Hindu Responses to Southern Baptist
Several Hindu and Indian-American organizations complained to United States President Bill Clinton, Attorney General Janet Reno and pro-India U.S. lawmakers, about the Southern Baptists’ efforts to convert Hindus to Christianity.
Suresh Gupta, president of the Durga Temple in Fairfax, Virginia, wrote to Clinton, complaining that such a depiction during the most sacred time of the year for Hindus was nothing short of sacrilege.
In the letter, on behalf of the Association of United Hindu and Jain Temples, Gupta said “while the International Mission Board may have the right to publish such derogatory material, the Hindu community is outraged by its ignorant and hateful message and actions.”
Gupta informed Clinton that the Hindu religion is “fundamentally tolerant, peaceful and accepting of alternate religious practices. We practice universal values of love, respect for elders and teachers, and esteem for education.”
“We value the sanctity of marriage and endeavor to be productive citizens that give back to the community,” Gupta said. “A Hindu is, essentially, one who incorporates these values into his or her way of life. We do not believe in attempting to convert people, as we do not think lesser of others. We believe in the idea of karma (“Do good to others without regard of reward”).
He charged that the Southern Baptists’ International Mission Board was putting “a damper on our happy and joyous festival of Diwali (‘festival of lights’).”
When asked for a reaction, White House spokesman Barry Toiv said: “Under our Constitution,” Toiv said, “the government neither promotes any particular religion nor interferes with the practices of any religion.”
“However, I will say this,” he asserted, “the President believes very strongly that one of our great strengths as a nation is our diversity of religion and cultures and our tolerance for those who have different beliefs from our own.”
Subash Razdan, chairman of the board of trustees of the National Federation of Indian American Associations (NFIA), which claims to be the largest Indian-American organization representing all faiths, wrote a letter to Reno, along with copies to Clinton, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Frank Pallone, New Jersey Democrat and founder and former co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, Indian Ambas-sador Naresh Chandra and the editor of The Washington Post (which first broke the story of the Southern Baptists’ plans for Diwali).
Razdan said in his letter: “Suggesting 900 million people (are) lost in the hopeless darkness of Hinduism is nauseating. Ridiculing idol worship and insinuating Hinduism as ignorant, has produced a great amount of consternation and distress to those who subscribe to Hindu religion, directly or indirectly, in this country where religious freedom and expression of religious thoughts are guaranteed under the Constitution.”
“In the year 1999, when the world is about to embark into the new millennium, it is almost unimaginable that a sophisticated Southern Baptists’ International Mission Board would resort to such petty propaganda that reminds us of the Dark Ages, whether it be the Inquisition of the 14th century, or the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis, or even insidious persecution of the Catholics in the U.S.,” he said.
Razdan called on Reno to instruct the FBI to investigate “this recent Southern Baptist misadventure of maliciously knocking down another man’s faith to promote its own theological agenda.”
“Their slander, timed with the festive and sacred celebrations of Diwali,” Razdan charged, “smacks of hypocrisy and ignorance of American, and of course, Indian, history!”
“Ridiculing other religions does not reflect the Christian mind, nor does it befit coming from a religious mission in a country which has proclaimed it to be a champion of human rights,” he added.
Razdan then went on to provide pages of information about Indian Americans, Hinduism and India “that will help with the investigations and consequently prevent recurrence of such dangerous and irresponsible statements from the Mission Board in future.”
Gupta told India Abroad that “they (the Southern Baptists) did the same thing to Jews, to Muslims, and the next thing they want to do is vilify the Buddhists and Sikhs.”
The Southern Baptists’ 16-page prayer guide, in the form of a pocket-book, is a kind of cultural anthropology written from a missionary perspective, with each page showing a snapshot of life in India described through a Christian lens.
For example, “Mumbai is a city of spiritual darkness. Eight out of every 10 people are Hindu, slaves bound by fear and tradition to false gods.”
Another example, “Satan has retained his hold on Calcutta through Kali and other gods and goddesses of Hinduism. It’s time for Christ’s salvation to come to Calcutta.”
The Southern Baptists strongly defended the proselytizing campaign, with Randy Sprinkle, who oversaw the book’s publication, telling the Post, “If I had a Hindu sitting right here at my desk, I would apologize if I had been offensive. Certainly God’s love is not meant to be offensive.”
Sprinkle recalled that some people had “accused us of being arrogant when we were praying for the Jews of the world. I would acknowledge that there is an element of arrogance. But it’s the arrogance of truth.”
But Gupta shot back, “If I had you sitting here, I would not want to convert you to be a Hindu. I would want you to live a good life.”
The Southern Baptists are the second-largest Christian denomination in the country. Since its organization in 1845 in Augusta, Georgia, the Southern Baptist Convention has mushroomed to 15.8 million members who worship in more than 40,000 churches across the country.
Southern Baptists sponsor over 5,000 home missionaries in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean, and also have about the same number of missionaries in 126 nations, including India.
Wendy Norvelle, associate vice president, Public Affairs for the International Mission Board told India Abroad, “This was not intended to be offensive and if we have offended, we apologize. We are simply wanting our Southern Baptists to be more aware of people in the world and what they believe.”
“So this was not meant to be offensive. We believe that everyone has the right to believe what they will but if we are true to what we believe then we will share the good news of Jesus Christ with everyone,” she said. “We are trying to reach the Hindus because they encompass a large number of people in the world.”