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Christian History & BiographyChristianity in India: A Faith of Many Colors
Issue 87 | 2005

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 ARTICLE TOOLS

Brahman Christians
How do Christian beliefs relate to Indian philosophy and culture? These Indian thinkers came up with different answers.



While no 19th-century census tells us how many north Indian Christians came from the Brahman caste, they were surely few. Numbers aside, theirs was an influential elite. Of the many advantages they enjoyed, literacy was the greatest. As custodians of the sacred "word," Brahmans leaped ahead to acquire new languages and knowledge as times changed. Under the British Raj, Brahmans learned English; for a few, this was their entrée into Christianity. For others, European missionaries' use of Sanskrit to discuss Christian ideas proved more important. When the "language of the gods" was Christianized, a vigorous interreligious exchange occurred, bringing to faith some of Indian Christianity's most original theological thinkers.

Nehemiah Goreh

(1825-1895)

"To eat and drink with the Christians!" a Hindu editorialist thundered. A young Brahman named Nilakantha Goreh, though learned in the Sanskritic wisdom of Indian antiquity, had just apostatized. Rumor had been rampant that devilry was afoot, inflamed by the disappearance of the allegedly hapless youth. Missionaries had had him whisked off to a faraway church, concerned that riots might erupt if their new Christian convert were to surrender his shoulder cord (emblematic of the "twice born") and be baptized in Varanasi, the sacred but volatile temple-city on the Ganges.

The year (1848) may have been long ago, but nowadays, too, Brahman conversions occur infrequently and always arouse consternation. Though the roles are only partly analogous, among Christians the apostasy of a pastor might seem comparable. Still, the social death a Brahman convert suffers makes all analogies farfetched. Individuals of such exalted status find the possibility of a new life, grounded in a different reality, difficult to envision. In converting to Christianity, they forfeit a status like unto that of "gods on earth" and a cornucopia of this-worldly and other-worldly prerogatives.

In the Hindu view, one is what one ingests. One prerogative forbidden to Brahmans is, accordingly, the consumption of polluting "impurities" such as meat and alcohol, or anything from the hand of an "untouchable." Since Christians partake of both, the irate editorialist argued in 1848, they must have enticed their young victim, or he had succumbed in "a fit of insanity" to the blandishments of Europeans. From today's perspective, this echoes a familiar refrain: the charge that a convert's change of identity lacks integrity, both moral and intellectual.

Back in Varanasi, Nehemiah (the Christian name of the baptized Nilakantha) found himself socially dead at 23 but spiritually transformed-and in most ways still culturally Hindu. "Becoming a Christian does not consist in eating and drinking," he answered his editorial critic, "but in worshiping the only God in spirit and humility." And to the accusation that missionaries had induced his apostasy, he gave a denial that sounds almost too insouciant, given the public drubbing he endured: "If my conversion was insane, blessed be insanity."

Like all conversions, Goreh's was an ongoing process. He certainly vacillated before his conversion and had continuing doubts afterwards. Still, as an intellectually gifted individual who had been trained in Varanasi's hallowed centers of Hindu learning, Goreh came to faith in a distinctly cognitive way. When Christianity first emerged on the horizon of his awareness, he marshaled his considerable erudition in a campaign to demolish its credibility and defend Vedanta. Goreh the saboteur, however, became Goreh the seeker, for reasons of the heart, about which we know little, and of the mind, about which we know much. But of beef and brandy there were none. As a young convert and later as an ordained Anglican priest, he maintained an ascetic lifestyle more in keeping with Hindu norms than with those of the more affluent European clergy.

The true testament to the intellectual integrity of Goreh's faith is found in his book entitled (in translation) Rational Refutation of Hindu Philosophy. Before his conversion, Goreh had argued that only the Veda reveals Brahman, the ground of all being. As a Christian, Goreh argued that God can be known only through the Bible. His belief in the necessity of revelation through sacred scriptures did not change, but after his conversion he flatly denied any rapport between Vedanta and Christianity. Instead, he rejected Vedanta's monism (the belief in one impersonal unifying principle in the universe) and replaced it with a Christ-centered theism.

Goreh's uncompromising position contrasted sharply with other Brahman converts such as Krishna Mohun Banerjea, an eminent Anglican cleric who believed that Christ had been prefigured in the Veda and that Christianity was Hinduism's true trajectory. Still, if Goreh's legacy is that of restoring otherness to both religions, one can acknowledge that as a form of severe but honest respect. For today's interreligious exchange, that's a constructive start.

Narayan Vaman Tilak

(1861-1919)

For all their Sanskritic erudition, neither Goreh nor Banerjea—both of them Prayer Book Anglicans—did much of lasting value to imbue Christianity with an authentically Indian character. Thanks, however, to another Brahman Christian, Narayan Vaman Tilak, Marathi-speaking Christians in the western state of Maharashtra worship in a vernacular as natural as that of the poet-saints whom Tilak loved before Christ became his guru-the guru whose Sermon on the Mount had brought him to his knees in thankful adoration:

"You are my thought, my speech, my knowledge, enjoyment, salvation; henceforth.

"Now no longer does any difference exist between us; even if there is any, it is only superficial; henceforth."

The oneness between the human and the divine to which Tilak alludes is not metaphysical (as in the Vedas) but spiritual and has true Christian integrity. Maratha Christians testify to Tilak's poetic ability to integrate Christian and pre-Christian spirituality in ways that both affirm and transform his Hindu heritage. Still, to discover his real voice and to put a recognizably Indian face on Christianity, Tilak felt compelled to reject the worship forms in the American mission churches that he loyally served while seeking to change them from the inside. In a famously subversive poem of protest, he complained that in those churches "we dance as puppets, while [missionaries] hold the strings." In Tilak's heart, only Christ could strike the right chords.

Richard Fox Young is associate professor of the history of religions at Princeton Theological Seminary

Brahmabandhav Upadhyay

(1861-1907)

Brahmabandhav Upadhyay was born Bhavani Charan Banerjea in 1887. A Bengali Brahman, he became a teacher in the Brahmo Samaj, a Hindu reform movement founded by Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833). However, he became increasingly attracted to the uniqueness of Christ, and on February 26, 1891, he received Christian baptism. Although he began as an Anglican, he united with the Catholic Church on September 1. Three years later, he declared himself a sannyasin (world-renouncer) and thereafter was known as Brahmabandhav ("lover of God") Upadhyay ("teacher"). His conversion to Christianity marked the beginning of a series of journalistic efforts by which Upadhyay sought to demonstrate how Christian theology was compatible with indigenous thought in India.

Upadhyay was dismayed at the inability of Christianity to flourish in India, especially among Brahmans. He once described Indian Christianity as "standing in the corner, like an exotic stunted plant with poor foliage, showing little or no promise of blossom." He decided to dedicate his life to discovering authentic, Indian expressions of Christianity that were not Western.

Over the course of his life, he made three major attempts to discover an appropriate foundation upon which to construct a Christian proclamation. The first foundation was natural theology, which was based on general revelation and the knowledge of God present in all people. However, he found this foundation deficient and re-examined the possibility of using the Sanskritic language and thought-forms of Brahmanical Hindu philosophy as a more appropriate foundation for establishing Christian thought in India.

Upadhyay observed how Thomas Aquinas had boldly adopted the Aristotelian system of philosophy and effectively used it as the basis for constructing a Christian theology and philosophy. Why, he reasoned, "should we Catholics of India now wage a destructive warfare with Hindu philosophy?" Alternatively, he argued, we should "look upon it in the same way as St. Thomas looked upon the Aristotelian system." He then declared, "We are of the opinion that attempts should be made to win over Hindu philosophy to the service of Christianity just as Greek philosophy was won over in the Middle Ages … The Catholic Church will find it hard to conquer India unless she makes Hindu philosophy hew wood and draw water for her."

Upadhyay was convinced that the 8th-century Hindu philosopher Sankara could serve Christianity in India the way Aristotle had served Aquinas. This project consumed much of Upadhyay's writing during the next four years. Because he was the earliest to engage in this level of pioneering theological work, and particularly because of his insightful writings on the Trinity, Upadhyay has been called the "father of Indian Christian theology."

While Upadhyay never abandoned his desire to establish a philosophical foundation for Christianity in India, he gradually came to realize that many people in India devoted to popular, village religion simply did not respond to the sublime philosophy of high-caste Brahmans, such as Sankara. Thus, in his later years he attempted to find ways to build Christianity on a third foundation: Indian culture. Upadhyay sought to promote a Christian transformation of such common cultural practices in India as the caste system and idol worship. For example, he argued that if idols were totally rejected it would unwittingly convey that Christians were at war with Indian culture. However, he hoped that idols could be transformed into non-religious symbols of national ideals. Indeed, it was his attempt to affirm the value of India's cultural heritage that eventually made him a leader within the nationalist movement. He has the distinction of being the first Indian to publicly call for complete independence (not just home-rule) from Britain.

Despite his untimely death from a tetanus infection in 1907, Upadhyay left behind a remarkable collection of journalistic writings that continue to influence today's discussion about how the Christian gospel can best be articulated in the Indian context.

Timothy C. Tennent is professor of world mission at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.





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