Fr Verrier Elwin - a Christian Disciple of Mahatma Gandhi

Oct 2, 2008

As we observe the 139th birth anniversary of the ‘Father of the Nation’, Mahatma Gandhi on October 2, 2008, his philosophy of ‘Satyagraha’ and non-violence seems to have been forgotten in this violence ridden world in general and India in particular. The tragedy of the modern age is that no attempt has been made to propagate the essence of Gandhian thought and action.

The recent communal tensions and attack on Christian minorities in various states on the issue of conversion has created a sense of insecurity and alienation among the minorities. Under these circumstances it would be worthwhile for all the concerned to follow the path of peace and non-violence that was charted by Mahatma Gandhi. Meanwhile, it would be appropriate to know that one of the British missionaries, Fr. Verrier Elwin identified himself with India’s freedom struggle and called himself as the ‘Christian Disciple of Mahatma Gandhi’.

Verrier Elwin who was born on August 29, 1902 in Kent, England, had developed a liking to Mahatma Gandhi and his teachings right from his student days at the Oxford. He claims that besides the New Testament he was profoundly influenced by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.

After completing education at Oxford, Verrier Elwin joined the Anglican Church as a clergyman and chose India for his missionary activity. In the summer of 1927 Elwin joined the ‘Christa Seva Sangha Ashram’ at Poona, founded by another Anglican clergyman, Fr. Jack Winslow.

The Christa Seva Sangha Ashram was deeply rooted in the Indian tradition and was greatly influenced by the ancient Hindu scriptures and teachings of great Indian saints, especially Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda. Indians and Englishmen lived together in the Ashram on terms of complete fellowship and equality. The inmates of the Ashram used to conclude the morning and evening worship with the ancient Indian prayer taken from the Rig-Veda: “From the unreal lead me to the real; from darkness lead me to light; from death lead me to deathlessness”.

Fr. Elwin first met Mahatma Gandhi in January 1928 when he went to Sabarmati to attend a conference on Inter Religious Fellowship. He was so impressed by the simplicity and spiritual power of the Mahatma that he became his great admirer and eventually a disciple.

Through his speeches and writings Fr. Elwin contributed considerably to the promotion of Indian nationalism. His admiration of Mahatma Gandhi and his movement inspired him to contribute in own way to India’s freedom struggle.

Fr Elwin urged every Indian Christian to support the national movement. He pointed out that Mahatma Gandhi had made one of the noblest attempts to apply Christian principles to a political situation that the world had ever seen. The identification of Fr. Elwin with the cause of India was complete when he said, “I do not speak to you as an Englishman. I regard myself as an Indian. My interests are yours and your sorrows are my own.”

Fr. Verrier Elwin endeavoured to highlight the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi through his own interpretation. According to him Mahatma Gandhi was the greatest man then living in the world and was the very embodiment of the spirit of truth, purity and love. He believed that one of the great secrets of Mahatma Gandhi’s power over men was that he lived a simple life with socialistic ideals. He compared Mahatma Gandhi to St. Francis of Assisi on account of his self-sacrifice, sympathy for the poor and the oppressed and his world embracing love.

In order to express his views on India’s freedom struggle Fr. Verrier Elwin effectively made use of the news-paper media. He contributed a number of articles to the ‘Bombay Chronicle’ on the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. In one of the articles he wrote, ”As a man I admire courage and self-sacrifice, as an Englishman I love freedom and hate oppression, as one who has taken India as his adopted country I love her art, her culture, her manners, above all her poor; as a Christian I revere sincere religion wherever it is found.”

The political activities of Fr. Elwin, his great admiration of Mahatma Gandhi, his writings and speeches promoting his ideals and his support to India’s freedom struggle ran contrary to his missionary vocation. He felt that these activities prevented him from giving sufficient time to his religious duties. Moreover, he was constantly under surveillance from the government authorities and reprimanded by his religious superiors for his anti-British political activities. After a thorough introspection, Fr. Elwin decided to devote fully to the cause of India and resigned his membership of the Christa Seva Sangha in October 1931.

Accompanied by Vallabhabhai Patel and Seth Jamanlal Bajaj Verrier Elwin travelled across India and deeply felt the sufferings of the people. On their advice Elwin decided to work among the Gond tribals in Cenrtal India.

He devoted his remaining life to the upliftment of the tribal people in different parts of Central and Northeastern India.

Verrier Elwin took keen interest in the social, economic and cultural life of the tribal people. He did a lot of research in Bastar, Orissa and in the Northeast - Assam, Nagaland and other regions. Along with the social work he made deep studies into their religion, customs, traditions and folk art and wrote a number of articles and books. For this work, Elwin has been recognised as one of the chief authorities on the  anthropological studies of the tribes in India. He dedicated his life and money to the betterment of the tribal people. It is only because of him that the adivasis who were lost in the deepest forests became the citizens of free India.

After independence, Verrier Elwin took up Indian citizenship. He was appointed as the chief of the Anthropological Survey of India. His work involved the documentation of many native tribes in Central and Northeast India. For his dedicated service Elwin was awarded Padma Bhushan on January 26, 1961.  After a long and fruitful service in India Verrier Elwin died on February 22, 1964. His autobiography “The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin” was published shortly after his death.

Verrier Elwin was one of the most fascinating Englishmen who lived and worked in India. He was a man of many talents. He was missionary, a freedom fighter, poet, novelist and anthropologist. His transformation from a clergyman to a staunch disciple of Mahatma Gandhi and later as a dedicated social worker among the forgotten tribals of Central and North-eastern India was amazing.

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