Juggernaut: Re-evaluating the Morality of Missionaries

 ‘Juggernaut (noun): a huge, powerful and overwhelming force
- Oxford English Dictionary

In a modern setting, missionaries are often seen to do good work. Missionary organisations are charitable, and traditionally operate in developing nations. There is also a common perception, springing in large part from the work of some missionaries in the Americas during the colonial period, that missionaries protect the people they are trying to convert. For example, Bartolomé de las Casas and António Vieira were both prominent campaigners for native rights, at a time when most of their contemporaries barely saw Amerindians as humans.

However, I argue that this perception may need to be re-evaluated. Whilst it is true that missionaries have done some good, it must also be remembered that it is not charitable work but evangelism which is their primary objective. When one assesses the work done by missionaries, one must consider the methods used to evangelise, and the morality of evangelism in the first place.

Taking the example of colonial India, many missionaries who came to Bengal in the 19th century can be said to have had honest motivations. Through letters written by Baptist minister William Ward and his associates in Serampore, one can see that these missionaries believed their actions were necessary to save Indian souls. Their desire to convert came from a deeply-held worldview that the path to Christ was the sole path to salvation, and that destroying ‘pagan’ culture was the means to help others find salvation. They were dedicated in this effort to convert, as they learned local languages and studied the shastras. They did good deeds; they built schools to teach their converts how to read the gospel and worked in communities to show the generosity of Christians. These same missionaries in India, however, also performed more morally questionable tasks.

The word ‘Juggernaut’ evokes powerful images of destructive forces, of monstrosities which crush all that stand in their path. The etymology of such a word, therefore, may seem a little strange. It derives from the Odia ‘Jagannātha’, or Jagannath, a popular form of the Lord Krishna worshipped among Hindus in Eastern India. The murti (idol) of Jagannath is usually made from a wooden stump, carved and decorated to depict a smiling face, often adorned with lavish clothes and flowers. This stark contrast between the modern English word and the smiling face of Jagannath is conspicuous.

One may assume the word Juggernaut comes from the literal translation of Jagannātha –  the ‘Lord of the World’ – but it in fact derives from a common fiction spread by Christian missionaries in India that, during the festival of Rath Yatra, the unstoppable force of the carts holding Jagannath and his sibling deities would crush frenzied devotees who flung themselves beneath their wheels.[1] This myth about Jagannath, which was responsible for the spread of this new word, was just one of many tall tales spun about the popular regional deity and his temple at Puri by Christian missionaries in eastern India. Jagannath, and the cult of fear surrounding him, thus provides an interesting case study for the analysis of the morality of the work done by missionaries across the world.

Jagannath was seen by many missionaries to represent the worst of Hindu sinfulness. Claudius Buchannan, a Scottish missionary based in Kolkata from 1799-1806, presented Hinduism to Americans through ‘Juggernaut’ as a ‘bloody, violent and backwards religious system’. Jagannath was Malloch, the Canaanite god associated with child sacrifice, and his shrine at Puri was Golgotha, the place of Jesus’ crucifixion. Buchanan’s writings were a sensation in America, with numerous editions of his pamphlets being published, and his writings constructed a view of the pagan Indian as the profound opposite of the pious American.[2]

Furthermore, the cultural barrier created by missionaries like Buchanan contributed to tensions between Indians and their colonisers in the 19th century; in 1840, after pressure from evangelicals, the British withdrew from direct administration of temples, sparking riots across India.[3] This cultural anxiety caused by missionaries is also reflected in their treatment of murtis; Ward wrote in one letter how he cut a murti of Jagannath in two, sending one half to Bristol in triumph, whilst boiling the other in rice served to Jagannath worshippers, demonstrating Christian strength over Hinduism.[4]

This desire to assert religious domination is a characteristic common to Christian missionaries even in the modern day, such as in 2018 when Christian missionaries in Tamil Nadu prevented the Thanjavor Bradeshwara procession by blocking Lord Shiva’s path to the pond used to bathe him.[5]

Missionaries are, of course, often the victims of violence in India, which should be condemned. They are victims not simply due to bigotry, however, but because many missionary organisations do indeed promote the degradation of Hindu culture as a means of proselytising. In a pamphlet on the Jagannath temple at Puri from 1895, it was declared that ‘it is a deep disgrace to India that the idol worshipped as the "Lord of the World" in its most sacred temple, should be a most hideous caricature of the human face divine.’[6] The hatred spread by missionaries serves to perpetuate this cycle of violence.

The work that these missionaries did remains similar to work done by modern missionaries around the world. The language may not be as vitriolic, but the hatred of Jagannath tells us a lot about the missionary mindset. That which is not understood, that which is different, is to be hated and feared. That which is other is barbaric, sinful and wrong. Even if the intentions are pure, the missionary mindset creates fear and hatred of the other. It allows for wanton destruction of art and culture, and it creates divisions within communities.

This destruction, if taken to its most extreme conclusion, can lead to cultural death. In the North-East of India, for instance, there were formerly many traditional regional beliefs, distinct from the other religions of South Asia. In the 19th and 20th centuries, however, due to extensive missionary work, these traditions have almost all been made extinct. These religions, often practised by cultures without writing, have been lost to time. India is not the only example of this; how many people still practice traditional religions in South America, or Polynesia? The work of missionaries further leads to the homogenisation of the world’s cultures, which, unless you believe in salvation doctrine, is a cultural tragedy.

The perception held by many in the West is that missionaries are generally good for developing countries, if a little obnoxious. It is undeniable that missionaries have worked to educate as well as to destroy; the Catholic Jesuits, for example, were famous for the schools they established, and for protecting the indigenous. However, to convert, missionaries must establish what is being converted from, and why that faith must be abandoned. This often involves preaching the danger of the other, which starts the cycle of hatred and violence, and leads to the destruction of culture.

I leave you with this quote from Thomas Babington Macaulay, Secretary of War to the House of Commons between 1839 and 1841. Macaulay, influenced by missionaries, worked to wipe out traditional education in India. [7]

The great majority of the population of India consists of idolaters, blindly attached to doctrines and rites which...are in the highest degree pernicious. In no part of the world has a religion ever existed more unfavourable to the moral and intellectual health of our race. The Brahmanical mythology is so absurd that it necessarily debases every mind which receives it as truth; and with this absurd mythology is bound up an absurd system of physics, an absurd geography, an absurd astronomy. Nor is this form of Paganism more favourable to art than to science. Through the whole Hindu Pantheon you will look in vain for anything resembling those beautiful and majestic forms which stood in the shrines of ancient Greece. All is hideous, and grotesque, and ignoble... it is of all superstitions the most immoral. Emblems of vice are objects of public worship... crimes against life, crimes against property, are not only permitted but enjoined, by this odious theology.

This article was written by Benjamin Kumar Morris


Works Cited

[1] James G. Lochtefeld, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Hinduism: N-Z, (New York; Rosen Publishing, 2002), p.567.

[2] Michael J. Altman, Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721-1893, (Oxford; University Press, 2017), pp. 30–32.

[3] C.A. Bayly, The New Cambridge History of India: Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire, (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press 1988), p.114.

[4] Lata Mani, Contentious Traditions - the Debate on Sati in Colonial India, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p.98.

[5] https://twitter.com/cosmicblinker/status/992104725439893504

[6] Christian Literature Society, Account of the Temple of Jagannath, "Lord of The World" At Puri, the Most Sacred Hindu Temple in India, (Madras; S.P.C.K. Press, 1895), p.41.

[7] Christian Literature Society, Account of the Temple of Jagannath, "Lord of The World" At Puri, the Most Sacred Hindu Temple in India, (Madras; S.P.C.K. Press, 1895), p.33.