As the world attempts to tackle the tragedy in South Asia, the focus for the vast majority of South Asians has been on relief. But the tsunami has also magnified already-existing tensions between Hindus, Christians and others in the devastated region. In India--a country often seen as a spiritual battleground, where religions fight over the souls of the poor and dispossessed--some conservative Hindus have used the tsunami to criticize both a Hindu leader's arrest and the presence of Christian missionaries in India. Meanwhile, evangelical Christian groups may proselytize as they help tsunami victims.
Last week, a column on the widely-read Indian news site Rediff.com suggested that the tsunami was a sign of retribution against Christians, whose activities are seen as betraying India's essentially Hindu character. (Full disclosure: I work for a publication owned by Rediff.com, and my articles occasionally appear on Rediff.) Columnist Rajeev Srinivasan pointed to several religion-related factors he sees as pertinent. Referring to the earthquake as the "Christmas quake," he implied that the timing wasn't mere coincidence. He also noted that the tsunami hit a church at Velankanni, one of the most significant Christian pilgrimage points in South India, resulting in the death of 50 people. Finally, he connected the tragedy to what many see as the recent mistreatment of a revered Hindu leader.
In November, a holy man known formally as Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswathi was arrested in connection with the murder of a former official of his religious order. Hindus around the world decried the arrest, even organizing mass email petitions maintaining that the entire affair was politically motivated and related to a longstanding fight with the current head of the state government of Tamil Nadu, where the most tsunami-related deaths later occurred. Before long, the Shankaracharya's sympathizers had solidified their opinion that anti-Hindu forces were to blame, with some going so far as to point fingers at the Vatican.
For Srinivasan, the Shankaracharya's arrest seemed the most plausible explanation for the subsequent disaster. "The devastation by the tsunami in Tamil Nadu, could it be a caveat from Up There about the atrocities being visited on the [Shankaracharya]?" he asked. "About adharma"--evil--"gaining ground?" In summarizing, he wrote, "It is said that the very elements can be affected by the mystical powers of sages who have acquired superhuman powers through meditation and sadhana. I think we should all tread carefully, for now we are treading on things we do not know."
Srinivasan's comments may seem like isolated rants--and even many of his longtime readers rejected them--but other groups have echoed his feelings. The Kanchi Kamakoti Seva Foundation, which defends the Shankaracharya, recently sent an email to its supporters linking the tsunami to the holy man's arrest. The email says "God has given a strong signal with this disaster when the injustice to Dharmic followers have crossed the tolerance limit." It instructs readers to pray that the tsunami will be "an eye-opener for the Tamil Nadu Administration and for the media to stop abusing their powers and bring out false charges against H.H. [His Holiness]."
Most Hindus find the "act of God" tsunami theories irrelevant, if not offensive. "Such a controversy, if at all there is one, is a product of some small minds," said Gaurang Vaishnav of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, one of many Hindu organizations in the United States that has rallied to aid the victims.
"Hindus do not believe in a vindictive God. There are always actions and reactions in accordance with the theory of karma. But to attribute a wholesale destruction and death of thousands of innocent people to a single act of a state government is ridiculous, insensitive and insulting to human compassion that crosses the boundaries of religion at times of natural disasters."
Another Hindu group, the reformist Navya Shastra, issued a press release condemning Hindu organizations that have bought into the act-of-God view, comparing their remarks to those of Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell. While acknowledging, like Vaishnav, that karma could have played a role in the deaths, the group, made of Hindu scholars, practitioners and priests outside India, suggested that it was more important to focus on helping survivors than trying to explain why the disaster happened.
Such act-of-God charges also tap into larger Hindu resentment over the notion that traditional Hindu culture is giving way to forces such as Western materialism or other faiths. Opposition to Christian missionary work and the conversion of Dalits, or low-caste Hindus, is not confined to Hindu nationalists. Many people react negatively to the idea that some of India's tribal peoples may be exposed to the Bible even as they are taught how to read, or may take on a Christian name. The state of Tamil Nadu has special significance for many Hindus. It was there that a controversial Anti-Conversion Bill was passed in 2002, meant to prevent poor Hindus from being forcibly converted to Christianity, especially via financial inducements. Christian leaders have denied offering such inducements.
But some mission groups see tsunami relief efforts as an opportunity to spread the gospel in South Asia. In an article on the evangelical website Crosswalk.com, Dr. Ajith Fernando of Youth for Christ was quoted as saying, "We have prayed and wept for our nation for many years. The most urgent of my prayers has always been that my people would turn to Jesus. I pray that this terrible, terrible tragedy might be used by God to break through into the lives of many of our people."
Another evangelist, Gospel for Asia's K.P. Yohannan, said, "In times like these, we know that God opens the hearts of those who suffer, and we pray that as our workers demonstrate God's love to them, many of them will come to know for the first time that real security comes only through Him."
The statements were immediately distributed to watchful Hindus through the e-mail news digest Hindu Press International ("Christians See Conversion Opportunities in Disaster Relief"), a service from the publishers of the U.S. magazine Hinduism Today.
For some Hindus, the Christian call to evangelize was expected, and served to favorably contrast Hinduism's non-proselytization with what they consider the insidious nature of certain Christian groups. "You will not find an RSS or VHP volunteer converting a non-Hindu to Hindu Dharma after helping him in his time of need," said Gaurang Vaishnav. "This is the true meaning of seva"--service in the spirit of sacrifice--"to a Hindu."
However, these same Hindu aid groups are themselves under scrutiny. An email distributed by the leftist group Campaign to Stop Funding Hate told Indians interested in donating to disaster victims to avoid Hindu groups such as the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak (RSS), Seva International and the VHP of America. These organizations, says CSFH, have a history of using grassroots efforts to advance a militant Hindu political agenda. According to Kaushik Ghosh, an anthropologist at the University of Texas, they may create organizational bases, increase membership, establish political legitimacy or fundraise.
"During [2001's] Gujarat earthquake, the amount of money that flew into these organizations was unbelievable," said Ghosh. "The accounting of such money is relatively murky ...NGOs and relief-development work can become the source of money for a whole range of 'behind-the-camera' projects." For its part, the VHPA states, "funds for relief work are distributed without consideration of province, race or religion."
Despite the religious struggles in the press and among advocacy groups, the interfaith situation appears to be more positive on the ground, where aid groups and neighbors are working together to help survivors. One Indian blogger, Amit Varma, reported a growing friendship between local people of different faiths responding to the devastation. While spending time in the village of Parangipettai, in Tamil Nadu, Varma wrote, "A deep bond had been formed between the villagers, who were all Hindus, and these Muslim men who rushed to help their neighbours because they believed that to be the way of their religion. ...Faith, that can be so divisive in times of peace, can also bring communities together in times of strife."