Saturday, December 27, 2014

The 200 Years of the Punjabi Bible

When the great Sikh ruler of the Punjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780–1839) heard that an American missionary has arrived on the other side of River Sutlej, the boundary between the Sikh and British territories, he sought to meet him. The maharaja primarily wanted to judge whether this young American can teach English to the young boys of his military chiefs. John C. Lowrie (1808–1900), all of 26 years of age, met him at his Lahore Darbar in early 1835.

Historian John C. B. Webster tells us that in one of the several meetings that the maharaja and the missionary had, the question that really piqued the curiosity of the great Sikh was how God wanted rulers to govern. He wanted to know from the Bible that if God punishes the wrongdoings committed my men, why do human authorities and rulers exist.  To which Lowrie replied: “Rulers are appointed by God to punish in this world many kinds of wickedness; but all will have to give an account, in the next world, to God, both rulers and subjects.” One could, of course, hear the echoes of interactions that Daniel may have had with the ancient kings like Nebuchadnezzar and Darius! Rulers must always remember that their power is not absolute and there is one above them whom they must give an account to.

More importantly, Lowrie also mentioned to him that civil authorities in “Christian” countries can use their power to punish wrongdoings of the priestly class: ‘“What! if a padre commits a crime, will they [the government] punish him like another man?” “Certainly.” This he deemed wonderful.’ This piece of ordinary information from Lowrie undoubtedly stunned Ranjit Singh as in the Indian subcontinent religious leaders and priests routinely claimed superiority over the ruling class and escaped the consequences of their crimes and “sins”. The struggle continues to this day, as many religious extremist organizations continue to defy the Indian constitution and say that the claims of “faith” do not recognize the demands of law.

Lowrie also gifted him an English Bible and the Punjabi Pentateuch. Earlier, during his journey, Lowrie had thought of gifting Punjabi New Testament to Lehna Singh, the chief of Amritsar district. But he already had one!

It is worth noting here that Lowrie, the first missionary to Punjab arrived only in 1834, but the Scripture was already available in Punjabi. British Baptist missionary, William Carey, the leader of the Serampore trio, had already produced a Punjabi Bible in 1815, nearly twenty years before any missionary set foot in the state! 

George Smith, Carey’s biographer, wrote about the impact of the Bible that was already being seen in Punjab.
The Punjabi Bible, nearly complete, issued first in 1815, had become so popular by 1820 as to lead Carey to report of the Sikhs that no one of the nations of India had discovered a stronger desire for the Scriptures than this hardy race. At Amritsar and Lahore “the book of Jesus is spoken of, is read, and has caused a considerable stir in the minds of the people.” A Thug, asked how he could have committed so many murders, pointed to it and said, “If I had had this book I could not have done it.” A fakeer, forty miles from Lodiana, read the book, founded the community of worshippers of the Sachi Pitè Isa, and suffered much persecution in a native State.
However, it was left to another American Presbyterian missionary to revise and improve the Punjabi translation. John Newton (1810–1891) arrived with his wife Elizabeth (1812–1857) and other missionaries in India in 1835. Newton also brought a printing press with him. Over the years, in the course of translating and printing the Bible in ten different languages, Newton also blessed Punjab with the first Punjabi grammar (1851) and the first Punjabi dictionary (1854). He is indeed a pioneer in the field of modern Punjabi language and literature.

Christianity, however, had the greatest impact on the illiterate untouchables of Punjab. It was with Ditt (b. ca. 1834), a dealer of hides, in the district Sialkot (now in Pakistan), that the Christian mass movement began in Punjab.  In this Spirit-led movement, the number of Christians increased from 3,796 in 1881 to 3,75,031 in 1921.

The missionaries were now faced with the dilemma whether to allocate majority of their resources for evangelism or for pastoral and educational work. Missionaries had already started schools, but many more were required. To begin with, missionaries were slow to respond to this need. They did, however, plant schools and churches together as the time went by.

Today, the literacy rate among Christians of Punjab stands at little over 54% (2001 Census), which is the second lowest in all communities in Punjab. This is in complete contrast to the national figures, where Christians are second from the top with over 80% literacy rate. This may seem like a big failure of the church, because it means that about 50% of Punjabi Christians cannot read, let alone immerse themselves in, the scripture. God has given his Word in the written form; it is the first responsibility of the church and of individual believers to do all that is possible to acquire skills to read and analyse the great scriptural truths. This is not to deny the great efforts made by even the illiterate converts to absorb the scriptures to the fullest. They memorized by heart various long passages of the Bible, including the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the entire Sermon on the Mount, 1 Corinthians 13, the creeds and hosts of psalms and proverbs. In fact, Zaboors, the Punjabi rendering of the Psalms by Imam-ud-din Shahbaz in early 1900s has made the great devotional poetry an integral part of Punjabi worship and has instilled the Word in the minds and souls of the Punjabi church. But memorizing is no substitute for the ability to read for oneself. 

One obvious way out is for more and more children, and even adults, to be enrolled in schools and other education facilities. Pastors must make it their top priority that everyone in their congregation is literate. It is also imperative to find and create teachers who could work sacrificially to motivate a demoralized set of people to excel in studies.

Another way is to work with churches to improve biblical literacy and to give the congregations the skills to do a deep study of the scriptures. The experience of history tells us that the reading and related analytical skills common people in the West acquired, especially post-Reformation, went a long way in transforming the very fabric of the social culture of the West. The skills they acquired during Bible reading were successfully applied to their professional lives, and it resulted in general improvement in efficiency and ability to perform complex tasks. People did not study to do well in their professions. They did well in their professions because they had been reading the Bible, the Word of God.

The new generation of Christian leaders and educators in and outside Punjab must take up this challenge. Fifty-four per cent may seem like a failure; but, seen from another angle, it is a figure to be proud of. In 180 years, the literacy rate has improved from nearly 0% to 54%! In this age of technical advancements and pedagogical expertise so easily available, is it merely a pipedream to expect the figure to soar to 100% in next two generation?

A small group of believers in Punjab have been praying to use the bicentenary of the Punjabi Bible as an occasion to bring the Punjabi church “Back to the Bible”.  Their vision is to hold 200 intensive Bible-study workshops across Punjab in the year 2015! What better could be there way to introduce literacy and love for the Bible among the church? Would you like to join in prayers?

 (Published in the Oct–Nov 2014 issue of Christian Trends)

Friday, March 21, 2014

Voters must demand the world

Hum mehnatkash is duniya se jab apna hissa mangenge
Ik bagh nahin, ik khet nahin, hum saari duniya mangenge

Hasan Kamaal had slightly modified the words of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ghazal for this song for the 1983 Hindi movie Mazdoor. But the powerful idea brought out by the Marxist poet comes across very clearly. The toiling, the “working-class” people of the world are not forever going to wait for crumbs to fall from the tables of the high and mighty of the world. Once they rise up to demand their share in world’s wealth and resources, they would actually go on and seize it all. This is a legitimate aspiration of the people of our country. Our history has been a story of the chosen few ruling over the vast majority. There was one set of people whose birthright it was to rule our minds. And there was another set, who exercised its own birthright in ruling our bodies. Brahmins and Kshatriyas had held the intellectual and physical—religious and political—power in their tight grip through centuries. It was not till the middle of the 20th century that we Indians experienced what it means to have people decide who would rule them. It was only in the last decades of the last century that people from the toiling classes, the oppressed majority, Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs began tasting the fruits of political power in India. The aspiration of people is at an all-time high today. The general election is around the corner. How are people going to fulfil their aspirations? What will help them make right decisions? Will they be swayed by empty slogans of Bijli, Sadak, Pani? The never-realized promise of Roti, Kapda, Makan? It is true that political parties must give people concrete plans and clear picture of their programmes. But we the voters must evolve also. Our aspirations must include not only tangible objects and facilities but also values and ideals. It’s not for nothing that Jesus taught us to pray first for the Kingdom of God and only then ask for our Daily Bread! As we prepare to vote and seek to play a role in our own governance let’s ponder over which party or candidate best upholds and promotes the values of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity as enshrined in our Constitution. Let us become people who reject verbal promises and ask our candidates to ensure in deed that ideals are realized. People need more than bread (Matt 4:4). They need dignity, opportunity and liberty—for themselves and also their neighbours. Let us demand the world where highest values are materialized and practiced. We don’t need bloody revolutions to do that. A little bit of honest reflection before we go to the polling booth will help a great deal.

Published in Punjabi–English fortnightly Masihi Sansar (15–30 March 2014) published from Jalandhar

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

India's Silent Carnage

Conversation I
I asked P___ about his favourite subject in school. "Punjabi." he said without looking at me.
"And which is the subject you like the least?" 
"The teacher beats a lot."   
P____ is 10 years old. Once in a while, he accompanies his mother H_____, who works as a cleaner in several of the apartments. His father is a truck driver who's mostly away. 
Conversation II
Garbage cart (
The fellow who worked as a janitor found a work in the pantry in a nearby BPO. I saw his replacement from my balcony a few days later. He had a small child with him, riding on the cycle garbage cart. The father was pushing it from behind. I jumped over the railing, walked up to them and asked why wasn't the child in school. The father obviously didn't expect me to be speaking to him about the child's education. By his demeanour, he seemed to have been preparing for the defense against some middle-class peeve I might have been bringing against him. On hearing my query, hopefully sufficiently polite, he mouthed an obscenity directed at his son and said, "I have told him to go to school but he refuses to listen." It was hard for me to accept how a 9- or 10-year-old can defy his father. So I asked the boy directly, "Why don't you go to school". "The teachers there beat me a lot, even without any fault of mine," he had the answer ready. 
Conversation III
A few years back, I had assisted a few kids from a nearby slum to develop a short skit on the obstacles they face in pursuit of their education. The few that were highlighted included: (i) drug abuse, (ii) parents insensitive to education, (iii) prejudice against girls education and yes, (iv) physical violence inflicted by apparently frustrated teachers.

I myself have been whacked a few times while I was at school, so I am not against corporal punishment per se. But in the case of these boys, one could clearly see that it was not just a case of discipline. 

Children of Dalit parents still find it extremely hard to secure a place in the classroom. The daily physical violence, besides verbal and psychological abuse, not only perpetuates demoralization in individuals but, in fact, pushes entire generations into uneducatedness despite proliferation of schools and educational institutions. 

The problem is that it is teachers, with their warped mindsets, who are responsible for this monumental crime, this very selective intellectual slaughter. 

This is not any less horrific than any of the school shootouts that happen on, let's say, American school campuses.  The latter does get a lot of media coverage, and rightly so. 

But isn't it time we also talk about India's silent carnage?