CHRISTIANITY IN INDIA
by Professor Roy Mathew
The thread of the Christian faith in India can be traced into the misty haze of the distant past, to the early years of Christianity itself. According to the Indian tradition, Thomas Dydemus, the Apostle, came to the kingdom of Gundophores, who ruled in Northwest India (present-day Pakistan). From there, in 52 A.D., he traveled by sea to Kerala, to the ancient seaport of Cranganore, otherwise known as Musiris. The Malabar Coast is reputed to have had a Jewish settlement since the days of King Solomon, around 1000 BC. Thomas’ main mission was to bring the glad tidings of the Messiah to the Jewish community. He preached the gospel and converted people of both lower and upper castes into the Christian faith. He established seven and a half churches in the Malabar Coast. The half church in Thiruvithamkode, south of Trivandrum, is the only one surviving now. Surprisingly little research has been done on this small church made of sheets of solid rock. If the legend is correct, it will be one of the oldest churches in the entire world. Subsequently Thomas took his message to the east coast where he was martyred in a place near Madras, known as San Thome. Although some pieces of evidence such as a Syriac work of the fourth century, the works of Jerome of the fourth century, and Gregory of Tours of the sixth century provide support to this theory. By and large, it has more basis in fiction than fact. Recent archeological findings suggest the existence of a king named Gundophores who ruled in Northwest India.
In the second century AD, Pantaenus, an Alexandrian philosopher and missionary, is recorded to have found Christians in India. In A.D. 325, John, one of the delegates in the Council of Nicea was registered as “Bishop of Persia and Great India”. In A.D. 345, a group of Christian immigrants from Persia and Mesopotamia, fleeing persecution under Sapor II in Persia, arrived in Cranganore under their leader Knae Thomman. The earliest historical evidence for the existence of Christians in South India around sixth century A.D. comes from a book written by the Alexandrian merchant, Cosmas Indico Pleustes.
In the following years different groups of Christians came to the Malabar coast from Western Asia. The Malabar Christian community had close associations with the churches in Mesopotamia and Persia which supplied their bishops. A copper plate granted by a Perumal (King) named Vira Raghava Chakravarthy (eighth century A.D.) conferred certain rare privileges upon the Christian community. Copper plates of the ninth century that describe other privileges granted by the kings of the Malabar Coast provide factual evidence for the growth of the church in Kerala. Persian crosses with Pahlavi inscriptions found in Madras and in Kottayam (in Kerala) point to the connection between the churches in Malabar and in Persia. Marco Polo (1293), John of Monte Corvino, a Franciscan friar (1292-93), Friar Jordan of Toulouse (1302), and John De Marignolli (1348) all mention the Christian churches in India.
The origins of Christianity in the northern parts of India are even more vague. As was mentioned previously, Thomas is believed to have been in King Gundophores’ land. Although legend suggests evangelical efforts on the part of Thomas, the results are largely unknown. Much is not known about the Indians Thomas may have converted and their destiny. It is well-known that northern parts of India had close trade contacts between countries in the Persian Gulf such as Armenia and Edessa, both of which were Christian strongholds. Edessan documents dating back to A.D. 91-96 refer to the Christian community in Parthia and Bactria. Under Sapor II (fourth century A.D.), Persian Christians were severely persecuted and over 16,000 were martyred. Christians in large numbers left Persia and as was mentioned above, some of them came to India. Based on available evidence it would seem that in the seventh century A.D. India had around 10 bishops. By the 14th century, there were 13 bishops in India. Marco Polo noted that Central India had six great kings of which three were Christians. There are also indications that there were Christian families in such places as Gandispur in Punjab and Pegu in Burma.
The arrival of the Muslim rulers in the 15th century sounded the death knell for Christianity in Northern India. By the end of the 15th century, the Muslims had eradicated all evidence of Christianity in North India. Thus, although we have reason to believe that Christianity existed in other parts of India, much less is known about these communities as compared to the communities in Kerala and surrounding regions.
The Kerala Christians carried the history of their church, their cultural heritage, and traditions in a compendium of folk dances collectively known as “Margam Kali.” The ancient Christians of Kerala were known as Syrian Christians, presumably because of their connection to the churches in the Persian region and also as Nazranis, the followers of the Nazarene. Syriac was their official language, although most could not speak or write it. The bishops and some of the clergy learned the language. However, to most members of the community, the faith they practiced was not much more than a set of incomprehensible rituals. Most of the scripture and liturgy were in Syriac which they could not fathom.
Social life in India centered on the caste system, and the rulers who gave refuge to the Christians had to find them a slot within the caste hierarchy. The copper plates mentioned above describe the Christians’ rights and privileges, which give some clues as to their status within the caste system. They could ride elephants and hold beaded umbrellas, which lower castes were not permitted to do. However, it must be stated that they were never an integral part of the caste system. In other parts of India there were similar “foreign” communities (Greeks, Persians, etc.) like the Syrian Christians of Malabar. The ancient Sanskrit texts refer to them as “Mlechas.’ They were integrated within the caste system but were never an actual part it. Marriages were largely prearranged by the family and special care was taken to make sure that there were few, if any, inter-caste marriages. Thus, Syrian Christians married from within their community and conversion of people from other castes into Christianity was unknown. (This practice continues to date.) Thus, for all practical purposes, Christianity became a caste. In fact, some Syrian Christians claimed that they descended from the Namboodhiri Brahmins of Palur (present Chowghat) that St. Thomas converted. Yet others hold that they are from the Persian Gulf. In ether case, they did not mix with the locals.
Christians were largely traders and farmers and the community prospered under the Hindu rulers. Except for some isolated skirmishes, they had a friendly co-existence with the Hindus. They accepted a number of Hindu rites and rituals such as the use of a thali (a flame-shaped pendant made of pure gold associated with the wedding ceremony), the gift of clothing from the bridegroom to the bride, the importance given to oil lamps in rituals, etc. Males added the title “Mappila” after their names. Syrian Christians also maintained some of their own traditions. The females wore a white wrap around lower garment (thuni) and a loose fitting blouse (chatta). Distinctive, super-heavy, solid gold earrings enlarged the holes in their ears, sometimes by several inches and also proclaimed their financial prosperity. They also had a distinct cuisine with very unique dishes.
Although they were traders and farmers by profession, they also had distinct religious roles within the caste hierarchy. Upper caste priests who officiated at temple ceremonies had a problem handling the oil made by the untouchable, lower castes. It occurred to them that Syrian Christians who were from outside the caste system could purify the oil by dipping a finger in it. Several temples brought Syrian Christian families to their localities to perform this function.
In A.D. 1498, a Portuguese navigator, Vasco da Gama, found a new trade route across the Arabian Sea to southern India. This event had a significant impact in the development of Christianity in India. At that time, it is estimated that there were approximately 200,000 Syrian Christians in Kerala. The Portuguese were surprised to see churches and crosses in Kerala, but they did not see non-Catholics as true Christians. Furthermore, the Christianity that existed in Kerala probably looked more like a caste than the religion Jesus Christ founded.
In 1510, after the Portuguese commander, Albuquerque, took Goa, the first Catholic establishment took root there. In 1514, the king of Portugal entered into an agreement (Padroado) with the Pope to share the administrative and religious authority over the areas under Portuguese control. Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, Carmelites, and Jesuits came to India to spread Catholicism. St. Francis Xavier, a companion of Ignatius Loyola who founded the Jesuit order, made the highest mark for his zeal as a missionary. Goa became the hub and center of missionary activity in India and from there the faith spread south to Cape Comorin and north to Lahore, Agra, Nepal, and even to Tibet. St. Francis Xavier is supposed to have traveled to Japan and China.
Most of the new converts were from the lower castes, notably fishermen in Kerala. The beef and pork eating Europeans were not well-thought of by the upper caste Hindus and Syrians and they were branded by the derogatory term, “parang” or “parangi”. The Christians they converted were also looked down upon and neither the Hindus nor the Syrian Christians wanted to mix with them. The new converts adopted Latin names and established their own communities and churches. The stigma attached to their original caste continued even after they converted into Christianity.
Another Italian Jesuit, Roberto de Nobili, took an entirely different approach to missionary work, specifically targeting the upper caste Hindus. He was joined in his effort by Fr. Rico. Under the title of “Brahmin Christians,” they learned Sanskrit and Tamil and attempted to convert Brahmins. They wore the sacred thread, dressed as Indian sanyasis (sages), followed a rigid vegetarian diet, and performed ritual ablutions. They distanced themselves from the lower caste Hindus. The Bible and Christian beliefs were presented as the fifth Veda (sacred text). The southern city of Madura became the stronghold of their movement. While they were able to convert an uncertain number of Brahmins into the Christian faith, the other Christians, including the Europeans, disapproved of their goals and the technique and eventually their mission was closed.
The Syrian Christians held themselves separate from the Catholics: both Europeans and their new converts. The Portuguese who held sway over the land did not appreciate this. Under the Padroado they had the right and power to force their faith upon the Syrian Christians. They resorted to a number of tactics which are said to have included starvation and torture. The Syrian Christians talk about their Bishop who was abducted and burned at the stake by the Portuguese. However, the historicity of this event is rather shaky. Finally in 1599 when the Archbishop of Goa, Alexio de Menezies, forced them to submit to his authority, they revolted. In 1653, in Mattanchery, they took the “Koonan Kurisu Satyam” (Bent Cross Vow) never to accept Papal authority. Families of Syrian Christians held on to a rope tied to a bent cross and swore never to convert into Catholicism.
In the north, the Jesuits made some determined efforts to convert the Mughal emperor, Akbar (1556-1605 A.D). Their inability to stand up to the Muslim and Hindu theologians in debates resulted in the first attempt ending in a total fiasco. The second wave of missionaries consisted of more intellectual and sophisticated Jesuits. Their efforts lasted over three years but once again with little success. Akbar was very friendly with the missionaries but had no intentions of converting into Christianity; however, he did add a Christian wife to his substantial and diverse harem. Jesuits kept the pressure up with the next Mughal Emperor, Jehangir. Jehangir (1605-1627) was even more supportive of Christianity than his father. However, he too was not interested in converting to Christianity. The next two Mughal emperors Shah Jahan (1627-1658) and Aurangezeb (1658-1707), particularly the latter, were much less supportive of the Jesuits. In mid-18th century A.D. the Jesuits had five churches: one each in Marwar, Jaipur, Agra, and two in Delhi.
The British East India Company overthrew their European competitors from Portugal, Holland, and France and established British hegemony over India. The company had little interest in religion and evangelism. They were strictly a profit-oriented enterprise. They also believed that the demise of the Portuguese was largely caused by their evangelical zeal. They did not want to make the same mistake. They not only discouraged religious activity but were openly opposed to the idea. They even deported several missionaries by force to their countries of origin. Several Protestant missionaries took refuge in the Danish settlements of Tranqubar (near Trichinappalli) and Serampore (in Bengal). In 1793, William Carey, the best known of the Protestant missionaries, landed in Calcutta. He did not find the East India Company officials very supportive and he established his mission in the Danish territory of Serampur where he eventually founded a college. Carey was also responsible for the translation of the Bible into 36 Indian languages and the publication of those books.
The East India Company’s opposition to evangelism did not go unnoticed in England. When the company was up for renewal of their Charter, the parliament made sure that they permitted evangelism. This opened the sluice gates and a flood of missionaries from different Protestant denominations poured into India. Evangelists came not only from England but also from America and eventually from other countries like Australia and New Zealand.
After the demise of the East India Company and the government’s takeover of company activities, missionaries received a great deal of governmental support in their enterprises, However, still they did not have much success in attracting upper caste converts and therefore, the newly converted Christians continued to have minimal social acceptance. It was also alleged that they accepted Christianity mainly because of the monetary benefits that accompanied such a move.
Church of England had a strong presence in India. Towards the end of the 18th century even Protestant denominations, which were not strong in England, such as Lutherans, began to arrive. In 1812, the first American Protestant missionaries, Baptists, came.
A number of the missionaries were truly dedicated people who were as much interested in the welfare of the impoverished masses as in proselytizing. The missions set up a number of educational institutions, hospitals, community centers, etc. Many of these institutions catered to the minorities that were social pariahs: people stricken with leprosy and tuberculosis, untouchables, low caste females, etc. Catholics, in particular the Jesuits, founded many excellent educational institutions. The missionaries established numerous health care and educational facilities of repute. Some of the better known institutions the evangelists founded include the Ludhiana Hospital, the Gordon Christian College in Rawalpindi, the Baring Christian College in Gurdaspur, the Forman Christian College, and Ewing Hostel in Lahore, and the famous Christian Medical College and Hospital in Vellore. The missionaries played a significant role, not only in fighting ignorance and illiteracy, but also in improving the standard of existence in India.
No account of Christianity in India will be complete without mention of the evangelist’s contribution in the field of languages. In order to translate the Bible into local languages, the missionaries had to learn the Indian languages. They wound up giving better form and structure to the very languages they set out to learn. Dr. Herman Gundart’s book on Malayalam grammar, Father Beschi’s work on Tamil, Father Reeve’s Carnataka-English dictionary, Father Kittel’s Kannada grammar are some of the many publications of this type. They popularized English education in India. They also forged the initial cultural relationship between India and the West.
Through their influence on the government, the Protestants were able to stop a number of undesirable social practices such as the sati, human sacrifice, temple prostitution, child marriage, etc. Some of the missionaries, like C.F. Andrews who was closely associated with Mohandas Gandhi, became intimately involved in the freedom struggle.
As was noted earlier, the Syrian Christians lived in harmony with the Hindus. They accepted the caste hierarchy completely. They did not try to convert the locals into their faith and did not pass judgment on Hindu beliefs and practices. In fact, they accepted a number of them. However, the European Christians took a very different approach.
They were opposed to the caste system and attempted to convert from all social classes. Such a move had powerful implications for the social ordering, some 2000 years old. They were openly critical of Hinduism. Hindu gods were often depicted as demons: and their worship as devil worship.
Unfortunately, a great deal of their revulsion was based on partial or total ignorance. They had minimal knowledge of the ancient and complex Hindu philosophy and religion and their opinions were based mostly on biases and prejudices. Hindus, on the other hand, thought highly of Jesus and his message. They were not threatened by the arrival of the new religion. However, they did resent the encroachment of Christianity upon their age-old way of life. There was no church-state separation in England; in fact, there were close ties between the two. The Christian missionary had Government backing and the social changes he/she attempted to make were often supported by the force of law. The missionaries were bold and open in their disapproval of Hinduism. Even moderates like Mohandas Gandhi, who favored Christianity, wrote about the spectacle of European missionaries “screaming abuses” at their religion in public places. The resentment they felt towards the British regrettably was extended to Christianity.
Indians expect their sages and saints to have overcome the lure of carnal comforts. Through the ages, such people practiced self-denial and lived very simple and austere lives. Many, like the Buddha, supported themselves through begging. Salvation to the Indian was freedom from attachment to the pleasures of the material world. They had nothing to learn from the religious leader who lived in luxury; they saw him as yoked to materialism just as they were. Many of the Christian bishops and even priests lived in great comfort. To the Indian who respected and admired Jesus, the leaders of Christianity did not represent the humble “carpenter.”
However, there were several exceptions to this. Some of the missionaries were truly large hearted and they wanted to help the poverty-stricken masses of India. Their life-styles were marked by self sacrifice and simplicity. They converted through their example and not by coercion. These individuals were highly respected and admired by all Indians. Mother Teresa is a striking example of this.
After the independence, the word “conversion” took a new meaning in the democratic India. Upper caste Hindus felt threatened by the large scale conversions of the low caste people into Christianity. They argued that such “conversions” were politically motivated and the converts were bought rather than won over. For this reason, many Hindus and the political parties that are strongly pro-Hindu, are openly and strongly opposed to “invasion” by the missionaries from affluent Western countries and their Indian counterparts.
At present, Christians constitute the third largest religious movement in India. Kerala State has the largest number of Christians, followed by Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The Syrian Christians and most Protestants have established their own Indian identity, however, as might be expected, the Catholics submit to the Papal authority. In 1952, they had their own cardinal (Valerian Gracias). Subsequently, two more cardinals were appointed, in Eranakulam (1969) and in Calcutta (1976). In 1947, Church of South India broke loose from Church of England. The hospitals and educational institutions the missionaries founded continue their good work but the emphasis placed upon evangelism has declined.
On a global scale, Christianity has fractured and fissured into many factions. This has happened in India as well. In addition, factors unique to India have caused further disintegration there. Sharp distinctions are made between new and old coverts. Low caste converts are diligently separated from high caste converts. Language is yet another line of cleavage within the Indian Christian community. The Tamil speaking Christian is distinguished from the Malayalam speaking one. Thus Christianity in India at present is a hybrid of the East and West, new and old, and good and bad.
1. Thomas P. – Churches in India, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1964.
2. Singh K., India – An introduction, Vision Books, New Delhi, 1974.
3. Abraham C.E. – The rise and growth of Christianity in India. In, The Cultural Heritage of India, Volume 4, The Religions. (Ed. Bhattacharya H.), The Ramakrishna Mission, 1937.
4. Ferroli DS J. The Jesuits in Malabar, Basal Mission Press, Bangalore 1939.
5. Hough J. History of Christianity in India. Seeley and Burnside, London, 1839.
6. Sherring M.A. History of Protestant missions in India. Trubner and Company, London, 1875.
The Author, Professor Roy Mathew M.D. is Professor and Chair of Dept. of Psychiatry, Texas Tech University, Odessa, Texas and the author of “The True Path”, Perseus Publishing, May 2001.