Sir Mark Tully: The Christian who believes in Karma

East meets west: 'Tullysahib' in New Delhi Photo: Nick Cunard/Writer Pictures

East meets west: 'Tullysahib' in New Delhi Photo: Nick Cunard/Writer Pictures

By Dean Nelson

After 46 years in India, the BBC’s Sir Mark Tully has found his Anglican beliefs adapting in a most unconventional way.

Most mornings, Sir Mark Tully, the celebrated veteran BBC India correspondent and still one of Britain’s favourite broadcasters, can be seen walking his two Labradors in New Delhi’s ancient Lodhi Gardens. Cane in hand, dressed in crisp, white kurta pyjamas, he is every inch the English gentleman journalist who has given his heart to his adoptive country.

He is known, affectionately and respectfully, as “Tullysahib”. The epithet reflects not only admiration for his 46 years spent reporting from the sub-continent, from the assassinations of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi and the Bhopal gas disaster to the destruction of the Babri mosque by Hindu nationalists at Ayodhya, but also recognition that time has given an Indian accent to certain words, and a Hindustani aspect to some gestures.

However much of him India has claimed, he has always clung resolutely to his Christian faith, as devoted to the Anglican Church today as he was as a schoolboy at Marlborough, a theology student at Cambridge, and at Lincoln Theology College, where he once hoped to become a priest. He remains a regular worshipper at Cathedral Church of the Redemption in the Indian capital.

Yet now, at the age of 76, Sir Mark appears to have embarked on a spiritual journey that few of his fellow worshippers there, and almost one million devoted listeners of his Sunday evening programme Something Understood on BBC Radio 4, would consider recognisably Christian: he has accepted the eastern religious ideas of karma and reincarnation.

There are different interpretations of karma and reincarnation within the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, but Sir Mark has come to believe that he will be born again into a new life, the nature of which will be determined by how he has lived and behaved in this one.

His journey has taken him to a place where he no longer accepts central Christian tenets of God’s forgiveness and redemption, or the physical resurrection of Christ. And he must reconcile somehow this departure with his refusal to give up his connection to the Anglican Church.
At home in his ground floor flat in Nizamuddin West, a largely Muslim neighbourhood, Tully confesses that his long-term partner Gillian Wright once told him “you love the Church more than you love Jesus”.

“Being in India, my Christianity has altered to such an extent from what an orthodox theologian would call Christianity. I don’t find the idea of karma and reincarnation incredible. In some ways I find it more applicable to the human situation than the Christian idea of heaven and the life hereafter,” he says.

While the way we live our lives and acknowledgment that consequences flow from our actions are fundamental to Christianity, Tully accepts his belief in karma cannot be reconciled so easily.
“If you have this concept of karma and of reincarnation, there’s a big problem, I admit, because there’s no redemption or forgiveness,” he says. “The fundamental thing I do believe is to believe in God. Many Christians would not approve but I believe there are many different ways to God, and one of the most important things is to recognise we have a sketchy knowledge of God. For me, one of the problems with Christianity is that it has spelled out everything in too explicit terms. If you find one of those terms difficult to believe, you can lose the whole thing.”

He is not, however, prepared to lose it all. He first noted the possibility of karma or fate in his own life when he returned to India – he was born in Calcutta to British parents in 1935 – as an administrator in the BBC’s New Delhi bureau. On his first night, he was sitting on the verandah at The Claridges Hotel when he caught the aroma of the gardeners’ dung fires. It brought back strong childhood memories and a feeling that, after drifting between jobs and callings for some years, he was fated to make his life and career in India.

“I thought to myself, actually, India is the place I should make myself. After all, I was born here, and on my mother’s side we were British in India as far back as my great-great-grandfather. As life went on, India kept coming back into my life. I see myself as meant to be here. There is a phrase in Hindi that says ‘you have to find your karma in life’. India has turned out to be mine.’’

He has explored the appeal of other religions in his books, where he has challenged the idea of spiritual certainties and laid bare his admiration for India’s religious pluralism. But he has always stressed his own journey would be “within the tradition of my church’’.

Some of its articles of faith, however, such as the possibility of redemption for our worst excesses, are not necessarily good models for life.

“You find in Christianity so many people questioning the doctrine of redemption. If you look at it in human terms, it’s not the best way to encourage people to live a good life, by giving them the thought that in the end [they can be forgiven]. I can’t believe it is as simple as that,” he says.
So rather than redemption, he believes another life will be chosen for him by a loving God, but he fears it may not offer the great opportunities he feels he has wasted in this life.
“The way I look at it is this: karma is a possible explanation of something. I do believe in God and that death is not the end, and reincarnation is a possible explanation for what happens after death. If you believe in a loving God, if you keep that aspect of Christianity, a loving God may think it good for you not to be in such a favoured position in your next life, but it will be done with love, for your own good.

“At my age, you do look back at your life and you are much more aware of the things you have done which you ought not to have done. I’ve not lived a very bad life, but I’ve done a lot of things that were much worse than I thought at the time. It would be very comforting, because I do genuinely regret these things, if I could simply be forgiven.’’

Instead he believes it’s “snakes and ladders” and that he will be told: ”  ‘Look, you had all these opportunities, you’ve not made the best of them, sorry.’ In my next life I might be born with few opportunities. But if you keep the concept of a loving God, this won’t be the end of the road, there’s a chance you might live the next life better than this one. The judgment might not be as severe as you fear,” he says.

But however much he may opt for the “Indian take”, he can’t quite turn his back on the English one.
“If you have had a deep experience of Christianity, at least, you never want to give it up, because the liturgy, the hymns, they matter a lot. The priests and what they taught you matter a lot, and there is the question of loyalty. One does one’s utmost not to chuck it out of the window,” he says.

Tullysahib’s spiritual journey may have taken a distinctly eastern turn, but his heart hasn’t left England yet.

Dean Nelson is the Telegraph’s South Asia Editor