Category Archives: b. Hindu Responses to Christianity

Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois

Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois was a French-Catholic missionary with the Missions Etrangeres de Paris sent to India in the early seventeen-nineties whose mission-work continued until the early eighteen-twenties. During this time Dubois authored a number of important detailed accounts of the Hindu faith and culture, which were valued by many for their ethnographic knowledge. Once such contemporary proponent of the Abbe Dubois’ work was Lord Bentwick. As discussed in the articleCastes of Mind, Nicholas B. Dirks quotes Bentwick, writing that, “in a political point of view, the information which the work of the Abbe Dubois has to impart might be of the greatest benefit in aiding the servants of the Government in conducting themselves more in unison with the customs and prejudices of the natives.” (see Dirks  65).

Little information is known about the Abbe’s life before his ordination an subsequent missionary work in India, where he was first stationed with the Pondicherry mission in the south of India. Following this the Abbe worked in Mysore aiding the reorganization efforts of the Christian community in the area, (see Dubois 1823:1-2). To better coalesce with the natives, Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois adopted the diet and clothing tendencies of his Hindu contemporaries, effectively renouncing the Euorpean lifestyle of the time. During his time in India many small agricultural communities were said to have been founded by the Abbe Dubois, as well as the introduction of vaccinations as a method of disease prevention, (See Dubois and Beauchamp 1897:19). By eighteen-twenty-three Dubois left India and returned to Paris, where he later became the director of the Missions Etrangeres de Paris (see Dubois and Beauchamp 1897:xxviii).

Of the works authored by Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois, the most influential of which is Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies, which is divided into three distinct parts, each of which discusses at length a different pillar of both Hindu culture and religion. The first and second sections discuss respectively the ‘General View of Society in India, and Especially of the Caste System’ and ‘The Four States of Brahmanical Life’, having a primary focus on cultural and societal implications of the Hindu tradition. While the third section aptly titled ‘Religion’ is concerned with the actual spiritual beliefs of practitioners of the Hindu tradition. Each of the three larger sections is further divided into chapters concerned with specific topics falling within the overarching theme of the section.

The first five chapters of the first section discuss at length the caste system found at the epicentre of  Hindu culture. The Abbe suggests that the ubiquity of the caste system in Hindu culture is the sole reason the Hindus did not regress into total barbarism which had been observed by other cultures occupying the ‘torrid region’ (Dubois  and Beauchamp 1897:29). Dubois further illustrates the importance of the caste system by observing what  became of social ‘pariahs’ a demographic of Hindu society with which he had become very familiar with. Stating that a population composed of such individuals quickly devolves into something altogether worse than the cannibalistic hordes observed in the African continent (see Dubois and Beauchamp 1897:29).

The second section takes an in-depth look at the Brahmin caste of Hindu society, covering a vast array of religious practices and expectations. It discusses at length all stages of brahmanical life starting with upanayana a ceremony in which young brahmin males are bestowed with a sacred cord, signalling their entrance into brahmic life. From this point until the age of matrimony they are acknowledged as residing in the condition of brahmacari. If the young male does not marry for any particular reason in the prescribed time period is no longer viewed as brahmacari andthe name of grhasthais not given to him. However, the six privileges afforded to the caste are still available to him. The six privileges being ‘to read, and get to read the Vedas, to make and to cause to me made, the sacrifice of the yajna, and lastly to receive alms and to give presents to the Brahmins,(Dubois 1816:101-102).

The second stage of brahmanical life  is that of grhastha, a title afforded to Brahmin males who have married and had produced children. The Abbe highlights myriad of different observances this state of Brahmins is required to maintain, a significant portion of which focus on ritual purity and auspiciousness. Not the least of these practices is ritual bathing in water that is deemed sacred, like that of the Indus or Ganges rivers. While in the water, it is of utmost importance that the man to keep his thoughts transfixed on Visnu and Brahma, the ritual bath is finished “by three times taking up handfuls of water, and with their faces turned toward the sun pouring it out in libations to that luminary”, (Dubois 1816:149). After exiting the water the grhastha brahmin dresses himself in a particular fashion that does not affect his purity or auspiciousness. This practice is conducted three times over the course of a day.

Dubois also discusses at great length the assortment of different prayers devout members of the Brahman caste observe and provides an exhaustive example highlighting the specific mechanics of the sandhya or ‘triple-prayer’ (see Dubois 1816:154-157).

The third and final section of Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies focuses more attentively on religious beliefs at the core of Hindu tradition. The first chapter of this section begins to draw a parallel between the Roman and Hindu primary deities, comparing Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto to Brahma, Visnu, and Siva (see Dubois 1816:370). The Abbe continues by explaining the origins of each member of the trimurti (the aforementioned Hindu gods) and begins to highlight the henotheistic nature of the Hindu faith. Following this the Abbe gives a more in-depth description of each member of the trimutr, as well as other prominent figures like Krsna or Indra.  Discussing in detail the role each member plays in the Hindu religion. Special attention and detail is given in the discussion of Visnu, as Visnu is said to take up to ten different forms or avatara, each of these forms and the situation(s) they correspond to are briefly illustrated.

In his Letters on the State of Christianity in India in which the Conversion of Hindoos is Considered Impracticable, a work composed of a collection of correspondences written by the Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois which were sent to his superiors in Paris, the Abbe gives a detailed account of the state in which the Christian, and especially the Roman-Catholic faith(s) were in India. The opinion held by Abbe Dubois was that because the caste system was so deeply entrenched in the Hindu tradition, the conversion of natives proved to be a task of immense difficulty. Abbe Dubois writes that “during a period of twenty-five years that I have familiarly conversed with them, lived among them as their religious teacher and spiritual guide, I would hardly dare to affirm that I have anywhere met a sincere and undisguised christian,” (see Dubois 1823:63). Dubois continues to describe the degree to which this effect was observed, noting that one of the greatest points of contention for Hindu converts is the christian belief of total equality between people of varied societal position in the eyes of God, that a Brahmin of high standing should be treated as equal to a ‘pariah’. Continuing this sentiment, the Abbe suggests that even a totalitarian or despotic rule could be imposed upon the Hindu people with greater ease than it would be to dismantle the caste system; thus highlighting the vast emphasis placed upon the caste system in the Hindu tradition.

The writings of Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois offered a valuable insight into the complexity of the Hindu culture and the religion as a whole. The thirty years of experience working and residing among the Hindu people, adopting many of their customs and practices, allowed the Abbe to accrue a wide and intimate knowledge of the manners and customs of the Hindu tradition. Henry K. Beauchamp writes that “any account given by such a man of the manners and customs of the people amongst whom he lived must in any case be instructive,” (see Dubois and Beachamp 1897: xxii).

Works Cited and Bibliograhy:

Dubois, Abbe Jean-Antoine (1816), Description of the Character, Manners, and Customs, of the People of India; and of Their Institutions Both Religious and Civil. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, (1816)

Dubois, Abbe Jean-Antoine (1816), Beauchamp, Henry K (1897), Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies. Oxford: Clarendon Press (1905)

Dubois, Abbe Jean-Antoine (1823), Letters on the State of Christianity in India in Which the conversion of Hindoos is Considered Impracticable. To which is added a vindication of the Hindus, male and female, in answer to a severe attack made upon both by the Reverend ****.

London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green (1823), Reprinted by Asian Educational Services

Dirks Nicholas B. (1992) “Castes of Mind.” Representations, No. 37, Special Issue: Imperial Fantasies and Postcolonial Histories (Winter 1992): 56-78

Related Topics:

  • Sadhya
  • Protestant missionary work taking place at the same time
  • Lord Bentwick

Related Websites:

Article Written By: Brendan Spiess (February 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.

Ram Mohun Roy and the Brahmo Samaj

As the nineteenth century dawned, Western economic and religious ideals began to impact India as the British spread throughout the country. The establishment of the East Indian Trading Company by the British, as well as the spread of Christian missionaries throughout India, provided many Hindus contact with European education, religion and economics (Leneman 22). Although Christian missionaries were adamant in pushing the Christian religion upon those in India, there were many Hindus that opposed such attempts at conversion. They desired to remain loyal to their Hindu faith despite verbal persecution by the British (Leneman 22) [Many did not agree with the Western idea of an all encompassing law, as dharma and the belief in karma are the only real laws in traditional Hinduism. See Leneman (1980)]. Many individuals began to speak of reshaping their Hindu beliefs and political ideals to create greater economic advantage as well as social and religious comfort (Bhatt 24, Leneman 22). Among these individuals was Ram Mohun Roy, who was born a Rarhi Brahmin from Bengal (Killingley 5) [Many different spellings of the name Ram Mohun Roy occur due to translation differences. See Killingley (1993)]. Roy believed that India could develop only through learning from the Europeans, and consequently he looked to reform Hinduism (Kopf 313). The Brahmo Samaj is an Indian religious movement started by Roy in Calcutta in 1828 based on this idea of reformation that he saw as being necessary (Bhatt 24, O’Malley 224).

Ram Mohun Roy was born a Rarhi Brahmin in 1774 in Bengali in a Vaisnava family. Many of his ancestors held positions of high esteem among the Mughal rulers in Bengal (Killingley 5) [See Killingley (1993) for more on the debate as to the year Roy was born]. Little is known about Roy’s early life except that he was educated in a number of languages, both Indian and European, and opposed aspects of the Hindu faith such as Idolatry (Leneman 22) [Due to his opposition to idolatry and other Hindu practices, Roy was not allowed into his own house for four years from age sixteen to twenty. See Leneman (1980)]. He traveled through much of the area near Calcutta and Bengal where he first came into contact with the British through the East Indian Trading Company (Killingley 6). Roy was considered a political liberal, and opposed the East Indian Trading Company economic ideals as he favored free trade (Killingley 8). Although he opposed the East Indian Trading Company, Roy was receptive to Western ideas and incorporated them into his beliefs (Killingley 57). He became outspoken in the political world and was desirous to more fully empower the upper class of India by pushing European education and striving to get the East Indian Trading Company to grant privileges to Indians (Bhatt 24).

Although Roy turned primarily to the Hindu Vedic scriptures for his belief, he incorporated much of Christian and Islamic thought. He said that he would borrow books and ideas from other religions to “purify Hinduism” (Killingley 59). His primary belief was in the worship of the God of Nature who was the only true God and creator of the universe. He formed a small group in Calcutta based on this belief called the Atmiya Sabha, who in 1828 changed their name to the Brahmo Samaj (Killingley 10, O’Malley 224) [Brahmo Samaj has been translated as “House of God,” “society of the believer,” and “society of the worshippers of the One True God.” See O’Malley (1935), Bhatt (1968) and Leneman (1980)]. The Brahmo Samaj stated their objective as: “The worship and adoration of the eternal unsearcheable, and immutable Being who is the Author and Preserver of the Universe” (O’Malley 224). They believed that God was a father figure and that all humans were in fact brother and sister (O’Malley 224). It was open to any who wished to join, no matter their caste, skin color, or previous religious beliefs, and attempted to strengthen the relationship between people of all religions (Bhatt 24, Leneman 23).

Although the beliefs of Roy and the Brahmo Smaj were predominantly based on the Hindu religion, they opposed many traditional Hindu beliefs and practices such as reincarnation, animal sacrifice, and sati [The practice of sati involves a widow throwing herself on the cremation fire of her husband, allowing herself to be consumed by the flames, and thus freeing her husband from his sins and moving on into eternity together]. The Brahmo Samaj believed that salvation was obtained through worship of God and that a person could have direct communion with God (O’Malley 225). In a type of afterlife, an individual’s soul would be punished or rewarded for their dealings in this life, although the traditional Hindu view regarding the transmigration of souls was not incorporated into the belief (Killingley 46-47, O’Malley 225). In his first writing, Tuhfat al-Muwahhidin, Roy speaks about that afterlife of the soul and the punishments and rewards received (Killingley 46-47) [For more on the teachings of the Tuhfat al-Muwahhidin, see Killingley (1993)]. Roy also became extremely vocal in his opposition to the practice of sati, and his persistence lead to the practice becoming illegal in 1829 (Leneman 23). Roy was also very concerned with the education and increased economic opportunities granted to women and this carried through to the beliefs of the Brahmo Samaj (Kopf 314, O’Malley 226).

Among the traditional Hindu practices that were most opposed by Roy and the Brahmo Samaj, was that of polytheism and the practice of idol worship (O’Malley 224). Roy argued that idol practice was extremely inappropriate because it gave God a visible form. As Roy and the Brahmo Samaj believed in the spiritual, yet unseen existence of God, this contradicted their belief (Killingley 74). Roy used the Upanisads, which he had previously translated into English, to validate his belief and opposition to idolatry (Killingley 74). He taught that one should turn to contemplation of the Eternal Being as the proper way of worship. This would lead to actions of charity, morality and virtue leading to salvation (O’Malley 224).

Upon the death of Ram Mohun Roy in 1833, the Brahmo Samaj which had flourished in Bengal began to decline. In 1843, Devendranath Tagore, who previously had adopted the beliefs of Roy, added further aspects of Orthodox Hinduism and Christianity to the Brahmo Samaj which led to resurgence in the movement (Leneman 23). A number of years later Keshab Chunder Sen joined the movement and aided Tagore in this resurgence. Sen was influenced by Christianity a great deal in his younger years and brought many of his Christian beliefs with him when he joined the movement. In 1867, Tagore felt that Sen had become radical and extreme in his Christian influences and a split in the Brahmo Samaj occurred (Leneman 23). Tagore held on to the more traditional aspects of Hinduism and started the Adi Brahmo Samaj, while Sen took his Christian influences and started the Brahmo Samaj of India (Bhatt 24-25, Leneman 23). The younger generation, who had grown up with heavy Western influence followed Sen, while others in the movement who could not give up the majority of traditional Hindu beliefs remained with Tagore (Leneman 23). Under Sen, the Brahmo Samaj of India turned to radical social reform, considered Christ an ideal Hindu Yogi, and held Sen in a type of deity status (Bhatt 25). Sen eventually adopted a greater belief in Christ and this led to a split in the Brahmo Samaj of India. This split led to the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, started by those who opposed Sen and the adoption of a belief in Christ as more than a yogi. Sen, and his followers founded the Church of the New Dispensation (Leneman 24).

Today, the Brahmo Samaj and the various branches that occurred through these divisions are considered to be more of a religious movement than a sect or group (O’Malley 225). It has mostly been confined to Bengal, and has never obtained full status throughout India (Bhatt 26). The political beliefs voiced by members of the Brahmo Samaj as well as the changes to the traditional Hindu religion have led many to believe that Brahmo Samaj is a socio-political movement that acted as a force in Indian nationalism (Bhatt 24, Leneman 30). Ram Mohun Roy and the Brahmo Samaj defended aspects of Hinduism while reforming other aspects that they felt would benefit India (Leneman 30). Although not popular throughout India today, the Brahmo Samaj and the work of Ram Mohun Roy were instrumental in Hindu Renaissance and reform in Bengal during the nineteenth century (Kopf 313).


Bhatt, Gauri Shankar (1968) Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, and the Church-Sect Typology.

Review of Religious Research, Fall 68 Volume 10.

Ghose, Jegendra Chunder (eds.) (1982) The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Killingley, Dermont (1993) Rammohun Roy in Hindu and Christian Tradition. Newcastle: Grevatt and Gravatt.

Kopf, David (1979) The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Modern Indian Mind. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Leneman, Leah (1980) “The Hindu Renaissance of the Late 19th Century.” History Today, May 1980 Volume 30.

O’Malley, L.S.S. (1935) Popular Hinduism: The Religion of the Masses. Cambridge University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Arya Samaj

Adi Brahmo Samaj

Brahmo Samaj of India

Church of the New Dispensation


Debendranath Tagore

Dayanand Saraswat


Hindu Renaissance

Indian Nationalism

Keshub Chunder Sen

Orthodox Hinduism

Sadharan Brahmo Samaj


Notable Websites

Article written by Brett Steed (March 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.