In this series of articles, we are introducing the book ‘History of Hindu-Christian Encounters (AD 304 to 1996)’ by Shri Sita Ram Goel, to readers old and new. Shri SR Goel was one of the leading intellectuals & writers of Independent Bharat, whose work was subsequently marginalised & suppressed by the left-leaning academic establishment. We are grateful to VoiceOfDharma.org for making this treasure trove of books/articles available for the common public.
1. Encounter on the Euphrates
Christian historians will have us believe that Hindu Dharma first came in contact with Christianity in 52 CE when St. Thomas, an apostle of Jesus Christ, landed in Malabar. He is supposed to have traveled in South Bharat 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 Hindu Dharma and Christianity took place not in Bharat 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 Hindu Dharma 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 Bharat. 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 Hindu Dharma 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 a Bharatiya colony in the canton of Taron on the upper Euphrates, to the west of Lake Van, as early as the second century BCE. The Bharatiyas had built there two temples containing images of gods about 18 and 22 feet high. When, about 304 CE, 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.
2. Encounter in Malabar
It is not known whether the news of the Christian onslaught on Hindu Dharma in the Roman Empire reached Bharat. 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 Hindu Dharma in Bharat had not heard of Christianity when the two had their second encounter, this time inside the homeland of Hindu Dharma.
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 Bharat 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 worshiped. No one interfered with the hierarchs who came from Syria from time to time to visit their flock in Bharat 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 travelers 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 Hindu Dharma. The notion of One God which some sixteenth-century missionaries discovered in Hindu Dharma 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 Bharat 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 Bharat 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 Hindu Dharma. 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.5
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 Hindu Dharma 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.
5. cf. K.M. Panikkar, Malabar and the Portuguese. Bombay, 1929.
(To be continued…)
Book: History of Hindu-Christian Encounters (AD 304 to 1996) (Chapter 1 & 2)
Author: Sita Ram Goel
Originally published:1989 (2nd edition 1996)
Published by: Voice of India
Available on: Amazon
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