Tilak, Narayan V.

1862 - 1919
Poet, social reformer
American Marathi Mission

Narayan Vaman Tilak was born at Karazgaon in the Ratnagiri district on the west coast of India into a family of Chitpavan Brahmins[1], a community which included the renowned freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak and erudite Christian scholars including Pandita Ramabai and Nehemiah Goreh.

Tilak’s father, Vamanrao, was a government registrar whose profession often kept him away from home. As a result, his wife temporarily returned to her maternal home, where Narayan was born. Tilak’s mother and maternal grandfather, who named him after the Hindu deity Narayana, greatly influenced his childhood. Tilak’s mother Janakibai, a deeply devout woman, sought to impress on him the fear of God and service to men. His father was an aloof man. When Tilak was born, his horoscope foretold that he would forsake the faith of his fathers, which made Vamanrao distance himself further.

Jankibai and the five children then moved to Kalyan, north of Mumbai. It was here that Tilak started composing his first poems.

Jankibai was ailing when she received a letter that her husband lay ill and needed her. The dutiful wife trudged 40 miles on foot with the children only to find that her husband had feigned illness to test her loyalty. The journey proved too much for her already ailing body and she died shortly after. After participating in his mother’s last rites, 11-year-old Narayan left home. He found refuge with a foster mother, Yesubai, who though too poor to support his education, cared for him along with her son.

Narayan’s thirst for learning led him to repurpose temple lamps as study lamps. Impressed by his intelligence, a Vedic scholar, Ganesh Sastri Lele, undertook to teach him Sanskrit. Challenged by a young playground peer, Tilak started learning English and memorised over 1,000 words from a dictionary. He then visited the nearby Nasik High School, eager for a thorough instruction. The headmaster admitted him free of charge. Remarkably, he completed five years of primary education in two years.

For a while, his siblings continued living with their father near Nasik. Then, the father left them under Tilak’s care with a monthly support of eight rupees. As a result, Tilak had to quit school and work.

At 18, Tilak was pressured by his relatives to marry 11-year-old Manubai. Leaving his new bride (now named Lakshmibai) with her parents, Tilak kept an itinerant schedule for the next decade. He worked as a school headmaster, delivered speeches on the puranas, recited kirtans, and worked as a printer in different places.

After the deaths of his first two children, a son in 1887 and daughter in 1889, another son was born in 1891.


Though Tilak’s mother never talked about Christ, Tilak remembers she taught them to fear God and love all.[2] She owned translated copies of the Psalms and Proverbs, which her husband summarily destroyed.

Tilak defied caste from a young age and aimed to spark a spiritual revival in India.[3] He embarked on a life of the severest austerity but ended up disillusioned. For some time, Tilak contemplated founding a monastery and gathering a band of disciples about him. He spent a few years in Nagpur, translating and editing an extensive collection of Vedic literature for a wealthy citizen named Appa Saheb Buti. Tilak framed the tenets of his new religion from this treasure trove of philosophy. Tilak says, “I never thought of the Bible, or of Christ, for the reason that the Bible is so simple a book.”[4]

In 1892, his new convictions led Tilak to part ways with his patron. Enroute to a new job with the Raja of Rajnandgaon, he struck up a conversation with an English gentleman on the train who was drawn to the Sanskrit poetry collection that Tilak carried. Gradually, the subject turned to the Christian faith. When Tilak explained the tenets of his newly formulated religion, his travelling companion (who was speculated to be the Rev J.R. Hill of Banda) remarked, “Young man, God is leading you” and handing Tilak a New Testament, prayed with him. Tilak promised to read it not because of any interest but because of the friendship he felt towards this travelling companion.[5]

The Sermon on the Mount captivated Tilak who wrote, “I could not tear myself away from those burning words of love, tenderness, and truth. In these three chapters, I found answers to the most abstruse problems of Hindu philosophy.”[6] After months of careful study, he was convinced that Christ was the Teacher whom India and the world needed. But believing in Christ as the supreme guru differed from knowing Him as the living Saviour. This transformation was an outcome of answered prayers and the influence of the Rev Sidoba Misal of the United Free Church Mission and Baba Padmanji, a learned convert in Mumbai, with whom Tilak corresponded.

In November 1894, Tilak had the same dream for three successive nights, “Follow Him, fear nothing!”[7] On February 10, 1895, exactly two years after he received the Bible from the gentleman on the train, Tilak was baptised despite pleas from his wife who tried to dissuade him. Tilak was insistent that neither a foreigner nor a former high caste Hindu should baptise him. He chose an “untouchable”– Rev Tukaram Nathoji of Mumbai.[8]

Threats and persecution soon followed, Once, Tilak was at a river waiting to cross over in a ferry when a group of men with sticks accosted him. They wanted to give him a sound beating for deserting the faith. But hearing the sound of approaching horses, the men panicked and dispersed. Tilak waited to thank the horsemen, who never appeared.

His wife Laxmibai wrote letter after letter pleading with Tilak to recant. Tilak promised never to marry another woman but was insistent on not returning to the Brahmin fold. He waited for five years for Laxmibai to join him in Ahmadnagar. When she did, she lived in a separate house. Eventually, she became more accepting of the faith and her caste barriers finally melted away on a visit to Mahabaleshwar. She adopted two outcast children and was baptised with their son.


After his conversion, Tilak found shanti (mental and spiritual tranquility) and settled down to work with the American Marathi Mission in Ahmednagar for 21 years. In 1896, he entered the mission’s seminary as a student. At the same time, Tilak also served as a teacher on Hinduism, Marathi and Sanskrit, the Bhagavadgita, kirtan composition, presenting the Christian faith to the different classes of India, and church history.

Ordained on August 31, 1904, he frequently preached or led worship in the Mission Church. Moved by the spiritual destitution of the village Christians, in October 1900, Tilak offered to work for their upliftment, starting with Rahuri in 1901 and later, the Parner district. Subsequently Tilak returned to continue his work at Rahuri until 1906. Tilak gave up his salary from the Mission to encourage the village Christians to be self-sacrificial. In Rahuri, be built a house, "Christ-Sadan", which became his family home and a place to receive and minister to seekers. 

One day while on a walk, Tilak came across Vishnu devotees on the way to Pandharpur,[9] singing and dancing along their 150-mile trek to the shrine. An inspired Tilak composed his first bhajan on the spot, “Christ the Mother Guru”. 

The writer-poet

In 1900 Tilak started a vernacular monthly paper called The Christian. In 1904, he launched an Anglo-vernacular monthly, The Christian Citizen, which was widely circulated among Christians and non-Christians. Tilak was also the secretary and leading member of a society for publishing modern Marathi poetry, known as Sardaprasadan Mandal. In May 1915, he was appointed president of the Natya Sammelan,[10] the highest honour that the literary world of the state of Maharashtra could bestow.

Tilak’s repository of poetry can be divided into four periods: before his conversion, from 1895 to 1900, until the end of 1912 and the last six years of his life, when he composed an extensive collection of religious poetry. His first book Christayan (a proposed Christian equivalent of the Ramayana, and the first Christian purana documenting the life of Christ), were left incomplete because of his death.

The Christian

When Tilak joined the church, the Christians in Maharashtra comprised two main outcast communities, the Mahars and the Mangs.[11] The way they were treated by their countrymen gave them little pride in their national heritage or traditions. Tilak gave Marathi Christians a new cultural identity and pride in the Marathi language. His poem “My Motherland” echoed his deep, sacrificial love for the nation, now inspired by his new faith. The church in Maharashtra today possesses a collection of 400 original hymns and songs by Tilak and translations of many well-loved hymns such as “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.” He introduced kirtans[12] as a form of preaching. An ardent advocate of Indian Christian expression and life, Tilak wanted the Indian church to evolve to a point where they considered the missionaries not as “fathers” but “brothers.”

At 55, with a family still dependent on him, Tilak renounced all means of formal support from the American Marathi Mission. This was in response to a vision of Christ he had in August of 1917. He felt this to be a summon to a new life of service. But he kept the house in Satara which belonged to the mission. His generosity often led the family into debt and his wife who managed the household was often hard-pressed to supply their needs.[13]

Tilak’s last years were spent in an attempt to bring together baptised and unbaptised seekers of Jesus in a native congregation, Devacha durbar (God’s court).[14]

He was admitted to Wadia Hospital in Pune due to deteriorating health and continued preaching to fellow patients every Sunday. He considered his pain a blessing. On April 16, he wrote, “Blessed, doubly blessed, is this pain; it is experiencing the cross in my body.” He was transferred to the J J Hospital in Mumbai where he died on May 9, 1919.



  1. ^ Chitpavan Brahman - The Chitpavan Brahmin or the Kokanastha Brahmin is a Hindu Maharashtrian Brahmin community inhabiting Konkan, the coastal region of the state of Maharashtra. “Chitpavan Brahman,” Wikipedia, last modified April 3, 2024, Chitpavan Brahmins - Wikipedia.
  2. ^  J. C. Winslow, Narayan Vaman Tilak, The Christian Poet of Maharashtra (Pune: Word of Life Publications, 1996), 3.
  3. ^ Winslow, Narayan Vaman Tilak, 16.
  4. ^ Winslow, Narayan Vaman Tilak, 16.
  5. ^  Winslow, Narayan Vaman Tilak, 19.
  6. ^ Winslow, Narayan Vaman Tilak, 20.
  7. ^ Winslow, Narayan Vaman Tilak, 22.
  8. ^ Sumedha Raikar Mhatre, “The inspiring life and times of Reverend Tilak,”Mid-Day, June 2, 2019, The inspiring life and times of Reverend Tilak (mid-day.com).
  9. ^ Pandharpur is a popular pilgrimage site close to Solapur city in Maharashtra, where a temple dedicated to Vishnu attracts over a million devotees in the months of June-July.
  10. ^ A state level literary and drama association.
  11. ^  Mahars are considered Dalits (untouchables) because of their ‘untouchable’ work of removing carcasses. Mangs are lower than the Mahars.
  12. ^ A preacher, accompanied by a small choir and instrumentalists, leads a sermon that alternates between praising the deity and describing His actions, popularized by poet Namdev in the 14th century.
  13. ^ Tilak once sold a property to help a struggling Christian, but insisted on remaining anonymous.  Another time, a self-proclaimed Christian stole three cartloads of goods when he was left in-charge of the house. Despite this betrayal, Tilak forgave him, prayed with him, and returned home empty-handed.
  14. ^ H. L. Richard, “Smritichitre: The Memoirs of a Spirited Wife,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 44, no. 1 (2020): 70, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2396939319838452.

Philip Malayil

The writer is the coordinator for the South Asia region for DCBAsia.org.


Winslow, J. C. Narayan Vaman Tilak, The Christian Poet of Maharashtra. Word of Life Publications (Pune: 1996).

Raikar Mhatre, Sumedha. “The inspiring life and times of Reverend Tilak”. Mid-Day, June 2, 2019. https://www.mid-day.com/news/opinion/article/the-inspiring-life-and-tim….

Richard, H.L. “Smritichitre: The Memoirs of a Spirited Wife”. International Bulletin of Missionary Research 44,  44, no. 1 (2020): 67–73. https://doi.org/10.1086/690235.