The Catholic Historical Review 88.4 (2002) 821-822
[Access article in PDF]
In the Shadow of the Mahatma: Bishop V. S. Azariah and the Travails of Christianity in British India. By Susan Billington Harper. [Studies in the History of Christian Missions.] (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William D. Eerdman's Publishing Company; Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press Ltd. 2000. Pp. xxi, 462. $45.00.)
Bishop V.S. Azariah was the first Indian to be consecrated a bishop in the Anglican communion, and he was one of the most significant Christian leaders in India, with a high ecumenical profile, in the first half of the twentieth century. A 'Nadar Christian' from Tinnevelly District, Azariah was educated at the Madras Christian College, and spent formative years working for the YMCA in close collaboration with Sherwood Eddy. He became something of a protégé of Bishop Whitehead of Madras, who recognised his potential remarkably quickly, and after much controversy, had him consecrated and posted to the rural diocese of Dornakal, in the Telugu country.
Dornakal, when Azariah arrived, was already in the early stages of a 'Mass Movement' of the 'Depressed Classes' into Christianity. Azariah energetically supported the conversion movement and encouraged the development of forms of Christianity which were more indigenous and less anglicized. While broadly sympathetic to the national movement, he had vigorous disagreements with Mahatma Gandhi, and also with Ambedkhar, about the acceptability and appropriateness of conversion in India. Dr. Harper quotes an informant remembering that Gandhi stated privately that Azariah was his "Enemy Number One." This is probably an exaggeration of the significance of Azariah, as is the suggestion that he suffered all his life from being in the shadow of the Mahatma, and would in different circumstances have been an acknowledged national leader.
Azariah was a charismatic and imaginative pioneer who had rare pastoral gifts and contributed hugely to the emergence of Christian churches in south India that were not tied to the apron strings of imperialism, but could embrace Independence and act as advocate for the Dalit communities from which by the end of Azariah's life the vast majority of Christians in India came.
The interlocking debates about conversion and the condition of the Dalits, or 'ex-Untouchables,' to which Azariah was one of the primary contributors in the [End Page 821] 1930's, continue today, with great and increasing vehemence. And Hindu communal forces threaten 'the minorities' and accuse Christians, Muslims, and other non-Hindus of being alienated from Indian culture and suspect of owning extraterritorial loyalties. Dr. Harper's book is thus not only a magisterial and definitive study of a major Indian Christian leader, but it casts light on issues and controversies which are still unresolved in India. And in many other places the church is facing similar issues, and could learn much from this lucid and scholarly monograph.
Duncan B. Forrester
The University of Edinburgh