Christianity’s Influence On Indian Culture

By Peter Corney

To Indian Christians Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg is the name of a hero. In July 2006 a very significant celebration took place in India, of which Christians and the Press in the UK, US and Australia were completely unaware. It was the celebration of the 300 hundredth anniversary of a German Christian missionary’s outstanding contribution to modern India’s culture. The celebrations went on for a week and the Postal service even issued a stamp in his honour. Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg was one of the first two Protestant missionaries to India. He and his fellow worker Heinrich Plutschau arrived in East India at the port of Tranquebar in 1705.

Ziegenbalg is celebrated in India for his outstanding contribution to Indian education and Tamil literature. Modern Tamil Nadu’s education system is based on his language study, literary and education work and the school system he founded.

At the present time when we hear increasingly disturbing reports from India of the resurgence of an illiberal, discriminatory and often violent Hindu nationalism and the accompanying persecution of Christians and other religious minorities, Ziegenbalg’s story is one we need to know. Like all extreme nationalist movements the increasing influence of the Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Indian politics is a concern, especially for liberal democracy in India and the progress of equality in Indian society. The Indian constitution outlaws the caste system but it is still alive and well in many parts of India. The reactionary BJP will also not be a positive influence in this area.

It is also important for us to know Ziegenbalg’s story given that migration from the sub- continent has now overtaken Chinese immigration to Australia. Immigrants from India have gone from 50,000 to 100,000 in Victoria in the last census period. This is expected to continue to grow and so will represent a significant part of our emerging new society. This has strategic implications for the ministry of the Church in Australia as we face the growing reality of “the nations” coming to us.

Many of us are familiar with the work of English missionaries in India. The Mission to India was sponsored by Wilberforce and the Clapham group of Evangelical Anglicans. Interestingly the first Episcopal oversight for Anglicans in Australia was provided by the Bishop of Calcutta. We are also aware of the great ministry of the Baptist missionary William Carey. Ziegenbalg’s story is unfamiliar to us but a very significant and encouraging one.

Ziegenbalg was from Halle in Germany but was sponsored by the Danish/German Halle Mission to India and the King of Denmark; this led to him being based at the Danish trading post in East India. He was part of a group of young Lutherans who were inspired and influenced by Herman Francke. Francke was an outstanding 18th C. Lutheran scholar, pastor, educationalist and welfare pioneer who taught at Halle University. He was a leading influence in the spiritual revival that took place in the German Lutheran church in the 18th C. and the development of Protestant missions. Count Zinzendorf who influenced the Moravian missionary movement was one of his students; the Moravians had a significant influence on John Wesley and so the English revival of the 18th C.

Francke was a Christian leader and entrepreneur, his work in Germany included the pioneering of primary education, he also developed a centre at Halle that included orphanages, hospitals, a pharmacy laboratory and residential care for widows and the elderly. The King of Prussia was so impressed with his work at Halle that he introduced similar centres throughout Prussia. Francke also believed in the then radical view that the poor and the nobility should be educated together. He also began the first Bible Society. As Ziegenbalg developed his work in India the influence and vision of Francke can be clearly seen.

Within a short time in India Ziegenbalg had mastered the Tamil language and began to preach and teach the poor in their own language. At that stage Tamil had no written form and due to the Hindu caste system and the authority of the Brahmin ruling class they were forbidden to read or own their own classical texts. Ziegenbalg developed a dictionary, a grammar and a written script and began to translate their own literature and the Bible. He also took the radical step of creating casteless schools that also admitted girls to education for the first time. As a result of his work, education and literacy spread through Tamil culture. Prior to this the ordinary Tamil people were captive to the Hindu priests and the Brahmin elite. His work produced a liberating revolution in their culture.

He became an acknowledged expert on Indian religion and literature. He taught the Christian faith with great respect for their literature and sought to explain how Christ fulfilled their spiritual longings and the missing pieces in their understanding of ultimate truth. It is a great example of cross cultural mission, evangelism and discipleship that takes culture seriously but also challenges it with the values of the Kingdom of God and that understands that no culture is beyond the critique of those values. At a time in Western culture when we have been misled by cultural relativism and developed amnesia about the how the best of our values have come from our Christian heritage this is a great story to reflect on.

Millions of Indians can trace not only their Christian faith back to Ziegenbalg and the New Jerusalem Church of Tranqueber that he founded but also their education and liberation from oppression and some of the destructive elements of their culture. Vishal Mangawaldi, one of India’s foremost Christian intellectuals, says “that the Western missionary movement was, in fact, the single most important force that created contemporary India.”

Ziegenbalg died in 1719 at the age of 36 just 15 years after he began his revolutionary ministry. He was a hero of the faith.

Peter Corney. Oct. 2012.