“ TEN years ago, the most influential religious teacher in India was Keshub Chunder Sen,” said an officer in the English civil service to me, as we were crossing the Indian Ocean, and were waiting for our first glimpse of Bombay. Religious influence in India means as much as in Scotland. From the Himalayas to Cape Comorin, religion of some sort holds undisputed sway. The power of England is not comparable to it. It was the mere suspicion, so it is generally believed, that their faith was about to be tampered with that aroused both Hindu and Mohammedan into such a frenzy of hate against the English, that the mutiny of 1857 failed only through lack of leadership from becoming a successful revolution. The people of India are naturally religious. They have always been ready either to fight or to die for their faith. The Ganges has been reddened as often as the Rhine with blood shed in religious wars. On the great plains of India, battles as cruel as Germany saw in her Thirty Years War have been repeatedly fought. To-day, if there were no strong-handed government to hold them apart, Hindu and Mohammedan would rush upon each other, in the madness of religious hate; or, burying their animosities for a moment in an intenser hatred, they would combine against their common enemy, the Christian.
For a teacher of religion, under thirtyfive, to attain in such a country to a position of such marked prominence is a phenomenon. It is still more remarkable that this position was reached not by a leader of any of the old powerful religious parties, whether Hindu, Mohammedan, or Christian, but by the founder, or at least the acknowledged interpreter, of a new religion, in opposition more or less marked to each of these three parties. Keshub Chunder Sen is a disciple neither of Moses, nor Buddha, nor Zoroaster, nor Mohammed, nor Christ. He calls himself by none of these names. He is an apostle of the new dispensation. He is the bringer in — so he believes— of a new epoch to India and humanity. Why may it not be ? All the ancient religions were once new. They were all born in the Orient. India herself was the first to hear the infant cries of Sakyamuni, the first to heed his teaching, and the first, too, to forget it. Why may she not, even in the last half of the nineteenth century, have given birth to another as great as the great Buddha himself ? The hour is ripe. The old is passing away. Buddha is dead. Brahma and Mohammed are not reverenced as they once were. The Hindu laughs heartily with you over the hideous puerility of the idol worship from which he has just come, and to which he will probably to-morrow return. India has need of a new dispensation, and some fifty years ago a few of her leading spirits began to organize a reform, which has resulted at least in the establishment of a new church, — the Brahmo Somaj.
“ At first,” says Chunder Sen, “ this Brahmo Somaj to which I belong was simply a church for the worship of the one true God according to the doctrines and ritual inculcated in the earliest Hindu Scriptures.” For the time the members of this church held to the infallibility of the Vedas; “but,” continues Sen, “ the Brahmo Somaj, because it was the work of God, could not but break with the Vedas as soon as they were found to contain errors.” The Brahmo Somaj, released from the nature worship and absurdities of the Vedas, became a pure theistic church, “ the centre,” says Sen “ of a moral, social, and religious reformation.” “ In the Brahmo Somaj,” he adds, “ we see concentrated all those great, urgent, and pressing reforms which India needs at the present moment. Is it the amelioration of the condition of women that India wants ? Look at the Brahmo Somaj, and you see already are gathered in some of its chapels ladies who have discarded idolatry, superstition, and caste altogether ; who have learned to pray in their own houses unto the one true God, and have set their faces boldly against every form of polytheism and idol worship ; and some of whom have published most beautiful theistic verses and hymns. Is it the distinctions of caste that are to be leveled? You see among the Brahmos a good number of valiant and brave men, who not only dine with men of all classes, irrespective of the distinctions of color, caste, and creed, but who have promoted intermarriages between members of different castes. The high-caste Brahman has accepted as his wife a low-caste Sudra, and vice versa”
This monotheism is certainly immensely superior to the idolatrous worship which one may still see everywhere in the Hindu temples of India. These women of the Brahmo Somaj, praying to the one true God, and singing the theistic hymns which they themselves have composed, have indubitably a vastly superior type of religion to that of their sisters of Benares, and of Calcutta as well, who, with their little copper vessels filled with water, go from temple to temple, pouring out libations not only to hideous idols, but also to obscene symbols. These “ valiant and brave men,” dining with all colors, castes, and creeds, are incomparably nobler specimens of humanity than their brethren, who would not touch a Sudra with the tip of one of their fingers to save his life or his soul, and who would consider themselves, the poorest, wretchedest, and dirtiest of them, disgraced forever, if they should eat with the Viceroy or even with the Empress of India, her majesty Queen Victoria. Any church that can show such fruits has no need to bring forward other raisons d'être. That Keshub Chunder Sen should have found his way into a church of this sort is the most natural thing in the world. How it came about was explained by Lord Lawrence, once Viceroy of India, at a great meeting of welcome given to Chunder Sen on his arrival in England in the spring of 1870. “ Our guest,”
said Lord Lawrence, “ is a Hindu gentleman, of respectable and well-known lineage. His grandfather was the associate and coadjutor of one of the most profound Sanskrit scholars in this country. Left an orphan in his youth, he was placed by his uncle in an English school, and afterwards was graduated in the college at Calcutta, where he gained a thorough knowledge of English language, literature, and history. It was impossible that, with this knowledge, he could remain an idolater. Early in his career he learned to despise the worship of idols, and by degrees, by thought, by reflection and prayer, he learned to believe in one God. He then joined a party known in Lower Bengal as the Brahmo Somaj, who worship Brahma, the creator. After a short time he became the head of a reforming party among those reformers, so that in Keshub Chunder Sen they saw the representative of the most advanced section of the great reforming party which was rising in Bengal.”
That such a man, so eager for light, should not have become a Christian may at first glance seem very strange ; but the Hindu has always looked upon Christianity as the religion of his conquerors ; it is almost inseparably associated in his mind with English cannon and English soldiers. It has come to him as something foreign and Occidental. The Christian convert suffers more socially than the Brahmanist, or Mohammedan, or the member of the Brahmo Somaj. These are reasons sufficient, if there were no others, why Chunder Sen should have cast in his lot with the theistic rather than the Christian church. For the last ten years he has been the leading spirit — it would not be an exaggeration to say the Pope — of the Brahmo Somaj. The form of its development is due to him rather than to any other member, or perhaps to all the other members combined. He is the pastor of the church in Calcutta, and the editor of the weekly newspaper published by the society.
It is next to impossible to determine accurately the creed of an organization that has no written confession of faith, no infallible books, no authoritative articles. But as Keshub Chunder Sen always speaks ex cathedra, we might form some idea of what the theistic church is from his own utterances, were it not that he always speaks, so he himself tells us, as an Oriental, in tropes and figures. He can cry, in an address to the Brahmo Somaj, in the town hall of Calcutta, on its fifty-first anniversary, “ Blessed Jesus, I am thine. I give myself, body and soul, to thee. If India will revile and persecute me, and take my life-blood out of me, drop by drop, still, Jesus, thou shall continue to have my homage. Son of God, I love thee truly ! ” But he can say also in the same address, “ Christ’s dispensation is said to be divine. I say that this dispensation — the Brahmo Somaj — is equally divine.” With his missionaries he can go on pilgrimages, as he calls them, in the “worship room” of his own house, or in his study, “ where, surrounded by book shelves loaded with the wisdom of ages, and in the midst of literary associations, they communed with Socrates.” “The following saints were visited on the dates specified against their names: Moses, 22d February; Socrates, 7th March; Sakya, 14th March; The Rishis, 21st March; Christ, 8th August; Mohammed, 19th September; Chaitauya, 26th September; scientific men, 3d October.”
“ Before the flag of the new dispensation,” cries this broadest of broad churchmen, “ bow, ye nations, and proclaim the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. In blessed eucharist let us eat and assimilate all the saints and prophets of the world. Thus shall we put on the new man, and say, The Lord Jesus is my will, Socrates my head. Chaitauya my heart, the Hindu Rishi my soul, and the philanthropic Howard my right hand.” The doors of this modern Pantheon stand always wide open. There is room enough within for all heroes and prophets, if not for all gods. The Bramho Somaj is an attempt to render equal service to many masters.
I went, one hot afternoon last May, to call upon Keshub Chunder Sen at his home in Calcutta. I had heard that he was in “ retirement,” — such was the term used,—and might refuse to see any one; and, mistaking at first the house where he once lived for his present residence, a tall, stout Indian Baboo, of whom I made inquiries as he was about stepping into his palanquin, turned upon mo rather sharply, and said, “ May I ask why you wish to see Chunder Sen?” To which question, considering my nationality, there could be but one appropriate reply: “May I inquire why you ask ?” “ Oh,” answered the Baboo, “ I am a relative, and I doubt if he will see you; but I will with pleasure direct you to his house.” A comfortable European house it was, somewhat better even than most American societies provide for their missionaries, though they are nearly always of good size and appearance, as they should be. I took it for granted, though foreign missionaries do not live ordinarily in native houses, that an Indian reformer would have a purely Indian home ; but this reformer has been to Europe, has associated more or less all his life with Europeans, and has gradually and almost necessarily substituted Occidental comfort for Oriental simplicity. I was shown into just such a drawing-room as one might find in almost any of the smaller London houses, with the one exception of a large tiger skin stretched upon the floor, which did service as a rug. Almost immediately Keshub Chunder Sen entered: he was a tall, well-formed man, with a tendency to over-stoutness; coffeecolored skin ; eyes of the deepest black and flashing with fire; a handsome face, of the Eastern sort, full of animal life and passion, yet the face of a possible mystic ; long, delicately formed hands, such as men of the West rarely, if ever, possess. A good type of the Oriental; dressed, too, as a native gentleman. A long, loose, toga-like garment, lighter than any fabrics ever used by us, supplied the place of the much more numerous and much less comfortable and graceful articles which make up the ordinary costume in every country of Europe.
His welcome was very cordial. He said nothing about his “retirement,” but began at once to ask the usual questions which are put to all travelers, in English as pure and grammatical as one would hear in Oxford or Cambridge, though without that certain accent or inflection of the voice which one rarely finds except among native-born Englishmen. He spoke with perfect freedom, and with that openness of manner which invites questioning. When I asked if a member of the Brahmo Somaj would ever speak of himself as a Christian, he said, with a smile, “ Oh no, that is a term of narrowness; the Christian must hate” (I wondered from what sources he had formed this idea) “ the Hindu and the Buddhist and the Mohammedan, but we honor all. Christ is to us the greatest, his life is the purest, but he is only primus inter pares.” Remembering what I had heard about his retirement, I inquired if asceticism found any place in their system. “ Not with the meaning which is ordinarily given to that word,” was his reply. “ We believe in and advocate the greatest simplicity of life ; we live on alms, we eat no meat, and there are times when we go into the wilderness to be alone for days.” Then he showed me a picture of himself and his wife, seated on the tiger skin which was under our feet, spread apparently on some hill-top of sand, in a barren Indian desert. He held in his hand, so the picture represented him, the ektara, an instrument of a single string,— the only one, I believe, ever used by the Brahmo Somaj. “ We sometimes spend hours in that position,” he said, “ communing with the Infinite.”
Do you believe, I asked, in modern revelations? It was somewhat generally thought in Calcutta, I had found, that whenever Keshub Chunder Sen’s authority was questioned by the Brahmo Somaj, he had the habit of falling back upon a revelation just received as the motive and authority of his action. “ Certainly,” he said ; “ God has not become dumb; he speaks now as of old.” You have missionaries, I said. “ Oh, yes ; we are sending them into nearly every part of India, and they are meeting everywhere with good success.” But, I asked, what if one of these men should say, I have had a revelation to go to Allahabad, when the church wishes him to work in Trichinoply ? “ He would be forced to
yield,” was the reply. “ We should not believe in a revelation of that sort, in opposition to the opinion of the whole church.” This might lead, I suggested, to schisms. Have you ever had any division into parties in the Somaj ? “ Yes,”
he answered ; “ within a very short time there has been one of a somewhat serious nature. It resulted in part from the marriage of my daughter, of which you may have heard something.” One can scarcely mention Keshub Chunder Sen or the Brahmo Somaj anywhere in India without being told the story of this marriage, and in a more or less incorrect form, so that I was very glad to have him speak of it of his own accord, and to hear from his own lips the truth of the matter. It was a rather romantic story, and one that could not fail to excite sympathy as well as interest.
The marriage of children has long been general in India. I was present, one evening, at a wedding where a boy of six was married to a girl of four. The boy must become a man before he takes his wife to his home ; but if he should die in the mean time, the child whom he ceremonially married must always remain a widow. Latterly the more thoughtful have come to look upon these early marriages as among the greatest of evils. One of the obligations which members of the Brahmo Somaj took upon themselves was not to marry their daughters till they had reached the age of sixteen.
A few years ago a Maharajah, or prince, was left an orphan, and became necessarily a ward of the English government. His property was eared for and his education — a very careful one — seen to by the lieutenant governor of Bengal. This young Maharajah of Kuchberge became one of the best known characters in Calcutta, and was universally liked, both by the natives and the Europeans. It was thought wise for him to travel in Europe, but it was more than probable that if he undertook the journey unmarried he would return with a European wife, and this would injure his influence over his future subjects. The English government wished him to be married at once, and, on looking around for a wife suitable for their ward, they decided to make proposals for the hand of the daughter of Keshub Chunder Sen. It was a great temptation, a real Indian prince, and called by the English the best of them all. It was too great a temptation to be resisted, and a few months before the young lady had reached her sixteenth birthday she was married to the Maharajah, but with the condition that she was not to be taken to his home till his return from Europe. Even the Europeans considered the marriage unobjectionable, but the members of the Brahmo Somaj moved a court of inquiry into the conduct of their minister, and in spite of his assurance that he had received a direct revelation from heaven that this marriage was right and proper, a large number withdrew from the Brahmo Somaj, and organized a reformed Somaj of their own.
Keshub Chunder Sen answers to Dr. Johnson’s definition of a remarkable man, for few could pass even the English philosopher’s meagre allowance of time with him without feeling that he was possessed of extraordinary powers. One of the Lessing-like seekers after truth he seems to be, who would say with the author of Laocoön, “ If God held all truth in his right hand, and in his left only the everlasting search after truth, I would bow humbly to his left hand, and say, Father, give; keep the truth for Thyself alone.”