ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Ambiguities and Tensions in the Missionary Enterprise in India

Mission, Religion and Caste: Themes in the History of Christianity in India by Shashi Joshi, Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla, 2010; pp 188, Rs 390.

In the latter half of the 18th century, the British viewed the Indian natives as “degenerate”, “despotic”, “repulsive”, and “depraved” (p 2). This was racism, though it could have been meant to stir evangelical zeal at home as also to consolidate their rule here. However, some missionaries were fairer to and more appreciative of India. Among them, William Jones was among the first, and he left a lasting legacy in the large-scale translations he pioneered. It was the ­beginning of a less polemic and more ­dialogic approach on both sides of the encounter that came into its own a­fter Independence, once the mission endeavour was no longer perceived as the ­political and cultural extension of colonialism. The suspicion and fear of conversions still prevails among the extre­mists, but there is a broad and genuine ­cceptance of the Christian mino­rity among the more secular-minded people. A history of contestation and controversy is giving way to an ecumenical openness.

Shashi Joshi traces the academic and political discourse of various scholars on the encounter of two very different civilisations, the Hindu and the Christian, which engaged in a single colonial space with contrasting world views and opposing socio-religious mores. Her book revolves around three themes through the history of Christianity in India: mission, religion and caste. But, these are not developed in chronological linearity. This allows for a certain focus and depth in dealing with her subject. The only chronological history in the book is of “The London Missionary Society” in Chapter 9, a bird’s-eye view that grounds some of the themes in the other chapters. It is a story of self-sacrifice and heroism, but also of overreach and misunderstanding in much of the cultural and theological baggage that was brought to bear on their mission.

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