This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Monday, 26 November 2012

Harvesting Our Souls : Review

I’ve been reading a book which for reasons entirely beyond the author’s control, is rather apposite right now. I decided to review it as a blog entry and not as a review – because I have so much to say on the subject beyond what the author does.
In the last couple of weeks, major clashes have broken out in the state of Orissa between Hindu groups and Christians – most of whom are tribal people who converted relatively recently. These are far from the first clashes between the two groups. The only difference is that this time the Christians weren’t the ones at the receiving end. And the reason for the clashes? Evangelical Christianity had raised tensions on either side. We’ll get back to the reason in a minute. 
You must understand that despite all claims to the contrary, Christianity is not a recent arrival in the Indian subcontinent as a whole.
It arrived in the first century of the current era (it’s claimed the Apostle Thomas himself brought it, but since there’s no way to prove that, there’s no need to place any relevance on that bit) and never got much in the way of converts. It stayed restricted for well over a thousand years to small pockets on the coasts, even though Christians were never persecuted or restricted in preaching. It was just not a typically “Indian” religion, I guess, and because Christians took such care to keep themselves apart from Hinduism they weren’t submerged in the Hindu pantheon as most other foreign imports were. Still and all, Christianity in India is a good two millennia old, older than Christianity in Western Europe. It’s as Indian a religion as any, by that criterion. However, as I said, it remained restricted to the coasts – until the Dutch came along, and then the Portuguese, the French, and most of all the British. The Portuguese had already begun trying to convert the Mughal Emperor Akbar (who had a lot of fun, if reports are to be trusted, stringing their priests along) to Catholicism, but their possessions in India were small and even there the conversion efforts weren’t too successful.
The real push for Christianity came in the mid-nineteenth century when British power was expanding exponentially in the Indian subcontinent. The earlier British were all too happy to “go native” – they took local wives, put on Indian clothing, learned Indian languages, and sometimes converted to Islam as well. But as British hard power increased, the British came to think of themselves as a superior master race ordained by god to rule “lesser breeds without the law”; and, naturally, the master race’s religion had to be superior to that of the subject people.
One of the major triggers behind the War of Independence of 1857 was the increasing attempts at conversion by Christian priests of Hindus and Muslims; the British got such a scare as the result of that conflict that the thrust of conversion was directed away from the mainstream religious groups towards the marginalised – the many tribes and the lowest castes of the country.  
I live in a state where about 70% of the population is Christian (and about 54% of the population of this town is Christian). Since Christianity is a relatively recent arrival (since the mid-nineteenth century) in these parts (and even later in other parts of North East India) it might repay study if we see how the religion has affected the large part of the population who converted to it…
In Meghalaya (the state where I live) much, but far from all, the population of the majority Khasi tribe has been Christianised – mostly by Catholics. The original Khasi religion, Niam Tre, still exists, though, and still has a substantial number of adherents, and the Khasi culture hasn’t been totally obliterated even among Christians. Things are different in the two states targeted by Baptist missionaries, Mizoram and Nagaland, where virtually the entire tribal population was converted to Christianity and the original culture (with the exception of tribal dances) was ruthlessly suppressed (even the traditional Mizo drum was banned). I guess that’s an indication of the differences between the Catholic and Baptist ways of doing things.
Now there comes a time when you hit the law of diminishing returns – when virtually all the people of an area have been converted, further conversion efforts are pretty much a waste of energy. The majority ofIndia’s Hindu population had proved remarkable in its resistance to conversion; Islam in any case prohibits Muslims from converting to anything else; and no one seriously minded so long as Christianity inIndia remained restricted to the periphery, the North East and the extreme south. But the missionaries, starved of subjects to convert, then turned to the tribal peoples of the heartland. That was kind of hitting close to home.
You see, the most identifiable political trend in India in the last two decades has been a move towards right wing Hindu fundamentalism, a trend that has had a precursor in Weimar Germany in the 1920s when the Nazis were just getting started. Any right wing fundamentalist movement, of a necessity, needs a target. The Muslims already were a target. But the problem was that the Muslims constitute enough of a chunk of India’s population that they can’t be completely ignored – and they can hit back. The Christians were a much softer target.
As it was, resentment levels were already high against evangelical Christianity and converts even in states like this one where religious clashes are as yet unknown – the average Niam Tre believer has only contempt for the Christian convert. This is despite the fact that missionary Christianity is on the back burner here. The Hindu fundamentalists had much more of a fertile ground for exploiting resentment in the heartland where the missionaries were much more active. There were many clashes, culminating in the burning alive of an Australian missionary cum social worker, Graham Staines, and two of his children in 1999 by a mob led by a Hindu fundamentalist known by the nom de plume Dara Singh.  
While the Indian constitution allows freedom to preach and propagate one’s religion, conversions by “coercion, fraud or allurement” are banned in many states. It happens, though. I know of one case myself. An elderly woman who was the only non-Christian in a village near this town was under considerable social pressure to convert. When she refused, mysteriously, every night stones would be flung at her house. The village church’s priest advised her to convert so he could pray for her and banish the evil influence. She converted and – hey presto! – the stoning stopped. Now is that a miracle or what?
Answer: what.
Why should the missionaries be so desperate to convert, anyway? Because conversion is big, big business. Despite the formal Christianity necessary for political office, Europe has about abandoned Christianity if church attendances are anything to go by…and this means that church collections are way, way down. Every little bit helps. With further economic recession looming in the West, the only place to go is Asia. At the same time, missionary funds come on the basis of headcounts – how many people a missionary manages to convert will determine how much money he will receive. I know of one pastor of a church called the Evangelical Free Church of India who uses the funds he receives from the parent church in the US to buy a fleet of SUVs and go for vacations abroad every year – and at the same time makes his “flock” turn over a percentage of their earnings to him as a tithe. It’s all about the money, honey.
The author of the book I’m reviewing is a politician by the name of Arun Shourie, one of the more intelligent and more articulate writers of the extreme Hindu right. The book is called Harvesting Our Souls and aims to expose the missionary agenda. Shourie does a pretty good job, if you read the book from a Hindu right wing viewpoint, of carrying through his stated aim. Fortunately, I’m a neutral in this, being an atheist. Still, I admit, so long as Shourie sticks to eviscerating the missionaries he does an excellent job, and his research so far as Christianity is concerned is immaculate. I’d give him four stars on those points, but only on those points.  
Shourie starts off with a review of anti-Christian “incidents”, including the Staines murder, which he, predictably enough, tries to downplay or even argue is the fault of the victim – because he, Staines, carried out conversions, he deserved, the implication goes, to be killed. He goes into detail about the motives of missionaries and why they tend to target the poor and illiterate rather than the well-educated who might be inclined to ask questions.
Shourie then gets stuck in with gusto into the Bible, exposing the many, many inconsistencies, discrepancies, and flat-out contradictions in this book which allegedly came from God direct (as the missionaries still claim), as well as the myth of the Virgin Mary. On this point I’m in total agreement with him. The versions of the Bible available in India to the layperson never, ever, mention any of these contradictions, nor do missionaries of my acquaintance (Catholic or Protestant) admit of them in public.
After that Shourie goes on to discuss the Old Testament’s blood-soaked deity (whom he’s careful never to refer to as YHWH or to talk of his chosen people as “Jews”; being a Hindu fascist he’s an extreme admirer of “Israel” and has no desire to annoy any “Israeli”) and this deity’s tantrums towards his own people. He ends with a brief discussion of the plight of converts: their social condition remains broadly unchanged.
Central to Shourie’s thesis are several assumptions, some of which are completely, demonstrably false, and some of which are at the least highly contentious. His core assumption, of course, is that Christianity is a “foreign” religion – which it is not – and that somehow or other Christians cease to be Indian or begin to have extra-territorial loyalties.
It is true that many Christians during British rule (though much less than all) wanted the Raj to last because being Christian, they thought, gave them status and they feared being submerged in a Hindu sea. But the Raj is six decades in its grave and surely anyone still hankering after that time should have died or left by now.
It’s obvious, of course, that if national law conflicts with religious law, the former should prevail: this is a point that Shourie makes. But his suggestion isn’t the Chinese model where the church is taken over by a national body independent of movers and shakers abroad, like theVatican for instance. Of course he doesn’t suggest that model: Shourie never misses a chance to take gratuitous potshots at China. Shourie doesn’t really make a suggestion – he leaves it to the reader to draw the conclusion that Christians are foreign fifth columnists who must be crushed.
As I said, this book is pitched towards Hindu readers who already hold right wing views. It isn’t meant to be read by someone with a critical mind. Unfortunately, in my case…
The next assumption Shourie makes – in fact he repeatedly and explicitly states it – is that while the Bible was compiled over centuries by a variety of authors, Hindu gods (whom he always calls “our gods”) like Rama and Krishna apparently have existed for much longer. This is poppycock. Each of those Hindu deities evolved slowly over time, and Krishna is of actually more recent origin than Christianity. So much for research where one’s own side is concerned!
Shourie finds fault with some segments of the Christian church for “Indianising” rituals by removing footwear, prostrating before the cross, using incense, and the like. Apparently instead of appreciating an attempt, however belated and limited, to try to indigenise itself, this is seen as a grave threat. It is. It might make Christianity more acceptable to the people, and to the Hindu fundamentalist, what could be worse than that?  
The next error in Shourie’s polemic isn’t really an error. It’s part of the Hindu fundamentalist agenda. All these millennia, mainstream Hinduism didn’t bother about the sects and the small religions of other peoples. The tribes had religions which had nothing to do with Hinduism (like Niam Tre, which I mentioned) and they were left alone. Since the Hinduism of the upper castes is highly resistant to change or conversion (the typical Hindu belief is that all religions lead to the same source) the missionaries were trying to convert among the tribes with their small, isolated religions. Suddenly, in these last couple of decades, the Hindu fundamentalists have declared that these people are all Hindus and must be “brought back into the fold” by re-conversions. It’s like Hitler discovering the trials and tribulations of the Volksdeutsche, the German expatriates of Eastern Europe.
What Shourie, of course, never attempts to answer is why people should want to convert at all. Surely not all of them were “coerced” or “allured” towards Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism? Surely there is a vast amount of resentment among the people at the bottom of the Indian caste system and among those altogether outside its limits, like the tribal people? Maybe it would make more sense to address these problems than rape nuns and burn priests alive? If you read Shourie, the question isn’t even approached. Nor does he try to think about why Hindu organisations don’t try and match the undoubted social services the missionaries provide in areas where there are no schools or hospitals or anything at all.
As I said, I’m a neutral, so I kind of enjoyed reading this book and watching one set of beliefs I detest take on another set I despise. “A plague on both your houses”, I said, and would have reached for the popcorn if only there hadn’t been real humans dying.
Oh, and the overall rating? Four stars for taking the Bible apart. Zero stars for everything else. Verdict? Two stars.    

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