We, the members of the Indian Theological Association (ITA), at its 30th Annual Meeting at Vidyadeep, CRI's Brothers Institute, Bangalore, April 21-25, 2007, reflected on the contribution that Brahmabandhab Upadhyay made to India's freedom struggle, and to understanding and practising religious faith. A hundred years after his death, we have the chance of honouring this great son of India and learn from the method that he employed to be truly Indian and no less Christian.
1. Brahmabandhab Upadhyay (Bhavani Charan Bannejee) is an Indian who has done his country and the faith that he professed, proud. During the 46 years of his life Brahmabandhab Upadhyay (1861-1907) sought the truth relentlessly, engaged in the freedom struggle against foreign domination and lived out Christian discipleship in spite of difficult odds. Equipped with a sharp and probing intellect, he followed truth on a journey that led him to be baptized a Catholic, to appreciate his Hindu upbringing that had made him proficient in Vedanta, to participate in a struggle for freedom that took him to prison and to his death and, finally, to arrive at a fulfillment that is the legacy he leaves to all of us Indians.
2. Upadhyay was a child of the Bengal-based nationalism of the 19th century and was passionately committed to ending foreign domination. In pursuit of this objective he wrote articles in Bengali in Sandhya (1904-1907) and in English in Sophia (1894-1900) against British colonialism and European cultural hegemony, and he was arrested on charges of sedition. Already in 1891 he had become a Catholic and applied himself to employing the Upanishadic Vedanta to express catholic dogma and belief in a new idiom. This effort was the fruit of an interior conversion allied to the need to offer a sound theistic worldview to all Indians. He edited Sophia (1894-1900), an English journal, and in it he wrote theological articles that broke new ground for an indigenous Christian theology. He professed himself a Hindu-Catholic and justified this appellation by explicating his Hindu identity as samaj dharma and his foundational Catholicism as sadhana dharma. He founded a Christian ashram in Jabalpur. The existing ecclesiastical authorities did not take kindly to his interpretation and forbade Catholics to read Sophia.
3. Upadhyay pioneered many movements in different fields. In religion, and after his conversion, he sought to study the Christian tradition since he believed that it alone was supernatural in its origin and offered comprehensive salvation to humankind. Yet, as a Hindu who had a phenomenal insight into the intricacies of Vedanta, he used Vedantic categories to reinterpret the dogmatic and doctrinal content of Catholicism with a creditable degree of success. While believing totally in Jesus Christ who brought all persons salvation, he was able to separate him from the vehicle that brought him to India: the Christianity that was, de facto, practised and propagated by the West. He dreamt of an India in which Indian Christians would draw from the well- springs of Vedanta and live a life of creative harmony with all others. In this he was a forerunner of the inculturation and dialogue that Vatican II affirmed in its relevant documents.
4. He was a freedom fighter. Along with like-minded individuals who were committed to the freedom struggle, he denounced the continued foreign presence in India and gave himself to the cause of freedom tirelessly. At the same time, his way of life committed him to Christian discipleship that motivated him to tend the plague-stricken in Karachi and to travel the expanses of India to proclaim his faith to Brahmins in South India. In addition, he also journeyed to England and, after interacting with Anglican divines, returned to India but kept up corresponding with Church leaders in his efforts to continue his quest for an indigenous Christianity that was orthodox and yet constituted a simple way of life.
5. One need not endorse all that Upadhyay said and did. However, he was willing to acknowledge ecclesiastical authorities in his efforts towards an indigenous Christianity. But he would not sacrifice his intellectual honesty at the altar of ecclesiastical intransigence. His new-found categories to express Christian faith may need modification and greater nuancing but the Church of his times was ill-equipped to understand his contextualized approaches to the faith. One may also find his understanding of caste quite naive and ask if Upadhyay saw the contradiction in affirming the wholesomeness of caste distinction without being appalled at its hideous discrimination. But one must desist from examining Upadhyay from standpoints of today since he was formed in and belonged to another age. Facing many odds, he showed how a loyal Indian could be an authentic follower of Jesus and committed to the cause of emancipation for all Indians; he journeyed on the path of truth even to the door of death. As a theologian, he offers a paradigm for new theological methods and he symbolizes the Christian commitment that is faithful to God while serving others in the Indian context.