom of faith is of course inviolable. It is the basic human right of everybody in every country and in every age. And freedom of propagation is integral to freedom of faith. And so is the right to embrace another faith voluntarily. But is there any justification for a campaign for conversion, especially though coercion or inducement, or in the guise of humanitarian service? Is it defensible to use foreign funds for the purpose of overt or covert proselytization? Why do proselytizers in India target mostly poor tribals, dalits and other oppressed sections of the Hindu society? Experience has shown that religious conversion of these people does not in any significant way change their life-condition. On the contrary, it creates misgivings among others about Christianity and missionaries. (In this context, let me hasten to add that I do not in the least deny or condone certain unfortunate and extremist Hindu reaction to the work of missionaries. At the same time, nobody can ignore that aggressive evangelism can evoke a negative reaction in any society.) Why are prosletizing missionaries not active among the poor and socially backward sections of the Muslim community in India? Can we ignore the recent incident in Afghanistan when intense pressure from western countries was brought to bear on President Hamid Karzai to save the life of a Muslim Afghan national, Abdul Rehman who, when he converted to Christianity, was sentenced to death by Muslim clerics? After Vatican II, is there really any need or propriety for evangelization as a part of the Church activities? Isn’t it better, in acknowledgement of the basic validity of all religions, for each religion to focus on its own selfimprovement and leave acceptance of another faith purely to the voluntary and well-considered judgment of the individual concerned? Why do certain missionaries continue to indulge in denigration and vilification of other religions in their effort to preach the Gospel to nonChristians? Why do they continue to preach that salvation is possible only through conversion to Christianity? If “incultration” is considered to be philosophically defensible and socially useful, where will the Church in India draw a line? Incultu ration: W ha t it means in the Indian conte xt

I am reminded here of an insightful remark by Archbishop S. Arulappa, a widely respected Hyderabad-based religious personality who passed away in February 9

last year. He said, "By birth I am an Indian, by culture a Hindu and by faith, I am a Christian." This remark echoes the thought expressed by Brahmabandhab Upadhyay, a friend and contemporary of the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, who embraced Christianity. About him Tagore wrote: He is “a Roman Catholic ascetic yet a Vedantin – spirited, fearless, self-denying, learned and uncommonly influential.” He helped Tagore found the Santiniketan, the world-famous university. In their excellent book Christianity in India, Leonard Fernando and G. Gispert-Sauch record that Upadhyay described himself as a “Hindu by birth and a Christian by re-birth – that is, a Hindu by culture and a Christian by faith. He kept his allegiance to the samaj dharma (cultural way) even as he took Jesus Christ for his sadhana dharma (way of growth).” As is only to be expected, there is “reverse inculturation” too in India. It is common for many Hindus to visit churches and shrines such as those of Our Lady of Health in Vailankanni in the southern state of Tamil Nadu and Our Lady of Carmel in Mount Mary’s in Bandra, Mumbai. Celebration of Christmas as a cultural festival is very common among urban Hindus. Many Hindu religious gurus show the Cross among the multiple religious symbols in their symbolic communication about the essential unity of all religions. All this is done naturally and genuinely, not with a view to proselytize. This Indian kind of open-mindedness to spiritual syncretism may just be what “the doctor ordered” for a world that is becoming increasingly small and interdependent, in which people of all creeds have begun to travel in increasing numbers from one country and culture to another country and culture, and where people are getting exposed to multiple cultural and spiritual influences all the time thanks to the information and communication revolution. May all of us religious spiri t get “con ver ted” to the uniting, ennobling

I conclude this write-up by affirming my belief that God has created diversity – and not uniformity – as the essential principle of the architecture of this Universe. And this is as true about the physical or material side of Nature, as about the social and spiritual side of Man’s life. Of course, there is also Godcreated unity that underpins the religious diversity visible on the surface. Therefore, what humankind offers to God Almighty is a bouquet, and not a bunch of flowers of the same colour. God accepts prayers from every pure heart, irrespective of creed. What is needed is honest and sustained dialogue between the adherents of diverse faiths living on this beautiful planet of ours, so that we can rid it of the curse of hatred and violence in the sacred name of religion. True religious spirit


unites humanity, and not divide it. It promotes universal peace, brotherhood, goodwill and mutual trust and understanding. May all of us get “converted” to that true, uniting and ennobling religious spirit.


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