Christianity and Karma

William Carey and the Passion to Reform India

‘Carey’s mission to India inaugurated a new era in the history of the Christian church.’ So says biographer Timothy George.

He then outlines how Carey’s example impacted others who later followed in his steps (see George, Faithful Witness, IVP, 135-152)

Carey’s ideological impact on India
Certainly his impact on the Western church was great. But author and Indologist, Vishal Mangalwadi focuses on Carey’s impact on India itself. This makes for fascinating and challenging reading!

Mangalwadi sees Carey not only as an Evangelist but as a Reformer, and a man of courage and faith.

The courage to say that there’s a problem
He writes, ‘The primary presupposition of any reform…is that before we can improve a society, we have to admit that it is degenerate. The second presupposition is that a fundamental change is, in fact, possible – even if the majority is against the change.’

Comprehensive opposition
‘The opposition to Carey was phenomenal. It came from the British Parliament, from the Company, from the Military, from the Oriental scholars, from his own mission board, and also from the very people he was seeking to serve – the Indians themselves.’ (Mangalwadi, Carey and the Regeneration of India, Good Books, 76)

Part of the resistance to reform, Mangalwadi argues, was the traditional doctrine of karma, which teaches that the earth is the place where souls are living out the deserved consequences of the sins of former lives. Therefore to reform, to alleviate suffering, to initiate an escape from that suffering was to violate this process.

‘What then, should a man born ‘untouchable’ do? Or a widow? Or a leper? The Hindu/Buddhist answer is that each has to live with their karma and dharma, as best they can, without seeking to change fate in any fundamental way.’

‘This was not all; if karma, stars, and demons did leave some freedom for a person, it was severely limited by the Hindu scriptures, written, often, from Brahmanical self-interest.

‘[Hence] the scriptural mandates behind India’s social and intellectual evils worked powerfully against reforms…Is reform possible when religion defends evil and the State is committed not to interfere with religion?

The faith to believe that the problems can be overcome
‘Carey’s faith in a transcendant Ruler, the God of History who was above human rulers, sustained him against all odds.

‘One result of his success has been that since his day, most Indians (including even those who believe in karma, reincarnation, astrology, Brahmanical scriptures etc) now tend to agree that reform is possible. They are forced to reject the fatalistic idea that reform is not possible.

Carey’s imprint of faith is still bearing fruit today
‘That premise had ruled Indian civilisation and ruined India for two thousand years. Carey’s belief that human suffering can be and should be resisted has dominated the last two hundred years of Indian history.’ (Mangalwadi, 76-77)

That’s a pretty impressive perspective from an expert on Indian thought and history.

But Carey was a practical Reformer, and not primarily a philosopher. His efforts launched a vast number of practical projects and initiatives in Indian society.

We’ll continue to pick up the story of Carey’s reform programme next time…

For more on the William Carey story begin here

© 2011 Church History Blog / Lex Loizides

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