While no 19th-century census tells us how many north Indian Christians came from the Brahman caste, they were surely few. Numbers aside, theirs was an influential elite. Of the many advantages they enjoyed, literacy was the greatest. As custodians of the sacred "word," Brahmans leaped ahead to acquire new languages and knowledge as times changed. Under the British Raj, Brahmans learned English; for a few, this was their entrée into Christianity. For others, European missionaries' use of Sanskrit to discuss Christian ideas proved more important. When the "language of the gods" was Christianized, a vigorous interreligious exchange occurred, bringing to faith some of Indian Christianity's most original theological thinkers.
"To eat and drink with the Christians!" a Hindu editorialist thundered. A young Brahman named Nilakantha Goreh, though learned in the Sanskritic wisdom of Indian antiquity, had just apostatized. Rumor had been rampant that devilry was afoot, inflamed by the disappearance of the allegedly hapless youth. Missionaries had had him whisked off to a faraway church, concerned that riots might erupt if their new Christian convert were to surrender his shoulder cord (emblematic of the "twice born") and be baptized in Varanasi, the sacred but volatile temple-city on the Ganges.
The year (1848) may have been long ago, but nowadays, too, Brahman conversions occur infrequently and always arouse consternation. Though the roles are only partly analogous, among Christians the apostasy of a pastor might seem comparable. Still, the social death a Brahman convert suffers makes all analogies farfetched. Individuals of such exalted status find the possibility of a new life, grounded in a different reality, ...