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Behind the God-Swapping in The South African Indian Community

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Hinduism is a religion of vast diversity with different philosophical views and religious practices. It has more than 900 million adherents worldwide. Hindus subscribe to some common ideas such as rebirth of the soul based on one’s past actions. Although they worship a variety of gods, such as Vishnu, Shiva or Mother Goddess, they generally think of themselves as of one faith due to similar ideas about life after death.

Christian missionaries in South Africa targeted Hindus to try and convert them. However, contrary to popular belief among the Hindu community, there seems no evidence of significant conversion in the mid-19th century. Much of the Christian conversion activity then was focused on African communities.

P. Pratap Kumar is emeritus professor, School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal. Hindu religious ceremony in South Africa. Photo: Megan Naidoo
There were five major Christian denominations active among Indians at the time — Catholics, Methodists, Anglicans, Lutherans and Baptists. Indian members of these churches were not new converts from the Hindu community but rather those who had already been Christian when they arrived in Natal. When the early Indian indentured workers arrived, the estimated figures along religious lines were as follows: 87% Hindus, 7% Muslims and 4% Christians.

The mission boards did not seem to be that enthusiastic in providing support for the missionary work among the Indian community in order not to cause any disruption to the indentured work. The white farmers were also not so keen for the missionaries to be around the plantations.

The early Christian missionary activity among Indians was mainly focused on providing community services such as clinics, hospitals and schools. Yet, these material benefits yielded hardly any converts.

This is very significant in the context of the early Hindu leaders complaining about conversion. The Arya Samaj is a Hindu reform movement that arrived on the Natal scene in 1905 from India. Its leaders quickly began Hindu reform activity on the assumptions they had made based on their experience in India, where mass conversions did take place in the mid-19th century.

In Natal, however, the percentage of Christians among Indians in the 19th and early 20th centuries remained constant at 4%.

Threat to the Hindu faith

Still, the leaders of Hindu organizations in South Africa saw conversion as a threat to their faith. At its 1918 council meeting, the Hindu Maha Sabha, a council established by various Hindu organizations, urged all Hindu parents to protest against the religious instruction given at the Christian mission schools.

In the initial period of indenture in Natal it was Christian missionaries who established schools for Indian education where Christian religious education was part of the curriculum. As there were no non-Christian schools at the time, the Indian community demanded that government schools be established in place of mission schools for fear of their children being converted to Christianity.

In the absence of any statistical evidence pointing to a significant growth in the original Indian Christian population in Natal during the early period, it is difficult to correlate material benefits directly to conversion.

Pentecostal impact

Narainsamy Temple, near Durban, founded in 1896 is believed to be the oldest Hindu temple in South Africa. PHOTO: Janek SzymanowskiPHOTO
So, if material benefits failed to yield conversions, the question then is: what was the basis of the success of the Pentecostals who came onto the scene later in the early 20th century?

It is largely three factors that made a significant difference to people who were at the lower rungs of society.

First, what is known as the “holiness gospel” that emphasized sin.

Second, the “prosperity gospel” that emphasized poverty. These two Christian preaching modes tended to focus on different lifestyles.

The third factor was the focus on social ills such as drugs and crime.

Instead of being involved in community service, the Pentecostals placed emphasis on critiquing Hindu belief systems and caste practices. They focused on healing and exorcism. The Pentecostals have made significant inroads since the early 20th century to date in South Africa.

Gerald Pillay, writing in Christianity in South Africa, points out that Pentecostal churches became so active that between 1925 and 1980 the Indian membership of the Pentecostal churches grew larger than all the other Christian denominations put together. It remains the case today.

It isn’t just the doctrines of South Africa’s mainstream and Pentecostal churches that differ. The way they have been trying to convert members of the South African Indian community to Christianity since the early 20th century has contrasted widely.

Back then, the mainstream Christian churches provided clinics, hospitals and schools. Yet these material benefits yielded hardly any converts, as is evident from the low percentage of Christians (4% of the total Indian community) in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries.

The Pentecostals had a different approach. Instead of being involved in community service, they placed emphasis on critiquing Hindu belief systems and caste practices. They also focused on healing and exorcism.

It paid off. Between 1925 and 1980 the Indian membership of the Pentecostal churches grew larger than all the other Christian denominations put together.

There were three main Pentecostal groups active in the Indian community in the earlier part of the 20th century: the United Pentecostal Church; the Apostolic Faith Mission; and the Assemblies of God.

Making Hinduism more attractive

In response, Hindu reform organizations worked hard to make Hinduism more attractive to their own followers.

Many of these organizations, such as the Arya Samaj, the Ramakrishna Centre and the Divine Life Society, have emphasized the departure from old ritual belief systems to a more philosophical understanding of Hinduism.

Photo: Mergan Naidoo
These neo-Hindu movements believed that ordinary Hindus lacked the more enlightened understanding of Hinduism – an understanding, they maintained, that was present only in the sacred texts of Hindu philosophy. These texts emphasized the oneness of divinity. They also dismissed worship of multiple gods in temples, saying it was based on ignorance.

In research conducted by JH Hofmeyr and GC Oosthuizen in 1981, a shift towards a more philosophical approach to Hinduism was visible. More than 88% of Hindus affirmed a monotheistic understanding of God in Hinduism as opposed to only about 11% admitting to polytheistic notions.

Pentecostal inroads

Despite the Hindu reform efforts, the Indian Christian number grew from 4% in 1925 to 24.4% in 2011, with the Pentecostals making the most significant inroads. For a comparative perspective on the different dogmas’ performance, let’s take three churches from each of the two different persuasions as per South Africa’s 2011 national census. There were 8,520 Indian members of three mainstream churches, the Anglican Church, the Lutheran Church and the Methodists, together.

It is a different story on the thriving Pentecostal side of the pew. Indians in the Full Gospel Church, the Apostolic Church and the International Fellowship of Christian Churches (an umbrella body of charismatic churches, including the prominent Rhema church) together constituted 36,371 members.

The penetration of the Pentecostal movements into Hindu society is felt especially in the KwaZulu-Natal Indian townships.

According to the Hofmeyr and Oosthuizen survey, the majority of Hindus in the Durban township of Chatsworth seemed to acknowledge that “Jesus was the only son of God.”

In other words, they seemed to know the claim by Christians that Jesus is the only son of God and hence the path to salvation. The authors tempered their analysis by suggesting that “assent to the belief did not imply consent to the exclusivist claim of Christianity”.

Still, the Hindu religious life based on rituals in temples and shrines continued to flourish. It continues to be evident during the festivals of fire-walking rituals at which some Hindus illustrate affirmation of their faith in their deities. In more recent times the South African Hindu Maha Sabha, now the official organ under which all Hindu associations in the country fall, has held conferences on Hinduism to educate the faith’s youth.

Absence of caste

In South Africa, Indians who were Christian largely came from the barracks and mill stations during the colonial period. It is commonly perceived that they belonged to a lower order of society.

In the case of Indian Anglicans in Natal, Arun Andrew John in his doctoral thesis argued that the converts were more interested in a change of social identity. They hoped that the conversion would bring them from being lower-caste groups to social equality. However, it must be noted that neither in India nor in South Africa was a significant change in social identity visible as a result of conversion to Christianity.

It is important to note that a new social identity, which the converts to Christianity sought through conversion to escape social discrimination, did not seem to have come to fruition.

Old social disparities continue to plague the local Indian community, despite the absence of caste as an organizing social unit. The discrimination now seems based on religious distinctions as well as class.

Within the Indian community it is difficult to separate religious and class distinctions, as most Christians happen to be from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Therefore, Christian identity implicitly follows the status of a lower rung.

Conversely, not all Hindus may be economically better off. But there seems to be a sense inherent in the Indian society that those who became Christian through conversion were not only poor but also socially inferior. And this perhaps has to do with the remnants of caste consciousness that prevails even after its formal demise as a social unit.

In addition to this, Christians feel that the majority Hindu community has hijacked the linguistic identity. The result is that they keep Christians of the same linguistic background on the periphery. For example, the Andhra Maha Sabha in South Africa is an organization of the Telugu-speaking community. Yet it is solely Hindu in its orientation, notwithstanding its linguistic signification.

Likewise, the Tamil Federation of South Africa is Tamil only in name, and is Hindu inherently.

All of this points to cultural alienation of one group, as Gerald Pillay writes. It offers ample opportunity to the alienated party to find social identity elsewhere, which is to affirm a Christian identity.

For as long as this tendency to monopolize linguistic identity by the Hindu majority persists in the Indian community in South Africa, the issue of conversion will remain a thorny one both for the Hindu and the Christian communities.

Reprinted from The Conversation


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Life | NRI | Religion | September 2016

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