Christianity in India
Conversion, Community, Development, and Religious Freedom
- ISBN: 9781506447919
- Published By: Fortress Press
- Published: November 2018
Christianity In India: Conversion, Community Development, and Religious Freedom, edited by Rebecca Samuel Shah and Joel Carpenter, benefits from a wide array of academic and nonacademic authors. Following Robert Eric Frykenberg’s argument, Christianity in this volume is recognized as an Indian religion and not simply a foreign and colonial import. The contributors’ objective is to demonstrate how Indian Christians continue to participate in and “advance” Indian society, even amid increasing violence and persecution (xix). Many of the chapters are situated against the backdrop of Hindu nationalism, which has been on the rise since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014. Furthermore, many authors make note of the Religious Freedom Bill, a recent bill that has been gaining traction especially in North Indian states and which has made conversion from Hinduism to anther religion illegal. The bill targets women and the oppressed castes, and vaguely gestures to fraud, force, and allurement as the main means of conversion. The volume aims to contest allegations that conversion results in the rejection of an Indian cultural identity, embraces a foreign identity, and destabilizes the nation.
The volume succeeds in its goal of furthering discussions around religious freedom, the role churches play in local communities, and conversion. Samuel Shah’s chapter examines how Hindu nationalists seek to convert Indians in ways that are reminiscent of missionary tactics, raising the question of whether Indian Christians are unfairly portrayed as the sole purveyors of conversion. Sean Doyle’s chapter explores Lakshmibai Tilak’s conversion and her life’s work, arguing that she immersed herself in Marathi culture, thereby refuting the claim that conversion causes a renunciation of Indian culture. While successful in that argument, Doyle attributes all of Tilak’s social beliefs to “internalizing” the values of Christianity, a claim that could use nuance given the social milieu of the reform period and the multitude of stances to which she would have been exposed.
Joshua Iyadurai’s chapter focuses on prepublished dominant-caste (Brahmin) conversion narratives using a phenomenological approach. Iyadurai admirably historicizes how anticonversion sentiments have been inflected by caste since the 19th century. He identifies the two main arguments set forth by Hindu nationalists against conversion. First, the only potential converts are oppressed caste, who supposedly convert for material benefits and lack the agency and education to fully grasp what conversion means. Second, dominant-caste people do not convert. Iyadurai focuses on Brahmin conversion narratives to refute the latter argument and argue that dominant castes (who are well educated) do convert to Christianity and do so for spiritual reasons (to negate the assumption that it is only for material gains).
While it is important to dismantle all aspects of the anticonversion discourse, Iyadurai does not engage with the first argument concerning the oppressed castes. There is neither an argument against the possibility that they do not convert for material gain nor acknowledgment of Dalit agency, which seems to tacitly give credence to that part of the discourse. This acceptance of the discourse can be seen when Iyadurai quotes one of the published conversion accounts, where the Brahmin convert states, “I was born a Brahmin and am the grandson of a priest. . . . I am educated . . . reasonably intelligent. I am also affluent . . . [from] upper middle class . . . high-caste, rich and smart. In other words, I am not a tribal, not a poor or dimwitted” (101).
Iyadurai’s analysis of this statement notes this person gives “credentials” to counter the dominant perception—but makes no statement on the validity or casteism behind those assumptions. Iyadurai’s claim that these conversion narratives show immense personal spiritual transformation would have been strengthened by the same historicization he applies to caste and anticonversion. The emphasis on spiritual inner transformation has also been caste-inflected, as seen in Eliza Kent’s work, where dominant-caste conversion narratives focus on the inner transformation, while oppressed caste conversion focus on outward markers, such as attire and hygiene (Converting Women, Gender and Protestant Christianity in Colonial South India, Oxford University Press, 2004).
However, the issue of Dalit agency is taken up in Samuel Shah and Timothy Samuel Shah’s chapter, in which they examine the paternalism of the Religious Freedom Bill. They note that conversion itself is not at the heart of the issue, since conversion to Hinduism is encouraged by the government. The authors begin by critiquing the recent trend in Western liberal universities in which scholars have begun to position the idea of universal religious freedom as a parochial, neoliberal idea, forced on the rest of the world in the way of intellectual colonialism. At first, the argument of these liberal scholars seems sound; rather than arbitrarily forcing a “universal” (read: Western) value, cultures should develop their own practices, rooted in local cultural, ethnic, and political practices that reflect local values. However, as Samuel Shah and Samuel Shah are quick to identify based on their fieldwork in Bangalore with Dalit women from many religious backgrounds, these local practices, such as caste, have historically worked to doubly marginalize Dalit women. The authors demonstrate that the principle of religious freedom has been liberating for Dalit women and these women are more than capable of making decisions about religious identity, familial welfare, and economic well-being.
Other noteworthy chapters are Aminta Arrington’s, concerning evangelical social action, and Samuel Thambusamy’s on Bollywood and the BJP. Arrington makes the convincing case for American evangelicals to take seriously and incorporate Dalit theology into their missions for social change. Dalit theologians ask that one not only take personal transformation into account, but also to challenge unjust societal structures such as caste and patriarchy. Much has been written on Bollywood and religion, and yet Thambusamy’s chapter still has much to offer in terms of both its admirable breadth and level of detail. Overall, this volume is well worth reading for anyone interested in how religion, social justice, and nationalism intersect in India.
Stephanie Duclos-King is a PhD student at the University of Toronto.Stephanie Duclos-KingDate Of Review:February 21, 2022