Ancient roots of Christianity in India
It is now almost a truism that the centres of gravity of Christianity have moved outside Europe: but many people, based on population figures, list Latin American countries first as these centres of gravity.
Ancient roots of Christianity in India
Ancient Knowledge in a Modern World

Ancient roots of Christianity in India

An Indian worshipper gestures after touching the feet on the statue of Saint Francis Xavier in the Saint Francis Xavier Church in Old Goa (Photo: AFP/Rob Elliott)
Anita Bojtos 25/08/2023 06:00

It is now almost a truism that the centres of gravity of Christianity have moved outside Europe: but many people, based on population figures, list Latin American countries first as these centres of gravity. Now that the world's population has surpassed eight billion – and the two most populous countries are in Asia – it's worth taking a look at the heavily populated countries of Asia. This time the imaginary journey will also be a journey through time, as few people know that India is home to one of the oldest, continuous communities of Christians.

In May 2022, India's Christians were the subject of some very bad news in the world press, after Catholics appealed to political leaders concerning, among other things, violence directed towards them. The All India Catholic Union (AICU) has called on the country's Prime Minister to take urgent action to stop the nationwide persecution and hate campaign against religious minorities. In 2021-22, for instance, armed men and local political leaders terrorised religious minority communities, including Muslims, clerics and religious institutions. The AICU has, therefore, joined other Christian groups in challenging discriminatory laws in the Indian Supreme Court that deny constitutional protection to Christian Dalits, unlike Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Dalits. 

Caste system and legal system

But who are the Dalits and, in particular, the Christian Dalits? The explanation leads us to the traditional Indian caste system. Hinduism teaches that there are four main categories of Hindu society, and these categories (castes) are the people created from the body of Brahma. The Brahmins (priests and spiritual teachers), Kshatriyas (warriors, state leaders and officials), Vaishyas (merchants and craftspeople) and Shudras (lowly artisans, servants, labourers).

According to the hymn of Purusha Sukta, written in the 2nd millennium BC, it is believed that Brahmins originated from the mouth of the creator, the Kshatriyas from the arms, the Vaishyas from the abdomen and the Shudras from the feet. Persons who cannot be included in the above four castes are the Pariahs (also known as Dalits), who are born outside the body of the creator and are, therefore, untouchable, on a par with animals in the hierarchy.

The Sanskrit term "Dalit" is, therefore, not the name of the Christian minority, but a generic term chosen by the Pariahs for themselves in the second half of the 19th century, derived from the Hebrew word "dal", meaning "crushed", "broken into pieces", "oppressed", writes Erika Tornya in a 2009 study on Dalit theology. Although they go by many other names, these have one thing in common: the terms carry a fundamental social antithesis, the juxtaposition of the pure and the impure. Today, some 30 million Dalits are Christians. Compared to the total population, this is not a large number, but Indian Christianity is very old, so it is worth paying some attention.

Apostolic Church

According to tradition, St Thomas the Apostle arrived in southern India in the middle of the first century, where he founded seven Christian communities, presumably in Jewish colonies, and was martyred in Mylapore, near Madras. He was buried here and his grave is still venerated in the city. Despite the lack of direct, authentic historical sources about the Apostle Thomas, Christians in India have, since the very beginning, derived their church from him, and the community is defined by the universal church as St Thomas Christians.

A number of aspects also support the reality of the tradition. There are heroic hymns about the time of the apostle, handed down from generation to generation, and direct or indirect evidence of Indian communities in the works of the church fathers of the 4th to 6th centuries - St Gregory of Nazianzus, St Ambrose, St Jerome and others. It is also telling that, unlike many deeply venerated saints, the tomb of the Apostle Thomas is not venerated anywhere else, so the authenticity of the burial site is strong even if it is virtually unprovable. Whether or not St Thomas visited India, it is quite certain that Christians have been living there for almost 19 centuries, and the church of almost 30 million believers in Christ today must trace its origins not to the missions following the Portuguese colonialism of the 16th century, but to the time of the apostles.

But what do we really know about them? The head and spiritual leader of the St Thomas Christians was the Chaldean-Catholic Patriarch, who, however, lived an ascetic and contemplative life and did not interfere in church administration and affairs, writes canon lawyer Paul Pallath, author of The Catholic Church in India. Day-to-day administration was nominally handled by a metropolitan, whose jurisdiction extended across the entire subcontinent, "All India", while in practice administrative governance and secular duties fell to the "Archdeacon of All India". Thanks to this jurisdiction, which covered a vast area (essentially the entire subcontinent), the metropolitan see of the St Thomas Christians was not even tied to a specific place until the 16th century, unlike the dioceses, which were distinguished by cities, as is well known from European tradition. Until the Portuguese arrived, there was no need for this.

Saint Francis Xavier (1506-1552), Spanish missionary, through the streets of the Portuguese colony of Goa in 1542; French engraving, 1850 (Source: AFP/Leemage)

A meeting of East and West

When the Portuguese arrived in India in the early 16th century and established their colony of Goa on the west coast of the subcontinent, they found St Thomas Christianity, one and a half millennia-old, already existing as an autonomous metropolitan church. That is, they would have found it had come with more curiosity and openness. However, it was obvious to the Catholic Kingdom of Portugal that the archdiocese established in Goa had to incorporate Christians, who were defined as "heretics", living in a rite unknown to European eyes and ears, and in the Indian way.

The reason for this aversion, apart from the missionary impulse characteristic of Baroque ecclesiastical politics, was primarily that the St Thomas Christians lived in society according to a double principle. On the one hand, they adhered to their Christian faith and their traditional liturgy, which had its apostolic origins and contained only nuances of dogmatic divergence, while on the other hand, they adapted socio-cultural life and customs to the majority of Hindu society as much as possible. So the pastoral principle, now called inculturation in the Catholic Church, has been perfectly practised for about 1,500 years.

Added to this, the St Thomas Christians firmly believed that their ancestors had received their liturgy and prayers directly from the apostle, in Aramaic or Syriac. They, therefore, practically never dared to make any adjustments or changes to the texts describing their beliefs. These texts originated in the Persian Empire, where tradition has it that the Apostle Thomas stopped on his way to India and, according to Persian Christians, founded the first churches. Their relations with the Persian believers in Christ were, therefore, intense and good, while their own Christianity was not a collection of doctrines, concepts or dogmas, but a way of life (Margam), the aim of which was “to obtain salvation and to reach God the Father which was wrought by Christ through his Paschal Mysteries", writes Paul Pallath.

The St Thomas heritage, the liturgy, which differed significantly from the European Latin rite, and the presence of Hindu rites, which were not contrary to Catholic belief but seemed alien, roused the suspicion of the missionaries, who, after initial good relations, began to accuse the St Thomas Christians of heresy and sectarianism in 1558, when the diocese of Goa was elevated to the rank of archdiocese. It also came in handy that in Rome, all those who followed the Eastern Syriac liturgical tradition or the Chaldean rite were called "Nestorians", although there was no trace of definitive Nestorianism heresy, and in the 16th century this was recognised by the Holy See itself.

The history of the 1,500-year-old Church of St Thomas Christians, which covered "All India", took a turn after the Archbishop of Goa was given jurisdiction over a territory that included East Africa, Malacca, the Moluccas, China and Japan. Meanwhile, the Portuguese ecclesiastical policy in India systematically sought to Latinise or at least remove the St Thomas Christians from the Eastern rite, to minimise contact with the Eastern bishops and to replace the "Law of Thomas" with the "Law of Peter". The process culminated in the beginning of the Latin Jurisdiction in 1599, which led to the fragmentation of the Church of St Thomas Christians until it was dissolved in 1886.

Following the reorganisation of the 19th and 20th centuries, there are now three Catholic Churches in India – the Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankar – and while the tomb of St Thomas the Apostle remains important in the cult, Calcutta has now also become important for the Catholic Church, along with Goa, through the work of Mother Teresa.

Indian Catholics have also had a martyred saint since the summer of 2022. It was at this time that Pope Francis canonised Devasahayam Pillai Lazarus (1712-1752), an 18th century civil servant who had converted from Hinduism to Christianity. Saint Devasahayam Lazarus was born into a distinguished Hindu family and his high education elevated him to the rank of minister. As a minister, he befriended a Christian, who influenced him and his wife to be baptised, and soon began serious evangelistic work. His talk of equality of peoples, transcendence of the caste system, friendship with untouchables, which was forbidden to members of the upper castes, caught the eye of the state. Lazarus was thrown into prison and, after prolonged torture, executed in a forest.

His body was left unburied, leaving the wild animals to dispose of his remains, but five days later the Catholics of the area found the body and buried it in St Francis Xavier's Cathedral in Kottar.

The novelty of Saint Devasahayam Lazarus' ideas is well demonstrated by the fact that, three centuries after the martyr's death, Dalit theology still has a key objective of restoring the human dignity of the disenfranchised and inspiring hope and confidence in the future. But what does this mean? The practical abolition of the caste system that has existed in India for thousands of years, and the acceptance of Dalits – Christians and other minorities – as equal, ensuring them equal opportunities and human rights.

India is a civilisation with a long history, yet no matter fast it grows in population, its society moves slowly. However, like all values, Christianity will be measured qualitatively, not quantitatively. In this respect, the apostolic heritage is not only an excellent starting point for Christians on the subcontinent, but also a special breeding ground for many priestly, monastic and sisterly vocations (aiming to start missions to the West).

The author is a historian

The patron saint of missions
For centuries, early modern Indian missions have been associated with the name of Saint Francis Xavier (1506-1552) and the result of his conversion. Born in Spain, Francis Xavier was one of the first Jesuits, and studied theology as a roommate of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. His life's work was fulfilled in missions: St Ignatius sent him to India and the Far East in 1542 to convert people. He baptised tens of thousands of people in India and Japan, but his great plan to reach China could not be realised, as he died on the way. His veneration spread from the 17th century onwards at the initiative of the Jesuits, and his intercession was mostly requested during sea voyages, plagues and at the hour of death.
Indian missionaries in Hungary

Although India has been the destination of many missions throughout history, today the dynamically developing Catholic Churches in India are sending their own missionaries to the increasingly secularised West. There have been Indian-affiliated clergy in our country for decades: The Sisters of Mother Teresa, members of the Missionaries of Charity, have been working in Hungary since 1996 among the homeless, the poor and the Roma. Among the female monastic orders, there are also the Daughters of the Immaculate Virgin Mary in Adony and Bakonyszentlászló, and the male orders of the Verbites and Salesians. Both of the latter are mainly active in the field of Roma missions in and outside of Budapest.

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