Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 1:2 April 2001

Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.

In This Issue:


P. Sam Daniel, Ph.D.

1. WILLIAM CAREY (1761-1834)

William Carey was born in England in 1761, arrived in India in 1793, and died in Serampore, near Kolkata (Calcutta) in 1834. Carey had very humble beginnings. He was only a shoemaker, rather a cobbler as he used to say, since he was only mending the shoes of others. But his love of people all over the world, born out of his love of Jesus Christ, and his passion to preach the gospel of Jesus to all the nations, led him to India. He had such passion for knowledge early in his life that he taught himself Latin and a few other subjects. Over the years this love of people and Jesus helped him to learn several Indian languages and enabled him to translate the Bible into many languages of north and east India. He was first introduced to the Indian languages through Bengali, which he learned while working as a manager of an indigo factory in a Bengali village. He also had the help of a musnshi to learn Bengali and Sanskrit. From the beginning the goal of Carey was to translate the Bible into Indian languages. So,as soon as he started learning the Bengali language and Sanskrit and had developed some confidence regarding the structures and words of these languages, he started the translation of the New Testament into Bengali. In the process Carey became an excellent grammarian and lexicologist of many Indo-Aryan languages, but it soon turned that his translation skills were far behind his knowledge of grammar and lexicon.


One of the important assumptions of the Protestant missionaries has been that "non-Christian peoples must be approached in their own language. For that reason the missionary must possess as good a knowledge as possible of the local forms of speech" (Neill 1985:191). It is also expected that "the missionary must be sedulous to acquaint himself with the mind and customs of the people among whom he dwells" (Neill 1985:192). A third assumption of the early missionaries to India was that "in a land where the vast majority of the inhabitants are illiterate, (the widespread diffusion of the Gospel among the peoples of India) can be achieved only by oral proclamation" (Neill 1885:192). These assumptions were questioned by the leading Catholic missionaries of the time. Abbe Dubois, for example, questioned the wisdom of translating the Bible (especially the Old Testament) and distributing the copies among the Hindus and Muslims, because, according to him, the translations were not only imperfect but often stopped the Hindus from wanting to know more about Jesus because they did not find anything therein that would make them to give up their religion in preference to Christianity. On the other hand, a strong theological position of the Protestant missionaries has been that the Bible "is in itself the great instrument for the conversion of non-Christians, and that therefore it must be made available to Indians, Christian and non-Christian alike, at the earliest possible date" (Neill 1985:195).


Carey's strength lies in envisioning the need and to go after fulfilling that need. He recognized the fact that India is populated by different linguistic groups and that each of these groups needs to be given the translation of the Bible in their own tongue. He also realized that the Indian vernaculars were yet to be fully developed as vehicles of learning. The Protestant missionary assumptions demanded that the Bible be made available in the vernacular. Sanskrit was the preferred medium and target of learning in most parts of India in the traditional schooling system, and the modern Indian languages were struggling to find their own place. During the Mughal rule, Persian became the official language of the rulers, and Hindustani developed into a powerful medium of interaction, but the regional languages of north India had not received much official patronage for their development. There was the need for the Christian missionaries to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the multitudes of people and this desire on their part co-incided with the need and thirst for the development of the Indian vernaculars.

Carey's love for the Bengali vernacular, (he thought that Bengali`is intrinsically superior to all other spoken Indian languages,' Neill 1985:191), did not stop him from seeing the importance of Sanskrit, especially for the translation of the Bible into various Indian languages. Carey learned Sanskrit for many years, and translated parts of the Ramayana into English. His plan was to first translate the Bible into Sanskrit and use this reliable version for translation into other Indian languages. In several ways this plan was to be lauded. Translations of the theological concepts, names of the characters in the Bible and places, controlling the nuances of the terms used through a dependence on the Sanskrit terms were some of the advantages of this approach. It may not be out of place to point out that such similar techniques would be followed by the various Kranth Academies in India after independence. He hoped that, after the translation of the New Testament into Sanskrit in 1808, "the work could now be extended to all the languages of which Sanskrit is the parent" (Neill 1985:195).

That this strategy is now increasingly questioned by the translators of the Bible does not minimize the practicality of the design. A translator does not work as an island. He seeks information and terms from various sources. Often the translation in an adjacent language helps him to arrive at the right word to represent faithfully the theological intent of the word under translation. While it is true that most of Carey's translation is now passed over, no body could deny that his was a valiant attempt and that because of his attempt to coherently present long texts in prose closer to the spoken language, modern Indo-Aryan languages of India were blessed.


My focus in this paper is only the contributions made by Carey to Indian languages. (I do not deal with Carey's involvement in the controversy regarding the introduction of English as the medium of instruction in schools around the country. Carey took the position that is appealing to most of us today. At that time, however, the terminology to refer to that concept was European education. Carey argued that in the schools European education should be the substance, but the vernacular, the medium or the vehicle for imparting that education.)

Through the publication of Bengali Colloquies, written with the help of Bengali scholars, Carey showed the power of the colloquial Bengali as an effective medium of communication. It is Carey, more than any other European scholar-missionary, who really showed to the natives of India that prose could be an effective medium. As Thirumalai (2001, in his forthcoming article in Language in India) shows, long ago, in south India, Ziegenbalg, the first ever Protestant missionary to India, took upon himself the onerous task of translating the Bible into Tamil. He chose the medium of prose for his translation much against the traditional practice of saying profound things through the medium of poetry. It was the necessity to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to all, not just the educated or upper classes, that made him to choose the medium of prose for the translation of the Bible. It was the very same necessity that forced these translators to base their translation on the colloquial language rather than on the formal style of the language. Moreover, the Bible itself was written mostly in prosel. But these missionary-translators went one step further: even where the Bible had in its original poems or poetic language, these translators chose to translate these pieces in ordinary colloquial language, mostly in order to achieve communicative efficiency.

Just this act of choosing prose as the preferred form for expressing messages in long texts has enabled the modern Indian vernaculars to cross the traditional boundaries and break into a new world and establish their identity. It has enabled every literate Indian to compose his thoughts in writing without the cultivated exquisitiveness of poetry and express himself in much easier way.

Carey was instrumental in translating the Bible into Marathi, Hindi, Oriya, Panjabi, Assamese, and Gujarati. While others did help, Carey was also totally involved in all these translations! Carey learned Telugu and Kannada to bring out the translations of the Bible in these languages. Later on work on Pashto and Khasi were undertaken. On a rough estimate we may say that Carey either worked or influenced heavily the translation of the Bible into as many as thirtyfive languages. And in all these languages and dialects (several translations were made in to the "dialects" of Hindi). Carey was breaking new grounds and laying the path for the development of these languages as vehicles of education. It is no wonder than that Rabindranath Tagore, himself a master of Bengali, wrote: "I must acknowledge that whatever has been done towards the revival of the Bengali language and its improvement must be attributed to Dr. Carey and his colleagues. Carey was the pioneer of the revived interest in the vernaculars" (Carey 1923).

Das Gupta writes: "A living language can never be regulated by artificial rules borrowed from a dead language, however closely connected they might be with each other and Carey in giving full scope to colloquial and temporal variations, shows himself fully alive to this fact ... yet one can never wholly dispense with Sanskrit grammarian framing a grammar for its vernacular offshoot. A truly scientific grammar of Bengali must avoid these extremes and Carey who had a wonderful knowledge of the vernacular as it was spoken adn written as well as of the classical Sanskrit, succeeded to a great extent in steering through the middle path" (Das Gupta 1993).


William Carey came to India because he loved the people and wanted to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. He was not personally successful in converting the Hindus and Muslims to the Christian faith in large numbers. In fact his score on this count is next to nothing! That did not deter him from finding other avenues of service to His Lord and to the people he came to serve. Through the translation of the Bible and through his various other publications he enriched modern Indian languages, encouraged prose as the preferred medium of expression for education, introduced a strategy of translation based on Sanskrit, and established procedures of translation such as team work. But he was not satisfied by all these linguistic efforts, which came so naturally to him.

Carey pioneered selfless work against certain social practices such as infanticide and sati (suttee). Along with his colleagues, John Marshman and Ward, Carey had been unremitting in his endeavor to draw the attention of the government to the practice of sati. Support received in the person of Raja Ram Mohan Roy brightened the prospects for the abolition of sati. Carey with the help of the learned pundits connected with the Governor-General's College in Calcutta, collected from the Hindu sacred books the passages upon which this custom was believed to have been raised. These investigations showed him that sati was a rite simply encouraged as a virtue and not enjoined as a duty (Marshman 1873:99). The vernacular newspapers pioneered by the Serampore missionaries were used to enlighten the minds of the Indians. At length, their continuous fight against this practice paved the way for the abolition of suttee (Caree 1923:334).

"Carey was preparing to preach, a courier from the Governor-General arrived with an urgent dispatch, an order in council which Carey was requested immediately to translate into Bengali. It was nothing less than the famous edict abolishing suttee throughout Britis dominions in India. Springing to his feel and throwing off his black coat he cried, "No church for today!" Without the loss of a moment he sent an urgent request to one of his colleagues to take service, summoned his pundit and then settled down to his momentous task. For twenty-five years he has been urging the necessity of this law and there should be no further loss of time and life - if he could prevent it. "If I delay an hour to translate and publsih this many a widows'life may be sacrificed," he said.By eveing the task ws finished" (Walker 1951:252-253).

Carey was not just a great linguist, but a great lover of people and God.


  1. Carey, Pearce. 1923. William Carey. New York: George H. Doran Company.
  2. Das Gupta, R. K. William Carey and Bengali Grammar. In J. T. K. Daniel and R. E. Hedlund, (eds.) 1993. Carey's Obligation and Indian Renaissance.
  3. Walker, R. Deaville. 1951. William Carey, Missionary, Pioneer and Statesman. Chicago: Moody Press.

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P. Sam Daniel, Ph.D.
Acts Academy of Higher Education
P.O. Box 9529
Bangalore 560095