Posted by: Sanjeev | November 10, 2007

On a Mission

Last week was my first week at the Landour Language School in Mussoorie, a town in the Himalayan foothills. I was looking forward to meeting interesting people. I wanted to know: Who else had packed up their lives and moved to a mountain town to study Hindi?

The answer? Christian missionaries.

At my housing lodge, the other five or six students all had interesting stories. One couple was exploring a partnership with a local NGO in Shimla to teach mountaineering skills to locals. Another was moving back and forth between the mountain town of Mussoorie and her home in Alabama.

But there was always something missing. No one seemed overly concerned about finances. They didn’t seem worried about their pace or destination. And why was I the only person there of Indian origin? At a school in India?

One night at my housing lodge, I asked an odd question: Are any of you missionaries?

It was a strange question to ask, but my Hindi language teachers had already mentioned that some of the students were. And the school was adjoined to a local church.

Slowly, with more than a little reticence, all four of my dinner-mates admitted that they were indeed Christian missionaries. Each of them was supported by a specific church.

All of them keep it a secret, in part because of the stigma that missionaries face. Not only that, but there was the slight problem of the law.

Apparently, if you are going to do missionary work in India, you are supposed to be there on a missionary visa. And none of them were. All had tourist visas, mainly because none of them wanted to risk having a missionary visa application rejected. It appears that this country’s Hindu majority has mixed feelings about Christian proselytizers.

Suddenly, I feel like I am back in California’s Central Valley again. I remember Garrett Boone, an elementary school classmate whose father had built a local church. I remember how Garrett leaned across the cafeteria table and derisively asked, “Saaaaaan-jeeeeeev, you think we came from monkeys?” (I had just read an old National Geographic magazine focusing on human evolution. The magazine cover had a hologram of a cro-magnon skull. It blew my mind.)

So now, I feel a swirl of confusion when it comes to continuing my language studies in this beautiful location. The teachers are great — and diverse: Hindu, Muslim, and Christian Indians. Men and women. The language school’s principal, Chitranjan Datt, is engaging and passionate about his field.

But it is a little difficult being a secular Indian minority surrounded by a caucasian, Christian majority. In India, of all places.

(Epilogue: A friend tells me that it may only be like this because it is off-season, but it is still a strange experience nonetheless.)

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Responses

  1. Hello Sanjeev,

    I was at LLS from July to October of this year. I think your friend is correct. When I was there there were missionaries at LLS, and most of them seem to stay there for long periods of time, but they were in the minority. Most of the students at LLS had a scholarly interest in Hindi, they were either college students or recent graduates.

    After a while you just got a feel for who was a missionary–they were often there with their families, and they had weird stories about why they were in India. I found them annoying, but with one exception they never tried to convert me.

    I think most of them stay at Rokeby–the owners are Christian and seem to run this as a regular launching pad for missionaries, even ones that are going to China. I stayed at Devdar Woods, where there were few missionaries.

    There are also rumors that LLS, Woodstock School and Landour Community Hospital are all getting missionary money from some common source.

    Anyway, don’t let them get you down. You are not in the minority there, and I got the impression that even some of the teachers are not all that fond of the missionaries.

  2. Hello Sanjeev,

    I was at Landour last summer for five weeks. Although there were many missionaries – mostly American or Australian – there were also quite a number of students who were there for other reasons; including several of South Asian origin. You’ll probably find that any Europeans are more likely to be studying Hindi for reasons you’d expect (study, work, travel) rather than spreading any kind of gospel. Having heard about this factor before I went, I stayed in Mussoorie and walked up every day – the idea of prayer meetings was just too much to contemplate.

    I suspect you have simply picked a quiet time of year. The school is shutting down soon for the winter, wereas at other times it is so packed you have to book a while in advance. I hope you are enjoying it and not feeling isolated. The teachers are great and you will find many of them sympathetic to your views if you test the water cautiously.

    Stay with it and it will come right. I’m quite jealous of you!

    Eleanor

  3. Dear Sanjeev,

    personally, I feel there is nothing wrong with being a missionary. As long as the East India Company isnt your back up 🙂

    I think the right to spread your religion is an integral part of Indian pluarlism and is a guaranteed fundamental right in our constition. Unfortunately, there are right wing forces in India, which have not always respected this right and several religious minorites are harassed, like in other parts of the world. Namely Muslims in the States.

    I personally feel all of us have the right to share with others what we feel makes life better.Having said that, when it gets too much, come down to Delhi for some flaming Vodkas.

    best

    nadita

  4. Hey Nandita –

    Yup, I too am a strong believer in religious freedom. That doesn’t mean that I endorse the views of all religions, but it does mean that I believe governments shouldn’t be in the business of telling people how, when, or whether to pray.

    But regardless, I’m coming back to Delhi for more flaming vodka shots.

    – sanjeev

  5. And thanks, Justin and Eleanor, for your comments. I’m back in Mussoorie, and I’ve found a diverse crowd to interact with during the waning winter weeks.

    – Sanjeev

  6. Having first experienced the unique Mussoorie/Woodstock/LLS India experience in 1968, then extending my teaching contract with Woodstock for close to 9 years through 1980, I can certainly relate to the whole dichotomy of the “christian missionary” in India. This was the time when “missionary” visas were being rejected and missions were withdrawing from India. At the time my reaction was “it’s about time”. However now a more pragmatic emotion overwhelms me which is…”what the hell, if human beings are receiving help…physical, mental, whatever…go to it.” There are too many problems and needs too great to quibble about means to the end. If these “christian” people can put in the energy and resources more power to them. Bottom line…people are being helped?

  7. Dan – agreed. Many of the missionaries do very important work. I was just volunteering at the Mother Teresa house in Kolkata, and I was quite moved by the compassion and discipline of the nuns who help so many. I think my initial reactions in Landour were more on a cultural level.

    Prior to my departure from the U.S., I had spent a fair amount of time preparing to be an Indian-American cultural minority in an Indian nation. You can imagine the surprise I felt when I got to Mussoorie and experienced something very different! But overall, I’m very grateful for my Landour Language School experience, and just might be back in the spring.

  8. I am interested in studying at the Landour school – I’m a doctoral student of Indian religions in the U.S. but my university doesn’t actually offer instruction in any Indian languages. What is the least crowded time of year to go? What would you recommend as far as cheap lodgings with a private room?

  9. The worst the weather, the less the crowds! Summer is peak tourist season in Mussoorie, and probably peak season at the Landour Language School as well.

    Ivy Bank, despite some of my complaints, is a nice lodge. It is expensive by local standards, (600-700 rs / night), but if $17-$20 a night isn’t too much for you, its worth it. comes with food.

    ivy bank is only inexpensive, though, by off season standards. for on-season, it isn’t too much more than hotels. there are cheaper, less nice accomodations if you ask around.

  10. Hi Sanjeev,
    While I agree with many that the right to practice is a basic human right and also with the contention that missionaries do help people, I also feel that at times they must exert a certain amount of control over themselves. Before I go on I just want to say that I have met many missionaries who are great, genuine people with a drive to help people which is comendable to say the least.
    We have a place in Landour and though I was brought up in the US as well I have spent a considerable amount of time there. This has given me a different perspective than tourists as I have, over the years, heard of some of the more despicable acts commited by missionaries that are operating or “training ” in that area. The examples are really countless (i,e refusing to give medicine unless a person prays to jesus first, instructing new converts to destroy idols in their village –which is just a bad idea). To be fair, these are isolated incidents usually commited by fanatics that are (I hate to say) mostly from the midwest of America.
    However, speaking to hundreds of missionaries over the years, I have found a general attitude of disdain for Indian culture and religion. You will find websites recruiting missionaries for this area that say things like “these people actually worship the rivers as their mothers!!” as if one religious claim is absolutley absurd while another is entirely valid. By all means people should practice their religion , even spread it if they are so inclined, all I ask is that they have some respect for the other religions which often share more common themes with theirs than they are willing to acknowledge.
    The idea that one must civilize the savages and implant rational religious views so that they “stop praying to stones” is a very old and in, my opinion, stale one. I do try to understand religious views as I know that they stem from somewhere and that nearly all cultures have them in one form or the other. I would ask others to try to do the same and find a common consensus instead of simply trying to bulldoze over them.
    Again I am not condeming all missionaries , just the fanatics, who are basically the same no matter which religion or flag they represent.

  11. hi, i’m a freelance writer, passed out from one of the public schools and conducting workshops at schools in the hills. i’m keen on doing some at schools in musoorie & nainital and would be obliged if you could send me some names of schools (if possible contact details too).

    thanks & regds — dinyar

  12. Freedom of religion in India means that a person has a right to retain his/her religion without any interference from others. This is different from the western concept of freedom of religion where a person has the right to convert others.

  13. I studied up there a few years ago, I was there for about 6 months. The Missionaries got on my shits ALL the time, acting all sanctimonious and chaste, staying in top class expensive accommodation. I felt they looked down on us ordinary folk, and thank god for that, who wants to be like them? They offer money for conversions and then say Christianity is on the rise, what a sham. What a bunch of fakes acting for the equally fake NGO’s around Uttranchal.
    Haha, I was once walking home from school and saw this Korean girl walking alongside me, I asked her if she would like to go for a coffee and practise some Hindi? She said: No, I would rather have a quiet moment with the Lord” OH, keep your bloody Lord then!!! Get lost!!!!

  14. Hi Sanjeev,
    Is sounds like you had a very interesting time and I am grateful for how honest you’ve been on your site.
    I am already planning a trip to India and I am also looking to learn Hindi at the Landour Language school this coming spring.
    I have visited India on numerous occasions but have always stayed in South India- so any advice would be much appreciated! I have been very inspired by your experiences but also it has given me a realistic view of what its going to be like!
    Thanks!

  15. As an American who grew up in a Christian family and then converted to a Hindu religion as an adult and then went to India to study Sanskrit, Hindi, etc so that I could read my scriptures, Landour Language School with it’s missionaries was an interesting experience for me.

    I even went to a Christian Church to see what types of things they were “preaching” and the “guest pastor” was a very rude and disrespectful American and I just could not believe that the Indian congregation was tolerating his attitude.

    Some of these “missionaries” are spreading anti-national ideas in India and I think the Indian Goverment should clamp down on them.

  16. Dear Sanjeev,
    More than the budget of India is the budget of missionaries in India, I have data of it, its dificult and costly to win war but its cheapest way to divide nation through missionaries, missionaries came with bible in Africa and natives were owners of land, mines, cattles but few years later missionaries were owners of them and Africans were having bible,
    St Francis Zavier and hundreds of them first came to India , converted the locals and kings to Christianty and put europeon countries build small factories and empires and than controlled to rule india. In 1947 they left India because they were week after WWII but the way they have changed demography of India from 2-3% to 50-70% in few cities of India we are soon on threshold of foreign rule.
    It may sound absurd ut this is what we thought of East India Company.
    So lets camp against them and unite to meet the devils in guise of misionaries

  17. As someone who has been preaching since childhood, it makes me sick to my stomach what so-called “Christian” missionaries do in countries like India. Conversion in exchange for monetary support? Nowhere at all in the scriptures is that kind of behaviour sanctioned or mentioned. They are misguided in their aim to “save souls” thinking that one just needs to “confess Christ” in order to be saved from hell. You can’t help but pity them, but I didn’t realise how widespread their plague had become until recently. Why is it that whenever I tell a white American I just went to India, they think I went there on some sort of covert missionary operation…

    But the saddest part is a Gandhi said. These missionaries don’t even know the first thing about applying the principles of true Christianity, let alone to have the audacity to begin to teach others. Who causes the most deaths in the world and produces the most weaponry on the surface of the planet? It it not a so-called “Christian” nation? Where-as Jesus was a staunch supporter of neutrality and non-violence.

    In reality, these under-cover missionaries are teaching hypocrisy and not anything else. They are not even fit to touch the feet of most of the Hindus they pass…

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