Home History of Hymns: Victory hymn from India translated in 'UM Hymnal'

History of Hymns: Victory hymn from India translated in 'UM Hymnal'

“Jaya Ho” (Victory Hymn)
Anonymous Hindi, translated by Katherine Rohrbough
UM Hymnal, No. 478

Seminary students at Tamil Nadu Seminary in southern India play Parai drums, associated with Dalit folk music.

Jaya ho (Victory)
We come before thee, O Great and Holy.
We bow our heads to thee, Great and Holy.
Low at thy feet we bow in quiet reverence,
then sing thy praises, evermore repeating.

Music in India is rich in diversity and heritage. In addition to a vital classical tradition, a vibrant folk tradition also exists.

This victory hymn in Hindi comes from a northern India folk style. The text of the refrain means, “Victory be to you” or “Glory be to you.” According to Taiwanese ethnomusicologist I-to Loh, the foremost scholar on Asian hymnody, this is “the most common phrase for praising God in the Indian subcontinent, with only slight variations.”

Composer Victor C. Sherring (b. 1919), who brought this song to the attention of the church in the United States, was born in Kampur, Uttar Pradesh, India and raised in the Methodist schools of this region. He graduated from Southwestern College, Winfield, Kan. (1941), and Garrett Biblical Institute, Evanston, Ill. (1945).

Mr. Sherring returned to India to teach at the Howard Plested Girls’ Intermediate College in his home region. Dr. Loh notes that he was “known for arranging and popularizing Indian songs.” He led the India Centenary Choir on a concert tour of India and 70 cities in the United States in 1955-1956.

< In correspondence with UM Hymnal editor, the Rev. Carlton Young, Mr. Sherring noted that the “hymn was first included in Jaya Ho, Songs of Joy from India, 1955-1956, a collection of songs in Indian and Western musical notation published in Lucknow by the Centenary Music Committee; and in Joyful Songs of India, 1955-1956, a collection of songs in translation from Southeast Asia.”

According to Dr. Loh, “Low at thy feet we bow in quiet reverence” is “a contextual expression of utmost reverence in front of the Holy One. The second stanza asks God for forgiveness, vision, and protection.” The stanzas are surrounded by an exuberant chorus that expresses the joy of victory found in Christ.

Dr. Loh included a more musically authentic version of this hymn in his groundbreaking collection, Sound the Bamboo (1990), a pan-Asian hymnal that attempts to express Christianity through the richness of Asian musical cultures.

One might ask how to use such a hymn in western liturgy. The sound is far different than anything usually heard in mainline, mainstream congregations. I would suggest that this text on victory might open up a fresh perspective on Scripture.

Imagine for a moment that you are a member of the Dalit people of India. The Dalits, also called Outcastes, have chosen this name for themselves, a people group traditionally regarded as Untouchables. Though India’s constitution abolished the caste system in 1949, it continues to play a dominant role in Indian society. This mixed population of people, speaking many languages, has made improvements in education and opportunity though discrimination still exists. Imagine what freedom a Dalit Christian could find in singing of victory in Christ.

In order to provide an opportunity to use this hymn within the context of worship, I have sometimes used the refrain as a response for Psalm 98. The first verse of the psalm proclaims victory through God: “O sing unto the LORD a new song, for He hath done marvelous things! His right hand and His holy arm hath gotten Him the victory.” (KJV)

The psalm concludes: “Let the sea roar and the fullness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein. Let the floods clap their hands, let the hills be joyful together before the LORD. For He cometh to judge the earth; with righteousness shall He judge the world, and the people with equity.” Imagine what good news this might be to a Dalit Christian, one of the groups most discriminated against, to hear that God will judge all the world and its peoples with equity!

The Christian in the 21st century has the opportunity to have a much wider perspective of the Christian community. Sharing songs that come from other cultures is one way of gaining some perspective on how Christ has become incarnate throughout the world.

We are all subject to cultural provincialism. In a world where two-thirds of the Christian population lives outside of North America and Europe, we have the opportunity to experience oneness with our brothers and sisters in Christ unlike any previous generation.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.