Christians, Cultural Interactions, and India's Religious Traditions

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JUDITH M. BROWN AND ROBERT ERIC FRYKENBERG, EDS. Christians, Cultural Interactions, and India's Religious Traditions. Studies in the History of Christian Missions. Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Cambridge, England: William B. Eerdmans, 2002. Pp ix + 241, introduction, index. $35.00 (paper).

This book is composed often meaty essays. Each of them gives a detailed account of one or more contacts between Christians and India's religious traditions. Space constraints prevent inclusion here of such stimulating events as the HuI and Kherwar uprisings among the Santals of northern India, developments concerning colonial administration under the British, and the emergence late in the twentieth century of the ecumenical "pure Tamil" Bible translation, which eliminated Sanskrit words because they were thought to be "a vehicle of Brahmin domination."

The first major essay, by Indira Viswanathan Peterson, introduces a highly acclaimed Tamil poet, Vedanayaka Sastri, who in 1820 formally presented his long dramatic poem, Bethlehem Kuravanci, to the Evangelical church. Presumed to be Sastri's Masterwork for the Protestant Christian community, it was clearly intended to counteract the influence of famous, long-honored Hindu poems. In his introduction Sastri complained sharply of "the pack of poets who do not know the One Cod but worship many gods." In the poem as elsewhere, Sastri also criticized the Roman Catholic church.

In fact, Sastri had personal experience of three cultures: Hindu, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Christianity (German Pietist). As a native convert he embodied many of the themes explored by the ten authors of the volume under review.

These themes touch upon attitudes, motives, social structures, and languages that separated European missionaries from the native Hindus and Muslims who worshipped Siva, Vishnu, or Allah.

From the early eighteenth century to the present, Christian missionaries have arrived in India intent on converting those who worshipped many gods into adherents of a single exclusionary diety. Conversions therefore loomed large in the reports sent home by the missionaries. In India, however, claims of numbers converted were often challenged, and lively conflicts resulted.

Sastri took part in these struggles. He spent much of his life working among German Pietists and was for some thirty-five years the headmaster of the Tamil school for catechists in Tanjore. …