In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Bhakti and Christian Missions

  • Introduction
  • Overviews and Analyses of Bhakti and Christian Missions
  • Bhakti and Roman Catholic Missions
  • Bhakti and Christian Music
  • Pentecostalism/Charismatic Christianity and Bhakti

Hinduism Bhakti and Christian Missions
Arun W. Jones
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 March 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0231


Both bhakti and Christian missions have a long history in India, dating back to the beginning of the Common Era (or perhaps before, in the case of bhakti). The earliest text that uses bhakti as a technical term, describing it as a path for salvation, is the Bhagavad Gita, which many scholars date to the 1st century ce. On the other side, the most ancient Indian Christian traditions date their origins to the arrival of the missionary St. Thomas in 52 ce, although historians are more confident assigning a somewhat later date, perhaps the 3rd century, to the genesis of Indian Christianity. The St. Thomas or Syrian Christian communities were nourished for well over a millennium by fellow believers from Mesopotamia. The Roman Catholic Church commenced the first Western (as opposed to Middle Eastern) Christian missions to India around the year 1500. Protestants began missions to India around 1700, sponsored by the king of Denmark. The advent of Pentecostal and Charismatic missions, which were initiated by Indian Christians, can be dated to approximately 1900. While the first Western Christian missionaries were Europeans, Indians have always been deeply involved in the missionary movement, and were actually more effective and successful than Europeans in mission work. Almost all contemporary Christian missionaries in the subcontinent are Indian. Due to the nature of scholarly literature on bhakti and Christianity, this bibliography focuses on the interaction between bhakti and Western Christian missions: Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostal/Charismatic. Definitional problems immediately present themselves when one starts to delve into this literature: How are bhakti and Christian missions to be identified? Indeed, the understanding of neither has been static for the past five centuries; both have been variously interpreted by those who have practiced and studied them. The multiplicity of definitions and perceptions continues, and even proliferates, today. For the purposes of this article, bhakti will be understood as devotional movements with origins in Hinduism, but permeating—and being influenced by—other religious traditions in India. Bhakti places an emphasis on the affective dimensions of religious devotion, and on popular religiosity. Christian missions will be understood as the many and diverse attempts—with varying degrees of success and a variety of positive, negative, and mixed results—to spread Christian beliefs, practices, and benevolence in every human culture and language. Both bhakti and Christian missions involve practices of body, mind, and emotions. This bibliography is restricted to English-language materials. Moreover, it does not employ diacritical marks except when they are included in titles of works.

Overviews and Analyses of Bhakti and Christian Missions

There have been surprisingly few scholars who have tried to survey the many attempts that persons involved with Western Christian missions have made to engage bhakti. Part of this may be due to the fragmented nature of Christian missions. Until late in the 20th century, for example, Roman Catholics and Protestants scarcely cooperated with each other, often seeing each other as competitors, and at best trying to steer clear of one another. Similarly, over the course of the 20th century, liberal and evangelical Protestants increasingly avoided each other, as their theological agendas diverged. A second reason that there are few surveys of the long interaction between bhakti and Christian missions is that both bhakti and Christian missions have tended to place an emphasis on vernacular, local religion. In a country that is as large and diverse as India, overarching studies of religion requiring a knowledge of what is happening on the ground are therefore difficult to accomplish. Scholars who have focused on the literature of one person, such as Kabir, or one issue, such as missionary interpretations of bhakti, have had more success in surveying the literature on bhakti and Christian missions. Alphonse 1990 and Thompson 1990 both sketch a history of Protestant interpretations of bhakti, with Alphonse paying closer attention to conservative evangelical views and Thompson to more liberal Protestant ones. Sharma 1987 (in chapters 2, 3, and 4) shows how captivated Western and Western-trained scholars were to their own preconceptions of bhakti, even as they claimed to be working objectively. Constable 2007 works along similar lines in an examination of Scottish missionary interpretations of bhakti in Maharashtra, but Constable also argues that Scottish missionaries adopted certain ideas from bhakti and modified their own Christianity in the process. In contrast to such critical approaches to previous generations of bhakti scholars, Pinch 2003 argues for a much more dialogical understanding of Western and Indian scholars of bhakti during the imperial era, taking seriously their respective (and changing) religious commitments. Finally, Jones 2017 explores how bhakti provided fertile ground for evangelical Christianity in North India.

  • Alphonse, Martin Paul. “The Gospel and Hindu Bhakti: Indian Christian Responses from 1900–1985—A Study in Contextual Communication.” PhD diss., Fuller Theological Seminary, 1990.

    Chapters 3 and 4 provide some important Protestant analyses and appropriations of bhakti in the late 19th and 20th centuries. The discussion includes evangelical Protestant authors that are not treated in other literature.

  • Constable, Philip. “Scottish Missionaries, ‘Protestant Hinduism’ and the Scottish Sense of Empire in Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century India.” Scottish Historical Review 86.2 (October 2007): 278–313.

    An examination of how Scottish Presbyterian missionaries in Maharashtra construed bhakti poetry to fit their own notions of religion and empire, deeming bhakti to be similar but also inferior to Protestantism. In the process, bhakti also influenced the missionaries’ understanding of their Protestantism, as well as their views of empire.

  • Jones, Arun W. Missionary Christianity and Local Religion: American Evangelicalism in North India, 1836–1870. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017.

    A historical study of the ways in which Protestant Christianity of the 19th century built on the thought and practice of bhakti communities in North India.

  • Pinch, Vijay. “Bhakti and the British Empire.” Past & Present 179 (May 2003): 159–196.

    DOI: 10.1093/past/179.1.159

    A case study of the scholarship on bhakti of Sitaram Bhagvan Prasad and George Abraham Grierson that strongly argues against postcolonial and subaltern-studies readings of the history of the British Empire in India, and takes seriously the role of religion in the thoughts, actions, and motivations of both Indians and Europeans.

  • Sharma, Krishna. Bhakti and the Bhakti Movement: A New Perspective. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1987.

    Chapters 2, 3, and 4 provide a trenchant critique of Western—and not simply missionary—definitions and descriptions of bhakti. The scholars George Grierson and Ramakrishna Gopal Bhandarkar are singled out for criticism, in part because they were very influential in shaping 20th-century views of bhakti.

  • Thompson, A. Frank. “Christian Views of Hindu Bhakti.” In Hindu-Christian Dialogue: Perspectives and Encounters. Edited by Harold Coward, 176–190. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990.

    The essay focuses mostly on 20th-century Protestant interpretations of bhakti and provides critical analyses of these interpretations. It includes discussions of some South Asian theologians who were also deeply influenced by and involved in Christian mission.

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