Missionaries and related matters

I’ve met missionaries in India many times, and know or have known some quite well. They seem to fall into two categories.

There are those who live and work for years in remote villages, running little hospitals and helping people around them, mostly only mentioning their Christian convictions when asked why on Earth they spend their lives serving others, and certainly not pressurizing anyone into becoming Christians. Their obvious sincerity and dedication cannot fail to impress, and a few people are so impressed that they are converted to Christianity. Converts like that stay converted, generally. These missionaries don’t make huge numbers of converts, but those they do convert are real converts. (My father-in-law (RIP) was one such convert, and eventually became a minister in the Church of North India.)

I don’t share all their beliefs, but I can’t help admiring them.

Then there are those who visit India for a few days, weeks or even occasionally months, hold massive rallies and preach to thousands. They often offer little gifties – maybe a sari or a dhoti or a towel – to attendees. They invite people to come forward and declare their conversion, or receive the Holy Spirit, or whatever, and a few prepared supporters come forward to encourage others. They “convert” hundreds to Christianity at their rallies, and then go back to their comfortable guest houses in Delhi or Mumbai – where they boast to each other about how many converts they’ve made. I’ve heard them. It’s excruciating.

The pain is somewhat eased by the thought of all the recipients of the little gifties saying “thank you very much”, and then going home and doing puja. I’ve met quite a few of them, too, and had a good laugh with them.

And then the pain comes back when you think of the impecunious congregation in some some small American town, scrimping and saving to fund the missionary’s trip. Little realizing that what their precious missionary is really doing is having a nice little holiday in India at their expense.

Which is all complicated by the fact that a tiny minority of Hindus have the idea that they should “reconvert” Indian Christians to Hinduism. They typically also hold huge rallies, offer gifties to attendees, and boast to each other about the numbers reconverted. And again, the recipients of the little gifties typically say, “thank you very much”, and then go back to their church to pray for forgiveness.

The majority of the people they’re trying to convince themselves they’re reconverting are either Adivasi* or Dalit.

The Adivasis mostly weren’t Hindu before they were Christian anyway – except in the sense that Hinduism is quite happy to include any other religion, or even agnosticism and atheism, under its umbrella. They’d be quite happy to add Christ to their pantheon – many of them do. The problem they have with Christianity, and Islam for that matter, is that Christians and Muslims reject all the other Hindu gods.

The Adivasis never minded in the slightest if any god or gods they might or might not have believed in got included in someone else’s pantheon, even if only as some sort of second rank deities. They just went on their own sweet way regardless. Whether they even had gods is moot in many cases. Christians and Hindus came along and insisted on seeing everybody’s cultures in terms of religion, but what the truth is, who knows?

I’ve heard some Hindus claim the Adivasis were Hindu before the Christian missionaries came; and I’ve heard Christians – calling themselves “anthropologists” – say “No, no, they were animists.” I’ve talked at length with Adivasis myself, and what they mostly say is, “Oh, we’ll tell the nutcases anything to keep them happy,” and then we share a good belly laugh.

That’s not our Adivasi relatives. They are all Christian, although many of them are culturally Christian but agnostic or atheist in actual belief. But in the village where my wife comes from only about two thirds of the people are Christian, and in a neighbouring village only about one third of them are. It’s no problem to talk about these things with most people in either village. Almost everybody’s perfectly friendly. Very often even the Christians have a similar view of things – the Adivasi Christians, that is, and Christians of Dalit origins. Upper caste Christians – which seems to me to be a bit of a contradiction in terms, but its reality on the ground is undeniable – often seem to have a very different view, much more like that of the European, American or Australian anthropologists.

It’s scarcely surprising that Adivasis and Dalits feel little attachment to Hinduism, a religion that puts them at the bottom of the pile! That’s not to say they don’t enjoy the Hindu festivals – but then the less uptight Christians enjoy the Hindu festivals too, and the less uptight Hindus enjoy Christmas as well. They’d all happily celebrate Chinese New Year with the Chinese, given half a chance. Any excuse for a good time – it doesn’t mean you have to believe in anything at all.

Of course the more uptight Christians frown on their fellow Christians enjoying Holi or Diwali or Dussehra or whatever; and the more uptight Hindus, who are a tiny minority, frown on their fellow Hindus enjoying Christmas, or even worse, St Valentine’s day. Both groups are fighting a losing battle, and thank the deity of your choice for that.

I’ll happily join with anyone frowning on folks celebrating Mammon on any of these occasions. Am I being inconsistent?

(This is my own experience. It appears, with minor differences, as Penny’s in The Reminiscences of Penny Lane, my first published novel.)

* Adivasi – the indigenous tribal people of India. Literally, aboriginal – and proud to be so. Mostly living in remote rural areas, but increasingly also present in the cities, mostly but not all in poverty. Outside the caste system altogether, but often very badly treated by rich or high caste Hindus.