William Carey and Mother Teresa lived in very different eras. What they shared - what brought them both to India — was a deep burden of love for the Bengali people, among whom they lived and died.
Carey, the "father of modern missions," lifted the light of God's love in countless ways among the Bengalis: evangelism, Bible translation, education, social service, defending the oppressed. Mother Teresa, probably the 20th century's most famous missionary, rescued the sick, orphaned, and dying from the streets of Calcutta.
Many Bengalis received their love — and returned it. But despite their heroic legacies and the labors of many others, the light of Christ remains a fragile candle among today's Bengali Hindus.
The Indian state of West Bengal is home to most of the 68 million Bengali Hindus in India (another 11 million live next-door in predominately Muslim Bangladesh). They comprise one of the world's largest ethnolinguistic people groups. Yet fewer than 400,000 professing Christians live among them. Born-again evangelical believers may number as few as 10,000. Reaching all of Hindu Bengal with the gospel seems an impossible task.
For centuries, Bengali Hindus have placed their hope of deliverance, protection, and wealth in their many gods and goddesses — especially Kali, fearsome goddess of power and destruction. Her 300-year-old temple looms in the heart of sprawling Calcutta (the city itself is named for her), which in turn is the heart of the Hindu Bengali world.
In the passageways riddling the temple complex, pilgrims mingle with beggars, sleeping homeless, families on holiday, priests, tourists, merchants. It's a microcosm of Calcutta itself — a crumbling giant dominated by a bewildering, exhausting, energizing, terrifying blend of darkness and light, hunger and abundance, filth and luxury, violence and kindness, chaos and a distinctly Bengali kind of order.
For all its poverty and misery, Calcutta still calls itself the "City of Joy." The metropolis of more than 11 million souls is nearly always celebrating one festival or another. They all end at the banks of the river Hugli, a branch of the holy Ganges, where goddess idols, flowers, and the bodies of departed loved ones all float out to their final resting place.
Two centuries after Carey began his groundbreaking missionary work in Bengal, "official" Christianity totals less than half of 1 percent of the population.
Church growth, says one observer, has been "marred by divisions within the believers and a non-evangelical atmosphere that has thwarted evangelism." Poor missions methodology and Western paternalism also have contributed to building a Christian "ghetto" through the decades, along with periodic hostility from state and national governments, religious persecution, and the strong cultural identity of Bengali Hindus.
The Christian movement began promisingly among tribal peoples, untouchables, and low-caste groups — but never expanded to reach the great masses of Hindus in middle and upper castes.
Family opposition, negative social or economic consequences, Hinduism's radically different worldview, and many other factors also work to prevent any Indian Hindu from embracing Christ.
Tentative signs, however, indicate things might be changing in West Bengal:
• The 11 million Bengali Hindus of neighboring Bangladesh, an oppressed minority in a Muslim society, have shown increasing openness to the gospel.
• Hundreds of prayer groups lift Calcutta before God's throne in fervent, specific prayer. New ministries have been launched; new churches have been planted.
• Several Calcutta Christian leaders report gospel advances among middle- and upper-caste Hindus, white-collar workers, even bankers and lawyers.
• Works of power — healings, miracles - are occurring with increasing frequency in some villages where the gospel is spreading, says a Bengali Baptist leader.
• Younger Christians are showing greater boldness and love in sharing Christ with others. Younger Hindus are embracing Him — and passing the light on to others.
"I want to be the light in their lives," says one new believer in Calcutta. "But I'm asking God to prepare me to be the light. I don't want to be like Christians who reach a certain point, then step down. I'm ready to sacrifice each and every thing for the cross, whatever it takes."
A Nobel Prize-winning Bengali Hindu poet wrote hopefully to a "new deliverer": "Today we search for your unwritten name. You seem to be just off the stage, Like an imminent star of morning."
And the ancient Hindu epic Bhagavad Gita speaks of a personal relationship with one god, Bhagavan, the very personification of compassion and justice. "Nevertheless, this Bhagavan has never been worshipped, nor has he even been an object of regular prayer," observes a scholar of Hinduism. "To the Hindus this Unknown God was fully known, but never worshipped."
What if Bengali Hindus were to realize who this Unknown God really is — and begin to worship Him?
"Our desire is to see every one of the Bengali Hindu subcastes have a reproducing church movement," says a worker.
What's it going to take?
"It's going to take praying for a movement of God over the land," he responds. "It's going to take people who can look beyond the poverty and filth and see people God loves as much as us, and pay the price for seeing Him fulfill His purpose for these people. It's going to take sacrifice and obedience. It might even take a few giving their lives for the sake of the gospel."
Are the Bengali Hindus worth it? William Carey thought so. So did Mother Teresa.
"We think so, too," the worker concludes. "And we think God thinks so. That's why He has touched the hearts of people to work with them. Will you be one of those people?"