|Krishna Mohan Bannerjee (1813-1885)|
Christians Who Changed their World
Christianity in India
One of the most important figures in the development of Western education in Bengal was David Hare (1775-1842). Hare was a watchmaker from Scotland who moved to India. He does not seem to have had any particular faith commitments, but he was very concerned about social welfare in Bengal, and began several very important schools in the area featuring English education.
Bannerjee excelled in his studies and earned a scholarship to the newly founded Hindu College (now Presidency University) in Kolkata. This school had been established by a number of prominent English and Indian leaders, including Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Roy has been called the “Father of the Bengal Renaissance,” as well as the “Maker of Modern India” and the “Father of Modern India.” Among other things, Roy founded Brahmo Samaj, a monotheistic reform movement in Hinduism that worked to eliminate idolatry, sati and polygamy and to bring in ethical ideas drawn from the Judeo-Christian tradition and from Islam.
The headmaster of Hindu College was Henry Louis Vivian Derozio. Although of mixed Portuguese descent, Derozio considered himself a Bengali. He was something of a radical, and was one of the first people to spread Western learning and science among the young men of Bengal. He advocated free discussion and debate on any and every issue. His students took to calling themselves “Derozians,” though they were known more generally as the Young Bengals.
Bannerjee thrived at Hindu College and was profoundly influenced by Derozio. He stayed at his grandfather’s house in Kolkata, which also became a meeting place for the Young Bengals.
Perhaps under the influence of the freethinking Derozio, or perhaps in the kind of prank college students today might do, one day Bannerjee and other Young Bengals ate bread and meat prepared by a Muslim, which was taboo to upper-caste Hindus. They followed up by throwing the bones into a neighbor’s yard while chanting, “Cow meat! Cow meat!” This caused a near riot, and his grandfather had to throw him out of the house.
Bannerjee moved in with friends and continued his studies. When his father died of cholera in 1828, he had to support himself with manual labor, but he still excelled in his examinations at the school. When he graduated from the Hindu College in 1829, he got a job teaching at David Hare’s Pataldanga school.
Bannerjee began attending Duff’s lectures and even visiting his house for serious discussions about religion and philosophy. In 1832, Bannerjee converted to Christianity, probably as a result of his relationship with Duff. The conversion cost Bannerjee: Hare fired him from the school, and his wife was forced to return to her father’s home. (She would return to him later.)There was also a firestorm in the local press about the Hindu College, ironically with the atheist Derozio being blamed for Bannerjee’s conversion. The popular headmaster was thus forced out.
Even prior to his conversion, Bannerjee had become increasingly critical of some aspects of Hinduism. He wrote a play in 1831 entitled The Persecuted: or, Dramatic Scenes Illustrative of the Present State of Hindoo Society in Calcutta that was focused on exposing social injustices in Indian society. He also began a journal called The Inquirer that same year.
His education made Bannerjee the foremost Indian apologist of his day. Prior to 1865, he followed the lead of Duff and other missionaries in seeing Hinduism as nothing but superstition and idolatry that needed to be destroyed. Accordingly, he worked to demonstrate the errors and weaknesses of Hindu philosophy, to disprove the divine origin of the Vedas, and to identify Hinduism with Buddhism and therefore with atheism.
After 1865, however, he changed his entire approach to apologetics. He began to argue that Christianity was actually the fulfillment of Hinduism. He noted that sacrifice was the most important ritual in the earliest forms of Hinduism. Further, he showed from the Vedas, the Upanishads, and other Hindu writings that Prajapati, the Lord and Supporter of Creation, sacrificed himself to save humanity, and to do so, took on a mortal body. He was thus, in the words of Bannerjee, “half human and half divine.” All of this, Bannerjee argued, prefigured Jesus’ incarnation and sacrifice on the cross.
Bannerjee’s efforts to find a doorway from Hinduism to Christianity grew out of his love of his country and his culture. For all of his interest in Western learning, he was very proud of India and of Bengal. He wanted to reconcile Christianity and modern education with Indian culture. In keeping with this goal, he became heavily involved in a wide range of organizations in Bengal. These included:
He was also involved in social reform. He opposed the caste system, polygamy, idolatry, the sale of girls into marriage, and sati; he also supported the education of women and believed that it was the yardstick that measured the social progress of a country.
He believed that his countrymen should be educated in English, Sanskrit, and Bengali. In particular, at a time when the vernacular was held in very low regard, he advocated for Bengali and wrote a number of works on a variety of subjects in the language. Ultimately, his work in literature and higher education was rewarded with an honorary Doctor of Law degree from Calcutta University in 1876. In 1885, the British government awarded him the rank of Companion of the Indian Empire.