Bahá'í Library Online
. . . .
>>   Unpublished Articles
Hindu, Christian, and Baha'i conversion patterns in India.

Conversion Movements within Hindu Village Culture

by Susan Maneck

Most studies of mass movements in India have dealt with the conversion of tribal peoples or untouchables to one of the great literate traditions: either Christianity, Islam Hinduism (Sanskritization), or Buddhism. Conversion in the case of tribal peoples is similar to those of other non-literate cultures. Non-literate cultures tend to take a pragmatic approach to religion and are willing to utilize whatever forms appear most effective. Where other peoples appear especially powerful non-literates will readily accept their religious forms in order to obtain the power it is perceived to have. New forms are readily adopted and old, dysfunctional ones fade as the situation demands. Change occurs often, yet imperceptibly, since there are no written records to confirm that such a change has taken place. However, once a literate tradition is accepted boundaries become clearly defined. While non-literate peoples may readily convert to the literate tradition, movement away from it appears more difficult. Untouchables represent largely non-literate persons with a marginal position within the literate tradition of Hinduism. While excluded from access to the most important Hindu texts, they are none the less essential to village Hindu life, as distinct from the tribal peoples who generally inhabit separate areas. Untouchables organize themselves in patterns similar to other Hindus especially in terms of their corporate identity. Conversion in these cases represents a dissatisfaction with the status conferred upon them by higher caste Hindus and an attempt to raise that status by adopting a new identity.

This particular study focuses on conversions within the Hindu village culture, particularly among caste Hindus, in order to determine what factors are involved in conversion movements occurring from one literate tradition to another. Substantial conversions among caste Hindus have been exceedingly rare, but I will utilize two cases for comparative analysis. The first was a movement among Sudra to Protestant Christianity which began in Andhra Pradesh around 1906 and ended around the time of Independence in 1947. A more impressive movement has occurred more recently in Malwa among caste Hindus who have embraced the Bahá'í Faith in the 1960's and 70's. I will examine the various groups involved in the conversion movements to determine what factors inclined them to convert. I will also examine the similarities and differences of approach utilized by Christians and Bahá'ís in each context. Finally, I will investigate the particular manner in which village converts perceived the message of each respective religion.


Protestant missions in Andhra Pradesh, like those elsewhere in India. enjoyed their greatest success among scheduled castes and tribes. Mass movements among the Malas and Madigas began before the turn of the century and continued through the 1930's. The 1931 Census estimated that 20 per cent of the depressed classes in West Godavari, 32 per cent in the Krishna and 57 per cent in the Guntur district had converted to Christianity. Beginning around 1906 caste Hindus also began to convert, so that by 1931 there were over 26,000 of them. Missionaries regarded this development as a confirmation of their work among the depressed classes, and expected that the Christian message could percolate upwards to the higher castes. Bishop Pickett argued this thesis in his study of the movement Christ'-s Way to India's Heart. He felt that caste Hindus were impressed by the positive changes exhibited by the converts. Pickett supports his argument by giving anecdotal accounts of caste Hindus who were influenced by untouchable converts. He also shows that the bulk of caste conversions occurred in areas where the mass movement among Malas and Madigas was also strong. B.A. Oddie in his later study "Christian Conversion among Non-Brahmans in Andhra Pradesh", supports Pickett's thesis noting that the majority of Sudras converting were of the agricultural castes which had the most contact with Christian converts. Andhra Pradesh is a Telugu speaking area where Sudras, the lowest of the four varnas of caste Hinduism make up the bulk of society. Kshatriyas and Vaisyas are almost unknown, and Brahmans form a small minority. Society then is divided into three major groupings: the few Brahmans at the top constitute the priesthood. scribes and bureaucrats; the Sudras, the large agricultural castes, while the untouchables are relegated the bottom rung and serve the Sudras. The barrier, therefore, between Sudra and outcaste has an even greater significance in this region than in other parts of India. The most numerous "Sudra" conversions reported occurred among the subcastes of the Yannadis, Lambadis, Yerkulas, Waddaras. Telegas. Kammas, Yadowas. and Reddis. Of these the Yannadis and Lambadis were not Sudras at all but tribal people who stood apart from both the caste system and Hindu society in general. The Yerukalas and Waddaras were semi-tribal people in the process of "Sanskritization" who had been reluctantly granted status as Sudras. The Yerukalas were basket weavers who often lived in separate villages and spoke a dialect different from that of other Telugu. The Waddaras were itinerant ditch-diggers and stone-cutters. Both groups had a reputation for stealing and in the 1920's were compelled by the Criminal Tribes Act to remain in a fixed location under police surveillance. Many of these people clearly became Christians in order to escape harassment from police and village officials. Admitted one Yerukalas convert:
Owing to the unbearable oppression of the village authorities not only myself but all my kinsfolk have become Christians. In former times when a theft occurred, whoever might be the thief, the village authorities used to arrest us and put us in prison for some days. But since we have become Christians we are free from such troubles. No one is bold enough to touch us without the permission of our pastor. Besides that we are now worshiping the true God.
Besides assistance in their dealings with police authorities, the impoverished Yerukalas and Waddaras also sought missionary aid in obtaining tracts of land which had been made available to the missionaries for distribution among the depressed classes. In these cases, where such aid was not forthcoming, the converts quickly renounced Christianity. The Yerukalas and Waddaras were eager to receive the same educational benefits which the missionaries had made available. From this it would seem that these groups were impressed by the material gains obtained by the untouchables through their conversion but they had little interest in social and spiritual change. The Telegas. Kammas, Yadowas and Reddis, unlike the foregoing, possessed clear credentials as Sudras. Of these groups, the Kammas converted in the greatest number and the conversion of some of them in the Guntur district is the best documented. The Kammas played a leading role in the non-Brahman movement under the leadership of the Justice Party which dominated politics in the Madras Presidency during the 1920's. This movement originated as a protest against the leadership of the Brahmans of South India in political and social life. The Brahmans had been the first to acquire western education in this area and thereby obtained a near-monopoly on government positions. The Justice Party pressed for a quota system in order to insure representation of all groups. They opposed the nationalist movement since they believed it would only consolidate the dominate position of the Brahmans. Opposition to the Brahmans expressed itself in the religious realm as well. The Smritis, the Puranas and even the Ramayana received criticism for being weighed in favor of the Aryans over the Dravidians and for containing humiliating references to non-Brahmans. In the Guntur and Krishna districts the Brahmans questioned the propriety of the Viswa Brahmanas teaching the Vedas to the Kammas since they regarded both groups as Sudras. The Kammas reacted by training members of their own caste in priestcraft, calling them Kammas Brahmans. They established schools for this purpose in several areas. The dissatisfaction on the part of the Kammas and other dominant Sudra groups, who in economic terms were part of the ruling class, with the Hindu social system which gave supernatural sanction to their being relegated to an inferior status, provided a contributing factor which allowed for the conversion of significant numbers of them. While the anti-Brahminical sentiment and growing secularism of the Kammas probably made them more tolerant of conversion than they might otherwise have been, the conversions themselves, came from corners far removed from the political agitation. Before 1940 most of the Sudra converts in the Guntur district were women, often elderly and widowed. These women usually learned Christianity from Bible women', who visited their homes and related Bible stories to them. Younger women were often exposed to Christianity through the Lutheran hospital where they went to bear their children. These female converts often succeeded in inducing their husbands to convert as well. In one instance where a woman persuaded her husband to become a Christian, the husband, hesitating to seek baptism alone, sought support from the wife's family. Eventually they were all baptized in 1917. Most of the Christians in their town (Peddavadlapudi) were from the depressed classes and the Kammas, though the only caste Hindus in the community worshiped separately, claiming to be annoyed by the lack of reverence shown by outcaste Christians. This indicates how little outcaste Christians in that town had to do with the caste conversion movement. After this family's conversion, a mission school was opened for caste girls. Within ten years twelve Kammas families had converted, mostly at the urging of the womenfolks.

A number of factors might account for the extraordinary influence of the women in these conversions and the relative lack of opposition which accompanied them. It seems that Kammas women exercised a great deal more freedom than other Telugu women. She usually retained control over a large portion of her dowry. Caste violations among the Kammas were always handled by the immediate family, there being no institutional apparatus to pressure dissident caste members. From the foregoing examples it seems that where conversions to Christianity occurred among caste populations they were often in spite of. not because of, but caste Christians. How ever in some instances Christians from the scheduled castes did successfully mediate Christianity to Sudra Hindus. When they did so it was by addressing religious paradigms common to all village Hindus. P. Y. Luke and John B. Carman, who conducted research on the relationship between village Christians and the Hindu culture on behalf of the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society, had the opportunity of observing some of the ways this occurred. During their stay in Kondapuran they noted that a number of Hindus from the Sudra castes were attending worship services of that congregation regularly. They had become interested in Christianity after having attended the camp services conducted by an itinerant healer, Sadhu Joseph. Sadhu Joseph was born into a family of Mala Christians but grew up largely ignorant of Christian beliefs and practices. As a young man he contracted leprosy but was miraculously cured after having a vision which empowered him to heal others. He left his home and went out into the jungle for prayer, meditation and Bible reading. Although previously illiterate he now found himself able to read the Bible. Afterwards he traveled from place to place, erecting his tent on the outskirts of villages. and healing people in the name of Jesus Christ. His wife joined him in his ministry, but they did not cohabited. Sadhu Joseph ate no solid food but lived on milk and orange juice. He grew his hair long and wore a cassock with a silver cross. In his preaching, Sadhu Joseph taught almost exclusively from the Gospels, emphasizing especially the healing miracles of Jesus. While he would speak about repentance in general terms, he would not make it a condition for healing. Without insisting they do so exclusively,, he urged the people to worship Jesus. Mention was not made of other religions at all. Sadhu Joseph would cooperate closely with the established church. He made no attempt to administer communion but would invite the local pastor to celebrate it. He himself would receive communion from the pastor. On special request, with the pastor's approval, he would occasionally baptize people. Caste Hindus often attended Sadhu Joseph's services, sitting together with the outcastes during the worship. Rarely however, were they actually baptized, for this represented a definite break of caste. Usually they returned to their villages reciting the songs learned at these services, and sometimes regarded themselves as devotees to Jesus Christ in gratitude for their healing. While virulently opposed by the Arya Samajists, most caste Hindus seem to accept Sadhu Joseph in the traditional mode of a holy man in India whose renunciation of the world has rendered his caste status irrelevant. Healing and dreams seem to be the most common ways in which Christianity was mediated to Sudra converts and inquirers. Village Hindus often regarded the hearings received in the mission hospitals as evidence of the power of Christ. In the village of Ambojipet, Narayana Gowd, a toddy-tapper, first learned of Jesus in the evangelist's school he attended. Years later, when cholera broke out in his village, he refused to participate in the sacrifices to the cholera goddess although he was under great pressure to do so. That night he dreamed Satan tried to strangle him for not worshiping idols but that Jesus, appearing in white robes. killed Satan and rescued him. Three years later Narayana's wife became seriously ill during her pregnancy. Narayana took her to the mission hospital where she safely delivered a son whom, in gratitude, they named Swamidas (Servant of the Lord). A month later the wife developed severe stomach pains. One night Jesus appeared to her in a dream. He placed his hand where the pain was and put three pills into her mouth. The next morning her pain was gone. As a result of these experiences Narayana and his wife decided to be baptized even though this meant joining a church which was made up entirely of untouchables. Later, the father-in-law, Posha Gowd, developed eye trouble and Narayana took him to the hospital for surgery. The night before surgery Posha saw Jesus in a dream. Though the father-in-law credited the success of the operation to Jesus, after two years he had not yet been baptized. In another family of the same village, a women who had lost three or four children was visited by the Christian teacher who prayed with her for the birth of a son, requesting that should she have one he would be named Devidas (Servant of Goddess ) Five years later. under the influence of Narayana, this family agreed to be baptized. Another young man, Vittal, a potter was baptized with them although he had received no Christian instruction. During the baptismal service the minister warned the new Christians against participating in the traditional Hindu practices, including the performance of the Ramayana It so happened that both Vittal and Narayana belonged to the drama association which staged those performances. Vittal tried to drop out of the group made up of fifteen caste Hindus. At first they protested, but finally decided to give up performing the Ramayana and instead decided to adapt the traditional music and dances to Christian themes. Later the leader of the drama association also became a Christian.

Contrary to what has been suggested by a number apologists for the work of missionaries among the untouchables, mass movements rarely moved up in the caste structure. Where caste conversions did occur they were usually independent of the mass movements among the scheduled castes. In a few cases caste Hindus converted simply to obtain real or imagined material benefits from the missionaries. When those were not forthcoming they quickly fell away. Conversion was most likely to occur among caste Hindus who, like the untouchables. had become dissatisfied with their ritual status within the Hindu system. Lack of strong caste sanctions against conversion also provided a contributing factor. In some cases Christians from the scheduled castes did succeed in influencing caste conversions. They did so by mediating Christianity to Hindus in terms of their own religious paradigms and conceptions of piety.


The Bahá'í Faith was established in India in 1872 after Jamal Effendi was directed by Bahá'u'lláh to spread the Bahá'í teachings throughout South and Southeast Asia. Jamal Effendi remained in India from 1872-1878 where he met with leading Indian figures including the founder of the Arya Samaj, Dyananda Sarasvati. Bahá'í communities were established in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras but they mostly consisted of persons of Parsi or Muslim background. Over the next thirty years many Bahá'ís from Iran visited India both for business reasons and to spread the Bahá'í teachings. Beginning in 1908 Bahá'ís from America began traveling to India as well. These Bahá'ís, many of them women had previously been associated with the Theosophical Society or other groups associated with the American transcendentalists. Their teaching projects were often carried out in coordination with those of the Theosophical Society, the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj. They directed their message towards the intellectual elite of India.

Between 1921 and 1938 the Bahá'í community in India began adopting institutional structures which had been developed in the American Bahá'í community and received the sanction of the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, Shoghi Effendi. Among the administrative practices adopted was an enrollment procedure whereby representatives of the local administrative body (Spiritual Assembly) examined a potential convert's knowledge of the Bahá'í teachings before accepting his declaration of faith. New believers were expected not only to have an adequate knowledge of the basic doctrines and principles of the Bahá'í Faith; they also had to fully understand its administrative organization,procedures, and historical development. Naturally these procedures limited enrollment to the literate urban classes since rural Indians could not grasp the finer details of the movement's structure and organization. The result of these administrative policies, along with the extensive use of Islamic paradigms by Bahá'í is in their teaching programs, was that by 1960 the Bahá'í community in India amounted to no more than a thousand souls. Bahá'ís first settled in Malwa in 1942 in response to the call of Shoghi Effendi for Bahá'ís residing in major cities to disperse to smaller towns and cities in order to spread the Bahá'í Faith to a wider range of people. A Bahá'í family of Parsi ancestry, the Mehrabanis, settled in Ujjain where they were later joined by a Muslim Bahá'í family,, the Munjis. Five converts were soon made, four of them of Muslim background and one Hindu. In 1944 the first Local Spiritual Assembly was established. One of these Muslim converts married one of the Mehrabani's daughters, which created a stir in the Muslim community. That same year Bahá'ís participated in the city's Arya Samai conference where they offered an address on the social principles of the Bahá'í Faith. This speech attracted the attention of a scheduled caste leader from Shajapur, Kisan Lal, who subsequently became a Bahá'í. Kisan Lal informed other Harijans in the villages of Shajapur about the Bahá'í Faith and many of them frequented the Bahá'í center in Shajapur. There they were received graciously but no attempt was made to enroll them. A few individuals from the surrounding villages of Ujjain were judged capable of meeting Bahá'í standards of enrollment. One of them was Daya Ram Malvia who was also a scheduled caste leader. He in turn enlisted several prominent scheduled caste members of his village, Harsodan, and thus established the first Bahá'í village community in Malwa. With partition in 1947 the Bahá'í communities of Malwa were dealt a devastating blow as nearly all of the Bahá'ís of Muslim background (which still formed the bulk of the Bahá'í community there) left for Pakistan. Apparently those Bahá'ís were still generally recognized as Muslims. The Local Spiritual Assembly of Ujjain which was then the only one in Malwa was dissolved and for the next twelve years Bahá'í activity was negligent. The Local Spiritual Assembly was reformed in 1960. This time all the members of the [[year Bahá'ís participated in the city's Arya Samai conference where they offered an address on the social principles of the Bahá'í Faith.

This speech attracted the attention of a scheduled caste leader from Shajapur, Kisan Lal, who subsequently became a Bahá'í. Kisan Lal informed other Harijans in the villages of Shajapur about the Bahá'í Faith and many of them frequented the Bahá'í center in Shajapur. There they were received graciously but no attempt was made to enroll them.@l A few individuals from the surrounding villages of Ujjain were judged capable of meeting Bahá'í standards of enrollment. One of them was Daya Ram Malvia who was also a scheduled caste leader. He in turn enlisted several prominent scheduled caste members of his village, Harsodan, and thus established the first Bahá'í village community in were either of Parsi or high caste Hindu background. All had at least a secondary education.]] Beginning in 1953 a teaching program was instituted aimed at spreading the Bahá'í Faith throughout the world. Shoghi Effendi urged Bahá'ís to spread the teachings among the masses. When the first small-scale mass conversion movement began in Africa during the mid-1950's Shoghi Effendi. through his secretary relayed these sentiments:
... the friends [Bahá'ís] should be very careful not to place hindrances in the way of those who wish to accept the Faith. if we make the requirements too rigorous, we will cool off the the initial enthusiasm, rebuff the hearts and cease to expand rapidly. The essential thing is that the candidate for enrollment should believe in his heart in the truth of Bahá'u'lláh. Whether he is literate or illiterate, informed of all the Teachings or not, is beside the point entirely.
The Indian National Spiritual Assembly reflected this change in policy in a statement made in February of 1959:
On the other hand we should not deprive people to embrace the Faith pending their acquiring elaborate knowledge of the Faith and details of administration, etc. If conviction in Faith has been established in mind and heart of our friends, no matter how little they know about the Faith, we should not deprive them to have rights and privileges of being Bahá'ís.
In 1960 Mrs. Mehrabani spent several days in a Bhil tribal village of Kweitiopani near Indore which previously shown interest in the Bahá'í Faith. She returned periodically over the next few weeks and finally invited them to join them to join the Bahá'í Faith. 75 of the 200 villagers declared themselves believers by placing their thumb prints on enrollment cards since they could not write. With the aid of Kisan Lal arrangements were next made to hold a conference in the village of Sangimanda, a predominantly scheduled caste village of Shajapur. At this open air meeting held in January of 1961, Bahá'í speakers announced that Bahá'u'lláh was the bhagavan kalkin , the tenth avatar of Vishnu whose return in Vaishnavite theology marks the end of the kall-y a. Bahá'ís also stressed that the Bahá'í Faith considers all men equal and makes no distinction on the basis of wealth or caste. At the conclusion of the conference 200 villagers became Bahá'ís and representatives of other villages appeal - for Bahá'í teachers to visit L their villages as well. In response, the Indian National Spiritual Assembly purchased a number of jeeps and sent Bahá'í teachers throughout rural Malwa.

During the first few years of mass teaching in Malwa most of the enrollments were from the scheduled tribes and castes. This was partly because of the Bahá'í Faith's obvious appeal as a casteless religion. But it also reflected the strategies used by the Bahá'ís in their teaching efforts. When the decision was made to implement a mass teaching program in Malwa the original Bahá'í converts of rural areas were consulted, particularly Kisan Lal and Daya Ram Malvia. They naturally directed Bahá'ís to their own areas and communities and hence the bulk of new converts were from the scheduled castes to which they belonged. When mass teaching was implemented in the Gwalior area in 1962 Bahais utilized a different strategy. Concerned with reaching all strata of Indian society, Bahá'ís there first approached the leading castes when entering a village. Bahá'ís made special efforts to convert the village head man or at least gain his sympathy. This policy enjoyed remarkable success. When William Garlington visited a number of village Baha7i communities he found the numbers of Bahá'ís in each caste was roughly proportional to the caste breakdown of the village itself. Of the 276 declared believers he studied, 159 were members of untouchable or unclean The rest were caste Hindus, often Raiputs and Brahmans. By 1974 there were 113,692 declared Bahá'ís in Malwa scattered among 6.572 localities. In only one village did discontent on the part of the scheduled castes seem to be a motivating factor behind conversions. Forty years previously violence had erupted between Balais and Raiputs during a land dispute. In that village 91 Balais and 14 members of other scheduled castes had become Bahá'ís. But surprisingly,, so had 19 caste Hindus, including 4 Raiputs. The total population of that village consisted of approximately 825 scheduled caste members as opposed to 277 clean caste Hindus and 25 Muslims.

In the village of Richa other factors predominated. There a greater balance existed between the higher and lower castes. 15 of the 48 declarants were Brahmans, 3 Raiputs, 13 Dalais, 10 Chamars, 2 Bhangis, 1 Jain, and 4 Muslims. Yet 66 of the Bahá'ís were under 30 and 95 under 40. Most of these Bahá'ís were enlisted by a twenty-seven year old Rajput with a tertiary education who had attended Bahá'í 'deepening' classes in Ujjain. The Bahá'í communities in the villages of Karankani, Manasa and Kasod appear similarly to revolve around specific individuals. In all three cases the village headman had become a Bahá'í and others had enrolled under his influence. In all three villages Bahá'í primary schools were established since there existed no government schools in the area.


The foregoing descriptions of the mass movements in Andhra Pradesh and Malwa suggest some very different processes involved in the Bahá'í conversions as opposed to the Christian ones. This next section will examine the similarities and differences in the organizational structures, belief systems, and propagation methodologies introduced by the Christians and Bahá'ís respectively, in order to determine some of the factors which might account for these differences in outcome. Both the Bahá'í Faith and Christianity alike place supreme value in the individual worth of a person and his equality before God. The caste system, therefore, has no supernatural sanction and is strongly discouraged by both religions. Both religions regard their written texts, supported by accepted institutional structures, as the final determinant of faith and practice. Among the profound differences is the cultural background of those involved in the proselytizing effort. In the period under consideration in Andhra Pradesh this work was either done by foreign missionaries themselves or by those under their direct supervision. Only a few remarkable individuals like Sadhu Joseph were an exception to this. Indians associated these missionaries, whether justly or not, with the colonial ruling power. This encouraged some conversions, especially among disadvantaged and marginal groups who felt they could better themselves by affiliating with the religion of the British. Their sentiments were expressed in the sermon offered by a local preacher.

India was ruled first by Brahmini rulers. and at the time the Bramins kept the Harijans away from the main village in a separate block. They were denied all privileges and education. Then came the Muslim rule. The Muslims defeated the Brahmini rulers with the help of the British. Then the British became the emperors of the world and ruled the earth. They, with the love of Christ, came here to us and lifted us up from our low state. Through Jesus Christ we have received salvation muk-:ti ) and education. Salvation is to be found in the Bible, and now we are able to read it and tell others about this good news.

However where anti-colonial sentiment was strong,, especially among clean caste Hindus, it proved a great impediment to conversion. Carman points out that while conversions among lower Sudra castes had been on the increase until 1940, they decreased after that until 1947 and at the time of his writing (1968) had nearly stopped. After Independence, Christianity no longer had the same social appeal to Harijans either. While the Bahá'í Faith was originally introduced to India via foreigners as well, they were in no wise associated with the colonialists. The mass teaching efforts themselves were mostly organized and carried out by urban Indians. While the Arya Samai often attacked the Bahá'í Faith as a foreign religion, village converts, as we will see, rarely perceived it as such. The differences between the economic resources of the two communities is striking as well. Christian missionaries utilized monies collected in European and American churches to establish a vast network of schools and hospitals throughout India. In some cases the British government provided aid to their institutions as well. They also supported a large number of full time workers engaged in the life of the church. We have already seen how important medical missions were to the rural population who regarded the healing power of the medical practitioner as evidence of the efficacy of his religion. The financial resources of the Bahá'ís on the other hand, was severely limited. Virtually all of their funds came from the Indian community itself. which as I noted before numbered only a thousand in 1960. This urban base could not hope to support the nearly 400,000 rural Bahá'ís of 1973. Consequently consolidation work has been extremely haphazard. Bahá'ís did attempt to establish primary schools in villages which had none whatsoever, but at the time of Garlington's study there were only ten of these in an area with over a hundred thousand new believers. The principle outlay at the beginning stages of the mass teaching efforts was the purchase of several jeeps. Later two institutes were established in Malwa to educate villagers in Bahá'í principles. There were also thirteen paid 'traveling teachers' who were recruited from the towns and villages and assigned to visit the Bahá'ís in surrounding areas. The institutional structure of the Bahá'í Faith differs considerably from that of the Christian. The Church of South India which represents the bulk of the Christian community in Andhra Pradesh has a highly trained professional clergy which is part of a clearly defined hierarchical structure. This clergy almost exclusively sets the policies and administers the sacraments. The Bahá'í Faith has neither clergy nor a sacramental ritual life requiring specialists. The administrative bodies are elected annually by all members of the community. In each city, town or village having nine or more adults, an body of nine is elected which consults together on the affairs of the community. This body is known as the Local Spiritual Assembly. The National Spiritual Assembly is elected by delegates and also has nine members. In Malwa there were 2,356 Assemblies as of January 1974. It should not be imagined however, that most of these are functioning. In fact because of the lack of trained teachers and the large number of village communities, Bahá'í administrators are forced to select a few "model villages" in which to develop Bahá'ís institutions in hopes that when these communities mature they will serve as examples for further development in rural areas. In the absence of such functioning bodies, however, there exist no means to control the behavior and lifestyles of the rural believers. Where such institutions exist it devolves on those local bodies to determine the direction of the community. The Christian and Bahá'í communities utilize different criteria in determining membership. In most Christian denominations in Andhra Pradesh there is a two-tier system revolving around the Christian sacraments. Persons who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and who wish to belong to the Christian community are baptized. Only after a period of instruction and trial, however are they admitted to the church proper and allowed to partake in communion. Most rural Christian in Andhra Pradesh never become communicant members. Bahá'ís on the other hand are enrolled by signing or impressing their thumb print on a form which states that they accept Bahá'u'lláh as the manifestation (avatar ) of God and recognize that in joining the Bahá'í community there are principles, laws and institutions which must be obeyed. The most significant difference between the Christian and the Bahá'í approaches in the Hindu village is theological. Most missionaries viewed conversion as a total break from Hinduism. Evangelical Christianity presented sin as the essential human problem from which faith in Christ was the only salvation. Other religions were often demeaned or regarded as demonic. Native evangelists were more likely to present Christianity in terms meaningful to the Hindu villager, but in less orthodox formulas. This sometimes created tensions between the missionary or the seminary trained minister and the indigenous preacher. Carman and Luke observed a superintending minister publicly criticizing an evangelist by remarking to the evangelist's congregation. "The evangelist said that you received land, etc., through Jesus, but he did not say that you have received salvation from your sins through Him." One missionary protested against any adaptation to Indian religious paradigms in these words: The real meaning of this unreasonable demand. after all, is not that Christianity should be adapted to the Hindu mind, but to Hindu religion and philosophy. Hindu pantheism or Vedantism cannot accept the doctrines of Christ. e.g., the doctrines of sin and atonement. The trouble is not with the oriental's mind, but with his religious system, which practically obliterates moral distinctions, does away with personality and accountability, and makes sin simply a misfortune, and so has no need for an atonement.

Where local evangelists did utilize indigenous symbols their efforts to reach the higher castes were much more effective as we have seen with Sadhu Joseph. Missionaries who were too rigid in their theologies often impeded conversions. Converts were often given a new name and expected to use it thereafter. In practice they usually used them only in the presence of church workers. Converts were sometimes forbidden to participate in village festivals associated with idol worship. This rule was generally ignored, except by the Madiga converts whose traditional occupation included beating the drums at festivals. As Christians they no longer wished to associate themselves with such a defiling activity.

Inderdining with untouchables was often a test for admission to communion. The long tuft of hair, ( juttu ) worn by Hindu men was considered prohibited as well and shorn before baptism. The church also forbade the intermarriage of Christians and Hindus and insisted on Christian ceremonies. During the period of British rule those who violated strictures could be brought to court and fined or imprisoned. The primary theological assumption of the Bahá'ís is nearly the reverse of the Christianity. Rather than interpret the Oneness of God to mean that only their religion is right. Bahá'ís presume that all people essentially worship the same God. They also believe that Bahá'u'lláh is the promised one and fulfillment of all the religions of the past and that the social principles of the Bahá'í Faith are the ones best suited to todays needs. Current Bahá'í literature includes Buddha and Krishna within its definition of prophet. and Bahá'í theology does not exclude the existence of other 'manifestations' as well. Since prospective converts are not expected to deny their own religious tradition conversion is not nearly as traumatic a break. Many Hindu beliefs stand in direct contradiction to those of the Bahá'í Faith, however. particularly those related to transmigration. Bahá'ís resolve this dilemma by insisting that the 'true' teachings of Buddha and Krishna have been obscured by time and that the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh represents a return to the original teachings. The Bahá'í Faith presents itself to other religions as reformist. As far as possible, Bahá'ís attempt to utilize indigenous religious concepts when presenting the Bahá'í message. Bahá'í teachers spend little time trying to negate traditional doctrines or in discussing metaphysical questions such as the nature of God or even the afterlife. In fact they regard all human conceptions in this area to be at best partial understandings and worthy of little attention. Instead they emphasize the eschatological and social-ethical aspects of their religion. Unlike the Christian evangelists Bahá'í teaches little effort to change the traditional modes of behavior of Bahá'ís outside of specifically Bahá'í activities and institutions. This is in part, a reflection of the Bahá'í world view which assumes that the world is moving increasingly towards internationalism and that traditional social systems (which include modernism) will find themselves unable to cope with the new problems that will arise. Rather than attempt to engender radical change, Bahá'í efforts are aimed at providing doctrines and constructing institutions which can cope with those changes which will necessarily occur. Because of these presumptions, Bahá'ís have little reluctance in allowing traditional and Bahá'í principles to operate in separate spheres, side by side. The aspects of Bahá'í teachings most stressed in the villages are those fundamental doctrines of the oneness of God, the essential oneness of religion and the oneness of mankind. Communal gatherings, both administrative and devotional, are greatly encouraged. Bahá'í laws are not greatly emphasized. Bahá'ís translate their own concept of the prophet being the 'Manifestation of God' (meaning the perfect reflection of all the names and attributes of God) into the Hindu term avatar . By so doing they associate Bahá'u'lláh as the Vaishnavite eschatological figure of Kalkin (the avatar- ) expected to appear at the end of the kali-yuga the last of the four great ages of the cosmic aeon. Bahá'ís make frequent references to the Bhagavad Gita, emphasizing the references to destruction and regeneration and ignoring ones to varnashramdharma , karma samsara , and moksha . The most frequently quoted passage of the Gita found in Bahá'í literature and song is the following: Whenever there is a decline of righteousness and rise of unrighteousness. 0 Bharata, then I send forth Myself. For the protection of the good, for the destruction of the wicked and for the establishment of righteousness, I come into being from age to age. (Gita IV, 7-8)

The Bahá'í Faith, then, sees its basic relationship to Hinduism in terms of eschatological fulfillment which provides basis of their methodology.


Having taken a look at the message which Christian evangelists and Bahá'í teachers endeavored to deliver to rural Hindus. we now proceed to examine the manner in which Hindu converts understood this message and incorporated it into their lives. While as noted above, Christian evangelists demanded a complete break from Hindu tradition this rarely occurred in actual practice. especially in those areas without a full time resident evangelist. Most Christians, Luke and Carman found, participated in some form of non-Christian rites and believed in their efficacy. They wrote:
Most Christians have a Hindu or Muslim name as well as a Christian name. Some tie a cross around their necks, and on the same thread put a Hindu charm or talisman. Once when the author (P.Y.L.) was invited into a home to pray with a woman in acute pain, he found the sacred ashes of Kamudu (kept from the bonfire at Holi) smeared over her body in order to ward off the evil spirits. Christians give thank-offerings to Christ, and also pay considerable sums to the wandering mendicants of their own caste. They meet regularly to worship Christ, but also on occasion sacrifice a chicken to Poshamma. the goddess of smallpox. They respect their presbyter and sometimes bring him through the village in great procession, yet they consult a Brahman about auspicious days and hours and ask him to draw up horoscopes for various purposes. They keep a picture of Jesus Christ on the wall of their houses, but in a niche in the same wall they have a little image of their household goddess, Balamma or Ellamma. They want the blessings of 'Lord Jesus' without incurring the displeasure of any of the village goddesses. Each year many of them celebrate twelve or thirteen Hindu festivals and one Muslim festival Muharr-am ) as well as the two Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter. In Kandapuram, the washerman who came back from Sadhu Joseph's healing services and started attending Christian worship said that he could not possibly be baptized because of the religious duties he had to perform for the whole village. To this an elder of the congregation replied, 'It does not matter. You can do both. We are both doing both and yet we are Christians. We carry out our traditional duties at the village sacrifices, except that we do not eat the meat offered to idols.
Some Christian families did not participate to such a large extent in the Hindu rites, yet these were not necessarily the families regarded as the best Christians in terms of morality. Some congregations had developed a more distinctive Christian identity as a result of the influence of a number of young men with some education and more urban contacts. This has weakened their belief in the deities and demonic spirits. For the most part, Christian converts adapt the general pluralistic attitudes of their village. They regard Jesus as their ishta devata or favorite deity and see no contradiction with worshiping other gods. They realize that the church ministers disapprove of this. but persist in those practices deemed necessary for welfare of the entire village and its protection from malevolent powers and calamities. Carman and Luke in their study of the Jangarai section of Andhra Pradesh found that most Christians knew a few of Jesus' miracles, that he was born of a virgin, and that he died on a cross. Fewer knew of the Resurrection, the Ascension, Pentecost or about his expected return. The concept of vicarious atonement is not well understood, though stories of Jesus' passion arouse their sympathies. Often they believe the sacrifice of Jesus was to placate Satan. Village Christians refer to Jesus as Yesuswami and believe by worshiping him they will receive telivi or knowledge and barkat or material blessing. By 'knowledge' they refer to the knowledge of reading and writing made available to them since becoming Christians and more particularly to the knowledge of the Bible. The term does not include the Hindu notion of jnana , the knowledge that leads to salvation. Rather it means that, like the higher caste Hindus and Muslims, they now have access to their own scriptures. By blessings they mean that Jesus will heal the sick, bless their crops, protect them from misfortune, and grant them success. The usual term for God is deva the generic term for deity. The Trinity is generally unknown, as is the concept of the Holy Spirit. Like the Bahá'ís. village Christians refer to Jesus as avatar Communion is often associated with Hindu isadaq and it causes confusion that Communion is not offered to all Christians. Hindus present at worship services have been particularly offended at being denied the elements.. Salvation is usually translated as mot..sha and is perceived as a state of eternal communion with the Lord. Salvation from sin is rarely understood and is usually perceived as a specific immoral act rather than a state of being. Christians in Andhra Pradesh are not distinguished so much by their attitudes or customs, but by the act they form a distinctive religious community having their own religious specialists and distinctive form of worship not directed to a material image. While the Bahá'í Faith regards itself as an independent world religion and officially Bahá'ís are expected to resign their membership in other religious organizations after becoming Bahá'ís, this regulation has often been enforced only in the urban areas. Furthermore it presupposes that other religions have an administrative structure analogous to that of the Bahá'ís to which one can join or withdraw from. Clearly this is not the case with Hinduism. Given the Bahá'í approach of seeking to affirm each persons religious heritage and present Bahá'u'lláh as its prophetic fulfillment, it is not surprising that most Bahá'ís in the villages still regard themselves as Hindus and apparently identify themselves as such an the Indian census. This is in marked contrast to Christian converts, who however much they may continue to participate in the Hindu ritual life, still recognize that being a Christian is to be other than a Hindu. In instances where they identified themselves as Hindus for census purposes they recognized this as an act of dissimulation,, and usually offered their Christian name to church officials. In the areas of religious conduct the behavior of Bahá'í converts is similar to that of the Christians. Bahá'í beliefs are often accepted along side contradictory Hindu notions. While believing in the oneness of God. they continue to offer puja at the village shrines. They accept the concept of heaven parlok, at the same time they accept their predestined dharma. One village Bahá'í traveling regularly to nearby villages to spread the message of Bahá'u'lláh, proudly displayed his sacred thread and said he performed puja daily in the main village temple. In one village icons of Rama, Hanumant, and Ganesa were housed in one corner of the Bahá'í center. At the time of Garlington's study, no Bahá'í funerals had taken place in rural Malwa. There were however several Bahá'í marriages, each of which was performed after the Hindu ceremony. In tmodel villages' meetings and holy day observances are held with some degree of regularity, yet only a portion of the Bahá'í community participates in any given time. Individual prayer and fasting are usually observed regularly only by those Bahá'ís who have had extensive contact with Bahá'ís outside the village. Most Bahá'í meetings are short in duration and center around specific literate believers, whether they are untouchables or from the higher castes. No isolation or segregation was visible in the seating arrangements of those present at Bahá'í meetings. During the consultation periods. however, only caste leaders or highly literate members among the untouchables castes participated freely (except in Garabeli.. where all the assembly members are Balai). However those that do participate are accepted freely. In Richa, where Brahmans make up the largest group of Bahá'í declarants, one Chamar was elected to the Assembly. He attended the Assembly meeting at house of a Raiput and seated himself beside the other 'clean' caste members. During feasts, food is shared among all participants, but usually only dry foods. such as nuts, are distributed. In other contexts of village life, interdining would not be practiced. Bahá'ís sent outside the village to the Indore Teaching Institute for further training interact with greater freedom. The institute has no facilities for separate dining so Brahmans and Harijans eat food prepared by several hands at the same table. Likewise rooms are shared on a mixed caste basis. The dual behavior standards practiced by village Bahá'ís is characteristic of various Bhakti sects where deviant forms of behavior which violate caste strictures are tolerated within the sphere of religious activity, while within the context of conventional society the traditional rules of dharma prevail. But it also characterizes the compartmentalization involved for those villagers having extensive contact with urban and modern life who find traditional norms entirely dysfunctional outside the village. It is probably no accident that those factions of the village culture most effected by these changes have been drawn in the largest numbers to the Bahá'í Faith. namely the young men.


While the belief system of the Christian and Bahá'í religion differed radically and had important implications for the reception of each within India, the manner in which village converts incorporated these systems into their indigenous categories proved remarkably similar. In both cases the new religion tended to be understood in categories derived from Bhakti cults. New behaviors and doctrines became compartmentalized in a specifically devotional sphere without causing grave disruption in the village life. Yet there seem to be some important differences in each case in the meaning of those conversions for the new believers themselves.

In Andhra Pradesh conversions, both among untouchables and caste Hindus. occurred strictly along caste lines and seem to have been primarily motivated by the need for a new corporate identity. This element may have entered into tribal conversions and the early conversions among untouchables in the Bahá'í movement in Malwa as well. However conversions among high caste Hindus occurred more commonly among villagers of the same age group than along caste lines. The semi-literate young men with a certain degree of urban contacts provide the backbone of the Bahá'í community of Malwa. The Bahá'í Faith was often introduced in a village by a certain key individual who spread it among his peer group of whatever caste. This might indicate the degree to which the social life in the villages has changed from the time of the Christian mass movement in Andhra Pradesh to the recent Bahá'í movement in Malwa. Horizontal relationships in the Bahá'í movement seem to take precedence over the vertical and caste relationships which proved so important in Christian conversions.

What future might be envisioned for each of these communities within India? Since Independence Christian conversions have slowed considerably in Andhra and among caste Hindu has ceased almost entirely. This is partly because conversion to Christianity came to be seen as an unpatriotic act which aligned oneself with the former colonialists. Gandhi's opposition to conversion perpetuated this feeling. Untouchables probably had greater hopes at this time for social justice within the Hindu system. As western countries began to withdraw their financial support and missionary assistance from India, the indigenous church found itself increasingly unable to support further expansions and had not yet generated sufficient Indian leadership to carry on the work. Consequently most of their resources are devoted to consolidation work among persons already at least nominally converted. While this work progresses slowly, ultimately we can expect its success. The growing scriptualism in both Christianity and Islam will probably make compromises with Hindu culture less tolerable as literacy grows. The degree to which the Christian become a clearly distinct community within the Hindu villages may be the degree to which it will not prove attractive to the higher castes. Expansion of the Bahá'í Faith in Malwa has slowed considerably and this may be partly because local Arya Samajists have succeeded in convincing some that the Bahá'ís are introducing foreign gods into India and that Bahá'u'lláh is a Muslim prophet in disguise. However, the urban based, modernizing, Arya Samai is probably as 'foreign' to the average Hindu villager as are the Bahá'ís. The major reason this expansion has not continued at its former pace is that the Indian Bahá'ís have vastly overextended their resources. Only a few villages where conversion has occurred can be visited regularly and most see other Bahá'ís only once a year. One particular facet of Bahá'í policy which may deter conversions, especially those aimed at raising group status, is the prohibition on political activity. While Bahá'ís may vote they cannot participate in any political parties or lobbies, and such involvement can lead to expulsion. Since 1947 the political arena has been the most viable means of increasing the social mobility of caste groups. For those scheduled caste factions involved in the alleviation of particular socioeconomic conditions through political action, the Bahá'í Faith would be regarded as a roadblock to progress. The Bahá'ís have never developed an effective strategy for reaching village women such as that of the "Bible women" among the Kamas. Although many of the leading Baha@is teachers in Malwa have been women, virtually all of the converts have been men. This may create problems for consolidation in the future, since children will be unlikely to be raised Bahá'ís where the mothers are not. The most serious challenge facing the Bahá'ís in India will be developing the distinctive character of the Bahá'í community in rural Malwa. The very factors which have made the Bahá'í Faith particularly attractive to Hindus may prove an impediment to consolidation. At the present time Bahá'í teachers are treading a precariously thin line of attempting to strengthen Bahá'í institutions in the village without alienating Bahá'ís from the traditional social structure. if, as a result of the development of these institutions. Bahá'ís begin to develop new modes of behavior. their presently harmonious relationship with the Hindu village culture might change as well. In this case the Bahá'ís will be increasingly identified as a distinct religion and social group which will restrict its ability to expand across caste lines. The other alternative would be for Bahá'í institutions to remain relatively static, in which case they would remain a specifically religious phenomenon and ideological set of beliefs having little basis in the social realities of village life. If there is any resolution to this paradoxical predicament it lies in the processes occurring with Hindu village life itself. If Bahá'ís can continue to maintain a creative tension between these two poles and gradually introduce social changes as the villagers themselves begin to demand alternative social and religious responses to the vast changes affecting village life , the Bahá'í Faith may find a permanent future in rural India. Returning to one of the central issues raised in the introduction to this paper, four factors seem to be involved in the conversion of persons from one literate religious tradition to another. The first involves the investment persons or groups have in their present status within the caste system. Lower caste often see conversion as a means of raising their caste status while higher castes may be concerned with maintaining the status quo. The second factor. closely related, is the accessibility of persons or groups to the written scriptures. Those with no or limited accessibility are more likely to deviate from the written norm and at the same time be more attracted to another tradition which will give them such access. In this both the Bahá'ís and the Christians succeeded equally. The third factor involves the flexibility of the system from which conversion is occurring and its ability to tolerate such changes. In Hinduism this is fairly high while in Christianity and Islam it remains low. While converts from Hinduism might be easily obtained they are. for this same reason, difficult to consolidate. The fourth factor which proved particularly important in this study,, is the flexibility of the religion to which conversion is occurring. This involves the ability of the new religion to affirm the religious heritage of the old one. The Bahá'í Faith is better able to do this than Christianity with the result that whereas Christianity has been accepted only among the disaffected within Hindu villages, the Bahá'í Faith succeeded in reaching all strata. Yet here too, what makes for widespread acceptance hinders consolidation. While the eventual consolidation of the Christian community appears inevitable, that of the rural Bahá'í community may be more dubious.

  1. For a more detailed discussion see Jack Goody, "Religion, Social Change, and the Sociology of Conversion," in Jack Goody (ed.), Changing Social Structure in Ghana (London: International African Institute, 1975), pp.91-106.
  2. See Walter Fernandes. Caste and Conversion Movements in India (New Dehli: Indian Social Institute, 1981).
  3. G A. Oddie, "Christian Conversion among Non-Brahmans in Andhra Pradesh, with Special Reference to Anglican Missions and the Dornakal Diocese, c. 1900-1936" in G.A. Oddie (ed.), Religion in South Asia (London: Curzon Press, 1977), p.69.
  4. Ibid p. 70.
  5. J. Waskom Pickett, Christian Mass Movements in India (New York: Abingdon Press, 1933).
  6. Oddie, op. cit, pp.67-99
  7. Ibid p. 90.
  8. J. G. Manor, "Testing the Barrier between Caste and Outcaste: The Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church in Guntur District 1920-1940", Indian Church History Review,- Vol. V, No. 1, June 1971, pp.31-33.
  9. B. Kesavanarayana, Political and Social Factors in Andhra (1900- 1956) (Vijayawada: Navodaya Publishers, 1976), p.297.
  10. Ibid. p.312.
  11. Viswa Brahmans were originally Sudras who now serve as priests to other Sudra castes
  12. Kesavanarayana, op. cit. pp.310-311.
  13. Manor. op, cit. pp. 35-36.
  14. Ibid., p.39.
  15. P. Y. Luke and John B. Carman, Village Christians and Hindu Culture (London: Lutterwarth Press, 1968), pp.148-154.
  16. The Arya Samaj is a Hindu revivalist organization founded by Dayananda Saraswati in 1875 which militantly opposes all non-Hindu conversion movements in India.
  17. Luke and Carman, op. cit.
  18. Ibid. pp. 154-157.
  19. Ibid.
  20. William Garlington. "The Bahá'í Faith in Mawla". in Oddie, Religion in South Asia , p.103.
  21. William Garlington, "The Bahá'í Faith in Malwa: A Study of a Contemporary Religious Movement", unpublished dissertation, Australian National University, 1976. p. 85.
  22. Ibid. , p.86.
  23. Ibid. , p.40.
  24. Letter written on Shoghi Effendi's behalf to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of South and West Africa, July, 1957, Arise to Serve , (New Dehli: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1971), p.97.
  25. Garlington, op.cit. , p.91.
  26. Ibid., p 24
  27. Ibid., p.117.
  28. Ibid., p.122.
  29. Ibid. , pp.129-131.
  30. Ibid., pp-121-128.
  31. Luke and Carman. op. cit. p.139
  32. Ibid. , p.19.
  33. Garlington, op. cit. p.292.
  34. Ibid., p. 93.
  35. Ibid., p. 117.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid., p. 158.
  38. Luke and Carman, op..cit., pp- 190-192.
  39. Alvin T. Fishman, For this Purpose: A Case Study of the Teleuqu Baptist Church in relation with South India, Mission of ABFMS in India., (Ramapatnam: Jt. Council of ABTM & TB Convention of South India, 1958), p.72.
  40. Ibid., p. 71.
  41. Ibid. p. 67.
Back to:   Unpublished Articles
Home Site Map Forum Links Copyright About Contact
. .