Narayam Vaman Tilak and the Bible (Part I)

Posted: January 28, 2013 in General

n.v. tilakDr. Plamthodathil Samuel Jacob (knowm as P. S. Jacob) was principal of Ahmednagar College (under University of Pune), Ahmednagar, and was Interim Principal of Union Biblical Seminary, Pune. For more details about Dr. P. S. Jacob go here. I requested him to write a post about Narayan Vaman Tilak and he is herewith for us.

[Narayan Vaman Tilak (1861 – 1919) was a remarkably influential poet of Maharashtra with indigenous Christian ideas.  He was brought up in a scholarly and orthodox Chitpavan Brahmin family. In addition to Marathi and Sanskrit, he also mastered writing and speaking English. He wandered around for engaging himself in occupational adventures, even as a mendicant for a while. Being an ardent seeker of Truth, he read earnestly a copy of the New Testament presented to him by a fellow traveler. He found Jesus an irresistible personality and accepted Christ publicly through baptism. For him Jesus was an ideal human, the personification of divine love with a unmistaken identity with God as his father. He admired Jesus for his sacrifice on the cross and the demonstration of the power of prayer throughout life. Tilak settled down to missionary activities and served relentlessly the Ahmednagar region of Maharashtra through the American Marathi Mission. Towards the last days of his life, he felt that he was to be an ‘Indian Apostle’ of Christ. He referred to himself as ‘a Tukaram[1] and a St.Paul blended together’ (Indian Christians 1928). It truly reflects his understanding of the Bible in Indian crucible. Towards the end of his life, Tilak initiated a movement called ‘Durbar (a place of royal audience) of the Lord Jesus Christ’ which welcomed both baptized and ‘unbaptized’ believers in the loving bonds of Christ. Tilak made a special effort to relate Christian teachings to the religious heritage of India.[2]

He wandered as a mendicant and spent some time working as a school teacher. But he earned his livelihood by giving speech, kirtans (folk religious singing) and recitations of the Puranic stories, in different places. For a short time he worked in a printing press. Tilak travelled to places like Poona (Pune) and Bombay and spent time in various occupations from teaching in school to doing odd jobs like writing letters for illiterate people. He was very much interested in spreading education and attempted to start schools at Panchavati, Murbi and Wai. He loved teaching and was popular as a teacher both among children and adults. Later, when he met Appa Saheb Bhatt, a wealthy citizen of Nagpur, he employed Tilak  to edit a large collection of Vedic literature. Tilak proved himself as a bright Vedic scholar and gained fame as a poet. In his pursuit of the study of different religious ideas and philosophies of India, he found himself developing a broad and tolerant view of life, shaking himself free from fanatical orthodoxy. Tilak adopted an independent and liberal outlook. Since caste observances and the performance of religious rituals became a futile exercise for him, he openly defied some regulations of caste and followed the path of fearless adventure, seeking after the truth. He also cultivated a great love for his country and wanted to make a truly useful contribution to its freedom and culture. His poems reflect the passionate love of a true patriot, rising above the bondage of caste and creed. After he became a follower of Christ and fervently loved him and his teachings while maintaining his strong patriotic credentials all along. His newly found loyalty to Christ also reflected in his poetic compositions.

Tilak and His Encounter with the New Testament (Bible)

During the ten years of wandering after his marriage, Tilak was full of spiritual unrest. He tried several methods of achieving spiritual enrichment. While he was looking for new avenues for the expression of truth, during a train journey, he came across a European. The stranger initially engaged him in a lively conversation on poets and poetry, but soon went on to ask him about his attitude towards Christianity in relation to his spiritual quest. He prayed with him and gave him a copy of the New Testament. He advised Tilak to study the Bible and predicted that before the end of two years he would be a Christian. As Tilak read the New Testament, he found himself firmly attracted by the Sermon on the Mount and its words of love, compassion and truth. He continued to read the Bible because he wanted to know more about Christ, whose words and spirit of love were found in the Sermon on the Mount. After his study, he concluded that Christ was the Teacher whom India and the world needed. From his study of the New Testament he found that Jesus Christ was indeed an irresistible person of divine origin. From his personal study of the Bible and experience of Christ, he summarized his idea of Christ as follows (Jacob, 1979): (1) Christ was the ideal man to be followed in one’s spiritual journey; (2) He alone upheld the love of God and of man as equally important; (3) He perfectly identified himself with His Father; (4) Christ in human form had unfailing faith in Himself as the life and light of the world; and (5) The sacrifice and suffering on the Cross and the whole history of the Crucifixion was a great source of spiritual inspiration for all to keep. The understanding of the teachings of Jesus Christ through the Bible brought him to a great appreciation of the power of Jesus and the effectiveness of prayer. Tilak’s ardent devotion, passion and enthusiasm for Christ remained with him till he breathed his last. In spite of the threat of poverty, loss of employment, loss of friends and the separation from his family for a number of years, he was immersed in the love of Christ.

Tilak’s perception of the Bible was mainly experiential and not necessarily a scholarly study of the Bible in the conventional sense. Tilak was neither a theologian nor a biblical scholar in traditional meanings of the terms. Nevertheless one can find an Indian cultural leaning in his interpretations of Biblical themes. It is important to recall that he was an ardent follower of Christ and Bible remained his main stay in understanding the love and eternal presence of Jesus. As a renowned poet-saint of Maharashtra, he expressed his understanding of the Bible in his poetic masterpiece after he became a follower of Christ. Tilak’s biblical analysis has to be viewed as an experiential response to Christ whom he found not through anybody’s preaching but as a result of reading the Bible. He expressed his spiritual ideas mostly through poetic work of genius and by over three hundred Christian hymns (Marathi). The hymns were composed by him for Christian worship and devotional singing. Marathi speaking Christians mostly depended on Western hymns till then translated into Marathi by American missionaries. He wanted to express his experience of Christ in worship, springing from his own heart. The hymns are found in the Marathi Hymnal, Upasana Sangeet /Sacred Hymns, regularly used by Marathi speaking congregations in India and abroad. Tilak introduced his innovative ideas of Christian life by combining ‘other worldliness’ of the Indian saintly approach to spirituality and yet being rooted in human world of daily living. Worshippers ought to relate the spirituality beyond the established ‘Christian rituals’ to spirituality grounded in Indian way of life. He found that Christ and the Bible have meaningful relatedness to the Natural environment around us and also to interaction with other human lives. Such a combination could enrich one’s soul through day-to-day spiritual relationship with Christ. For him, Bible meant Jesus Christ.  His understanding of the Bible was fully ‘Christo-centric’ enhanced by an ardent faith in its Trinitarian expression. A true glimpse of Tilak’s understanding of the Bible has to be gleaned from his crucial poems and hymns. His experience of Christ and Bible are mostly reflected in his poetic works.

Perception of the Bible in Indian Cultural Format

Tilak wanted to present the story of Christ in ‘Ramayana’(Hindu Epic) style and believed that it could help more people in India to understand Christ and the Bible. He planned the composition of Christayana (Khristayana) in eleven books but he could finish only the first book before his death. It contained the birth and childhood of Jesus Christ. His wife Laxmibai Tilak took up the task after his death and added sixty-four chapters to the eleven originally visualized. The final chapter was composed by his son, Devdatt Tilak. The first chapter was entitled “Invocation”. As a sample of a couple of stanzas in translation ( translated by Fr. J.C. Winslow) originally published in Bhaktiniranjana by N.V.Tilak, (Nagrik  Press, n.d.) is given below (vv 1, 6):[3]

Lord of the world, hail, hail to Thee!

Creator, Sovereign, Saviour Thou! Lord

Joy of Saints, let all things bow

In worship of Thy Majesty!

Love which no man can name in word,

Yet in experience all may prove-

Steadfast, immortal, holy Love-

Such is Thy nature, Sovereign Lord!

Tilak has beautifully presented the Biblical expression of love in reverence by using the Ramayana literary format. Tilak wanted the language to be Hindu friendly/grounded in Indian culture, so that more may feel at ease in the reading of the biblical message and the Bible.]

End Notes:

[1] A famous Bhakti saint of Maharashtra (Indian Christians, Natesan & Co. First edition, Madras 1928).

[2] Jacob, P.S., The Experiential Response of N.V.Tilak,  (Madras 1979); Tilak, N.V. Bhaktiniranjana  (Nasik n.d.); Abhanganjali, Tilakanchi Kavita (Manoranjan Press, Mumbai, 1914); Winslow J.C. Narayan Vaman Tilak (1923).

[3] Please note that all poems and hymns quoted are in translation and the original is in Marathi. Hence it lacks the original purity and subtlety of expression. But it will give the reader at least a distant glimpse of Tilak’s articulation.

(Will be continued…. Part II)

  1. Pulak Samantaroy says:

    good work …

  2. Rev. Sanjay Gaikwad says:

    Dear Sir

    thank you very much for this meaningful piece of literature on Narayan Vaman Tilak. Very useful information.

  3. Nice to learn that it is a “good work” and a “meaningful piece of literature”.You can expect the second and the last part of it anytime from now.

  4. Naveen R Bhambal says:

    Thank You sir, for ur effort to write about Narayan Vaman Tilak

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