Editor’s note: We are starting a series of five brief but very interesting and significant biographies of Hindus from the past who joined the Indian church.
Kali Charan Banurji (1847-1907):
Restarting the Church in the Hindu Context
Kali Charan Banurji was a Kulin Brahmin Bengali who was born in Jabalpur in M.P. where his father was working. He was the eighth son in the family and his father died while he was still young. The family returned to Bengal and Kali Charan was invested with the sacred thread at Kalighat in Kolkata when 8 years of age.
Family stories tell that a number of children had died at birth, so Kali Charan’s mother was given an amulet with some special powder in it, and this was worn until Kali Charan was born. It was then worn by him for many years. Later back in Bengal a palm reader had warned that this boy should not be taught English or he would become a renegade.
Kali Charan’s elder brothers had attended a mission school in Jabalpur, and he first saw the Bible there. He was an excellent student and at the age of 13 was ready for university. He entered the Free Church Institution founded by Alexander Duff; his family pressed him to marry at age 15, but Duff exhorted him to marry his books, and he managed to resist the pressure to marry until he was 17. He passed his B.A. as gold medalist in his class, was hired as a professor at the college, and complete his M.A. a year later.
Kali Charan began to study the Bible at college, as it was required at Duff’s institution. He was especially struck by the prayers of Duff before the Bible studies, as he did not understand such boldness in calling down blessings from God. For two years at college Kali Charan was an orthopraxic Hindu; when a cousin of his ate some rice that had been touched by a Sudra, Kali Charan insisted that he eat nothing else until a proper prayaschitta was performed.
The greatest influences in leading Kali Charan to Christ were a medical missionary and some other students who had turned to Christ. A group of four students, including Kali Charan, used to meet together for prayer and Bible study. Gradually Kali Charan became convinced of the truth of the gospel, but now he was confronted with a major change of life. He was sixteen, had worn his sacred thread for eight years, and now felt it necessary to abandon the thread. His family refused to eat with him when they learned he no longer wore the sacred thread.
Kali Charan kept up contact with his family, and when he earned scholarships for outstanding study and a salary as professor he sent funds home to support them. The greatest crisis in his family was that his wife was not permitted to live with him after his baptism. This finally changed after the 1866 “Converts’ Remarriage Act” allowed him to go to court. Under threat of becoming legally a widow, his wife finally joined him and eventually also became a faithful follower of Christ. In the rest of his family, however, only a few nephews also turned to Christ. One of those, Bhabani Charan Bhandyopadhyay, became well known as a follower of Christ in later years as Brahmabandhab Upadhyay.
Kali Charan taught for 14 years, but during that time felt a call to Christian ministry. He was given a scholarship for theological study and began preparing for the ministry while still teaching. But at this time the noted Bengali Lal Behari Day resigned from the pastorate due to the inability to care for his family on the meager salary offered. Day had previously been in conflict with the Scottish missionaries; he was one of three Bengalis ordained but not accepted as full members of the mission in 1856. Under pressure, two submitted. But Day refused to accept a lesser role and threatened to resign. A compromise was reached and Day worked in a leadership role in the mission for four years before leaving for his pastoral position. Kali Charan Banurji was not given adequate assurances from the missionaries about his status and about the care of his family in case of his death, so he gave up looking towards the ministry and studied law instead, graduating in 1870. Despite never becoming a Christian minister, he was always known among Hindus and Muslims as the Rev. Kali Charan Banurji.
Besides notable work as a lawyer, Kali Charan was always active in Christian work, leading Bible studies and prayer meetings, preaching to Hindus in an evangelistic hall, and as an elder in the church. He became a friend of Keshab Chandra Sen of the Brahmo Samaj, whom he considered a brother in Christ. In 1870 along with Joy Govinda Shome he started a weekly newspaper which ran for 33 years, The Indian Christian Herald. The point of the paper was to develop a more robust faith in Christ as well as to bring the message of Christ before Hindus. He was politically active, being one of the speakers at an 1877 meeting protesting that the Indian Civil Service was not open to Indians, except those who studied and took the exam in England. Also in 1877 he helped found the Bengali Christian Conference. He was a member of the Indian National Congress from its inception in 1885 and served on a number of committees that guided the Congress. He continued to be interested in education as well, and particularly was involved in opening higher education opportunities for women.
The lasting legacy of Kali Charan Banurji is his patriotism; he refused to accept that following Christ led to foreign ways. Yet Christianity in India was deeply marked by foreign patterns and doctrines, so in 1887 he withdrew from the church and started the Christo Samaj. The strength of institutional Christianity was too strong for the Samaj to overcome, however, and it died in 1895. The ideals that drove Kali Charan to resist the Christianity of his time were spelled out in a message to the 1888 Calcutta Missionary Conference:
The impression is abroad in India that Christianity is a foreign religion and in order to dissipate this impression (1) just as Paul became all things to all men, so missionaries without ceasing to be Christians might become Hindus in order to reach Hindus; (2) they should be associated with a life of poverty as is the idea of a religious teacher here, instead of living in ease and comfort; (3) they should recognize the germs of truth in the religions of the country, and (4) a convert should be allowed to be an Episcopalian without joining the Church of England or a Presbyterian without joining the Church of Scotland. In short, might not missionaries make it possible for converts to become members of an Indian rather than a foreign church?
Despite his effort to start a separate Indian church, Banurji was never of a narrow mind or spirit. When the YMCA began in Calcutta with interdenominational evangelistic fervor he quickly got involved and became one of the key leaders. When in 1905 17 key leaders from around the country met to inaugurate the National Missionary Society of India, Kali Charan was elected vice-president. At his death in 1907 Kali Charan was mourned by people of all communities as a humble and godly leader. He had failed to impact the Indian church with a proper regard for its cultural heritage, and his effort to restart a truly Indian church quickly foundered; but his testimony of faithfulness to Christ and his cause as an Indian will continue to speak to all who learn of his life.
 Barber, B. R., Kali Charan Banurji: Brahmin, Christian, Saint. The Christian Literature Society for India, London, Madras and Colombo, 1912, pg. 50.
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.