Filming a 10-part series in Oxford between Nov 6th-10th 2023
A discussion on Episode 4: Language And The Democratization of Knowledge, was live streamed on October 19th 2023, at 9pm IST:
The Bible and The Making of Modern India
India’s Renaissance began in Bengal in the early 19th century through a linguistic revolution. It was pioneered by a Baptist missionary, William Carey (1761-1834). This British cobbler-turned-linguist came to Bengal in 1793.
At that time India had three classical languages: Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit. Indian elite had made our people powerless because they had turned them into languages of discrimination, to deprive the common man of the power of knowledge. The transformation of the people began by transforming their dialects into literary languages. That process empowered the people because it democratized knowledge, making it available to everyone.
Average Brahmin scholars memorized Sanskrit Scriptures, not for thought but for performing religious rituals. They did not allow Sanskrit to become the mother-tongue of their own children, because they refused to teach it to their wives, let alone to non-Brahmins.
Likewise, Muslim masses spoke local dialects while their religious leaders memorized the Quran in Arabic. Muslims ruled much of India for seven centuries, but they did not make Arabic the people’s language of learning, of impartation of facts and thought.
Two centuries before Carey reached Bengal, Mughal Emperors had made Persian their court language. Their mother-tongue was Chagatai, not Persian. They ruled Bengal but took no interest in developing Bengali. Nor did they popularize Arabic and Sanskrit. Persian was a great language, but they made it their court-language, partly to make it difficult for Arabic knowing Muslims to learn state-secrets.
In 1765, the Mughals gave the administrative authority or Diwani over Bengal to the East India Company. Yet, until 1800, the British merchants and rulers took no interest in Bengali dialects spoken by the people they governed. The only educational institution that the British Company established was Calcutta Madarasa (1780-’81). It was created to teach Arabic, Persian and Islamic Law. Arts and science, literature or humanities had no place in the curricula.
Ten years later, in 1791, the British Company, not Hindu temples or ashrams, established the Banaras Sanskrit College in the state of Varanasi. Two centuries later, in 1974, the government of India upgraded it to become Sampurnanand Sanskrit University.
This religious and political indifference to India’s intellectual progress began to change when British evangelicals responded to Charles Grant’s appeal to Christians to assume the moral responsibility for the development of the people of India.
Grant’s Observations on “The Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain” (1792) inspired an Evangelical Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce, to campaign for India’s education. Grant and Wilberforce argued that it is immoral for Britain to send only merchants and mercenaries to India. Britain must also send educators.
At that time, “secular education” did not exist anywhere in the world. In Europe, Education was a ministry of the Church because the Bible said that God “wants all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). The idea that every child needed to be educated was the practical application of the New Testament’s teaching that every child of God needed to serve his heavenly Father as a priest and manage God’s kingdom on earth as a prince or king. No one can do God’s will on earth if he/she does not know God. For this reason, everyone needed to study God’s word. That required translating the scriptures into every child’s mother tongue. This theological outlook had started the process of transforming European dialects into modern literary languages such as German, English, French.
The campaign for India’s education, initiated by Charles Grant and led by Wilberforce was understood in the light of the Bible’s theology of Language and Education. Everyone understood that to send educators meant to send missionaries. Their mission will be to serve God and people — not money. Enriching people’s dialects to become literary languages will be one of the foundation stones of India’s awakening.
Wilberforce began the campaign for South Asia’s education in 1793. Twenty years later, in 1813, British Parliament approved a new Charter of the East India Company. It required the Company to spend Rs.100,000 per year for the education of the people of India.
How should this money be used?
British rulers decided to use that money to establish a Sanskrit college in Calcutta. This triggered the Language Controversy which was resolved by the Macaulay-Minute of 1835. Macaulay favored English as the language that ought to enrich the vernacular, including Bengali. That had been suggested by Charles Grant in 1792. Raja Ram Mohan Roy became its champion in 1823.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy taught Sanskrit to William Carey while learning English from Carey. That interaction so changed him that he became a vocal opponent of the British plan to establish Calcutta Sanskrit College.
On 11 December 1823, Roy wrote to the British Prime Minister, William Pitt, that the decision to teach “Sangscrit system of education would be best calculated to keep this country in darkness.” Perpetuating Sanskrit education will be contrary to the spirit of the great movement that had required the Company to invest money to educate India.
Roy was a Brahmin and a Sanskrit scholar. He opposed the Company hiring Pandits to teach Sanskrit. The British policy, he wrote, ought to be to “promote a more liberal and enlightened system of instruction, embracing, mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry and anatomy, with other useful sciences…”
Roy knew that the Pundits’ monopoly of Sanskrit had stunted and enslaved the Indian mind. Language is the God given means to open and enhance the mind. He had grasped the Bible’s idea that Language is God’s gift to humanity. It binds God’s children into a community of ideas and values. Language makes us different from animals that are herded together by instinct, fear and force. Language allows us to improve our community by thinking critically in order to seek truth and wisdom. This is necessary to steward the creation. Language should not be what pundits have made it — a means of uncritical memorization of mantras.
Why did pundits reduced language to this? They sought not truth but occult powers to appease gods and control demons . . . A few decades later, Mahatma Phule said the pundits used their occult (hidden/secret) knowledge to intimidate people in order to collect the appeasement price for unknown gods.
Roy knew that Sanskrit had closed the Indian mind. Pundits had not written books on nature, science, medicine, agriculture, technology, law, history, geography, governance et cetera. Nor had they developed the dialects into literary languages. They imposed a hierarchical system of high and low varnas that precluded developing everyone’s intellectual potential.
The Aryans came to India with Sanskrit and Vedas and they were proud of their scriptures, they made zero effort to translate Sanskrit scriptures into the languages of the people.
A rare exception was Goswami Tulsidas, who died in 1623. He paraphrased the Sanskrit epic Ramayana into Awadi dialect, calling it Ramcharit Manas. Awadhi was spoken around Varanasi and Ayodhya. For his audacity to compose their sacred story in a dialect, other pundits refused to acknowledge it as sacred scripture.
In any case, the people who spoke Awadhi, did not read it. There were no schools to teach the common man how to read and write his mother tongue. Tulsidas’ work became influential long after him, when it began to be dramatized as Ramlila. William Carey, a British missionary, translated the Ramayana into English.
In late 19th century, Rev. Samuel Kellogg (1839–1899), an American Presbyterian missionary, fused Awadhi with ten other dialects to create modern Hindi Grammar. Kellogg lived in my hometown, Allahabad, just 120 Kilometers north of Tulsidas’ Benaras. Allahabadis speak Kellogg’s Hindi, but without training, no one in Allahabad can understand a single Awadhi stanza of Ramcharit Manas.
Kellogg, who created the Hindi grammar that we use today, followed Carey’s monumental linguistic revolution. He completed the work of his predecessors. John Gilchrist, a surgeon in the East India Company, had combined a number of dialects to create what he called Hindustani. Henry Martin, one of the Company’s chaplains, used other pre-existing dialects, Persian and Arabic to translate the Bible into what we know as Urdu. Kellogg, encouraged by some Sanskrit scholars, followed up on Gilchrist and Martin to create Hindi Grammar, using Tulsidas’ Ramcharit Manas as his literary base.
Translating the Bible into the languages of the people was a monumental grassroots revolution. It did for India what reformers John Wycliffe, Martin Luther and William Tyndale had done for reforming Europe’s education, literature and culture, economy and governance.
Bengali, Urdu, Hindi and other languages did not exist when William Carey arrived in India. Bhartendu Harishchandra (1850 – 1885), the first Indian writer of Hindi prose, was born eleven years after Kellogg.
To deprive people of the ability to read, think and write in their own language is a strategy to condemn them to ignorance. This makes them easy prey to unscrupulous clergy, usually in league with the aristocracy. Ignorance violates their dignity of being made in the image of the All-Wise Creator. The Bible that liberated Europe from its oppressive religion also began India’s transformation.
The Bible’s enormous impact on every Indian language, literacy, literature, and education has been best studied by Dr. Babu Verghese in his book “Let There Be India: Impact of the Bible on Nation Building”. (WOC Publishing, Chennai, 2014). We can illustrate his thesis with two examples.
Baptists and Bengali: Case Study I
The Advocate-in-Chief of the Indian vernaculars worked in Serampore and Calcutta. His name, as I said, was William Carey. I call him the Father of Modern India. He had translated the Bible into Bengali before opening his mission in Serampore in 1800. Carey fused several dialects to create Bengali as a literary language. With the pen of Ravindranath Tagore, Bengali went on to win the first Nobel Prize for India. Merely ten decades prior to Tagore, his own city of Calcutta—the capital of the
Bengal province—did not have a single qualified teacher of Bengali. Bengal did not lack learned Pundits. But they considered Bengali a language “fit only for women and demons.”
Mr. Sushil Kumar De points out in his study Bengali Literature in the Nineteenth Century: 1757–1857, that it was Carey and his missionary colleagues who “raised the language from the debased condition of an unsettled dialect to the character of a regular and permanent form of speech”. The Nobel Prize Committee noted that Bengali songs of the Gitanjali display both the influence Carey’s language as well as the Bible’s theistic worldview.
In Serampore and more especially in Calcutta, William Carey started translating the Bible in multiple languages with help from Pundits who taught languages to civil servants at the Fort William College. When some Company Directors began to object that their profits were being used to translate the Bible, Charles Grant and others organized British and Foreign Bible Society to finance the translation work. Serampore Mission Press printed these vernacular Bibles and invented the fonts for different scripts. The Mission also manufactured the paper needed for printing.
The fonts, the paper and the printing press began to open the Indian mind because, as we will see in other episodes, the missionary movement undergirded that historic effort by spreading literacy, printing text books for schools, and initiating journalism.
Indian elite had kept classic languages — Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic — for themselves. Missionaries allowed them to keep their monopoly, but went on to empower the people by enriching vernacular languages. Today only about 25,000 Indians speak Sanskrit, while 234 million people speak Bengali as their native tongue. Hindi is spoken by about 585 million people!
William Carey agreed with Alexander Duff and others that enriching vernaculars required teaching English to the people who wanted to develop their mother-tongue. However, his mission also noted that the craze for English among the upper-caste Indians was problematic. They did not learn English for the general welfare of the society. Their objective was selfish — personal and professional advancement. They observed that a little knowledge of English was turning the “finest youth” of Bengal into “mercenary copyists.” They remained ignorant of their own language, Bengali, without the Bible’s command to love your neighbor as yourself, they remained unconcerned about wisdom, beauty, goodness and truth that English language and literature offered.
The East India Company needed hirelings and therefore taught English to some youth. But those efforts would never have produced a Roy or a Tagore. They were the fruit of Bengali Bible.
Presbyterians and Punjabi: Case Study II
Stationed in Bengal in the east, William Carey strove to translate the Bible for the regions he never personally visited. In 1811, Carey published the first Punjabi Bible followed by grammar in 1812. By 1815, the Mission Press had printed the first ever prose work in Gurmukhi character, the Punjabi New Testament.
The first set of missionaries—the American Presbyterians—set foot on Punjab in 1834. They discovered that Carey’s translation of the Bible was already circulating in the Punjab. They noticed its weaknesses and began a fresh translation of the Bible in Punjabi, while also preparing a grammar and a dictionary on ground zero. John Newton published the new and comprehensive Punjabi grammar in 1851. The other significant work, the dictionary by Levi Janvier, came out in 1854. A fresh translation of the New Testament was published in 1868, marking the transition from traditional to modern Punjabi.
The Bible translation movement made it possible for the East India Company to replace Persian with local vernaculars as official administrative languages. In the light of Act 29 of 1883 Punjabi should have been designated as the official language of Punjab. However, due to administrative and political considerations, and because Punjabi was still an underdeveloped, the Punjab government of the time made Urdu its official language. Punjabi, the people’s language, lost out as the language of the educated elite.
Languages do need patrons. Without institutional support languages rarely develop and sustain themselves. Persian, for example, was the court language of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the greatest Sikh ruler of the time. Sikh writers in other Sikh principalities wrote in Braj, the popular literary language of north India. Urdu and Persian continued to hold sway over the educated elite of Punjab.
The Bible movement empowered the mother-tongue of the masses. Christian missionaries changed Punjab because the Bible taught them that God wanted all people to know the liberating truth.
Official policies and the prejudices of the native elite did not deter Missionary scholars. They continued to publish and print the good news of salvation in Punjabi. Thus, American Presbyterians and later the CMS missionaries became the alternate patrons of the Punjabi language in the nineteenth century. Their labor made it possible for the later, resurgent Sikh movement, to promote and develop the Punjabi language.
Punjab progressed because the missionaries did not limit their effort to publishing the Bible and devotional texts. They introduced a variety of literary modes to Punjabi. One-act plays, short stories and especially the novel. The first Punjabi novel, Jyotiruday, came out of the missionary quarters in 1882. That is, sixteen years prior to Sundari, the novel by Sikh writer Bhai Vir Singh.
Bigoted minds find it difficult to give credit where it is due. Yet, an eminent Punjabi scholar, Gurcharan Singh Arshi, acknowledged the impact of the Bible and missionaries in these words:
“Though Christian missionaries came with the intention of propagation and advancement of [their] religion, in that endeavor they so enriched Punjabi language and literature that today Punjabi literature is not inferior in any way to literature in other Indian languages.”
Watch the live stream here:
PS. An earlier booklet “The Bible in India” is available from and in the USA from
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