Somnath Temple in Gujarat, India

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Somnath Temple in Gujarat, India


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Missionaries in India: Continuities, Changes, Dilemmas

Part 5: Mahatma Gandhi's recommendations to missionaries

(Excerpts from Arun Shourie's book with similar title)

[.] The pursuit of conversions has not helped the converts. And it has bureaucratized the Church itself. [Editor: See for the argumentation leading to this conclusion: Shourie (1994) pp. 18-36]

There is of course the other point: it has been a perennial source of tension among communities, it has fomented bitterness towards Christians, in particular towards the missionaries.

And now that Middle Eastern money is being used for spurring conversions to Islam, the backlash to conversions per se is certain to be even more intense […].

What should be done?

What then should missionaries do about this vexed question? Gandhiji’s advice was fivefold, and it remains as pertinent today.

The best thing of course is that you give up conversion altogether, he said. The extent to which he said he would go if he had the power varied: ranging from: “In India under Swaraj I have no doubt that foreign missionaries will be at liberty to do their proselytising, as I would say, in the wrong way; but they would be expected to bear with those who, like me, point out that in their opinion the way is wrong,” to the unambiguous, “If I had power and could legislate, I should certainly stop all proselytising.” But the variations were in regard to what he would do if he had power. In regard to what missionaries should do, his advice was always the same: stop conversions altogether as it is “the deadliest poison that ever sapped the fountain of truth.”

Second, if convert you must, direct your efforts to those who are in a position to assess these matters; do not make the poor and illiterate and desperate the targets of your campaign. “I know of representatives of different religions standing on the same platform and vying with one another to catch the Harijan ear,” he said. “To dignify this movement with the name of spiritual hunger is a travesty of truth. Arguing on the highest plane I said to Dr. Mott (who had been in the forefront of missionary activities in the 1930s), if they wanted to convert Harijans, had they not better begin to convert me? I am a trifle more intelligent than they, and therefore more receptive to the influences of reason that could be brought to bear upon me. But to approach the Pulayas and Pariahs with their palsied hands and paralysed intelligence is no Christianity. No, whilst our reform movement is going on, all religious-minded people should say: ‘Rather than obstruct their work, let us support them in their work’.” The missionary Dr. John R. Mott asked, “But must we not serve them?” Gandhiji said, “Of course, you will, but not making conversion the price of your service.” Quoting Christ to the effect, “Preach and Teach,” Mott said, “The whole Christian religion is the religion of sharing our life, and how can we share without supplementing our lives with words?” Gandhiji replied, “Then what they are doing in Travancore is correct? There may be difference of degree in what you say and what they are doing, but there is no difference of quality. If you must share it with the Harijan, why don’t you share it with Thakkarbapa and Mahadev? Why should you go to the untouchable and try to exploit this upheaval? Why not come to us instead?” “I strongly resent,” Gandhiji told missionaries who asked him about conversions, “these overtures to utterly ignorant men. I can perhaps understand overtures made to me, as indeed they are being made. For they can reason with me and I can reason with them. But I certainly resent the overtures made to Harijans. When a Christian preacher goes and says to a Harijan that Jesus was the only begotten son of God, he will give him a blank stare. Then he holds out all kinds of inducements which debase Christianity.”

Third, even for that effort, Gandhiji said, it would be better for non-Indian missionaries to return to their countries and attend to problems there. Those problems are intense, and they are vast enough to engage all the missionaries that can be made available there. “Would you be really happy if we stayed at home?,” an American missionary asked Gandhiji. “I can not say that,” Gandhiji replied. “But I will certainly say that I have never been able to understand your going out of America . Is there nothing to do there?” “Even in America there is enough work for educational work,” the missionary said. “That is a fatal confession,” observed Gandhiji. “You are not a superfluity there. But for the curious position your Church has taken you would not be here…”

Fourth, in doing any kind of work among the people, Gandhiji counselled the missionaries, compliment the faith of the people, do not undermine it. Do not de-nationalize them.

Finally, instead of the life of the Church, live the life of Jesus, of piety, of the Sermon on the Mount. Let that life, that example persuade people to embrace Christianity if they will, not these vending devices.

In view of the way things are – the fragile condition of the apparatus of governance today, the use of collateral devices for securing conversions […] the intense reaction that such activity is fomenting, I would make bold to supplement Gandhiji’s list with two further points.

Desist in particular from targeting groups and areas which are unsettled. Work among them, and in those areas is bound to end up exacerbating instability, and thereby fuelling the apprehension that missionaries are out to undermined India . If the call is irresistible for working among these groups and in such areas – the North-East for instance – make certain that you persuade the people to abide by the methods of Jesus and Gandhi.

Second, as you are certain that you are using nothing but reason and evidence to gain converts to Christianity but as you can not be sure that others are not using other devices, add your mite to the demand that conversions should be open to scrutiny – that, as in the case of every other act the consequences of which go beyond oneself, the State must have the authority to ensure that force and fraud and allurement have not been used to beguile or compel the unwary.

By: Arun Shourie

The first part: The Need for a rational discussion

The second part: Is missionary work really that noble?

The third part: Mahatma Gandhi's conversation with a missionary

The fourth part: The inevitable consequences

The fifth part : Mahatma Gandhi's recommendations to missionaries

Also see: A review of "Missionaries in India" by C.J..S. Wallia on

Copyright: Arun Shourie 1994

Excerpted from: Missionaries in India: Continuities, Changes, Dilemmas, pp. 37-40. Published by HarperCollins Publishers India Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 1994. Price: Rs. 295.

Note: These excerpts are provided here for informative purpose and to present a very interesting view point of one of the most articulate and prolific author in independent India. IndiaWorld on the Net has no commercial motives whatsoever in publishing these excerpts. Further, no guarantee can be taken for eithter textual or factual correctness of the provided text. Readers are advised to consult the original as well as other authoritative sources of information to ascertain authenticity.

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