The politics of conversions
The regional language and the caste system were delinked from the purely religious and used as a vehicle for social and cultural integration, says ALBAN COUTO in the concluding part of his review on a book on religious conversions.
IT may be facile to dismiss Nobili's arguments as a part of brilliant Jesuit casuistry to which the rude Gonsalo had no answer, but it does reveal far-reaching implications. If the distinction was social and political, Nobili took the argument further into the political domain by assuming another role model emerging at that time, that of the nayak or ruler. The break up of the Vijayanagara empire had resulted in the satraps setting up their own separate kingdoms and the Brahmins were sought to legitimatise their rebel rule. It suited the Brahmins to take up this role since in return they received lands and control of temples and the remunerative bounty of offerings from devotees and the produce of the lands attached to the temples. There was therefore a mutually beneficial sharing of power. ``The growth in popularity of the major temples and pilgrimage sites'' comments Zupanov, coupled with the creation of new rituals, reflected the warrior regimes' desire for legitimacy and elevated rank. It was a way of translating actual military power into ritual prestige and authority.
So he took up the dual role of a sanyasi and of a raja. His bare dress of a sanyasi was covered with the silk shawl of a ruler. He moved in state, in a palanquin. The combination of king and saint also accorded with yet another aspect of Jesuit strategy of developing influence, political influence, of being the grey eminence behind the throne, confessors for royalty in Europe, with hopes of commanding the same influence in the Moghul and other royal courts in India. Though Zupanov does not elaborate the perils of Nobili entering the political domain, his personification of politics without the quid pro quo was responsible in a large part for the failure of his mission. Nobili used his political persona to obtain from Tirumalai Nayak permission to convert in exchange for Nobili bringing the Portuguese from Goa to help him to subdue a rebellious feudatory. But when Nobili could not deliver Portuguese power, Tirumalai Nayak refused to convert. There are some intriguing aspects of missionary intervention in the political domain which deserve further exploration; whether there is a pattern in legends that St. Thomas was murdered by the Brahmins of Mylapore not so much because of his conversions largely of the fisher caste but because he tried to convert the daughter of the local ruler and the beheading of the Jesuit John de Britto of the Madurai mission in 1693, largely because he had converted the brother of the ruling raja.
If both Gonsalo and Nobili were failures in their own time, there has to be some explanation for the sustained endurance of Christianity in India and this may be found in an approach which neither referred to in their acrimonious debate. This was the way which the missionaries developed through the regional languages and in bhakti where each found the vehicle, the objective correlative for the other. As scholars and humanists recognising advanced cultures and seeing themselves in them, the Jesuits in India cultivated and learnt the regional languages, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Konkani, were flowering through the bhakti, mystic devotional cults that transcended established religion and cut across caste and class. The Jesuit dictum, of being all things to all men, and entering the Indian mind through language, resulted in signal Jesuit achievements in the development of the regional languages. Their pioneering work is still the locus classicus for these languages. Sanskrit was the Latin of the Hindus, but the metaphysical and theological concepts of medieval Latin were not superior to the Sanskrit metaphysics of Sankara and Ramanuja, and what is more the reverse flow of India metaphysics into Christianity has still to overcome the barrier of exclusiveness entrenched in the Greco-Roman format of Christianity.
The vernacular, at that time, their exuberance of mystical and literary development were rooted in the ground realities of village deities and traditions. Versions of the great Indian epics were transfigured in local lore and in poetry and music which Christian missionaries could use freely in their adaptations of thought and dogma without fear of censorship from ecclesiastical superiors. They could, without contradiction bring in, and what Raymond Pannicker called the unknown Christ of Hinduism. Their genius lay in conveying the mystical into a medium that itself was under development for utterance in their liberation from the strait jacket of Sanskrit. They went further into the terrain of music, which no Grand Inquisitor could probe for heresy. One has to witness the Mass and Christian ritual for the new born, for the purification of the mother, for weddings and funerals and for festivals and feasts sanctifying the Indian agricultural year and hear the full throated hymns sung in the traditional rhythms of folk music with the adapted violin, organ, and the beat of the earthen pitcher drum, to appreciate how much Christianity is integrated with the Indian way of life. In this arcane esoteric field the converts had a field day, resolving in the tradition of the guru and sanyasi the additional inspiration of the new faith ``By assuming the position of a translator.''
In the conversion process, Nobili for the first time in the integrated Indian way of life made a distinction between social/political and religious. But the social political visage of a Brahmin sanyasi and Kshatriya raja was without signification either to Brahmanical religion or to political power. Legitimising political power by mere Christian conversion was to bring in an alien disruptive factor in the hierarchy of sovereignties in India and both he and those who followed him ended tragically as dismal failures. He also saw that adopting the social and political visage of the Indian way of life, be it the caste system, the diet, dress, the Sanskrit language, and the local language would allow for a crypto Christian addition in terms of the bhakti mystic framework of regional language and rural tradition and folklore. He felt that this combination and concordance would derive its strength from the mainstream of Sanskrit Brahmanism and also contribute to its strength. He was averse to Christian encroachment on political power and particularly of the Portuguese type character.
Relevant to present times is the issue of conversion in relation to political power and the deeper issue of religious legitimacy of supreme political power. The concept underlying Indian history is illustrated in the ritual of Asvamedha or horse sacrifice since Vedic times when a special horse accompanied by a chosen band of warriors was permitted to wander at will, the king claiming all the territory over which it wandered. It was more than a legitimisation of sovereignty by Brahmanical ritual; it was an assertion of supreme sovereignty. It also gave a framework of toleration, allowing for sovereignties to function in India, subordinate to paramountcy that was single and universal, but sanctified diversities within a unity that was loosely termed as a way of life in the unique geo-political entity that is India. The British claimed paramountcy as inherited from the Moghuls with the development that it was secular in the sense of allowing freedom of diversity in religion and culture.
It is significant that when they left India and transferred power, they left the succession to paramountcy vague, leaving the door open for the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan. The very concept of India was at stake and it was left to Vallabhai Patel to revert to the Vedic concept of paramountcy and for India's constitution makers to redefine India that is Bharat. In a supreme act of statesmanship for which he sacrificed his life, Mahatma Gandhi did try to break the unification of culture and political power in paramountcy by suggesting that Jinnah who threatened to create Pakistan and did so, should be India's first Prime Minister, but it was not accepted. Realistically, secularism in India has to come to terms with a way of life inherent in the geo-political entity that is India and will remain India, the partition member surviving in the consciousness, like a phantom member after amputation. The religious imprint harks back to pre-reformist Hinduism which in its paramountcy not only tolerated but encouraged a diversity of faiths and cultures.
In the current debate on methods of conversion, the politics is fundamental. Christianity in India no longer has the nexus of a foreign power, either Portuguese or British, and in numbers of 14 million in a population of a billion, and without extensive territorial concentration, it has no pretensions of functioning as an imperium in imperio. As a vote bank, crucial in the world's largest democracy that is India, it is significant in marginal constituencies where a ten per cent swing can determine electoral victory, and that too in a few states of Goa, Kerala, and in the North Eastern Region. But its electoral advantages minor as they are, are eroded by divisions and dissensions. Caste is the divisive force; for instance in Goa while there are no longer partitions in churches between the castes, divisions continue for marriage and in politics. Sectarian divisions have become more pronounced and are increasing.
In India there are over 90 Christian sects; the dominant Roman Catholic sect has divisions of jurisdiction and sectarian dissent; the number of Protestants is increasing with defections from the Roman Catholics who are attracted by the charisma and brotherliness of Protestant sects from the U.S. Political power cannot be gained by Christians, qua Christians. It is therefore not as Christians that they can seek political leverage but as part of the mainstream. All the more reason to hark back to the Syrian Christian model which originated without the sanction of the sword and empire and is deeply integrated into the culture and society of Kerala, with its retention of the caste system in the Nobili interpretation of societal rather than religious, and deep commitment to the regional language of Malayalam, fashioned in the bhakti spirit to accommodate the Christian faith. Gonsalo's Christianity was opposed to this paradigm, which the Portuguese derisively called christaos da terra, Indian Christians. The regional language and the caste system which Nobili advocated was delinked from the purely religious character and used as a vehicle for social and cultural integration. Transposing the message for current times is for Indian Christianity to stand firm in the faith which has added to the Indian tradition in its mystic translation and in so far as politics is concerned to participate fully in the diverse dynamics of India's paramount cultural mainstream.
Disputed Mission Jesuit Experiments and Brahmanical Knowledge in Seventeenth-century India by Ines G. Zupanov, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999.
The first part of this article appeared in The Hindu Sunday Magazine dated November 4, 2001.
Send this article to Friends by