‘Holy Cow!’—Missions, Masala and Middle England An Indian is a man of few words.

That is an oxymoron—a contradiction in terms. If there is one gift most Indian possess—it is the gift of tongues—more specifically, the gift of the gab. We, Indians, are able to talk at some length, as Amartya Sen points out in his aptly named book The Argumentative Indian. Not surprisingly, it is an Indian who holds the record for the longest speech ever delivered at the United Nations. On January 23, 1957, V. K. Krishna Menon spoke for nine hours non-stop at the UN Security Council meeting. Brits get drunk on cheap booze. Indians are intoxicated by the exuberance of their own verbosity. It is with some difficulty that I am restraining myself this evening and attempting to talk about India in 20 minutes. A reticent Indian is indeed an oxymoron. Missionary Hinduism is an oxymoron—a contradiction in terms. To become a Christian you get baptized; to become a Muslim you recite the creed. But to become a Hindu you have to be born a Hindu. And because Hinduism is a virtual parliament of religions, you can be a polytheist, a monotheist, a monist, a pantheist, a panentheist, even an atheist and be a good Hindu—but you cannot be outside the caste system and be a Hindu. And you cannot convert to a particular caste. You have to be born into that particular caste. Even if you are an nth generation Christian or Muslim, you have to have a caste identity when you revert to Hinduism. Even the Indian Supreme Court judgments clearly state that once a person converts to Hinduism, the caste reappears (Kailash Shankar case, 1984, and Mohan Rao case, 1971). So how do militant Hindu outfits re-convert Indian Christians to Hinduism? What is their theological basis for doing so? Simple. All those born in India are already Hindu since the last 5,000 years. The conversion ceremony involves a rite of purification (shuddi). There is no mechanism for converting to Hinduism, because Hindus never converted anybody. Missionary Hinduism is an oxymoron—a contradiction in terms. Growing up in India—the land of snakes and software, I did meet Westerners who had ‘converted’ to Hinduism, with a little help from smoking hashish. I did have stray encounters with Anglo-Saxons in saffron robes dancing like dervishes in Hare Krishna temples and drumming their way to nirvana. I was aware that George Harrison had composed ‘My Sweet Lord’ not in honour of Christ but as a hymn to Krishna. I had visited the Rajneesh Ashram in Pune with its gaggle of wealthy Americans and Europeans who had generously contributed to the guru’s collection of 95 Rolls Royce cars and a ranch in Oregon. I had read about the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s attempts to promote Transcendental Meditation and Yoga as a global brand for health, wealth and world peace. But these, I rather cursorily dismissed as aberrations, as the last remnants of the hippie movement, and as yet another attempt by Indian charlatans to con gullible Westerners out of their money—stained with guilt and goodwill. After all, I said to myself, missionary Hinduism is an oxymoron—a contradiction in terms. Oddly enough, it was missionary Hinduism that hit me in the face when I first came to England nine years ago. I was asked to preach at Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge on International Missions Sunday. This was the church of the great missionary Henry


Martyn—the apostle to Indian and Persia. Earlier that week, I had spent a serendipitous hour, observing three Indian missionaries unobtrusively preaching their gospel outside the doors of Holy Trinity Church in the city centre. One in five people were responding enthusiastically to their overtures. Around the corner, an Englishman, shouting out his lungs, (of the Brethren variety, I suspect), was also preaching the gospel. The response was remarkably different. An occasional look of curiosity, sporadic words of scorn, only a rare gesture of genuine interest on the par of the passers-by. The difference? The Indians were preaching the gospel of Krishna, whereas the Englishman was preaching the gospel of Christ. The proverbial penny dropped. The scales fell from my eyes. Jesus words: “The fields are white for harvest,” now assumed a new meaning. It was the white, western world that was the new mission field and the harvesters would be brown, black and yellow people from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Surely, it was time to turn the missionary tables? To reverse the trend of one-way missionary traffic? To herald the end of monochromatic mission in a multicoloured world? To add to the world of oxymoron— I decided to be one—an Indian missionary to Britain. For me ‘holy cow’ was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and I did not wish to see more and more Brits turn from the food and faith of their fathers to worshipping an animal they had been feasting on for centuries. Over the years I encountered many Britons who had ‘converted’ to Hinduism; I was able to enter into stimulating evangelistic conversations with them. What I discovered was that missionary Hinduism was making serious inroads and presenting a safe and sanitised version of the religion to the naïve natives of this green and pleasant land. It was mission with a bit of masala that would bring Middle England to the truth of the sanata dharma— the universal religion—Hinduism. For Hinduism to be missionary it has to be universal— not national or tribal or parochial. How did it perform this feat of theological and missiological gymnastics? “It is no new thing that India should send forth missionaries,” Swami Vivekananda told a journalist in 1896. After all Buddhist missionaries had taken the gospel of Buddhism all over Asia and the Far East. But Vivekananda knew that classical Hinduism was not and could not be missionary. In fact, the Hindu Dharma Shastras, or law books, ban taking a voyage by sea or visiting the lands beyond India. Nevertheless, at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 Swami Vivekananda audaciously set out his manifesto for classical Hinduism (Advaita Vedanta) as a global religion that would unite the world and solve the problems of humankind. Four years later he made international missionary activity as one of the aims of the Ramakrishna Mission. The work of the Foreign Department of the Mission “should be to send trained members of the Order to countries outside India.” “He said he wished to flood the country of the Yankees with idolatrous missionaries and he had grandiose ideas of how America and Europe could be converted to Vedanta in a matter of decades,” as Torkel Brekke succinctly puts it in his scholarly article on missionary Hinduism. In the same article, Brekke attempts to resolve how Hinduism evolved into a missionary religion. He identifies three stages in this development. First, Hinduism was detached from everyday life and culture and objectified as a separate aspect of social and


individual life in India. For the Hindu, there is no difference between faith and life— between sacred and secular. Now, faith was set apart and objectified as ‘religion’. Second, religion was individualized. In a sense, for the Hindu, there is no private religion. Hinduism is part and parcel of caste, rituals, festivals, pilgrimages, and communal life. Now religion was abstracted from its context and the individual was made the privileged locus of religion. Thirdly, religion was universalized. For the Hindu, his religion has been inextricably linked with his identity as someone born a Hindu, in the land of Hindustan. Now, precisely because religion was individualized, it was no longer the prerogative of the people but of the person, and so “could be applied to anyone, anywhere, at any time.” To achieve this required an exegetical and linguistic sleight of hand. Traditionally, Hinduism was not understood as a ‘religion’ but as ‘dharma’. It was not one religion among many. ‘Dharma’ in traditional Hinduism refers simply to ‘duty, privileges and obligations’ incumbent upon the Hindu because he is born a Hindu. But, now, as a result of interaction with the colonial powers in general and with Christian mission in particular, leading Hindu exponent began to re-define ‘dharma’ and stretched it to include the meaning of ‘religion’ as it was understood in the West. This brings me to the heart of the matter regarding missionary Hinduism and its forays into Middle England. Hinduism is intrinsically flexible, m alleable and adaptable to any context. It is the quintessentially contextual user-friendly religion. It can be sanitised to suit the British context and to include indigenous British principles of fair play and egalitarianism that go against the fundamentals of Hinduism as seen in its profoundly hierarchical basis of the caste system. It abounds in oxymoron and can use this to its own advantage in the mission field of Middle England. For all its pluralistic pretensions it is still patronising and regards itself as superior. It welcomes all and sundry provided the all and sundry is prepared to lose its distinctiveness and be subsumed under its grand umbrella of ‘oneness’. It can also become peculiarly parasitical and can build its superstructure on the substructure of another religion. A number of Britons who convert to Hinduism do so using the ethical substructure of Christianity and topping it up with the philosophical superstructure of monistic or dualistic or pietistic Hinduism. Who says you cannot pick and choose in this postmodern world of cool Britannia? There is no religion better tailored to suit the postmodern world than Hinduism. I was once asked by Hindu missionaries what I was doing in Britain. When I replied that I was here as a Christian missionary, they smirked and told me to return to India. Paganism was rife in Britain, they said, and the pickings were ripe for them, as paganism and Hinduism were first cousins. I have already broadly hinted at why I think British soil is fertile for the seeds of missionary Hinduism to take root and sprout. Let me mention four other factors that possibly heighten the appeal of Hinduism to Middle England. First, classical Hinduism is rigorously intellectual and philosophical. While browsing through ‘missionary Hindu’ websites, I came across this question from a amateur Hindu evangelist. She asks, “I was curious about why people are turning to eastern religions. Why do Britons convert to ‘Hare Krishna’ or Hinduism? Why does one not prefer say ‘Christianity’ above those? Any testimonies?” This was the answer: “Christianity does


not attract the intellectual because by definition it is designed for the simplest of people. Ancient sheepherders and fishermen...Eastern religions are more philosophy based, and appeal to a more educated, worldly mind.” Rabbi Lionel Blue admits he has been “strongly attracted to Vedanta because of its clarity and precision. Mentally it is the most satisfying philosophy,” he writes, “but I cannot use it because I need a personal God for devotion, garnished with angels if possible.” Secondly, Hinduism offers plenty of legroom for scepticism. Britons are genetically sceptic. “In scepticism did my mother conceive me,” King David would have said, if only he were English. The American brand of evangelicalism does not sell like hot cakes in Britain. Hinduism welcomes scepticism and doubt. “A basic doubt concerns the very creation of the world: did someone make it, was it a spontaneous emergence, and is there a God who knows what really happened? ... the Rigveda goes on to express radical doubts on these issues: ‘Who really knows? Who will proclaim it? Whence is this creation? … perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not—the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows—or perhaps he does not know’” (Sen, xi). Scepticism runs parallel to belief in India’s long argumentative history. Thirdly, paradoxically Hinduism caters to the human thirst for the mystical. Despite the rich tradition of Christian mysticism in the church, most churches today ignore the mystical dimension of Christianity. Finally, Hinduism delights in the eccentric. This is something that appeals to both Indians and Britons. Both cultures lean to the right side of eccentricity. On a scale of one to ten we range between the slightly batty and the complete bonkers. I am a member of a rifle club where a few of us meet twice a week for a spot of cheerful banter and then proceed to reverently lie prostrate on a mat and punch .22 bullets through a card. There are at least seven monthly magazines of how to effectively do this and how to enjoy doing this on the shelves of W.H. Smith. On Sundays I don a chasuble and swing a censer hoping that the Almighty will get high on the incense and hasten to answer my prayers. Paul Merton’s Channel 4 documentary on India had eccentric Indians breaking records by getting themselves kicked in the groin. Hindus and high-church Anglicans do have a lot in common in terms of smells and bells—spiritual electricity flowing from superstitious eccentricity. So how do we respond to this missionary challenge? First, awareness. Be aware of three things: (a) Hinduism is or has morphed into a missionary religion; (b) the culture and climate of Middle England is fertile soil for the seeds of Hinduism to take root and sprout; (c) there is a fair amount of ‘masala’ used by Hindu missionaries to garnish Hinduism and sanitise it and made it more palatable to the spiritual palate of Middle England. Hinduism also wins converts through its snacks and side dishes which include yoga, reiki, astrology, etc. Second, apologetics. Theological colleges need to train ministers in creatively interacting with and responding to Hindu theologies and mission strategies. There are rich resources in 19th century writings of Western missionaries who attempted to preach the gospel to Hindus and Indian converts, particularly from Brahmanical backgrounds who responded to Christ and then began to reach their own


people, as well as the writings of Hindu reformers who used the Bible and Christian theology to reform their own religion of Hinduism.