The Gospel Comes to (then) Hindu Kingdom-
Reviewing three decades of political and religious progress in Nepal
April 11, 2023, Kathmandu-
It is said and said well: who fail to learn from history will fail in the future.
We have cited this rater long but comprehensive article from Himal South Asian, 1993, so that we may learn from the trajectory of history, separate it from confusion and mystery, and act in the present and project into the future.
It is worthwhile to commemorate Chaitra 26- the historical day of the success of People’s Revolution I (पहिलो जन आन्दोलन). And three decades is almost a generation- a good time for review and assessment. Especially given the fact that 30 years back, the situation was just opening up for the commoners, after 30 years of Panchayat Raj, which had succeeded mere 10 years of relative openness in the wake of the demise of the century long Rana regime. Some of the entities have undergone change in their names while some individuals have passed away. But our hope is that it will serve as a reference point for the persent and future. We are thankful to the professional attitude of Himal Southasian which could adopt such a neutral stance regarading sensitive issues. – Editor
The political liberalization in Nepal came about at a time when Christian organisations were looking for new multitudes to convert. The country provides fertile ground for the development-missionary as well as the proselytiser.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All Authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of ail nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” Matthew
This single most powerful ideological injunction of the Bible is what gives Christianity its essential missionary character, and whose fulfilment has made possible the transformation of the faith of a little-known and persecuted Jewish sect of 2000 years ago into a major world religion.
The spectacular success of the Church can be attributed to the high spiritual and moral ground offered to the role of the missionary. Not only has he been commissioned to win over heathen souls for the Christian harvest, the missionary is also the savior of the sinners and a civilising agent for the pagans. This theological righteousness has been well-complemented over the centuries by the dedication, endurance, sacrifice and sense of adventure of the missionaries for the cause of Christ.
It must come as an irony that despite its constitutional label of Hindu Kingdom, Nepal is a country where the Christians are the most organised and vigorously expanding group. Even though missionaries have been making intermittent appearances since the early 1600s, it was only after the overthrow of the Rana regime in 1950 that they made significant gains in the hills of the Central Himalaya that Nepal occupies. Christiandom has done even better since Spring 1990 and the end of the Panchayat era, during which the State had sought to limit missionary work even as it welcomed mission-funded development.
At the time of the Panchayat’s demise in 1990, there were 30 persons serving jail sentences for conversion related-charges, and another 200 who had cases pending indifferent courts. All were granted amnesty when the Interim Government took over from the Panchayat. No arrest has been reported for proselytising or conversion since.
The surest proof of the Christian gains is in the numbers. While in 1950 there seem to have been less than 50 professed Christians in all of Nepal, according to unofficial estimates, by 1990 there were between 25,000-35,000. (Precise figures are not available because the Nepali Census does not enumerate Christians as a separate category.) In the last three years, the number of baptised Christians is reported to have surpassed the 100,000 mark.
Peter Thapa, a Christian worker who converted during the dangerous days of the Panchayat and was jailed for it, estimates that there are an equal number of “secret believers”. Even though the fear of legal persecution is now absent, social pressures keep them from going public, he says.
Today’s proselytising vigour has been made possible by the liberal character of the new Constitution, whose provision on fundamental rights guarantee free practice of one´s religion while prohibiting a person from effecting another´s conversion. Under the old Constitution both the one who converts and the proseltyser were culpable.
According to Christian sources, there is now at least one church in each of the 75 districts of Nepal. Kathmandu Valley alone is said to have over 100 different churches and congregations.
Ambitious programmes are in the offing. One evangelist group, the Nepal Every Home Concern, has the target of reaching every home in Nepal with the Good News over the next five years, and to set up a church in every village and town by the year 2000. To meet these goals for Nepal, the organisation trained 1,200 students in evangelical work in 1992 alone. Theological colleges and Bible ashrams have been established to produce priests, evangelists and Christian leaders.
Happy Birthday Jesus
This heightened pace of missionary work in Nepal is in part the result of a sense of urgency that prevails amongst the international missionary and church organisations. As the century comes to a close and the world steps into the next millennium, the Christian church feels that time is running out for the salvation of the multitude. And the multitude, of course, is in the developing world.
In 1987, Pope John Paul II set the target of winning a billion new converts “as a present to Jesus on his 2000th birthday.” In Matthew 24, Jesus has commanded that the gospel of his kingdom be preached to the whole world prior to his second coming. Poverty-stricken, populous Nepal was ripe with possibilities for the missionary.
Today’s proselytising missionary organisations use the latest in information technology as well as the most advanced management techniques to reach out. With deep pockets and dedicated armies of professionals, they are spreading around the globe with the Good News. Just one American missionary group, the Southern Baptist Convention has an annual income of U$ 180 million, according to the book Missionaries. The Convention has 4000 missionaries in 113 countries and operates with the precision and efficiency of a multinational corporation.
Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, is working overtime for the 2000th birthday. CCC, which also operates in Nepal, has an annual income of U$ 80 million and works through 16,000 full time members in 151 countries. Bright has plans to reach five billion people (almost the entire world population) by the year 2000 through 271 languages and 1000 dialects.
Besides the dollar-laden missionary effort and a more liberal Constitution, the proddings of some Western Governments have influenced the growth of Christianity in Nepal by tempering official attitudes. A resolution passed by US Congress in June 1991 asked the Interim Government to ensure that the freedom of religion includes the freedom “to change one’s religion or belief and the freedom, in public or private, to manifest one’s religious belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Subtle hints were dropped about a drop in the aid flow if the Nepal continued its anti-church posture.
The line of separation between the State and Church is not very clear even in the United States. In February 1993. President Bill sat for the annual Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton, together with world Christian leaders, senators and congressmen, and the diplomatic corps. Invited at the Breakfast was Pastor Simon Peter, ne’ Ram Saran Nepal, for his “outstanding contribution in the Pentecostal movement through the Four Square Church”.
Dhading District, northwest of Kathmandu, has done very well by missionary standards. A majority of the local Tamang population has been converted to Christianity and today they form a voting block that can influence electoral outcomes. The sitting Nepal Congress MP, Dhaman Pakhrin, is said to have won due to their support. Similarly Butwal’s Christian community contributed to the victory of Nepali Congress candidate Bal Krishna Khand. At the same time, however, some Christian papers have denounced the same Nepali Congress as “Bahunbadi” and professed solidarity with the Communists, especially on the question of the “Hindu Kingdom”.
One outstanding element of the Christianisation in Nepal is that a majority of the converts seem to come from the Tibeto-Burman groups — the matwalis who traditionally practice a blend of spirit worship, Tibetan Lamaism and Hinduism. People from the Chepang, Tamang, Magar, Rai, Limbu, and Gurung groups form the majority of the Christian converts, while the higher castes are said to make up only about 10 percent of the flock.
The apparent success among the matwalis might be explained by the fact that their hierarchy-less syncretism of spirit-worship is the ‘weakest’ link on the Hindu-Buddhist continuum. As these relatively loose and easygoing belief systems succumb to the sociological forces of modernisation, they provide ready ground for the propagation of a vigorous, monotheistic and highly-structured religion. In fact, many matwali converts report that the lack of a strong and structured religious tradition of their own prompts them to take up the new religion.
Interestingly, few among the northern communities such as the Sherpas or Manangbas have been converted to Christianity. While partly this might be explained by their geographical remoteness, the fact that these Tibetan-speakers are backed by strong Tibetan Buddhist traditions doubtless keeps them from drifting. The same is the case in the southern belt of Nepal, where populations are secure (perhaps too secure) in their distinct Hindu or Muslim identities. The midhills of Nepal, where the Hindu and Buddhist traditions meet, is where Christianity thrives. Over the decades, as the gill population migrated to the southern belt, Christianity has followed the Parbates in to the Terai as well.
The new converts face psychological stress when at first they are asked to abandon the worship of their deities, images and rituals in favour of exclusive loyalty to a single lord. The Christian god is a very jealous god, with none of the live-and-let-live attitude of the Hindu-Buddhist pantheon. Many converts admit to feeling left out and emotionally distressed during festivals like Dasain and Tihar. There is nostalgia mixed with guilt.
“It requires a lot of faith and will power to resist the temptation to participate,” says Peter Thapa. Some Christian groups, especially among the Protestants, deal with these withdrawal pangs by organising retreats and recreation which coincide with the festivals. They have found that a few years of such diversions will wean the converts away.
The Catholics in Nepal, who lay the least emphasis on evangelism and conversion, are perceived to be most tolerant of the local religious elements and practices. It is not uncommon, for example, to observe the use of diyo and kalash, incense, flowers and other local forms in their services. Their’s is an attempt to “inculturate” and “indegenise” the church. “Each religion is a revelation of god given in the context of a particular culture and historical situation, and we have to learn to discuss the truth behind the names and forms,” wrote one Roman Catholic scholar.
This view is not very welcome among Protestant groups, which believe in complete sanitatisation to prepare converts for the “new life”. Speaking of which, not a few, it seems, are being prepared for it with non-spiritual enticements. Salvation or identity aside, the success of the proselytisers might also be a simple case of people responding to need and poverty. Case to case, free medical treatment, scholarships, employment, or even a change of clothes and a meal might work as adequate incentive for adopting another religion.
Not only are the destitute given monetary incentives to convert, the relatively well-off also convert for a price, says Chiranjibi Nepal, a lecturer of economics at Tribhuvan University. He recalls the case of a senior bureaucrat’s son who ‘converted’ to get himself to the US but ‘reconverted’ when his purpose was served.
The standard view is expressed by Minister of Housing and Physical Planning Bal Bahadur Rai, who told a public gathering recently that the allurement of money provided by the missionaries “could transform the spiritual heritage of the country.”
Sila Gurung. Senior Liaison Officer at the International Nepal Fellowship (INF), one of the large missionary group in Nepal, presents a different view on the incentive question. “What we are doing is trying to help those needy who come to us. Succor to the poor is a basic tenet of Christianity and cannot be equated with the act bribery.” Adds Peter Thapa, “In a society where all try to lake away from the poor, what’s wrong if one religion gives to the needy?”
The Bahun and the Christian
Notwithstanding all the promises of a new life, Nepali Proselylisers have not achieved complete emancipation for their converts. Thus, although the outward signs of untouchabilily might be erased when Deepak becomes David, and Sanumaya becomes Samantha, it is clear that underlying biases of Nepali society are right there. Even though the original Hindu calling names might have been discarded, caste values have not disappeared. Admits Pastor Simon Pandey, General Secretary of Nepal Christian Fellowship of Nepal (NCF), an umbrella organisation of 150 Protestant churches. “There is still tremendous pressure to marry from one’s own caste.”
For all the disapproval of caste values, the literature put out by certain Christian organisations appear to take inordinate pleasure when they report on “high caste conversions”. This might be due to the credibility and respectability which comes from such victories. Even though Bahun Christians comprise less than ten percent of the believers, a disproportionate number seem to be occupying the upper echelons of the casteless Christian hierarchy. Their higher literacy rate, if not their understanding of rituals and religious texts and natural propensity for “leadership roles”, according to one cleric, “invariably pushes the Bahuns to the fore”. The present head of the Nepal Jesuits, Anthony Sharma, whose origins are in Gorkha.
“Bahuns do not convert frequently, but when they do, they make ‘hardune’ Christians.” says Rajendra Rongong, a prominent figure among Kathmandu’s Christian community.
Although various ethnic forums have been vocally decrying the Hinduisation or Sanskritisation of hill ethnic groups, surprisingly no champion has yet raised a voice against the Christianisation of their people. Padam Sunder Lawati, ex-minister and Rastrya Prajatantra Party stalwart, does raise a cautious note when he says that the gradual erosion in Kirati culture is being supplanted by evangelism, often induced by enticements.
One explanation why Christian conversions have not been opposed too loudly might be, as Chairman of the Kathmandu-based Buddhist Youth Group Harsha Mani Shakya says, that “like Buddhism, it (Christianity) also does not believe in caste.”
The reason why the janajati groups have not yet focused on proselytising could also be that they perceive the here-and-now threat to be that of Bahunbad, promoted by the dominant communities. Whereas, because the Christians are still on the ‘outside’, there is some common cause, even through the church supplants traditional beliefs and rituals much more efficiently than Nepal’s hill Hinduism. For the moment, Hinduisation is perhaps seen to be the greater of two ‘evils’.
The Door is Opened
When Nepal ended its isolation in 1950 and opened up to worldly influence, the missionaries were prepared, having planned for the day for decades. From their forward bases in Darjeeling and along the Nepali border, the were ready to move in.
Darjeeling was acquired by the British from Sikkim in 1835 to develop as a hill station; and migrants arrived from eastern Nepal to work as labourers. As missionary historian Cindy Perry has written, there was general receptiveness to the faith among this transplanted people. The Church of Scotland established a strong base among the Nepalis and Lepchas. Over the next century, Darjeeling would play a vital role in transplanting the church into Nepal, Bhutan and Assam.
However, Darjeeling was only the most prominent staging ground. Right along Nepal’s southern and western frontier, various missionary groups had established beachheads at strategic transit points. As the gateway to Kathmandu, Raxaul railhead was considered vital, and the missionaries’ influence in Nepal was enhanced when the Duncan Hospital opened in 1929. Other Indian towns with missions included Jogbani, Nautanwa, Rupaidiha, Tanakpur, Pithoragarh and Dharchula. Enthusiastic evangelists made forays into Nepal to create ‘secret believers’.
After the end of the Ranas, the Christians in these outposts set up churches and congregations in the Nepali heartland. David Mukhia, working for the Nepal Evangelist Band (NEB, later to be rechristened the International Nepal Fellowship, INF) in Nautanwa, became the first missionary to set up church inside Nepal after 1950, in Pokhara. NEB had been formed back in 1936 by two missionary ladies, primarily to train and prepare “… those, who, in God’s name, will go up to possess in his name the land of Nepal”.
Barnabas Rai, a evangelist operating from the border point of Rupaidiha, where he had been employed by the Assemblies of God since 1930, moved to establish a church in Nepalgunj. Tir Bahadur Dewan, who was working for the Regions Beyond Medical Union in Jogbani, became Kathmandu’s first Nepali pastor in 1951.
The relatively free atmosphere during 1950-60, before the advent of the Panchayat, was conducive for the propagation of the faith. Many secret believers began to publicly profess their Christianity, and churches emerged in hill towns like Tansen, Butwal, Gorkha and Okhaldhunga. Not only could Nepali Christians now live in Nepal, after a hiatus of two centuries, foreign missionaries too could now actively work to build the church within the Forbidden Kingdom.
Himalayan Bible Belt
The decision to publish Christian literature in the Nepali language was probably one of the most important steps taken by the early missionaries in Darjeeling. The missionaries were actually ahead of even the Nepali educationists, publishers and administrators in recognising the possibilities offered by the language in reaching the maximum number of ethnic groups.
Decades before Nepal’s adikabi (first poet) Bhanubhakta started his work of translating the Ramayana from Sanskrit to Nepali, Baptist missionary William Carey, using the help of pandits for translation, produced the Nepali New Testament in 1821. This was the first book in the Nepali language to come off the printing press. The proper translation of the Bible into Nepali was completed in 1915 through the efforts of Padre Ganga Prasad Pradhan, among others. The New Testament was further revised in 1957 and the Old Testament in 1977. A new revision effort is said to be underway to make the Nepali translations read better.
The last few years has seen an upsurge in the number of Christian publications, which now include the large-circulation monthly newsletters Kanchan and Udghoshana. Two other half-yearly magazines, Mahan and Bodhartha, carry Bible portions, parables, religious essays, church news, and opinions on social and political issues. There are now four church bookstores — two in the Valley, one in East Nepal and a new one just opened in Nepalganj, western Nepal.
In 1992, the Nepal Bible Society (NBS) atone distributed 5,896 copies of the Bible, 14,126 New Testament portions, 183,450 other booklets and 557,300 pamphlets. Several Bible correspondence programmes distribute Christian literature through the mail and audio scripts and mobile film screenings are available. Every morning, a radio station from Russia now beams Gospel for Asia in Nepali.
Besides Nepali, the New Testament is now available in 15 dialects, including Gurung, Newari, Tamang, Rai, Chepang, Kham and Magar. Most of these are jointly produced by NBS and International Bible Society,
The notions of ‘development’ and ‘modernisation’ came into vogue in the aftermath of the Second World War. In keeping with the times, the Nepali Government too desired modern education, industry, health services, communication, transportation and other good things for its people. Help was welcome from any quarter, and the missionary represented a source of money, know-how and organisation. Moreover they were willing to help, albeit at a price,
Apart from the considerable resources at their disposal, the missions had already established links with a part of the population through their work in public health. As for the Nepali aristocrats, many were beholden for the education provided to their children in the numerous mission schools from Darjeeling to Mussoorie.
This link between the Kathmandu elite and the missionary educationist was strengthened when Fr. Marshall Moran, an American Jesuit, arrived in 1947 to supervise the B.A. examinations at Tri Chandra College, then affiliated with the Patna University. Responding to the entreaties of Kathmandu’s rich and famous, the priest set up the St. Xavier’s School for boys in Kathmandu. A school for girls run by Catholic nuns, St. Mary’s School, was established in 1954. There are today Catholic schools in Pokhara, Gorkha and Damak, and a St. Xaviers College in Kathmandu. The Jesuits also run a drug rehabilitation service, a social service centre, a research centre, and a training seminary.
Apart from the Jesuits, eight different orders of Catholic nuns, Maryknoll missionaries and Holy Cross brothers are working in Nepal.
While the Catholics have made their mark in elite education, and made the Kathmandu rulers more willing to countenance missionary work, in other areas it is the various Protestant groups which have excelled. Back in 1952, with the intercession of the British ambasador, the Nepal Evangelist Band (now INF) became the first group to setup a mission hospital in Pokhara, which has now evolved into the 206-bed Western Regional Hospital. Besides a leprosy hospital, also in Pokhara, the INF has extensive community health programmes, TB and leprosy services in many districts of western Nepal. At present, the organisation employs about 60 foreign missionaries and 400 Nepali staff in its operations.
Likewise, the Mission to Lepers (UK) was allowed in 1956 to open a hospital at Anandaban. The Seventh Day Adventists started another hospital in Banepa in 1957. In the far West, Dr. Kate Young started a dispensary for lepers in Dadeldhura in 1960. It was later taken over and developed into a hospital by The Evangelical Alliance Mission in 1968. The Lutherans, the Assemblies of God and a few other Protestant groups arc also active in fields other than in public health.
However, missionary-led development began in a big way with the United Mission to Nepal (UMN), representing the joint effort of several Protestant groups. Robert Fleming, the noted Himalayan orinthologist, and his wife Bethel were the moving force in the UMN’s establishment in 1954. Since then, UMN has grown, both organisationally and operationally and it now represents 39 Christian groups from 18 countries, and employs around 200 foreign missionary volunteers and over 2000 Nepali staff.
With an annual budget of U$ 10 million, UMN today has more than 35 projects all over Nepal, focusing on health, industry, education, vocational training and rural development. The agency is best known for its medical services—it runs the 138-bed general hospital in Patan, 125-bed hospital in Tansen, 50-bed hospital in Amp Pipai, Gorkha, and 25-bed hospital in Okhaldunga. The organisation has also played a pioneering role in the industrial and hydropower development through its three affiliate companies that do consultancy, construction and
turbine manufacturing. Presently, the UMN is working on the 12 megawatt Jhimruk Project in Pyuthan, the 5 MW Andi Khola project in Syanjha, and the 60 MW Khimti project in Ramechhap. At a time when Nepal is facing a severe energy crisis, UMN’s work in building indigenous capacity for power generation represents a down-to-earth contribution rarely made by missionary organisations. UMN is engaged in technical education, non-formal education and adult literacy. It has a NRs 13,470,000 educational scholarship fund.
Government in Dilemma
Even as the Nepali establishment welcomed the development that the missionaries bring, it knew that overtly or covertly preaching and proselytising was bound to take place. As the missionary academician Herbert Kane wrote, “The Bible is a missionary book, the gospel is a missionary message, the church is a missionary institution, and when the church ceases to be missionary, it has denied its faith.”
Given such a missionary mindset, the Government has tried to balance the benefits of the missionary development work with the hazards of conversion as best as it could. In one instance, it sought to do so by inserting a preventive clause (no.4.6) in the General Agreement between the HMG and UMN (similar clauses hold true for other missionary agencies as well):
UMN and its expatriate personnel shall confine their activities to the achievement of the objectives of the Project which they are assigned, and shall not engage in proselytizing or any political activity.
Notwithstanding these somewhat stern wordings, however, the actual situation is rather malleable. After the 1990 democratisation, UMN felt bold enough to write to the Foreign Ministry with a narrow interpretation of ‘proselytizing’:
“… Farther, in keeping with clause 4.6, we will not engage in proselytizing, that is, in attempting conversion through coercion or offer of material inducement.”
So defined, ‘proselytizing’ is restricted to only the act of conversion through force and bribery, and the UMN is otherwise free to engage in conversion activities through other means. That the Constitution sets a total prohibition on conversion becomes moot under this interpretation. While UMN might be accused for fancy semantics, however, one may also question the Constitution framers’ assumption that freedom to ‘practice’ religion can be divorced from ‘conversion’ particularly for those religions whose central tenet is evangelism.
In Nepal, the conditions for conversion are now so free that the challenges of missionary-hood might have begun to pale for some. Indeed, so easy has it all become that a few Christian leaders are even doubting the commitment of new converts. Whereas during the Panchayat era only the dedicated would dare embrace the new faith, “the openness now may invite many who are shallow in their faith and others who may be only after monetary gains,” concedes Rangong. UMN’s Director, Edward Metzler, expresses similar apprehensions.
The State’s more permissive attitude has encouraged the entry of all kinds of denominations and sects into Nepal over the last three years. These range from Jehovah’s Witness and Mormons to the cult group Children of God. The arrival of some of these new groups to Nepal once the going got easy has the potential of damaging an innocuous image carefully nurtured by the missionaries over the decades. Pastor Pandey worries, “These trends have the potential of dividing the Nepali church. Some of the questionable cult practices may also give Christians in general a bad name.”
Aware of the denominational squabbles and infighting that have marred inter-church relations in other countries, the NCFrepresents an effort by Nepali church leaders to give a non-denominational unified character to the church in Nepal.
Apart from the 1990 Constitution’s designation of Nepal as a Hindu Kingdom, the other matter that rankles Christians groups is the issue of organisation registration. Using a somewhat lame excuse that Christianity is not an indigenous religion, for example, the Chief District Office of Kathmandu has refused to register the NCF. Meanwhile, a Catholic society and two Protestant organisations have managed to get registered simply because they have secular sounding names. For example, the terms ‘Christian’, ‘Jesus’ or ‘mission’ did not appear in the registration form submitted by the Witness for Nepal group.
Meanwhile, the NCF’s case has gone up to the Home Minister, but Pastor Pandey is adamant about retaining “Christian” in the name. “We have waited long enough and we can wait a little longer,” he says, adding, “It isn´t preventing our work either.”
While some missionary agencies may be ambivalent about whether they want to ‘do development’ or use it merely as a means to proselytise, most are committed to the latter and lose no sleep over the matter. Although the example set by the of the Good Samaritian, and the values of charity, are deeply ingrained in Christianity, and Jesus himself entreats people to “love thy neighbour as thy self” (Luke 10:27), the proselytising compulsion seems to take the higher priority for almost every organisation.
How could it be otherwise? With emphasis on saving souls rather than the body, development works and social service are only the means to an end, a means to win heathen souls for Christ now, or if that is not feasible immediately, to prepare the ground for future conversions. This exclusive focus on conversions as an end in itself is especially true of Protestants groups and is admitted by many clerics themselves.
During its 2000-year history, Christianity has employed different means to enhance the flock ranging from preaching and evangelism to inquisitions and the use of military force. While the methods varied, the central goal of winning as many converts as possible has remained unchanged. So when after the second half of the 19th century the missionaries in South Asia adopted education, medicine and social service to get to the people, it signalled but a change in strategy. Forced conversion was no longer a possibility and you could never have the required number solely on the basis of the Good News. For the Christian soldiers, the spiritual end would always justify the temporal means.
Both the government and the missionaries appear to have their own calculations regarding church-sponsored development programmes and the proselytising agenda. But what about the multitude, “…the people from a little known country in the remote Himalayas for whom Christ died,” as Cindy Perry prefers to calls them? What´s in it for them?
In a world where all religions and beliefs tell of happy tidings in the here-to-after, here was one that guaranteed salvation in the afterlife and still managed to provide manna for this one. There are always many takers for the soul, but very few for the belly.
If it is possible to get a decent education, healthcare, jobs and development projects in return for letting others save your sinful soul on the side, it would be sacrilege not to go for such a win-win situation. After all, spirituality or non-spirituality, depending upon one’s pious perceptions, is a personal asset that one should be allowed to dispose of in the most advantageous terms. The prolonging of the salvation process might even prove to be in the recipient society’s interest — the missions will look for heathens elsewhere once all have been saved here.
More seriously, it is for Katmandu’s Hindu gentry to sincerely contemplate the questions of religion, ethnicity and nationalism in the context of a region that is increasingly exposed to outside influence. The automatic reaction against Christian proselytising, after all, is quite incongruous in this day and age, particularly when the nay-sayers are the first to try to take advantage of missionary education and development. At the same time, it is both ironic and hypocritical that the conscience-keepers of Hinduism, a faith and philosophy that emphasises the non-duality of matter and spirit, should clamour for continued suzerainty over the soul of the masses when they are pitiably reluctant to do anything for the body.
Apart from the tangible developmental benefits like schools and hospitals, the intangible yet positive aspects of Christianity have been in the social and cultural spheres. The non-caste character of Christianity has helped generate some degree of awareness against some of the obvious discriminations of commensality rules and untouchability. If nothing else, it has given a guilt complex to the upper castes for their complacent altitude towards their backward Nepali brethren. Many social reformers in India have been influenced by Christian teachings that emphasise the dignity and inherent equality of all human beings, and this might yet happen in Nepal.
The liberalised political atmosphere in the country has seen to it that missionary work is not the dangerous adventure it used to be and it is unlikely that the repression of the past will be repeated again. The last thing remaining to do, therefore, would be to eliminate the existing anomaly from the Constitution and allow freedom of religion not only in practice but in paper. Making proselytising legal would not only end a lot of misunderstandings and acrominy but would also be in line with the political and social ethos Nepal is trying to embrace. Besides, is Hinduism so weak that it has to be protected from de facto secularism with a Hindu Kingdom armour?
At a different plane, though, the suspision of the section of the population that is automatically arrayed against Christianity would remain. This wariness can be disarmed only if the missionary organisations lay all their cards on the table and let public opinion make the decision. In conversion as well as in development, the people must be given the full picture that enable conscious choices. Ambiguities, half-truths and hush-hush operations ultimately disempower the masses and serve the elites.
Why, it may be asked, is it necessary to dismantle the religion and rituals of Nepal’s multicultural population and erect a new monolithic model in their place if the goal is limited to bettering the living conditions of the masses?
In the past, and into the present, even missionary organisations whose sole interest is to convert have had to embellish their work programme with a lot of development talk. One of the worst examples may be that of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), whose escapades in the early 1970s did some damage to the reputation of all missionary work.
SIL was affiliated to the Tribhuvan University during 1966-76, engaged in conducting joint research on the lesser known dialects of the Himalaya. It turned out that translation of the Bible into the regional dialects and distribution was all part of the ‘research programme’. When information of the proselytising activities, plus possible involvement with the CIA in supplying arms to Tibetan Khampa guerrillas came to light, SIL had to pack up and depart in haste. According to a Kathmandu weekly, the organisation is planning a comeback into Nepal to resume unfinished business.
Even those institutions which might want to be more up front with their missionary agenda have been forced into secrecy by official and social strictures. Otherwise, there is no reason why the INF newsletter Today in Nepal, published from London, should have been marked: “CONFIDENTIAL, not to be reproduced or sent to India or Nepal.” Similarly, why should UMN feel constrained to deny that it has links with the local churches when it clearly does? The need not to roil the waters of Nepali society is so great that UMN’s annual report for public circulation makes no mention of its local Church Relations Unit, nor the expenditure thereof.
But these could be mere trifles in the larger scheme of things. “Nepal will undergo a metamorphosis within ten years if Christianity is welcomed in this country,” promises an editorial in Kanchan. In the next breath, however, the paper vehemently makes demands for a secular state. A heathen soul is left wondering whether salvation, when it does come, will be through the holy Gospel or the development mantra..
Shah teaches Sociology al Tribhuvan University, and reports for Kathmandu’s Rising Nepal daily.
Courtesy: Himal South Asian: https://www.himalmag.com/the-gospel-comes-to-the-hindu-kingdom/