The First Encounter of Christianity with India

Author: George Nedungatt, S.J.

The First Encounter of Christianity with India

George Nedungatt, S.J.

Intervention at Congress on 'Ad ulteriores gentes'

The following are excerpts from the text of one of the interventions given at the Congress "Ad ulteriores gentes. The Christians in the East (1st-7th c.)", held in Rome on 13 and 14 March at the Italian Institute for Africa and the Orient (ISIAO).

A Sanskrit inscription on the porch of a Hindu temple in Udayapur in central India refers, according to one translation and interpretation, to Jesus Christ as the uncreated divine Orient descended on earth and of his holy Apostle as Nadattigam Buddha sent to India. This is a very extensive mural inscription like the third century B.C. rock edicts of Asoka. This inscription contains the following statement.

The glory and mercy of the Uncreated, the Divine Orienta, the man God, Christ, descended on the earth and, after having laid down the weight of his mortality entered upon the possession of his glory; and later his holy Apostle (St. Thomas, Nadattigam Buddha) arrived among us. To date it according to the new era, the era of Emperor Vikrama, it is 1,116 years old (George Nedungatt, "A Controversial Church/Temple Inscription in Central India", Orientalia Christiana Periodica 74 [2008] 133-164., at p.138

The Vikrama era, named after King Vikramaditya, dates from 56 B.C., in the month of March; therefore, the self-dating of this inscription is 1060 A.D. This is admittedly a very late witness for the first century arrival of Christianity in India. Nevertheless it is of no little value as a pre-Portuguese Indian historical document. Not few are the Western writers on Christianity in India whose point of departure is the arrival of the Portuguese, since these writers find no earlier historical documents in India. They are of course not familiar with this eleventh century Udayapur stone inscription. Leslie Brown, for example, writes as follows in his book, The Indian Christians of St. Thomas:

The local traditions, as we have them now, are all post-Portuguese, and ultimately dependent on the Acts, or on its derivatives, the Latin works called the Passion of St. Thomas and Concerning Miracles.... The dependence of all traditions on the Edessene Church prevents us considering these factors as conclusive proof that this early evangelist was St. Thomas (Leslie W. Brown, The Indian Christians of St. Thomas, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1956 [reprint 1982] pp. 48-49, 63).

Brown, one of the few Western writers who has stayed in India and studied critically the St. Thomas tradition, does not mention the Udayapur inscription. Nor does he find any local traditions that are independent of the apocryphal Acts of Thomas or of the Edessan Church. He starts, therefore, the history of the Christians of St. Thomas in India with the arrival of the Portuguese so as to be methodologically on terra firma. But the Udayapur inscription would seem to show such concern misplaced.

According to one translation and interpretation, this inscription is the document of dedication of what was built originally as a Christian Church. Scholars generally agree that there is no early Sanskrit text about Christianity. But the Udayapur inscription was presented at the Twelfth International Congress of Orientalists held at the Accademia del Lincei, Rome in 1899. But it does not seem to have been further investigated. It had indeed been interpreted differently in a Hindu horizon by a Hindu scholar. What was presented in Rome was a Christian interpretation by Benoit Burthey (1818-1895), a French Jesuit missionary and orientalist. According to Burthey, the inscription speaks of Jesus Christ as the Divine Orient, who descended (avatāra) on earth as a mortal, carried the cross upon his shoulders, laid down the weight of his mortality and ascended into his glory. His messenger qualified as an "enlightened one" (Nadattigam Buddha) in Buddhist terminology, who first brought Christianity to India.

In the Indian tradition this messenger is identified as the Apostle Thomas. Today eight Christian Churches in South India attribute their Christian origins to him. These Christians are called St. Thomas Christians. Most Western scholars doubt or deny that Christianity was brought to India by the Apostle Thomas. Some of them concede that it is possible, but still hold that it is not proven; others that it is probable. Only very few of them regard it as proven and certain, unlike most Indian writers, for whom it is a certainty built into the very fabric of their lives.

The debate about the apostolic origins of Indian Christianity has indeed lasted more than three centuries and has become so complex and intricate that it cannot he addressed briefly. I have dealt with this subject in a book published recently in India (George Nedungatt, Quest for the Historical Thomas Apostle of India:A Re-Reading of the Evidence, Bangalore: Theological Publications in India, 2008, pp. 428 + xxxiv).

In it I first expound and discuss critically nine theories or theses against the Indian mission of the Apostle Thomas (videtur quod non, to use the dialectical tag of Thomas Aquinas), and then examine exegetically all the known patristic texts (sed contra est), which as a whole affirm his Indian Mission. Finally, I expound critically the Indian tradition, sifting what is historically reliable from what is not (dicendum quod). It is not possible nor is it necessary to present all this documentation here.

The ancient texts on the mission of the Apostle Thomas are not only in Greek, Latin and Syriac but also Indian.

It is to be hoped that, along with the Udayapur inscription, the Palayur variyōla will some day be duly edited, published and studied. There is also an eleventh century inscription in Vattezhuth (Malayalam palaeography) on a granite slab at the foot of the open air cross in front of the church at Telekkad near Cochin. All these await proper study. India does not score an absolute zero, although scarce in pre-Portuguese historical-sources.

Before concluding let us note that besides texts there is also the language of cult to be reckoned with in hagiology. A comparison may be helpful. The 19th century debated about the historicity of St. George the Megalomartyr, encrusted with legends. The early 20th century studied the tradition of his cult, centred around his tomb at Lydda in Palestine, which then spread rapidly everywhere. Hagiology thus reached certainty about the historicity of St. George on the basis of his cult.

Likewise St. Thomas is celebrated in the liturgy of all the Christian Churches as the Apostle of India. This unanimity of the lex orandi of the liturgical families can only be accounted for by the known historical fact of his having evangelized India. St. Ephrem sang of the relics of the Apostle Thomas brought from India to Edessa. And portions of those relics were obtained from Edessa for Milan by St. Ambrose, and for Brescia by St. Gaudentius. Ambrose's known insistence on documented authenticity of the relics he got or received amounts to an additional warranty of the provenance of the Edessan relics from India, and hence of the Indian apostolate of St. Thomas.

Obeying Jesus' command to proclaim the Good News "everywhere" (Mk 16:15, 20) or "to all nations" (Mt 28:19), the Apostles went forth "to the ends of the world" (Rm 10:18). Just as Rome's social and political importance in the West set the stage for the mission of the Apostles Paul and Peter, likewise the high profile standing of ancient India in the East could not have failed to draw another leading and daring Apostle. The question to be asked then is: if the Apostle Thomas did not go to preach the Gospel in India, who went? And if no Apostle went, why? Intimations of this East-West equipoise may be heard in the following words of St. John Chrysostom cited by the Second Vatican Council: qui "Romae sedet, Indos scit membrum suum" "The Christians of Rome know that the Christians in India are their members" (cf. Lumen Gentium 13, n. 9). There is wide-ranging patristic testimony about St. Thomas as the Apostle of India confirming the Indian tradition. A close and detailed study of both concludes to more than the possibility or probability of the evangelization of India by the Apostle Thomas. Depending on one's taste or temperament one may opt for high probability or certainty.

The Palayur story tells us about the encounter of Christianity with Hinduism in apostolic times, an encounter in the exercise of religious freedom and the mutual enrichment of religious experience.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
1 April 2009, page 8

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