Doing Christian mission in the religiously pluralistic contexts of urban India has always been a challenging and demanding task. Religious plurality has always been an integral part of India and it continues to remain so even today. The land of India has been the birthplace of three major religions, namely, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism, and a breeding ground for many other religions, ideologies and sects. The multi-religious milieu has shaped the landscape, society and culture of India. The foreign missionaries of the earlier eras as well as the indigenous missionaries and theologians of the recent era have found the religiously pluralistic situations very challenging and less rewarding. On the one hand, the rapidly changing socio-political scenario in India at the moment poses a great threat to missions. On the other hand, a general openness is still evident amidst these challenges. Hence, undertaking Christian mission continues to be a rewarding experience. This is particularly evident in urban India where opportunities of doing Christian mission abound.
Christian missions in India in the past were always faced with the challenge of religious pluralism, and the manner in which these missions responded to such challenges made all the difference. In a world of many religions, it is a common understanding that not one religious tradition can claim uniqueness and finality. Initially, Christian missions perceived and responded to these issues from a Western or European perspective. However, as the epicenter of Christianity moved from the West to the non-Western world, mission challenges also changed. It further brought about changes in the missional attitudes and approaches to the religiously plural society as well. The success of Christian missions in India largely depends on the manner in which the Indian church articulates her faith and responds to the challenge of religious pluralism in India today. This paper is an attempt to grapple with the issue of religious pluralism in urban India and provide a broad framework for doing Christian mission.
SECULAR AND YET RELIGIOUSLY PLURALISTIC INDIA
The very soul of Indian society is religion. Religion plays a very vital role in every aspect of Indian life on a daily basis. Religious plurality has always been an inevitable part of the Indian religious scenario. While Hinduism of a sort has been a dominant part of this scenario, the presence of other religions has always been accepted at various degrees and levels in India. All major religions of the world co-existed in this land for centuries in an atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance. The reputation that India gained in this respect has won for it a place of pride and prestige in the comity of nations of the world. However, secularization of the Indian scenario has, to a certain extent, provided a new dimension to the understanding of plurality of religion.
The word ‘secular’ implies equality of all religions and tolerance and respect for all. India, therefore, does not have an official state religion and constitutionally every person is given the right to preach, practice and propagate any religion they choose. It further implies that the Government must not show favoritism or discriminate against any religion. It must treat people of all religions with equal respect. All citizens, irrespective of their religious beliefs, are equal in front of law, and this secular fabric of the Indian constitution is crucial to maintain harmonious religious co-existence. However, the word ‘secular’ has different connotations in the Indian context, particularly when translated into Hindi or any other Indian language. Often, it is translated as dharmanirapekshata or “impartiality to religion.’ This re-affirms the constitutional provision of equal status to all religions. This is important in a context when India is perceived or presented as a Hindu nation as the majority of its people profess to be Hindus. Constitutionally, India is a secular nation with no preferred religion.
Another common translation of the word ‘secular’ is sarva dharma samabhava or ‘equal respect for all religions.’ On the basis of the principle of accommodation, this word contradicts the idea in dharmanirapekshata which upholds the separation of religion and State. Both of these concepts are arguably mistaken for or conflated with each other, indicating a confusion or inadequacy in translating the idea of secularism into Indian languages. People of India continue to struggle with such ambiguities as they cannot separate religion from many aspects of their lives, and the Hindu religion continues to penetrate into all aspects of life.
Given the above reality, it is difficult to objectively assess secularization in India. However, it certainly is affecting a segment of urban population of India because secularization is primarily concerned with the matters of this world. A noted theologian Harvey Cox describes it as the deliverance of human beings from religious and metaphysical control over their reason and language. Benjamin Tonna puts this in right perspective when he says, “Secularization simply bypasses and undercuts religion and goes on to other things.” For a segment of urban people who are inclined towards things of this world and attracted to secular ideology, it allows them to retain their religious identities – at least peripherally – and move towards more secular perspective of life. At least in the Indian context, forces of secularization are not opposed to religion, nor do they persecute religion, rather they push religion from formal public life to private life. Thus, the process of secularization brings about gradual changes in the thinking and practices of people. Vincent Rajkumar highlights this idea when he says, “Secularism is a movement of thought, which aims to improve the temporal welfare of the people on rational and ethical grounds independently of religious considerations.” The central aspect for most secular Indians is ‘this-worldliness’ rather than ‘otherworldliness.’
In spite of the multi-religious context that prevails in India, secularization is gradually gripping the minds of educated urban dwellers. The impact of secularization is particularly seen in the lives of urban people as they are more exposed to secular ideals and practices than their semi-urban or rural counterparts. Tonna observes that urbanization and secularization go hand in hand as parallel processes, even with a certain degree of interdependence. Secularization demonstrates a person’s ‘coming of age’ and urbanization describes the context in which it is occurring. The urban population normally is secular in their thinking, attitude, and practice. This is by and large true with many urban Hindus in India.
In the midst of the emerging secular, urban and global forces, the issue of religious plurality is either accepted as a fact or evaded by the urban dwellers. For some, religious pluralism is a reality and they accept it as a fact and move on. For others, the forces of modern secularization are making them immune to religious plurality, and they are not affected anymore by the multitude of religions co-existing in their urban contexts. The centrality and significance of religion has become secondary as they consider other aspects of their lives more important. For some others, the forces of secularization in India are considered to be anti-religious and hence anti-nationalistic. They tend to believe that secularization undermines the primacy of religion and hence they vigorously oppose its assault on religion. In association with some right-wing political parties, they are bent on banishing secularization from India or re-interpreting it a manner that it loses its significance. Despite such resistances, India is increasingly becoming secular and religious plurality continues to be a reality to reckon with.
CONTEMPORARY CONTEXTUAL REALITIES
Any discussion on the challenge of religious pluralism in India has to consider the contemporary and emerging contexts of India seriously. Thriving with 4,635 distinct people groups and numerous linguistic groupings, India has proved to be one of the toughest nations in the world as far as mission is concerned. The pluralistic India has resisted the gospel despite two centuries of modern missionary efforts. As a stronghold of traditional Hinduism, casteism, Brahminical supremacy, linguistic and socio-cultural forces as well as religious pluralism continues to present formidable challenges to the Christian mission even today.
In recent decades, however, India has been going through a subtle but certain transformation that affects every aspect of the Indian life. With the introduction of the open market economy, the process of globalization has dawned on us and there are sufficient signs that it will stay with us for a long time, bringing about positive and negative changes. With the advancement and influence of information technology, people are constantly exposed to changing global scenarios and become aware of opportunities beyond their traditional boundaries. India, therefore, does not remain isolated but is emerging as one of the indisputable powers of the world. Increasing literacy and compulsory primary education significantly add to the pool of educated and skilled workers. While regional languages remain important, English is recognized as one of the major languages of communication. This makes India one of the top English-speaking nations with the second largest pool of scientists and engineers in the world. Although Indian population crossed the billion mark, India remains one the youngest countries in the world as far as the average age of population is concerned. One estimate states that there are more Indians aged 6 to 19 than there are people in the United States. All of these along with many other complex factors are contributing to the amazing transformation of India and this in turn is affecting the way people perceive and respond to religious pluralism.
India is at the threshold of a new era for mission. The post-independence era of India, thought as an era of sunset for foreign missions, has proved to be a blessing in disguise. The departure of foreign missionaries and structures cleared the way for the Indian Church to think through the realities in a fresh way. A significant indigenous missionary movement with over 250 indigenous missionary societies and a huge missionary force has emerged in the independent India. Indian missionaries have virtually gone to the uttermost parts of India and attempted to reach many un-reached people with the gospel. Consequently, several breakthroughs are reported among many people groups, some with significant and others with marginal response. These breakthroughs were not reported only among the traditional receptive segments considered to be on the periphery of the Indian society, but also the Other Backward Communities (OBCs), and the urban lower and middle classes. Several segments of Indian society are now showing signs of openness toward the person and teachings of Jesus Christ. Several high-caste Hindus, secular but educated and upwardly mobile middle classes are showing signs of openness to change. This openness and receptivity has resulted in conversions of people in many parts of India and the formation of innovative churches—mostly house churches. Though the authentic number of these churches is to be verified, there is sufficient evidence that a new and vibrant Church is emerging in India among the people hitherto considered non-receptive or even resistant.
The increasing influence of Christianity and the growing number of Christian population with mushrooming of new churches have, however, alerted the fundamentalist groups. In some places, these groups with the support of right-wing political parties have brought about systematic persecution and harm upon the Christian community. Cases of severe atrocity have been reported all year round in different parts of India and especially in those areas where church growth is reported. Several laws and bills have been enacted to prevent conversion to Christianity. Various militant and fundamentalist groups have begun to challenge the spread of Christianity, thus taking aggressive measures to curtail its growth. These measures include systematic physical attack on Christian leaders, demolishing Church buildings, intimidation, production of anti-Christian literature and forceful re-conversion. In addition to this, there is an increase in the production of Hindu apologetical literature aimed to attack Christian faith at an academic level and challenge the foundational beliefs of Christianity. This aggressive fundamentalism is an indication of awakening among the educated caste Hindus about the possible threat Christianity might pose to their traditional religion.
HISTORICAL INDIAN THEOLOGICAL RESPONSE
Christian mission in a pluralistic context has always been a complex, multi-layered and exhaustive subject. However, this difficult context provides an avenue for contemporary Christian missions to deal with issues of the post-modern era where often a hybrid of global marketing techniques and Eastern mythology – a devastating combination of seduction through media and mysticism – is evident. In India, Christianity as ‘one faith among many’ has often been under close scrutiny and criticism. It is important to note that many Indian theologies have sprung forth as a result of their confrontation with religious pluralism, cultural diversity, poverty and oppression, ethnic and religious struggles and the struggle of nation-building. When the missionaries confronted with the problem of religious plurality, it raised the question of their attitude towards other religions. They found it difficult to call other religions as simply ‘unbelief’ or ‘superstition.’ The relationship of Christian faith to other religions and cultures became the primary concern for those engaged in the Christian mission. Moreover, they found that the people of other faiths are against the presentation of the gospel rather than the gospel itself. As a result, different approaches have been introduced in order to make the Christian gospel more meaningful to the people in their own contexts.
Christian mission in the Indian context is thus based on their response and attitude towards other religions. Different theologians formed their theology with different attitudes towards other religions viz., conflict, paradox, assimilate, dialectic, and so on. So religious pluralism seemed to be the primary arena where theologians battled with relevantly relating the centrality and universality of Christ to the Indian minds. Prior to analyzing the various responses made by the Asian Christian Theologians, we need to analyze the Asian context in which they developed their theology. Emerito P. Nacpil makes several observations about the context of Asia where theology emerged and emerges, and much of what he says of the larger Asian context is true of the Indian context as well. He states that plurality and diversity in races, people, culture, religions, ideologies, etc. are the main characteristics of Asian (Indian) region. He also observed that most of the countries in this region have the colonial experience which are now in the process of nation-building, development, and modernization along with the development of economy, social justice and self-reliance. There is also a zeal among Indians to achieve authentic self-identity and cultural integrity in the modern world. India, being the birthplace of many other religions, has shaped both the culture and consciousness of the vast majority of Indians. With all these observations, he pointed out that the Christian community is a minority in the vast Indian context. It is in these Indian situations which are enumerated above raise many questions to which the theologians felt to address. For example, doing mission in these multi-religious and cultural contexts, or doing theology in the context of colonialism, modernization, and globalization.
On the issue of religious pluralism, Leeuwen is of the opinion that “the early church faced the problem of syncretism, Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism, and Manicheism which offers parallel to the Asian church’s struggle with Modern Hinduism and Buddhism.” Hence, at least theoretically speaking, the Indians should be in a better position than those in the West to develop biblical scholarship because of the similarities found in the context of India and the early Christianity.
As Christianity progressed in India, one can trace out the difference of attitude in Indian Christian theologians. During the 19thcentury, vigorous efforts were made to support the exclusive claims of the missionaries and the church and their attitude which was against the non-Christian cultures. They developed “Christ-against-the-culture” attitude towards the Asian religion and culture. People like Keshub Chandra Sen, Raja Rammohan Roy, Nehemiah Gorey, were the proponents of indigenous theological thinking who reacted against the missionaries’ claim of exclusivism.
During the 20thcentury, the Indian Christian Theology was influenced by the spirit of nationalism, nation-building, unity and harmony with all by the recognition of the values of other religions and cultures. As a result, “Christ-of-the-culture” attitude was developed and there was a search of more relevant and contextual theology in India. P.D. Devanandan attempted to find a “meeting point” between Christianity and Hinduism so that both can work together for the nation building on their religious and spiritual bases. Other efforts can also be seen in Panikkar’s work, The Unknown Christ of Hinduism. Some others focused on a philosophical framework within which Christianity and Hinduism could be brought together. People Like Pierre Johanns (To Christ through the Vedanta), A.J. Appasamy (Visistadvaita), and P. Chenchiah attempted to use the Hindu philosophical system to develop a better understanding of Christ and His work amidst the religiously pluralistic context of India. In line with these, a search for a relevant spirituality can be seen in the works of Jules Monchanin, Abhishiktananda, and Bede Griffiths who sought to relate Hinduism through ashram and ascetic life. In a sense, these theological articulated different ways to do Christian mission in the Indian religious pluralistic context. Stanley Samartha, who advocates a “Theo-centric Christology” over against a “Christo-centric Theology,” said that “to claim that one religious tradition has the only answer to such global problems sounds preposterous.” So one can see that the Indian theological articulation drastically differed from one another and yet their attempt to engage with the religious pluralistic context is clearly evident.
Coming back to the contemporary contextual reality, we now deal with two prominent issues that would require our response in doing Christian mission in the contemporary religiously plural India: the dual challenge of globalization and urbanization, and the reality of religious fundamentalism.
THE CONTEXT OF GLOBALIZATION AND URBANIZATION
Twenty-first century was born amidst globalization. Loosely defined, globalization is the act of making something global, world-wide, in scope and application. In the secular world, this process of making something world-wide often refers to the spread of economic and cultural realities generally associated with capitalists, free market forces and of the industrial West. This process brings the world closer through incredible advances in communication and economic exchanges, particularly that of India with the rest of the world, consequently exposing India to different changes, challenges and opportunities around the world. The effects of globalization on India, particularly urban India, cannot be ignored. Truly, the fact of globalization is much more evident among the urban segment of Indian society than rural or tribal segments.
Although urbanization is not new, what is new is the degree and speed at which India is turning urban. Coupled with urbanization, globalization is making a deeper and lasting impression on India, touching and transforming many aspects of Indian society. Since urbanization and globalization appear to be irreversible trends, it is imperative that mission leaders are adequately informed about this emerging trend and be prepared to face them. It is disturbing to note that very little is being done for cities and the city people in India from a Christian perspective. One of the major reasons for this neglect is perhaps the lack of information about growing urban trends in India. More particularly, it is because very few of the mission practitioners in India are able to understand, articulate and reflect on contemporary urban realities from theological and missiological perspectives. Further, the modern phase of urbanization being a recent phenomenon has not attracted sufficient attention of Christian missions.
The dual challenge of globalization and urbanisation is dealt with at various levels. The Church in India is conscious of this reality but needs preparation to respond to it meaningfully. It is important that this response includes a way of developing missiological theology for the city that is Biblical and contextually appropriate. It further involves gaining a better understanding of these global and urban realities and equipping the Church leadership to minister effectively in such changing contexts. Such efforts require the Church to come out of her tribal/rural circle and enlarge the circle by consciously including the urban centres. It also means that the Church will have to address the issues and concerns of the urban population of the globalised era.
THE REALITY OF RELIGIOUS FUNDAMENTALISM
The second challenge arising out of the contemporary context has to do with increasing religious militancy or fundamentalism. Religious fundamentalism posses a significant problem to the cause of mission and evangelism in India. There are different shades of fundamentalism. One of the most prominent forms that has emerged in recent decades is called the “Hindutva.” Hindutva is understood to be an ideology, a way of life and a militant form of cultural nationalism emerging in modern India and orchestrated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) into a fascist and fundamental form of political religion. It is profoundly religious and an aggressively political form of nationalism that was conceptualized and promoted by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. This ideology was revived in recent years and given a more fundamentalist shape, affecting the very core of Christian mission. The Hindutva ideology attempts to derecognize Christianity as a valid religion for India and brand it as a foreign religion that ought to be banished from India.
The modern form of Hindutva may be traced back to the formation of Hindu Mahasabha in 1907 and consequently the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS in 1925. These organizations came into being to protect the cause of Hindus and unite them in the name of the religion. In the post independent era, Hindutva took political shape in the formation of Bhartiya Jan Sangh in 1951 which merged with Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1980. It was during the tenure of the BJP led government, Hindutva was put into practice to an extent that the non-Hindu minorities were severely and systematically harassed and persecuted by RSS subsidiaries like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal–the latter being the most extreme militant organization recruiting the educated unemployed members from the lower castes for daring action. The Dal declares that Christians are bigger enemies than Muslims because they want to take over the country and so they must be driven out. The Dal is the muscle power of the Hindu nationalists.
The Hindutva ideology and practice developed a kind of nationalism that carefully excludes non-Hindus from being part of this nation. For the adherents of Hindutva, the Hindu nationalism means one (Hindu) nation, one (Hindu) culture, one (Hindu) state. It aims to revive and unite not only Hindu culture but Hindu people. Hindu nationalism takes pride in glorifying the past. Making India great, a superpower and a center of spirituality, they strive to conquer the nation with spirituality. They strive for geographical, racial, religious, cultural and linguistic unity. Hence the slogan: “Hindu, Hindi and Hindustan.” Unification of Hindu nation may involve violence within Hinduism and with other religions for which most Hindutva adherents are prepared. Hindutva, though an age-old concept has now become known for its aggressive and violent expression in practice, causing significant damage to the cause of mission in India. Christian community in India was taken completely unawares by the systematic assaults, atrocities and arson of the Hindu nationalists. There have been more atrocities against Christians in the past four years than in the preceding fifty years. There appears to be tacit endorsement by the state of the atrocities committed by Hindu nationalists coming under the umbrella known as the ‘SanghParivar.’
Having to live and practice Christian missions under a government that believes and practices the Hindutva ideology, the Christian missions will have to readdress the issues that are being raised by the forces of Hindutva. At present the Hindutva leaders are still active and kicking in different parts of India. They will continue to pose greater challenge to the Christian mission. The Christian response is being developed at two levels. The first being at an ideological level. The Hindutva forces are operating from the ideology that fundamentally contradicts with Christian mission. The challenge lies in responding to Hindutva at the ideological level by showing its fallacies and the ill effects it will have on this nation. The Hindutva intelligentsia has been effectively spreading their ideology through various media and particularly through academic and popular writings. While being committed to the cause of missions, Christians also have a responsibility to question the foundations and logic of Hindutva before promoting the cause of Christian mission.The Hindutva worldview undermines every facet of freedom. Historically, a specious argument of fascism equates social discipline with the loss of individual freedom. A strong nation is a product of balance between form and freedom, authority and liberty, a social discipline and individual liberty. In Hindutva worldview, however, neither the individual nor the state but the social order was the basic matrix of the Hindu nations. These are being exposed and challenged at the academic and intellectual levels by a select number of Christian theologians, prominent among them being Vishal Mangalwadi, John Dayal and others.
The second response to this challenge of the Hindutva is at the practical level. While the Hindutva forces tend to be unitedly working against the non-Hindu forces, the Christian missionaries need to develop a fully informed and systematically organized network that will prepare various Christian groups to not only face the onslaught of Hindutva but also respond in a more legal, political as well as social manner. While retaining our commitment to the mission in India, the Church is being prepared to respond to the challenge of Hindutva in a more assertive and balanced way.
Christian mission in religious pluralistic context is not only complex but more demanding and yet the Indian church has ably articulated her response. The conceptualizing and articulation of the Christian response to the religious pluralistic context of India seem to have opened more ways for the church to take the message of Jesus Christ in a more meaningful way. In turn, the urban context of India has become more conducive to undertaking Christian mission than rural India. More and avenues of are being opened for the urban church so as to engage more meaningfully with the religiously plural urban context of India today. With the rapidly changing urban context of India, the church needs to be properly informed, equipped and mobilized to deal with the religiously plural context effectively so that the message of Christ would be presented in a more acceptable ways to the urban masses of India.
*This paper was presented at the Asian Society of Missiology Leadership Forum, Bali, Indonesia in 2018. Published with permission.
Atul Aghamkar, Ph.D.
Dr. Atul Aghamkar is currently a professor and head of the department of Missiology at South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies, Bangalore, India.
Having been involved in urban church planting and pastoral ministries for over a decade, he has consciously moved in to teaching ministry.
Along with teaching Missiology at the masters’ and doctoral levels both at SAIACS and a number of seminaries, he has been keenly involved with international and national mission related initiatives.
He is one of the leaders of extensive training programs for urban pastors and leaders.