Indian who cast aside caste was no shadow of a man

In the Shadow of the Mahatma

September 15, 2000

This is the first scholarly study of an outstanding Indian Christian leader who became the first, and within his lifetime the only, indigenous Anglican diocesan bishop in India. Supported by a massive bibliography (not all of it directly relevant), it is an important contribution to the understanding of modern Indian political and religious history and the history of Christianity.

Vedanayagam Samuel Azariah (1874-1945) was not an innovative theologian; his achievement was in evangelism, pastoral work, church organisation and church-state relations, and is traced through reports, diocesan magazines, sermons, devotional works, published and private letters, and the oral tradition of Telugu songs used in the final chapter.

The book narrates Azariah's life with frequent excursuses on background matters: for instance, on assertion and upward mobility in the toddy-tapping castes from which his family came, or on the church's position in British India. An important contention is that despite Azariah's use of nationalist rhetoric ("swadeshi mission", "Home Rule and Swaraj in the Church"), his call for an indigenous church was not inspired by Indian nationalism, but grew from a tradition of evangelism formed by the Victorian missionary theorist Henry Venn. This is borne out by Azariah's involvement in the international evangelicalism of the YMCA from 1895 to 1909: a period in which Indian nationalism was increasingly identifying itself with Hinduism. While Hindu nationalists condemned Christianity as foreign and imperial, Azariah saw it as a global message of salvation that was regenerating local communities in the Tamil country of his birth and the Telugu country of his episcopacy, and that he hoped would regenerate the nation. He accepted an evangelical theology in which there are no distinctions between those who are in Christ, but a radical break between the old life and the new. He identified Hinduism with caste, and Christianity with rejection of anything to do with caste. Cultural features that appeared to him not to be tainted with caste could be used to express Christianity: architecture, songs, dress, forehead marks. The implied boundary between caste-significant and caste-neutral features might have been explored more critically.

The title is unfortunate. It perpetuates the subordination of Azariah that the author claims to remedy, and invites us to think of him primarily in relation to Gandhi, perhaps on the assumption that Gandhi is the modern Indian we have all heard of. Such an approach would be as inappropriate for Azariah as for Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, Tagore and many others. The prominence given to Gandhi in the title is belied by the author's admission that "politics and his conflict with Gandhi occupied only a small portion of Azariah's life and attention". Indeed, Gandhi is little mentioned, except in passing, before the chapters dealing with the electoral controversy of the 1930s. When the controversy does come, however, it is introduced by a comparison of the two men, which is as pointless as Shakespeare's Fluellen's comparison of Henry V and Alexander. This packaging hides a good book.

Dermot Killingley is reader in Hindu studies, University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

In the Shadow of the Mahatma: Bishop V. S. Azariah and the Travails of Christianity in British India

Author - Susan Billington Harper
ISBN - 0 7007 1232 1
Publisher - Curzon
Price - £45.00
Pages - 462

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