Brahmabandhab Upadhyay

29 04 2011

Brahmabandhab Upadhyay (1861-1907) is one of the most fascinating figures of Indian church history. The relevance of his life and thought for the present time is obvious from the fact that major studies of this remarkable man have appeared from both a Roman Catholic and an Evangelical scholar during the past three years. Julius Lipner’s brilliant biography of Upadhyay Brahmabandhab Upadhyay: The Life and Thought of a Revolutionary appeared in 1999, and Timothy Tennent’s analysis of Upadhyay’s theology Building Christianity on Indian Foundations: The Legacy of Brahmabandhab Upadhyay appeared in 2000.

This article is written to introduce Upadhyay and his significance to thoughtful Christians who may never read either of those books, although it is hoped that some will proceed to such reading after this introduction to Brahmabandhab (hereafter referred to by his initials, BU). The interpretations of these scholars will also be critiqued at points, and an alternate analysis of BU’s life and significance will be offered.

Lipner divides BU’s life into four stages and, especially since Tennent generally agrees, that outline will be followed here as well.

The path to manhood: 1861-1881/82

BU was born as Bhabanicaran Bandyopadhyay on February 11, 1861 in the village of Khannyan in the Hooghly district in Bengal (modern West Bengal). He was a Kulin Brahmin, Kulin being the ritually purest and socially most elevated stratum of the caste. His father was a police inspector in the British government. His uncle, Kalicharan Banerjea, was a convert to Christianity under the influence of the Scottish missionary Alexander Duff, and this no doubt accounts for BU’s first exposure to Christianity. Kalicharan Banerjea is known as an early advocate of what is now referred to as a contextual expression of faith, and he did not renounce the cultural and social practices of his caste even while actively involved in Christian leadership.

BU lost his mother early in life, and it was his paternal grandmother who infused in him a deep knowledge of Bengali traditions. By age 13 he had read the Bengali versions of Ramayana and Mahabharata 13 and 7 times respectively. BU was educated in Christian schools but also went for Sanskrit education on the side. During his college days he resolved not to marry and not touch wine and meat. He later left college in a failed venture to join an uprising against the British rule over India.

The Brahmo Years: 1882-1891

Around 1880 BU befriended Narendranath Dutta. They were both impressed with two leading Bengali religious figures of the time, Keshub Chunder Sen and Ramakrishna Paramahansa. BU finally followed Keshub and joined the Brahmo Samaj, while Dutta followed Ramakrishna and went on to worldwide fame with his new name of Swami Vivekananda. Keshub exercised a deep influence over the young BU. His open devotion to Christ, puritan ethic and attempts to rehabilitate Hindu modes of thought and practice, and his vibrant personality (Lipner, p. 65) drew BU into his movement.

After Keshub’s 1884 death, BU was active in a Bible study class and learned some New Testament Greek. At age 26 in 1887 he was formally initiated into the Church of the New Dispensation, the Keshub faction of the Brahmo Samaj. In 1888 BU left Bengal to serve as a Brahmo missionary at a school for boys at Hyderabad in Sind (now in Pakistan). BU taught Sanskrit, wore simple indigenous dress and became guru to some of his fellow teachers and locals. He began his pilgrimage in Christianity through a book by a Roman Catholic that he found by his father’s deathbed and proceeded to study diligently.

On February 25 or 26, 1891, BU was baptized a Christian by the Rev. Heaton, a local Anglican clergyman. He did not become an Anglican and was unconvinced on which to church to follow or whether to join any denomination at all. Already in 1890 he started a monthly journal, The Harmony, with aims that ranged from harmonizing and reconciling pure Hinduism and pure Christianity to preaching Christ as the eternal Son of God to proclaiming Guru Nanak (founder of the Sikh religion) as a great teacher of bhakti (devotion). Some months after his baptism BU joined the Roman Catholic Church.

The Hindu-Catholic Comes of Age: 1891-1903

There are two phases of BU’s life as a Roman Catholic and two phases of his theological outlook. In the first phase he was not greatly different from a traditional convert; he grew from strength to strength and drew admiration from the church establishment through his apologetic writings and debates and speeches in several parts of the country. BU embraced traditional Thomist Roman Catholic thought and there is no evidence of his ever departing from this intellectual tradition even in the later radical phases of his life.

Especially the natural theology of Thomas Aquinas appealed to his sense of the goodness and value of Indian culture and thought, and became the foundation for all his later adaptations to deeply Indian ways. It is generally considered that his conversion to Catholicism was due to this theological position and the comparatively more hostile Protestant perspective on Indian life and thought.

In the December of 1894 BU declared that henceforth he should be known as Brahmabandhab Upadhyay; Brahmabandhab is the Sanskrit rendering of his baptismal name Theophilus and Upadhyay stands for teacher. He switched to saffron clothes, walked barefooted, wore an ebony cross around his neck and called himself aHindu-Catholic.

In this first stage of his Christian life BU sought to draw intellectual Hindus to the Catholic faith by positing rational arguments for what he called rationalist theism, superimposing revelatory truths of Scripture onto this natural theology. These and other concerns led him to start a monthly journal, Sophia, in 1894. That this journal had official sanction from the church speaks clearly of the esteem in which he was held.

Working within a Thomistic framework BU argued that truths found in Hindu scriptures were developed through the use of reason, have divine origin and serve as preparatio evangelica. He held that on this natural soil the supernatural truths of scripture, which cannot be apprehended through reason but received as revelation from God, should be grown. This line of thinking is brought out clearly in an article in Sophia entitled Our Attitude Towards Hinduism in 1895. He writes that Christian faith must fulfill and not destroy what is true and good in Hinduism, and that with the exception of ancient Greece it is in Hindu thought that human philosophy or insight into the invisible things of God reached its zenith. Some natural Hindu truths according to him are the uniqueness, spiritual, all-pervasive, omniscient, omnipotent, imperishable nature of Supreme Being. The doctrines of Christ, the Trinity, the atonement and the resurrection were classified as supernatural truths beyond the domain of reason.

In these early years BU followed the traditional Christian path of vehemently refuting Hindu philosophy. He repudiated the advaitic (non-dualist) philosophy of Sankara, decried the concepts of maya, rebirth and karma and attacked polytheism. On advaita he declared in Sophia in January 1895 that our one great object in life is to banish Advaitavad from India.

But gradually BU’s perception of many of these points changed. In contrast to the denunciations of advaita Vedanta, which characterize his early phase, he began to affirm advaitic philosophy and rehabilitated the concept of maya. It is important to note as Lipner points out, that this rehabilitation of Hindu philosophical concepts took place within a Thomistic framework. BU now attempted to embellish Catholic doctrines in Hindu philosophical distinctives in the manner Aquinas operated on Greek philosophical distinctives. He claimed that the Vedantic philosophical system should be won over in the service of Christianity as Greek philosophy was won over in the middle ages.

Lipner outlines BU’s creative theological endeavours at great length and Tennent’s book is primarily to outline his theological thought. Tennent’s outline brings three areas into focus, the first being BU’s understanding of natural theology already noted above. The second broad area is BU’s effort to build from the advaita philosophy of Sankara a truly Indian theology. Issues of religion and culture form the third area Tennent develops in detail for a proper understanding of the theology of BU.

BU’s relationship with the establishment of the Catholic Church did not continue as positively as it had begun. From suspicion over his moves toward more Hindu expressions of life and philosophy a clearly confrontational course developed when BU wrote up and set out to develop what he called a kasthalika matha (Catholic monastery) in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh. In an article Are we Hindus? in 1898 he wrote by birth we are Hindu and shall remain Hindu till death (Lipner, p. 209). We are Hindus so far as our physical and mental constitution is concerned, but in regard to our immortal souls we are Catholic. We are Hindu Catholic (ibid.). These opinions might have been tolerated by the church, but his practical plan of action involving the development of a training center for Indian evangelists was not. He wrote that

The proposed institution should be conducted on strictly Hindu lines. There should not be the least trace of Europeanism in the mode of life and living of the Hindu Catholic monks. The parivrajakas (itinerants) should be well versed in the Vedanta philosophy as well as in the philosophy of St. Thomas. (Lipner, p. 210)

This project was strongly opposed and permission for it denied by the Apostolic Delegate to India, Micheal Zaleski. Unfazed, BU tried valiantly to get the project moving and gathered a few companions in Jabalpur and lived under trying conditions. They begged for food, each one cooking his own food in accordance with caste custom, and rejected food given by foreigners as it was tainted. With the withdrawal of the little support that he could muster for his project BU abandoned it. He has continued to be criticized in relation to this project, although clearly far more criticism should be pointed at the Church. Even Lipner, in his otherwise brilliant work, fails to present a balanced view at this point.

Lipner’s critique of the proposed training center is insightful indeed, especially in his questioning of the indigenousness of the institution. It was to be thoroughly Thomistic in thought and highly structured and centralized in accord with European monasteries. But Lipner also comments that had this project been supported the course of the history of Catholic witness in India might have been very different (p. 223).

One should go further than this and note that with all its limitations the ashram or matha had greater potential to be a witness than the intellectualist enterprise articulated in heavily Thomistic ideology in the pages of Sophia. The high brow intellectual material that poured from the pen of BU is incomprehensible even to the most learned of Indians. This criticism must be applied to Tennent’s study of BU as well. Surely the failure of BU and his academic theology are the main lessons to learn from this history? An outline of his theology as a pointer to truly Indian theology seems based on a misguided intellectualism. Instead of being critical of BU’s intellectualism the Church slaughtered his training center project that had true potential for great good. Lipner’s skepticism and valid objections to the project must be weighed against the fact that BU altered his strategies and methodologies swiftly in the light of experience, and may well have done that with this project so that it could have turned out to be successful.

Lipner rightly points out that the Jabalpur venture was a watershed in Upadhyay’s life (p. 222). Indeed it was. The Sophia monthly was shut down in 1899 and the reasons, according to Lipner, are that he was sick at heart, disillusioned with his Church, apprehensive of implacable opposition from the highest Catholic ecclesiastic in the land (p. 224). Regarding BU’s next move he adds, Upadhyay now became minded to add overt politicization to his patriotic campaign to evangelize India. In other words, evangelization for Upadhyay would now need to be expressed more explicitly through the political liberation of his compatriots (ibid.). BU chose to wage this new campaign from Calcutta, the political and cultural capital of British India.

In Calcutta in 1900 BU started a new Sophia magazine as a weekly. He wrote frequently on caste here, seeking a return to what he considered the true, original and still valid insights of the caste system. But, arguing for purity and maintenance of the social order, he deplores the low castes, sometimes using racist language. The model he envisages has no role for religious minorities like Buddhists, Muslims or even Christians, who are portrayed in a poor light. Significantly, such crass treatment shines forth more clearly in his Bengali writings. BU did not consider this model to be unchristian as he maintained that caste distinctions belong to the social realm and do not take away spiritual privileges, which are open to all.

Lipner insightfully analyzes the ramifications of this model (pp. 238-248) and concludes saying it is a case of a person

seeking to exorcise powerful tensions within himself. In the public eye, he was a Brahmin convert to the religion of an alien minority increasingly being perceived as hostile to India’s best interests as a nation, yet he burned to show that he was not a traitor but a patriot, in a sense more Hindu than conventional Hindus. People in Upadhyay’s position often err on the side of conservatism. (p. 250)

Surely this is a right assessment as there is no other way of making sense of his pronouncements. On the political front he hailed the rebellion against the British in the wars in China and South Africa. The tone of the Sophia weekly on the issue of caste and the caustic remarks against the British administration led to BU stepping down from the editorship of Sophia. He launched another journal soon after, but The Twentieth Century survived for only a year.

During his editorship of The Twentieth Century BU befriended Rabindranath Tagore and helped him establish his noted school at Shantiniketan. Already BU had established an Aryan school named Saraswati Ayatan (the abode of learning). The school comprised of Brahmin boys from whom no fees were charged. In 1902, shortly after the death of Swami Vivekananada, BU set sail to England with an official recommendation from the Archbishop of Calcutta which read, By means of this statement we declare Brahmabandhav (Theophilus) Upadhyay, a Calcutta Brahmin, to be a Catholic of sound morals, burning with zeal for the conversion of his compatriots (Lipner, p. 294). But in England BU spoke as a champion of the Hindu cause, and letters he sent for publication in Bengal were full of criticisms of the West. Lipner points out the Hindu and Christian motives underlying his visit to England, and concludes that, they [his aims] were signaled by him in an increasingly confusing way. Like St. Paul, he wanted to be all things to all, or at least, Christian to his Church and Hindu to his Hindu compatriots. He succeeded in misleading both (p. 312).

The Nationalist Phase: 1903-1907

The final phase in BU’s life would prove the most controversial. In 1904 he instructed the students of his school (Saraswati Ayetan) to celebrate the festival of Saraswati, the goddess of learning, and this created a rift between him and his long time associate Rewachand who opposed the ceremony. BU argued that as Christians they would not take part but as Hindus the students were entitled to celebrate the festival. On this issue Rewachand resigned and the school was thereafter administered by practicing Hindus until it closed down around 1906.

In July 1904 BU was chosen by a few influential Hindu Bengali intellectuals to deliver a lecture in Bengali countering the thesis of J.N. Farquhar, the noted Scottish missionary and fulfillment theologian, presented in his work Gita and Gospel. The Hindus saw Farquhar pitting Gita and Krishna against Gospels and Christ, with Christ superseding Krishna. BU was in a dilemma whether to defend Christ and incur the displeasure of Hindus, or defend Krishna and jettison his Christian commitment, yet he carefully avoided the traps set for him. He suggested that Krishna is the living root of Hinduness and is historical, and that moral objections raised against Krishna are based on unscriptural works. The Gita does not culminate in Christ, who is not an avatar (incarnation) in the way of the Gita. Krishna avatar was a real human being with a real human personality, whereas the personhood of Jesus was that of God the Son. Lipner points out that this address on Krishna further reinforced the distinction between BU’s public image as a Hindu (his message was clearly in opposition to Farquhar’s), and his private commitment as a Catholic.

In late 1904 BU assumed the editorship of a Bengali daily newspaper, Sandhya, in which he addressed nationalistic concerns and understandably set aside his theological and philosophical concerns. His political activities and vitriolic writings caught the eye of the British government, but they would not act against him until later. Here he waxed eloquent on Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, saying, Who will protect us if you do not? You are the saviour of the fallen – the strength of the weak. Man-god in the shape of holy Ramakrishna, since you have come down to us through mercy (Lipner, p. 373). This caused much confusion among his Christian friends.

Two months before his death in August of 1907 BU decided to publicly undergo the ceremony of praysacchita (expiation for sins) for social transgressions he had committed such as interdining with foreigners. The end of the ceremony was his formal readmittance into the Hindu community. It was not uncommon in those days for Hindus to undergo praysacchita for traveling abroad, interdining with and/or intermarrying with foreigners, etc. As Lipner points out, this symbolic act did not mean an abandonment of his Christian faith; he was doing the requisite penance in order to be formally readmitted to Hindu society. But Christian critics did not understand this.

The British administration finally moved in and BU was arrested and faced trial for sedition. During the trial BU switched to simple white swadeshi clothes and wore the sacred thread and stood hours on end without seeking any privileges. The trial took its toll on his health and he had to be hospitalized. He was operated on for a hernia and when tetanus set in after a few days he breathed his last on 27th October, 1907, often in those last days of extreme pain exclaiming O Thakur (O Lord). On the question whether Upadhyay died as a Christian Lipner’s assessment is worth quoting:

If to die a Christian entails personally acknowledging Christ to the end as one’s divine saviour, then he seems to have died a Christian. But if part of dying a Christian means that one must be recognized in the public forum to have lived ritually as a Christian before death, then it is doubtful if Upadhyay died as a Christian. Certainly, so far as the general public was concerned he died a Hindu. Perhaps he died as he lived: as a Hindu and a Christian according to his own distinctive lights. That by his life and death he has raised such an issue for serious debate can be one of his most rewarding legacies. How narrow must our religious labels be? How open to hyphenated religious identities should we become? What is the scope for religious dialogue in a religio-culturally divisive world? (p. 385)

On the impact of BU’s life and work Lipner remarks that

In modern times, in the context of interreligious relations, he did more by thought and deed than perhaps any other Indian Christian to raise key issues for debate. His very appearance…was a living challenge to the alienating modes of Christian behaviour, practice and teaching that had taken root in the land. (pp. 386-87)

With this assessment Tennent is in full agreement, and for this alone BU should be studied by all who are involved in the interaction between Hindu and Christian peoples.


Lipner’s study of Upadhyay hardly contains a false step. Tennent’s treatment is more open to criticism, partly due to the lack of critical analysis as he merely spells out BU’s thought. (An annoying spelling error in Tennent should be noted, the Vedantic term brahman being repeatedly spelled with the first a long instead of both as being short, including in the name Brahmo as in Brahmo Samaj. Also annoyingly, a book of this nature should certainly contain an index.) Both are perhaps too optimistic about BU’s influence, and Tennent’s concluding lines must be pronounced as simply false:

Largely due to his influence, no longer can the Indian Church be characterized today as Upadhyay did in his day as standing in the corner, like an exotic stunted plant with poor foliage, showing little or no promise of blossom. Today, Indian Christian theologies are blossoming in no small measure due to the role of the pioneers, like Upadhyay, who labored tirelessly for an indigenized Christian theology for India. (Tennent, pp. 380-381)

But Upadhyay’s influence on the church in India has been minimal, and the church continues to appear exotic and isolated from the mainstreams of Indian life in the perception of most Hindus. Academic discussions of Indian theology and learned dissertations on BU and other pioneers do not impact either the church or wider society.

Perhaps western Christian friends of India hesitate to criticize a giant figure like BU. As one who identifies deeply with BU and his struggle, and as one who shares a common culture as well as a common faith with him, I feel it an injustice not to point out his failings and weaknesses and especially the fact of the overall failure of his life and work. This to the constructive end that we learn and improve and truly esteem BU as one of our master teachers.

The fundamental fact of BU’s life seems to be his reactionary extremism. From violent opposition to advaita he switched to centering his faith expression on it. He is not a reliable theological guide despite Tennent’s defenses and Lipner’s soft-peddling of his errors. There really is not much point in studying his theology, which is far too high brow; who ever read him during his lifetime? Moreover the Thomistic bent to all his efforts is highly disconcerting.

BU was extreme in his embracing and advocacy of Roman (particularly Thomistic) Catholicism. He was certainly extreme in his advocacy of caste, as he clearly upheld the superiority of the Brahmin. But it is necessary to trace out some of the roots of this extremism, and in doing so one finds that BU’s deepest error lies in an area where he is often celebrated as a success. That is, BU (contra many others) is not a model of Hindu Christianity, but rather is a model case demonstrating the impossibility of Hindu Christianity. This explains at least some, surely most, and maybe all of his extremism.

The Hindu-Catholic idea that BU published and sought to live out was full of promise, but the lesson of history (not just BU’s history) is that you cannot ride these two horses simultaneously. One cannot be Hindu-Catholic, or Hindu-Protestant, or Hindu-Christian. BU should have been Hindu, no hyphen needed. The extremes of BU were reactions; he originally embraced too much of the reactionary anti-Hindu Christianity that is still so present in Indian churches. When he tried to leave this, the legacy of those years forced him to be overly reactionary in an anti-Christian, Hindu direction.

It was when the Hindu-Catholic experiment failed that BU went over to a private faith and drifted away into wild esteem for Ramakrishna, etc. He could not be accepted by Hindus and had to constantly prove his loyalty and his distance from his Catholic past. Had he from the first been a Hindu disciple of Jesus, such reactionary positions as his early anti-advaita and his late pro-Ramakrishna would not have been necessary. The main lesson of his life is that discipleship to Jesus must be brought entirely into the Hindu ambit, without any Christianizing. On leaving Catholicism BU could not model this way of life due to his long association with Christianity, but his failure stands as a warning to others to embrace a more integrated, more incarnational approach.

BU is certainly a reliable guide in terms of the necessity of action towards contextualization. His ashram idea should have gone ahead, and rather his Sophia should have been stopped with all its highfalutin ideas. The theology of BU offers little for us today, but we will surely sing his few Sanskrit hymns (the brilliance of which is highlighted by both Lipner and Tennent) and must follow his example of using and developing Vedantic (and other Indian) terminologies.

New BUs are certainly needed; not Hindu-Catholics, certainly not Thomists, but disciples of Jesus who remain fully Hindu and never shatter their relationships in Hindu society. Indian theology is not our great need, certainly not new intellectualist apologetics. Humble disciples of Jesus, living as Hindus among Hindus, reading the Bible holistically and sensitively instead of with an intellectualist focus on philosophical and doctrinal positions, are the great need. Brahmabandhab had so much to offer had this been the focus of his life; he stands as a striking example of a Hindu disciple of Jesus despite missing this as the one thing needful.

For today’s Hindu disciples of Jesus, there is more to learn from the errors of Brahmabandhab than from any supposed successes, but his example as a Hindu disciple of Jesus remains a great positive witness that should inspire and energize all who share his twin love for his nation and his Saviour.


accessed on 29th April 2011



2 responses

17 05 2011

Bhattachary are south Indian Brahmins?

18 05 2012
Claris Heston

Great information :)

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