01-09-2008 - Traces, n. 8

the indian crisis

Hindu Extremism and the
Fear of Christ

Ties with nationalism. The caste system. The rejection of modernity. And then freedom, the person… A longtime missionary explains why India’s biggest religious group, when manipulated for political ends, indulges in anti-Christian hatred, as is happening today

by Piero Gheddo

Hinduism is the only major religion without a founder. It is an incoherent collection of beliefs and rites that has developed over millennia in an incessant process of transformation. Being a Hindu does not mean accepting certain dogmatic truths but being born into a traditional community in India, whose members have precise rights and duties in the social, non-religious order. These rules affect diet, ritual purity, and the various forms of social behavior.

A civilization in crisis
The difficulty of understanding India is partly due to this indeterminacy of the national religion, which created a major civilization by uniting very different peoples. But today it is experiencing an acute identity crisis, triggered by the advance of modern civilization. To understand the attacks on Christian missions in our time, we have to start from this fact. The only dogma, so to speak, of Hinduism is the “reincarnation of souls.” The sacred writings (in Sanskrit, dating from 2,000–1,000 years before Christ) are clear on this point. “Those whose lives have been virtuous,” says the Chandogya Upanishad, “are reborn in the body of a Brahmin, a noble warrior or some other honorable human. Those who have abandoned themselves to vice are reborn as some base and inferior creature, in the body of a pariah or a dog or any other unclean creature.” The soul (atman) is eternal, but it always lives in the bodies of men or animals, passing from one to another when the death of the body sets it free. It is born again to fulfill the karma of each, determined by the acts performed in the previous life. Human existence is a cycle of birth and rebirth, until the final liberation.
The foundation of traditional India is the caste system, a hierarchically ordered society. Rights and duties are precisely defined for each caste, so ensuring the peace of the whole of society and the best karma for all. The castes make Indian society static. Though they were abolished at independence in 1947 and in the Constitution, they continue to regulate the lives of hundreds of millions of Indians, especially in the countryside. However, there also exists true solidarity within each caste: “one for all and all for one.” This structure of small stable units is the secret of the survival of the Indian people through the millennia.

Hinduism, after long remaining immobile, was renewed by the influence of the Christian missions from the middle of the nineteenth century through various samaj (associations) and great religious figures. Some of these (Gandhi, Vivekananda, Vinoba Bhave, Aurobindo) were strongly influenced by the figure of Jesus and Christianity (unlike the Islamic revival). Neo-Hinduism seeks to preserve the fundamental values of Indian tradition (the religion above all), rejecting whatever is incompatible with the modern world. But meanwhile, after the ascent to power of Rajiv Gandhi (the son of Indira, killed in 1984) and the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), India has renounced the Soviet model of development and has embraced the free market. This has produced an economic boom and an unprecedented degree of affluence. Though it is going through an acute crisis, traditional Hinduism is on the rise due to the formation of various parties to replace the Congress Party. They are based on the caste system and exploit people’s religious feelings.

From castes to violence
The economic and social development of India today is hindered by the caste system. This is a centuries-old social structure which will not disappear from one year to the next. So, on the one hand, the political, cultural, and religious forces of India are tending toward democracy, freedom of thought, and religion. On the other, the forces of Indutva (religious and political nationalism) are trying to impose on the whole country, partly by force, the principle that “the only true Indian is the Hindu.” They attack Muslims (13% of over one billion Indians), who give as good as they get, and Christians (3%), who are not vengeful and end up becoming the scapegoats of the situation. The attacks on Christian missions and works have become almost everyday events in some states of the center-north (Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Bihar).
The basic reason for this anti-Christian violence is the awareness that the “modern world” will inevitably end up destroying traditional Indian society. The presence of small Christian communities among the people spreads the values of the modern world: the absolute value of the human person, equality of all before the state, equal rights for woman, freedom of thought and religion, and social justice. If the Indian people enter this “modern” logic, Hinduism and India will lose its culture and the roots of its identity. The Hindu elites, both religious and secular, have developed a higher vision of Hinduism, partly through the dialogue with Christianity and the work of the Christian schools and universities (the most prestigious, 12% of the Indian ones). They have managed to remain Hindu while fully accepting modernity. But the broader masses (the illiteracy rate is 35%) still embrace traditional Hinduism and are more easily manipulated by extremist political parties.

Pariahs and casteless
There is a another reason for Hindu hostility to Christian missions. The social work of missionaries has always sought to help the poorest and most marginal classes. Among the “casteless” (Dalits or Pariahs, today numbering some 150 million) and the tribals (another 80 million), the missions have played an important role, which is acknowledged by Indian governments. They have given the poor awareness of their dignity and rights. Whoever visits regions inhabited by Pariahs or tribals, over a period of 20–30 years or more, can testify to the profound social revolution achieved without violence, simply through education. For over 50 years, I have been visiting India and Andhra Pradesh, where the Italian missionaries of the PIME are at work. Each time, I am surprised by the giant strides made by the Pariahs. For example, in 1964, the Pariahs were serfs, hired by the day to work on the estates of landowners. Today, I find there are two universities (engineering and medicine) founded for them by missionaries. It is not hard to understand the interests of those who do not want the casteless to move on!
In the non-Christian world today, India is the country closest to Christ and the Gospel, not just because of its living and flourishing Church, but also because of the spread of Christian values in its culture. Christian missions and communities have had a great influence in fostering the revival of Hinduism. Gandhi wanted a progressive India, but not a materialistic and godless one. The roots of modern India are quite different from those of the Christian West. Here, the influences are atheistic and anti-Christian (the Enlightenment, idealist philosophy, and Marxism). In India, they are theistic and influenced by the Gospel and the Beatitudes. So we should not fear this Hindu extremism. We have to pray and support the Christians of India in every way. The land of Saint Thomas will have a large part to play in the spread of the Gospel in Asia.