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Alien Teachers

My Indian years gave me the opportunity, among other things, to observe the fact that many outstanding young men and women who were making a mark in their professions in both India and as expatriates in the west had had their early education in either traditional or ordinary government or private schools. They were every bit as successful as, if not better than, their mission-educated counterparts. Yet brain-washed middle-class Indians fondly believed that their children in mission schools were receiving a “prestige” education.


 

When I was a little boy growing up in Dundee, a small rural town in the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa’s former Northern Natal province, I thought that my schoolteachers were somehow related to white people and other Christians even though they had Indian names and looked like us.

While we spoke, in addition to English, a variety of Indian tongues with Tamil and Telegu, Malyali, Hindi, Gujarati and Urdu as our vernacular, they seemed to speak only English, the language of instruction in schools for Indian children.

In those early days before the advent of the hated apartheid ideology, the strict colour bar imposed by the British then in power instituted separate schools for the main racial groups.

While we went to the local Shivan temple every week, our teachers came only on special occasions like the Mariamman festival or Kavady, when some men and women with needles piercing their tongues danced across red-hot embers in the temple grounds.

On those occasions, our teachers would stand apart and watch proceedings like alien spectators. I never saw any of them turn a camphor or put his palms together. In school the next day, they never made reference to their temple visit.

In my infant mind’s eye, they were alien people. Yet in every other respect, our teachers seemed to be comfortable among us. Many of them from the cities even boarded with Indian families, ate Indian food and some even married our girls.

It was only years later that I realised why our teachers had seemed like alien visitors among us when we were children. They had been educated in Christian mission schools in Durban where a deep-seated inferiority complex had been insidiously implanted in their minds by Christian teachers, many of them trained missionaries.

 


 The missionary in South Africa

British missionary societies sent dozens of lower-caste Hindus converted to Christianity to teach and proselytise in the Natal cane-fields. One of them, a Sinhalese, had been sent to our small Natal town at the turn of the century by the London Missionary Society for just such a purpose. He taught infants in the local school for generations and steadily passed on his slanted views.

He was thought of by his former pupils as a harmless old man as infantile as his charges, but he had served his hidden purpose. He had a special contempt for people who “prayed to sticks and stones”, and others who “smeared ash and paint” on their faces and “burnt smelly things” when they prayed.

While he berated over our cowed heads, we thought secretly of the little statuettes of gods and goddesses in our prayer places, the holy ash our fathers sometimes wore on their foreheads after prayer and the dot of vermilion or crimson powder our mothers placed between their eyes to signify the third eye and the camphor and incense that was burnt in our temples and we dared not mention them in class or in public, for that matter.

These were “superstitious” things that backward people did. To speak of those shameful things publicly would be to admit to our “backwardness”. We started to feel ashamed and developed a guilt complex, young as we were. We started to believe that our spiritual beliefs were inferior.

Although we went through the motions of worship with our parents in our prayer places at home and in the temple by the river, we were secretly humiliated. That seemingly innocuous old man served his sponsors in London well. He sowed the seeds of an inferiority complex that many of us would carry throughout our lives and often, question the age-old tenets of our own ancient, time-tested spiritual practices.

When laws against slavery were passed in England in the nineteenth century, the cynical English lost no time in conceiving the system of indentured labour. In terms of the system, simple, often unlettered Indian labourers and others were sent to remote British colonies across the seas from India to toil in tropical sugar-cane plantations owned by British companies.

Sugar cane, first cultivated by the peoples of the Indian subcontinent, was found by the British to be the magic tropical cash crop of the nineteenth century. In terms of their contract, the indentured labourers had to sweat for seven years under the most inhuman conditions for a fixed pittance on British-owned plantations. It was slavery in another form.

 

 

Thanks to Wilberforce and his ilk who helped clothe slavery in new guise, missionaries quickly followed the labourers into their distant, tropical cane plantations, in Fiji and some other islands in the Pacific, Reunion and Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, Natal in South Africa, the scattered islands of the West Indies and Trinidad and British Guyana bordering the Amazon basin in South America.

Irate British overseers in those remote plantations soon saw that, wretchedly poor though the Hindu labourers were, they had a beastly tendency: they seemed to be impervious to the most strenuous efforts of the missionaries to convert them to the “civilising” Christian faith.

No matter how assiduously they tried, missionary efforts at conversion came, with few exceptions, to almost naught. To the arrogant British, it seemed that the wretched labourers were perversely intent on remaining “uncivilised”.

The fact that these simple labourers were heir to an ethos that might be at the root of even their own Christian beliefs never occurred to the British missionary, much less the planter.

The frustrated missionaries were not slow in coming up with a cunning solution to the impasse. With typical Anglo Saxon shrewdness, they established mission schools wherever there were sugar plantations in British colonies. In a move widely-publicised as generosity born out of a sense of Christian charity, they threw open the mission schools to even the children of die-hard Hindu labourers.

They would educate Hindu and Moslem children at no cost to the parents and expect nothing in return, they crowed. Publicists, many of them converted lower caste former Hindus, extolled the virtues of this obvious Christian magnanimity in the face of what they subtly implied was Hindu intransigence born of primitive backwardness.

The first teachers in the schools that were established in sugar cane country by the poor communities themselves and later the government were for the most part mission-school-educated. The most prominent early schools for Indian children in Natal were mission operations, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish missionary societies recruited teachers in the United Kingdom, usually from among the less privileged classes, to send to the cane-fields of Natal.

 


The African Teachers

Later came Thomas Christians from Kerala and other converts, usually from the lowest echelons of Indian and Ceylonese society, like the old man in Dundee. Being in a vulnerable minority among immigrant workers who were largely Hindu, the new arrivals made no overt attempt to convert; they did not proselytise. Instead, they subtly indoctrinated the children of the Hindus.

The Hindu and Muslim pupils of those “imported” teachers became the first teachers in the growing number of government and government-aided Indian schools in Natal. These were the teachers I had thought of as alien when I was still a young boy. They were to turn out, quite unconsciously, thousands of pupils with a deep-seated inferiority complex exactly like theirs. Many in later years would even be reluctant to publicly declare their Hindu faith, yet happily practise it in the privacy of their homes and temple.

The sophistication of steadily growing numbers of younger Indians from more affluent families increased as did the numbers of labourers’ children in mission schools. It was not long before even often unlettered parents realised that their children were being subjected to subversive religious influences. The solution, as poor as they were, was pool resources to establish their own community schools which later evolved into government-aided schools. Indians of all religious persuasions were averse to the indoctrination of their children. As soon as they were in a position to resist, they did so strenuously.

It was fortunate that among those early Indian immigrants of mainly peasant stock, there were traders, priests, artisans, Ayurvedic doctors, artists, actors, musicians, educated professionals and sundry others of a higher social order who came to South Africa from various parts of India of their own accord.

In addition to these, many young people, influenced by dishonest local touts working for British recruiting agents in larger towns in India, ran away from well-off, higher class homes in their country or otherwise found their way to the new colony in Natal. These people grew into sizeable numbers and, mainly because of their greater sophistication, later became the guiding lights of the community.

In the early years of the colony in Natal, the Indian immigrants coalesced into several linguistic, social and cultural levels, very much as societies did in India, Britain or anywhere else in the world. Exactly the same happened among other racial groups, particularly the British with their English, Irish, Welsh and Scottish groupings.

 


The Adams Mission, near Amanzimtoti pictured in 1886

It is human nature everywhere in the world for immigrant communities to find their own levels. Among Indians, it was no different. Immigrants with similar backgrounds and interests soon joined together and started to promote their cultural pursuits. Intense cultural activity became the hallmark of Indian communities largely in Natal province but also in the Transvaal and other parts of the country where isolated groups had settled. Later the cultural groups catering for particular linguistic sections amalgamated under a common parent Hindu governing body, the South African Hindu Maha Sabha.

In silent testimony of the profundity of the timeless Vedic ethos, only a negligible number of Hindus in Natal converted to Christianity despite the humiliation to which they were subjected by Christian proselytisers and employers.

Coming from this background, it was something of a shock to discover during my first decade in India, that Christian missionaries had been and still are no less insidious in India today than they had been in South Africa and elsewhere in the far-flung British sugar colonies in the 19th and 20th centuries. What was surprising was that the missionaries and evangelists seemed to enjoy carte blanche despite obvious signs of covert cultural subversion in certain areas.

Living in Bangalore for the first three years of my Indian sojourn, I was surprised to discover that middle and upper-class Indians competed to send their children to “prestige” mission schools throughout that city. Many of those parents proudly proclaimed their Hindu faith, yet seemed blissfully unaware that mission schools established under the cloak of “Christian charity” could in fact be undermining the age-old tenets of their own profound cultural traditions.

I thought it incongruous if not highly suspect that foreign Christian missionaries should still be trawling among remote hill tribes and forest-dwelling people in many remote parts of India and other eastern countries while the Church has been losing currency in its own western strongholds for generations. Some governments are still to grasp the fact that there is a correlation between political unrest among remote forest and hill people and Christian missionary activity.

I thought of the churches that had been used as bingo halls and later warehouses in my early years in United Kingdom, of the young men and women with whom I had associated there who were more pagan in their beliefs and attitudes than Christian. They hardly if ever went to church, except at Christmas and perhaps Easter, when they were caught up in the intense commercialisation of these festivals in the mass media. If they prayed for anything at Midnight Mass, it was most likely to be for a snowfall that night and a white Christmas morning.

My Indian years gave me the opportunity, among other things, to observe the fact that many outstanding young men and women who were making a mark in their professions in both India and as expatriates in the west had had their early education in either traditional or ordinary government or private schools. They were every bit as successful as, if not better than, their mission-educated counterparts. Yet brain-washed middle-class Indians fondly believed that their children in mission schools were receiving a “prestige” education.

The greater surprise in India came when I discovered the snobbery associated with the way in which one spoke English. Admittedly, English proved to be an invaluable lingua franca in a subcontinent awash with a medley of tongues. Without English, many Indians would not be able to communicate with one another let alone with foreigners.

 

 

Admittedly, many Indians mangle the English language into the most unlikely linguistic contortions. Yet the simple truth is that however it is distorted, an attempt is being made to communicate one’s thoughts in what is essentially, to them, an alien tongue. For that, I have nothing but admiration, especially for simple rural folk.

As a teenager in South Africa, one of the most hurtful things I read was of a sign in a British club in Delhi which read: “Dogs and Indians not allowed”. Young though I was, that example of British racism made me hurt whenever I thought of it through the years. Much later in India, when I encountered Indian snobbishness over the manner in which they spoke English, I wondered how sycophantic and forgetful people could become.

 

 

The elite seem oblivious of the fact that English was the language of the worst despoilers of India’s ageless Vedic ethos and cultural mores ever to land on its shores. No other interloper looted India as systematically and as ruthlessly as did the British.

In the ensuing years since reading of that uncouth sign, I have delved, in the land of my ancestors, into my incredibly rich Hindu past. I simply had to discover for myself why the people among whom I was born and raised with such love and gentle care, whose folklore and mythology revealed such an astute understanding of not only human and animal nature but of nature itself, should be held in such contempt by Christians and others.

I emerged from that delving with the knowledge that the first known vestiges of civilised society on this planet emerged among those of my own race, that its classical Sanskrit language is at the root of almost all of mankind’s spoken tongues, that its Vedic thought is the bedrock of all religions, that its Vedic scriptures are mankind’s most extensive and oldest known records of the lofty thought of ancient man, the first attempt in a far-off past at establishing a moral and ethical co-existence in a world teeming with myriad life forms, that its inventions and innovations in science and mathematics, from the atomic structure of all matter to the decimal system and so-called “Arabic” numerals, to pure mathematics, the concept of zero and the value of Pi, and from natural medicine to spirituality, that my own “Hindu” race might be this planet’s most ancient and original innovators and the root race of most others in existence, and that my ageless ancestral motherland, Bharat Ma, is the Mother of all Humankind on this planet.

Yet my Indian sojourn taught me to accept all these truths with equanimity, for on the spiritual path that I followed in that hallowed land, I learnt that humility could be the greatest of one’s strengths. I learnt too, that as diverse as mankind might seem to be, it is in truth the illusory manifestation of aspects of what is in reality One Cosmic Soul.

Most important of all, after a lifetime of travel, I learned only in India that collectively, we ourselves are the Being that we call God.

VivekAnanda Naicker
Walkerville,
Gauteng, South Africa
VivekAnanda Naicker

 

 

END NOTE:

This essay was originally written as a letter in 2013 to my friend Bala in Sydney, Australia, while I was recuperating on Anesh and Shareen Maharaj’s lovely Highveld farm near Johannesburg.

Bala and I had lived just two doors away from each other when we were teenagers in Durban. He and I had the same education, the same prejudices and similar hangups where religion and culture were concerned.

In this letter, I tried to explain, gently, that even our parents and teachers innocently injected us with the same anti-Hindu virus with which they had been in the years of their “English Christian” education. His father was an early product of mission schools and became the first Indian inspector of education in Natal.

 

 

 

 

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