India is known as the land of spirituality and philosophy and was the birthplace of many religions. However, what is often overlooked is that Christianity is India’s third largest religion with approximately twenty four million followers, constituting two point four percent of the total population . It is believed that India received Christianity around the same period as it arrived in Europe, meaning about 2000 years ago. But mission work in India has been met with many different challenges. In order to get a better understanding about how Christianity came to India, it is necessary to trace the historical roots and growth of the major mission campaigns and review the many hindrances and responses.

Historians like to contest the St. Thomas tradition, which believes that St. Thomas came to India in the A.D fifty two and planted seven churches before dying as a martyr in A.D. seventy two . Nevertheless, Christianity was in existence in India from the fourth century is a historical fact. There is proof that one John, “Bishop of Persia and Great India” represented the Indian Church at the Niacean Council in A.D three twenty five. This Church stayed dormant and had no western connection until the arrival of the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. It did have strong associations with the Syrian Church whose headquarters were in Antioch.

Also Christian merchants, travelers, immigrants or refugees from the Middle East were the original founders of Orthodox Christianity in South India . The persecutions in the Persian Empire caused two waves of Christian refugees to come to South India (one
in the fourth century and the other in the ninth century). The local inhabitants received the Christians, who in the course of time adopted many South India socio-religious customs (ex. Codes of public conduct, trade, endogamy, purity, etc.) However, they protected also their East Syrian Christian traditions. As a result they possessed triple identities: culturally Indian, religiously Christian and ecclesiastically Syrian. It is noted that their caste like mentality did not allow them to reach out to non-Christians in India.

The influx of the Portuguese in India marked a change in the history of Christianity in India, as well as the face of Indian History itself. Throughout the sixteenth century, the Portuguese were the only European country to have a major relationship with India . This happened when Portuguese navigators discovered a sea route round the Cape of Good Hope and brought Europe into direct contact with countries of southern and eastern Asia. The popes entered many agreements with the Kings of Portugal regarding the evangelization of these lands. In the sixteenth century and the first half of the seventeenth century, there was remarkable development of the Church in most coastal regions controlled by the Portuguese especially in the territory of Vasai (Bassein), Goa and the coastal tract extending from Cranganore to Cape Comerin and from the island of Pamban. There was also expansion in remote towns and settlements like in Diu, Chaul, Nagapattinam, San Thome and Hooghly.

However, harsh stagnation was noticeable in the above towns and settlements. There was strong growth in the interior districts of Tamil Nadu and the Tamil speaking districts of Mysore in the seventeenth century. There was also growth in some of the districts of Southern Karnataka and parts of Bengal in the second half of the seventeenth century. The most active and successful missionaries of this period were the Franciscans, the Jesuits, the Dominicans, and the Augustinians.

The Franciscans were the first to set up their houses in India. They came to India under the Portuguese Padroado (patronage); soon understood the Orthodox Christians in India had a different set of doctrinal beliefs and allegiances . Consequently, from 1500 onwards, they attempted to convert them to the Latin Tradition of the Roman Catholic Church. They were few in number in 1524-1525 with only 16 Franciscans in the whole of India, their numbers grew steadily till the first and second decade of of the seventeenth century. After Goa became an important ecclesiastical seat in 1534, the Roman Catholic missionaries thought they had to enforce their views on all other Christians in India. In the course of time large numbers of the fisher-folk (especially fishers, pearl divers and seafarers) on the eastern coast became Roman Catholics, primarily because the Portuguese offered them protection from the Muslims. In 1635, there were four hundred and twenty three friars in St. Thomas Province and one hundred and seventy seven in the Mother of God Province.

The Dominicans also accompanied the Portuguese expedition to India and later built their first monastery in Goa . This was followed in Chaul, Cochin, Bassein, Mahim, Tarapur, Daman, Diu, Nagapattinam and Mylapore. They also preached in some parts of the Islands of Goa, in Mahim and Tarapur.

Augustinians arrived in 1572 and had church in Goa, Cochin, Bassein, Salsette, Daman and Diu. By 1522 and 1626, 138 Augusitinans left Lisbon for Goa.

The Jesuits began working in India at 1542 and soon became the most abundant body of evangelical workers. In 1584, there were 349 Jesuits in the Indian Province. The numbers kept growing for several years more. The Province was divided in two with more the 400 Jesuits on both sides. They were also the most successful with charge of the territories of Salsette in Goa, the coast from Quilon to Cape Comorin, the Fishery Coast and the Madurai, Mysore and Mughal Missions. They were to a large extent responsible for the Christianization of the islands of Goa. There work is second to the Franciscans in the territory of Bassein.

Francis Xavier was the first Jesuit missionary to India and introduced the Roman Catholicism to the southeastern and southwestern coasts of India . He was successful in planting many Roman Catholic churches in the southern parts of India. The British established the “East India Company” and its subsequent rule of India started many Christian missions in different parts of the country. Under the aegis of the East India Company, several western missionaries came to India and started missionary work from the beginning of the nineteenth century.

William Carey, “the Father of Modern Missions”, led a new phase in missions in India.
Although India has a rich history of mission work it has also been met with many hindrances and hostility. Followers of the Hindutva, who argue that in a secular and democratic India, which constitutionally guaranties equality of all religious persuasions, Christians may preach and practice their religion but have no right to propagate it and invite non-Christians to become followers of Jesus Christ .

If people, especially children, women, Adivasis, Dalits, tribals and poor people, wish to become Christians on their own accord, they are confronted with numerous allegations. They are accused of treason and unpatriotic allegiance and also subject to numerous discriminations. Christian converts find it very hard, if not impossible, to get government scholarships or jobs. Their entrance is severely restricted to high profile professional colleges (e.g., medicine, engineering, information technology, and the like). The followers of Hindutva use several methods to intimidate Christians: they enrage mobs to attack Christians and to destroy their properties. Organizations like the United Christian Forum for Human Rights and concerned individuals (Ebe Sundar Raj) responded by documenting the planned, violent attacks on Christians. The fanatic followers of Hindutva have threatened, harassed and beaten many Christians living in tribal areas. These are not the only set backs to the mission.

Conflicts between Jesuits and Orthodox Christians hindered the work of Roman Catholic Church in India. The Jesuits also established a theological seminary in Vaipikotta and trained India Clergy who followed the Latin rite and learned much from their revered teacher Francis Roz. But Mar Abraham, the Orthodox Metran, refused to ordain seminarians from Vaipikotta which resulted in continuous conflicts between the Jesuits and Mar Abraham. Finally, the Jesuits, with the help of army, money, and political power of the Portuguese and under the leadership of the archbishop Alexis de Menezes, convened the Synod of Diamper (20-26 June, 1599) and force George, the archdeacon of the Orthodox Christians, to accept the Latin rite. It seemed the Jesuits solved the problems, but other conflicts followed. In this context, Pope Gregory XV established the Propaganda Fide (January 6, 1622) and appointed his own representatives in India who were accountable to the Portuguese (either in India or in Europe), but only to himself. The ensuing rivalries between the missionaries of Padroado and the Propaganda Fide lasted long and hindered the Roman Catholic Church in India. However, this rivalry would lead to an unpredictable consequence.

This particular hindrance birthed a creative response. The rivalries later contributed to the growth and manifold mission of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Leo XIII established and Indian Roman Catholic Hierarchy in October 1816 and also established the Papal Seminary in Kandy, Sri Lanka (later transferred to Pune, India). These measures promoted the expansion of the Roman Catholic Church. The Second Vatical Council encouraged the Roman Catholics to work for indigenization, contextually suitable expression of Roman Catholics beliefs, social actions, Bible translations and involvement of the laity in the mission of the local church. The Common Version of the Tamil Bible, produced by the Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars, renders welcome contributions to mutual understanding of the Christian living in Tamil–speaking areas.

Now, the Catholic Bishops Conference in India (constituted in 1994) oversees the variety of missions of the Roman Catholic Church in India. It also coordinates various projects to serve Indians – through education, medical care, social awareness, projects promoting peace, justice and reconciliation. Therefore they contribute in people’s movements and also engaging in dialogue with people of different faith traditions.

Another noteworthy response to the gospel is in the response of Protestant initiatives. They are most noticeable for their work in “Mass Movements” in which a large number of villagers, caste groups, clans or tribes became Christians. The growing number of Indian Christians demanded specialized missions (e.g., medical, educational, vocational and female missions.) At the same time, different denominational missions realized that they could work neither in isolation nor in competition, but they should cooperate in maintaining theological colleges, sanatoria, hospitals and other educational institutions. From 1885 several local and provincial meetings were organized by mission societies to think about the “Comity” agreement, cooperation in establishing “native” churches. For example, the Three Self-Formula (‘Self-Support,’ ‘Self-Administration,’ and ‘Self –Propagation’), suggested by Henry Venn of the Church Missionary Society, was experimented in Tiruneveli, and a vibrant India Church emerged. The Telegu fields have seen much of the mass movements and the largest Christian population in India in Andre State . Tens of thousands of Telegues were baptized. Educational work and medical work have gone hand in hand with the development of the churches there. This occurred with the establishment of high schools, village schools, training schools for both men and women, adult literacy work, orphanages, leper work, hospitals and dispensaries have all been emphasized heavily. This work took place in 1873. About seven point five per cent of the Indian population (65 million) are tribals, and among them about five point five percent converted to Christianity during the mass conversion . Fifteen per cent of India’s population (130 million) is classified as scheduled Castes. These are India’s untouchables and outcasts like slaves. Today they are called Dalits (the oppressed). When Christian missionaries preached love, equality, freedom and human dignity, they embraced Christianity in large numbers in different parts of India.

The reason for the response of the mass movement change of religion is evident. The refusal of the privileged class to grant social justice to the oppressed and exploited and inferior communities is a major cause. The conversion of Christian faith which preaches social justice and rejects economic exploitation could be fully justified. The dominating higher castes have to blame themselves for losing the aboriginals and the low castes to the Christian Churches since they continue to refuse the tribes and low castes their basic human rights.

The approach of Dominicans is also notable . The spread of Christianity during the mid fifteenth and sixteenth century was due to their friendly attitudes of Mughal rulers over India like Akbar, Tirumala Nayak and Queen Mangamaal of Madurai, and Kanthirava Narasimha Raja Wodeyar of Mysore. They allowed the ministers of the gospel to preach freely in their territories and to Christianize the people. They also shielded Christians and Christian preachers from persecution and ill treatment at the hands of their officials or subordinates. Historians admit that the influence of Francis Xavier on the development of the Church in India was enormous. He started a more systematic and methodical way of Christianizing the people both within and outside the
Portuguese’s settlements and through his letters. He created an abiding enthusiasm in Europe for working in the Indian field so that hundreds of young men came after him to do his work

The enormous response in growth of Pentecostal Churches in India is associated with their confrontation of various social forces such as poverty, unemployment, hero-worship, indigenous forms of worship and authoritarian legalism . On the whole, the number of Pentecostal Christians in India increases in leaps and bounds. Their evangelistic engagements, visits to hospitals, orphanages and other social development programs produce tangible results.

If we are to understand the particular characteristics of the Indian response to Christ we must take into account the unique structure of Indians society . Unlike the west, the basic unit is family rather than the independent individual. Beyond the family are wider groupings of caste and sub caste groups which determines the status and nature of jobs and personal relations and Indian may have.

The Brahmin castes are viewed as having the highest status. They were the most capable of appreciating the meaning of Christianity because they were well versed in religious lore and accustomed to exploring the meaning of existence. Since their religion is tolerant of wide differences of opinion, they are always open to new light. On the other hand, they have a greater stake in the present structure of Hinduism than any other group. They are the experts and practitioners and any defection from Hinduism is in effect a defection from them.

They outcasts have no tradition or religious speculation. They scarcely even learned to think of themselves as individuals, let alone understand the significance of personal faith. Naturally, they are much easier to detach from the Hindu system than others. To them Hinduism has meant only oppression and bondage.

Missionaries have found their reediest converts come from the outcastes and from aboriginal tribes. The first Roman Catholic missionaries, who from the time of Vasco de Gama accompanied the Portuguese invaders of India, secured the largest group of converts among the Parvas, a lowly caste of fisherman. The Paravas accepted Christianity because they wanted the Portuguese to protect them against pirate attacks. Ever since that time, low caste people have accepted baptism more readily than others.

Many missionaries wanted to penetrate India from the top rather than from the bottom. Converting a Brahmin was to win a natural leader who’s lead would be followed by others. The Italian Jesuit named Roberto de Nobili attempted approach India through the Bhrahmin. He studied Hindu Scriptures to the point where he could talk about Christianity with Brahmins in their own natural environment and in the religious vocabulary they understood. In order to make the transition to Christianity easy he made every possible concession to Hindu custom. He allowed his converts to retain their caste privileges and practices and to worship in their own segregated churches. He even called himself a Brahmin basing his claim on his connection with an aristocratic Roman family. De Nobili obtained a ready audience and baptized many converts, but after forty years only twenty-six Brahmin Christians remained.

There is much to be said about the history Christianity in India. The most significant is the early based on the tradition that St. Thomas planted churches in 53AD. However, history attests that Christianity existed in 325 Ad under the Bishop of Persia of Great India. Persian immigrants have also brought their Orthodox beliefs in the fourth and ninth century. Also, the Portuguese came in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries bringing Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits.

However, mission work in India has faced many hindrances such as the false allegations and restrictions to education and professions and even violent attacks. Also, conflicts and rivalries between fellow Christians have also been a set back.

The response to the gospel comes in different ways. The most notable responses come from how rivalries between Christians actually helped growth in birthing new seminaries, contextualization into Indian culture in translating the Bible, involving laity. Specialized missions in the form of Medicare and education have also been a positive response contributing to the growth of Christianity. Friendly attitudes and confronting social ills were an asset to the Dominicans and Pentecostals. Preaching freedom to the outcasts and untouchables brought great mass movement of conversions. Conversely, the Brahmins respond by being open to hear the gospel but less likely to convert in losing their positions as experts and practitioners in the caste system. These are valuable insights in helping to understand the history but at the same time be aware of the hindrances and the response of mission work in India.

Wilson Matthews