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How White Missionaries Helped Birth Modern-Day India
Image: Gary Gnidovic

In 1971, as an Indian medical student, M. A. Raju read Francis Schaeffer's The God Who Is There and sensed his atheism foundering. He journeyed to L'Abri Switzerland, spent three months in Calcutta with Mother Teresa, then worked alongside Muslims and Jews in Israel trying to understand their religions. By 1976, "I finally came to the conclusion that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life," said the medical missionary based in Kachua, a seedbed of poverty and Hindu fundamentalism in North India.

Now, Raju presides over a struggling hospital, Mujwa, founded by Christian missionaries more than 100 years ago. And he's continuing their legacy of "fulfilling the Great Commission and practicing the Great Commandment. They wanted the gospel to be out and they wanted to love their neighbor as themselves. We thought we must do the same." When Raju arrived 11 years ago, Mujwa was seeing about 1,800 patients per day; now it sees almost 30,000 patients per year (about a 1,700 percent increase in a decade).

Raju (who has requested anonymity due to sustained violence against Christians in his area) spoke with CT design director Gary Gnidovic on site in Kachua about how Christian missionaries of an earlier era—like the ones in CT's Jan/Feb cover story—benefited India.

When it comes to the history of missions, we often think in terms of all the mistakes that have been done, in India and other places where there's been cultural insensitivity. But you are working on an apologetic, of sorts, for missionaries of the past.

The missionaries came on the backs of the colonists. When the missionaries arrived, they didn't find a unified India. They found nearly 70 major kingdoms, warring against each other.

How did India get a new identity? Missionaries mastered the languages of India. In eastern India, William Carey and his associates mastered Bengali and Sanskrit. German missionaries mastered Tamil. English missionaries mastered Malayalam. American missionaries mastered Marathi. The first dictionary, for example, in Tamil and Bengali was written by missionaries. And they did it because they wanted to master the language in order to translate the Bible into the language. But they were also interested in teaching people to read and write.

So they taught Bengali. They taught Tamil in the south. They taught Malayalam in the south. In the west they taught Marathi. The languages developed, and people learned to read and write. They needed people to read the Bible, so they started schools. And they taught English, and the result was a highly Anglicized community of higher education of regional communities of language learning, codifying the script. So language and education went together.

It's an amazing miracle that India is one country. Can you imagine 450 languages and 20 different ways of writing? You had 70 major kingdoms when the British came. Now we have an Indian identity.

How did the missionaries engage Hinduism?

Missionaries spoke against Hindu practices like widow burning (sati), infanticide, and temple prostitution. And some sensitive Hindus formed parallel organizations to purify Hinduism. So Brahmo Samaj and Raja Rammohan Roy (who was closely associated with William Carey) were Indian leaders who agreed with all the things Carey said against Hinduism. So you find the renaissance of India, India's identity, [connected to the missionaries].

Christians also spoke against the caste system. Abolishing the caste system is a big blow to Hinduism, because if you abolish caste, you're basically saying there's no rebirth, and you're allowing people to go up and down the social ladder. Low-caste people weren't allowed to go into Hindu temples, but now they are allowed to go into them. There were all sorts of reforms to Hinduism because of Christianity.

What challenges remain for Christians in India who want to continue on this positive legacy?

Indian Christians have forgotten the impact their missionary forefathers had, on language, education, Indian identity, health, and the treatment of women, outcasts, the poor. Indian Christians are beleaguered. They've gone into a sort of "give me" stage, saying, "We haven't got this," "We haven't got that." One aspect of what I do is to encourage Christians: "Look, you have a great heritage." Our forbearers invested in the future of the country. We should stop complaining and living in fear, and instead contribute like they did to building the nation.

We can't just rest on our laurels. We find a country coming apart, particularly around regionalism, corruption is rife, so is the criminalization of politics (25 percent of senators or members of parliament have a criminal records), and violence against women. Before, many Indian leaders were Christianized. Nehru was a Christianized agnostic. Gandhi was a Christianized Hindu. That is going away. After 60 years, leaders of integrity are gradually disappearing.

If India disintegrates, it would be terrible for the world, because it's a unique example of a successful democracy. It hasn't had any military coups. There have been free and fair elections. [But] there's a lot of political corruption. There's a lot of criminality in politics. There's a lot of caste discrimination. There's a lot of polarization. Unless there is a direct or indirect Christian ethos in government, we will not survive as a democracy.

All these are areas where Christians can get involved.

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How White Missionaries Helped Birth Modern-Day India