Kalagara Subba Rao (1912-1981): Christo-Centric Avoidance of Church and Christianity
K. Subba Rao was a Kamma from Andhra Pradesh. He grew up as a cynic against religion and led a rebellious life against religion and religious leaders. He managed to get an education and a job as a teacher, and married in 1937. His dissolute life broke his health, and in a period of convalescence he had a vision of Christ that transformed his life in 1942.
Subba Rao wrote a striking song about Christ appearing to him, a fallen atheist, when many churches had been built in his name. He was a reluctant disciple of Jesus at first; after all, he had a reputation as a mocker of religion. But he found that healings followed when he laid hands on people in Jesus’ name, and soon his faith and works brought him to the attention of both Hindus and Christians.
Subba Rao’s initial contacts with Christians were not good, and to the end of his life he refused to be baptized or to work under the “Christian” label. Due to his healing ministry he developed a considerable following in Andhra and also Karnataka, but he was opposed to religion as such and never started anything resembling a religious organization. He highlighted the opposition of religious leaders to Jesus and suggested that the same situation continues today. Among his writings is a biting tract entitled “Gurudev: Where Can I Get So Many Millstones?” where he says that there are so many Christian pastors putting burdens on the little sheep of Christ that it is hard to imagine where so many millstones can be found to put around their necks.
A considerable movement of disciples of Jesus gathered around Subba Rao, and after his death an ashram hall was built on the outskirts of Vijayawada. The movement is in a major transition period due to the deaths of both Subba Rao’s widow and his successor as leader of the ministry.
The healing ministry of Subba Rao drew people, but they were held by the bhakti focused on Jesus that is the mark of their public meetings. Subba Rao wrote 34 songs that are constantly sung, and numerous songs used by Christians in Andhra Pradesh are also part of their hymnody. Despite disdain for organization and a refusal to accept the label of “Christian,” the marks of a New Testament ekklasia (church) are present.
Subba Rao was not a deep Bible student and was loose and even reckless in his terminology and teaching. Yet he demonstrated that it is possible to follow Jesus Christ as a Hindu and gather other Hindus into a bhakti sampradaya with a focus on discipleship to Jesus. Thus he presents a challenge and illuminates possibilities for other followers of Jesus from Hindu families.
Note: These biographies originally appeared in the chapter “The Church and Hindu Heritage: Historical Case Studies in a Rocky Relationship” in Rethinking Hindu Ministry, Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2011.