Missionaries and the Promotion of Secularism in India

From Secularism in India: A Historical Analysis (2010), pp. 54-64

THE earlier attitude of the British Government towards Missions was one of skepticism and vehement opposition. The British believed that if Protestant Missions were allowed in India that would only lead to tension and aggression among its Indian supporters and produce instability of governance. Therefore, in the beginning, the British followed the policy of supporting and patronizing the native religions as the earlier rulers had done. They undertook the management and patronage of a large number of temples, paid the salaries of temple officials, and sponsored the Hindu festivals and sacrifices. A pilgrim-tax was imposed to pay for all this. The British also refused permission to any missionary to settle in their territory. They also refused to employ native Christians and prevented by force any native soldier employed from becoming a Christian.[1] Vishal points out that while the Christian Missions received no money from the Company or the Government, until 1858, at least 26,589 Hindu temples were receiving financial support from the Company in the Bombay Presidency alone.[2] It was only through the long and toilsome struggle of reformers in England and India that this political patronage of superstitious idolatry was finally put down.[3]

Two Englishmen who played a pivotal role towards granting permission for Missions to work in Indiawere Charles Grant and William Wilberforce. Charles Grant began his campaign for Missions in 1786-87. Grant observed that India was worse under the then British rule than it had been under the Mughal rule and tried to influence Christians in England to understand their moral responsibility for India’s welfare; this, so that they would endeavor to produce in India class of persons who would be able to govern India after the pattern of Britain after Independence.[4] He believed that the problem of India was more a religious and a cultural one than anything else. He proposed religious conversion as the only solution for the Indian predicament.[5]

Grant’s strive for getting official permission for missionary work in India had also in perspective the necessity of a political assurance of religious freedom to Indians so that they could evaluate their own beliefs and the beliefs of other faiths and, so, come to a rational conclusion as to which religion they should choose. Unless the Government back home, in England, guaranteed religious freedom and required the East India Company to enforce the same, there always lurked the danger of the Company’s turning against the Missions in face of political and economical threat from the Hindus.[6] In fact, when the Vellore Mutiny broke out in 1806 and was erroneously attributed to missionary propaganda, Sir George Barlow prohibited the Serampore missionaries from leaving Serampore, from preaching openly in the bazaar, and the native converts from preaching unless they were sent forth as emissaries from Serampore.[7]

By an Act of Parliament in 1813, missionaries were permitted to land and work in India. Thus began an era of missionary enterprise in Indiawhen missionaries from Europeand Americaentered Indiain large numbers and began preaching the Gospel in unreached areas.[8]

Missions not only showed and proclaimed to the Indians the religion of the ruling Englishmen, who impressed them greatly,[9] but also prepared Indians to develop ideas of individualism, democracy, human dignity, human rights, equality, justice, etc, through their ecclesiastical, social, and educational programs. Following are some of the ways in which Missions made a secular impact on the Indian scenario:

i. Evangelism that Respected Freedom of Choice: Promotion of the Ideas of Religious Freedom. The evangelistic methods of Christian missionaries in India were based on the Biblical principles of individual human choice and responsibility. Their objective was not religious conversions but human transformation. Based on the ethic of love and respect for all, they worked passionately to communicate the power and truth of Gospel. Laxminarayan Gupta writes that an attitude of tolerance was the reason why the missionaries did not attempt forced conversions as the earlier Muslims had done despite the fact that the British had been powerful in India for three centuries.[10] The missionaries had deep respect for the human right to freedom of thought and religion. To the missionaries, conversion to religion had to be based on individual choice and decision.

ii. Morality Based on Humanism: Promotion of the Ideas of Human Dignity, Worth, and Freedom. Men like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Mahatma Gandhi were greatly impressed by the moral teachings of Jesus. Roy’s The Precepts of Jesus- the Guide to Peace and Happiness was an expression of his indebtedness to Christ for the humanist moral ideas he had learnt from Him. Though traces of humanism can be found in both Buddhism and Jainism, the value of being human in both religions is obscured by the doctrines of karma, samsara, dukkha, maya, and punarjanma. In both the religions, man is caught up in a vicious cycle of births and rebirths of which he is unable to come out. Man and animals differed only externally. In fact, a man could become a dog in his next birth. The world, according to Hinduism, was illusory and the human predicament (caste, gender, and then colonial rule) was a fate determined by karma. Such concepts in the Indian religions could not stir Indians towards either independence or rational and humanist moral acts. What it means to be man was meaningless in a world-view where even animals and trees were worshipped as deities. However, the Christian concept of morality - of truth, patience, love, kindness, compassion, equal treatment, and justice - being built on a surer foundation of the doctrine of God, creation, man, salvation history, and the Church began to gradually spread over India through means of evangelism, education, social work, and the free press. Soon, a class of Indians emerged who, though they might not admit their indebtedness to Christian humanist morality, reflected Christian ideals of the good.

There were others, however, who based on secular revolutionary ideas from France, Germany, and Russia, began to fight for Indian independence through guerrilla warfare and terrorism.[11] Western education was also introducing the youth of India to the radical nationalist thoughts of the West and stirring up a militant form of nationalism.[12] The Congress, instead, under the leadership of Gandhi waged a non-violent battle for the freedom ofIndia.

Thus, the moral ideals of Christian humanism contributed towards the secular battle for national independence and the formation of a secular nation.

iii. Modernization of Education: Promotion of Secular Knowledge. Education was one of the best contributions of Missions to India. In fact, Christian Missions initiated educational programs in India long before the Government even thought of doing so. European missionaries opened 17 schools in 1725.[13] The London Missionary Society opened schools, first, in south India, and then in Bengal. These schools provided free education and the native Hindus sent their children to study for service in the Company. William Carey came to India in 1792 and spearheaded in Bengal the establishment of several schools that imparted modern education. The subjects that these schools taught were English, Mathematics, Geography, and Science. Carey translated the Bible into Bengali, and then along with his associates translated it into several of the Indian languages. The printing press that the Serampore missionaries brought to India contributed greatly towards the cause of education. The American Missionary Society was the first in the history of India to open a native girls’ school in Bombay in 1824. In 1826, the Church Missionary Society established the first female school. With the conviction that only the English language could be the best medium for communication of modern education in India, the Scottish missionary, Alexander Duff opened a school for instruction in English at Calcutta.[14] His success in such venture later helped Lord Bentick to decide in favour of English language.

Christian missionaries also contributed greatly towards the development of the vernacular languages. For instance, Bengali in the past was considered a language ‘fit only for women and demons.’[15] Therefore, Carey had to be invited from Serampore to Calcutta to teach Bengali. Modern Bengali literature was introduced and developed by the Serampore missionaries and by the Fort William College.[16]

The influence of the missionaries’ works in education was widespread. By the strenuous efforts of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, a supporter of English education who opposed the opening of a SanskritCollege, the HinduCollegewas opened in 1820 in Calcuttafor education in the modern arts and sciences.[17] The Hunter Report of 1882 brings out well the facts of missionary contributions towards the modernization and propagation of education in India.[18]

Thus, Christian Missions, by first initiating modern education and influencing the British Government towards the same, played an important role in the modernization of education inIndia. An age of Indian Renaissance dawned on the sub-continent as a result, and several reforms and rethinking were sparked in the field of science, society, religion, education, economics, and culture.

iv. Social Work: Application of the Ideas of Human Dignity, Equality, and Worth. The social works that the Christian missionaries did in India presented a living and visible example of their view of human dignity and equality. In addition to educational Missions that gave an occasion for all to study (irrespective of caste, race, or gender, the very first time in India), medical Missions brought ‘help to the millions of the common people of India, for whom no skilled assistance in the time of trouble and death was available.’[19] MedicalMission also introduced women missionaries into the Indian sub-continent to minister unto the suffering women ofIndia.

Orphanages, widows’ homes, and hospitals were started at different places of India. Leprosy mission in Indiaowes its origin to the Christian missionaries. Hostels for non-Christians were built in considerable numbers and managed by Christian Missions. The results were so impressive that demand for the extension of the hostel system throughout the country increased. Missions also reached the youth of Indian society, irrespective of caste or creed, by the Young Men’s Christian Association, which also played an important role in the development of democratic orientations among them.[20] The concept of social work, irrespective of caste, creed, or gender, evolved out of the example that the missionaries set in India. William Carey’s campaign against Sati in 1806, though motivated by his Christian attitude, could not have been successful on the basis of only biblical arguments. His campaign, together with that of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, with support from Lord Wellesley and Lord William Bentick, was right in a context that favoured humanist ethics in independence from religion. Some reformers, who had come to believe in the rationality of humanist ethics through English education and contact with the missionaries, traced these principles to their own religion than accepting it as particular only to Christianity. Thus, Missions inIndia influenced Indians to develop a humanist approach to culture, society, and religion and, in this way, contributed towards the development of a humanist kind of secularism inIndia.

v. Freedom of Press: Promotion of Free, Proven, and Unbiased Criticism of Politics. The beginning of the modern Indian secular press can be traced to the launching of Friend of India in English, Samachar Darpan in Bengali, and Dig Darshan in Hindi at the Serampore Mission in 1818.[21] The Indian type was first founded and used in the Serampore Mission’s printing press.[22] Earlier on, Hicky had started The Bengal Gazette as a weekly in 1780. However, its vociferous criticism of Warren Hastings’ policies led to the arrest of Hicky and the termination of the journal in 1782.[23]

Under the Governor-Generalship of Lord Wellesley, censorship was established over all the newspapers that were published in the country in 1799. Consequentially, the editor of the Bengal Kirkaru, Charles Maclean was deported to England for censuring by the means of print a public officer 'for acts done in his official capacity.'[24] However, Maclean didn’t stay silent inEngland but continued his agitation against power abuse inIndia, which ultimately led to the resignation of Lord Wellesley.

Lord Hastings (1813-1823) believed in the importance of an independent press in the formation of public opinion and good governance. Therefore, he slightly modified the regulations regarding censorship in 1813. In 1818, he abolished the post of Censor and, thus, began an era of free press. Immediately, new journals sprouted out. However, there continued conflicts between the press and the Government. The Government of India deputed Sir Thomas Munro to investigate and report on this problem. In accordance with the recommendations that Munro made, the Government placed new regulations before the Supreme Court in March 1823 that provided that no press was to be established nor any paper or book printed without prior licence from the Government. Indians like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Dwarka Nath Tagore protested against those regulations. Finally, with the assistance of Lord Macaulay, Law Member of the Government of India, Sir Charles Metcalfe cancelled these regulations in 1835. As a result, the Indian press became as free as its counterpart in Englandwas.[25]

Earlier on in 1830, William Carey had written in the Serampore journal Friend of India that the most gratifying of the many indications of the extension of freedom in the 19th century was the establishment in India of a periodical press by whose potency the tyrannical dynasties of ages were crumbling rapidly away. He noted that it was the power of the press that had brought such a fast change in the Indian mind from superstition to rational thinking.[26]

During the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, temporary restrictions were placed on the press but were soon withdrawn after the Mutiny. The Act of 1867 that is still in force aimed at the regulation of the printing presses and newspapers. In 1878, the Vernacular Press Act was passed that made regulations to make sure that the press does not misuse their freedom to incite feelings of disaffection towards the Government or to incite communal feelings. Also nicknamed as 'The Gagging Act,' this Act was condemned by the Indians all over the country.[27]Subsequent conflicts between the press and the Government went on.

The concept of free press that the Indians were conceiving and for which they were contending was not originally Indian. It came from the West and was popularised by the Serampore missionaries, despite the fact that the Government was quite opposed to it. They used the press to confront the Government. Prof. Tripti Chaudhari writes:

The British officials and trading groups were completely indifferent to their misery and the rising Bengali Intelligentsia, with a few exceptions, were struggling for their own recognition in the field of education and administrative sphere in the colonial set up. In this background only the Protestant missionaries in Bengal in the late nineteenth century came forward to voice the grievances of this [i.e., the peasants] class. It is hardly an exaggeration to state that they became almost the sole spokesmen of the ryots tied to the iniquitous land system.[28]

Thus, Missions inIndiaplayed an important role in the initiation of printing press inIndiaand the development of the concept of free press. Later laws and regulations that saw the modern freedom of press were built upon the earlier work of the missionaries. The foundation of free press inIndiathat the Missions and the British Government laid was constituted after the principles of secularism that discouraged any abuse of the press for breeding communal ill feelings. The laws and regulations made were, consequentially, in line with those principles of factuality, rationality, fraternity, and humanism, unclouded by any religious fundamentalist zeal.

It has thus been seen that the Colonial rule in Indiaplayed a very important role in the promotion of secularism in India. Renaissance humanism, building on to cultural and social secularism, and Reformation religious privacy, developing on to political secularism, entered India with the Colonial conquest. Earlier on, the Government employed a non-interference policy towards Indian religions, but was soon awakened by the Evangelicals to its task of introducing reforms for the good of Indians.[29] All through, however, the steps taken were to be in line with humanist reason and non-interfering as far as privacy of religion was concerned. However, where religious practices conflicted with humanist principles, laws were prescribed. The unification ofIndia under one British rule helped the spread of cultural, social, and political secularism even faster. Industrialists started industries to the cities leading on to mass migrations to them from the villages. This led to the beginning of the breaking of the traditional families as secularism began to invade social life through its economic impact.

The English law was adapted to the pluralist context ofIndia, though in accordance with the principles of secularism. People of all religious backgrounds fared well during this time. The Crown’s declaration in 1858 further assured secular policy and relieved Indians of any fears. Meanwhile, inter-communal suspicions and doubts intensified. The pluralist Hindus could not understand the fundamentalist Muslims. The Muslims, on the other hand, doubted if their future was safe in case the secular British departed and the Hindus got the country’s reins. Various levels of responses came out as a result. Some Indian reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Mahatma Gandhi resorted to pluralistic religious perspectives. Others like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan contended for a rational view of life. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, on the other hand, fought for the emancipation of the oppressed dalits; the ideological influence behind the fight was the Western concept of human equality and rational existence. All these people were greatly impressed by Western culture and philosophy. In addition, the Governmental reforms also brought out in theIndiaa consciousness and realization of the possibility of change, reformation, and upliftment.

Missions played an important role in both the ideological and political development of secularism inIndia. Their ideological impact in the field of religion came in through their emphasis on rationality of religion and condemnation of superstition. Education played an important role in bringing out this ideological change. Idolatry, caste system, and inhumane practices that were endorsed by religion came under severe rational criticism. The printing press that the Serampore missionaries popularised became a great tool in the hands of the reformers who used it to circulate journals and pamphlets to awaken their countrymen to a modern and rational way of thinking that was free from religious domination. Missionaries played an important role in the Indian Renaissance and the secularization of culture and society. Mahajan says about the Christian missionaries:

… They spread not only Christianity but also education in the country. They opened schools and colleges and set up printing presses in the country. They opened hospitals and started other works of public charity. As a result of their activities, there spread a lot of skepticism among the Indians….[30]

[1] J.N. Farquhar, Modern Religious Movements in India, pp. 9, 10.
[2] Vishal Mangalwadi, Missionary Conspiracy, p. 137.
[3] Farquhar, Modern Religious Movements in India, p. 9.
[4] Vishal Mangalwadi, Missionary Conspiracy, pp. 138, 145.
[5] Ibid, p. 149.
[6] Ibid, p. 150.
[7] D.C. Ahir (ed.), Ambedkar on Christianity in India (New Delhi: Blumoon Books,1995), pp. 51-52.
[8] J.N. Farquhar, Modern Religious Movements in India, p. 10.
[9] Aleyamma Zachariah, Modern Religious and Secular Movements in India, p.20.
[10] Laxminarayan Gupta, History of Modern Indian Culture, p.218.
[11] Aleyamma Zachariah, Modern Religious and Secular Movements in India, p. 204.
[12] Krishna Reddy, Indian History, p. C149.
[13] Laxminarayan Gupta, History of Modern Indian Culture, p. 221.
[14] Aleyamma Zachariah, Modern Religious and Secular Movements in India, pp. 18, 19.
[15] Vishal Mangalwadi, India: The Grand Experiment, p. 171.
[16] K. Krishna Reddy, Indian History (New Delhi: Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Co., Ltd., 2003), p. C86.
[17] Laxminarayan Gupta, History of Modern Indian Culture, p. 227.
[18] Pages 8-16 as excerpted in Vishal Mangalwadi’s, Missionary Conspiracy, pp. 360-373.
[19] J.N. Farquhar, Modern Religious Movements in India, p. 20.
[20] Ibid, p. 25.
[21] Vishal Mangalwadi, India: The Grand Experiment, p. 186 & Krishna Reddy, Indian History, p. C86.
[22] Farquhar, Modern Religious Movements in India, p. 14.
[23] V.D. Mahajan, Modern Indian History, p. 487.
[24] Ibid, pp. 487-88.
[25] Ibid, pp. 488-89.
[26] Vishal Mangalwadi, India: The Grand Experiment, pp. 190-1.
[27] V.D. Mahajan, Modern Indian History , p. 489.
[28] As cited by Vishal Mangalwadi, India: The Grand Experiment, p. 196 [Author's Parenthesis and Emphasis].
[29] Vishal Mangalwadi, India: The Grand Experiment, p. 83 & Missionary Conspiracy, pp. 168-69.
[30] V. D. Mahajan, Modern Indian History, p. 645.

© Domenic Marbaniang, 2005, 2010


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