Christian Impact on India, History of

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CHRISTIAN IMPACT ON INDIA, HISTORY OF It is widely believed that St. Thomas, the disciple of Jesus, first introduced the Christian faith to India nearly two thousand years ago. The subcontinent would not experience the influence of Christianity, however, until the much later arrival of the Europeans. The Portuguese began to settle in Goa from 1498. In 1542 the Jesuit Francis Xavier, a papal ambassador, arrived, and the work of the Roman Catholics began in earnest. Protestant ministry in India was first established in Tranquebar by two German pietists, Bartholomew Ziegenbalg and Henry Plutschau.


Christian missionary activity in India generally involved the establishment of high-quality schools. Obviously the Christian community's impact does not end there. Accompanying the schools came printing presses, which were helpful in the dissemination of literature of all kinds. In fact, the early overseas missionaries were responsible for pioneering English and modern vernacular education. R. L. Rawat, in his History of Indian Education, suggests that India will forever be indebted to the missionaries for the production of textbooks, dictionaries, and grammars, and for their zealous pursuit of educational advancement.

The "good works" carried out by missionaries and Christians have always been understood to be an expression of their love and obedience to Jesus. The underlying motivation, of course, was their obligation to proclaim the salvation of God through the Christian faith. Indians have by and large been willing to receive the former, but many have rejected the need for the latter, particularly upper caste Hindus, who would say, "we have our own saviors." Still, the Christian community has felt that it has contributed to the building of the nation and to an upward social mobility that has changed lives and benefited families and communities, particularly among the Dalits (the former "untouchables").

In the sixteenth century it was the Jesuits who first established Christian institutions of learning. They were followed by the German Tranquebar missionaries. Later the renowned Friedrick Schwartz began Christian schools in both vernacular languages and in English. William Carey and the British Baptists who arrived in Calcutta in the late eighteenth century pioneered modern education in North India. By 1818 there were 111 schools located as far away from Calcutta as Shimla and Delhi in the north, and Rajputna in the south.

With the renewal of the British East India Company's charter in 1813 and the arrival of a host of British mission societies, there was a proliferation of schools and printing presses across the country. The first Western-type postsecondary school, Serampore College, was organized in 1818. The American Mission opened schools for boys in Bombay from 1815 and in 1829. John Wilson saw to it that a school was also set up in Bombay for girls.

The arrival in Calcutta of Alexander Duff in 1830 marked the beginning of a new approach to learning, namely, English-language education. Duff was captivated with "the glowing prospects of Christianity in [India]," and with what he referred to as the "ultimate evangelisation of India." Duff pondered the question of what was to be the future language of learning in India, wondering which would prove to be the "most effective instrument" of a liberal and enlightened education? Not surprisingly, Duff's idea to set up an English-language school was, at first, controversial. There was significant opposition, but soon Duff's modest experiment began to catch the imagination of the upper classes and those who possessed aspirations for their children. Duff's work was a great success and resulted in the expansion of English-language educational institutions throughout British India in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, at the primary, secondary, and university levels; in time English became the veritable lingua franca of India. The widespread and popular adoption of English by people of all language groups and classes has certainly given India an advantage in today's global economy, as well as in diplomacy, politics, and technology.

Christians were also pioneers in the field of female education. Much of this work was taken up by the wives of early missionaries, and by single women missionaries, of whom there were many. In the nineteenth century the commonly accepted view in India was that formal education was not for women of any kind, much less for those from respectable families. In 1834 it was reported that only 1 percent of Indian women could read and write.

Yet by 1900 an impressive number of schools and colleges had been opened in major cities, towns, and even villages throughout India for both men and women. Christians also went to live and work among both the tribal groups and the Dalits. The former were animists who lived outside the Hindu fold, while the latter were from the "untouchable" caste and were therefore excluded from the orthodox Hindu social structure. Toward the end of the nineteenth century Christian missionaries began to take more seriously the needs of the tribals and the Dalits and went to minister to them. The missionaries began schools and created written forms for many of the languages. In response, people from these groups converted to Christianity in great numbers. This was particularly so in the Northeast and in the mass movements of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

In 1997 the reputed and secular weekly India Today reported on the top ten colleges in the nation. Five of these were Christian: St. Stephen's, New Delhi; St. Xavier, Mumbai and Kolkata; Loyola College, Madras; and Stella Maris College (for women), Madras. There are others equally prestigious: Madras Christian College; Isabella Thorburn College (for women), Lucknow; Sarah Tucker College, Palayamkottai; and Mount Carmel Women's College, Bangalore. Certainly one way to measure the impact of Christianity in India is to observe the masses of people of all religious communities and social classes who use whatever influence they have at their disposal to get their children admitted to Christian schools. The rush begins at lower kindergarten and proceeds through to university colleges. This occurs even when parents—whether Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh—must agree to have their children study the Bible as an integral part of the curriculum.

Language and Literature

Christians have also made a significant contribution in India in the fields of languages, literature, and journalism. Constanzio Beschi (1680–1747) reformed Tamil alphabetical characters, making them more suitable for the printing press. He also produced a fourfold Tamil dictionary, which was divided according to words, synonyms, classes, and rhymes. Bishop Robert Caldwell's (1815–1891) Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian Languages and G. U. Pope's (1820–1908) translations of classics of Tamil literature into English are noteworthy. Vedanayagam Pillai (1824–1889) and H. A. Krishna Pillai (1827–1900) are two other Christian writers who produced some of the first Tamil novels.

The French priest Francis Mary of Toure began work on Hindustani as early as 1680, composing a massive dictionary titled Thesaurus Linguae Indianae. Modern Hindi, the national language, developed out of Hindustani. Henry Martyn and a Dr. Gilchrist, a professor of Hindustani and an American Presbyterian missionary, and the Reverend S. H. Kellogg all contributed to the formation and popularization of Hindustani. Kellogg, in fact, drew more than a dozen dialects together to assist in creating what is today known as Hindi. He produced in 1893 A Grammar of the Hindi Language, which is still in circulation. William Carey and his Baptist colleagues, beginning in 1818, were the first to produce periodicals, journals, and a newspaper. Their publication, the Friends of India, lived on and is now an English daily, the Statesman, published from Calcutta and New Delhi.

Jawaharlal Nehru in his Discovery of India acknowledges the contribution of the early missionaries, especially the Baptists of Serampore, concerning the shift from the dominating influence of both Sanskrit and Persian. The printing of books and newspapers by the missionaries, together with English-language education, no doubt broke the hold of the classics, says Nehru, and allowed regional languages to emerge and blossom. While Nehru saw no difficulty in missionaries dealing with the major languages, he notes that they, "even laboured at the dialects of the primitive hill and forest tribes. . . . The desire of the Christian missionaries to translate the Bible into every possible language thus resulted in the development of many Indian languages. Christian mission work in India has not always been admirable or praise worthy . . . but in this respect, as well as in the collection of folklore, it has undoubtedly been of great service to India" (Nehru, pp. 317–318).

Social Reform

From the very first, missionaries were shocked at the social evils that persisted in India, including the practice of sati (the immolation of widows on their husbands' funeral pyres), the killing of lepers, and the sacrifice of children.

William Carey was active from his arrival in 1793 in any issue that he felt needed change or reform. Within a year, near Malda, he reported having found the remains of an infant that had first been offered to a god as a sacrifice and then abandoned to be eaten by white ants. Moreover, children were thrown into the Ganges in fulfillment of vows taken for answers to prayer. Carey used his connections to those in authority and power to campaign for the outlawing of such practices. Governor-General Lord Wellesley asked him to submit a report on the matter and subsequently, in 1802, declared infanticide to be an act of murder; those who performed such horrible deeds, if caught, would themselves be put to death.

Carey employed his publications to educate public opinion on matters of humanitarian concern. The first issue of the Friend of India carried an exhaustive report of an actual sati. Subsequently he kept the practice before the public eye and did all he could to see sati abolished. By 1814 Ram Mohan Roy joined Carey in the campaign against sati. Armed with accounts of 438 widow burnings, Carey and his Serampre colleagues implored the government to forbid the rite by law. At first very little progress was made, due to strong opposition from high caste Hindu leaders. The Christians kept up the pressure, and eventually public opinion turned against the orthodox Hindus. In 1829 Lord William Bentinck finally signed an order prohibiting sati in the occupancies of the East India Company.

The field of medicine is another area in which Christians have made a significant contribution to the welfare and the common good of India. Jesuits in the late sixteenth century opened infirmaries attached to their living accommodations. John Thomas, an associate of William Carey, began his work in 1799. In the nineteenth century medical establishments of various kinds were created throughout India, set up by almost every missionary society. Two have been internationally recognized. The first, the Christian Medical College Hospital, Ludhiana, was founded by Dr. Edith Brown in 1893; the other, the Christian Medical College Hospital, Vellore, grew out of Dr. Ida Scudder's roadside clinics, first begun in 1895. In time both of these hospitals added to their facilities, becoming the first government-recognized medical colleges for women and subsequently for men.

There have also been programs set up for the mentally challenged and the disabled. The first institution for the deaf was organized by an order of nuns in Bombay in 1884. Since then, Catholic and Protestant Christians have established numerous homes throughout India for the abandoned, the abused, and the exploited. Two of the most impressive of these centers are the Mukti Mission in Kedegoan, near Pune founded by Pandita Ramabai in 1898 for orphaned girls and abused women. The other, the Dohnavur Fellowship, was first organized in 1901 by Amy Carmichael in South India. Its object was to rescue girls who had been forced into temple prostitution.

Another matter of concern among Christians over the years has been the practice of child marriage, whereby alliances are made among Hindus between children as young as five years of age. Carey's solution was to promote female education. Child marriage was legislatively banned in 1929. Christians since then have made a concerted effort to promote the approval of widow remarriage.

Christian reform efforts also included establishing sanatoriums for tuberculosis patients and for those who had contracted leprosy. The Scheflin Research and Training Centre in Karigiri, near Vellore, has carried out much original creative work in the area of leprosy reconstruction and rehabilitation.

While most of the early expressions of Christian social initiatives were pioneered by foreign missionaries, Indian Christians have carried on and even multiplied the legacy handed down to them. This has been so much the case that well into the late twentieth century a preponderance of doctors and nurses in any area of health care and medicine were Indian Christians. Moreover, many Hindus and Muslims still prefer to go to Christian hospitals.

Christians were also involved in rural development. Typical have been the Allahabad Agricultural College, organized in 1910, and the Bethel Agricultural Fellowship near Salem, Tamil Nadu, in the early 1960s. Their aims were to assist and improve the productivity of farmers. K. T. Paul had similar concerns and came up with the idea of what he called "rural reconstruction." The Basel Mission, which began its work from its headquarters in Mangalore, is well known for introducing into India the manufacture of cheap terra-cotta tiles and other related products to improve village house construction. Such tiles are still popularly known, no matter who produces them, as mission tiles.

Disaster relief is another area in which the Christian community has made an impressive impact. Over the years the Churches Auxiliary for Social Action, the Evangelical Fellowship of India Commission on Relief, Catholic World Relief, World Vision, and others have all been in the forefront of nongovernmental organizations willing to assist in providing both immediate and long-term reconstruction to people and places wherever the tragedy of disaster has struck.

Indian Christians did not participate as much as might have been expected in the national movement for freedom. On the other hand, Kanakarayan Paul was one who deeply regretted the isolation of the Indian Christian community from the political events surrounding them. Bishop Paul Appaswamy added that if the Indian church was to exert any influence upon the life of India, it should take a "definite part in the social and public activities of the country." The Christian Patriot, the church's leading Indian weekly newspaper, conceded that with a few notable exceptions Indian Christians kept away from the nationalist movement. It urged Christians to recognize they had a duty toward India and then declared that "a real Christian cannot help being at the same time, a true Indian patriot" (cited in Houghton, p. 203).

V. Chakkarai, a lawyer and a Christian convert, was not surprised that the uneducated masses of Christians took practically no interest in political affairs. What troubled him was that the educated demonstrated so little concern, while he felt they ought to be shining examples of patriotism, leading the way in all movements of national welfare. Bishop Henry Whitehead of Madras explained the very likely reasons for the general Christian apathy toward the freedom movement. He challenged the validity of the Christian church becoming caught up in what he referred to as a "whirlpool of political unrest." Moreover, he felt political agitation was contrary to the spirit of Christ. Even Chakkarai recognized that the Christian community, like all other minorities was, "intensely afraid of being swamped by the Hindu majority."

Nevertheless, there were a number of Christians involved in the freedom movement, including K. T. Paul, V. Chakkarai and his colleagues, Bishop Paul Appaswamy, Bishop Waskom Pickett, E. Stanley Jones, and to a lesser extent Bishop V. Z. Azariah. In addition, several Christians played an important role in framing the Indian Constitution. There were six appointed to the Minority Advisory Committee by the Constituent Assembly: Raj Kumari Amrit Kaur, Elbar D' Souza, P. K. Salvry, H. C. Mukherji, J. J. M. Nichols Roy, and J. N. P. Roch Victoria. The committee met under the leadership of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in late 1947. To the surprise of many, the Christian representatives expressed their commitment to the Christian ideal of oneness and their eagerness to participate in the building of the nation, therefore turning down the need for any political safeguards to protect any parochial interests they might otherwise have had. They also gave up any claim they may have requested regarding seat reservations in the new Parliament. To their credit, and on behalf of a majority of the Christian community, they believed that the reservation of seats was not necessary, and in the interests of national integration merged with the constituency at large to become part of the general electorate.

Christians were perhaps less flexible when it came to those sections of the Constitution that dealt with religious prerogatives. Their concerns were threefold: the right to practice and propagate one's faith; the freedom to offer religious instruction in aided schools; and the right of conversion from one religion to another. Obviously, all of these issues generated considerable discussion and debate. Ultimately the Constituent Assembly approved these provisions, which became law on 26 January 1950. The Christian representatives were convinced that these were constitutional rights essential to Christian freedoms and central to the strengthening of India's secular democracy and the Christian contribution to it.

At the center of India's struggle for freedom from the British was the towering figure of Mahatma Gandhi. He was well acquainted with Christianity. However, it was Jesus Christ, more than Christians, that touched his heart. In 1920 he wrote "I revere the Bible. Christ's sermon on the mount fills me with bliss even today. Its sweet verses have even today the power to quench my agony of the soul." Writing in the Harijan in January 1939 he said, "Though I cannot claim to be a Christian in the sectarian sense, the example of Jesus' suffering is a factor in the composition of my undying faith in non-violence which rules all my actions, worldly and temporal."

Understandably Gandhi had a host of friends. Among those who were Christians, and most cherished, where Charlie Andrews and the principal of St. Stephen's College, Sushil Kumar Rudra. In earlier times Gandhi wrote of his being a guest in Rudra's home whenever he visited Delhi. When writing a condolence letter upon his death in 1925 Gandhi said, "[Rudra] and Charlie Andrews were my revisionists. Non-cooperation was conceived and hatched under his hospitable roof."

Christianity in India Today

The 1991 census indicated that there were 23 million Christians in India, making up 2.3 percent of the total population. However, Christian executives and demographers estimate the number of Christians at 50 million, or 5 percent of the population. Whatever the correct figure, the number of Christians in India is growing. This is supported by the fact that there are more than six hundred churches in Delhi, with services conducted in almost any major language. In Bangalore, a city of 6 million, there are 970 churches and at least twelve accredited theological institutions, with three or four offering doctoral degrees. In Chennai (Madras) 10 percent of the population is Christian, worshiping in more than two thousand churches. Some of these congregations are small (60 to 100 people), and some meet in residences rather than churches. However, there are many congregations whose attendance is above a thousand, even five thousand in all of the three cities noted. At the same time there are two churches in Chennai, the New Life Assembly of God and the Apostolic Christian Assembly, whose average attendance on Sundays as of 2004 is 23,000 and 15,000, respectively. Christianity is thus making an impact on India's urban populations as well as on the rural and tribal peoples.

The idea of conversion from one faith to another does not sit well with many Hindus, who are upset by the Christian claim concerning the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the one and only Savior. Christians, however, believe in the proclamation of Jesus Christ, which can take many forms: social, educational, works of compassion, disaster rehabilitation, and offering forgiveness.

Nita Kumar, writing in September 1993 in the Economic Times (Bangalore), took a rather different perspective when expressing her concern that India had not until then been able to successfully forge a path to modernity. The missionaries organized their institutions, she says, in such a way that they did succeed where others had failed in modernizing those who studied in them. The central contribution of Christian missionaries then, she asserts, has not been so much conversion to Christianity as it has been conversion to modernity. This she describes as a no-nonsense rationalistic and humanistic approach to life. Those who are thus converted are what Kumar refers to as "true 'modern' Indians." Moreover she reckons it is they who are "the builders of the new India."

The fact that the Christian community has contributed positively to nation building is uncontested. Today there are Christians integrated into the very fabric of all areas of Indian society, both in the public and private sectors, from members of Parliament, chief ministers, corporate executives, physicians, engineers, and down to chauffeurs, chefs, and guards at the gate. To paraphrase the late Bishop Stephen Neill of the Trinelveli Diocese, Church of South India: for the Christian Church and its mission in India, the task has been challenging, and along the journey a number of mistakes have been made, but equally surprising, perhaps, is the fact that such a considerable measure of success has been accomplished.

Graham Houghton

See alsoAndrews, C. F. ; Azariah, Vedanayakam S. ; French Impact ; Gandhi, Mahatma M. K. ; Paul, K. T. ; Portuguese in India ; Wellesley, Richard Colley ; Xavier, Francis


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Christian Impact on India, History of

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