Edwin Dharmaraju: Taking the Gospel Home to India


As scientist, humanitarian, and finally missionary of the restored gospel, Edwin Dharmaraju left a legacy of good deeds in many lands, including India, his home.

Everyone in Tarawa remembers the funeral on 31 July 1985. Cars, not a familiar sight on any of the Gilbert Islands, poured out of the viewing area and headed for the funeral services in a steady stream. The islanders remarked that they hadn’t realized so many cars even existed on their small stretch of land. In them were people from India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, the United States, Canada, and, of course, the Gilbert Islands. The atmosphere gave one American present the sense of attending a United Nations assembly—all comprised of friends, relatives, students, Church associates, academic colleagues, and admirers of “President, Doctor Edwin.”

To the members of the Church on Tarawa and on the other Gilbert Islands, President Edwin had been a beloved branch president. To scientists and students in India and around the world, Doctor Dharmaraju had been a prominent entomologist whose research and ideas about insect control and agriculture had bettered many lives. To members and relatives of the Dharmaraju family in their native India, Edwin had been a missionary of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And to friends, Edwin Dharmaraju had been a lively, happy, intensely curious and intelligent man who dedicated his talents to helping God’s children.

But to Elsie Dharmaraju, Edwin had been the husband whom she had married thirty-five years earlier in 1950 and with whom she had since raised five children and traveled the world. Edwin Dharmaraju David was born in a small town in Andhra Pradesh, India, on 2 May 1925 to Samuel and Rachel David, who had learned about Elsie through her grandparents, who lived in the same village. Together, Edwin’s parents and Elsie’s grandparents arranged for Edwin and Elsie to meet each other to decide if they wanted to marry. Elsie was amenable to the idea. She trusted her father, the Rev. P. Sreenivasam, a deeply religious Baptist minister. He said he had “good feelings” about Edwin, despite Elsie’s relatives’ claims that Edwin, the son of a railway station master, did not come from a highly educated family, as Elsie did. On 27 December 1950, Elsie Sreenivasam married Edwin Dharmaraju. Edwin later told Elsie, “I was so worried that I wouldn’t be able to marry you!”

In Elsie’s words, they “learned to love each other a great deal.” Edwin had already earned a bachelor of science degree from the University of Madras and was working as an agricultural assistant for the government. Edwin’s agricultural job took them from place to place, including Bapatla, India, where Edwin earned a master’s degree, and Sri Lanka from 1960 through 1963. They were separated only when Edwin spent one and a half years, 1967 through 1968, at Kansas State University doing research for his doctorate.

When Edwin returned to his wife and five children, he described an interesting experience. While he usually attended church in Kansas with another professor of the same denomination, one Sunday he was left on his own. While trying to find the chapel he normally attended with his friend, Edwin saw a different-looking church with a lot of people going and coming. Always wanting to discover something new, he went in and found LDS services being held. The people were very friendly and gave him a book that he had, out of curiosity, already read in the United States—the Book of Mormon.

Edwin had attended Christian services as he was growing up, but he was unaccustomed to the constant scripture reading, praying, and fasting that Elsie had always practiced. After their marriage, however, Elsie’s example influenced him. He began listening to spiritual promptings. While he didn’t feel compelled to return to the LDS chapel in Kansas, he did feel that he should one day return to the Samoan islands, which he had briefly visited earlier.

Upon his return to India, he took up a position as a professor and head of entomology at the Andhra Pradesh Agricultural University at Hyderabad. This was a busy time of life for him. Not only was he busily involved in academic duties, but he was also involved in rectifying injustices to the poor working with him. How he would return to the Pacific, as he had been prompted, he wasn’t sure. But in 1974, upon returning from a world tour, Edwin discovered a position being advertised by the British Commonwealth Secretariat. They needed an expert in crop protection to work in Apia, Western Samoa.

Edwin and Elsie prayed. What Edwin later described as “feelings that the Lord put in us” directed them to take their three daughters to Samoa, leaving their two sons to continue their studies in India. They left Hyderabad in November 1975. As they left, Edwin was showered with leis by the many colleagues, employees, and farmers he had helped.

Two weeks after Edwin and Elsie arrived in Samoa, Edwin discovered why he had needed to return to Samoa. LDS missionaries knocked at their door. Three months later, after hearing the discussions, the entire family asked to be baptized. The daughters were baptized, while the parents waited for their son, Sam, who had been studying the gospel in India, to join them for their baptism—set for 13 May 1977.

Sam knew only that the baptismal date was in May, and he set out for Samoa on May 6, only to become stranded in Singapore without a flight to Samoa. Edwin, Elsie, and the members fasted and prayed for his arrival. “Lord, if you really want us to join this church,” thought the Dharmarajus, “then please bring our son to us by the thirteenth.” They received no word on the twelfth, but on the morning of the thirteenth, the phone rang. “Come pick me up,” cried Sam from the Samoan airport. At 4:00 P.M.—the scheduled baptism time and day—he was baptized with his parents.

Edwin and Elsie dedicated themselves to the Church they knew to be the Lord’s. They served in many callings and, when they returned to India for the wedding of their oldest daughter, they enthusiastically spoke about the Church to all of their relatives. From Samoa, they wrote to Church headquarters, requesting that someone be sent to teach the gospel to their families in India. A reply arrived several months later. Edwin and Elsie had been called as missionaries to Hyderabad, India, one year after their baptism, to teach the gospel to their relatives.

After recovering from this surprise, Edwin and Elsie made plans for their mission. With the help of then-regional representative Ralph Rodgers, they sent in advance almost five hundred pounds of Church materials to their relatives—copies of the Book of Mormon, Bibles, pamphlets, tapes, and hymns—all donated by friends in Western Samoa. The couple was set apart on 22 October 1978, and Edwin received authority to baptize, to ordain, and to organize small units of the Church.

Two months later in India, Edwin had baptized twenty-two family members, enabling Hyderabad to organize a branch, with Victor David as its first president. The Dharmarajus had begun tapping what Edwin called “a vast potential for the Church in India”—a country with a strong tradition of family ties and personal morality that Edwin considered conducive to the restored gospel.

When the Dharmarajus returned to Samoa in 1979, they already knew of someone who could translate the Book of Mormon into Telegu, one of the three most widely spoken languages in India: Elsie’s father. While the Rev. P. Sreenivasam had not joined the Church, he did feel the book was of great value and began to translate, at age eighty-two, a page per day. In 1981, Edwin and Elsie delivered a 700-page manuscript to the First Presidency in Salt Lake City, making selections of the Book of Mormon in Telegu available as a result.

In August 1983, the Commonwealth transferred Edwin from Samoa to the Gilbert Islands. Stationed in Tarawa, he was to visit all of the islands to help alleviate agricultural problems inherent in a land of salty, sandy soil. Tarawa had a small branch of the Church, along with an LDS school, where Elsie taught science. They worked hard at their jobs in and out of the Church, trying to better the lives of Church members and of the poor.

A little over a year later, in December 1984, Guam mission president Joseph B. Keeler, then responsible for the Gilbert Islands, called Edwin to be the branch president—a calling that Elsie now considers part of his “preparation to meet the Lord.” For the next eight months, Edwin spent all of his spare time reorganizing home-teaching programs, reactivating branch members, coordinating efforts to translate the standard works into Gilbertese, and serving God in any way he could. On 28 July 1985, a Sunday, Edwin conducted Church services as usual and then suddenly went into a coma as he conversed with one of his counselors in the chapel hall. At the hospital, he lay unconscious for a day and a half until, on July 30, he was given a blessing and died three minutes later.

The rain on the funeral day finally let up when the viewing was over. Edwin’s close friend Tony Moi insisted that Edwin be buried in his yard, “because Edwin is like my brother.” Planes couldn’t fly to the island, and none of Edwin and Elsie’s children could attend. But they were all sealed as a family. They are all married now, and all are scientists with graduate degrees: Lata (Mrs. Madhu Moses), Asha (Mrs. Tawn Kent), David Edwin, Samuel Edwin, and Sheila (Mrs. Lance King).

Elsie lives in Salt Lake City now, where she works as a research assistant for the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Utah. She serves the Church as a Relief Society teacher in the University Eleventh Ward, University First Stake. Four of her five children live in the United States, and she visits her son and relatives in India often, where she can also drop by the branch that she and Edwin helped to organize.

She likes to remember the “most wonderful sight” of her husband’s grave in Tarawa: “It looked like all the flowers of the Islands were growing on it”—a fitting monument to a scientist of nature, an optimistic family man and friend, and a believer devoted to the gospel.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Mark Robison

[photos] From left to right: The young Dharmaraju family in Sri Lanka, 1961; family members in Tarawa, Gilbert Islands, 1984; Elsie Dharmaraju at the University of Utah, 1989; Elsie and Edwin in Salt Lake City presenting translated selections of the Book of Mormon in Telegu to President Spencer W. Kimball in 1981.