Encounter on the Euphrates

Christian historians will have us believe that Hinduism first came in contact with Christianity in AD 52 when St. Thomas, an apostle of Jesus Christ, landed in Malabar. He is supposed to have travelled in South India and founded seven churches before he was. “murdered” by the “malicious” Brahmanas. The old Christians in Kerala, who knew as well as introduced themselves as Syrian Christians till the other day, now take pride in calling themselves St. Thomas Christians. We have examined this story elsewhere1 as also the motives for floating it. Here it should suffice to say that the more scrupulous Christian historians have found the story too fanciful to be taken seriously.

Coming to facts of history, the first encounter between Hinduism and Christianity took place not in India but in those parts of West Asia, North Africa and Southern Europe which comprised the Roman Empire at the dawn of the Christian era. There is evidence, archaeological as well as literary, that Hinduism had made its presence felt in Graeco-Roman religions and philosophies long before Jesus was born. The imprint of Samkhya, Yoga and Vedanta on Eleatic, Elusinian, Orphic, Pythagorean, Platonist, Stoic, Gnostic and Neo-Platonist philosophies is too manifest to be missed easily. It was widely believed in the ancient Western world that the Greeks had learnt their wisdom from the Brahmanas of India. Evidence of Hindu colonies in some leading cities of the Roman Empire is also available. Hindu temples had come up wherever Hindu merchants and traders had established their colonies. Hindu saints, sages and savants could not have lagged behind.

Christianity did not fail to notice this Hindu presence as soon as it became a force in the Roman Empire. It was, from its very birth, wide awake towards all currents and crosscurrents of thought and culture. We find St. Hippolytus attacking the Brahmanas as a source of heresy as early as the first quarter of the third country.2 It was not long after that Hinduism faced a determined assault from Christianity as did other ancient religions of the Roman Empire.

Hindu temples were the most visible symbols of the Brahmana religion. They became targets of Christian attack like all other Pagan temples. “According to the Syrian writer Zenob,” writes Dr. R. C. Majumdar, “there was an Indian colony in the canton of Taron on the upper Euphrates, to the west of Lake Van, as early as the second century B.C. The Indians had built there two temples containing images of gods about 18 and 22 feet high. When, about AD 304, St. Gregory came to destroy these images, he was strongly opposed by the Hindus. But he defeated them and smashed the images, thus anticipating the iconoclastic zeal of Mahmud of Ghazni.”3

Historians of the Roman Empire have documented the large-scale destruction of Pagan temples by Christianity from the fourth century onwards.4 It is more than likely that some of these were places of Hindu worship. The word “pagan” is a comprehensive term in Christian parlance and covers a large variety of religious and cultural expressions. Hindu historians will have to examine all archives, Pagan as well as Christian. Meanwhile, let Christian theologians tell us of the Christian virtues for which Gregory was canonised as a saint.


1 Sita Ram Goel, Papacy. Its Doctrine and History, Voice of India, 1986, pp. 55-58. The St. Thomas story has since been examined in great detail in The myth of Saint Thomas and the Mylapore Shiva Temple by Ishwar Sharan, Voice of India, New Delhi, 1991, reprinted in a revised and enlarged second edition in 1995.

2 D. P. Singhal, India and World Civilization, Calcutta, 1972, Volume I, p. 85.

3 The History and Culture of the Indian People, Volume II, The Age of Imperial Unity, Fourth Edition, Bombay, 1968, pp. 633-634. It would have been more appropriate to mention Francis Xavier in this context. Islamic iconoclasm is not the only iconoclasm which Hinduism has known. Christian iconoclasm pioneered by Xavier was no less ferocious and predatory. It is true that due to geographical and historical factors, Christian iconoclasm came to this country much later, was confined to a much smaller area and spread over a much shorter time-span as compared to the large-scale and prolonged iconoclasm practised by Islam. But, it was no less criminal in its inspiration. Moreover, Islam did not invent iconoclasm. It had learnt it from the Bible and the Christian practice down the ages.

4 The evidence of Christian iconoclasm in many countries for many centuries lies scattered in many Christian and non-Christian accounts. During my travels in 1989, I searched several leading libraries in Switzerland, Germany, France, England and the USA for a consolidated study of the subject but failed to find any. A glimpse of what Christianity did to Pagan temples in the Roman Empire can, however, be had from Pierre Chuvin, A Chronicle of the Last Pagans, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachussetts, USA, 1990.

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