A friend of ours was looking for a bride for her brother. She is Hindu, and my wife and I knew another Hindu lady who was looking for a groom for her sister. They were from similar educational and occupational backgrounds, so my wife suggested to her friend that there could be a union here.
We were taken aback when she said that their castes were different: marriage was not possible. We just hadn't thought of that! Although nonplussed, we passed no judgment on their religion or culture: it simply was none of our business. This is how most of us are brought up in South Asia. We regard another person's world-view as irrelevant: that is, we don't regard it at all.
Muslim rule in South Asia lasted centuries, and yet there were no attempts on either side to change the other's culture. Anthropologists claim that the militarily dominant culture tends to assimilate ('acculturate') the local culture if its adherents believe it to be inferior, or the former assimilates itself to the latter if its adherents feel that way. The obvious examples are Europeans in North America, and the Mongols in China, respectively. But I don't know how they would account for Muslim rule in the subcontinent: neither side felt itself to be inferior, or (same thing) superior: they were just -- different.
When Buddhism passed away from the rest of India for reasons that have as much to do with lack of trade and decentralization as with Hinduism's ability to assimilate, a last outpost under the Pala dynasty continued in Bengal during the 8th to 12th centuries. However, they were overthrown by the Vishnu-worshippers, the Senas. Thus, the Buddhist populace had to live under a Hindu monarchy and Hindu elite. (The ruins of a great Buddhist monastery and its adjoining city can still be seen in Bogra, and tourists from Bangladesh and abroad are regular visitors.) Then, in about AD 1200, Muslim invaders from the northwest overthrew the Senas, and Islam found a mass following among the people. In the eastern part of the country--Noakhali, Chittagong, and Sylhet--Arab traders also spread Islamic teaching ('Bangladesh, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th Edition). Muslim holy men helped to spread the new religion. Sufis arrived in India and preached Islam, and their tombs today are visited not only by Muslims but people of other religions, especially Hindus.
Things were not the same when the British took over.
The East India Company initially tried to keep the missionaries out. In 1813 the East India Company lost its monopoly of trade with India and was compelled by parliament to allow free entry of missionaries. The Evangelicals, both Anglican and Baptist, were then a rising power in Britain; they found congenial bedfellows in the utilitarianists and even the rationalists -- both these groups wished to 'acculturate' India, considered then as a laboratory for their 'advanced' views. The missionaries encouraged the spread of English, which replaced Persian as the state language, as a prelude to conversion ('India', Britannica). Little did they realize that the 'ethnocide' so successful in North America and Australia would not repeat itself in India in the way they imagined and desired. Nevertheless, it was a massive program of acculturation aimed at culture death.
I personally had the pleasure of meeting a late specimen of the missionary in the person of Angela Robinson, an elderly lady who was stationed at St. Andrew's Mission in Haluaghat, Mymensingh, as an English teacher and education advisor. She wrote a book called 'The History of St. Andrew's Mission, Haluaghat' (Dhaka: Church of Bangladesh, 2002). In her introduction, she observes that one of the reasons that the mission is special is that "Christianity did not come with foreigners but with Bengali and Garo Christians". "I can find no evidence that any foreign missionary had any direct part in the beginning of the Christian community here (p 2)". But that surely begs the question: how did the Bengalis and Garos become Christian in the first place?
A word must be said about the Garos. They were once a nomadic, Mongoloid group who, through various vicissitudes, finally settled among the Garo hills which today are shared by both India and Bangladesh: hence their name. They are animists: they believe that inanimate objects have spirit, and encounter nature not as an 'it' but as a 'thou'. Today, it is natural to feel a nostalgic respect for animism with its inherent respect for nature given the concern, and even panic, over the environment. Henri Frankfort, Thorkild Jacobson and others have noticed and commented on the mythopoeic nature of early Egypto-Mesopotamian civilization. It is a stage of society that we have lost and we cannot but feel a twinge of envy for animists such as the Garos. As expected, they are horticulturalists, practicing slash-and-burn cultivation, livestock farming and hunting.
A Garo Woman by Wikipedia
The British, however, did not find them romantic in any way. They introduced class in a classless society, money in a barter economy -- and Christianity in place of animism. It is said that the Garos held out for the first hundred years of missionary attempts at proselytization. "The first Christian missionary to the Garos may have been Krishna Pal," surmises Angela Robinson (p19). "He was the first convert of William Carey, the English Baptist missionary, after he had been 8 years in (West) Bengal." It is interesting how missionary activity went hand-in-hand with government assistance. "The government had promised a grant of 3 rupees a month for a new school -- and there were 32 pupils waiting. So Kali Charan began a school. In 1885, when he chose a Garo bride, there was the first Christian Garo wedding here." But the task of mass conversion still lay ahead, and one charismatic character mentioned by Ms. Robinson was Father Chakravarty.
One feels sorrier for the father of Father Chakravarty than admiration for his son. The gentleman was a high-caste Brahmin Bengali and a professional who naturally wanted his son to learn English. At 17, he was sent off to Calcutta where he stayed at the hostel of the Oxford Mission Fathers. Apparently, the boy was much impressed by the life of St. Francis of Assisi and the 'plain living and high thinking' of the priests. He was baptized in 1901, and his family disowned and disinherited him. They did not even let him visit his father when the latter lay dying.
Mohendra Chandra Chakravarty (to give him his full name) became a priest in 1911 and in 1917 he came to Haluaghat. "In 1920, the Bishop of Bengal, Rev Dr Phos Westcott visited and baptized 22 adults and confirmed 27 others. When he visited again, in 1928, over 100 were baptized (p31)."
Apparently, Father Chakravarty was busiest in the period 1935 -- 48. "He helped the Garo to see the truth of Christianity".A woman who headed one household decided that what he said about Christianity showed that it was better than her own, animist, religion, and she was converted -- and others followed." Sister Charu Sangma (the oldest nun in the sisterhood of Saint Mary at the time Ms. Robinson wrote the book) was a daughter of an animist chief. Father Chakravarty converted her, and every member of the family! Her father, on account of his status, held out to see how many villagers relinquished the native faith. The number must have been significant for he, too, was finally baptized: a chief who did not share the religion of his people would, presumably, be de trop.
"The onset of British influence in India differed both in manner and in kind from that of other historical invasions. The British came neither as migrating hordes seeking new homes nor as armies seeking plunder or empire. They had no missionary zeal. Yet eventually they did more to transform India than did any previous ruling power." Thus pondered Percival Spear in his article in the Britannica. They had no missionary zeal? As we have seen, their missionary zeal was not just confined to missionaries. Every element of the British intelligentsia seems to have been hell-bent on transforming India in one way or another. The missionaries stand out because what they did was conspicuous.
Take the Garos, again. After holding out for a hundred years, they finally succumbed to the charms of Christianity. In 1962, according to Angela Robinson, half the Garos were Christians; by 2002, 95% were. "One of the major reasons why Garos have adopted christianity (sic) is their immediate economic gain in the form of direct financial assistance offered to the newly baptised Christians." This is the candid observation of the Banglapedia. In April 2009, I made the acquaintance of a Santal leader, Noresh Sarkar; when I asked him why so many Santals were converting to Christianity, I received the same explanation as that offered by the Banglapedia for the Garos: material gain.
It is commonplace today for people to mourn the death of languages; few, however, mourn the death of ancient ways of life. Diversity is disappearing from the world. The Muslims had left the animists of the Garo hills and the Chittagong Hill Tracts alone. The seventeenth-century Muslim historian of Bengal, Mirza Nathan, observed that the Garos would eat anything except iron (Muslims, like Jews, have strict dietary prohibitions). They survived Muslim rule with their religion (and diet) intact, but the British proved too much for them. European civilization was dedicated to ethnocide. Percival Spear's observation above applied only to the British East India Company, not to the British. (In fact, the three pre-occupations of the Portuguese also had been "trade, anti-Islamism, and religion". Their missionary zeal was only matched by their intolerance.)
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