A different kind of ‘gharwapasi’ (homecoming) was witnessed in Jharkhand this week, which had support from all sections and was opposed by none. The remains of renowned Hindi and Sanskrit scholar, Father Camille Bulcke were finally brought from Delhi’s Nicholson cemetery and reburied on the premises of Ranchi’s St. Xavier’s College located on Camille Bulcke Path, named after him. He came to India from Belgium in 1935 to spread the teachings of Christ and not only found a spiritual inspiration in Goswami Tulsidas but became one of the best exponents of Ramkatha (the story of Ram).
After receiving a doctorate in Hindi at Allahabad University, where he lived and learnt in the company of Hindi luminaries such as Sumitranandan Pant, Maithili Sharan Gupta, Makhanlal Chaturvedi, Mahadevi Verma and Dharmavir Bharti, Father Bulcke went back to Jharkhand where he first arrived as a missionary. He started the Hindi and Sanskrit Department at St. Xavier’s College, Ranchi and transformed the adjacent residential complex of the Jesuits, the Manresa House, into a hub of intellectual activities. It is while teaching in Ranchi, that he wrote treatises on Ramkatha and Tulsidas and also translated many important Christian theological works including the Bible. For his services to Hindi literature and education, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India in 1974.
In a state where religious conversion has always been a highly sensitive and contentious issue and anti-conversion laws have been introduced by the government; where conflict simmers between Christian and Sarna Adivasis, between Hindus and Muslims, between Christians and Hindus and between Christians and Muslims, people of all religions attended the ceremonial reburial of Father Bulcke’s remains to mark his final resting place in his karmbhoomi, Jharkhand, 35 years after his death.
The reburial of his skeletal remains was announced as part of the Adivasi tradition of hadgadi, where the remains of the ancestors are carried as a blessing and reburied, as tribes move from one village to another. The exhumation of dead bodies and remains is also a known practice among Catholics, especially for beatification and canonization purposes. In several contexts and for various reasons, the family members of the dead can also make personal requests to the Church and local administration to allow them to rebury their loved ones elsewhere. It is also not uncommon to witness the exhumation of remains of a family grave at various times, when a new member is to be buried at the same site.
In the past, another Belgian priest, Father Constant Lievens (1856-1893), known to have officially ‘converted’ a large number of Chhotanagpur tribals to Catholicism, had his ashes transferred from Belgium and interred at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Ranchi in 1993. The Jesuit Society of Jharkhand worked closely with their Delhi counterparts and had to cross several bureaucratic hurdles to bring back the remains of Father Camille Bulcke. They received help from Father Ranjit Tigga, the Head of Department of Tribal Studies at the Indian Social Institute who oversaw the digging of the grave in Delhi, the exhumation of the remains and logistical arrangements to transport them to Ranchi, where the casket was received in a traditional tribal ceremonial welcome.
Speakers at the commemoration included Father Bulcke’s close associates, noted litterateurs, former students and members of the Jesuit Society who reflected on his life and contributions, which included not just original commentaries on religious texts but high-quality translations and arguably the best English to Hindi shabdkosh (dictionary) still found in most Indian homes and offices. His generosity was remembered by many to whom he lent books from his personal library even though they were strangers. In particular, was mentioned his interactions with women students who also benefitted from his library and his mentorship during times when women were not allowed into classes in St. Xavier’s College during the 1960s.
One of his associates recalled that Father Bulcke was an Indian citizen and resented being labelled a ‘foreigner’ in any context. At the commemoration, some called him more Indian than Indians and others conferred the title of Bhumiputra to honour his relationship with Jharkhand. The prayers were conducted by the Christian clergy and it was uniquely moving to see them reciting Sanskrit bhajans, dohas and chaupais from the Ramcharitmanas. Cardinal Telesphore Toppo of the Ranchi diocese, mentioned that it might have been preordained that Bulcke, born in Ramskapelle in Belgium would find his intellectual and spiritual moorings in the figure of Ram, despite being a devout Catholic.
In casual conversations people also reflected on the remarkable similarities between Father Bulcke or Baba Bulcke and his spiritual inspiration, the author of Ramcharitmanas, Goswami Tulsidas. Both tried to capture the wisdom of religious texts, the Ramayana and the Bible into common peoples’ languages, Awadhi and Hindi; both made the core values of humanism, the focal point of the retelling of these texts and the stories were not more important than the messages they carried; both believed in the superiority of the Bhakti yoga over Gyan yoga and both suffered immense physical pain towards the end of their lives.
Bulcke was invited as the main speaker on many Tulsi Jayanti events all over the country as he expounded the virtues of the Manas and Tulsi’s portrayal of human values in the characters of Ram and Sita. He did so, in his full Christian monk attire, invoking awe and adoration, not the sloganeering and hatred he would have possibly received in these times. In his book, Ramkatha: Utpatti aur Vikas, he highlighted the different traditions of the Ramayana story in parts of South and South-East Asia, much before A. K. Ramanujan wrote his influential essay on many versions of the epic. Scholars argue that this might be one of the finest works not only on Ramayana but also on the process of ‘doing’ research in the field of literature.
Baba Bulcke’s ‘gharwapasi’ has restored a great sense of pride to various communities but will his teachings and scholarly works also inspire a new thinking among the youth in Jharkhand and beyond? The state has witnessed disturbing levels of communal polarization, vigilante justice and frequent mob violence in recent times. In fact, Father Bulcke’s legacy could also be selectively appropriated in different and perhaps polarising ways. His emphasis on Hindi as the ‘national language’ and his Tulsi/Ram Bhakti would find many takers among the Hindu Right; Christian missionaries, on the other hand, would find in him an iconic and widely acceptable figure in the propagation of the Christian faith, taking away the complex reading of his life and works.
It is also worth reflecting that in the current political and social milieu, no ‘foreign’ Christian monk would find easy acceptance either among his own brethren or among hardline Hindus, if he tried to extoll the virtues of the Ramayana and Ramkatha. The former would reject his scholarly pursuits as blaspheming against his own faith and pandering to the current dispensation of the Hindu Right. A nagging question for the Church will always be, whether it was too slow to recognize his contributions, precisely because he dared to traverse beyond the missionary mandate?
Hardline Hindus would mock his interests and appeal as demagoguery to serve the missionary zeal of his Christian faith, some would even question his ‘knowledge’ and motives. Recent years have seen bullying and silencing of several scholars who have tried to critically engage with their own faiths and traditions or that of communities that they may not belong to; prominent cases being that of Indologist Wendy Doniger, Malayalam writer M. M. Basheer, Santhal author Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin and many others. In between these extremist worldviews are lost, many an opportunity to experience empathy, collective and comparative wisdom and shared humanism of religious traditions that have been increasingly masculinized and militarized, rendered insecure beyond recognition.
It is befitting that the plaque installed along with his mortal remains and a beautifully sculpted bust, is engraved with the following doha from Tulsi’s Ramcharitmanas.
Parhit saris dharam nahin bhai
Par peera sam nahin adhmai.
There is no better dharma (religious duty) than benevolence; nothing more sinful than malevolence towards others.
If only the ‘bhakts’ of all persuasions, understood or cared for the lessons in humanism that Baba Bulcke and his ilk left as enduring legacies of an India where intellectual curiosity and the search for everyday human values meant crossing boundaries including the ones put in place by religious dogmatism. If only building bridges was the mission instead of building walls everywhere!