Hindu Vivek Kendra
The Christian Challenge

When Christians went to other lands, they tried to force their own creed on their hosts. Except in India, everywhere else they succeeded. At the time when the Roman Catholic Church celebrated the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in South America, the indigenous people observed it as a day of their own defeat, and the event was commemorated by them as 500 years of shame. Millions of people died in the process of evangelisation of the continent. The figures that are given are in excess of 60 million.

Fr George M Soares-Prabhu has discussed this issue in his article "Religion and Communalism: The Christian Dilemma", published In the book Responding to Communalism: The Task of Religions and Theology (S Arokiasamy (ed), Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, Anand, 1991). At pages 156-9, he says

In their 'spiritual and temporal' conquest of the East and West (the Christians) unleashed a reign of violence and destruction unparalleled in human history. Religion fuelled their violence. It fed their racial arrogance, legitimised their insatiable greed, and added to their depredations a ruthless ferocity which only religious fanaticism can give..... It was the deeply religious Spaniards and Portuguese, armed with their Papal Bulls and stirred up by their fanatical friars, who perpetrated the massive genocides which 'utterly destroyed' the great cultures of pre-Colombian America and decimated its people.

These tragic consequences of religious exclusivism (whether we think of Islam wiping out the flourishing Christian civilisations of Asia Minor and North Africa in the seventh century, or of Christianity on the rampage in Asia, Africa and the Americas in the sixteenth) are much too little remembered. There are many monuments to the six million victims of the holocaust (in my opinion the latest great explosion of Christian violence), and a Pope has prayed at Auschwitz. But few remember and none has yet asked pardon for the millions of Amerindians hounded to their death in the Americans, or the hundreds of thousands of Africans who died horribly in the 'middle passage' on their way to cruel and dehumanising slavery, or the hundreds of Indians put to death or condemned to the galleys by the Inquisition at Goa, because they remained loyal to the faith of their fathers. Yet their death has surely lessons for the theologian reflecting on Christians exclusivism in communal India today.

He has substantiated this in his foot note 40 on page 157 of the book.

Tzvetan Todorov ("Morality of Conquest", Diogenes 125, 1984, pp 89-102) comments: "......we know that the immediate result of that encounter (the first encounter of Europeans with the native inhabitants of the Americas) was an extermination of human beings that had never been seen before and had never been attained afterward, in spite of the efforts made in this regard in the twentieth century." Enrique Dussel (A History of the Church in Latin America, Grant Rapids, Eerdmans, 1981, p 42) substantiates this. They show how the population of Mexico dropped from nearly 17 millions in 1532 to a little more than 1 million in 1608. The situation was probably worse in Peru where the frightening brutality of Pizarro "not only disrupted the political unity that existed under the Incas, but also undermined the spiritual unity that prevailed."

The destruction of the people and the culture, and the use of religion for the justification, forms the foot note 41.

Dussel gives a sophisticated analysis of the clash of cultures which followed the Spanish conquest of America. Its unambiguous result was that "the Hispanic civilisation virtually annihilated the Amerindian civilisations in America. The indigenous political and military organisations were obliterated, and the Amerindian elite and their institutions of education and culture were destroyed. What was left of the Indian community after being decimated in part by epidemics, wars, and inhumane treatment was totally unhinged from the ancient context which the norms and the organisation of the Amerindian cultures provided.

The role of religion in this is hinted at by Dussel in a reference to the 'temporal messianism' that was part of the Spanish mentality of the time. The destinies of church and nation were believed to be intertwined, because the nation had been elected by God to be the instrument for the salvation of the world" (p. 38). Much is permitted the elect of God!

Fr Soares-Prabhu (p 156) also says, 

"Joao de Barros, a sixteenth century chronicler of the Portuguese conquests in the East, writes: "The moors and gentiles are outside the law of Jesus Christ-which is the law that every one must keep under pain of damnation and eternal fire. If then the soul be so condemned what right has the body to the privilege of our laws?" (C.B. Boxer, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969) p 23.) This is the ultimate logic of religious exclusivism. Who can deny its cogency?"

Efforts at looking at the people of South America as fellow human beings were few and far between. Quoting Dussel, Fr Soares Prabhu says further in the footnote 41 as follows:

"On the other hand, Christian concern for the human person (most unusual in Empires!) exercised a continual pressure on the Spanish court, compelling it to reflect on the 'morality of conquest', and to promulgate in 1542 the 'New Laws' which attempted to give the Indians some protection against exploitation. Dominican friars like Antonio de Montesinos and Bartolome de Las Cases vigorously championed the cause of the Indians, and a group of mostly Dominican Bishops who governed dioceses in the northern part of the Empire from 1544-1568 tried to enforce the highly unpopular New Laws at considerable risk, "suffering expulsion from the dioceses, imprisonment, deportation, and even death in behalf of the Indians who were being violently oppressed and exploited by the Spanish colonists" (p. 51). But their efforts were ultimately ineffectual; and it is doubtful how far these represented the missionaries as a whole, "the vast majority" of whom, we are told, "shared the conquerors' contempt for the 'heathen'." (Penny Lernoux, "The Long Path of Puebla", in John Engleson and Philip Scharper, Puebla and Beyond, New York, Orbis, 1979, p 3.)

And wherever attempted, it was frustrated by others who considered anyone who is not a Christian as being unworthy of receiving any protection of law.

The normal image of an American Red Indian in the Hollywood cowboy movies has been that of a savage, out for the blood of the white man, who wanted nothing more than peaceful co-existence. Invariably, the Red Indians were projected as the ones that caused problems, and that the white man was on the defensive. The movies continued the missionary programme of attempting to show that the Red Indians deserved what they got. It is only now that the truth is slowly being told, and many of the so-called heroes of the white Americans are no longer considered as such.

Jomo Kenyatta once said, "When the European colonisers came to Africa, we had the land and they had the Bible. They asked us to close our eyes and pray. When we opened our eyes we found that they had the land and we had the Bible."

Despite the ravaging, the indigenous people of South America and Africa are in search of their own roots. The problem is that they have very few indigenous scholars, and most of their records are destroyed. In South America, where the civilisations were destroyed only 400 years ago, there is very little collective memory about their history, their sociology, their politics, etc. All that we see is mute monuments, whose purpose is not always known, and whose grandeur can but reflect the highly advanced civilisation that they truly were.

When the missionaries arrived in Hawaii, the first convert to Christianity was the Queen. One of the methods to wean away the people from the culture was to ban all the religious and secular dances. Today, the secular dances have been revived - the religious dances have been lost forever. The type of attacks hat these civilisations have experienced must have been greatly traumatic. It is easy to destroy, and very difficult to create.

Another case is that of the great Library of Alexandria. In his book Cosmos (Ballantine Books, 1985, pp 278-9), Shri Carl Sagan narrates its destruction as follows:

The last scientist who worked in the Library was a mathematician, astronomer, physicist and the head of the Neoplatonic school of philosophy - an extraordinary range of accomplishments for any individual in any age. Her name was Hypatia. She was born in Alexandria in 370 AD.... The Alexandria of Hypatia's time - by then long under Roman rule-was a city under grave strain. Slavery had sapped classical civilisation of its vitality. The growing Christian Church was consolidating its power and attempting to eradicate pagan influence and culture. Hypatia stood at the epicentre of these mighty social forces. Cyril, the Archbishop of Alexandria, despised her because of her close friendship with the Roman governor, and because she was a symbol of learning and science, which were largely identified by the early Church with paganism. In great personal danger, she continued to teach and publish, until, in the year 415, on her way to work she was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril's parishioners. They dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and, armed with abalone shells, flayed her flesh from her bones. Her remains were burned, her work obliterated, her name forgotten. Cyril was made a saint.

The glory of the Alexandria Library is a dim memory. Its last remnants were destroyed soon after Hypatia's death. It was as if the entire civilisation had undergone some self-inflicted brain surgery, and most of its memories, discoveries, ideas and passions were extinguished irrevocably. The loss was incalculable. In some cases, we know only the tantalising titles of the works that were destroyed. We do know that of the 123 plays of Sophocles in the Library, only seven survived. One of these seven is Oedipus Rex. Similar numbers apply to the works of Aeschylus and Euripides.....

Of the physical contents of that glorious Library not a single scroll remains. In modern Alexandria few people have a keep appreciation, much less a detailed knowledge, of the Alexandrian Library or of the great Egyptian civilisation that preceded it for thousands of years......

Hinduism faces serious threats from the aggressive proselytising religion, of which Christianity is one. In his book, Beyond Belief, Sir Vidiadhar Naipaul suggests that conversions "occur when people have no idea of themselves, and have no means of understanding or retrieving their past.... For the new fundamentalists...., the Greatest war was to be made on their own past and everything that linked them to their own earth.... Islam is the most uncompromising kind of imperialism because it seeks as an article of the faith to erase the past."

On these remarks of Sir Vidiadhar, there was an interesting comment that was received by The Times of India (Sept 15, 1998) from a letter writer, Shri Sumit Paul.

Being an advanced research student of Islamic theology and Semitic language, let me explain the background for this. Islam's aversion to the past should be viewed from the perspective of conversion. Islam aims at destroying the past completely lest it should hark the converts back to the pre-Islam days. There is always a fear of the past which threatens to Jeopardise the very existence of Islam. The "fear of recantation" is more often than not dealt with violent measures. Since conversion is not without its past, Islam tries tooth and nail to expunge all the traces and remnants of the past.

Sir Vidiadhar's and Shri Paul's comments would apply equally to Christianity. We have seen it happen in so many places, that a pattern is discernible. One way to erase the past is to project it in as despicable way as possible. The people of Northeast India are told that their forefathers were head-hunters, and that it was Christianity that brought civilisation to the region. This propaganda can be exposed in simple terms. The beautiful Manipuri dances, an important part of the Hindu heritage, could not have been a creation of a culturally primitive society.

The objective of expunging 'all the traces and remnants of the past' has been followed by Francis Xavier. In a letter dated January 27, 1545, he wrote:

"When I have finished baptising the people, I order them to destroy the huts in which they keep their idols; and I have them break the statues of their idols into tiny pieces, since they are now Christians. I could never come to an end describing to you the great consolation which fills my soul when I see idols being destroyed by the hands of those who had been idolaters." (The Letters and Instructions of Francis Xavier, translated and introduced by M. Joseph Constelloe, S.J., Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1993, pp 1178.)

Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar recognised the damage that conversions can cause not only to the people but also to he nation. He said that by joining Islam or Christianity, the Depressed Classes would "not only go out of the Hindu religion, but also go out of the Hindu culture.... Conversion to Islam or Christianity will denationalise the Depressed Classes." (The Times of India, July 24, 1936.) It was for this reason that he adopted Buddhism when he decided to leave Hinduism the religion.

Conversions also change the outward image of the people. This is part of the exercise of the denial of the past. The eventual objective is to internationalise these external changes, and become alienated from one's own land and people. In his article "Firm foundations of a fervent faith" (The Examiner, October 17, 1998), Shri Larry Pereira describes the situation in Vasai. He says:

How did conversion to Christianity affect the converts? Besides a change in religious affiliation, they also assumed the surnames of the priests who baptised them or the sponsor. Usually the converts of a particular hamlet adopted a common surname. However it must be emphasised that some families retained their original surnames. Most of the other aspects of their life remained the same.

However, over the centuries there was a gradual change in the language, dress, diet, houses, occupations etc. among those who interacted with the Portuguese and the English. Besides, education in the language of the rulers also brought in a degree of 'Westernisation'.

(Larry Pereira. "Firm foundations of a fervent faith", The Examiner, October 17, 1998.)

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