Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Hajom Kissor Singh
Kissor was the older of two sons of Bor Singh, a police sergeant in Jowai, a town in the mountainous, Northeastern most corner of India where the Jaintia Hills and the Khasi Hills meet. The Khasi people, a tribe that had come to India from Southeast Asia, had their own non-Hindu religion featuring belief in a creator God, and whose shamanistic practice was based upon the propitiation of good, evil, and ancestor spirits. “In the Khasi religion at present,” Singh wrote in 1891, “there are thousand of demons and many rites and customs. I believe our forefathers had few demons, and I have heard from old people that at first our forefathers worshipped and offered sacrifices to God and not to demons.”
Until about 25 years Kissor’s birth, the Khasi language had no script. Welsh Calvinistic Methodist missionaries created the first Khasi text when they produced a Khasi translation of the Bible. Thereafter, they opened the first schools and printed primers and a book of grammar.
At age 15 Singh converted to the Reform faith of the Welsh missionaries. By the time he reached the age when he might have matriculated from college, he had acquired the means of self-education. He was a good student, especially of religion. This led him to become a “questioning member” of the Methodist Church, doubting orthodox Christianity. He recorded his difficultied, concerns and original thinking in a diary which demonstrates a keen mind, precocious wisdom, and compassion.
Singh observed that the Welsh missionaries had done away with fear of demons, only to replace it with fear of hell. He deplored their hostility to Catholic missionaries wishing to settle in the Khasi Hills, as well as their unfriendliness to himself when he concluded from his studies that he would have to leave their church to seek “the true religion of Jesus, the love of God.”
Margaret Barr, a British Unitarian, served the Khasi Unitarian Comminity after Singh’S time. She wrote of his religious outlook, “He felt and declared that the message of election, damnation and salvation-by going to a certain church and profession of a certain creed- was incompatible with the teachings of Jesus as he read for himself in the Gospels… He tried to persuade his fellow Christians that the essence of Christianity was to be found in Christ’s way of life and scale of values and not in any scheme of salvation by blood or faith… whether Pauline or Calvinistic.”
Young Singh had reached classic Unitarian convictions and had begun appealing to others to see their merit, without knowing that anyone else in the world thought as he did. When he was 25, he learned from a Brahmo convert (a member of the liberal Hindu Brahmo Samaj-or Society of Brahman) of Charles Henry Appleton Dall, an American Unitarian minister in Calcutta. Dall, Singh was told, thought as he did. There soon ensued an excited exchange of letters between the two men. Dall sent a volume of the writings of William Ellery Channing. Singh suddenly understood that many others, called Unitarians, shared his faith. Thereafter he called his faith “Ka Niam Unitarian” (The Unitarian Religion.)
Singh began gathering friends in his home for religious discussion. Dall continued to write to him, encouraging his efforts, and also sent more Unitarianism in the Khasi Hills but now that my helper has died it will be very diificult to do this alone.”
According to Singh’s biographer, before receiving Dall’s help he already had vision and faith, but he had lived in an intellectual vacuum and was much in need of links to a larger world of religious thought and history. Helen Tomkins took charge of the Unitarian Mission of the American Unitarian Association (AUA) after Dall’s death. She sent Singh copies of the Unitarian Magazine. He soon wrote to the magazine’s editor, Jabez T. Sunderland, who sent more literature.
On September 18, 1887, an anniversary date Khasi Unitarians celebrate, Singh led the first real church service in his home in Jowai. One woman and two men joined him as the first members of a new church. Around tjis same time u Heh Phlong, a man who lived about 20 miles away in the village of Nongtalang, received Channing’s writings and also broke from Calvinism. A little later a Khasi pastor, David Edwards, in the village of Raliang, became Unitarian and left his pastorate. These three joined their efforts to promote, “a religion which they could preach with conviction.” Of the three Kissor Singh was best educated, as well as a natural leader of great ability.
A statement of faith was adopted by the Khasi Unitarians, and reported in 1888 by Singh in the Unitarian” “We believe (1) in the unity of God; (2) in the Fatherhood and Motherhood of God; (3) in the Brotherhood of Man; (4) in Love, Union, Worship and Faith; and (5) in Immortality.”
Sunderland was a source of major assistance to the Khasi Unitarians. He solicited funds from Helen Bates and others of Waterville, Maine and used the money to publish 500 copies of Singh’s A Book of Services and Hymns in the Khasi Language, 1892. Funds from London were used for publication of several tracts in Khasi in 1893. By 1889 the Jowai congregation had gained 30 members who acquired a church building. They soon opened an elementary school, teaching in the Khasi language.