Manilal C. Parekh (1885-1967): Moving beyond the Church, Christianity and Christo-Centrism
Manilal C. Parekh was a Gujarati from a family that was traditionally Jain, but his father converted to Vaishnavism and Krishna bhakti. Through a friend he became attracted to Christ by reading The Imitation of Christ. When he learned about Keshab Chandra Sen (1838-1884) of the Brahmo Samaj he found a guru, and followed Keshab in everything, including his reverence for Christ. He went to Calcutta for four months of training and then worked as a Brahmo missionary for eight years in western India, being ordained a Brahmo minister in 1915.
Manilal’s own statement about his years as a Brahmo worker summarize the situation best: “During these years I stood strongly for Christo-Centre, although I was almost alone in this state of mind.”1 During an illness Manilal read the Bible and was completely won over to Christ. He contemplated beginning a Hindu Church of Christ, but was told by a Brahmo friend that the Indian church was moving on those lines so he joined the Anglican Church in 1918. He spent about a year at Mukti with Ramabai, and another six months with Christians in Bombay after his baptism. But he was very unhappy with what he saw of Christianity in India.
It is best to let Manilal describe his thoughts and actions at that time:
The Indian Christians could by no means be called Christians in my sense of the term, and they were not only not national in any sense of the term but were positively anti-national and still more anti-Hindu. The so-called Church of Christ was almost entirely “carnal” in the Pauline sense of the term. If Saint Paul could complain of there being “carnal Christians” in his own time, that is about thirty years after Jesus, how much more would that be true in India where Christianity was being propagated with all the material resources of the Western World? I used to discuss these things with some of the leading Indian Christians and missionaries who were frank enough to talk about these matters, and I found them to be fully aware of these evils though they would not speak of them openly. As regards myself, I could not tolerate this situation, since to my mind it was most harmful to both Christianity of the right type and to Hinduism. To me both these faiths were not only not antagonistic as practically all Christians, Indian and Western, believed, but they formed integral parts of one whole. To me, to be a true Hindu was to be a true disciple of Christ, and to be a true disciple of Christ meant to be more a Hindu and not less. This belief was woven into my being and it was the light of all my seeing and thinking. Thus, I had to fall back more or less on what I called the Hindu Church of Christ and I severed my connection with all organised Christianity.2
Manilal saw the same problems of the others, and seeing no like-minded community set out on his own path. He had come to the notice of many Christians and was invited to be the head of the Christa Seva Sangha ashram in Pune, but felt he could not join a distinctly Anglican institution. In 1924 an American sponsored him as a freelance evangelist, traveling around India speaking to educated people. This lasted for five years. He was made a member of the National Christian Council of India during this time and was supported in his work by Stanley Jones and others.
During visits to America in 1929 and 1933 Manilal became convinced that Christianity was not in any way producing better fruit than Hinduism. The publication of the book Christian Mass Movements in India became a watershed. Manilal was committed to a spiritual faith and was deeply dismayed by the shallowness of the Christianity he saw almost everywhere. This 1933 book by Bishop J. W. Pickett seemed to glorify the weakness of Christianity and support the less-than-spiritual methods and motives of many of the mass movement converts. Manilal responded with a bitter book entitled Christian Proselytism in India: A Great and Growing Menace, published only in 1947. This publication closed all doors for Manilal in the Christian world.
It is sad to note that conflicts and disillusionment with the Christian world led to Manilal drifting away from the Christ-centered position he had affirmed even while with the Brahmo Samaj. He became an advocate of what he called Bhagavata Dharma, an ideology that found truth in all religions and many prophets worthy of honor and discipleship. When I visited his grand-daughters in Rajkot, Gujarat, in 2000, they had no knowledge of his Christian involvement and stated that in his last years he faithfully visited a Swami Narayan temple.
The last word on Manilal will be that of his friend R. C. Das, from an obituary written in 1967:
Bhai Monilal was a valued and beloved friend. He and I, of about the same age, we found our saviour and Lord in Jesus Christ, he in 1915 and I in 1908. We soon became fast friends as in 1919 he lived with me in St. John’s College, Agra, for a while, where I was teaching at the time. He not only taught and preached in different churches and among other groups in India but also in many other countries of the world. He was a cosmopolitan Christian, a true member of the holy catholic and apostolic church. We shared many ideas and convictions as regards the Christian faith and its role in the context of the spiritual and social culture of India. It was a misfortune and a first class blunder on the part of the church, missionary ridden and western oriented—that such a humble, devout and loving soul, a dhoti-wearing and vegetarian Jain, a practical disciple and follower of Christ, could not be fully integrated in the visible fellowship of Christ and had to confine himself in his generous and loving family group—[that he] of the eminent qualifications of head and heart, of a convert who had been a missionary of the Brahmo Samaj, could not be utilized for the widening and humanising of the lives of Christian leaders who have been living in narrow theological and cultural grooves. The loser is the church and not he….3
1. “An Autobiographical Sketch,” in Manilal C. Parekh, Dhanjibhai Fakirbhai, ed. Robin Boyd, Library of Indian Christian Theology, Madras: Christian Literature Society, 1974, pg. 25.
2. Ibid., pp. 26-27.
3. R.C. Das: Evangelical Prophet for Contextual Christianity, ed. H. L. Richard, Confessing the Faith in India, Delhi: ISPCK, 1995, pp. 272-273.
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.