How Christianity influenced Bengal
Archbishop Henry, Kolkata
The colonial era brought Christianity to the shores of Bengal. The Portuguese navigators found a happy shelter up the river Hooghly at Bandel. There they established their trading outpost, which was very lucrative drawing its wealth from the rich hinterland of Bengal. Trade was brisk and Bandel flourished. Close on to the Portuguese navigators, came the Danes to settle at Serampore and the French who made their settlement at Chandannagore. The English followed with the East India Company and opened up their base at the village of Sutanati later to develop into the city of Calcutta.
The ups and downs of this colonial history were many. Bandel was razed to the ground by Shah Jehan and his troops deporting around 10,000 Catholics to the capital at Agra. The wild elephant that was expected to crush the captives in the arena picked up the priest and placed him before the Emperor. This miraculous event led Shah Jehan to give Bandel 777 bighas of land and to reconstruct the damaged Church of Bandel. The Statue of Our Lady, which was being carried by a soldier across the river to, a Portuguese boat sank into the river along with the soldier shot by an arrow in his back. When years later the statue emerged on the shore with a bright light around it, the amazed inhabitants greeted the events with shouts of "Ma Utheche". The statue is still in Bandel and is the first Christian Shrine in Eastern India. People of all faiths come to the Bandel Basilica both for favours and in thanksgiving.
The Danes left their mark in Serampore with the Serampore College, which became well known through William Carey. The French developed Chandannagore and a number of artistic buildings and structures including the study of French still recall that period. However it was the Eastern India Company which finally took over the control of the Hooghly river by setting up Fort William at a strategic post and thereby commanding the other trading centres and forcing them to pay toll in order to reach their own trading outpost. This factor allowed the British colonial interests to spread all over Bengal which later through strategic contracts with the Rajas and Princes of the country led to the formation of British India.
It is to be noted that there was no direct religious interest in the minds of the Eastern India Company. Calcutta was basically a trading centre and grew to be the capital of British India.
Along with the navigators and training centres came the missionary whose influence led to the erection of the Church at Bandel, a College at Serampore, the coming of Sisters and the opening of a school at Chandannagore and the many schools and colleges in the city of Calcutta. They were off shoots of the trading settlements in these areas and were primarily directed to the service of the colonial rulers and their families. The various Christian denominations gave rise to the many schools in the city. Most famous among them are St. Xavier's College, St. James, Pratt Memorial, La Martiniere, David Hare, Scottish Memorial and several others dating over a hundred years. These denominational schools were founded primarily to serve their own Christian followers. The schools of course were open to all castes and creeds. This has had many deep influences in Bengal. They had a simultaneous impact on the inhabitants. This was further enhanced by the famous MaCaulay Decree insisting on English to be the language of all schools. Indians of all faiths took to English education enthusiastically, which simultaneously provided them economic and social gains. The colonial rulers had very little concern for religion as such and were quite happy to encourage all religious beliefs. They were extremely tolerant to Hinduism and Islam and other existing beliefs in the country.
St. Xavier's College has had a great influence in the Calcutta University. The Physics Department with a top Physicist as Fr. LaFont initiated the honours degree in the college. Famous men have passed through St. Xavier's, among them Rabindranath Tagore, Jyoti Basu and Sourav Ganguly. Of course the other Christian schools and colleges have also been the Alma Mater of many important and influential persons of Bengal.
Missionaries however soon realised the need for taking literacy and modern advances in education into the villages and the far flung areas of Bengal. I need not go into details about the missionary work of education and technical knowledge and their influence in Bengal. The Salesians have given technical skills through their institutions in Park Circus and Liluah. The Loreto Sisters promoted education of women. Invited by the British, they settled in the Governor's Villa at Middleton Row and also in Entally. Loreto House has had a pioneering influence for upgrading the status of women. The Loreto Sisters have even gone into the villages of 24 Parganas, at Morapai where both technical skills with academic learning have grown today into a high school. For over a hundred years the Loreto Sisters helped to empower women through their centre in Morapai in South Bengal.
The influence of Christianity on important national leaders is not easily quantified. C.F. Andrews was in close contact with Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. Brahmabandhav Upadhyay was first a Hindu reformer and later became a Christian witness. His efforts for an independent India are not sufficiently known. K. P. Alag wrote, "Brahmabandhav Upadhyay was the first national leader to demand total independence for India from the British. He was also the first to envisage a union between Hinduism and Christianity." I should also mention Sri Ramakrishna. He too is a part of the Christian heritage in Bengal. He practiced Christianity as also other religions. He wanted to create an era of religious unity. The Ramakrishna legacy was an effort to usher in a new civilisation by serving God in humanity, irrespective of caste, creed and religion.
When Pope John Paul II paid a visit to Calcutta the route took him through the streets from Dum Dum to Kalighat and they were lined by hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. The Statesman spoke of the "Hidden Legionaries of the Pope".
Christianity has brought with it a number of important factors, among them the concern for the poor and the underprivileged. Homes for orphans and homes for the aged were started. Well known today are the St.. Joseph's Home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor and the Shishu Bhavan of Mother Teresa. Mother Teresa responded to the dying destitutes with her Nirmal Hriday Ashram and Shanti Dan. She brought hope to many of the helpless lying on the streets of Calcutta, mostly caused by the partition of Bengal. Her Nirmal Hriday at Kalighat and the Shishu Bhavan at Lower Circular Road and Shanti Dan at No. 4 Bridge stand out today as very special features of Christian influence in Bengal.
Let me summarise my reflections haphazardly written. Christianity influenced Bengal first by commerce and trade; later in its political history, when Calcutta was the Capital of India. The educational and social work of the missionaries in particular have a character of their own from higher university learning down to street ministry to the needs of the poor. Christianity has also brought the fruits of education and literacy into the deepest villages of the State. Given the small percentage of Christians in Bengal, it is indeed remarkable that so much has been achieved and so great has been the influence of Christianity in this Eastern State of India