Understanding Hindu-Christian Relations: The World Council of Churches’ Approach

Melanie Barbato is a post-doc researcher at the University of Münster

There are two tricky subjects in Hindu-Christian relations: Christian missionary efforts are a red flag for many Hindus, and anti-Christian violence by Hindus is recognized as one of India’s main issues of freedom of religion and belief. These two issues are connected, with accusations of proselytization typically being the background for acts of anti-Christian violence.

The Roots of Hindu Criticism towards Christianity 

It is important to understand this critical Hindu perspective on Christianity. Hindus object to Christian missions for various reasons. Foremost is that the Indian traditions do not share the Western concept of religion as an individualized faith. From the Hindu perspective, a person is born into a cosmic order that includes both religious and social duties. Hindu identity can be considered more like a family relationship one is born into—one neither opts-in nor out. Hindus tend to be tolerant towards people who also hold additional non-Hindu beliefs or participate in activities outside their Hindu culture, with dual belonging being a normal part of Indian culture. Converts to Christianity, however, are often asked by their missionary contacts to leave their old religious identity behind, and this is seen by many Hindus as a direct act of aggression against their religion and traditional way of life.

Well-documented violence committed by Hindus against Christians is typically framed as an act of self-defense by a Hindu majority nation under pressure from aggressive monotheism, both from Christianity and Islam. As their supporters argue, anti-conversion laws are claimed to protect vulnerable citizens from the predatory methods of missionaries using force, fraud, or inducements to gain converts.

The reality is more complex. The Indian Thomas Christians (a religious-ethnical community of Indian Christians of around 7 million adherents) trace their origin back to the Apostle Thomas, and their presence is established from around the 5th century CE, thus predating the Christianization of much of modern Europe. Nevertheless, the entanglement of Christianity and imperialism under Portuguese and British colonial rule means that Christians today are typically seen as allies of foreign powers. For example, the special rights for Dalits (formerly also called “untouchables”) only apply to Hindu and Buddhist Dalits, not the Christian Dalits, who are taken as those who have access to the wealth and resources of the global Church. In a recent study, Chad Bauman has shown that Christians are often targeted not for “religious” reasons but because they are seen as the tangible representation of the more diffuse threats of globalization.

Challenges of Hindu-Christian Dialogue

Interreligious dialogue is increasingly promoted as a factor helping to secure peace and mitigate conflict on the local, regional, and global level and dealing with these tricky issues directly. Around 50 years ago, the World Council of Churches (WCC), the world’s largest ecumenical organization, started its dialogue program with a multi-lateral dialogue in Ajaltoun, also involving Hindus. From its beginning, the WCC’s dialogue program had a strong focus on India. The WCC idea was originally led, however, by quite a different rationale. Stanley Samartha, the dialogue program’s first director, was a South Indian theologian who saw Christian and Hindu thought compatible in many aspects. The program, however, faced resistance from Indian and non-Indian Christians who were critical of its pluralist tendencies.

The disagreement about both the desirability and possible formats of Hindu-Christian dialogue continues. Some Christians see Hindus primarily as the recipients of Christian missionary efforts. Others do not seek to promote Christian missions but reject dialogue that could lead towards syncretism, preferring to focus on peaceful community relations, not theology. On the other hand,  Dalit Christians’ dialogue with high-caste Hindus may equate to collaboration with the oppressor.

Hindus also remain divided on interreligious dialogue. Many Hindus suspect that dialogue is only a new, friendlier face of Christian missionary work. Others hold that the rhetoric of interfaith collaboration for a better world for all does not do justice to the victims of missionary and colonial enterprises. Christians need to do some soul searching about their community’s involvement in injustice before presenting themselves as a force for good or the solution to India’s social problems. The following excerpt from “Hindu-Christian Dialogue Postponed—An Exchange Between C. Murray Rogers and Sivendra Prakash,” a paper published in 1971, captures the disparity in perspectives well:

You told me last week how sorry you were that the Hindu-Christian meeting your friends had so carefully planned did not materialize. You even almost reproached me […] Have you already forgotten that what you call the “inter-faith dialogue” is quite a new feature in your understanding […] of Christianity? Until a few years ago […] your relations with us were confined either to the merely social plane or to preaching in order to convert us.

The writings of the Hindu Nationalist writer Sita Ram Goel, such as his History of Hindu-Christian Encounters(1989), make even more challenging but equally worthwhile reading for anyone seeking to understand the Hindus’ reluctance to engage in dialogue events initiated by Christians. A look at social media, such as the graphic images of torture under the Twitter hashtag #goainquisition, also shows that the entanglement of mission and colonialism still forms part of Hindus’ cultural memory. As in the case of anti-Catholic sentiment, the Hindu perception of the WCC may be affected by the contemporary and historical interaction of Hindus and Christians, even when there is no direct relation to the WCC member churches.

Dialogue Activities of the WCC

Within this variety of interests and positions, what then do the dialogue activities of the World Council of Churches look like? Hinduism does not have a central structure of religious authority. Many Hindu organizations that seek to represent Hindus in India and abroad, like the Vishva Hindu Parishad, are connected to the Hindu nationalist movement and thus hostile towards Christian attempts of initiating dialogue. Dialogue events, workshops, and publications projects of the WCC’s dialogue program largely involve selected partners, such as Anantanand Rambachan, a professor at a US-university, or the human rights activist Ram Puniyani, both of whom have addressed the WCC’s general assembly. Yet neither of them will be able to promote the desirability of Hindu-Christian dialogue to nationalist Hindus, as both have themselves been criticized by nationalists for their activism and views. The WCC’s dialogue program is thus more about sharing insights and experiences among like-minded people in a safe space than about giving representation to Hindu majority views or engaging actors of strong religion.

In addition to the activities of the dialogue program, the WCC leadership sends yearly messages to the Hindus on the occasion of Diwali, Hinduism’s joyful festival of lights. Under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit from the Lutheran Church in Norway, these messages included a reference to Hindu scripture, and in 2017 the website even linked to a statement by Prof. Rambachan. This year, under the interim leadership of Rev. Prof. Ioan Sauca from the Orthodox Church in Romania, no such reference from Hindu scripture was included in the message, and part of the last paragraph had a rather sober undertone:

On this festival of lights, as you light lamps of joy and hope in your homes, I hope that they may also be an expression of your commitment to bring joy and hope to the world, by working towards dispelling hate, prejudice and violence.

There are also several WCC documents addressing anti-Christian violence in India. In 2008, the WCC Executive Committee issued a statement on violence and intolerance in India. In 2009, the WCC Central Committee’s Statement on South Asia stated:

In India the emergence of Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) as a major force on the political scene has seriously undermined the secular base of the country. During the last couple of years, Christians and Muslims have come under attack and their places of worship burnt.

Finally, in 2019, the WCC Executive Committee issued a statement, “Attacks and Persecution of Christian Communities in Asia.”

Avoiding Polarization

While the WCC leadership voices explicitly Christian concerns, the WCC’s dialogue program carefully avoids framing Hindu-Christian relations in terms of opposites. Rather, difficult issues are understood to affect both Christians and Hindus. The injustice of the caste system is, for example, not discussed as a “Hindu” problem but as a challenge for both Hindu and Christian communities, as many Christian congregations in India are stratified according to caste lines. This can mean that the leadership positions are firmly in the hands of higher caste families and that marriage among Christians, too, follows caste rules, or that lower caste individuals are excluded from attending church and receiving the eucharist together with those from higher castes.

The approach of the WCC dialogue program shows that it is aware that religious freedom and social justice in India can only be achieved with Hindus as partners, not if campaigning for religious freedom or social justice could be understood or framed as another “mission civilisatrice” [1] for Christians to claim superiority over Hindus.

[1] The colonial-era belief that the European imperial powers had a duty to “civilise”dependent populations and territories(Paris, R. (2002). International peacebuilding and the ‘mission civilisatrice’. Review of International Studies, 28(4), 637-656).