We sometimes wonder why God has allowed such wonderful spiritual riches to thrive amongst those who are not children of the promise, even more that he still helps such non-Christian brothers to love him and to seek him on the mystical path in a way which at times baffles us and makes us very aware of our own littleness – C. Murray Rogers, Jyotiniketan Ashram, Bareilly, U.P. (Preface, The Mountain of the Lord, ISPCK, New Delhi, 1966)
The conversion controversy in India has acquired a new dimension with the Southern Baptists, the largest American Protestant denomination, aggressively targeting those “lost in the hopeless darkness of Hinduism” (The Times of India, 23 October 1999). Back home, two employees of World Vision, a Christian NGO with which US envoy for religious freedom, Robert Sieple, has been associated, have petitioned the Labour Officer for unfair dismissal following a refusal to convert (Pioneer, 15 October 1999). To cap it all, the Vatican’s annual Diwali greeting, which asserts that Christ “is God himself” and the ultimate fulfillment of the “human heart’s restless searching,” has upset Indian church officials themselves as ‘insensitive’.
For our self-appointed secularists, however, these incidents might never have been. Their partisan ideologies have so thoroughly warped the core issue of our national identity and foundational ethos that legitimate Hindu concerns have been belittled. For them, VHP general secretary Ashok Singhal’s anxiety that the Pope’s visit may trigger fresh tension on the sensitive conversion issue is spurious.
National interests, however, demand that we examine Singhal’s concerns with clinical dispassion, before pronouncing a verdict. Is there, for instance, merit in the fear that India is one of the Church’s principal, long-term targets; that conversion attempts (by all Christian denominations) have increased; that the Pope’s visit will give them a fresh impetus, thus escalating social tensions by algebraic proportions? We can then judge if conversions are legitimate, and whether the ‘target groups’ have the right to resent and resist conversion attempts.
The book quoted above provides some interesting insights. It ‘shares’ (sic) the heroic experiences of “Abhishiktananda”, whose real name is widely known in Christian circles, or so Murray Rogers (now in Ontario), coyly informs us in the Easter 1990 reprint. As the book appears to have a secret ecstatic following, it deserves a wider audience in India. I may add that this book came to my notice through outraged western scholars.
Briefly, The Mountain of the Lord is the story of two Christians, a monk and an Indian priest-cum-artist, who went on pilgrimage to Gangotri, source of the holy Ganges. They went, Rogers avers, “not as tourists or curious spectators, but with the conviction that they were performing a Christian act, or, more precisely, fulfilling in Christ an age-long rite of the First Cosmic Convent.” Clearly Rogers endorses their outrageous conduct. The author, Abhishiktananda, also appears to expect such ratification: “the day came when I realized that as a Christian monk, I had a place appointed for me among the crowd of pilgrims who each year climb up to the high places of the Himalayan shrines – and furthermore, that the Lord himself was expecting me there.”
Abhishiktananda (possibly a Frenchman, and his friend, identified towards the end as Sanat Kumar) make no bones about their purpose and intentions. During one of their religious discourses, Sanat Kumar expounds the theory that: “For sure, as was the case with Israel, the coming of India to Christ and to the Church will be painful.” The word “painful” is significant. In all objectivity, it can only mean that the Christianization of India must be a violent process; that those engaged in this endeavour understand this fact; and that they are fully prepared for this violence. The logical conclusion is that they prefer to endure violence rather than tolerate the continuation of Hinduism in India!
Lest I am accused of wild allegations or even a fertile imagination, Kumar’s very next sentence bears this out: “It will involve an Easter, an Easter in which the seed has to die in order to bear fruit…”. As for the reason which brings them to Gangotri – “I am a priest of the Lord;” Kumar says, “I owe it to myself and to God to offer the Eucharist here.”
One of the most amazing themes of the book is the duo’s naked envy for the power and holiness of India’s sacred places. Sadly, this does not even momentarily inspire them to respect the plurality with which the divine manifests itself. Rather, it fuels a powerful drive towards conquest and subordination. Not for one split second does the sheer abomination of their deed – performing the sacred rites of one faith in stealth, on the sacred ground of another, with a professed view to overcoming and annihilating that faith – deter these men of god. Those who falsely accuse concerned Hindus of ‘communalism’ should honestly ponder this fatal difference between accommodating and intrusive faiths. They should also answer why all Christian denominations in India have literally condensed their agenda to the single issue of conversions.
To return to Abhishiktananda, he justifies his action with gusto: “the glory of the Trinity will finally be manifested in these holy places. Indeed, there are few places in the world where the Eucharist can have been more eagerly awaited… The very reason for my coming here is that at last the Eucharist may be celebrated in this place.” And so, on the day of the Feast of the Sacred Heart, the two select a place sheltered from curious passers-by, because “this first Eucharist at the source of the Ganges had to be offered in secret, for here there was as yet no one who could understand, except for us who had come as forerunners of the Church.” The euphoric descriptions of the performance of the Eucharist speak of blatant disrespect and insensitivity towards the religious beliefs and sentiments of Hindus.
What is more painful is the fact that this was no isolated incident. Sanat Kumar brags, “how often at various sacred places in India I have celebrated the Eucharist where it has never been done before!” He elaborates: “remember how I once took you into that cave at Arunachala where my Eucharist, celebrated in the deepest cavity in the rock, most truly reached the very heart of Christ …Then, … there was that mass on the summit of this same Arunachala, on the day before the Epiphany…Through the ages the mountain had been awaiting that day, as if “in travail” as St Paul said.” Even by the shoddy standards of our secularists, this should count as premeditated and sustained provocation, not to mention blasphemy.
During the unrest in Dangs last year, some eminent Gandhians had exposed a similar infiltration by a priest in the Sabarmati Ashram. Their stark presentation of the ground reality in Gujarat prompted Prime Minister Vajpayee’s sagacious call for a national debate on conversions, which was unfortunately dismissed by the legion of Hindu-baiters. But, as the above accounts show, there are gaping holes in the Church’s moral and ethical canopy. Anyone with a basic sense of decency will appreciate that there is a difference between the freedom to practice one’s religion and the license to mandate one’s religious code for all humanity. In this context, Ashok Singhal’s plea to the government to uphold the law against conversions is a plea for moral sanity.
The Pioneer, 26 October 1999