Saturday, December 29, 2007

Prof. S.K.George

An Unknown Gandhian and an unknown Christian
By P N Benjamin
SUNDAY HERALD, 22 OCTOBER 2000

When a young theologian stepped out of the portals of the Bishop’s College Calcutta in 1932, little did he
realize that the teachings of Christ would be religiously followed by an ‘unbeliever’. Much to the shock of
his relatives and friends w ho expected him to be conventional parson of the Anglican Church,
Srampickal Kuruvilla George by the message and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.
George saw in Gandhi, a person who dared to live the Christian life and even called others to do so.
Never had he seen anyone who treated the Gita and the Sermon on the Mount as Gospels. His conviction
to follow the Gandhian way also gave him enough audacity to express theological doubts pertaining to
the exclusive Divinity of Christ. Theologians, who were taken by surprise at George’s affirmations,
postponed his ordination as a priest of the Church, hoping that he would come back to the real faith of the
Church.
Since the irrevocable had happened, George became a social leper in theological circles. Unmindful of the
hostility, George went a step further. In the 1930s, when the Church in India did not show any sympathy
towards the national movement, George urged the Christians to join the Civil Disobedience Movement for
he firmly believed that the ‘satyagraha’ ‘was the Cross in action’. He published an appeal to all Indian
Christians and the Church to join in and act as custodians of non-violence as a community which claimed
to believe in the supreme instance of the triumphant satyagraha the world has seen, viz, the Cross of Jesus
of Nazareth. The Bengal Government took objection to this statement and two Calcutta papers were
penalized. George himself escaped Government prosecution. But this sympathy with Indian nationalism
was regarded as disloyalty to the Church and the Government.
The then head of the Anglican Church in India, Metropolitan Foss Westcott, had condemned the
Disobedience Movement as unchristian and even justified the British law comparing it to the law of
Nature. However, George confronted his stand by drawing a parallel between the revolt of Israelites
mentioned in the Bible to the Disobedience Movement what followed was a theological battle.
George said: " One striking biblical parallel suggests itself to me whenever I think of Gandhiji, namely
that of Moses leading the revolt of the Israelites, creating disaffection among them against constituted
authority and leading them to independence. Moses would stand condemned by your Lordship’s argument
from the analogy of the laws of Nature.
In this reply the Metropolitan stated: I always understood that Moses went with the full permission of
Pharaoh… but his pursuit was arrested not by the violence of Moses but by what is recorded as an act of
God". And in his reply to this, George said: "You say our Lord kept out of politics, but we are not to
bring Him into our politics if He is to be the Lord of all life?… And I challenge anyone to say that in
principle the war of non-violent disobedience to an unjust law is against the teaching of Christ." George’s theological stand was in fact simple. In this book " Gandhi’s challenge to Christianity, he said the hope of
the Kingdom of God was the central thing in Christianity. George’s target was not to destroy the icons of
the Church but to bring in the message of the Kingdom of God. He believed that the way to the realization of that Kingdom is the way to the cross- that of suffering love. And much to his amazement this principle was
followed to its hilt by Gandhi in India.
George says in his book " I do not claim to be a great anything but I do claim to be a Gandhiite and a
Christian. That combination is to me vital and significant for the world today and especially so for India.
The conviction came to me as a young man in the beginning of the Gandhian era in Indian politics, a
conviction that has only been deepened by the passage of years and greater understanding of the message
of both Jesus and Mahatma Gandhi, that a true Christian in India today must necessarily be a Gandhian.
The corollary to that, that a Gandhian must also be a Christian, is understood in its widest, perhaps its truest sense in which Gandhi with his life-long devotion to Hinduism, is himself a Christian." George’s proposition that
a true Christian in Indian must necessarily be a Gandhian was borne out of his conviction that Gandhi was
giving a practical demonstration of the applicability of the teachings of Jesus to modern problems. That
was a sorely needed demonstration.
In his foreword to the first edition of George’s book, Gandhi’s Challenge to Christianity,
Dr S Radhakrishnan wrote on 8 June, 1939 from Oxford that Mr. S K George "represents the increasing
number of Christians who are alive to the currents of modern Indian life and aspirations and are anxious
to bring their faith into an understanding with India’s spiritual heritage…"
George’s radical stand not only ostracized him further in the Christian circles, but he also lost his job.
His personal life was also in turmoil as his wife had to stay with her parents with their two small children
while George went to Gandhi’s Ashram at Sabarmathi. That was the time when Gandhi was in prison. In
one of his letters to George, Gandhi wrote… "Only do not give me up in despair…" This appeal not to
give him up in despair touched George and humiliated him. He wrote later: Not only have I not given
him (Gandhi) up, but I continue to draw inspiration from that fountainhead of light to humanity, groping
and floundering along the path of violence in this age of atomic powers…"
George had to return to Kerala shortly afterwards following the death of his daughter to look after his wife who suffered from a sudden shock following the tragedy. It was the time when Gandhi had come to
Trivandrum to preside over the celebrations of the Travancore Temple Entry. He made it a point to visit
the ailing Mary George after the function inspiring her with his mere presence.
For George the going was not easy. He spent much of his time struggling to maintain his intellectual
integrity and his right to exist even as an independent and unattached Christian. Many of the
church-controlled institutions refused to provide him a job because of his freethinking religious ideas.
In 1942 George produced a small book Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ. Reviewing this book Sir C P Ramaswami Iyer w rote: It is impossible to improve on Mr. George’s account that the modern mind sees
the evidence of Jesus Christ’s divinity not in his miracles in the fragrance of his sacrificial living…I have
learnt more about the real character of Jesus from this book than from any other. Sir C P was the then
Diwan of Travancore.
Gandhiji appointed Mrs. George as his prathinidhi in the Kasturba Trust for Kerala, which started
functioning in 1946, with a training centre at Trichur in the house and land belonging to the George
family. Mrs. George worked as a prathinidhi for about 8 years.
From 1947-1950, George was in Viswa Bharati, Shantiniketan, as editor of Sino-Indian Journal and
professor of English in their college and then as Adyaksha C F Andrews Memorial Hall for Christian and Western Studies. During this time George wrote several articles for newspapers and periodicals.
The June 26, 1949 issue of the Illustrated Weekly of India, published an essay Can we evolve a basic
religion? by George in which he discussed how the different religious systems have failed in the past to
establish the brotherhood of man. Prof. George suggested in it that Mahatma Gandhi’s definition of God
as Truth and his (Gandhi’s) insistence that religion must permeate every activity of man, might point the
way to a basic religion free and constraints and conflicts.
Sri C Rajagopalachari, Governor-General read the essay and immediately wrote an affectionate letter to
George from Simla on 30 June, 1949… " I have thought over this idea of a basic religion founded on
unswerving loyalty to Truth…Truth plus something is wanted. Love must take shape and add itself to
Truth…The richness and power of Christianity would be lost if we exclude the life of Christ and the love
and compassion that make it up. I am not, I know, quite logical, but I am thinking aloud as I scribble this
out to be typed out…"
In 1950,George accepted an invitation from Sriman Narayan to take up the job as Professor of English,
G S College, Wardha, the centre of Gandhian activities. In 1951 he wrote the book The Story of the Bible,
with a foreword by Rajkumari Amrit Kaur.
In 1954, the then Madhya Pradesh Government appointed the Christian Missionaries Activities Enquiry
Committee with Justice N B Niyogi as its chairman with five members. Prof S K George was one of them,
the only Christian on the committee. A storm of protest was raised by a certain section of people against
the very appointment of the enquiry committee, and specially directed against George.
The force of opposition to George’s appointment can be well gauged by the necessity felt by the
Government of issuing a press note to justify the appointment of the Committee. With reference to George,
the press note stated: " As regards Shri S K George, he is a devout Christian and a nationalist, belonging
to the oldest Church in India- the Syrian Christian Church-and has been an educationist and a public
worker of more than twenty five years’ standing. He has pursued Theological studies both in India and
Oxford, and was also working in Shantiniketan. He has published several books on Christianity.
Commenting on his appointment, one of the outstanding Christian leaders in the country described it as a
‘wise’and ‘correct’ choice. The "outstanding Christian leader" was no less than the late lamented Dr H C Mookerjee, the saintly Governor of West Bengal in the 1950s
It was the unanimous opinion of all non- Christian members of the Niyogi Committee that George should
be asked to enunciate his own view on the future course of Christianity in India. Accordingly he revealed
his mind in unequivocal terms as follows:
" An Indian today, high caste or Adivasi, Hindu or Christian whose heart does not glow with love and
devotion to his motherland, which is making such tremendous advance, is untrue to his genius and
disloyal to his nation. It was not sufficiently realized that Western Christianity is the result of a marriage
between Hebraism, the Semitic heritage, and Greco Roman culture. A real wielding of Indian spirituality
and Hebrew ethics might result in Christianity that might enrich the whole world.The Indian Christianity
that is really Indian and truly Christian, might give a lead to World Christianity. An Indian Christianity
that emphasizes its essential and holds lightly to its trappings, mainly of Western devising, will find a
welcome from India that is awakening from its lethargy under centuries of foreign domination…
If Missionaries from the West with their specialized training and aptitudes are willing to serve in India
without the ulterior motive of adding to the numerical strength of the denominations they belong to, they
will truly be representative of their Master and be doing their best to win for Him the heart of India. We
have come across a few such who find in disinterested service to India their true reward, who have been
taken into the hearts of the people…We wish Christianity in India to become truly Indian and truly
Christian and the religions of India to come together in genuine co-operation giving a lead to the nations in peaceful co-existence…"
That these faithfully reflect the spiritual genius of this land is amply borne out by the comment of the
Vedant Kesari (October 1956) that " they evidence the creative and generous spirit" of the Enquiry
Committee.
The work of the Enquiry Committee proved too much for George. The nervous strain of
serving on such a commission could be imagined. " A very tired man", as he said to himself. He was
suffering from Parkinson’s disease. There was no definite treatment for this progressive disease in those
days. His health deteriorated. Meanwhile his wife died on 19th December 1959.
George followed his wife a few months later on 4th May, 1960. He was sixty years old then.
To those who knew the man personally, it was a great loss. As Rev. R. R. Keithahn said: "George was
ahead of most of us. He had rid himself of that which binds the spirit. He could look at another man,
another religion, another thought as few men ever do. As a result, he could at once make the truth his
own fettered by no dogma or ritual or prejudice…surely he was a man of God."
Prof. S K George was gentle as a saint but firm as a rock on all matters of principle, that was what had
made his life’s pilgrimage such a difficult one. With his scholarship and flawless English he could so
easily have led a peaceful and happy life in the pleasant backwaters of Christian colleges, had he been
prepared to turn a deaf ear to what he called, in the title of his first book, Gandhi’s Challenge to
Christianity and to hold aloof from national struggle. But these things he could not do, and only those
who knew him well could ever realize how great was the sacrifice he made when he turned his back on
the academic career for which he was by nature and nurture so eminently fitted. Gentle and self-effacing
and accommodating in all personal matters, to compromise on any matter of principle was the one thing
he could not do.
P.N.BENJAMIN

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