Ironies of India: A scientific temperament as a prelude to conversion?

by Sarah Claerhout and Jakob De Roover

Today, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the issue of a (lack of a) scientific mindset among the Indian people is omnipresent in the media. Almost everything that goes wrong in handling the crisis has been blamed on the absence of ‘scientific temper’ and ‘rationality’ in functionaries and uninformed folks. There is a hidden irony here.

During the 19th century, conversion crystallised as a theme of discussion in colonial India within the framework of a massive missionary-cum-educational project. The kind of debates about religion that the British missionaries, officials and orientalists were familiar with — e.g., conflicts about true religion between Catholics and Protestants in the post-Reformation era, disputations between Christians and Jews during the Middle Ages and later, controversies about heresy and apostacy — proved to be of no help as models in India. Missionaries soon began to admit that converting the heathen into the true religion did not happen as quickly or thoroughly as anticipated.

Regularly ‘surprised’ or ‘baffled’ by the arguments of Indian scholars, the British made sense of their experiences using the only way they knew: “The heathens lacked the right way of thinking about religion”. They believed that the deficient state of ‘the Hindus’ made the latter blind to the falseness and corruption of ‘Hindu religion’ and ‘superstition’. Neither explicit proselytising and preaching nor debates about religion had generated the desired result, namely, removing this blindness and creating openness to Christianity.

British missionaries and scholars identified a specific deficiency even among ‘the most learned of Hindus’ — a defect in the latter’s reasoning on matters religious. The gist of their analysis consisted of the following points: the ‘Hindus’ have not studied their religions well; they do not consider conflicting opinions about religion as problematic; they fail to see that Christianity and Hinduism are incompatible and that different religions cannot be true at the same time; they merely accept the words of their parents and priests on their say-so and do not critically assess arguments based on oral testimony and tradition; they do not ask for — or even appreciate — evidence of various kinds (e.g., historical, geographical and scientific) in matters of religion; they cannot think rationally, logically or morally about their traditions, deities and texts; they never test the credibility of traditionally-received histories.

This deficiency in the ‘Hindu’ had to be addressed to find a way of making Indians ‘see’ the falseness and corruption of their traditions. Indians needed to be taught to think the right way. And that is what missionaries and colonial officials set out to do.

From reason to religion…

John Muir (1810-1882), a civil servant and orientalist, wrote an important work called Matapariksha  that compared Hinduism and Christianity in a series of Sanskrit shlokas to point out to learned Indians the inadequacies of the former and the truth of the latter. In his introduction, Muir noted that his line of reasoning ‘will seem familiar and natural to the Christian reader’, but not to the ‘learned Hindus, who are not accustomed to see such rules and principles applied to test the credibility of traditionally-received histories, and the merits of theological doctrines’. In his book he developed a dialogical model where the opponent is slowly and patiently countered and convinced. Before gaining the ability to reflect and debate about religion, the Indians should first learn to reason in a specific way.

Another figure, the missionary John Wilson, believed the Hindus and Parsis had not studied (their) religion well and were far removed from true learning. From Wilson’s perspective, then, the problem was clear: the natives never asked for ‘evidence’ and simply accepted the claims of their elders and priests. Hence, he was convinced that the dissemination of true learning and evidence (not only religious but scientific also) would prove to be the death of the local religions. According to him, science would have the impact of showing to the Indians that their sacred texts are incompatible with true and superior knowledge and, therefore, must be false and could not be divinely revealed. This way of reasoning entailed an obvious solution to the ‘problem’, also promoted by Wilson: true learning “is doing much to overturn the Hindu religion”.

Via the route of education

One of the significant results of the 19th-century interaction was a fixation on the need for instruction, education and reform of the Indian population. Whatever the specific motives and contexts of individual authors, whichever their preferred terms and descriptions, the 19th century saw the percolating of the idea that the deficient situation of the Indians was related to their ‘religion’ and needed to be remedied by education and reform.

‘Evangelism, education and salvation’, Mark Chapman suggests, ‘came to be understood as aspects of the same process, which did not necessarily require explicit acceptance of Christian doctrines’. The preoccupation was to teach Indians how to deal with religion and related aspects of society in a better way. Writings on this subject repeated a specific set of ideas: true learning and evidence will counter the attitude of simply accepting the claims of parents and priests; teaching science will show the incompatibility between scientific facts and ‘facts’ postulated by Indian scriptures; true learning is needed to overturn the ‘Hindu religion’ and teach ‘the Hindu’ how to question and then to reject his religion; Indians should be trained in historical consciousness so as to distinguish between myth, fiction and historical fact; they should also gain proficiency in basic skills of reasoning and the rules of evidence. As some authors explicated, knowledge, including the sciences, would thus function as the handmaiden of true religion. 

One fervent advocate of this approach was James Ballantyne, the Scottish orientalist and principal of the Government College of Benares for many years. He was known for his respect for the best in ‘Hindu thought’ and was critical of the methods used by Christian missionaries, who, too eager to multiply conversions fell into the ‘imprudences which attend an unenlightened spirit of proselytism’. In his Christianity Contrasted with Hindu Philosophy (1859), he proclaimed that one should pin one’s hopes on the dissemination of knowledge. Pondering upon the goals of the British educational efforts in India, Ballantyne described the process as follows:

“Shall our absolutely ultimate end, then, be the production of a first-rate engineer, or of a valuable revenue officer, or of an accomplished native magistrate? With this I am not prepared to be satisfied. My proposed end is the making of each educated Hindu a Christian,on principle and conviction. This end, as I propose here to indicate, implies everything that the amplest course of education can comprise. Let us trace the assertion backwards, — as thus. That a Hindu should on principle and conviction, embrace a religion which, like Christianity, bases its claims on historical evidence, presupposes not merely an acquaintance with historical assertions, but a cultivation of the critical faculty, so as that the force of the historical evidence may be intelligently felt. The immediate preparation for a critically intelligent study of history, is the study of Physical Geography.”

James R. Ballantyne, The Bible for the Pandits (London and Benares: James Madden and E.J. Lazarus & Co., 1860)

The goal of education in India was not to simply train the Indians in a profession, but also to make them Christian in ‘principle and conviction’. But embracing Christianity presupposes an acquaintance with ‘historical assertions’ and a ‘cultivation of the critical faculty’, so that ‘the force of historical evidence may be intelligently felt’, Ballantyne said, and this requires knowledge of a range of sciences.

This is the irony referred to in the title: in Europe, ‘religion’ and ‘science’ opposed each other. Locked in a seemingly endless battle, they allegedly became ‘mutually incompatible’. The irony in India is that the missionaries had to take recourse to science to convert ‘the pagans’ to Christianity. Thus, something strange occurs when Christians meet the pagans. (See Balagangadhara’s “The Heathen in His Blindness…”: Asia, the West and the Dynamic of Religion (2nd revised edition, New Delhi: Manohar, 2005).)

Scientific temperament

Let us finish by briefly indicating some continuities from 19th-century colonial India to the Indians of today. Most notably, English-educated Indians adopted a new way of looking at their traditions, texts and practices, as the colonial educators had intended.

First, they accepted terms such as ‘idol worship’, ‘religion’, ‘superstition’, ‘cruelty’, and ‘priesthood’ as valid terms to describe and denounce traditional practices. The implication was that these practices required reform. This situation is so extreme that some Indians now ask ‘why should we cede control over the word religion?’ ‘Religio’ is a Latin word and ‘religion’ is its English translation. These are the terms the Europeans used to describe Indians. Who holds which control over what?

Second, sections of the Indian intelligentsia learned to view the content of traditional texts in a particular manner:

  • The texts were seen to comprise factual claims about the world. Some derided them because of their incompatibility with the facts of science and history; others defended them by looking for historical, archaeological, geographical, and scientific ‘evidence’. Here also, the attempt of the colonial educational project to make Indians see the conflict between ‘the facts of science’ and ‘the claims of Hinduism’ appears to have borne fruit.
  • The texts were also seen to found actions and beliefs. Indians accepted the Christian notions that actions embody beliefs and are ‘prescribed’ by ‘religious’ texts, which the Europeans feverishly translated and interpreted. The hysteria that surrounds Manu and his smriti is a good example.

Third, there is a firm conviction among educated layers that the Indian people lack something essential: the spirit of inquiry and reforms should throw off the stifling hold of tradition and superstition. As Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in his Discovery of India (1946), ‘the scientific temper’ and its ‘refusal to accept anything without testing and trial’ should become ‘a way of life, a process of thinking, a method of acting and associating with our fellowmen’.

This is even enshrined in Article 51A of the Constitution of India which declares it the fundamental duty of every citizen ‘to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform’. In other words, the stance that British missionaries and officials sought to introduce as a necessary step towards dissolving the hold of ‘Hinduism’ and civilising and Christianising ‘the Hindus’ has been declared a constitutional duty in post-Independence India.

Today, almost every educated Indian connects the impact of the pandemic on India with a lack of a ‘scientific mindset’. This pandemic has brought the absurdities and foolishness of all countries and people to the surface. There is not a single country that can claim to have handled this situation perfectly. India is no exception. Europe has seen absurd protests against mask-wearing, a fixation on going on vacation abroad, and scepticism about vaccinations almost on par with American stupidity. Yet, it is only the Indians who constantly shame each other as people ‘lacking in scientific temperament’. With generous help from the media and its fondness for sensational and salacious stories from the exotic East, peppered with tired tropes of funeral pyres, cow-urine and gatherings of half-naked sadhus.

As Balagangadhara put it:

“Colonization was not merely a process of occupying lands and extracting revenues. It was not a question of us aping Western people and trying to be like them. It was not even about colonizing the imagination of a people by making them ‘dream’ that they, too, would become ‘modern’, developed, and sophisticated. It goes deeper than any of these. It is about denying peoples and cultures their own experiences; of rendering them aliens to themselves; of actively preventing any description of their own experiences except in terms defined by the colonizers.”

S.N. Balagangadhara, Reconceptualizing India Studies (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012)

[Based on excerpts from a forthcoming book Religious Conversion: Indian Disputes and Their European Origins, under contract for publication with Routledge.]

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