Project Canterbury

India and Oxford
Fifty Years of the Oxford Mission to Calcutta

London: SPCK, [n.d., but 1933]

Chapter II. The Oxford Mission and the Educated Classes

By common report there is an Oxford Mission to Calcutta, but in the Constitution and Rule of the Society the word "Calcutta" finds no place. The Society is described as "The Society of Mission Priests for India known as the Oxford Mission Brotherhood of the Epiphany." The commission of the Brotherhood is thus to India. Now, a Society of Mission Priests with India for its parish could hardly make its headquarters in a more fitting place than Calcutta, for Calcutta is an epitome of all India--the "heart of India," as Father Rivington called it. More than half of its inhabitants do not use Bengali as their mother-tongue. Indians from every province make their homes in the city, which in population is the second largest in the Empire. Missionaries who work in Calcutta thus necessarily find themselves in some sort of touch with every part of India and Ceylon, and even with countries which are beyond the frontiers, such as Sikkim and Nepal. Visitors to the Mother House include Sikhs and Panjabis, Sinhalese and Nepalis, Hindi-speaking folk and Tamils, Telugus and Malayalese, Marathis and Khasis; the list could be lengthened, and from all these races we have had students in our hostels. And yet Bengalis are naturally those with whom the Brethren have most to do and whose language they attempt first to acquire.

"The object of the Society," so the Constitution lays down, "shall be to extend the Kingdom of Christ in India, especially among the more educated natives of the country: firstly, by Eucharist and prayer; secondly, by study and work among them."

The Oxford Mission, then, claiming India as its sphere, "takes off" from the great city of Calcutta in the valley of the Ganges. This valley may be said to include Upper Bengal, East Bengal and Assam. It provides human beings with a tropical vapour-bath for the greater part of the year, but, being one of the most fertile tracts of country in the world, it also provides food for one of the densest populations found on the earth's surface; not "densest," of course, in the sense of "stupidest"--they are anything but that--but in the vastness of their numbers.

The great majority of this population consists of actual cultivators of the soil. Many of them belong to the lower castes of Hinduism and possibly more to the "untouchable" class; for in Bengal, strangely enough, the Namasudras, who are mainly cultivators, are regarded as outside the pale of orthodox Hindu society. But it is not only the lower castes of Hindus and those outside caste who are the cultivators of this wonderful soil teeming with every product of nature; Muslims form rather more than half of the agricultural population. In some districts of East Bengal they are in an overwhelming majority. Of the work amongst these cultivators in East Bengal an account is given in Chapter V. But whether the cultivators be Hindu or outcaste or Muslim, they are for the most part illiterate. The Western educational movement has hardly touched these masses. Only about one in ten of the whole population can read and write.

Who, then, are "the more educated natives of the country" to whom the Oxford Mission is primarily sent? With millions and millions receiving no education, who are to be described as "the more educated"? And here we are confronted with an astonishing fact. It might be expected that, as the general level of education, numerically speaking, is so low, those who could be described as "more educated" would be proportionally small in number. But this is not the case; the proportion of the educated classes who are taking full-time University courses is nearly ten times as great as in Great Britain. The actual number is about the same, but in proportion to the educated population the number of those receiving University education in Bengal is ten times greater than in England.

It is not difficult, then, to decide who are "the more educated" to whom the Oxford Mission is especially sent. They are the classes who are filling or have filled in the past the high schools and colleges of the two Universities of Bengal.

Readers may not unnaturally enquire how comes this disparity in Indian education; the masses uneducated, and yet such large numbers of University students! Why is it that a higher proportion of the educated classes of Bengal than in any other country set before themselves a University degree as the natural goal of their ambition?

The answer is briefly this: The Bengalis show little capacity for commerce or industry. They have lost their retail trade; this is in the hands of Marwaris. They have lost their export trade; this is in the hands of Europeans, Japanese, and Armenians. Coal mines and jute mills, with a very few exceptions, are controlled by those who have settled in the country. The tradition which has excluded the educated in Bengal from practical pursuits is very strong. Long abstention from such callings may no doubt have produced incapacity. The result is that now, though many wish it were otherwise, they have nothing to turn to except clerical labour and law, and to these a literary training is believed to open the door. So they crowd to the University as their one and only hope. Only the other day the writer said to a poor Brahman student who was begging for help that he might take a University degree, "And if you do get a degree, how will it help you to support yourself? There are hundreds--indeed, thousands--of men with literary degrees seeking work and finding none." He replied: "I know that, but there is nothing else for me or any of us to do." Alas! he spoke truly.

A very large class with a grievance is always a menace to an ordered society. The grievance of this class is that, having attained their aim in a University provided by the Government, there are no outlets for their tested ability except such as in most cases they think utterly unworthy of them. A large class, and that the one and only vocal class, with a grievance is dangerous to the body politic. But of that no more need be said. It is obvious enough: nor will a change of Government remove the menace.

The reason why space is being used to explain the vast numbers who seek a literary education is that it will help to make manifest who are the more educated people among whom the Oxford Mission Brotherhood is trying to extend the Kingdom of Christ.

They come in the main from the three great literary castes who for unnumbered centuries have been the clerks, the lawyers, the priests, the doctors, and the teachers of the population.

Two questions remain to be answered before we go on to show how the Oxford Mission Brotherhood has attempted to approach them. From what sort of homes and schools do they come? What sort of religious ideas occupy their minds? It is not in cities, it should be remembered, but in villages that the people of India mainly live. The real homes of most of the members of these literary castes are in villages and small townships. The Hindu home is usually of composite structure, with the grandfather or grandmother presiding at the head. The sons may be absent for a large part of the year, as the earning members of the family, but they regard this as the real home, and usually their wives and children are there. The grandparents uphold the primitive orthodox traditions, but are generally most indulgent to the younger children, and have a much greater influence over their minds than the actual parents. The mother almost invariably spoils her sons, and the father (often, however, absent) seems to be the only authority of whom they stand in wholesome awe. A composite home injures a sense of responsibility. Even grown-up sons with children are continually in subordination and will not shoulder responsibility. As early as possible the boys are sent to school, and it is drilled into them from their earliest years that a "good" boy is one who "by-hearts" his lessons well, wastes no time in playing, comes straight home from school, and after refreshment continues "by-hearting" until it is time for food and bed. The high school teaching is incredibly bad, and it is not from lack of natural ability that the Bengali boy has perforce to turn himself into a parrot. He will sit over his books at home and in school for long hours which would be intolerable to an English boy. English has been the medium of instruction in the schools for generations, and the result has been that words become counters to play with and arrange; it is always the phrase, the conjunction of sounds, that matters, not its meaning. "Rules and Regulations" are to be read and learned, not to be kept; it causes great surprise and perturbation when it is insisted that rules are made in order to be kept; such an idea has never before entered their minds, because words divorced from meaning have been the medium of instruction for so long. It will be realized that with lads trained from childhood in this way verbal assent to truth will not necessarily imply any movement of the will, because truth has so largely become to them a knowledge of words and no more; what is behind and within the words does not concern them. It has lately been resolved in the Senate of the Calcutta University that henceforth Bengali shall be the medium of instruction in the high schools instead of English, and eventually it is hoped that this may be possible also in the colleges of the University. Undoubtedly, given time, this should effect a marked mental change; for at present from their early years they are instructed in a language in which they do not think: if they are instructed in the language in which they think, their minds may become more in touch with realities. The change will be a handicap to English missionary teachers, for to teach these boys in a foreign language must be almost as difficult as it is now for the boys to learn in a foreign language; in any case, it is a very different matter from teaching simple folk the truths of religion.

As regards the religious ideas in their minds, these have been absorbed from the Hindu atmosphere rather than learned by definite instruction. A religious teacher is attached to every family of any consequence, even the most modest, but he rarely does anything more than draw his dues. The grandmother teaches the child to behave with proper respect to the family idol. Many households have something equivalent to an oratory in the house, where the women pay their devotions, whilst the children look on or play round the door. The great festivals are times of jollity and excitement, and they enjoy the noisy splendour of Durga puja and other celebrations at their own or their neighbours' houses. Every one of them is possessed by a pantheism derived from they know not where, but subtly insinuated into their thought, increasing that irresponsibility which the joint family life does so much to breed. If God is all and does all, in the last resort there is not much use in bothering about anything. It does not hinder enthusiasm at the start, but energy soon dies down. The Brahmans among them are instructed in the use of their own ritual prayers and formulas at the time when they are invested with the sacred thread, but they do not carry out the daily ceremonial prayer for very long after they matriculate and enter a college. They say that they are too busy and it takes too much time, but they pray vigorously before an examination, and sometimes offer a sacrifice to Kali. It may not do any good, but then it might. They are convinced that their scriptures contain deep and splendid wisdom, but they know nothing of them. Even the Bhagavad Gita, which they regard as the Hindu Gospel, is very rarely read by any of them until old age, which with them is what we should call middle age, begins to creep on. What Christians mean by the sense of sin does not exist, but they are excessively afraid of the consequences of, say, lying to a "holy man" of whatever variety he may be; just as much so in the case of a Christian as of a Hindu. Most have a vague belief in reincarnation, but are not quite sure about it. When the history of the Oxford Mission was first written scepticism as to Hinduism was rampant in India; it was believed to have hindered their progress and degraded them in the estimation of the world. Mill and Spencer were commonly reported to be the favourite authors of the progressives. All this has passed. Hinduism has revived and is passionately adhered to as a mark of patriotism. No one is ashamed of saluting idols, and even festivals of which respectable Hindus were heartily ashamed twenty-five years ago, such as the very disgusting Doljatra, are celebrated today with enthusiasm. To stand aloof argues a want of patriotism. The more popular anti-Christian writings of Bertrand Russell have some vogue, especially his strangely feeble and ill-informed reasons for rejecting Christianity, but the vast majority of the educated now believe that all religions are true, and amongst them the various forms of Hinduism and Christianity. Mill and Spencer have been long dethroned. There is a movement against religion in favour of secularism among some of the more educated in South India, but it falls flat in the North.

It is amongst young men such as these that the Oxford Mission is primarily sent in the hope that the Kingdom of Christ may be extended among them.

How, then, did the Brotherhood set to work? The student world in Calcutta to which the first comers in 1880 were introduced was very different from that of to-day. Then the thousands of students who were concentrated in Calcutta lived in joint lodgings over which there was no supervision whatever. In some cases as many as forty could live together, and in some as few as ten. The houses were generally insanitary and all the arrangements muddled and inefficient. At first the Fathers could do little but visit the students in their "messes," welcome them to the Mission House, offer them teaching, invite them to lectures, and befriend them in whatever way proved possible. They had no church to which to invite them. A really fine church in the quarter where thousands of educated men congregate, would have been a powerful aid and a continual witness. But in 1894 a new venture was made; a large house was hired, and students were invited to live with these English Christian priests in what was the first University hostel in Bengal and possibly in all India. A chapel was built two years later on the roof of the hostel, in which the Eucharist was daily celebrated and the offices were said. It is obvious how close at once became the touch between Christian missionary and some at least of the more educated classes. Above their heads Christian worship was solemnized; in the common room below they listened to lectures on the Christian religion or came to a Father's room to study the New Testament with him.

The Oxford Mission Brotherhood has always resolutely refused to add one more college to the innumerable colleges of India. This is not the place to compare the influence of educational Mission work with that of other methods; those who wish to see a fair estimate of the value of missionary colleges will find it in the Report of the Lindsay Commission which visited India in 1931. But it is indisputable that nearly the whole energy of a missionary "Professor" (as lecturers in colleges are nearly always called in India) must be absorbed in the teaching work, and that he is inexorably limited in that work by the exigencies of the examination system in vogue in the University. The Christian Professor is tied hand and foot by the syllabus and the examiner. To some of us it is wonderful that under such conditions they have accomplished even as much as they have. Moreover, missionary colleges are often enormous. The chief one in Calcutta has fourteen hundred students; many of the teaching staff, often the majority, are not Christian. On numbers so great, with Christian teachers so few, what intensive influence can be exerted? It was for this reason that the Oxford Mission Brotherhood became the pioneers of the hostel movement. Opportunity of the closest intimacy with students is given in hostel life, and it is remarkable how much warmer is the attachment of students to their hostel than it is to the college. In many athletic competitions it is the hostel and not the college for which they wish to play. Both Missions and Government have followed this lead.

The Report of the Calcutta University Commission, sent out under the presidency of Sir Michael Sadler in 1919, gives credit to the Oxford Mission for this great reform. "The Oxford Mission to Calcutta had been studying the problems of student life in Bengal, and had been impressed by the urgent need for housing accommodation. In 1894 they opened their first hostel in Calcutta, which has ever since remained a model of what a hostel should be. Their aim was not to provide instruction for students, but rather to place them in healthy surroundings and under careful supervision. Their action drew attention to the whole question, and other missionary societies soon began to follow the example."

When the first hostel was opened there was no other in Calcutta and probably in all India; there are now hostels attached to almost every college in Calcutta, Government, private, and missionary. No student is allowed to live in a mess which is not licensed and supervised by the University. The change since Father Walker, now nearly forty years ago, published a formidable indictment against both the University and the Government for their neglect of the students' welfare is indeed great. It is interesting to recall some of his scorching language: "Our educational system has invented a sufficiently unnatural state of things by congregating in this metropolis and its environment a vast swarm of youths and boys of all ages, of rudimentary morals, and less than rudimentary religion, under no system of supervision or discipline of any sort or kind. That vice of every shade, nameless and shameless, should abound is, of course, only what is to be expected under the circumstances; and the results are constantly being brought before us, sometimes in lamentable instances of wrecked lives, shattered physique, and damaged minds, though most of all, perhaps, in the strange and utter opaqueness in all spiritual concerns which so conspicuously characterizes the student population, and speaks all too clearly of premature darkening that comes by an early surrender to evil. Meanwhile an infatuated Government goes blundering on, providing lecture rooms and lectures and examinations in the pathetic hope of developing the talent of the country and rearing a morally competent official class."

In 1910 one of the Oxford Mission Fathers took the then Viceroy on a secret visit to some of the worst messes in the heart of the student quarters, and the shock he got when he saw the miserable conditions under which many of them were still living resulted in Government making a block grant of seven lakhs to the colleges and missionary societies solely for grants to be used for the building of hostels. [A lakh is a hundred thousand rupees. In English currency the sum amounted to nearly £47,000.]

The Oxford Mission Hostel, however, before this had been moved from a hired house to a site immediately to the east of the Mission House in Cornwallis Street. In 1905 a large and commodious hostel was built in Dacca, which was in full use until 1928, when the shortage of staff compelled the Brotherhood to close it. In 1913 a house was rented close to the Medical College and a hostel for medical students was added to the Oxford Mission Hostels. Four years later it moved to a fine building erected according to the Mission's own plans, just south of the great group of Medical College Hospitals. The hostel is known as the Hostel of St. Luke and has a beautiful chapel. The Fathers in charge of St. Luke's Hostel act as chaplains to the Medical College with its seven hospitals. This gives them opportunities on a wide scale of helping both Europeans and Indians. It is interesting to note that it has resulted in the baptism of two Hindus.

Quite clearly, then, the Oxford Mission Brotherhood's policy has helped to make life more comfortable, healthful and disciplined for the sons of the educated classes. Bishop Mylne, in his book Missions to Hindus, writes: "The Oxford Mission at Calcutta seems to me to have solved the problem more nearly than any other society. It has no college of its own. It is not an educational Mission. But its missionaries devote much time to the welfare of native students by helping them morally and spiritually, and even by assisting them in their studies."

But what about the extension of the Kingdom of God? Have members of the more educated class been drawn into the Catholic Church by surrender to the claims of Jesus Christ? Have they accepted Him as their Saviour and Redeemer, as their Lord and their God? The answer to this question is that ever since the hostel system was begun there have been converts--not a stream of them, but a tiny trickle--and that these converts, who had to pass through the fire of persecution before they reached the laver of regeneration, have been a source of great thanksgiving because their lives and witness have answered to their profession. But besides these converts, hundreds and hundreds of men now occupying various positions throughout Bengal and India have left the hostels with their hearts changed as to the value and power of the Christian religion. Several, indeed, though convinced of the truth, have drawn back from open profession; they could not face all that it must entail. One told the writer that his father, a judge in Bengal, had told him that the day his son was baptized he would kill himself. Of the large majority, however, it must be said that they are convinced inter-religionists, quite ready to acknowledge the truth of the Christian religion along with all the others, and some even ready to allow that probably it is the best. Whether this is to prove a real preparation for conversion on a large scale in the future no mere human being can foresee. It is ours to continue to sow, and

"Shall I count it nought
If only one poor gleaner, weak of hand,
Shall pick a scanty sheaf where I have sown?
'Nay; for of thee the Master doth demand
Thy work: the harvest rests with Him alone.'"

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