an essay

Discuss Upadhyay’s theological attempts to come to terms as a Christian with Hinduism, in the context of 19th century Bengal.

The theological task that faces a Christian attempting to come to terms with the diverse and manifold range of cultural practices, philosophical systems and religious beliefs of the Indian subcontinent is an incredibly difficult one. As one of the first Indian converts to truly wrestle with the challenges involved in this task, Brahmabandhab Upadhyay should continue to inspire future generations as they struggle with the challenge of expounding a truly indigenous Christian theology.

Upadhyay was born in 1861, into a Bengal which was itself coming to terms with its Hinduism in the light of its contact with the Christianity of Britain. This was a Christianity in which missionary evangelism and colonial imperialism seemed inextricably entwined, after Alexander Duff[1]’s strategy of gaining Hindu converts by establishing an English-language educational programme which “wed Trinitarian Christianity to a scientific attitude and rationalism”[2] was endorsed by Lord Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education[3]. While such imperialism may be easy to criticize in retrospect, “it was not uncommon for Bengali political moderates and social reformers to look upon British rule as being so beneficial for India that it was providential.”[4]

As far as religion was concerned however, the greater effect seems to have been had not by the orthodox Trinitarians, but by the Unitarians. Ram Mohan Roy was particularly influenced by their rationalist message, and in 1820 wrote The Precepts of Jesus, in which he “expressed great admiration for Jesus as the exemplary human being but as having no claims to divinity”[5], before later founding the Brahmo Sabha. The aim of Roy’s society, which would later become the Brahmo Samaj, was reform of “the alleged polytheism of his ancestral faith, its idolatry, casteism and oppression of women”[6]. Following his death, leadership of the society was taken up by Debendranath Tagore, who was deeply influenced by Roy’s ideals, but not by Roy’s attraction to Christ. However, his protégé Keshabchandra Sen was, and it is interesting to note that under his leadership the Sabha was already wrestling with the question that would so engage Upadhyay: what it means to be Hindu. Posing the question of whether the Brahmos were Hindu, Majumdar answered “Yes, nationally and socially… but in ideology, ethics and social practice we Brahmos are not Hindus”[7].

One should note also that by the time of Keshab Sen, the Brahmo Samaj was coming to its end. In its wake were rising a number of groups with less critical attitudes towards the Hindu tradition. These included Swami Dayananda’s Arya Samaj and Swami Vivekananda’s Ramakrishna Mission. Annie Besant’s Theosophical Society would also appear.

It was in this context that Upadhyay came to believe “that Jesus was not just an/the ideal man, but the incarnate Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity, who had redeemed mankind by is life, death and resurrection”[8]. Having been involved with the Brahmo Samaj, Upadhyay’s orthodox commitment to Christ was born in the wake of his father’s death, at whose bedside he found a copy of Catholic Belief. In February 1891 he was baptized by a minister of the Church of England, and in September he was inducted into the Roman Catholic Church. Even before his baptism, Upadhyay’s concern to engage with Hinduism – and to see Hinduism come to terms with Christ! – had led him to set up the periodical Harmony. This was the first in a series of periodicals[9] which saw Upadhyay produce a number of bold theological attempts to grapple with the issues raised by the juxtaposition of his own Catholic Christian faith with the Hinduism of Bengal.

It is important to point out from the beginning that Upadhyay never saw himself as having rejected his status as a Hindu. In an article for the monthly Sophia, Upadhyay addresses the question of whether he is a Hindu: “By birth we are Hindu and shall remain Hindu till death. But as dvija (twice-born) by virtue of our sacramental rebirth, we are Catholic… In customs and manners, in observing caste or social distinctions, in eating and drinking, in our life and living, we are genuine Hindus”[10]. More importantly, from the beginning Upadhyay was burdened with the importance of preaching the gospel to his countrymen, and realized that for this to be a success would require an energetic engagement with Hinduism. Based on the Thomistic understanding of what can be known of God through reason rather than revelation, he argued that “the truths in Hinduism are of pure reason illuminated by the light of the Holy Spirit”[11]. And as he put it later, “we have a conviction and it is growing day by day, that the Catholic Church will find it hard to conquer India unless she makes Hindu philosophy hew wood and draw water for her”[12].

However, Upadhyay’s initial reaction towards Hinduism was not the intricate application of Hindu philosophy that he would—at the peak of his theological thought—achieve, but rather an attempt “to eradicate from the minds of the Indian people certain erroneous and mischievous doctrines”[13] such as transmigration. This precise issue was discussed at length over four issues over the 1894 Sophia[14], in which he marshals a series of arguments against the belief: the soul cannot lose its sense of identity; for a man to have passed through an infinite number of births and deaths is an absurdity; the sufferings of the innocent do not necessarily imply that they have been guilty of sin in a previous life. But let us move on from here, for Upadhyay is more interesting when positively engaging with Hindu thought than when he is merely repudiating what he sees as its error.

Just as Upadhyay found it “a matter of sore perplexity and great humiliation that Indian Catholic priests… should adopt the European sacerdotal garb”[15] and so took up the traditional saffron robe of the samnyasi, he felt “that the religion of Christ will never be appreciated by the Hindus if it be not divested of its Graeco-European clothing”[16]. The first such attempt of Upadhyay to find ‘Hindu clothing’ for the ‘religion of Christ’ is to search for a suitable theism within the Vedic scriptures. That Upadhyay should try this comes as no surprise, for the idea that such a past theism should exist is precisely “the Catholic doctrine of primitive theism” which, he tells us, “has been marvelously corrobated by modern researches”[17]. What is surprising, is the robustness of the critique that is addressed to Dayananda when he attempts to expound the first mantra of the first Sukta of the Rig Veda in theistic terms—but with insufficient exegetical rigour, at least for Upadhyay’s liking. While Upadhyay affirms that “Theism is the natural and rational religion”[18] and that “every Vedic student must admit that there are noble conceptions of Theism in [the Veda]”[19], he declares Dayananda’s interpretation to be “too far-fetched, ungrammatical, unauthorized and much against common sense and true philosophy, to be admitted as true”[20]. The reason that Upadhyay is able to argue thus would seem to be that he—at least at this point—feels free to reject whatever aspects of Hinduism do not suit his purposes, and so can perhaps be more objective in his exegesis; unlike Dayananda, whose theistic Arya Samaj held to the authority of the Vedas and was thence forced to interpret each passage accordingly.

When we come to Upadhyay’s own exegesis of the hymns of the Rig Veda, we find that it is typically assured and, indeed, convincing. In his exposition of the Hymn to Varuna[21] (Rig Veda 1.25) and of the Confession and Prayer of Vasishtha[22] (RV 7.86,88,89), his focus is both times on “that spirit of self-accusation, submission, humility, confidence in God’s mercy and goodness, and acknowledgement of his sovereign power, which is becoming and necessary to man in his many physical and moral infirmities here on earth”[23]. The compatibility of this with Christian faith is more than obvious. In each case Upadhyay also manages to offer an offhanded criticism of some aspect of Hinduism with which he disagrees, in the first case commenting that the worshipper who casts himself on the mercy of God “is still a stranger to the strange doctrine that life is an evil followed by lakhs of transmigrations”[24]; in the second criticizing the depiction of Vasishtha in “the Puranic legends”[25].

Bolder in evangelical scope although still exegetically careful, is Upadhyay’s interpretation of the Hymn ‘Ka’[26](RV 10.120) in terms of the Divine Word. Interpreting ‘hiranya’ as ‘wisdom’ rather than ‘gold’, he finds that the sutra describes the one begotten of wisdom, who became sole lord, and links this with the corresponding Biblical passages (Ps. 2, Jn. 1). Without going so far as to claim that it is necessarily the case that “the rishi, the author of the above hymn, [was] given the privilege of having a fore-glimpse of the inner life of God”, Upadhyay affirms not only that as a Christian he “can chant the sukta ‘Ka’ in unison with the rishis of old” but that “it can be safely concluded… that in the Veda are found a very sublime conception of one supreme Being, [and an] idea of divine generation somewhat resembling the Christian doctrine of divine Sonship”[27]

The next development in Upadhyay’s attitude towards Hinduism can be found in an article from 1900, where he addresses the nature and utility of Vedantic[28] thought and concludes “that theistic science cannot flourish in India if the Vedanta be ignored”.[29] This significant change—in contrast to his earlier equation of Vedanta with Pantheism—was apparently a result of some ‘subtle’ discussions with a certain Friar John Castets. Regardless of the reason, this was to be the period of Upadhyay’s most fruitful interaction as a Christian with Hinduism.

First, let us consider Upadhyay’s comments on The True Doctrine of Maya[30]. Recognising that “creatures in themselves, apart from Brahman, are indeed darkness, falsity and nothingness”, he agrees with “the Vedantists [who] affirm all that is not Brahman to be maya”. This maya, claims Upadhyay, is what St. Thomas calls “creatio passiva”, and regardless of whether its root is ma (to form, make, create,…) or man (to think), it “indicates that it meant originally precisely what the Thomists mean by creation”[31]. One could fairly be somewhat skeptical of this claim, but as Lipner says: “Once it is accepted… that it is Upadhyay’s intention to put Sanskritic Hinduism to the service of Catholic teaching rather than to reconstruct Christian insights in the indigenous fires of a Sanskritic crucible so as to re-form Christian doctrine, then one has to acknowledge how masterfully Upadhyay has achieved his purposes. This is straightforward fulfillment theology at its most brilliant”[32]. Upadhyay goes on to translate the doctrine of creation ex nihilo into this conceptual framework, explaining that by “the fecund divine power”, which is maya, “non-being (asat) is made being (sat)”.

The other of Upadhyay’s most important imports from Vedantic philosophy into Christian theology was his appropriation of the conception of Brahman as saccidānanda (being-consciousness-bliss). In the Sanskrit hymn on the Trinity which he wrote under that title, Upadhyay expresses a rich orthodoxy not merely through the use of Sanskrit language, but through authentically Indian ideas. Sat is “the supreme being whose eternal act finds, according to Catholic faith, an adequate resultant within his own Self”, who is “the Father-God (Parabrahman)”; Cit is “the Logos, the infinite Image of his being, begotten by thought and mirrored in the ocean of his substance”, who is “the Logos-God (Sabda-Brahman)”; and “His love finds the fullest satisfaction in the boundless complacency with which he reposes on his Image and breathes forth the Spirit of Ananda [bliss]”. One should also mention here Upadhyay’s hymn on The Incarnate Logos[33], where “once more one is impressed by the Christian orthodoxy of the implied theology, couched as it is largely in Hindu terminology”[34]. The article that preceded the hymn on its publication[35] is also remarkable for the manner Upadhyay tries to make the doctrine of the incarnation “explicit in a way familiar to they Hindu mind” by using the Vedantic anthropology of a human nature composed of five ‘sheaths’: but in the Nara-hari, rather than a created personality, this is presided over by the divine Person of the Logos himself. Here Upadhyay “has given a clear description of the interrelation of the divine and human Christ without using western terms, either ancient or modern”[36]. This is certainly more than ‘straightforward fulfillment theology’.

Unfortunately, within a year of publishing this hymn, Brahmobandhab Upadhyay’s radical attempts to come to terms with Hinduism as a Christian had been quashed by the authorities of his Church. L.M. Zaleski, the Papal Representative in India, “did not take kindly to the phenomenon of an Indian Roman Catholic who dressed like a Hindu monk, had a Sanskritic name, professed to be a Brahmin and rigidly defended caste”. It is this last point, which we must now dwell on, lest we take a too one-sided view of Upadhyay’s work. As a proud Brahmin, caste was an aspect of Hinduism which Brahmabandhab came to terms with all too easily. His theory that “the basis of Hinduism, in its essence, are the duties of caste and stage of life (baranasramadharma) and the one-centredness (eknisthata) directing them”[37] meant that he was able to reconcile his Christian faith and his social Hinduism. However, it also gave free warrant to his less savoury views on caste. In a series of articles in the Sophia weekly of 1900, we find him denigrating “the Semitic stock” and “Mohammedans”[38], while arguing that the Church should do nothing if “a Brahmin [who] marries a Shudra woman [is] socially excommunicated by his fellow-Brahmin converts[39]. One might also argue that in arguing for the separation of Shudra from ‘Aryan’ on the basis of Old Testament divisions between Jew and Gentile, Upadhyay has failed to understand that Christ “has made the two one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility”[40]—but Upadhyay has already written in one of his articles on caste that “we request our Protestant friends not to be over-bold in quoting Holy Writ”[41].

In conclusion, we have seen an astonishing range of theological attempts with which Upadhyay attempted to come to terms, as a Christian, with Hinduism. He repudiated that which he saw as the error of its doctrine; he accepted its social practices; he expounded the Vedic Scriptures; he reinterpreted the philosophy of the Vedanta in creative ways; he wrote hymns which succeeded in being faithfully Christian and truly Sanskritic; and in all of this his views were always developing. We shall not go any further in Upadhyay’s life, for while it seems that he retained his own personal faith in Christ until he died, one would be hard-pressed to claim that his writings following his voyage to Europe and his disillusionment with his Church could truly be described as ‘theology as a Christian’. The question remains as to whether his theological attempts to come to terms with Hinduism were successful. In at least one sense, they clearly were not: although his theology conformed remarkably to Tridentine patterns of Catholic orthodoxy, his Church was not yet ready to see a Christianity indigenized to anything like the degree which Upadhyay desired, and in that regard he died something of a tragic figure. While Tennent[42] is rather optimistic about the continued legacy of Upadhyay, claiming that “Today, Indian Christian Theologies are blossoming in no small measure due to the role of the pioneers like Upadhyay, who laboured tirelessly for an indigenized Christian theology for India”, Madhusudhan Rao says that “Upadhyay’s influence on the church in India has been minimal”[43]. Perhaps this is a false dichotomy—Upadhyay’s enduring legacy is not any particular success he had in attempting to indigenize the Christian faith in India, but the fact that he began this attempt.

Bibliography

Lipner (1999), Brahmabandhab Upadhyay. The Life and Thought of a Revolutionary, OUP.

Boyd (1975), An Introduction to Indian Christian Theology, CLS.

Lipner and Gispert-Sauch (2002), The Writings of Brahmobandhab Upadhyay, UTC.

Tennent (2000), Building Christianity on Indian Foundations, ISPCK.

Kopf (1979), The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Modern Indian Mind, Princeton.




[1] Church of Scotland missionary who worked in Bengal from 1830–’57. Kopf (p.160) describes him as “immensely successful in awakening the minds of Bengali youth, and moderately successful in his attempts to convince them of the validity of the Christian gospel.”

[2] Kopf, p.45.

[3] Which declares that: “It is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.” 1835. (http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00generallinks/macaulay/txt_minute_education_1835.html)

[4] Kopf, p.86.

[5] Lipner & Gispert-Sauch, I.xviii.

[6] Ibid.I.xxviii.

[7] Kopf. p.104. (Reading this now I am unsure as to how one can be a Hindu ‘socially’, but not in ‘social practice’. Unfortunately I have returned the book to the library and so cannot check the context.)

[8] Lipner & Gispert-Sauch, I.xxxi.

[9] Sophia (monthly and weekly), Twentieth Century, Sandhya.

[10] Lipner & Gispert-Sauch, I.24. It is interesting how much more Hindu this description is than Majumdar’s reply on behalf of the Brahmo Samaj.

[11] Ibid.I.6.

[12] Ibid.I.18.

[13] Ibid.II.176.

[14] Ibid. I.251ff.

[15] Ibid. II.220.

[16] Ibid. I.143.

[17] Ibid. I.65. As for the ‘corrobating research’, Lipner mentions in the Introduction (xx) that the “work of Indologists… harked back to an ideal, usually Vedic, past”.

[18] Ibid. II.249.

[19] Ibid. II.256.

[20] Ibid. II.255.

[21] Sophia Monthly, Nov 1896. See Lipner & Gispert-Sauch, I.275.

[22] Sophia Monthly, Feb 1898. See Lipner & Gispert-Sauch, I.287.

[23] Ibid. I.289.

[24] Ibid.I.278.

[25] Ibid.I.288.

[26] Sophia Monthly, Feb 1896. See Lipner & Gispert-Sauch, I.152.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Usually when Upadhyay uses the term Vedanta, he means the Advaitic school of Sankara. Ramanuja he calls a Vaisnavite. For simplicity’s sake we shall follow his terminology.

[29] Ibid. II. 284.

[30] Sophia Monthly Feb 1899. See Lipner & Gispert-Sauch, I.213.

[31] Ibid. Italics added.

[32] Lipner, p.201.

[33] Ibid.I.191

[34] Boyd, p.78.

[35] TC Jan 1901.

[36] Boyd, p.80.

[37] Ibid. II.117.

[38] Ibid. II.87.

[39] Ibid. II.76.

[40] Eph. 2:14.

[41] Ibid. II.102.

[42] Tennent, p.380.

[43]M. Rao, ‘Brahmobandhab Upadhyay and the Failure of Hindu Christianity’ in IJFM (http://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/18_4_PDFs/195%20200%20Rao.pdf)

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