India: Did You Know?

What No Storm Can Wash Away

The tsunami that wreaked so much destruction across the Indian Ocean on Sunday morning, December 26, 2004, devastated towns along India’s shore that boast significant Christian populations. In the picture at left, a Catholic shrine (called the “Lourdes of the East” as it attracts millions of pilgrims each year) overlooks overturned storefronts in the town of Vailankanni. Vailankanni is located on the shores of the southeastern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which is a bastion of both Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Catholic missionaries planted churches there in the 16th century and Pietists in the 18th. Tamil Nadu is the supposed burial place of the Apostle Thomas and is associated with a number of famous Christian leaders including the Irish missionary Amy Carmichael, the historian Stephen Neill, the theologian Lesslie Newbigin, and the popular apologist Ravi Zacharias.

India’s Apostle

Indian Christians claim an ancient heritage. According to tradition, the Apostle Thomas landed on the Malabar coast of southwest India in A.D. 52. He healed the sick and demon—possessed, converted people from various castes, and finally died in Mylapore (now within the huge city of Madras, recently renamed Chennai) at the hands of hostile Brahmans. The second-century Acts of Thomas relates that Thomas encountered an Indian official named Abban in Jerusalem, who invited him to come to India to build a palace for King Gundaphorus. Thomas agreed to go with Abban, and the king eventually became a believer.

Indian Christians still make pilgrimages to shrines that remember Thomas. As an act of penance on Good Friday, Catholic nuns carry wooden crosses nearly 2,000 feet up a hill in Malayatoor, Kerala, where Thomas is believed to have spent many days in prayer. The traditional burial site atop St. Thomas Mount in Madras has been venerated for at least 1500 years.

Palm—leaf, copperplate, and stone inscriptions all attest to a living church in India dating to the first few centuries of the Christian era. Today, at least six communities in India still claim the link to Thomas—the Orthodox Syrian Church, the Independent Syrian Church of Malabar, the Mar Thoma Church, the Malankara Catholic Church, the Church of the East, and the St. Thomas Evangelical Church.

The Most Christian Part of India

Given that many of our articles focus on southern India, this issue could give the impression that Christianity thrives only in the south. But that’s not true—American Baptist and Welsh Presbyterian missionaries brought Christianity to northeast India in the late 19th century, and today Christians actually have a proportionately stronger presence in some of India’s northeastern states than they do in the south. According to the 1991 Indian census, nearly 90 percent of the people of Nagaland, a tiny state on the border with Myanmar, claim to be Christian—making it the most Christianized region in all of Asia second only to the Philippines. Other tribes like the Khasis and Garos in the state of Meghalaya (once part of Assam) or the Mizos in Mizoram likewise embraced Christianity—over 85 percent of Mizos today are Christians, as are 65 percent of the people in Meghalaya. All of these people are adivasis, aboriginal hill people who have never been part of the Hindu mainstream.

An Influential Minority

Christianity’s impact on the Indian subcontinent has been deeper and more widespread than its minority status would suggest. Although Christians officially comprise only 2.4 percent of the Indian population (census figures that are likely underestimated), Christian schools, colleges, hospitals and printing presses have extended Christianity’s impact into vast areas of resiliently non-Christian Hindu and Muslim society. Today, Christian colleges consistently rank among the nation’s best, having educated many generations of India’s non-Christian, as well as Christian, elites. Even Mohandas K. Gandhi, who was inspired by the life of Jesus Christ, was educated at a mission school—although he opposed Christian missionaries to the end of his life.

A Religious Philosophy with “Dark Cellars”

Swami Vivekananda became famous in the West for his speech to the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. There he praised the noble and rich spiritual heritage of India and persuaded his audience to recognize and elevate “Hinduism” into the rank of a “world religion.” His mission to plant exotic notions of an exalted “Hindu” spirituality in the minds of Westerners remains active today in countless Vedanta Societies.

Vivekananda came to America in order to “correct” the impression given by his contemporary Pandita Ramabai, a well-known Christian convert and reformer who had been sending a very different message. Ramabai contrasted Vivekananda’s “poetry” of sentiment with her “prose” of harsh reality. She wrote, “I beg my western sisters not to be satisfied with looking at the outside beauty of the grand philosophies, and not to be charmed with hearing the interesting discourses about educated men, but to open the trap doors of the great monuments of ancient Hindoo [sic] intellect and enter into the dark cellars where they will see the real workings of these philosophies.” Ramabai, who passionately ministered to India’s destitute women and children, knew only too well how ugly Hindu life could look in practice. She had lived in its strongholds, and she observed Hindu priests “oppress the widows” and “trample the poor, ignorant, low—caste people under their heels.”

Missionary with Style

No one better represents the high tradition of Christian scholarship in India than the Italian Jesuit Constanzo Guiseppe Beschi (1680–1747). His long list of writings—epic poems written in the classical style, philosophical treatises, commentaries, dictionaries, grammars, translations, and polemical tracts—put him at the very forefront of Tamil scholars. His lavish lifestyle also made quite an impression. Traveling in state, he wore a long tunic bordered in scarlet, covered by a robe of pale purple, with ornate sandals or slippers, white and purple turban, pearl and ruby earrings, rings of heavy gold, and a long carved and decorously inlaid staff. He was carried in a sumptuous palanquin that had a tiger’s skin for him to sit upon, two attendants to fan him, someone holding a purple silk parasol surmounted by a golden ball to shield him from the sun, and a spread tail of peacock feathers going before him. In short, Beschi’s circuits assumed all pomp and pageantry with which Hindu gurus usually traveled.

Modeling Unity for the Church

India has had an important impact on Christianity worldwide. Frustrated by the doubly divisive impact of caste and denomination on the church’s witness to Hindu-Muslim culture, Indian Christians joined with missionaries to create the Church of South India (CSI) in 1947 and the Church of North India (CNI) in 1948. This was the first unification of Episcopal and non-Episcopal Protestant churches since the Reformation and provided an important model for the emerging ecumenical movement in the West.

Still, the majority of non-Catholic and non-Thomas Christians in India do not belong to either of these groups. Today, the largest and most rapidly growing Christian movement in India is Pentecostalism.

By Steven Gertz et al.

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #87 in 2005]

Contributed by Steven Gertz, Robert Eric Frykenberg, Susan Billington Harper, and Keith J. White.
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