Fr. Nahemya Nilakanthashastri Gore – First Marathi missionary
During the peak of British rule in India, many scholars from Maharashtra embraced Christianity after coming in contact with the Christian missionaries. Nahemya Nilakanthashastri Gore was one of the prominent amongst them. A great commotion broke out in Maharashtra when Nilakanthashastri from a high caste Brahmin family converted to Christianity. Soon thereafter, inspired by Gore's example, another Sanskrit scholar Pandita Ramabai, Shahu Daji Kukade (later editor of Marathi weekly Dnyanoday), and others also embraced Christianity. These persons have made valuable contribution to Maharashtrian society. The history of modern Maharashtra remains incomplete without the mention of Nilakanthashastri Gore, for he played an important role during his time. He deserves to be called the father of Marathi-speaking Christian missionaries.
V. G. Kanitkar, an acclaimed Marathi author, was so fascinated by this unique personality of the 19th century that he wrote a novel based on Nahemya Gore's life. The novel, Horpal (anguish), ends with Nilakantha Shastri’s conversion to Christianity. The novel is amongst the best literary works by Kanitkar.
Nilakantha Shastri was born in village Khashipura, about 50 miles from Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh. His lineage was of high caste Chitpavan Brahmins. His father Shivram Shastri was born in Pune and settled in north India. Nilakanthashastri spent his childhood in Varanasi (previously called as Banaras) pilgrim town. One of his uncles was a diwan (courtier) of the local princely state and therefore, they were financially well off. In Varanasi, Nilakantha Shastri studied grammar, Vedanta, Upanishads, and poetry thoroughly and earned the coveted pandit title. He gained the reputation of being a scholar with a high acumen and skill for argument. He attended discourses by Christian missionaries to prove that the Christian teachings were all wrong. That brought him in contact with Rev William Smith. Nilakanthashastri studied the Bible between 1844 and 1848, and the scholar who intended to prove Christianity wrong changed his opinion. He embraced Christianity in Jonepur on March 14, 1848. After being baptised, he adopted the name ‘Nahemya’, one of the prophets from the Old Testament of the Holy Bible.
Nilakanthashastri was the first Marathi speaking scholar to study the Holy Bible with the intention of criticism and convert to Christianity. This was to happen again with Baba Padamanji and Narayan Vaman Tilak, two other veteran Marathi Christians missionaries.
There was a great commotion in Varanasi town when a Sanskrit scholar like Nilakanthashastri Gore embraced Christianity. Veteran Marathi writer Laxmibai Tilak has narrated in her acclaimed autobiography Smriti-Chitre (Memoirs) how her husband, Narayan Vaman Tilak, and his family had to face the outrage of his relatives and other members of the society after his conversion to Christianity. Nilakantha Shastri Gore had become Christian five decades before Tilak and so the outrage caused in the society due to his conversion can be well imagined. Nilakanthashastri Gore, Narayan Vaman Tilak and Pandita Ramabai belonged to the high caste Chitpawan Brahmin caste and it was only natural that there would be a strong reaction to their conversion to Christianity. After the conversion, Nilakanthashastri’s family members severed ties with him. The society too ostracised him. Gore was severely attacked in local newspapers as well for converting to Christianity.
At the time of conversion, Nilakantha Shastri was merely 23-years-old. He was married. His family members kept his wife and small daughter away from him. Therefore, he had to take help of the local court to secure the custody of his wife and the young daughter. Five years after his conversion, his wife and daughter also embraced Christianity. A few years later, Nilakanthashastri’s wife passed away.
A century and a half ago, it was very common to find a person changing religion being separated from his dear ones. There was a stigma attached to conversion of high caste persons to Christianity. The elders in the family would shield away the convert’s wife and children. Therefore, approaching the courts seemed the only recourse for these persons to seek unity with their spouses and children. After Rev Tilak’s conversion to Christianity, he found it difficult to have even a glimpse of his wife, Laxmibai, and their young son, Devadatt. This Sanskrit pandit managed to meet Laxmibai for a few seconds only after he threatened her relatives of legal action through a local magistrate! After his conversion, Rev Baba Padamanji too waited for five years for his wife to come back to him and finally remarried when she refused to return. After his conversion, Ramchandra Pawar, father of Sundarabai Pawar, a veteran social reformer and Protestant missionary, took help of the court to rescue his wife from the clutches of her relatives. It was only after his wife repeated thrice before a court that she wanted to live with her husband that the court allowed her to be with him. A similar incident had taken place in the case of Rev. Hari Ramchandra Khisti, too.
In Varanasi, Nilakanthashastri was introduced to Maharaja Duleep Singh, the young royal from Punjab, and they became close friends. In April 1854, Yuvraj Duleep Singh went to England and he took Nilakantha Shastri as a teacher along with him. During his stay abroad, Nilakanthashastri came in contact with many important people. He also met the Queen of England, Queen Victoria. This scholar was welcomed in cities like London, Oxford and Cambridge. While in Oxford, he met senior scholar Prof. Frederic Maxmuller who had a special attachment with India.
After staying in England for one and a half-years, he returned to his motherland in November 1855.
On returning from England, Nilakanthashastri carried on with his missionary work in Mumbai, Pune and Ahmednagar. Due to his in-depth knowledge of Sanskrit, good command over English and an impressive oratory, Nilakanthashastri made an impact on the educated minds of those times. As a result of his four lecture series in Ahmednagar, three young men - Mohamadji Kasimbhai, Ratnoji Nauroji and Shahu Daji Kukade - embraced Christianity. All the three worked as Christian missionaries later.
For some time, Nilakanthashastri worked as the headmaster of a girls’ school. Later he joined Gospel Propagation Society and in 1861 started working as the head of the mission for the south zone.
In 1876, Nilakanthashastri again left for England. But this time, he went there as a novice of the priests’ congregation, known as the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. Nilakanthashastri joined this congregation to become a priest at the age of 53.
After returning to India, Rev. Nilakanthashastri stayed at Indore for some time. Around 1879, he settled in Pune. Thereafter, he lived at Panch Haud Mission in Pune for a long time. He used to hold discussions with Hindu religious reformists, Brahmo Samajists, Arya Samajists, and Prarthana Samajists.
Rev Nilakanthashastri played a major role in the conversion of Sanskrit scholar Pandita Ramabai. While in England, Ramabai had decided to embrace Christianity but after some time, she had a second thought about her decision. Rev Gore helped her to come out of her dilemma. Even Rev Gore himself had faced a similar situation at the time of his conversion. He well understood the need for counseling Ramabai and dispatched a letter from India to Ramabai in England. After reading the letter, Ramabai confirmed her decision to convert. Pandita Ramabai has written that Rev Gore helped her to understand the Christian doctrine. She said that although she did not agree with all his opinions, still there was a similarity in their thinking on various aspects, and without his help it would not have been possible for her to appreciate Christianity.
The letter entitled ‘Is there any proof that Christianity is a divine religion?’ written by Rev Gore to Ramabai was later published in a book form by adding some more contents to it. The name of the 200-page Marathi book is ‘Khristi Dharma Ishwardatta Aahe.’
Rev Gore wrote 38 books in all, in English, Hindi and Marathi. These books were published between 1860 A D to 1900 A D.
Rev. Gore, a follower of Jesus Christ, was an ardent admirer of Sant Tukaram, a 17th century Maharashtrian saint belonging to the Bhakti cult. Rev. Gore breathed his last at the age of 70 on August 29, 1895.
1. ‘Khristi Marathi Wangmay’ (Fr. Stephen Te 1960 Akher) (Marathi), Dr. Gangadhar Narayan Morje, Publisher- Ahmednagar College, Ahmednagar, and Snehasadan, Shanivar Peth, Pune, Distributors - Vidarbha Marathwada Book Company, 1334, Shukrawar Peth, Pune (1984)
2. ‘Maharashtrachi Tejaswini Pandita Ramabai’, (Marathi) Author and Publisher - Devdatta Narayan Tilak, Shanti Sadan, Agra road, Nashik, (1960)
3. ‘Sankshipta Marathi Wangmay Kosh - Arambhapasoon 1920 Paryantacha Kalkhand’ (Marathi) Editor - Jaya Dadkar, Prabha Ganorkar, Vasant Abaji Dahake and Sadanand Bhatkal, Publisher - Harsha Bhatkal, G. R. Bhatkal Foundation, 35/C Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya Marg, Mumbai 400 034, (1998)
4. ‘100 Indian Witnesses to Jesus Christ’ - Rev. P. J. Thomas, The Bombay Tract and Book Society, 21, Hazarimal Somani Marg, Mumbai, 400 001 (1974)