Madurai – The last time we passed Madurai was on 31st Oct 1984, the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Beant Singh and we were en-route Kodaicanal for our honeymoon, bussing through the trouble prone and riot hit streets of Calicut & Madurai. But that was a stray incident; in general, as you hear the name of tranquil city called Madurai, you picture correctly a vast temple city of Tamil Nadu, an ancient one with towering temples, and a center of many historic traditions. An important cultural and commercial center since 250AD, the capital of the Pandya kings, Madurai hosts the very famous Madura Meenakshi temple. The story I will now tell takes you to the 17th century, when Madurai was ruled by the popular Telugu speaking Nayak Emperors.
The Portuguese had arrived in India in 1498 and were busy since then in taking over the roaring spice trade by hook or crook, and force, fighting battles with the Zamorin and his troops. They were also busy in enforcing Christianity where they could, making them a very unpopular lot, except as in the case of the Paravas, whom I wrote about earlier. The word Parangi (the person from Portugal) was a dreaded term and synonymous with forced Christianity.
It was into this turmoil in South India that his Lord’s calling led Robert De Nobili, and as he was soon to realize, specifically, to Madurai where he ended spending many years of his life. Madurai, the capital of Nayak kings at that time was also a center of Vedic learning, and Hindu philosophy and science were extensively studied. His story, like that of Dom Joao Da Cruz who I wrote about recently, is fascinating.
Sometime you wonder at the sheer audacity and sagacity of certain people, how they risk life & legacy, in order to achieve their higher goals or godly calling. Such was the effort of Robert De Nobili that he managed to carry it on for close to 50 years. Can you imagine a chaste Italian Jesuit priest, dressed in ochre robes, with a ‘ponool’ (sacred thread) around his body and the sacred sandalwood marks on his forehead and arms, conducting extensive religious debates and promoting his religion to the Iyers & Iyengars of Madurai in all the three languages, Tamil, Sanskrit and Telugu, mastered in a couple of calendar years (In his life he is said to have mastered 32 languages) at Tuticorin, Goa & Cochin? Unbelievable, eh? Well, I was taken aback when I encountered him in history books, close on the heels of Joao De Cruz and St Xavier in timeline. So confident was this young upstart, all of 28 years of age that he promised the Roman clergy that he will start from the top of the Indian caste ladder and that he would have the South of India converted in no time.
Let us start with some basic information. Robert De Nobili, born at Montepulciano, Tuscany, September, 1577; died at Mylapore, India, in Jan 1656. Born in a family which claimed noble descent and distinguished relations. Ran away from home at the age of nineteen to join the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) at Naples and after a brilliant course of studies sailed for the Indian mission in October, 1604, arriving at Goa on 20 May, 1605. After a short stay at Cochin (where he fell gravely ill and nearly died) and the Fishery Coast, he moved in November, 1606, to Madurai.
The policy until then by the Portuguese clergy was to try and achieve conversions of the downtrodden lower classes, sometimes forcefully, hardly making contacts with the upper castes. Parangi’s had strict rules after conversions, getting the new recruits to eat meat, change their entire ways of life etc which earned them no good will, and then again, the converts were still considered lower class. The revised priority in India, therefore for the Jesuits, was to free Hindus from the stranglehold of the Brahmanas as set by St Xavier. The resident Jesuit priest in Madurai was making no headway with conversions and not a single Brahmin had converted thus far.
De Nobili had other ideas (fashioned on his colleague Matteo Ricci’s methods of acting as a Confucian scholar in China). He would persuade the nobility to accept his way and start from the top of the caste ladder. First he had to understand the terrain and its constraints. As it goes, De Nobili learnt the first lessons about Hinduism from a teacher he met at Fr Fernandez’s school for the Parava fishermen in Tuticorin.
Having ripened his design by thorough meditation and by conferring with his superiors, the Archbishop of Cranganore and the Provincial of Malabar, who both approved and encouraged his resolution, Nobili planned his arduous career to visit Madurai in the dress of the Hindu ascetics, known as sanyasis. The permission came in 1607, and he exchanged his black cassock for Kavi (saffron) colored robes, shaved his head and put on a linen turban, a triple strand poonool across his shoulder, broad sandalwood paste ‘kuri’ on his forehead, and his leather shoes were exchanged for wooden sandals.
He carefully avoided meeting with Father Gonsalvo Fernandes the resident Jesuit priest as he took his lodgings in a solitary abode in the Brahmins' quarter obtained with the benevolence of a high officer in Madurai. He then engaged a Brahmin cook and ate vegetarian food consisting of rice, vegetables, fruit and milk, eating just once a day. He later employed a Telugu Brahmin Sanskrit scholar Sivadharma to teach him the Vedas, hoping & preparing to meet the Brahmins on their own higher ground. He operated as a `saint' from an `ashram' and offered `pujas.' At the end of the `pujas,' De Nobili distributed `prasadam.' All this while, he studiously avoided any contact with lower caste people. By 1610 he had mastered the Hindu scriptures and the three languages. He wrote two books ‘Dialogue of Eternal life’ and ‘Inquiry into the meaning of life’ in Tamil and used them to draw the local Brahmins to debates. Soon he came to be known as the Tattuwa Bhodhacharia Swamikal or the Roman Brhamin.
J. N. Ogilvie in his work, Apostles of India says "It was told how a strange ascetic from some far land had arrived, drawn to the holy city by its great repute, and that he had taken up his abode in the Brahman quarter of the city. Soon visitors flocked to the house of the holy man to see what they should see, but only to find that the Brahman's servants would not permit their entrance. 'The master,' they said, 'is meditating upon God. He may not be disturbed.' This merely helped to whet the people's desire and increase the fame of the recluse. The privacy was relaxed, and daily audiences were granted to a privileged few."
It was this willingness to adapt to Indian customs coupled with asceticism that won him some converts. In that year, he could convert 63 people, starting with his first Tamil teacher (who was later named Albert, according to Stephen Neil’s Christianity in India), but they were not required to break their caste or change their dress, food or mode of life except in the matter of idolatry. They could also retain their sacred thread and tuft of hair on their head.
Nobili’s teachings did not go all plain sailing. When a large assembly of 800 Brahmins once demanded his expulsion from Madurai, Nobili defended himself, saying that he was not a Parangi, but a ‘Twice born’ sanyasi from Rome, and that the version of religion he taught did not abolish the caste system. To lend credibility, he produced a certificate from Rome that called him a ‘Romaca Brahmana”. A version of this was also nailed to the door of his house. He went on to say ( apparently) that he was a descendant of Brahma and that he was in possession of the lost 5th Veda, the Yesurveda or Veda of Yesu (Jesus) and that his teachings were based upon that scripture. Sivadharma, his Brahmin teacher then defended him strongly at the meeting and this proved the clincher. Nobili remained in Madurai and preached his Yesur Veda for the next few decades.
Ines Zupanov, a contemporary historian contends - Armed with theological theories developed in Europe by both Catholic and Protestant thinkers, Nobili devised an ingenious strategy - based on theologically framed resemblance and analogies – of how just about everything in Indian paganism can be converted into Christianity. The politics of acceptance of the Nobili method in Rome is explained in the book Heroic Leadership (Jesuits & JP Morgan) by Chris Lowney.
His success as a missionary was that the Christian population swelled from around 30,000 in 1656 to over 100,000 in 1706. In Church lore, he is credited with having secured among the largest harvest of converts for Jesus. But it was not to be, the initial successes reversed their course and dwindling numbers of Nobili's converts eventually lead to the closure of his mission in Madurai.
During his final years, he was banished to Jaffna, where by then; he had lost much of his eyesight and eventually moved to Madras as he was not allowed back to Madurai by the Jesuits. Thus it was in Mylapore that the former count of Civitella died after his last eight painful years, in the year 1656, a broken, penniless and blind man.
1. This was a particularly difficult topic to research as the religious parts were of no particular interest to me. I persisted as I found De Nobili’s character interesting and audacious, to say the least. No disrespect is meant to any religion involved, with any part of the text of this article, all events are sourced from historical accounts.
2. Most of the authors who wrote about those times were against Nobili’s methods of mingling with the populace and for not taking a superior western stance. So their writings termed him a fraud, an imposter and a person who diluted the gospel and brought in Paganism to Christianity. I referred & read most of the author’s books mentioned, but only to the extent of Nobili’s involvement in their books and for the basic purpose of writing this article. Only two of the books provided, in my opinion a fair understanding of the times and the person. They were Stephen Neill and Chris Lowney. These accounts of Robert De Nobili’s life can be found at A History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to AD 1707 By Stephen Neill and Heroic Leadership (Jesuits & JP Morgan) by Chris Lowney. There could of course be other more complete & authoritative books…
3. It is difficult to determine if much what he did was fraud, especially the stories of the rewritten Vedas and his documentation on the lineage to Brahma. One must realize that there were many Jesuits out to discredit him and to this date many Christians agree with those Nay Sayers, so such stories still run their course. To read a critical Hindu version, refer to Arun Shourie’s article.
4. One should also not imagine that De Nobili enjoyed living like a Sanyasi or accepted the principles of asceticism. He bore it painfully and frequently complained of his poor lifestyle in his letters to Rome.
5. At least one article details that he actually lived and preached from Salem - Senda-mangalam (in Namakkal Taluk), and not Madurai. It also talks about the support he received from the heir apparent to the Salem Throne – one Tirumangala Nayaka who eventually converted.