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Christianity


Christianity It is the Portuguese who first introduced Christianity in' Bengal in the 16th century AD. For about two centuries missionary work was carried on mainly by two Roman Catholic orders: the Jesuits and the Augustinians. In 1598-9 the Jesuits established a school and hospital at Hughli, where the Portuguese had obtained permission from the Emperor akbar to settle. The Jesuits remained in Bengal until the late 18th century. But it was the Augustinians who were responsible for the propagation of' Christian activity. They established a monastery at Hughli in 1599, from where they spread out to other centres including dhaka. By about 1630 there were 7000 Christians at Hughli, consisting of Portuguese, their Eurasian descendants, and converts, including slaves. The monastery was destroyed when shahjahan attacked Hughli in 1632, but the Augustinians were subsequently allowed to resettle at Bandel, where they built a church which still survives.

The Portuguese had been able to settle at chittagong in the 16th century under the auspices of the King of Arakan. The Augustinians established themselves there in 1621 and baptised thousands of the natives who had been captured in the piratical raids in the ganges delta area. Later in the 17th century Nagari became an important centre, following the conversion of about 20,000 mainly low-caste Hindus by Antonio de Rozario, son of the raja of Bhushna (Jessore), who had himself converted to Christianity. By the 1690s there were 13 Augustinian churches in Bengal, but the majority of Christians received only rudimentary instruction and tended to migrate to new centres as they rose in importance-including the English settlement at Kolkata from 1690, where the Augustinians built a chapel. In 1696 the French appointed a Jesuit to serve the Christians at Chandannagar. The Armenians built a church at Chinsura in 1695 and subsequently others at Kolkata and Dhaka.

The British east india company appointed chaplains to minister to its agents, and the Anglican bishopric of Kolkata was established in 1813-4. But prior to 1813 the Company banned missionary work for fear of antagonising the people; subsequently it was allowed within an official policy of religious neutrality. Nevertheless, Protestant activity can be dated from 1793, when william carey of the Baptist Missionary Society arrived. In 1800 Carey settled in the Danish enclave of serampore together with Joshua Marshman and William Ward.

This 'Xerampore Trio' embarked upon a remarkable range of activities. They established elementary schools, whose curriculum included an introduction to modern science, geography and history. They prepared textbooks in Bangla for these schools, printed at the press which they had set up. In 1817 they joined with others to found the calcutta school-book society, which soon published thousands of copies for use in elementary schools. In 1818 they established serampore college, to provide higher education in arts, science and theology for Christian and non-Christian students; King Frederik VI of Denmark granted it a charter in 1827. It proved over-ambitious for the resources available and underwent a period of decline in the later 19th century, but was revived by Herbert Howells in 1910 to become the centre for theological education in India.

Apart from textbooks, the Serampore Baptists made other contributions to the development of the Bangla Language. These included a dictionary and grammar; a translation of the bible, subsequently improved upon by others; and the periodicals Digdarshan and Sumachar Durpun, which represent the beginnings of the Bangla press. They also founded The Friend of India, ancestor of The Statesman. Another area in which Carey made a lasting contribution was botany and agriculture. He created a botanical garden at Serampore, obtained seeds from abroad and acclimatised new plants. He also took a leading part in the establishment (1820) of what became the Agri-Horticultural Society of India. The Serampore Baptists also sought to influence public opinion and government against the cruel practices which existed in contemporary hinduism, such as infanticide at Sagar Island and sati, on which they undertook a survey which indicated its frequency.

Other Protestant missionary societies followed the Baptist Missionary Society to Bengal after 1813, notably the London Missionary Society, the Church Missionary Society, and the Church of Scotland. The Church Missionary Society, an Anglican society, provided the initial support, from 1821, for Mary Ann Cooke, a pioneer in the establishment of girls' schools. Then in 1830 the Church of Scotland missionary alexander duff arrived in Kolkata and proceeded to set a new standard for Christian education. He founded a school which achieved a rapid and lasting success, developing eventually into Scottish Church College. Duff condemned rote-learning and stressed the vital role of the teacher in evoking the interest and understanding of the pupil. He also believed in developing the whole person and made provisions for exercises and games. His insistence on English as the medium of instruction left a more debatable legacy. It was imitated by other missionaries, and his example was one factor in causing the government in 1835 to decide to devote its funds to western education through the medium of English.

The missionaries linguistic and educational work represents their main contribution to the development of modern Bengal. But they saw their prime purpose as evangelistic: trying to convince people that their salvation lay in Christ alone. In this they achieved little: the Baptists had converted not more than 3000 by 1838, including some from other Christian churches, despite having established missions across Bengal, including in Dhaka and Chittagong. Conversions were inhibited by family and social ostracism, and in the rural areas by opposition from zamindars. Duff concentrated on the Bengali Hindu intelligentsia, already influenced by Western secular ideas: a few individuals converted, some of whom-notably krishna mohan banerji-went on to distinguished careers. Mass conversions were unusual: one such movement occurred in the Krishnanagar area in the late 1830s, particularly among the kartabhajas. Many of the ideas of this sect were already in line with Christian ones. Moreover, the kartabhajas were afflicted by economic and environmental problems and so they were ready to response to the preaching of Christian missionaries. The Baptists achieved some success around barisal, where their Christian community, mainly of Namasudra origin, numbered 4278 by 1877. But such communities were poor and therefore long dependent on missionary society support, which reinforced the tendency for missionary paternalism.

The missionaries attitude to Hinduism and islam tended to be highly critical and confrontational for most of the 19th century. This naturally provoked considerable Bengali resentment, and by the mid-1840s effective counter-arguments were forthcoming from the Kolkata intelligentsia. But the missionary challenge also stimulated reform movements in Hinduism, such as the brahma samaj and the Tattvabodhini Sabha. With the Muslims, they found more religious common ground but an even greater reluctance to convert. The missionaries, however, had a real concern for the plight of the rural poor. For example, in 1861, james long, of the Church Missionary Society, arranged for the translation of the play Nildurpun which depicted the damaging effects of the system of indigo cultivation, for which he was sued by the planters.

In his respect for Indian culture, Long was exceptional among the British in mid-19th century India, but by the end of the century missionaries were beginning to show a deeper and more sympathetic understanding of Hinduism and Islam. This was exemplified by JN Farquhar, who became secretary of the Calcutta ymca in 1902. Farquhar's scholarly interest in Hinduism found its counterpart in that of the Baptist Bevan Jones for Islam-he worked in Dhaka between 1909 and 1930.

The Roman Catholic Church was re-established on a stronger footing in 1834, when a Vicar Apostolic was appointed by the Papacy, independent of Portuguese jurisdiction. Belgian Jesuits assumed responsibility in 1859, and re-founded St Xavier's College, Kolkata, which rapidly became a prestigious centre of secondary and higher learning. An archdiocese of Kolkata was created in 1886 and new orders entered, including the Holy Cross Fathers in East Bengal.

The missionaries continued to invest substantially in education, with elementary and secondary schools, university colleges, and student hostels. The Oxford Mission to Bengal, an Anglican brotherhood, also developed an industrial school at Behala, south of Kolkata, in 1909. Some medical work was undertaken, including a Baptist Missionary Society hospital at Chandraghona from 1908 and subsequently also a leprosy centre, and a Church Missionary Society hospital eventually located at Baollobhpur.

Carey, Marshman, and Ward had realised that Christianity would most effectively be spread in India by Indians, but in practice the foreign missionaries had remained predominant. So a century later Christianity was widely seen as a foreign importation and partly now in response to the national movement, there was a serious move towards Indianisation. Thus more Indian clergy were trained and ordained; the first Indian principal for Serampore College was appointed in 1949. In 1930 the Anglican Church in India became independent of the Church of England, and in 1950 the first Indian bishop of Calcutta, AN Mukherjee, was consecrated. In 1935 Baptist work in Bengal, including that of the bms missionaries, became the responsibility of the local church: the Bengal Baptist Union.

After independence and Partition, Dhaka became the seat of a Roman Catholic archbishop and an Anglican bishop. North India (including west bengal) and pakistan saw a historic movement towards union between the Anglican and several other Protestant denominations, which was achieved for both countries in November 1970. Thus when Bangladesh became independent in 1971 there was a Church of Bangladesh, formed from the union of the Anglican and Presbyterian communities. The Baptists, includes the congregation founded by the Baptist Missionary Society, now the Bangladesh Baptist Sangha with 15,000 members. Presently, a largest denomination is the Roman Catholic Church has six dioceses- Dhaka, Chittagong, Dinajpur, Khulna, Mymensingh, and Rajshahi-with Catholic population of about 221,000, out of a total estimated Christian population of half a million, more than 70 parish churches, 200 priests, 50 brothers, 700 nuns, 1,000 catechists, and many educational, healthcare, and welfare institutions and organisations. [Michael A Laird]

Bibliography MM Ali, The Bengali Reaction to Christian Missionary Activities 1833-1857, Chittagong, 1965; MA Laird, Missionaries and Education in Bengal 1793-1837, Oxford, 1972; J Thekkedath, History of Christianity in India: Vol.II - from the middle of the 16th century to the end of the 17th century (1542-1700), Bangalore, 1982; B Stanley, The History of the Baptist Missionary Society 1792-1992, Edinburgh, 1992.