Bishop Bhai Articles


The Origins of Christianity in India

Leobard D’Souza
Archbishop Emeritus of Nagpur

Roberto de Nobili

In the second half of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europe’s attitude toward Asia changed.  Much of this is due to the period called the European Renaissance.  This was a movement that encouraged people to be open to all others, especially to the treasures of ancient Greece and Rome but not only to them.  Asia figured prominently in this openness. 

Many of the missionaries who came to Asia during this time were Jesuits, which may or may not be significant, but they were open to learning the customs of the people of India and their practices.  They wanted especially to meet Asian scholars and learn from and with them.  In this much, dialogue between and among religions became part of the Indian scene and continues to be so today despite the fact that many misunderstand its purpose and potential.

Roberto de Nobili, an Italian Jesuit came to Madurai in 1606.  He wanted to establish contact with the local Brahmins but realized that if he were identified as Portuguese or with low caste converts to Catholicism of which there were many in Madurai, this contact would not be possible.   So he built a mud hut, identified himself as a Kshatriya, and adopted the ochre robe of a sannyasi.  He became a vegetarian, ate only one meal a day, and had nothing western in his hut including tables and chairs.  Eventually a few of his companions joined him but others persecuted de Nobili because they believed that all Christians should worship together.  The eventual compromise was that Catholics worshipped in the same place but used different entrances to the church and low caste persons received communion after the Brahmins.  The Syrian Church adopted similar practises.

Persons who were baptized did not receive Portuguese but Tamil names.  They were encouraged to keep their cultural practices and symbols like the sacred thread.  A Catholic clergy based on Sanskrit studies was de Nobili’s dream.  Eventually, Cardinal Bellarmine, who was de Nobili’s uncle, wrote to him and upbraided him for having lost his faith.  Finally, in 1623 Pope Gregory XV decided to approve de Nobili’s approach.

It may be that de Nobili did not take the caste system in India seriously enough, thinking it was much like the social structures of European society of his day but his underlying assumption was that anyone who wanted to be part of Catholic life ought to have that option open to them without doing violence to their particular culture.  And it needs to be remembered that de Nobili did not minister only to the Brahmins.  He was also of great service to any and all Catholics.

It also needs to be remembered that missionaries in general were spread very thin throughout India.  Much of the work of the church was and is in the hands of catechists which originated from the mission method of St. Francis Xavier.  In 2001, the Vatican identified 60, 144 catechists working in India, and another 1,000 lay persons associated with church efforts but not dependent on priests. 

The work of de Nobili did not result in a mass Christian movement but it did give a cultural face to Indian Catholicism.  Even today, many contemporary Catholic theologians come from Tamil Nadu where there seems to be the greatest affinity between Hindus and Christians. 

This Roman pioneer of inter-religious dialogue called himself the Awakener to the Essence of Reality.  He has not been forgotten in India.  Today there are statues of him in Chennai and Madurai.  There are Indian intellectuals, although small in number, who converted to Catholicism because they came to understand the tradition through the work of de Nobili. 

After the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and Danish mercantile powers arrived in India and brought their own particular brands of Christianity with them.  But the basic approach of the Catholic Church was that developed in Madurai, along caste lines.  Indian Christians themselves became the chief missionaries to their own people, working with priest missionaries from the west especially those who were members of religious orders.  Women religious were eventually sent to India and much later lay Christians came.  But the work of expatriates would have been fruitless without the efforts of the local Indian Christians who often brought whole families into the Church, and sometimes even whole tribes.  

It seems that what Christians offered their relatives and neighbours was an organized way of life, and common prayer, dear to the hearts of the communitarian dimensions of village life.  They also respected individuals and paid attention to persons on the margins of Indian society.  The life of Jesus and his Mother Mary seems to have provided a particular inspiration and still does.  The memory of the work of Francis Xavier was prevalent.  The intercession of saints who were powerful intercessors with God also appealed to the villagers in particular who had a deep sense of the gifts of their ancestors. 

Christians always sought the permission of local rulers for permission to spread Christianity and it was usually given and often land was provided to the missionaries.  The frequent celebration of Eucharist sustained the communities despite the occasional persecution of some rulers but this was the exception rather than the rule.

In Pondicherry French priests developed their mission along the lines of those in Madurai.


Akbar and the North Indian Mission

Muhammad Akbar was born the very year that Francis Xavier landed in Goa.  In a very real sense he was the founder of the North Indian Mission.  He had a keen thirst for knowledge and seems to have been dissatisfied with what he had learned of Islam.  Part of his court life was to have discussions with members of various religious traditions.  Akbar had no difficulty with allowing religions other than Islam to flourish around him and even took part in some of their worship services with them.  This dismayed traditional Muslims.

Akbar eventually went to Bengal to consolidate his reign.  Two Jesuits from Goa had been sent to Bengal to minister to the small group of Christians there.  When they learned that some of the Portuguese merchants were refusing to pay their taxes to Akbar the Jesuits refused them absolution.  When word of this reached Akbar he decided that he wanted to know more about the moral and ethical code of Christians and invited Father Aegidius Perera to come to his court at Fatehpur Sikri.   He told the priest he wanted to learn Portuguese.  Akbar wanted inter-religious dialogue, of course, and when Father Perera did not see himself up to that task he suggested that Akbar send to Goa for two Jesuits from the College of St. Paul.  (Akbar had actually met some Christians in Surat previously when they had come to annex Gujarat.)

The request to Goa for the two priests left the Jesuits there thinking they might have an Indian Constantine on their hands.  The viceroy thought the emperor wanted the priests for hostages so that he could elicit favors from the Portuguese.  Three priests were sent to Akbar and took with them – reluctantly according to the historical sources – a huge bible just printed in Belgium with the gospels in Hebrew, Syrian, Latin, and Greek.  In addition to this polyglot bible, Akbar had a considerable number of other Christian texts in his library from contacts with a wide number of Christians. 

Akbar was not converted nor had he ever said that he wanted to be.  He wanted to learn about Christianity.  It is likely that the Jesuits misunderstood what he wanted although he always treated them with great respect and they traveled with him when his court moved.   Akbar is reported to have been especially fond of Rudolph Aquaviva, an aristocrat born in Naples.  The Jesuits thought that Akbar was dallying with them and became increasingly concerned when he began to formulate his own religion which they saw as syncretistic and doomed to failure.  Akbar would occasionally call the Jesuits to him to discuss points about Christian theology but his conversion seemed less and less likely so the Jesuits reported this to their superior in Goa.  They were recalled on the proviso that they saw fit to leave.  Otherwise they were permitted to stay.  The first Jesuit returned to Goa in 1581 and the second in 1582 with a request from Akbar that he be replaced.  Aquaviva stayed the longest and left with regrets only in 1583.  He would soon die a martyr’s death in Salsette near Goa.  This was the result of a serious misunderstanding there between the missionaries and the local population.  Among the reasons that Aquaviva did not want to leave Fatehpur Sikri was that a kingdom of the “Bottan” had been discovered and he was keen to serve there.  They were actually Tibetans.  Reportedly there were no Muslims living among the Tibetans and Aquaviva thought there would be a “great harvest for souls” there.  This enterprise would later be undertaken and would result in a first encounter between Christianity and the religion of Tibet.  The encounter did not result in a harvest of souls but did result in an amazing Tibetan Christian literature.
In 1590 Akbar again asked for priests from Goa to come to his court.  Two priests and a brother were sent but they met with such strong opposition that they returned to Goa within the same year.  In 1594 Akbar again asked for priests and the viceroy insisted they be sent.  Jerome Xavier, a nephew of Francis, was sent.  This mission was more successful and in one way or another lasted for two centuries.  Jerome mastered enough Persian to write some treatises in that language.  Conversion was no longer an issue but presence was.  Later Jesuits became involved in the astronomical observatories in Jaipur and Delhi.  From the large number of prints in Akbar’s library murals and miniatures of Christian themes began to be reproduced in Indian formats.  Sufi elders took particularly to the images of Jesus with his apostles as representative of fealty and religious devotion. 
The religious freedom encouraged by Akbar and his successors did result in a few upper caste conversions but not enough to upset the members of the court.  Christians were spread very thin in North India.  With the decline of the Mughal Empire, Christianity also declined and with the suppression of the Jesuits in 1773 “a mission founded by a heathen emperor was exterminated by a pope,” (Fernando, 141) Some Jesuits stayed on but simply as priests, not members of the Society.  The last known member was there until 1803 when the English captured Delhi and the Mughal dynasty came to an end.

It should be mentioned that the grandson of Akbar, Emperor Aurangzeb was very tolerant of missionary activities from Patna which continued to take place in Agra. Central India was then ruled by Gond Rajahs from the Kingdom of Deogad near Chhindwara.  In 1679, Father Phillip de Faria, S.J., was sent from Patna to Raja Bakht Buland, an extremely knowledgeable person interested in Christianity and versed in poetry who eventually founded Nagpur City.  Faria dressed like a sannyasi and moved freely among the Brahmins in particular.  By 1683 he had a handful of followers. But he was recalled to Agra and his superiors decided against continuing the Nagpur mission among other reasons because of the in-fighting in the Mughal courts to gain control of the diamond mines in the Chandra District.   The Gond Rajah became a Muslim and the Jesuit Mission to Nagpur was ended.  It would be the mid-nineteenth century before it was taken up again by the French Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales (Fransalians). 


Blessed Joseph Vaz/ Sadhu Sundar Singh/Saint Gonzalo Garcia  

The word “mission” does not necessarily mean work undertaken by foreign missionaries.  In fact, the brightest and best of all missionaries to India wanted and want work in the country to be done by indigenous persons.  Most would also suggest that we depend on our own financial resources to make our work happen and not import monies from abroad.  Francis Xavier’s own position at St. Paul’s College in Goa was “Asians for Asia” in terms of priesthood.  Today we often talk about mission as ministry ad intra and ministry ad extra.  Some work to keep the Christian institution itself alive and relevant.  Some work with those outside of formal church membership to effect their sustainable human development.  The role of contemporary laity, religious, and priests are no longer confined to the more traditional roles they once undertook.

Mission today is multi-layered and multi-directional as many Indian Christians now volunteer to work abroad.  Their work and the work of Indian Christians at home are as varied as the needs they encounter.  Their overall goal, we hope, is to empower and animate people to secure the food, clothing, shelter, leisure for reflection (religion), education to get work, education to keep work, participation in the decisions affecting their lives, and cultural liberty, which constitutes a dignified human existence.  This is not a new phenomenon.

One of the most outstanding examples of heroic mission life is Blessed Joseph Vaz.  He was a Goan priest born in 1651.  He revived the faith of Catholics in Karnataka suffering under enormous persecution.  But his major work was in Sri Lanka where he and fellow Catholics suffered constant persecution from the Dutch Protestant colonial power.  When Catholic priests were banned in Sri Lanka he was smuggled into the country as a coolie and was protected while there for 23 years by a native Buddhist ruler.   He found ways of inculturating Catholicism into Sri Lankan modes, founded the first fully indigenous religious congregation in the world, opened a hospital, and established an underground network of Catholic schools.  He was a mystic and lived by the rules of Hindu and Buddhist renunciates.  He was beatified by Pope John Paul II on January 21, 1995. 

Joseph Vaz is revered in Sri Lanka and Karnataka where he served and also in Goa where he was born.  At his beatification, the Holy Father called Joseph Vaz, the “second founder of Christianity” in Sri Lanka.

Another remarkable Indian evangelist of more recent times is Sadhu Sundar Singh.  Born in Punjab in 1889, he went to a Christian mission school where he was so incensed at the promotion of Christianity on the part of his teachers that he burned a bible to the dismay of his Hindu father who told him that all religions were to be respected and honoured.  In 1905 when he was on the verge of committing suicide he had a vision of Jesus who invited him to follow him.  He left his family and friends and put on the robe of a sannyasi and went to live near Simla.  He tried to study theology in Lahore but this did not work so he began to walk throughout the villages of North India talking in parables to the people much as Jesus did.  He may have gone to Tibet as well. 

He was invited by many to speak of his personal transformation and his unique approach to the gospel.  No matter the controversies surrounding him, all who heard him testified to his utter honesty and spiritual transparency.  In 1918 Singh began to travel abroad to Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan and China.  Then he went to Europe, North America and Australia.  In 1929 he undertook a mission to Tibet from which he never returned.

Saint Gonzalo Garcia was born in Vasai in 1557. He was excellent in languages, learned Japanese and accompanied Jesuits to Japanese missions but was refused admission to the Society.  Eventually he became a Franciscan brother and returned to Japan to work.  He was killed there along with nineteen other Christians by being tied to a cross and pierced by a lance.  He was 40 years old at the time of his death.  He was canonized in 1862.

Looking at the history of mission in India we must admit that many of the earliest missionaries had no insights into the religions they encountered in the country and were intent on “saving souls”.  Abundant life for people this side of death did not feature much in their approach.  Mission activity today raises the question of conversion.  Barring extremist positions, Christians today usually maintain the following about conversion.  Conversion is a personal right.  Everyone has the right to share his or her faith with others and even to try to persuade others of the value of these beliefs but the persuasion must always be done humbly and in a spirit of dialogue.  Some Christians feel it is necessary to share their faith; others feel no urge to do so believing that God guides people along various religious paths.  Most Christians believe they and their churches exist to continue the work of Jesus which today is often re-interpreted as creating a world in which justice, equality, love, forgiveness, freedom, respect, and friendship reign.  Mainstream Christian churches hold all of the above and also announce that Jesus is the means by which the fullness of life reaches us and thus preach Jesus in the New Testament understanding as saviour of the world. 

Indian Christians share in the full spectrum of these positions on conversion.  Having lived peacefully in a diverse religious society they tend to stress the importance of dialogue and of promoting just and harmonious living.  Indian Christian communities that have lived in isolation, like tribal societies, tend to identify more easily with literalist and evangelistic approaches to conversion. 


Protestantism in India/Serampore

In the first century of its existence Protestantism was more concerned with establishing itself in the western world where Roman Catholicism dominated than with mission outreach.  Only by the end of the seventeenth century did Anglicans begin a missionary effort.  Probably the first Protestant to come to India was Sir Thomas Roe who came as ambassador from Britain to the Court of the Mughals from 1615-1618.  Reverend John Hall came as Roe’s chaplain and was thus the first Anglican priest in India but he died soon after his arrival.

Indian Protestantism began in the eighteenth century more than 200 years after the arrival of the Portuguese on the cost of Malabar.  In the seventeenth century the Dutch, British, Danes, and French came to India but their causes were mercantile not missionary.  However, in the early eighteenth century the King of Denmark came to understand his country’s efforts in India as missionary.  He hired two young German pastors to work in Tranquebar and the Protestant missionary presence was formally established then and there.  The pastors were excellent linguists and could soon speak both Portuguese and Tamil and soon produced a Tamil bible.  They also produced a Tamil catechism.  Their converts came from their workers and from some orphan children in a school they established.  Some Roman Catholics converted to Protestantism because of biblical claims and interpretations.  It was a practice of Protestant missionaries in general to go to places where there were Catholics and to work among them.  It needs to be remembered that conversions across denominations were frequent at this time.

Protestant Christianity in Bengal began with a carpenter named Krishna Pal.  He worked in Srirampur, thirteen miles from Calcutta, making furniture for scholars in that city and for the many British who lived there.  Coming home from work one evening he encountered three foreigners led by Dr. William Ward who were speaking in a strange sounding Bengali about Jesus who could save from sins.  Krishna had bathed in the Ganga many times hoping for the release from his sins but had never heard about a personal saviour who could do this.  When he dislocated his shoulder and was treated at Ward’s dispensary, the kindness he was shown resulted in his determination to be baptized along with his wife, sister-in-law and a neighboring family.  A public baptism took place and was celebrated by the whole Baptist community along with the governor.  Pal was their first convert after five and a half years of mission activity.   

Much of what transpired in Serampore  is owed to William Carey (1761-1834).  Carey was born an Anglican but soon became a Baptist.  He taught himself geography and European languages and became a country pastor.  He supplemented his meager salary by working as a cobbler.  He taught himself theology and became a preacher and linguist.  His slogan was, “Expect great things from God and attempt all things for God.”  His conviction was that while we depend on God for everything that does not diminish human responsibility.  He became passionate about mission and organized what would eventually come to be known as the Baptist Missionary Society.  At the age of thirty-two he sailed with his family from Dover to Calcutta without any travel documents.  He found work at an indigo plantation near Calcutta. 

In 1799 he moved to Serampore where he contacted pandits in Indian and other Asian languages and began the translations of the bible into those languages.  Carey did the translations into Bengali and Sanskrit himself and eventually became professor of both those languages at William Fort College in Calcutta.  Carey’s establishment was given a charter by the King of Denmark.  Today its secular subjects are affiliated with the University of Calcutta and it gives degrees to its own theology students and to most of the students in other Protestant theological colleges.

Krishna Pal and his family were not the first Christians in North India.  Thomas Christians were probably there early on.  Armenians were there and many of the traders and diplomats were Christians.  There were Catholic communities and the one in Calcutta would grow to special prominence.  Portuguese and French missionaries were there at the service of the trading communities but often extended their ministries to preaching to others. The invasion of Shah Jahan in 1632 was a tragedy for the Christians of the Hooghly.  About 4,000 of them were taken to Agra.  The women were sent to harems and the men were forcibly circumcised.  Many embraced Islam but eventually returned to their Christian faith. 
It seems that the bulk of Christians in this part of India were converts from Hinduism and some from Islam.  They were persons of humble birth, often servants of Armenians and Europeans. In the nineteenth century a number of intellectuals and high-caste Indians were attracted to Protestant Christianity mostly because of the person of Jesus and his Sermon on the Mount, also dear to the heart of Gandiji.  One of these was Krishna Mohan Banerjea considered one of the founders of Indian Christian theology.   Lal Bihari Day fought for equality of Indian pastors with foreign missionaries, the education of women, and the remarriage of widows, and for other socially progressive views of his time.  Kalicharan Banerji was the Indian Christian whom Gandhi consulted as a “seeker” to better understand Christianity. Kalicharan placed both his riches and his legal expertise at Gandhi’s disposal.  Brahmabandhab Upadhyay was a Roman Catholic who was brought to court twice but died before he could be convicted.  He denied the legitimacy of the British establishment in India.  He appeared in court in his simple Bengali dhoti and his sacred thread.  Sushil Kumar Rudra became the first Indian principal of St. Stephen’s College in Delhi.   Maharastrian converts included Nilakantha Goreh and Ramabai Dongre Medhavi.  Many Protestant intellectual converts became vitally involved in issues connected with Indian education and with the cause of the Congress Party. 


Dalit Christians

There have been Dalit Christians in India for a long time.  It is unlikely that there were low caste converts among the Thomas Christians but later Catholic converts did include a large number of low caste converts especially in Tamil Nadu.  The de Nobili method resulted in high caste converts in South India but we do not know how many.  The majority of converts came from low castes.  From the seventeenth century onwards the Christian community was divided by caste, rite, and denomination.

Only in the twentieth century did the Dalits become an object of study and concern for all those interested in the Indian reality.  The British tended to see the Dalits as being of common origin and tended to restrict their occupations to the ones they found in censuses.  Evangelists in the villages understood this reality much better.  The experienced the consequences of the caste system on the Dalits and were the principal agents of a new consciousness among the Dalits. 

There has been an historical tendency to think of the Dalits as having been bribed or coerced into Christian conversion.  Modern studies indicate that that is anything but the case.  Dalits were not passive victims but agents of their own liberation.  In Punjab in 1870 for example, a man named Ditt who worked with hides, heard of Jesus.  In 1873 he took the initiative of going to the United Presbyterian Mission in Sialkot.  He asked to be baptized.  The padres did so reluctantly but six months later he returned with his wife, daughter, and two neighbours asking for baptism.  Six months later four more neighbours arrived for baptism.  Ditt continued his evangelistic work until the end of his life.  A similar situation took place at Ongole in Andra Pradesh. 

As early as 1626 a member of the Parayar caste – the hereditary drummers – went to de Nobili to find out about Christianity.  Despite the fact that this was not de Nobili’s plan, to work with the lower castes, he was so impressed with the man’s sincerity that he baptized him.  Two or three centuries after de Nobili members of the Parayar castes sought entrance into a variety of Christian communities.  It is interesting that many Dalit communities today use the drum as their particular symbol. 

It is true that new trades and work in the army offered new possibilities but membership in the Christian churches which preached equality offered outcasts a way of protesting against that system and also opting out of it.  Even in twentieth century Bihar sixteen men of the Ravidas cast asked for baptism.  When the time came for their Baptism – on Pentecost Sunday – their upper caste employers appeared with lathis in hand and four of the sixteen fled but the others held their ground.  Today this is an active and involved church community. 

An interesting analysis of the Dalits (Prakash, 2000) makes the following points:

It is also considered likely that the celebration of the Eucharist, the sharing of the bread and wine, emphasized for the Dalits their equality in the Christian community despite the customs which arose of their having to use different entrances to the churches and to receive the Eucharist after the higher castes.  Some contemporary Dalits have joined fundamentalist sects but in general the Dalits along with the Tribals constitute the largest groups in the Christian communities. 

In their own localities Dalits still comprise a small number of persons in terms of Hindus and Muslims.  Many Dalits seem to belong to two traditions simultaneously practicing many of their original customs and also practicing as Christians.  It is the hope of many working with the Dalits that Christianity will result in their moving away from traditional practices that are more hurtful than helpful to them.  It seems clear now that there were no mass movements on the part of Dalits toward Christianity and even more clear that the missionaries were not opportunists.  Many for example would not baptize in the time of famine giving the lie to the “rice Catholics” approach to conversion. 

What is also eminently clear is that while caste as such is frowned upon in theory by all the Christian churches, it remains in place in practise in many subtle ways in the churches.  Among the 150 Roman Catholic bishops in India, only a handful are Dalits while there are a large number of Tribal bishops.  Very few Dalits hold leadership positions in religious congregations.  Some bishops will not accept low caste candidates for the priesthood.  Some seminaries will not accept low caste candidates.  The political discrimination among Dalits also needs to be mentioned although it will not be dealt with in detail here.  When a leading figure of the Lok Sabha declares that to speak of a “Christian Dalit” is an oxymoron the political situation and challenges become very clear.

Some Christian Dalits work hard at promoting the rights of their own communities.  Others choose to work in solidarity with all Dalits hoping to bring to an end anything and everything that crushes the bodies, minds, and spirits of this population.  Since the 1960s a Dalit theology has emerged.  Among those who have articulated it are non-Dalits like M.M. Thomas and Samuel Rayan.  The basic sin this theology opposes is that the Dalit is ritually, socially and spiritually corrupt and corrupting. 


Adivasis in the Church

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there was a special growth of Christianity among the Adivasis or aboriginal peoples of India.  These people are known as the Scheduled Tribes in the Indian Constitution.  So far the Indian government refuses to accept them as the indigenous peoples of India but the Adivasis are happy enough to be known as that or as Tribals.  Of course, they usually do identify themselves as members of a particular tribe.  They are about 9% of the total population.  The ethos of most groups is primal.  Many have been migrants or forest dwellers.  In the time of the British Raj most tribes were concentrated in Central India in what came to be known as the Chotanagpur plateau.  Many others were in North-East India around and beyond Bengal.  Both groups have produced new and lively Christian communities.

Chotanagpur Christians.  A widow in Burma whose doctor husband had been murdered sent to Berlin to Reverend John Evangelist Gossner, a former Catholic priest who had started a mission organization, for missionaries for Burma.  He sent four men to Calcutta with the idea that they would proceed to Burma.  This didn’t happen but while in Calcutta they encountered Kols who asked them to go to Ranchi to minister to them.  The men did so in 1845 and opened schools and orphanages but had an indifferent response from the Tribals.  After five years they asked permission to leave when a breakthrough occurred.  Four Uraons knocked on their door and asked to see Jesus.  They left disappointed and even angry because they could not accept joining an organization whose leader they could not see.  They returned about a week later and joined the missionaries in prayer and came to understand that a darshan of Jesus was possible through the eyes of faith.  The first recorded baptism of Indian Tribals took place on June 5, 1850. 

Most of Chotanagpur was occupied by three main tribes somewhat supervised by a raja but operating with deeply rooted democratic conditions.  When Mughals imposed their rule in the area the village autonomy decreased providing a crisis for the Tribals.  The situation became even worse at the time of the British Raj.  The idea of private property and documentary evidence for them was foreign to the Adivasis.  They knew they needed to reform their approaches to land and to the outsiders and some joined the Kabir Panth.  These became the first Christian converts.  Twenty-five years after the baptism of the first Christian converts, Roman Catholic missionaries appeared on the scene.  They became a powerful presence without superseding either the Anglicans or Lutherans.  Fathers Constant Lievens and John Baptist Hoffmann were the chief powerhouses among them. The Belgian Lievens came in 1885.  The German Hoffmann came in 1878. 

Lievens studied the history of land possession and defended the poor in the courts.  He taught them to do the work they always did but to demand receipts for services.  These receipts in many ways became a charter of liberation which frustrated the wealthy and even brought down the ire of the then Archbishop of Calcutta who told Lievens his work was “imprudent, dangerous, and money-wasting”.  He was sent back to Belgium to “recover his health” and died there at the age of 37.

Hoffmann operated differently starting the Catholic Co-operative Credit Society, run by the Tribals themselves. A few years later he established a grain bank.  He worked on the first draft of the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act which became the law of the land and prohibited the expropriation of tribal lands by non-tribals.  He helped publish the Encyclopedia Mundarica in 15 volumes which helped Tribals to recover their cultural identity. 

Other tribes eventually joined the Christian movement deciding that the spirit of Jesus was more powerful than the spirits they had previously worshipped. 

Chattisgarh.  In 1889-90 people from here tried to reach Father Lievens in Ranchi for instruction but were prohibited from doing so.  In 1905 despite fierce opposition from their rulers a large number of Oraons converted to Catholicism.  This was indeed a people’s movement but it was only after Independence that they could call priests and catechists to themselves.  In 1956 the Niyogi report made incredible claims about these priests and catechists which were refuted the following year by Mr. Aloysius Soares.  Officially shelved in 1968 an anti-conversion bill continues to operate selectively and trumped up charges continue to be made against priests, nuns, and laypeople, some of whom are imprisoned.  But the community continues to thrive.

North-East Christians.  These are less than one-eighth of the population of the whole North East.  Ethnically these tribes belong to Mongolian stock.  There is a tradition of violence here including head-hunting which Christian influence mitigates.  The first Christian missionary here was Krishna Pal of the Serampore Mission.  The most success was in Nagaland.  Catholic missionaries came later.  The Mizos or Lushai are among the most enthusiastic Christians of the North-East.  Their Christian faith began in revival movements unique in the history of Christianity in India.  Singing, dancing and drumming are large parts of Mizo worship.  The work of the churches in this area now is mostly educational including preparation for trades.  The language is generally English because of the large number of local languages.  The churches also work hard to diffuse rivalry between and among groups.  All church leadership is in the hands of Indians.   Many of the Adivasi churches are seeking to incorporate their ancient symbols into their present worship.  They are also enormously concerned with ecological issues.  There is a beginning effort to articulate a tribal Christian theology which is less polemical than Liberation Theology (Fernando, 217).  It is hoped that the Tribals will help develop an ecological theology so desperately needed in our times. 


Smaller Christian Communities

The Bettiah Christians did not originate with Dalits or Adivasis.  They were begun in 1740 by the Capuchin Joseph Mary of Gargnano and Raja Dhurup Singh of Bettiah.  The Capuchins were actually assigned to Nepal and Tibet but used Patna as a jumping off point to those locations.  Joseph Mary had medical expertise, lived like a sannyasi, and he and other Capuchins impressed the Raja so much that he asked the pope for them to be assigned to his kingdom.  The pope acceded to the request and Joseph Mary and a Nepali Catholic named Michael started a mission there on December 7, 1745.  Interestingly, sometime between 1761-68 they abolished caste among themselves which meant the possibility of inter-caste marriages.  Eventually Nepali Catholic refugees joined this group.  Today Bettiah is a diocese in the Catholic Church with only a few thousand Catholics but they have spread throughout North India where they are a major influence.  They have their own bishop and the archbishop of Patna and the bishop of Musaffarpur are from this community. 

The majority of Anglo-Indians are descendants of English or Irish administrators during the time of the Raj or of soldiers who married Indian women.  Most of them are baptized into the Christian churches that are part of their family tradition.  (The descendants of Portuguese administrators have generally been absorbed into the Goan or East Indian communities.)  Anglo-Indians were not allowed to own land but they clustered around important trading areas in the major cities and were influential in the civilian government during the time of the Raj.  They are great sportsmen.  Even after Independence they have had preferential employment opportunities in the railways, the postal and telegraph services, and customs and they still have representation in Parliament and some Legislative Assemblies.  Anglo-Indians have been very much attached to the church and number among their members the fourth cardinal in the Indian Church, Lawrence T. Picachy, S.J.

A curious story in the history of Christian India is that of the Begum Samru.  A Luxembourg Catholic Walter Reinhardt joined the army of the French East India Company and was in India in 1757 when Clive seized the French colony.  He was somber in appearance and this got translated into Samru.  In 1765 he fell head over heels in love with a Muslim dancing girl of 16.  He would have been about 45.  Samru had a Muslim wife who was insane until her death.  He married Farzana in a Muslim ceremony.  After his death she ruled Sardhana for fifty-eight years and converted to Catholicism taking the name Joanna.  Why is unclear.  She had at least one torrid love affair with a younger man and had a great admirer in the Irish soldier George Thomas.  Emperor Shah Alum II called her “The Jewel of Her Gender”, among other reasons because she insisted that all her subjects were to be free to practise their own religions in peace.  She built a huge church as a suitable place of divine worship which was declared a minor basilica by Pope John XXIII in 1961.  Today the church is known as Our Lady of the Graces and popular among all Indian peoples as a place of pilgrimage and to obtain special favours especially in March and November. 

Another unexpected growth of Christians came via “Clarinda”, the widow of a Marathi Brahmin saved from her husband’s funeral pyre by a British Army officer Henry Lyttleton with whom she went to live as was the custom then.  She was so inspired by Henry that she wished to become a Christian but was refused baptism because of her irregular union.  When her partner was transferred she went with him preaching Christianity to all whom she encountered and even establishing a small chapel and a well which is know today as the “well of the Brahmin mother”.  At her partner’s death she was baptized and took the name Clarinda.  She continues to be known today as Rasa Clarinda.  Her work fostered a wider Christian community in the Tirunelveli area.

Another interesting story is that of Sundaranandam who was given the name of David when he was baptized in 1795.  He was instrumental in initiating the mass movement to Christianity in the Tirunelveli area.  It is likely that the main reason for conversions here was to leave behind the caste-dominated society but his work meant that by the end of the nineteenth century there were more Christians in Tirunelveli than any other area in Tamil Nadu.

One of the most outstanding Christians of this community was Samuel Azariah who became the first Indian ordained a bishop in the Anglican Church.  He supported an indigenous Christianity and also Gandhi’s peace movement.  He was instrumental in providing the framework for the Church of North India who transpired two years after his death.  He was influential in making the YMCA an important part of Indian society.  His insistence on solid instruction of converts and his life of simplicity, prayer, and bible study brought thousands of low caste Indians into the Church.  He was affectionately known as “Father”. 

Finally, the YMCA came to India in 1854 and was definitively established in 1857.  It is not a church and not connected with any church but it aims to bring about international understanding and cooperation.  It has always stressed activity rather than doctrine and today includes men of all religious communities and none – women have their own association – working toward equality, justice and peace, and an environment which is ecologically sound.  Although formulated originally as an urban association it spread throughout the villages of South India in particular doing much to promote activities across creed, caste, and communities.  Today it provides safe and affordable accommodations for travelers,  education, sports and leisure activities and centres of development, cooperative activities and urban and rural reconstruction. 


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