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The Jesus of Nineteenth Century Indian Christian Theology

by Sathianathan Clarke

Sathianathan Clarke, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Department of Theology and Ethics, United Theological College, Bangalore, India. This article originally appeared in James P. Mackey Studies in World Christianity, Volume 5 Part I (Edinburgh University Press) 1999, pp. 32-46. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The proclivity to discover, fathom, and interpret other philosophical and theological systems was not a mark of traditional Hinduism. ‘In traditional thought and literature, there has been virtually no interest in foreign countries, societies, cultures or religions. . . India has not reached out for the west; it has not actively prepared the encounter and ‘dialogue’ with Christian-European, or any other foreign countries’ (Halbfass, 1988: 195).2 This self-contented and self-contained trend however underwent change in the early nineteenth century Three factors contributed to the new posture of ‘modern’ Hinduism. First, the calculated incursion on Hinduism by early Christian missionaries, which was fuelled by the objective to proclaim the moral superiority of the Christian faith (Shourie, 1997; Studdert-Kennedy, 1998). Second, the rise of orientalism as a mechanism of knowledge production, which constructed the eastern world as the Other in relation to the western Self. (Breckenridge & van der Veer, 1993; Loomba & Kaul, 1994). And, third, the reason-centred reflectivity of the enlightenment, which lead to the blossoming of a spirit of critical reconstruction within traditional religions.3 Hindu representatives who found themselves at the locus of these dynamics had to advocate for their traditional religion and talk-back to the western imperialists in order to undercut missionary interpretation of Hinduism, deny the silence of the eastern Other and engage in a process of re-presenting their own faith tradition in a changing world. It is in this historical context that one must situate the dialogue between Hindu-Indian and Christian-European streams of thought.

This interactive meeting of eastern and western thought in nineteenth century Bengal became the womb for the conception and growth of a cross-fertilized Jesus. Here Christianity and Hinduism coalesced productively in an unparalleled manner. Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) personifies the intermingling of the tentative self-asserting east and the strident self-expanding west. For our purposes, it suffices to stress the following: Roy initiated a dialogue between Hinduism and Christianity which continues much after his time through the Brahmo Samaj, which he established in 1828. One cannot underestimate the role of the Brahmo Samaj in the emergence of Indian Christian theology. On the one hand, the Brahmo Samaj engendered a movement which sought to formulate reasonable self-assertions of Hinduism in response to Christian-European understandings of itself and Indian religions. On the other hand, Christ-inspired Hindus used the Brahmo Samaj to work out their own convictions of the Christian faith within the reconstructive dynamic of reformed Hinduism. The impetus thus to do indigenous theology at the meeting point of Christianity and Hinduism came from members of the Brahmo Samaj. As Kaj Baago states, ‘The first persons to attempt an indigenous interpretation of Christ in India were neither missionaries nor Indian Christians, but Brahmo Samajists . . .’ (Baago, 1969: 12).

I am quite aware that indigenous Christian theology originated in dialogue with and response to the Brahmo Samajists. The three trailblazers of this nineteenth century attempt at Indian Christian theology all appear to have been influenced by the teachings of the Brahma Samaj, even though they initiated their movements in different parts of the country:

Krishna Mohan Banerjea of Bengal (1813-1885); Parani Andi of Madras (b. 1831) and A. S. Appasamy Pillai of Tinnevelly (1848-1926). Again, Baago’s assessment is relevant. In his words, ‘Krishna Mohan Banerjea, living in Calcutta, had personal contacts with the Brahmo Samaj; Parani Andi refers to Kesavanchandra Sen in several of his reports; Appasami Pillai confirms in his autobiography that he attended the lectures of Sen in Madras and was attracted to him’ (Baago, 1969: 12).

In order to confine the scope of this paper to a manageable degree, I shall confine myself to the interpretations of Jesus among two Christian reflectors in Bengal as representative of what was going on in Indian Christian theology in the nineteenth century Thus, I will not deal with some of the renowned Hindu intellectuals who contributed much to the initial interpretation of Jesus: Ram Mohan Roy, Keshub Chandra Sen (1838-1834), P C. Moozumdar (1840-1905). Rather I will highlight interpretations of Jesus that come from Indian nationals who come from the Protestant tradition. Krishna Mohan Banerjea (1813-1885) and Bramabandhav Upadhyaya (1861-1907) can be taken to be representative of Indian Christian theology from Bengal in the nineteenth century.5

Krishna Mohan Banerjea, an orthodox Kuhn Brahmin, was baptized in 1832. In his apologetic theology Banerjea builds a Christian defense within the context of the teachings of the Brahma Samaj. There are two phases in his writing. Until 1865 Banerjea exhibited an adversarial attitude toward Hinduism; but since 1865 he developed a much more empathetic posture. Thus his overall objective in his post-1865 thought was to find common witness from the vedas and the Bible to the Divine mission of Jesus Christ. His interpretation of Jesus is self-confessedly ‘rigidly historical,’ based solely on ‘facts,’ and ‘of itself excludes theories and speculations of all kinds’ (Philip, 1982: 162). This of course is commensurate with his overall theological method: ‘True philosophy requires that facts are to be investigated irrespective of consequences. After-deductions should not on the one hand give a colouring to the facts, nor on the other hand, scare the enquirer away from the investigation of the truth’ (Ibid.). More specific to our concerns, Banerjea states that this method merely stems from Jesus himself. In Banerjea’s words, ‘The appeal to the founder of Christianity Himself like that of its early teachers was to facts’ (Ibid.).

Banerjea’s theological mission with regard to interpreting Jesus seems clear. He demonstrates that the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, is the true prajapati, ‘whose name and position correspond to that of the vedic ideal --one mortal and immortal, who sacrificed himself for mankind’ (Ibid: 195). In going about his task of explicating Jesus, Banerjea makes the following moves. First, he culls the core vedic principles of ‘primitive Hinduism.’ Through a meticulous study of the vedas, Banerjea argues that the destruction of sin and the redemption of the sinner is effected through the perfect sacrifice in the figure of Prajapati. The term Prajapati in this context ‘not only means the ‘Lord of Creatures’ but also the ‘supporter, feeder, and deliverer of his creatures" (Ibid: 194). Through the self-sacrificing of the Prajapati then deliverance is made possible. Second, Banerjea posits that ‘the meaning of Prajapati . . . coincides with the meaning of the historical reality Jesus Christ; and that no other person than Jesus of Nazareth has ever appeared in the world claiming the character and position of the self-sacrificing Prajapati, half mortal and half immortal’ (Ibid.). He thus undertakes to demonstrate that ‘the historical Jesus’ (Banerjea also uses terms like ‘the Jesus of the Gospels,’ ‘the Person of the historical Christ,’ and ‘the real personality of the true Purusha.") is none other than the Hindu vedic ideal of the Prajapati. The clue to explicating the historical Jesus is already revealed in Banerjea’s objective to prove that the ‘mortal and immortal’ One from Nazareth is the true self-sacrificing saviour. This thrusts Banerjea into a third exercise: ‘rigidly historical’ defence of the facts of Jesus. But the historical depiction of Jesus, for Banerjea, involves projecting him as One who is mortal and immortal. The following is a concise statement of Banerjea’s so-called historical Jesus: ‘It is a historical fact’ that (1) Jesus appeared in the land of Judea during the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius (2) professing to be the Saviour of the world, (3) even as His Divine mission was proved by the power of miracles and perfection of character (Ibid: 167-168). This Divine mission is of course linked with Jesus being the true self-sacrificing Prajapati: ‘It has for its cornerstone the sacrifice of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world’ (Baago: 89).

Banerjea’s historical method is naïvely generous and his historical argument appears circular. It can be caustically restated as follows: Jesus is the more-than-historical Prajapati because historical witnesses attest to the miraculous dimensions of the Divine One. In other words, Banerjea wants to attest to the Divine mission of Jesus by pointing to the miracles that ‘the unblemished character’ performed, which in turn are ‘proved facts’ because they have been ‘attested by strongest possible testimony’ by ‘witnesses whose competence has been proved by peculiar ordeal.’ Further, he bolsters this argument of eye-witness testimony of miracles by also pointing to ‘the fact of prophecy’ and the fact of ‘rapid progression of Christianity.’ While the former bespeaks of corroboratory evidence that the prophets provided to the historians of the Gospels, the latter reinforces the powerful veracity of the claims of the eye-witnesses since these were accepted by succeeding generations even through times of Christian affliction. All of this produces an anaemic historical Jesus. The life blood of Jesus is drawn out and in its place the Divine one is injected. The historical Jesus manifests the miraculously saving mission of God from the foundation of the world. This tack is well captured in Banerjea’s comment on Jesus’s death: ‘His sacrifice, though accomplished in time, was commemorated and typified from the beginning’ (Ibid: 90).

If Banerjea is taken as the most significant apologist defending Christianity in relation to the influential teachings of the Brahmo Samaj, Brahmabandhav Upadhyaya (1861-1907) can be said to be the most influential representative of its embrace of Christianity. Upadhyaya, also a Bengali Brahman, came to know Jesus Christ in and through the Brahmo Samaj. As Julius J. Lipner states, ‘It was also under Keshab [Chandra Seni] . . . that Bhabani [Upadhyaya] imbibed Brahmo doctrine and received the impetus that set him firmly on the path to whole-hearted commitment to Christ’ (Lipner & Gispert-Sauch, 1991: xix). It has been suggested by Max Muller that Upadhyaya’s overt Christian posture is merely the logical extension of the late nineteenth century Brahmo Samaj’s position, especially as advocated by Keshub Chandra Sen (1838-1884) and P. C. Mozoomdar (1840-1905) (Thomas, 1970: 100).

The interpretation of Jesus for Upadhyaya is couched within his overall Vedantic Trinitarian framework, which is clearly drawn from K. C. Sen’s articulation of ‘That Marvellous Mystery -- The Trinity’ in a lecture delivered on January 8 1882 (Scott: 219-249). The ontology of Upadhyaya’s Jesus cannot be understood without pointing to the structure of the Divine triune Reality that he inherited from Sen. The following paragraph best captures the theological framework of Sen, which becomes the basis for Upadhyaya’s interpretation of Jesus Christ (Ibid: 228):

Gentlemen, look at this clear triangular figure with the eyes of faith, and study its deep mathematics. The apex is the very God Jehovah, the Supreme Brahma of the vedas. Alone, in His own eternal glory, He dwells. From Him comes down the Son in a direct line, an emanation from Divinity. Thus God descends and touches one end of the base of humanity, then running all around the base permeates the world, and then by the power of the Holy Ghost drags up regenerated humanity to Himself. Divinity coming down to humanity is the Son; Divinity carrying up humanity to heaven is the Holy Ghost. This is the whole philosophy of salvation.

Although Upadhyaya moves away from the emanation language of Sen, his idea of the Divine Son as ‘the eternal, begotten Self of God’ (Lipner & Sauch: 194) appears to adhere to the idea that Christ ‘is, then God himself’ (Ibid: 150). Accordingly, Christ as ‘logos,’ ‘chit,’ ‘the Son of the living God,’ ‘one with the Father,’ and ‘God-man’ predominate much of Upadhayaya’s reflection of Jesus. In this context Upadhyaya’s commitment to Vedantic philosophies as that which will ‘rejuvenate Christianity’ and ‘show forth newer harmonies and co-ordinations binding its parts into one integral whole’ must be noted (Ibid: 229).6 The man of flesh and blood from Nazareth can hardly be extracted out of ‘the incarnate logos.’ One example of this interpretation of a lofty Jesus can be seen in Upadhyaya’s Hymn of the Incarnation which was published in 1901 (Boyd, 1994: 77-78).

The transcendent Image of Brahman,
Blossomed and mirrored in the full-to-overflowing
Eternal Intelligence -- Victory to the God, the God-Man.
Child of pure virgin,
Guide of the Universe, infinite in Being
Yet beauteous with relations,
Victory to God, the God-Man.

Ornament of the Assembly
Of saints and sages, Destroyer of fear, Chastiser
Of the Spirit of Evil, -- Victory to God, the God-man.

Dispeller of weakness
Of soul and body, pouring out life for others,
Whose deeds are holy,
Victory to God, the God-Man.

Priest and Offerer
Of his own soul in agony, whose life is sacrifice,
Destroyer of sin’s poison, -- Victory to God, the God-Man.

Tender, beloved,
Soother of the human heart, Ointment of the eye,
Vanquisher of fierce death, -- Victory to God, the God-Man.

Even a cursory reading of this hymn will suggest that the ‘Christ from above’ veils the ‘Christ from below’ Let me suggest that at least two deductions can be drawn about Jesus from the Upadhyaya’s Hymn. First, the ontology of Christ as one with the transcendent nature of God is firmly established. Christ, the eternal intelligence, mirrors in full the image of Brahman. The refrain after each verse highlights this equivocal connection between God and Jesus (God-Man). Thus, the process of qualifying the Divine nature in Jesus does not seem to be necessary. Second, the metaphors that are chosen to represent Jesus point predominately to his Divinity Furthermore, even those images that are rich with human qualities are discerningly qualified; so that the purity of the Divine, even if in the humanity, may not be obscured. Where then is the historical Jesus? One can surely raise the question of the advaitic bias of material reality: is Jesus the apparent image of the Real God-man?

Another important tract written in 1901 also confirms this seemingly more-than-historical interpretation of Jesus. In his article entitled ‘Christ’s Claims to Attention’ Upadhyaya makes three claims for Christ. First, Christ claims a ‘position as the Teacher Universal’ (Lipner & Gispert-Sauch: 192). Just in case his readers construe this as being a human function, Upadhyaya qualifies the extra-mundane character of this teaching: ‘Jesus Christ claims to have given to mankind the completest possible revelation of the nature and character of God, of the most comprehensive ideal of humanity, of the infinite malice of sin, and of the only universal way to release from the bondage of evil’ (Ibid.) Second, Christ claims to ‘unfold the mystery of God’s inner life’ (Ibid: 193).8 And third, according to Upadhyaya, ‘The last and foremost claim of Jesus Christ is his divinity’ (Ibid: 194. Emphasis mine) . All of these claims concur with and, thus, confirm the above mentioned inferences that we made of Upadhyaya’s Jesus through an analysis of the Hymn of Incarnation, i.e. (1) that the ontology of Christ as one with the transcendent nature of God is firmly established and (2) that the representation of Jesus points predominately to his Divinity. Let me end this discussion of Upadhyaya by quoting a final sentence which assuredly confirms this usurpation of Jesus’s humanity by his divinity:

‘He is the eternal, begotten Self of God. He created a human nature and super-added it to his divine nature’ (Ibid. Emphasis mine).

At this juncture it may be relevant to make a few comments on the Jesus that emerges in nineteenth century Indian Christian theology from Bengal. The starting point of explicating Jesus may be said to lie in the prior philosophical manifestations of God.

Thus, while Banerjea starts with ‘primitive vedic Hinduism’ and its ideal in reconstructing the figure of Jesus, Upadhyaya starts with the Vedantic triune figuration of God as sat, chit, ananda [‘the highest level to which reason or revelation can lead us’ (Boyd: 85)10 in presenting a God-Man Jesus. The Jesus that springs from their reflections is philosophically proper and in tune with the truths that were revealed to the seers and sages of the Brahmanic tradition. Here one must not fail to notice the nationalist striving of this era, which inspired both Banerjea and Upadhyaya. It may be pointed out that Upadhyaya popularized the idea of the ‘Hindu Christian’ characteristic of the Christian communty’s identity in India, which he inherited from Banerjea. Also one must recall the Hindu roots of these theologians since both of them were converted to Christianity after much schooling within the Hindu faith.

Another factor in the interpretation of Jesus that binds Banerjea and Upadhyaya is the authority they place on scripture, both in its Hindu and Christian form. Textual testimony is selectively taken to be the principal source of evidence in the interpretation of Jesus. This was again quite natural to the Brahmins-turned-Christians. The sense of privilege with which they accepted their responsibility to be vedic and vedantic scholars was transferred to the task of engaging the Bible. Moreover, the acceptance of the authority of the vedas is fairly well accepted as that which distinguishes an orthodox Hindu from other heterodox faiths, i.e., Buddhist and Jams. Thus, the weaving together of themes of the vedas with motif of the Bible becomes important to the reflections of the Brahmin self-conscious Hindu-Christian. However, in the working out of the historical Jesus the textual sources from the Bible are used quite selectively, which in turn may be quite influenced by the pre-understanding arising from the philosophy of the Hindu scriptures.

A significant critical comment, which is already implicit in the discussion, may be expanded upon in evaluating this nineteenth century interpretation of Jesus. Both Banerjea and Upadhyaya severely down play the human Jesus even as they inordinately accent the Divine Jesus. The emphasis on the Divine identity of Jesus was thought through in great detail and, as we have noted, was deciphered in terms of Christ’s relation to God. This was done by interpreting Jesus in his relatedness to the cosmic dimension of the Divine along the lines that were already disclosed through the Hindu scriptures.

However, if Jesus’s human identity was to be extrapolated it had to be done in the manner by which we do it for most other historical persons: realizing that a human being is a social entity, he or she is defined within the web of one’s social and economic locatedness. This was as true of early Jews in Galilee as it was true of nineteenth century India and is true of contemporary India: ‘In Jesus’s world [just as in the Indian worldview], people were important because of who they were related to, or where they came from, not so much because of who they were in themselves’ (Witherington: 35). It is mainly because the concrete markers of human identity (various features of socioeconomic located-ness) were not interrogated by Banerjea and Upadhyaya that a grossly decontextualized and dehistoricized Jesus is assembled. Crossan’s observation regarding the concreteness of Jesus’s incarnation is relevant. He remarks, ‘Christians believe that Jesus is, according to John 1:14, the word made flesh, but seldom ask to what social and economic class [and caste] that flesh belonged’ (Crossan, 1994: 23). For Indians this aspect of human identity is of paramount importance. The scrupulous manner in which the caste and class status of various Indian Christian theologians are plainly discussed in most books is a case in point. It must have been the most obvious thing for Indian theologians to be conscious of social sign posts such as caste, lineage, class and family connectedness. And yet this aspect of the socioeconomic locatedness of Jesus is not part of the historical ‘fact’ that was meaningful to either Banerjea or Upadhyaya. Crossan’s research into the socioeconomic situatedness of the historical Jesus reveals a human Jesus within the locus of the web of concrete relationships. Employing recent findings in the field of cross-cultural anthropology, especially surrounding the ancient Mediterranean, he makes the following proposition (Ibid: 25):

If Jesus was a carpenter, therefore, he belonged to the Artisan class, that group pushed into the dangerous space between Peasant, Degradeds or Expendables. I emphasize that any decision on Jesus’ socioeconomic class must be made not in terms of Christian theology but of cross-cultural anthropology, not in terms of those interested in exalting Jesus but in terms of those not even thinking of his existence.

Crossan goes on to suggest that based on our knowledge of Jesus’ socioeconomic locatedness we can presume that he was illiterate. In his words, ‘Furthermore, since between 95 and 97 percent of the Jewish state was illiterate at the time of Jesus, it must be presumed that Jesus also was illiterate, that he knew, like the vast majority of his contemporaries in an oral culture, the foundational narratives, basic stories, and general expectations of his tradition but not the exact texts, precise citations, or intricate arguments of its scribal elites’ (Ibid: 25-26).

I am aware of the anachronistic slant of this argument. But I do not intend to criticize nineteenth century Indian theology by heaping on it research from the last decade of the twentieth century. Rather I am asking if it was the caste and class bias of status quo conscious Brahmin/ Hindu-Christians that refused to recognize the most obvious socioeconomic markers of the human Jesus? Was the human identity of Jesus that is conscripted through his socioeconomic locatedness an embarrassment to these Hindu-Christian theologians? Were they attempting to pass off Jesus as a pure-caste who was the ideal of their Brahmin seers and sages?

This brings us to a further point in relation to both Banerjea’s and Upadhyaya’s neglect to deal with Jesus’s humanity. There is a reluctance on their part to reflect upon Jesus’s concrete praxis. This is another portentous marker of human identity: the human subject as conscious agent. As Witherington rightly says, ‘It is noteworthy however that Jesus did not merely call people to come and study or follow his teaching but rather to come and follow him’ (Witherington: 193). If this had been part of the thinking of the Bengali theologians they would have been quite conscious of the many facets of Jesus’ praxis which revealed his distinctive humanity.

It cannot be denied that at a minimum the proclivities of his practice entailed being gender-inclusive, poor-biased, and anti-broker. This lack of regard for the specific praxis that Jesus deliberately espouses, which may be said to lie in the consciousness that he embodied the dynamics of kingdom, stemmed from Banerjea’s and Upadhyaya’s failure to project the historical Jesus as the paradigm of human living.

Instead one can make the argument that their bifurcation of Jesus’s concrete human praxis from his revelation of the truth of his ‘divine mission’ permitted them to defend and promote social practices that completely contradicted the Jesus pattern of living. This contradiction can be noticed when one juxtaposes Jesus’ advocacy of ‘open commenssality (In India open commenssality is an affront to the prescription of caste-based eating and drinking) with Upadhyaya’s overt proposal to retain caste stratification, even after becoming Christian, and Banerjea’s covert suggestion that ‘no social change in habit or life’ is demanded of Hindus converting to Christianity Again Crossan’s work on the Historical Jesus can be cited. Jesus ushers in the praxis of the kingdom of God which is also the borderless ‘kingdom of nobodies.’ And this praxis is concretely demonstrated by ‘open commenssality’ The significance of this practice of open table fellowship as a hallmark of the kingdom is aptly explained by Crossan within Jesus’s context by pointing out the regulations and taboos involved in eating meals. In his words, ‘The Kingdom of God as a process of open commenssality, of a nondiscriminating table depicting in miniature a nondiscriminating society, clashes fundamentally with honor and shame, those basic values of ancient Mediterranean culture and society’ (Crossan: 70)." In marked opposition to this praxis, Upadhyaya, particularly towards the end of his short life, ‘harped on the theme of reinstating the varnashramic ideal, making few concessions to current ideas of socio-religious reform and cosmopolitanism’ (Lipner & Gispert Sauch: xiii) While Banerjea was not against commenssality, his unwillingness to grasp the significance of the praxis of table fellowship in the life of historical Jesus cannot be uncoupled with his persuasive assurance to caste Hindus that accepting Christianity ‘does not interfere with social habits and customs.’ The full impact of this appeal can be understood when one recalls that it is addressed to the ‘Aryan Hindus’ of Bengal in 1881. Let me quote it in toto (Philip: 199-200):

Are you deterred by the fear of social changes in habit or life? Banish such an apprehension. As far as Christianity is concerned, it demands no such change. It only demands a faith working in love. It requires purity of heart, purity of mind, and purity of actions. It only requires the sacrifice of all evil principles, a reasonable service. But it does not interfere with social habits and customs. It dictates no rule or fashion as to meat and drink and clothes.

These nineteenth century theologians thus were enthralled by an exalted Jesus. He was very God but hardly man. And the question remains: who, among human beings, are exalted and who, indeed, are brought low when the socioeconomic locatedness and praxis of the historical Jesus are located, circulated and accented?

But this does not mean that the divine and exalted Jesus of nineteenth century theologians is outdated and irrelevant for contemporary contextual theology in India. Even while criticizing them for slighting the human dimensions of the historical Jesus we are not arguing for the eradication of the cosmic and divine aspect of Jesus. In fact I would even suggest that Banerjea and Upadhyaya’s offer contemporary theologians an antidote to the prevalently in vogue mostly-human and -humane historical Jesus. Indian theology today generally proclaims an exceedingly modest Jesus. Jesus tends to be a co-sufferer and thus a model for human living. Thus it lifts up the selfless model of Jesus in order to invite others to follow his example of liberative praxis. (Clarke, 1998)12 While there is much truth in this dimension of Jesus it tends to demand a very high price from those who are suffering. If the masses fail to join in following Jesus toward the liberation struggle then Jesus too is exposed to failure. And the poor and the weak suffer loss. Must they depend on our efforts to act in solidarity with them? Is not Jesus available without brokers and solidarity workers?

Banerjea and Upadhyaya offer today’s Christians dealing with a host of social, economic and political affliction a different and crucial dimension of Jesus. Their exalted and cosmic Jesus is more able and more powerful. His power does not stem only from his being in solidarity with the oppressed. It is much more. The power of Jesus comes from being ontologically rooted in the Divine cosmic forces of creation, preservation and destruction. For both Banerjea and Upadhyaya Jesus is firstly related to the universe as logos, which includes being an agent of creation and sustenance. Secondly, Jesus is related to God and God’s glory. Thirdly, the Son is related to the Divine mission of God that brings about God’s will and purpose on earth. The cosmic mediation of Jesus the God-man makes him able, trustworthy, and sufficient to liberate suffering communities. Because of this extra-mundane relatedness suffering is not hopeless and final. Human suffering can trust in the Divine cosmic potentialities of Jesus. The cosmic God-man can redeem suffering even if all human effort fails. In my research into Dahit religion I am struck by a similar theme. Ellaiyamman is not a goddess who merely suffers with her people. She is also the embodiment of Divine cosmic powers. Her sakthi (power) is cosmic: she controls nature, the demons, the spirits, and, at times, even the gods. The question of how to highlight the cosmic dimension of Jesus in our teaching, reflection, preaching and praying must be asked from the point of view of our concern with sustaining and nurturing suffering people. Banerjea and Upadhayaya remind us of the need to lift up the Divine cosmic dimension. This bespeaks of the power, sufficiency and trustworthiness of Jesus through times of suffering.

Let me reiterate that both Banerjea and Upadhyaya were able to encounter only one facet of the historical Jesus because they ignored the markers of what constituted concrete human identity. I have argued that human identity can only be unearthed by taking seriously the socioeconomic locatedness and the agency of any person. At the same time, contemporary images of Jesus seem to going in the opposite direction:

Jesus as principally human is depicted as so fully humane that much of the cosmic power that comes from being rooted in the ontology of the Divine is overlooked. I have submitted that to empower the powerless and the afflicted, Indian Christian theology needs to recover both (a) the distinct social locatedness and the concrete social praxis of Jesus and (b) the tangible aspects of the cosmic potency of Jesus. Marcus Borg captures the complexities of both the ‘pre-Easter Jesus’ and the ‘post-Easter Jesus’ (Borg, 1997: 8):

The pre-Easter Jesus was born around 4 B.C.E. and executed by the Romans around 30 C.E.: the post-Easter Jesus is Jesus from the year 30 to the present day. The Pre-Easter Jesus is the figure of the past, dead and gone; the post-Easter Jesus is the figure of the present. The pre-Easter Jesus was corporeal, a flesh and blood human being; the post-Easter Jesus is a spiritual reality, actual, even though nonmaterial. . . The pre-Easter Jesus was finite and mortal, he was limited as all human beings are, and he died. The post-Easter Jesus is infinite and eternal; he is of ‘one substance with God,’ . . . Thus, the pre-Easter Jesus was human; the post-Easter Jesus is divine. The pre-Easter Jesus was a Jewish peasant; the post-Easter Jesus becomes King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Borg suggests that the divine dimension of Jesus is a complement to the notion of Jesus as model and example of true human living. Accordingly I have argued that it is by holding together both these dimensions that the God-human nature of ‘the composite Jesus’ is restored. Indian Christian theology needs confidence to know and trust Jesus as the exalted and cosmic one; courage to discover and experience Jesus as the one in solidarity with the lowly and afflicted; and imagination to hold both these dimensions together in the God-man. The living presence of Jesus then can be made to extend across the centuries: from first century Palestine to nineteenth century Bengal to twentieth century subaltern-based India. And we can join in the affirmation that the ‘then-who-is-now’ historical Jesus is also the ‘now-who-was-then’ cosmic One.

 

Endnotes:

1. A shorter version of this paper was presented at the ‘Seminar on Historical Jesus: A Third World Perspective’ at The United Theological College, Bangalore, on 24 July 1998.

2. Halbfass links this ‘lack of xenological interest and initiative in traditional Hinduism’ with ‘its lack of historical interest and motivation’ (Ibid: 196).

3. This school of neo-Hinduism has a long and complex history. I am thinking of the line of Hindu intellectuals who continuously reshaped the bases of Hinduism in conscious recognition of the philosophical agenda of post-enlightenment west. The following will be a minimal list of representatives of Neo-Hinduism: Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1831), Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905), I. C. Vidyasagar (1820-1891), Dayananda Sarasvati (1824-1883), Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836-1886), Bankim Chandra Chatterji (1838-1894), B. G. Tilak (1856-1920), Vivekananda (1863-1902), Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950), Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) and M. K. Gandhi (1869-1948).

4. I guess Upadhaya’s denominational identity is more complex than Banerjea’s. In February of 1891 he was baptized by an Anglican but in September of the same year he became a Roman Catholic. This question has been pushed further with regards to his undergoing prayashcitta (the penitential rite by which the excommunicate re-enters the Hindu community): was Upadhyaya a Hindu or a Christian? I concede to Lipner’s judgment on this. He says, ‘There is enough evidence to show that by this act Upadhaya intended more than to acknowledge and repudiate his life’s social transgressions according to Hindu law, not some religious lapse, such as his allegiance to the Christian faith’ (Lipner & Gispert-Sauch: XLIV).

5. Another cogent Bengali voice for Indian Christian theology during the nineteenth century was that of Lal Behari Day (1824-1894). Much of Day’s thought was directed towards undercutting the Brahmo Samaj’s teaching that its philosophy was founded on ‘common sense’ and ‘intuition’ rather than on revelation. He challenges the Samajists to move from the ‘rock of intuition’ to the ‘rock Christ.’ His interpretation of Jesus, as I have gleaned from reading secondary sources, has to do with him being the God-Man in whom truth was revealed and taught, as testified to by Scripture (Thomas: 38-55).

6. M. M. Thomas, quoting J. R. Chandran, also states that Upadhyaya also advanced the notion that the vedas be recognized as the Indian Old testament for doing indigenous Hindu-Christian theology (Thomas: 101).

7. This Hymn itself must be interpreted in the light of Upadhyaya’s Hymn on the Trinity as Sacchidananda which was published earlier in 1898. In the context of extolling the trinity as Being, Consciousness and Bless he has the following verse on Jesus the Son:

The infinite and perfect Word,
The Supreme Person begotten,
Sharing in the Father’s nature, Conscious by essence,
Giver of true Salvation. (Boyd:70)

8. In a powerful passage he explains this further: ‘And if it is acknowledged that to see God through God and not through finite relations is supreme beatitude, then there must be some relation bearing upon the divine Essence to make it intelligible. Jesus has declared that God is self-related by means of internal distinctions that do not cast even a shadow of division upon the unity of his substance’ (Lipner & Gispert-Sauch: 193).

9. Ibid., p. 194. Emphasis mine.

10. Commenssality is a sociological term that comes from the Latin root ‘mensa,’ which means table: sharing in a common table.

11. In much more detail Crossan argues for the centrality of ‘magic and meal’ as that which characterizes the Historical Jesus whom he paints to be a Jewish charismatic peasant cynic (Crossan, 1991: 303-353). Witherington’s summary of this aspect of Crossan is as follows: ‘Crossan sees one of the keys to understanding Jesus to be his ‘open commenssality,’ his willingness to have table fellowship with anyone. This practice clearly implied a rejection of certain Jewish purity taboos and implicitly redefined honour and shame in that social setting’ (Witherington: 67).

12. For an example of such a portraiture I may simply cite my own representation of ‘Jesus as Deviant.’ It is an image of the historical Jesus that is mostly, if not merely, human.

 

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