Archive for October, 2019

REVIEW: Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India

Sarbeswar Sahoo, Pentecostalism and Politics of Conversion in India (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018). 205 pp. $99.00 hardback.

Daniel Alvarez

Pentecostal Theological Seminary, Cleveland, Tennessee

Sarbeswar Sahoo’s book is an important read for Pentecostals and for those interested with freedom of religion. Sahoo explains that he was motivated to write this book because of the complex interactions and agents that produce anti-Christian violence in India. Sarbeswar Sahoo is Hindu, yet he writes a sympathetic ethnographic account about Pentecostal Christianity in India. Sahoo also writes in a manner that readers outside India may understand and relate to India. Impressively, he draws from a multiplicity of scholarly resources from African-American, Latin American, and US Pentecostal perspectives.

In his book, Sahoo lays out the context of the province of Rajasthan, India. He participated in the everyday life of the Pentecostal church, such as Pentecostal worship, deliverance from demons, and the descent of the Holy Spirit (18). Sahoo describes the growth of Pentecostalism in India. It has remained relatively small, only 4% of the Indian population, yet because of the sheer quantity of people in India, the number of Pentecostals was reported to be 33.5 million people in the year 2000 (22). Pentecostals have focused on the poor and lower castes/tribes in India. Missionaries have organized social ministries and have used development and social ministries as a medium to spread the gospel (23). Sahoo’s analysis of Pentecostalism in many ways appeals to the tribal Hindu worldview. It includes Spirit worship, the charismata, exorcism, divine healing and miracles.

Sahoo’s discussion explains why there is opposition to conversion to Christianity in India. Conversion carries a lot of baggage because it is infused with ideas from colonization. Colonial governments in India encouraged conversions as a means for establishing Western supremacy. In many ways, colonialism politicized conversions.

Another reason conversion in India is seen with suspicion and met with violence has to do with the politics of the quota system in India. Hindu nationalists oppose conversion because of the number of non-Hindus will increase, affecting the electoral politics in India (43). Furthermore, many converts are “Crypto-Christians” (45), refusing to legally convert to Christianity or to declare this in the Census as it may affect the quota system of India (the Indian affirmative action system). On the other hand, Hindu tribals oppose the inclusion of Christians because benefits and entitlements are diluted with an increase in number of claimants. Hindu nationalists claim Christians get benefits from both the Indian government and Christian missionaries, which is unfair.

However, it is clear that Hindu nationalists and Pentecostals speak of conversion in two different planes and are not engaging each other in this discussion. For Indian nationalists conversion means leaving indigenous culture and adopting a foreign one. Hindus see religion is an inseparable part of culture. When someone converts, he or she changes not only religion and faith, but also his or her worldview. They assert that any religion that did not originate in India is foreign and the logical conclusion is that conversion is a sin. Christianity is coercive and conversions are forced through material inducement. Furthermore, conversion is an act of aggression against Hinduism. Consequently, Hindu Nationalists passed a controversial bill that calls for a two to five year punishment for the conversion of a person that is underage, a woman, a tribal person, or a Dalit.

In spite of Hindu opposition, Sahoo’s analysis of Pentecostalism is positive. This is evident through the testimonies and narratives of those who have converted to Christianity. Overall, tribal Christian converts develop a new identity which is confident, empowered and assertive (48). A Christian perspective begins with the total transformation of life. This takes place in the heart, character, and morals of a person. The converts are still from a particular ethnicity. The difference is that now they see Jesus as more powerful than the Hindu/tribal gods and goddesses (78).

Sahoo focuses on Adivasi women who convert to Pentecostalism. In spite of Hindu opposition, Sahoo thinks that Christian conversions empower the tribal Christian converts, especially women. Sahoo agrees with other sociological studies that conclude Pentecostalism offers an escape and empowerment to women whose experiences and opportunities are limited by race, gender and class. Furthermore, Pentecostalism improves the economic and emotional status of the family in the post-conversion period. Women participate in the activities of the church, making their religious experience stronger, and more meaningful. The higher moral life means converts are prohibited from committing crimes, practicing polygamy, wife beating, and drinking alcohol. For Sahoo, faith and spiritual transformation, caused largely by miracle/faith healings, have played an important role in influencing tribal women’s decision to convert (89). There is a sense that sanctification plays an important part of life of new converts in India. Sahoo could become more familiar with Wesleyan ideas of sanctification and how this influences the Pentecostal notion of holiness in this life.

It is evident throughout this book that Pentecostalism provides a theology and a practice of healing. In his analysis of women converts, many of them attest of healing from diseases to which they could find no cure. Many realized they did not have to visit a shaman or pay fees for their services. In many cases healing was also accompanied by the miraculous, or signs and wonders. In some cases, individuals experiencing healing passed strange liquids or vomited. In some ways healing also appears to be closely related to exorcism. Sahoo describes how many times healing is attributed to individuals being set free from evil spirits. Rather than deny that evil spirits exist, Sahoo says that Pentecostals actively engage in exorcism, affirming the power of the Holy Spirit over all other spirits.

Sahoo’s book is an important affirmation of Pentecostals in non-Western contexts, especially those facing intolerance and persecution. Pentecostalism is alive and well among the poor masses because it offers the reconstruction of life at the most basic level. Sahoo has risked much in writing and his contribution serves to understand Pentecostalism and its contextualization in India. Sahoo’s book may also serve Pentecostals in the Western world get in touch with some of the most important dimensions of their theology and practice that they seem to have left behind.


@ Daniel Alvarez (2019) Pneuma, Vol.41, No.2, pp.291-293