Encounter in Malabar

It is not known whether the news of the Christian onslaught on Hinduism in the Roman Empire reached India. One wonders whether the merchants and monks who survived and returned home grasped the import of what was happening. If they gave to their countrymen an account of what they had witnessed in a distant land, the record has not survived or is not yet known. Nor do we know how the Hindus at home reacted, if at all. What we do know, however, is that Hinduism in India had not heard of Christianity when the two had their second encounter, this time inside the homeland of Hinduism.

The Hindus of Malabar were the first to see Christians arriving in their midst. They were mostly refugees from persecution in Syria and later on in Iran. Christians in Syria were persecuted by their own brethren in faith. They had become suspect in Iran from the fourth century onwards when Iran’s old adversary, the Roman Empire, became a Christian state. They suffered repeated persecutions in both countries. As most of them were heretics in the eyes of Christian orthodoxy, they could not go west. So they fled towards India and China, which two countries were known for their religious tolerance throughout the ages. Later on, they were joined by refugees from Armenia flying from Christian heresy-hunters.

The record that has been preserved by the Christian refugees themselves tells us that they were received well by the Hindus of Malabar. Hindu Rajas gave them land and money grants for building houses and churches. Hindus in general made things so pleasant for them that they decided to stay permanently in Malabar. No Hindu, Raja or commoner, ever bothered about what the refugees believed or what god they worshipped. No one interfered with the hierarchs who came from Syria from time to time to visit their flock in India and collect the tithes. In due course, the refugees came to be known as Syrian Christians.

It is not known how the Syrian Christians viewed their Hindu neighbours. If they despised the Hindus as heathens, they kept it a closely guarded secret. Nor did they try to evangelize and convert the Hindus, the two practices which had been proclaimed by the Founding Fathers of the Church as inseparable parts of the Christian Creed and inalienable rights of Christians everywhere. On the contrary, they lost their separate identity and became a part of the local population, so much so that Christian travellers who came to these parts in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries did not notice them as different from Hindus. They learnt the local language and took to Hindu modes in dress and food and the other externals of life. They intermarried with certain sections of Hindu society. Even inside their churches, their rituals acquired the character of Hindu pUjA.

Latter-day Christian theologians and historians would claim that Syrian Christianity had. a tremendous impact on Hinduism. The notion of One God which some sixteenth-century missionaries “discovered” in Hinduism would be seen as a contribution of Christianity. Nineteenth-century Christian scholars would assert that Hindus had derived the concepts of bhakti (devotion) and mukti (salvation) from the Christian contact in South India which was held by Hindus as the original home of the medieval Bhakti Movement. Christ was seen disguised in Krishna who figured prominently in certain Vaishnava schools of bhakti. Hindu philosophies like the advaita of Shankara and the vishisTAdvaita of Ramanuja were also traced to Christian sources.

No scholar today takes these hair-brained Christian speculations seriously. The current fashion among scholars of medieval India is to see Islam as the source of the Bhakti Movement. But that is a different story. it is also a different story that some Christian theologians are trying to use advaita and vishisTAdvaita as vehicles for implanting Christianity into the heart of Hinduism. What is pertinent in the present context is that the Syrian Christians were never known to their Hindu neighbours for spiritual or philosophical profundities. The only thing that was known about them was that they were hardworking and intelligent businessmen, some of whom had succeeded as prosperous spice merchants. They were also known for keeping slaves as well as trading in them.

The significant point to be noted about the Syrian Christians, however, is their sudden change of colour as soon as the Portuguese arrived on the scene. They immediately rallied round the Portuguese and against their Hindu neighbours, and when the Portuguese started pressurizing the Hindu Rajas for extraterritorial rights so that their co-religionists could be “protected”, the Syrian Christians evinced great enthusiasm everywhere. They became loyal subjects of the king of Portugal and pious adherents of the Roman Catholic Church. Was it the demonstration of Portuguese power which demoralised the Syrian Christians and made them do what they did? Or was it the Christian doctrine which, though it lay dormant for a long time, surfaced at the first favourable opportunity? The matter has to be examined. Looking at the behaviour of Syrian Christians ever since, the second proposition seems to be nearer the truth.1


1 cf. K.M. Panikkar, Malabar and the Portuguese. Bombay, 1929.

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