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Brahmabandhab Upadhyay: the Life and Thought of a Revolutionary.

By JULIUS J. LIPNER. Delhi: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1999. Pp. xxiv + 409. $26.

Brahmabandhab Upadhyay (born Bhabanicaran Bandyopadhyay, 1861-1907) was a complicated, rebellious, and seemingly contradictory man in a turbulent period of colonial Bengali history. Fired from an early age with a patriotic zeal for freeing his country from the British, at age seventeen he decided not to complete his education or to marry but to devote himself to the struggle for independence as a celibate journalist. In time, as a young adult, he became increasingly attracted to the Brahmo teachings of Kesabcandra Sen. Partly through the influence of Kesab's devotional theism, he then developed a fervent love for Jesus, which eventuated in his conversion to Roman Catholicism in the mid-1890s. Taking the saffron robes of a Hindu renouncer, going barefoot and wearing a cross, he adopted the name Brahmabanbhab, a Bengali translation of Theophilus, or Friend of God, and changed his last name from Bandyopadhyay (Venerated Teacher) to the simpler Upadhyay (Teacher). After beginning his early theological life as a Christian by attacking Brahmoism, neo-Vedanta, the Arya Samaj, Theosophy, and ideas of karma, rebirth, and polytheism, after 1897 he made an abrupt change and began to use the very concepts which he had just repudiated, but in the service of Christian teaching: Advaita Vedanta became a bridge on which he hoped to help Hindus make the journey to Catholic faith. Once again, after 1905, his writing veered away in unexpected directions; increasingly critical of British attitudes and imperialism, Brahmabandhab claimed in his English writings that Vedanta was superior to neo-Thomism as a vehicle for teaching Christianity in the Indian context, and in his Bengali essays embraced the charter of the so-called Extremists, exhorting Hindus to view their country as the Motherland and to revere the example of the martial Krsna. In 1907 he underwent a prayascitta ceremony for readmittance into Hindu society, but died in 1908 with "Oh Thakur!," the Bengali Christian name for God, on his lips.

Writing a historically and theologically sensitive biography of such a complex person requires multiple skills: linguistic facility in Sanskrit, Bengali, and English; training in Catholic (and especially neo-Thomist) theology; and knowledge of Advaitic philosophy, Bengali colonial history, the development of Indian Christianity, and the modern controversies over indigenization. As this superb book amply testifies, Julius Lipner could not be more suited to the task. Brahmabandhab Upadhyay is one of the few books I know of in the study of colonial Bengal that combines historical research, minute documentation, and textual analysis with a clear interest in and sophisticated ability to convey Christian theological ideas.

One of the most refreshing aspects of the book is the way in which it skews the vision of events and personalities familiar to a student of Bengali history. For instance, Rammohan Ray, Ramakrsna, Vivekananda, Kesabcandra Sen, and Rabindranath Tagore, etc., are all brought in as foils and players in Brahmabandhab's story, not, as is usually the case, as heroes in their own rights. It is fascinating to read of Rammohan's emphasis on the Upanisads providing Brahmabandhab with a model for his eventual rehabilitation of Advaitic thought in a Christian context, of Ramakrsna failing to make much of an impression, of Brahmabandhab's perception of himself as Vivekananda's successor, and of Brahmabandhab's influence on Tagore. These human influences, as well as his increasing tendency in later life to turn to images of Kali and Krsna, prove just how Bengali Brahmabandhab really was. By introducing us to him, Lipner gives us a new perspective on the typical coordinates of Bengali cultural identity.

Even more significantly, Lipner's is a timely book. Against the backdrop of the religio-political climate in India today and Vajpayee's recent call for a "national debate on conversion," Brahmabandhab, a figure embodying the complexity of "the Indian Christian," deserves attention. Even though he has been a source of both embarrassment to and misunderstanding by Hindus and Christians alike, Lipner demonstrates forcefully that the issues with which Brahmabandhab grappled are still vitally important, and merit sustained study.

For instance, Brahmabandhab never considered his Christianity in any way as compromising his nationalism. For him, being Hindu was a matter of one's orientation in the world, and included caste, birth, and love of one's country (a prefiguring of the notion of "Hindutva" developed after the 1920s); being Christian, by contrast, was a matter of personal faith, and it strengthened his patriotic fervor. His choice of the Roman Church, with its ancient history, emphasis on liturgy, commitment to a celibate clergy, and encouragement of devotion, made perfect sense in the light of his Hindu background. It is interesting in this regard that he self-consciously rejected the idea of joining the Protestant Church, as it had little place for natural reason and hence Hindu thought as a precursor, and he shied away particularly from the Church of England, since it was the church of the colonizers. He would not have understood the accusations one hears today in Sangh Parivar circles, that Christians foment anti-nationalist feeling and undermine state unity. Even in his most anti-British period, Brahmabandhab remained privately Christian, although by the end his Vedantacizing of Christian theology had alienated him from most European Christians and many Hindu compatriots. If his early religious experiences had merely masked political expediency, he would certainly have dropped them in the end. But Lipner argues persuasively that Brahmabandhab's Christian beliefs were neither instrumental nor superficial, but deeply genuine--and inseparable from his patriotic ideals.

Brahmabandhab was an experimenter. Though brash, impetuous, and sometimes abrasive, he made lasting contributions, Lipner feels, in the ways he attempted to indigenize Christianity in an Indian context. Aside from eschewing behavioral models prevalent among white Christians (he refused to eat meat, drink alcohol, partake in a sensual life, or worship in European churches, preferring instead to create Indian rituals), he also tried to express Catholic ideas in an indigenous medium. Such endeavors ranged from his Sanskrit "Hail Mary" to the forging of theological one-to-one correspondences between Hindu and Christian ideas. In particular, he interpreted the Vedantic concept of the Absolute Saccidananda (being, knowledge, bliss) as a prefiguring of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and understood he Hindu teaching about the illusory nature of the world (maya) to be fulfilled in the Roman Catholic doctrine concerning human nothingness and the grace which saves from it. These attempts at creating a "crypto neo-Thomism" (p. 189), states Lipner, were "highly significant," for "never before had there been so sustained and salient an endeavor to indigenize Christian belief and practice" (p. 280). I find it helpful to interpret Lipner's description of Brahmabandhab's theological trajectory in light of the models developed by Asim Roy and Richard Eaton, (1) who describe the route taken by most converts when introduced to a new religious tradition: first they hold the old and new worlds separate but together in themselves, then they attempt to make links and correspondences between them, and finally they end up choosing the new and pushing out the old. In Brahmabandhab's case, however, he started with a near-repudiation of his Hindu conceptual world, then built impressive and creative bridges between his Christian and Hindu heritages, before finally separating them completely in his public and private lives. That he was forced to the latter move, late in life, was not simply the result of changing theological opinions. It was also a tragic outcome of personal and political frustrations, as well as a growing nationalist resentment against imperialist arrogance. In any case, the lasting heritage of Brahmabandhab's ideas in the field of indigenous Christianizing movements are Christian monastic institutions such as Shantivanam, established in 1950 by Swami Abhishiktananda and his associates, in order to make Christianity truly Indian (p. 205). It is ironic, given their origins in Brahmabandhab's own monastic experimentation, that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad roundly condemns such Christian ashramas as being anti-national covers for missionary activity.

While it is clear that Lipner has warmed to his task in writing this biography--through his writing one gets a real feel for Brahmabandhab's impetuousness, impatience, charisma, and strength of character, nicely symbolized by Lipner's sustained metaphor throughout the chapter headings of the flame, rising to a blaze and then quickly being snuffed out--one of the things I most appreciate about this book is the author's refusal to eulogize or deify. Brahmabandhab's theological experiments are ground-breaking and laudable, yes. But, Lipner asks, what is lost by this straightforward brand of fulfillment theory (Hinduism leading to its true calling in Catholicism)? Cannot Christians also be reformed in the encounter? And what is the cost of Brahmabandhab's recourse to a Sanskrit-based philosophical brand of Hindu thought? What of Hindus for whom Sanskrit is not a background tradition, or, worse, for whom it has been a tyranny? Lipner's critiques of his subject are harshest when it comes to the subject of caste, varnasramadharma, and social purity, which Brahmabandhab defended with pride, believing that they were part of the divine gift of natural reason and should be maintained in an indigenous Christianity. Lipner notes with some distaste that Brahmabandhab's ashrama would have been neither very Christian, because of the caste separations, nor very Hindu, since renouncers are supposed to give up their social personalities. And what of Brahmabandhab's disparaging remarks about Muslims and Buddhists? In this, the present-day proponents of Hindutva would find common cause.

In the end, Lipner leaves us with four large questions which are pertinent not only in India today but also in all contexts of inter-religious dialogue and inculturation. Can we speak of "natural" and "supernatural" truths in cultural-neutral terms? How narrow should our labels of religious identity be? Is there a shared bridgehead on which religio-cultural discussions can stand? And is it possible to be a patriotic Indian Christian? Except for wishing that answers to these questions were easy, and that he had given them to us definitively, I can think of no criticism of Lipner's outstanding work. In presenting Brahmabandhab Upadhyay to us in such a straightforward yet compelling form, he has demonstrated just how complex the issue of Christian indigenization was and still remains for Indians committed to their country.

(1.) Asim Roy, The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition of Bengal (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1983), and Richard M. Eaton, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1993).


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Author:McDermott, Rachel Fell
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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