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Why Was Gandhi Against Conversions?

Why Was Gandhi Against Conversions?

An advertisement issued by the Govt of Jharkhand in leading newspapers of the State on 11th August, has got the hackles up of the Christian community. The ad in question carries a picture of Mahatma Gandhi and a purported quote from him. It is in Hindi. Given below is the English translation by Prof Apoorvanand of Delhi University.

“If Christian missionaries feel that only conversion to Christianity is the path to salvation, why don’t you start with me or Mahadev Desai? Why do you stress on conversion of the simple, illiterate, poor and forest-dwellers? These people can’t differentiate between Jesus and Mohammad and are not likely to understand your preachings. They are mute and simple, like cows. These simple, poor, Dalit and forest-dwellers, whom you make Christians, do so not for Jesus but for rice and their stomach.”

Prima facie, such a derogatory statement is bound to cause concern. It is offensive not just to Christians, but also to the Muslims (referred to as Mohammedans), dalits, and adivasis (referred to as forest dwellers). Apoorvanand’s paper was very kindly sent to me by Dr John Dayal on behalf of the United Christian Forum.

According to Apoorvanand the ad is mischievous, misleading, erroneous, and puts words in Gandhi’s mouth that are not his. He feels that this ad is a reaction to the Catholic Church’s recent and rightful opposition to proposed amendments to the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act and Santhal Parganas Act, by the Jharkhand Govt. It is also seen as a prelude to passing an anti-conversion bill in the State that criminalises almost any form of religious conversion.

Apoorvanand asserts that this is not a literal quote. It is based on an ongoing dialogue with one John R Mott, an American evangelist, sometime in 1936. It was in the context of dalit entry into a temple in Travancore. In a reactionary move the dalits, led by Dr Ambedkar, threatened to abandon Hinduism. This resulted in some kind of competition between Christians, Muslims and Sikhs, to win over the disenchanted dalits. It was in that context that Gandhi condemned conversions of susceptible and vulnerable groups. It was not a blanket statement. Prof Ramachandra Guha, India’s leading historian, in an email to me, confirms this viewpoint.

Even if it was not a blanket statement, or quoted out of context, I still found the quotation highly offensive, more so since I am a staunch Gandhian. I was deeply disturbed and contacted several of my learned Gandhian friends; but I was not satisfied with their answers, so I started searching among my old records.

Providentially, I came across several books on conversions, including a special issue of Jnanadeepa, Pune Journal of Religious Studies. This is published by Jnana Deepa Vidhyapeeth, better known as the papal seminary. Volume 3, No 1, published in 2000 is entirely devoted to the question of conversions. Then I found the “jewel in the crown”, a paper entitled “Conversions: The Gandhian Critique and our Response” by Rev Subhash Anand, who was then a faculty member of the Dept of Indian Philosophy. With 133 references the research paper was a veritable goldmine of information. I then contacted the author, who is now retired in his parent diocese of Udaipur.

He very graciously permitted me to quote from his paper, hence this article. He also cautioned me saying that the quote is authentic, which is contrary to what Apoorvanand had said. He begins his paper by stating that many Christians consider Gandhi “as one of the greatest Christians of our times, while some of his compatriots accused him of being a Christian in secret, an accusation which Gandhi admitted was not new”. This quote is from “Christian Missions: Their Place in India” by Gandhi, edited by B. Kunarappa. Other references are from “The Encyclopaedia of Gandhian Thoughts” by A.T. & G.A. Hingorani; “In Search of the Supreme”; “The Message of Jesus Christ”, again edited by Hingorani; and “The story of My Experiments with Truth”. Since this is not a research paper I will not burden the reader with multiple references.

If we see just one quote by Gandhi, that too out of context, we would have every reason to be upset. But Subhash is very methodical in his presentation. He begins by saying that Gandhi had a great love and reverence for Jesus of whom he said, “The gentle figure of Christ, so patient, so kind, so loving, so full of forgiveness, that he taught his followers not to retaliate when abused or struck, but to turn the other cheek – I thought it was a beautiful example of the perfect man”. As is common knowledge, Gandhi was deeply inspired by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Gandhi also admits that he is indebted to his Christian friends for “the religious quest that they awakened in me”. Besides adopting St Francis of Assisi’s prayer “Make me a Channel of Your Peace” (part of the Gandhian prayer book) he was also influenced by a Trappist monastery in South Africa in 1895. The monks were vegetarian, did not touch liquor, and worked in community. Of them he says, “If this is Roman Catholicism, everything said against it is a lie”.

Most of us are familiar with Gandhi saying “Christianity is good, Christians are bad”. What led him to this conclusion, often quoted by Christians themselves? Subhash’s observations echo my own. There are three discernible reasons for Gandhi’s aversion to the type of Christianity practiced in his time. The first was his exposure to Christians in England, where he had gone to study law.  They were not exactly paragons of virtue. Gandhi’s feelings could also have been coloured by the over arching reality that they were a colonial power riding roughshod over his countrymen. The second was his experience of racism in South Africa. Being thrown off a train is just one of the better documented ones. What was “Christian” about these white supremacists? Thirdly, there was his experience of neo converts to Christianity in colonial north India, as distinct from the well assimilated St Thomas Christians of Kerala.    

What did Gandhi find so offensive in these neo converts? It was primarily a cultural conflict. Gandhi laments, “Why should a man, even if he becomes Christian, be torn from his surroundings?” He further says, “It was the talk of the town that, when he was baptised, he had to eat beef and drink liquor, that he also had to change his clothes, and that henceforth he began to go about in European costume, including a hat”! This was the sad reality in some cases at that time.

To add insult to injury he says, “I also heard that the new convert had already begun abusing the language of his ancestors, their customs and their country. All these things created in me a dislike for Christianity”. He further avers, “The aping of Europeans … by Indian converts is a violence done to their country and, shall I say, even to their new religion”. These quotes should suffice to express Gandhi’s discomfiture. The Catholic Church, especially after Vatican II, has made a major course correction, in what is termed “inculturation”. We have adapted to local culture, language, dress, particularly in our liturgy. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of some of our sister churches (I detest the term “denominations”), especially the neo-Pentecostal evangelical types.

Gandhi also had a theological problem. Why did Christians insist that theirs was the only true religion? He says, “I may suggest that God did not bear the Cross only 1900 years ago, but he bears it today. It would be poor comfort to the world if it had to depend upon a historical God who died 2000 years ago. Do not then preach the God of history, but show Him as He lives today through you”. Such words of wisdom echo over time. He goes on to say, “When a Christian preacher goes and says to a Harijan that Jesus was the only begotten son of God, he will give him a blank stare”. In truth, a messianic and Judaic presentation of Christianity was foreign to the Indian mind, why only the Harijan’s.

Even the four Gospel writers and those of the Epistles in the New Testament presented Jesus and his message in different ways, bearing in mind the local culture and ethos. But several missionaries of yesteryear, and over enthusiastic neo evangelists of today, are unable to discern the subtle difference between faith and culture.

Having quoted Gandhi, courtesy Subhash, to the extent possible in this article, I would now like to add my own two-pice bit of wisdom! I begin with a statement that may sound audacious to my fellow Christians. Had I been a Hindu in colonial north India in Gandhi’s time I would have largely concurred with the conclusions drawn by him, though not necessarily the finality of his language. As a rider let me add that if he had strong reservations about unabashed Christian conversions, he also had strong words against movements for Shuddhi by the Hindus and Tabligh by the Muslims.

However, in today’s context Gandhi’s purported quote, even if distorted, is highly objectionable. Dalits (not Harijans) and adivasis (not vanvasis or forest dwellers) are no longer dumb cattle (cows). Thanks to affirmative action through reservations given by the much maligned Congress, both these communities can now hold their heads high. Tribals from the North East and Chhotanagpur in particular, who reaped the benefits of quality and affordable education from the missionaries, have excelled in all fields. Since Jharkhand is in the eye of the storm we need to recall the valiant sacrifice of Paramvir Chakra Albert Ekka, a tribal Christian. He was neither cow nor coward.  

Gandhi seems to have seen only the proselytisation aspect of the missionaries of his time. Did he turn a blind eye to their sacrifices? Many of them left their homes, never to see them again. Hundreds died of tropical diseases. No doubt Gandhi did a lot to ameliorate the lot of the untouchables, but he does not seem to have had any impact on the tribals. As we say in philosophy, an affirmation of one thing is not the negation of another. So while affirming Gandhi’s contribution to the uplift of weaker sections of Indian society, we cannot in anyway, negate or belittle the heroic sacrifices of foreign missionaries of that era.

As for “rice-Christians” I find the term abhorrent. Even Mother Teresa took umbrage at this. She said that if religion could be changed for a bowl of rice, then it was an insult to both religions. For arguments sake one could also say, “You please give them rice, dal, soap, education and human dignity, and surely they will never leave you”. As somebody has said, “For a hungry man God comes in the form of bread”. I would add that a drowning person doesn’t require a sermon on safety, he needs a lifeline; which is what happened in the past.

As for British patronage, the Catholics were treated as second class citizens by them – be they Irish soldiers, or Italian and German priests and nuns incarcerated during World War II. To the contrary, the Catholic Church in India has bloomed after Independence.

Gandhi may be partially correct about the past. But we have to object to the advertisement today. As for conversions, I will leave that for tomorrow.

(The writer is a former National President of the All India Catholic Union.)

(Published on 21st August 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 34)