Christian-Hindu relations

Christian-Hindu relations
   Christianity has existed in India for almost two millennia. The Malakara Orthodox Church, head-quartered in Kerala, has provided a Christian presence within the larger world of Hindu life. This Orthodox community has generally lived a peaceful existence over the centuries, but one largely cut off from the mainstream of the Chris-tian world. The Roman Catholic nation of Portu-gal claimed portions of India in 1498, and, once a Catholic bishop was placed at the Portuguese colony of Goa, an aggressive mission program was initiated by the Jesuits. For a short time, the Orthodox realigned with the Catholics but soon saw their interests diverge and returned to an independent status.
   Shantivanam, a Christian ashram, in Tiruchchirapalli, Tamil Nadu, India (Constance A. Jones)
   A new era began in 1706 with the arrival of the first Protestant missionaries, Lutherans who began their missionary efforts from a base in Tranquebar. They were joined by a few other efforts to evange-lize the country, but mission work did not begin in earnest until the early 19th century, when it won the backing of British colonial authorities. The number of conversions was modest, with occa-sional episodes of what were termed mass move-ments, when an entire community or caste would suddenly convert to Christianity. Often, these mass movements would originate among people at the lowest levels of the caste system, especially untouchables (Dalits), who had little to lose by abandoning Hinduism. (See UNTOUCHABILITY.)
   During the missionary era from the 18th cen-tury onward, Protestants adopted various plans for developing a successful thrust into Indian society, including the building of modern colleges and hospitals, intellectual appeals to elites, and enticing of Dalits and various fringe groups away from lives devoid of privilege. The end result was the development of the third largest religious community in India (after Hindus and Muslims), although today the 60 million Christians repre-sent barely 6 percent of the population.
   Throughout the 20th century before Indian independence, Christianity enjoyed a favored relationship with the colonial government and often used that special status to engage in aggres-sive campaigns of proselytizing. Such aggressive actions created a level of hostility among Indian Hindu leaders, who developed an extended list of grievances against the church, not the least the missionaries’ use of their favorable status and relative wealth to woo converts to their reli-gion instead of teaching the merits of their faith. Moreover, Hinduism was not a missionary faith, and it saw itself at a disadvantage in the face of aggressive proselytizing. Finally, Hindu lead-ers complained of the ways that the Christian churches, often in league with colonial authori-ties, were disrupting a traditional and sacred social order.
   As native Indians, such as Vedanayagam Sam-uel Azariah (1874–1945), the first native Anglican bishop, gained positions of authority in Indian Christianity, they began to address some of these issues. In particular, these native Indians criticized Western missionaries for failing to distinguish between the faith they expounded and the West-ern culture from which they emerged. Because of ignorance or thoughtlessness, they complained, missionaries frequently tried to impose Western culture, provoking more opposition than they would have if they had focused exclusively on the religious message of Christianity, which was not necessarily offensive to Indians. At the same time, a new generation of more thoughtful Western Christian missionaries, who were also students of comparative religion, arrived in India; they were willing to appropriate features of Hindu piety and spirituality, and to shape a Christianity that incor-porated as many elements of Indian thought and practice as possible.
   By the middle of the 19th century, Christians attempted to initiate dialogue with Hindu believ-ers, especially groups of liberal believers that evolved from the Hindu Renaissance. Among the first results of these early conversations was a decision by the Unitarian Church that the BRAHMO SAMAJ, founded in 1823 by Raja Rammohun ROY (1772–1833), was actually preaching the same basic doctrines as traditional Hinduism, uncor-rupted (by sati [suttee], polygamy, and the wor-ship of idols). The Unitarians, then, withdrew from the field of proselytization and used their missionary allocations to support the Brahmo Samaj in various ways that continue to the pres-ent, including the opening of American Unitarian seminaries to train leaders of the Brahmo Samaj.
   Meanwhile, various Hindu leaders began to develop a range of views on the nature of Jesus Christ. Roy saw him as a moral and religious reformer, Sri RAMAKRISHNA (1836–86) saw him as an enlightened soul leading others to enlighten-ment. Swami VIVEKANANDA (1863–1902) developed Ramakrishna’s advaitic (non-dualist) perspective relations by including the life of Christ in his teaching. Roman Catholic thinkers such as Brahmabandhav Upadhyaya (1861–1907) and currently Raimundo Panikkar (b. 1918) attempted to integrate Hindu concepts into an Indian Christian theology. In 1899, in spite of British attempts to suppress his efforts, Upadhyaya established a Catholic ashram, called Kasthalic Matha. These efforts at syncre-tism have contributed to the development of a Christian theology that includes Hindu religious categories. Such attempts have always had to answer charges from both Western Christians and Hindus that the process of articulating an Indian Christianity distorts both faiths.
   On a more practical level, two Frenchmen, Jules Monchanin (1895–1957) and Henri Le Saux (1910–73), the latter better known as ABHISHIK-TANANDA, tried to combine elements of Western and Eastern monastic practice. In 1950 they founded Saccidananda Ashram in Tamil Nadu, South India. The pair adapted Benedictine monasticism to the Indian ascetic tradition, which resulted in what has been termed Christian SANNYAS (renunciation). Both Protestants and Catholics have found points of connection with Hindu and Christian practice and spirituality, ranging from the monastic experi-ments of Dom Bede Griffiths (1906–93) to the philosophical and scientific contributions of Ravi Ravindra to the ashram movement founded by the Methodist E. Stanley Jones (1884–1973).
   In the post–World War II environment, the value of world faith communities to one another has been an increasing theme in religious writings. The World Council of Churches has emphasized interreligious dialogue, although it has taken second place to building intra-Christian relations. In like measure, in 1964, in the midst of Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church established the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue. One of its major departments is designed to build new levels of understanding and respect of Hin-duism. The council supported Pope John Paul II’s (1920–2005) periodical meetings with Hindu and other religious leaders voicing his concern for interreligious dialogue in which the followers of the various religions can discover shared elements of spirituality, while acknowledging their differ-ences. As the 20th century came to a close, Pope John Paul II offered an apology for the attitudes of mistrust and hostility assumed by Catholics toward followers of other religions, as part of a broad papal acknowledgment of the failings of Christians in pursuit of their missions.
   Most recently, religious leaders in India have led in initiating interreligious dialogue with the founding of such organizations as the World Fel-lowship of Religions (1973) and the World Union (1958). In the DIASPORA, Hindus have been very active in many national interreligious councils and have been especially prominent in the Coun-cil for a Parliament of the World’s Religions based in Chicago, Illinois, which holds international conferences in different parts of the world every five years. Among North American organizations that attempt to encourage and focus on dialogue between Hindus and Christians is the Society for Hindu-Christian Studies, which is currently administered by scholars at Notre Dame, Indiana, and Thiruvanmiyur, Madras (Chennai), India. They also publish the Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies.
   As the new century begins, India has been hit with a wave of anti-Christian activity fueled by anger over the proselytizing activity of the increasing number of missionaries. Occasion-ally, this has erupted in violence. These violent incidents have only increased attempts by Hindu and Christian leaders to pursue understanding through dialogue.
   Further reading: B. Animananda, The Blade: The Life and Work of Brahmabandhab Upadhyay (Calcutta: Roy & Son, 1945); Harold Coward, Hindu-Christian Dia-logue (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1989); Stephen A. Graham, Ordinary Man, Extraordinary Mission: The Life and Work of E. Stanley Jones (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 2005); Bede Griffiths, The Golden String (New York: Kennedy, 1953); ———, Half of My Soul: Bede Griffiths and the Hindu-Christian Dialogue. Compiled by Beatrice Bruteau (Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1996);———, Vedanta and Christian Faith (Los Angeles: Dawn Horse Press, 1973); Raimundo Panikkar, The Vedic Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977); Ravi Ravindra, Whispers from the Other Shore: A Spiritual Search—East and West (Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1884); ———, The Yoga of the Christ (Longmead, England: Element, 1990); Philip St. Romain, Kundalini Energy and Christian Spirituality (New York: Crossroads, 1991); James Stuart, Swami Abhishiktananda: His Life Told through His Letters (Delhi: ISPCK, 1989).

Encyclopedia of Hinduism. . 2007.

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