Conversions to Protestant Christianity in India began soon after the arrival of German missionaries in 1706 and continued through the period of high colonialism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Protestant Christianity initiated an emphasis on individual religious faith marked by introspection, self-understanding and the individual’s ‘growth’ to maturity. This shift towards the individual life is perceptible in the increasing turn towards various forms of ‘life-writing’, in particular the autobiography, from the mid eighteenth century onwards. Conversion accounts by these Indians were published using a variety of textual forms—full-length books, pamphlets, tracts, journal articles, letters and diary entries—which were then translated into German and English or other Indian languages for wider circulation in India and Europe.

The construction of religious identities has long been a matter of political and social significance in India but arguably more so in modern IndiaVelankanni kamavrksa where religious affiliations, conversion and identification have had a direct bearing on the development of the Indian nation state. Since the late colonial era, ‘conversion politics’ has contributed much to the shaping of political discourse, and the identification of religious groups as complimentary or competing constituencies in representations of India as a national community. Conversion has featured strongly in the politics of caste identity, for example, and also in the emergence of Hindu nationalism over the course of the twentieth century as an influential political ideology. The implementation of anti-conversion legislation in various Indian states over the past few years, and the recent rise in ‘ghar wapsi’ or ‘home-coming’ events co-ordinated by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, demonstrate that the issue of conversion remains a critical feature of contemporary Indian politics.

Although there is a long history of religious conversion in India before the eighteenth century, narrative representations of conversion were not offered from the point of view of the converting self. Until the end of the eighteenth century, conversion stories mainly survive through the voice of the observer or biographer. These accounts survive mainly in manuscript or as textual fragments in subsequent printed volumes prepared by missionaries. Most autobiographical conversion accounts composed by the convert and published in print began from the early nineteenth century and continued till second half of the twentieth century. Towards the end of the twentieth century, it is possible to trace another shift—the publishing of conversion narratives on the internet, where the written text is supplemented by audiovisual effects. Since we plan to focus on printed materials at present, we’ve chosen the year 1947 as an end point for this project.

Map of South India, 1717

Map of South India (Source: An account of the religion, manners, and learning of the people of Malabar in the east Indies, London 1717)

The first Protestant missionaries in India belonged to the Pietist reform movement within the German Lutheran tradition. Pietists sought a direct and intimate relationship with God and emphasized the need for the individual surrender to God. In these circles the narration of one’s conversion from ‘ordinary’ to ‘true’ Christianity became a topos within introspective Lutheran narratives.

Early autobiographical conversion accounts of Pietists in Germany will be analysed as blueprints for conversion narratives of German missionaries in India as well as role models for early autobiographical conversion reports from India. This emergent history of autobiographical writing on religious conversion forms an important historical and ideological context for subsequent periods as these narratives framed the way conversion began to be understood and articulated by converts in subsequent centuries.


Aaron (Source: Franckesche Stiftungen, Halle [urn:nbn:de:gbv:ha33-1-35320])

Numerous autobiographical accounts of religious converts were written and published in this period in different Indian languages. These circulated in various forms: the formal printed autobiography from the second half of the nineteenth century; self-contained pamphlets that served as confessional literature for popular consumption; articles printed in regional and national journals; letters and diary entries that were later published as parts of biographies.

Many shorter accounts were circulated as tracts, acting as ‘tasters’ to attract people’s attention to Christianity. These accounts were sometimes written in English while those written in Indian languages were translated into English for wider circulation.

The number of Protestant autobiographies written in this period, focusing on the conversion experience of individuals, suggests that many Protestant converts from the late nineteenth century onwards wished to represent their new religious consciousness textually through culturally validated narrative forms such as the autobiography. We plan to analyze the transformation and reorganization of religious and social identities articulated through shifts in language use and literary genres in this period.

Marathi Bible title page

Marathi Bible title page (Source: H. Israel, 2015)

Conversion accounts exist in several Indian languages, some of which were translated repeatedly into other Indian or European languages. There are several reasons behind our choosing Tamil and Marathi to focus on here. First, both were key languages of the Madras and Bombay Presidencies during the period we propose to focus on, when writing, translation and print developed rapidly. Each also has substantial conversion accounts, so offer us a range of documents from different points in this history.

Tamil bible title page

Tamil bible title page (Source: Franckesche Stiftungen, Halle)

Second, Tamil was the first Indian language that Protestant missionaries translated into with print history dating back to the early eighteenth century; it is also the only Indian language with translations into English and German from the eighteenth century.

Third, the Marathi materials are closely linked to the work of the Scottish Missionary Society, whose correspondence and manuscripts are archived at the National Library of Scotland and with the library of Edinburgh University, where this project is located. While a few texts may have been translated between Tamil and Marathi, it was more common practice to translate conversion accounts into English. The conversion accounts we examine in this project may have been written in any one of the four languages of the project and translated into at least one of the others.

Social, political and intellectual reorientations in South Asia from the eighteenth century onwards meant that individuals experienced changes in many areas of their life, including the spiritual, which often required developing new vocabularies with which to describe these changes. Tamil and Marathi writers often borrowed terms either from Sanskrit or English to create a new vocabulary. We plan to investigate the selection of particular religious terminology when these conversion accounts were translated into German and/or English, or between Marathi and Tamil. We will also examine how the writing and translation of conversion accounts advanced Christian concepts to an Indian audience and to what extent conversion to Christianity was articulated differently across the three .


Our Questions: What will we study and how?

Over the next two years, we hope to highlight the distinctive nature of translation in its ability to constitute and transform religious cultures and identities. The team will explore links between the translation of values and concepts across languages and the nature of religious conversion. Questions relating to translation, religions and the literary converge to raise some central questions, but will hopefully also take us in new directions and exciting ways to read overlaps.

‘Translation’ and ‘conversion’ are after all closely linked conceptually since both refer to processes of change and transformation, whether change from one language culture to another or change from one religious culture to another. Although change is fundamental to both, it is not always clear how we can study why and how transformation occurs. However, since both cases of transformation are available to us largely through language, one way forward is to study shifts in language choice that accompany movement from one religious position to another.

There are some terms that we may commonly associate with the ‘religious’ or sacred sphere: ‘God’, ‘soul’, ‘salvation’, ‘scripture’ or ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ and so on. But each one of these terms may mean different things in different religious and cultural contexts, and indeed to different branches within one religion. It is during acts of translation, when agreements or disagreements over meanings become most visible, that conceptual incommensurability between religions traditions becomes most obvious. So what does it mean when we use terms as universal categories, as if each has an essential meaning that can be transferred from one religious context to another? How does an individual who has self-consciously converted from one religious system to another indicate their ‘translation,’ so to speak, from one linguistic perceptual universe to another? What is lost or gained in translation?

We will investigate whether religious conversion and identities are articulated differently in different Indian language and literary traditions and how these differences may be maintained or erased when re-composed in English and German. This will give us an opportunity to analyze to what extent differences in autobiographical traditions between the Indian literary traditions on the one hand and the German and English traditions on the other, imposed constraints on the translation process. We plan to study these autobiographical narratives in conjunction with at least one other set of narratives on conversion: the missionary narrative that continues to offer the ‘official perspective’ accompanied by statistics of conversion in their areas.

Marathi, Tamil, Latin, English and German texts

We will also explore whether western translation concepts and practices introduced in South Asia from the eighteenth century onwards fundamentally changed the way Indians understood the relationship between religious faith, language and identity. We plan to apply a new set of translation questions on the transfer of religious concepts and identities in South Asia: how did translations of sacred texts into and out of Indian languages undertaken by European scholars from the early eighteenth century introduce new ways of constructing, defining and framing religious concepts in South Asia?

We argue that this conceptual aspect of translation is intrinsic to the way religions began to be viewed, compared and categorized in the Indian context: whether core concepts could or could not be translated into other languages often determined whether a religion was considered a religion at all by European scholars.

Comparing translation practices across the four languages will allow us to explore the construction of religious boundaries and thresholds through the selection, publication and circulation of translated conversion narratives, impacted by new technologies and practices of print history in India. Shantivanam-Brahma-ChristWe will also take into account new translation practices introduced in colonial India, which significantly changed existing relationships between Indian languages (for instance, between the ‘classical’ Sanskrit and modern Indian languages) and altered traditional patterns in the flow of religious knowledge through translation.

If we start with the premise that language systems create conceptual worlds, to what extent do religious concepts evolve differently within different languages? And to what extent is it possible to translate these concepts from one language system to another? Since the sacred is expressed and experienced through language, sharing a faith demands consenting to a shared language. But what happens when as in the case of conversion, an individual uses the one language to refer to two different systems of faith? Does this merely require an adjustment in language register? The question is whether when a faith has been experienced in one language register, using a different language register alters the way one experiences the faith or the very nature of that faith?