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Krishna Mohan Bannerjee (1813-1885)


Sati_Hand_prints_Burned_widowsChristians Who Changed their World

Christianity in India
India in the nineteenth century was coming to grips with the modern world thanks to its exposure to England through the British East India Company and the work of missionaries such as William Carey. Some of the most creative interaction with Western culture occurred in Bengal, due in part to Carey’s work in creating a unified Bengal language and in opposing practices such as sati (burning widows on their husband’s funeral pyre).

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.

Early years
Krishna Mohan Bannerjee was born in Bengal in 1813 as Bengali and English culture were beginning to interact more actively. He attended the School Society Institution started by David Hare in Kalitala in 1819. Hare quickly recognized the boy’s talent, and took him to his school in Pataldanga later known as Hare School.

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.

Conversion
The following year, Scottish missionary Dr. Alexander Duff arrived in Calcutta. Noticing that Christian missions in India had only reached the lower castes, Duff proposed a new missions strategy: he offered education in English in the sciences and in Biblical studies, with the goal of helping upper-caste Hindu students to see the contradictions in their beliefs and to move them toward Christianity. Like many others, Duff connected Western learning and success with Christianity, and he believed that making Western learning and the Bible available would inevitably lead to conversions.

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.

Ministry
After his conversion, Bannerjee became the headmaster of the Church Missionary Society School. He also studied theology at Bishop’s College, and when he graduated in 1839 he became the first Indian to be ordained a priest in the Anglican Church in Bengal.

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:

  • The Society for the Acquisition of General Knowledge
  • The Bethune Society (Senior Vice-President)
  • The Calcutta Text Book Society
  • The Bengal Social Science Association
  • The Family Literary Club
  • The Asiatic Society of Bengal
  • Index Association
  • The Bible Society
  • Calcutta University
  • The British India Association
  • The India League (President)
  • The Indian Association (President)

 

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.

Legacy
Bannerjee’s work led many to Christ. Among others, he is responsible for converting Lal Behari Dey, a journalist and writer who became a minister of the Gospel, professor of English and philosophy, and social reformer concerned about the plight of the poor. Another of his converts was Gnanendra Mohan Tagore, the first Asian called to the bar in England. He also influenced the conversion of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, one of the foremost Bengali poets and the creator of the Bengali sonnet.

Beyond his work as an evangelist and apologist, Bannerjee was also a critically important figure in the Bengal Renaissance, in bringing modern ideas of scholarship and social justice to India, and in developing an approach to Christianity which honored Indian culture but which was firmly anchored in the British evangelical tradition. He was a remarkable example of contextualizing the Gospel to India while applying the biblical worldview to all areas of life.

Next Steps


Bannerjee sought to influence people for Christ and His Kingdom, beginning where they were in their worldview and seeking to build bridges to faith in Christ. Can you see how this principle applies to your own calling as an ambassador of Christ? Discuss this question with some Christian friends.

HeHasRisen
Our Easter study series, “He Has Risen,” is now available. This series is suitable for personal or group use and includes five brief videos by John Stonestreet and supplemental study materials by T. M. Moore. Order your copy today from our online store.

 
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