Sponsored By: Infinity Foundation

The Indian Census, Hindu-Christian Dialogue

The Indian Census, Hindu-Christian Dialogue, and Perceiving the Religious ‘Other’
by Judson B. Trapnell

The Census: Interpreting Facts

For most of us, census numbers are about as close as we can get to facts. They are the product of counting actual persons and compiling the results. But as is apparent from the most recent U.S. census, this information is used in multiple ways by the government and by interest groups, including religious organizations. Census data is thus not value neutral; it suggests different agendas for different members of that counted population. As the recent U.S. census also illustrates, methods for gathering these facts are imprecise and controversial. It turns out that census data is not as incontrovertible as it first appears; both the numbers and the methodology of the census are open to interpretation. Are the census figures still “facts”?

As we await the full analysis of the 2001 census in India completed in February, some of the numbers are available and comparable to earlier counts. One area of interest will be the percentages of Christians in the northeast where in some areas they constitute strong majorities. The 1991 figures for percentages of Christians in Meghalaya (64.6%), Mizoram (85.7%), and Nagaland (87.5%) are striking. While the corresponding figures for Christians in India as a whole show a general numerical increase over the preceding decades (1971–14.2 million, 1981–16.2 million, 1991–19.6 million, 2001–estimated 24 million), the percentage of Christians in India as a whole has been decreasing (1971–2.6%, 1981–2.4%, 1991–2.3%, 2001–estimated 2.3% again). (Source: <www.censusindia.net>.) Caste differences are also often unofficially noted in this context: An estimated one third of Christians in India are tribals or aboriginals, while many of the rest are from Scheduled Castes (or “Dalits” [“oppressed” peoples]).

Having the facts can be reassuring, even if we do not like them. However, some in India from Pres. Narayanan on down have questioned the methods for gathering the facts about India’s population, e.g., the strategies used for counting Scheduled Castes. Information on caste identity was only gathered for Scheduled Castes, and this incompletely. Christians have claimed that Scheduled Castes were given only three options for their religion on the census forms (Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist), excluding not only Christians but Muslims as well. (See Sultan Shahin, “Indian Census Could Produce ‘The Most Complicated Lies,'” [Feb. 21, 2001] Asia Times Online <www.atimes.com/ind-pak/CB21Df01.html>.)

Differences in interpreting the Indian census data are even more charged. How one makes sense of this data will be determined by a number of factors, including one’s political and religious commitments. A member of the RSS or BJP is likely to interpret and respond to the facts differently than an Indian Christian. Arun Shourie, for example, now Union Minister for Development of the Northeast Region, perceives the recent increased efforts by missionaries to convert tribals as part of a larger Christian scheme to assert political power in the region (Arun Shourie, Missionaries in India: Continuities, Changes, Dilemmas [New Delhi: HarperCollins, 1997], pp. 204-210. See also the Indian Bibliographic Centre Research Wing’s Christianity and Conversion in India [Varanasi: Rishi Publications, 1999]). In contrast, Christian Council president Joseph DiSouza counters that the methodology of the 2001 census discloses “ulterior political motives” of the ruling party, the BJP (quoted in Shahin). Who does one believe?

Thus, the contrast in perceptions and interpretations of the facts presented by the census data is stark: What for one group is a legitimate expression of India’s commitment to religious freedom and tolerance is the illegitimate success of questionable methods of proselytism for the other. What is the movement of Christ’s spirit among those in darkness for one group is the encroachment of Western colonialism upon Indian sovereignty via missionaries for the other. (Representative websites for each of these points of view include respectively for Hinduism and Christianity: <www.vhp.org>, <www.rss.org>; and <www.missionsindia.org>, <www.dalitstan.org>.) How do we account for such different responses to the census data?

This first of three articles for the Infinity Foundation website will explore how we experience and examine religion as a source of the assumptions, beliefs, and commitments that shape perception of facts such as the census data, drawing upon both Indian and Western theories of knowledge or epistemologies. In addition, this article introduces the primary illustration for all three, Henri Le Saux, OSB or Abhishiktananda (1910-1973), a French monk, priest, and author who pursued the dialogue between Christianity and Hinduism for much of his life, especially after his emigration to India in 1948. In the second article, the theme of misperception will be developed as a counterpoint, again based upon both Western and Indian epistemologies, and illustrated by Abhishiktananda’s reconsideration of his own early views of Hinduism. Finally, the third article will introduce the experience of reperception as the resolution of the dialectic suggested by the preceding two essays. This experience will be exemplified by the mystical transformation that Abhishiktananda underwent in his final years, especially as a result of the heart attack he suffered in 1973. The overall thesis of the three articles is that the religious ‘other’ is necessarily perceived and/or misperceived based on one’s fundamental assumptions, beliefs, and commitments. Further, these factors constitute a framework of meaning that can be transformed by interreligious relationships and by mystical experience, leading to a reperception that offers hope in the midst of interreligious conflict, particularly in India where such transformations in point of view have been traditionally described and valued.

Perceiving the Religious ‘Other’

To perceive is to apprehend external and/or internal objects by means of one or more of the senses. According to most analyses, sensory experience is then processed and interpreted according to pre-existing factors in the mind that, in turn, are based upon the nature of the mind itself, upon memory, or upon instruction, especially that accepted as authoritative. When I as a Christian, for example, enter a Hindu temple, my sensory experience is shaped by categories of space and time, by memories of previous such visits, and by information and impressions from others accepted as authorities. Thus, according to most Western epistemologists (particularly after the writings of the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant), we do not experience objects with total innocence; we bring to experience various factors that shape what that experience will be like for us. According to 20th century neo-Kantian philosophers, this shaping is so spontaneous that the traditional distinction between an experience and its interpretation is imprecise. To experience is to interpret; it is not simply a later process that we unintentionally or intentionally perform. I see, hear, taste, touch, and smell the same Hindu temple differently than you, than any and every other perceiver. By this analysis, all individual viewpoints are relativized; none is absolute in the sense of final or complete.

Perception of the religious ‘other’ is also clearly characterized by abiding mental factors, by our assumptions, beliefs, and commitments – some of the most important of which are derived from our religious conditioning. In response to the census data, for example, if I as a Christian read a strident critique of missionary efforts, it will be difficult for me not to be offended and to assume that many Hindus have similar views. Thus, when I next meet a Hindu, my perception of her/him will be shaped by that negative impression to some degree. Meanwhile, the Hindu reader of the same critique of Christian missions may identify closely with the author’s outrage, a response that will tend to color his/her experience of all Christians. Reflect upon your reactions to the terrorist attacks of September 11. Is it not extremely difficult to distinguish between the few responsible for these acts and Muslims in general, especially if one already has negative impressions of this religion from prior experience or the media? Will not such events shape our perception of Muslims, as Pearl Harbor affected American perception of all Japanese for decades thereafter?

A similar analysis of perception can also be found in Indian philosophy. As with Western philosophical theories of perception/interpretation, diverse perspectives are taken by Indian philosophers, e.g., the six systems. While each of the systems takes a unique point of view on what perception is, there are some common points that will serve to connect and distinguish the Indian from the Western view generalized above. First, for each of the systems of Indian philosophy, perception is a valid source of knowledge (pramana), though to varying degrees depending upon whether one’s viewpoint is realist (the world is real as I perceive it to some degree) or idealist (this world is a reflection of another, one that is more real because unchanging). Second, each of the six systems distinguishes between two types of perception, indeterminate and determinate, again interpreted diversely by the various schools. For most of the systems (Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta being the most influential exception), indeterminate perception is an earlier stage in the process of perceiving that leads through conception to determinate perception. That is, what is first perceived by us as indistinct or unclassifiable sense data is then processed or interpreted in relation to concepts or categories of understanding in the mind. The object I sense as black in color and making a barking sound becomes the dog outside the window. In agreement with Kant and his modern successors, Indian philosophy acknowledges that its analysis distinguishes stages in a very rapid process. For Advaita Vedanta, however, indeterminate perception is not defined as raw, unclassified sense data but rather as pure, quality-less consciousness, as perception in which the subject-object distinction is transcended. For philosophers who follow Shankara’s teachings, then, indeterminate perception is not an unclear preliminary in a complex mental procedure; it is actually the ground of all determinate perception, as silence is the ground for perception of all sound.

Shankara’s understanding of the relationship between indeterminate and determinate perception reflects a further distinction that some have argued also serves as a common assumption of the various systems, the distinct roles of discursive and non-discursive ways of knowing, or what is more generally called in the West, reason and intuition. A quotation from S. Radhakrishnan and C.A. Moore will illustrate:

Indian philosophy makes unquestioned and extensive use of reason, but intuition is accepted as the only method through which the ultimate can be known. Reason, intellectual knowledge, is not enough. Reason is not useless or fallacious, but it is
insufficient. One does not merely know the truth in Indian philosophy; one realizes it. The word which most aptly describes philosophy in India is darsana, which comes from the verbal root drs, meaning “to see.” “To see” is to have a direct intuitive
experience of the object, or, rather, to realize it in the sense of becoming one with it. No complete knowledge is possible as long as there is relationship of the subject on one hand and the object on the other (A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957], pp. xxv-xxvi; see also, pp. 353-54).

This distinction between reason and intuition, while found in Western philosophy, receives far less attention than in Indian philosophy, particularly with the advent of the scientific method. The idea that you can know something “completely” by becoming it, by transcending the distinction between subject and object, would seem very foreign to most in the West; it violates Kant’s claim that we cannot know anything in itself. In India, the authors claim, this direct experience of knowledge (jnana) serves as the ground and the goal for all other knowledge. (One may note that Radhakrishnan’s point of view was deeply influenced by Advaita Vedanta.)

The above analysis of perception and knowledge from Western and Indian perspectives exhibits some of their similarities and differences. It is thus not surprising to find that a Westerner like Abhishiktananda who immerses himself in Indian thought (especially the Upanishads) and spiritual practice (especially of Advaitic masters like Ramana Maharshi) has difficulties in perceiving this religious ‘other’ clearly and in integrating divergent assumptions, beliefs, and commitments into a consistent point of view. In general, Abhishiktananda’s life and thought, as discussed in all three articles, will help us to explore what happens when a member of one religious tradition (in this case Christian) attempts to explore another tradition (Hinduism), while remaining committed to the first. How was his perception of the religious ‘other’ affected by this method of encounter? Can we generalize from his experience about the possibilities and limits of dialogue between the religions, both intra-religious and inter-religious?

Abhishiktananda’s Early Perception of Hinduism

Henri Le Saux was born in 1910 in a small town on the northern coast of Brittany in France. He and his family were observant Roman Catholics and supported Henri in his early sense of vocation to the priesthood, sending him to seminary from the age of 11 on. At age 19 he chose to follow a monastic calling, joining the Benedictine community at Kergonan. Here he would live from 1929 to 1948, with a short break for military service, moving along the usual path of formation, leading to final vows in 1935 when he was also ordained a priest. An attraction to India and a desire to serve there preceded his eventual emigration by more than a decade, during which he prepared himself by studying Indian scriptures.

After several requests to authorities in India, Le Saux received permission to come to Tamil Nadu from the Bishop of Tiruchirappalli. Le Saux’s specific request to the bishop was to “settle somewhere in the neighborhood of Tiruchi so that, living in some hermitage, he might there lead the contemplative life, in the absolute simplicity of early Christian monasticism and at the same time in the closest possible conformity with the traditions of Indian sannyasa” (quoted in James Stuart, Swami Abhishiktananda: His Life Told through His Letters [Delhi: ISPCK, 1989], p.13). This contemplative intention remained his goal throughout his time in India. In part to realize this goal, Le Saux and another French priest, Fr. Jules Monchanin, who had emigrated in 1939, made a concerted effort to found and then build up a Christian ashram, especially between 1950 and Monchanin’s death in 1957. Known usually as Shantivanam, Saccidananda Ashram endures as a community through the work of the late Bede Griffiths, OSBCam. who assumed leadership in 1968.

Le Saux’s early perceptions of Hinduism and of religion in general are apparent as early as his first correspondence with Fr. Monchanin before leaving for India in 1948. He writes with conviction that their ashram project should incorporate “total Indianization, ” beginning with the adaptation of the monastic rule of St. Benedict: “I would like to offer to our dear Tamilians the Rule at the moment of its birth, as it were, so that little by little, with experience as the sole guide, specifically Hindu customs could be grafted onto it” (quoted in Stuart, 19). An example of this “Indianization” and this “grafting” is Le Saux’s and Monchanin’s later assuming the lifestyle of renunciation or sannyasa. In 1950, they took names, as was the custom of Indian sannyasis, that signified their spiritual intentions. Le Saux chose Abhishikteshvarananda [“Bliss of the Anointed One, the Lord”], which he and others tended to shorten to Abhishiktananda – the name that we shall use to refer to him from this point. He had begun to wear the traditional dress of the sannyasi, the kavi, in the preceding year with the approval of the local bishop.

What were the motivations behind the French priests’ ashram project and its Indianized life-style? Was his intention, for example, in founding an ashram and wearing the kavi to deceive Hindus in an effort to convert them to Christianity? If not, then what was his goal? Writing in the same letter from France to Fr. Monchanin, he forsees both Christianity and Hinduism as benefitting from the proposed ashram: “I envisage the tree of monasticism once more flourishing in all its variety, with hermits, solitaries and mendicants; we have to sanctify the whole contemplative thrust of India and christianize the monastic institutions through which she expresses the depth of her spirit” (quoted in Stuart, p. 20). He thus envisioned a monastic community in which both “Hindus and Christians would come in search of nourishment for their spiritual life” (ibid.). Tamil would be used for prayer and Hindu writings would be adopted in liturgy. The spiritual work of such a community would involve “a rethinking of Christian dogma in Hindu terms, and a Christian reinterpretation of Hindu thought” (quoted in Stuart, p. 21).

Some readers may be struck by the note of mutuality in the above statements, rare for a priest of a church that would take two more decades to revise officially its teaching that outside this church there was no salvation. Far from being exclusive communities thoroughly at odds with one another, Christianity and Hinduism are presented by Abhishiktananda as potential partners in a common contemplative quest in which one religion can learn from the other. Some readers, however, especially Hindus, would likely remain suspicious of his motives which can (and perhaps at this early stage in his life should) be read as implying the ultimate superiority of the Christian revelation.

An early letter after his emigration to India shows that Abhishiktananda perceived essential differences between Hinduism and Christianity, and it also suggests that the issue of conversion did arise in the minds of both French priests through encounters with Hindus. In a 1948 letter to his parents, Abhishiktananda describes his visit with Fr. Monchanin to a Ramakrishna ashram and concludes:

[A]las, how far these people are from us; they speak of Christ with admiration and read the Bible; but for them Christ is only one of the many manifestations of God on earth – Krishna, Buddha, Christ, Ramakrishna… They cannot understand that it is obligatory to have a definitive faith, a fixed creed, and to belong to the Church. The nearer I come to these Hindus, the more I feel them at the same time close to me in their loyal search for God, and far from me in their psychological inablity to admit that Christianity is the only authentic means of coming to God (quoted in Stuart, p. 32).

In attempting to grasp Abhishiktananda’s early perception of Hinduism and his view of Christianity in relation to other religions in general, one must try to reconcile an unusual openness based on a common contemplative thrust and an abiding skepticism derived from the exclusive doctrines of his church. In the language developed above, it is clear that as early as his emigration Abhishiktananda held onto contradictory assumptions and beliefs about Hinduism that rendered ambiguous his perception of this religious ‘other’.

In the years following his move to India, Abhishiktananda confronted and explored this ambiguity by attempting to experience Hindu spirituality from within. However, what began as a project intended to inform the creation of an Indianized Christian monastic community soon became a personal, spiritual quest. Abhishiktananda was particularly influenced by encounters with Ramana Maharshi, his disciples, and their sacred mountain of Arunachala (in the caves of which the French priest would spend several months between 1952 and 1955); by his experiences with Sri Gnanananda, the teacher whom he took as his guru; and by his relationships with other Hindus who professed an advait-ic (nondualistic) philosophy and promoted practices for realization of its truth. In these persons he discovered an unexpected spiritual integrity that not only increased his respect for their tradition but also attracted him as an aspirant. He thereby explored not only the surface of Hinduism but attempted to experience its depths as well. This method of immersion, this attempt to experience the religious ‘other’s’ world from the inside, thus heightened the tension between opposing assumptions and beliefs about Hinduism and threatened his original commitments, while offering new ones to replace or complement them. As we shall see in the next article, Abhishiktananda’s perception of Hinduism was inevitably and profoundly affected by these experiences. However, as we shall also see, the transformation of his point of view through interreligious relationships and mystical experience via the religious ‘other’s’ contemplative path was a gradual process.


The above analyses of perception and of Abhishiktananda’s early viewpoint on Hinduism and religion in general have suggested the following points:

Perception is not a neutral process; it is shaped by assumptions, beliefs, and commitments that affect how we “see” the world and thus how we interpret what we see. As one contemporary Indian teacher expresses this point common to Eastern and Western philosophies, “The world is as you are.” This principle may be applied in analyzing divergent responses to census data in India.

Philosophers for centuries have acknowledged this relativization of any human’s point of view, a move that many of us would accept intellectually but have difficulty applying in our relationships with members of other religions. However, many Indian philosophers have claimed that a more stable basis for knowledge than perception exists, the intuitive or mystical awakening that is jnana or awareness of the Atman, the eternal aspect or Self of the individual that alone is the Absolute, Brahman.

Abhishiktananda represents what may happen when a Western Catholic attempts to immerse him/herself in Hinduism at both its surface and its depths, in both its conventional and mystical dimensions. He thereby exemplifies a process that Christian theologian John S. Dunne characterizes as “passing over” (“a going over to the standpoint of another culture, another way of life, another religion”) that leads to a “coming back” (a return to one’s own cultural and religious standpoint “with new insight” (John S. Dunne, The Way of All the Earth: Experiments in Truth and Religion [Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1978], p. ix).

The ambiguity in Abhishiktananda’s early assessments of Hinduism illustrates the possible results of this process of immersion in its early stages, especially when a conflict arises with the assumptions, beliefs, and commitments reinforced by one’s religious authorities. This ambiguity, then, also illustrates the nature of perception, as expressed by the philosophers. Whenever one apprehends the religious ‘other,’ one inevitably draws upon pre-existing factors in one’s psyche. After decades of conditioning, neither a Christian nor a Hindu nor any human can easily revise their perceptions. Immersion in another religious point of view by means of relationships and mystical praxis may be a potent method for such a re-visioning of the religious “other.”

These analyses of perception and of one Christian’s efforts to see Hinduism from the inside have implications for present-day Hindu and Christian responses to shifting demographics in India, particularly in the northeastern states. The current controversy is driven by conflicting assumptions, beliefs, and commitments that shape not only how one interpets census data but how one relates to members of another religion. Such a relativization of differing viewpoints, prompted by interreligious dialogue, may seem to undercut conviction and commitment, but this need not be the case. What Abhishiktananda will show us is that, while slow and agonizing, this relativization of one’s point of view promises an opening to the religious ‘other’ that can inform the complex political struggles in India that arise from its mulitreligious population. Conviction and commitment remain but are transformed, a step beyond the familiar that many of us seem reluctant to make.