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Christianity and Interreligion in South & Southeast Asia

By Marcus Braybrooke


Living in a multi-religious society is still a new experience for many people in Europe and America, but in Asia members of one faith community have traditionally coexisted in the same geographical space with those of others. Crossing boundaries – for example, marrying a member of another community – could result in social ostracism. At times, sharp controversy and, sadly, horrific violence has been suffered, as when India was partitioned. At other times, for centuries in millions of villages and town, neighbors from different traditions have gotten on well, been friends, and even enjoyed some practical cooperation.

“Blind monks examining an elephant” by Hanabusa Itchō (1652–1724) – Photo: Wikipedia

Many spiritual leaders transcended the boundaries. The story of six blind men who tried to describe an elephant, based on the Jain principle of ‘many-sidedness’ (anekanta), is well known to interfaith activists. The Buddhist Emperor Ashoka declared that “The faiths of others all deserve to be honoured.” In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says “I am in every religion as the thread through a string of pearls.” Guru Nanak said, “God is neither Hindu nor Muslim” and Rumi declared that “the religion of love is apart from all religions.”

Many of their followers, however, insisted that their teacher was the best and would sometimesfight to prove the point. Of course, religious conflict often is merely the outer clothing for political and economic power struggles.

Christians in India

Economic interests, supported by military might, were the driving forces behind Western imperialism. Christian missionaries followed the imperialists, although the East India Company banned them as being bad for business. It is still perhaps too early to reach a balanced assessment of nineteenth century missionary work. There was certainly a cultural arrogance, reinforced by the exclusivist claims of many Christians: but the educational and medical work of missionaries made a positive contribution. Moreover Western scholars – like Max Muller, Rhys Davids, and G.U. Pope (who devoted his life to translating the devotional Tamil poetry of Manikkavacakar) – by translating spiritual classics of the East, helped make them known in the West.

Many missionaries could see little good in what they labelled “heathen and idolatrous religions,” but there were exceptions. William Carey, one of the pioneer missionaries to India, got into trouble with his supporters in England for wasting time translating the Ramayana. Robert de Nobili,  a seventeenth century Jesuit missionary to India, moved from the missionary compound into a hut in the Brahman quarter of the city and shaved his head except for a small tuft of hair. He spoke only Tamil, abandoned his black cassock for a saffron robe and referred to himself not as a priest but as a sannyasi. His example was followed in the twentieth century by Bede Griffiths, Abishiktanda, and others. Several missionaries made sympathetic studies of the religions of India, but usually saw Christianity as the “Crown of Hinduism” – the title of a well-known book by J.N. Farquhar.

Raja Ram Mohan Roy, founder of the Brahmo-Samaj, a vital Hindu reform movement – Photo: Wikipedia

A few nineteenth century Hindus, mostly associated with the Brahmo-Samaj, showed a serious, if critical, interest in Christianity. Mozoomdar, who spoke at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions, in his book The Oriental Christ claimed that Asians were best able to appreciate the true message of Christ. The stumbling block for many Hindus who reverenced Jesus was the exclusivism of the Christian claim that Jesus Christ was the only Son of God.

In the twentieth century, Indian Christians, such as Appasamy, Chenchiah, M. M. Thomas, Mar Gregorios, and Stanley Samartha took the lead in dialogue, although today Protestant Christians who champion the rights of Dalits are more committed to social justice than dialogue with high-caste Hindus. The Catholic Church, with scholars such as Raimundo Panikkar, a leading figure at the Barcelona Parliament of Religions, and Fr. Albert Nambiapambil, who has been tireless in arranging interfaith gatherings, continues to promote dialogue. Dr. Karan Singh, a leading member of the Temple of Understanding, Swami Agnivesh and Swami Chaturvedi, with their emphasis on social action, have taken the lead in encouraging orthodox Hindu leaders to engage with people of other faiths.

Members of the Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Brahma Kumaris and other faith communities also take part in a large number of interfaith events and were all well represented at the great gathering, Sarva-Dharma-Sammelana, held in Bangalore in 1993 to mark the centenary of the World Parliament of Religions. I personally am grateful for the hospitality of many faith communities in India. The question so often is whether the example of the leaders is copied by their followers.

Rev. Nikkyo Niwano – Photo: Rissho Kosei Kai

The pattern in India can be seen as you travel East. The initiative for encounter with people of another faith was taken by Christian missionaries and often met with a rather defensive response. In Japan, it was members of the newer religious movements who were the first to engage in dialogue.  A remarkable pioneer was Shinichiro Imaoka, who, although a chain-smoker, lived to be 107. He founded the Japan Free Religious Association and became an active member of the International Association of Religious Freedom (IARF) – addressing its Tokyo Congress at the age of 104. Rev. Nikkyo Niwano, founder of Rissho Kosei Kai, and the Shinto leader Yamamoto, have also been active members of IARF as well Religions for Peace. In Singapore the initiative was taken by “Mr. Singh of Singapore” – as he always introduced himself. In 1991, the Won Buddhists convened one of the first interfaith gatherings in South Korea, andthe mayor of Hwaechon invited members of the Peace Council to the dedication of the Peace Bell, which will be rung when Korea is reunited.

There are so many more names and countries that could be mentioned. In addition Religions for Peace, IARF, the United Religions Initiative, as well as both the World Council of Churches and the Vatican have arranged meetings and conferences in different parts of Asia. Moreover, many members of so-called Asian religions now live in the West. As a result interfaith activity in East or West is increasingly interconnected, offering intellectual dialogue, spiritual sharing, and practical cooperative action.

The bitter divisions in many parts of the world are a reminder that the interfaith movement needs to grow at local, national and international levels to achieve the transformative effect of which it is capable. May this year’s Parliament of World Religions be an inspiration for all who seek to reclaim the heart of our humanity and work together for a World of Compassion, Peace, Justice and Sustainability, whether they are actually present in Salt Lake city or only there in spirit.