If Jesus Could Walk On Water, Why Could Not Hanuman Overfly It?
By: Arun Ghosh
By: Arun Ghosh
The year was 1935 and the place was St. Paul's School at Calcutta, once the bastion of the Anglican Church that had introduced itself in India in the wake of the advent of the British. I was a boy of eleven then and used to study in class six of the school which was and still is located on Amherst Street.
The incident that I am going to relate actually took place in our class while we were being given lessons in Geography by our teacher. The school was part of the huge CMS or Christian Missionary Schools organization. It had a lot of land for boys' play-grounds, a big laboratory for the science students, a workshop where we were taught carpentry (Jesus' family profession) and a swimming pool. The number of boys in each class was limited to 25 to 30 and thus there was no overcrowding which implied, but was not necessarily true, better education.
In addition to all this, there was a fairly big sized church with pews and naves and arrangements to seat at least three hundred attendees at one time. The services were held everyday on a regular basis. Near by was the St. Paul's College which too had big play-grounds of their own for its students: tennis courts, swimming pools, etc. On match days, we school boys had the privilege of having our teams play on the grounds of the college. These were special occasions. Otherwise, it was 'verboten' for us school boys to frequent the college grounds. The school boys were all required to attend the morning church service every day before the classes started. The church songs and sermons were of the Anglican variety of the Protestant Church. The Bible was written in Bengali. The Bengali equivalents of the Biblical names still had their archaic froms. Thus John, Andrew and Mathew were written in Bengali to sound Johawn, Andrio and Mothi etc. Obviously the holy book had been translated by the missionary fathers who were still grappling with our language and many of whom came from countries other than Britain. They still did not have the home-grown battalions of brown fathers to give them a hand. We did learn a lot of the Bible, both the new and the old Testaments. The life of Jesus and his miracles were of great interest to us.
Most of the boys were Hindus from middle class Bengali families. The few Christian boys that studied with us were also Bengalis but from outlying areas and came from very poor sections of the community. They were mostly boarders and lived in the Boarding Houses attached to the school. All boarders were Bengali (converted) Christians. Many had their full expenses paid for by the school authorities. The teachers, excepting the Sanskrit teacher whom we used to call Pandit Mashai, were too all converted Christians; they were all Hindus prior to conversion. They were good men who never flaunted their different religion in front of us and to us it hardly ever occurred that our teachers were different from us in religion. Our Pandit Mashai was a devout Hindu; he used to sit by himself in the teachers' room in between classes. Thus we had Suren Babu (Suren Das) who taught us history; Prabhakar Babu (Prabhakar Mandal) taught us Bengali. Most of the teachers again were from poorer classes of Bengali community except of course Hem Babu (Hem Chandra Bhattacharyya) who hailed from Bhatpara, the stronghold of the Bengali Brahmins. Later in life, I often wondered what made Hem babu give up his ancestral religion for an alien faith!
Although these teachers had a Christian (Baptismal) first name that they had acquired at the time of giving up their ancestral faith, they did not mention it and in fact we did not know what were their first names. Suren Babu was Suren Babu to us and not say Michael Suren Babu. However, there were one or two exceptions and those were the young Christian students that studied with us. Their first names were very much in evidence and they used to write and use their first names most of the time. But they too had the Indian part of their names there. It was not what we see these days. The names such as George Fernandes or John Stephens do not indicate their Indianness at all. It was not quite like that in those days and our common Indianness was never questioned by anyone, the Christian and the Hindu students alike.
The parents of the Hindu students were attracted by the wholesome uncrowded condition provided in the school. Their games, their boy-scouts facilities and other amenities that were mostly denied to students of Hindu Indian schools, were obviously great temptations for the parents who wanted the best for their children.
Although it was a Christian school with strong emphasis on foreign manners and customs without question, surprisingly enough, it was always the Hindu boys that stood first in all the subjects including the Bible. There were no instructions on our holy scriptures though. The knowledge of our own Ramayana and Mahabharata stemmed from the teachings imparted in our respective homes. All our teachers had a good knowledge of the Hindu scriptures and mythology but they looked at the subject from a different angle; which fact dawned on me after the incident that I am about to recount.
It was just after the lunch or 'tiffin' hour and the classes had started. That day, Hem Babu was teaching us Indian Geography as the Geography teacher was away for some reason. Normally, Hem Babu used to teach us the Bible. Hem Babu had a way of mildly denigrating Hindu mythology in a very refined 'scientific' way which was difficult to find fault with, as he was often extremely funny at the same time. For instance, he often criticised the Hindus' apparent apathy with respect to our cows. His point was that our cows are abandoned and not looked after. That they wre dirty and uncared for. They are allowed to roam around in the streets creating dangerous situations for themselves as well as for pedestrians and vehicular traffic. Is it the right way to treat a sacred animal? The conclusion was of course that the Hindus are hypocrites. That they say one thing but do another. Look at the Dutch for instance. They eat beef but they also look after their cows well. Their cows are clean and well-fed. In fact, their skins were so smooth due to constant cleaning that even if a fly happened to sit on the cow's back, the fly would slip down and fall to its death. We all laughed at this impossible situation of a fly falling to its death. But the conclusion always seemed to be final and that was the fact that the Hindus WERE hypocrites. We, little Hindus, became immunized by such jokes and never thought much of them.
The subject that day was Ceylon (known as Sri Lanka today) and its proximity with the southern tip of India. All of a sudden, Hem Babu broached the subject of Sri Hanuman and his crossing of the sea between Ceylon and India. He ridiculed the Ramayana and said that this was an example of the impossible exaggerations of Hindu mythology to fool the ordinary people. How can a monkey jump over a great sea? What actually happened, according to Hem Babu, was like this. Long, long ago, what is now a sea or a big strait between India and Ceylon, was very narrow and not wider than a canal. Geographical changes like that happen all the time. It was thus possible for the monkey to jump over the canal and the foolish Hindus wrote in their holy book that Sri Hanuman jumped over a great sea.
We all felt very bad. I don't know about the few Bengali Christian boys among us but both Sushil Das, my fellow student sitting by my side and I felt outraged. The precepts constantly hammered into our little heads by our elders in our homes that children should never contradict their teachers and superiors kept us from saying a word. But then, Sushil was always a 'bad' boy, a disobedient kid and perhaps a little less self-controlled. Suddenly Sushil stood up and, to our bewilderment, told Hem Babu that Sri Hanuman's story was exactly like Jesus' walking over water. Hem Babu asked him what did he mean! Sushil said: "Sir! The Bible too has grossly exaggerated the story of Jesus' walking over water. Actually, I do not think that Jesus could walk on the water and not sink. He must have been standing in a bucketful of water and that inspired the writer of the Bible to say that Jesus could walk on the water. All these books are the same. So, why do you blame our Ramayana only?"
Well, that made Hem Babu shut up and he got back to the Geography part of the lesson leaving aside Hindu mythology, in a hurry. As for me, I stopped looking down upon Sushil from that day on and began to admire him for his straightforward attitude and courage to stand up for his religious beliefs handed down from our ancestors.
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