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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Jesuit Robert De Nobili -Missionary

Book on Contribution of Christian Missionaries in India

‘Contribution of Christian Missionaries in India’
Written by Camil Parkhe
Published by Gujarat Sahitya Prakash,
Post Box No 70, Anand, 388 001
Gujarat, India

Email: booksgsp@gmail.com

First Published in 2007

ISBN 978 81 8937 36 2

Chapter 4.  Robert De Nobili – Father of incultaration in India

Christianity came to India within a few years of after Jesus Christ preached his gospel of love and peace in Israel. That was about 2000 years ago. St Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of the Christ, is credited with bringing Christianity to Kerala. A section of the Christian community in Kerala believes that they inherited their religion from St Thomas himself. Hence, Christianity in India has a tradition stretching 2000 years.

The European Christians missionaries who arrived on the Indian coast in the medieval period started propagating Christianity afresh. The Portuguese who gained political control over Goa started imposing their own culture on the Christians here. They treated the local customs and traditions with contempt. At that time a European missionary exhibited great courage to oppose this trend.  He invited the rage of his colleagues and religious superiors when he defended the local culture, life style and also adapted the local languages. He propounded that Christianity could be practised even after mingling completely with the culture of the country. This Christian priest convinced others that adapting the local culture without comprising the tenets of Christianity was indeed possible. The name of this great visionary missionary was Fr Robert De Nobili.

Fr Robert De Nobili originally hailed from Italy. He was born in a noble family of Rome in 1577. He arrived in Goa in 1605 as a member of the Society of Jesus, an association of the Catholic priests founded by St Ignatius of Loyola. The members of this religious body are known as the Jesuits. Young Robert had chosen India as the land for his missionary work. He completed his theology training at St. Paul's College in Goa and reached Madurai in Tamil Nadu in 1606. He was to spend a major part of his life in this historic city. 

After settling in Madurai, De Nobili started studying Tamil, the local language. He also started learning more about the local customs, traditions and beliefs. Soon, this priest realised that the local people used to refer all Europeans as firangis. Since Fr Nobili was a European, he too was referred to as a ‘firangi’. After spending some days in Madurai, he further realised that the word ‘firangi’ was not used with respect for a person, it had derogatory connotation. He also found out the reasons behind this. For the local orthodox populace, the lifestyle and dietary habits of all the Europeans was most shocking. The locals knew that all the Europeans were non-vegetarians and did not adhere to the basic rules of casteism and untouchability. It was not surprising that the locals started harbouring a feeling hatred for the Europeans who consumed flesh and had no qualms about maintaining normal relations even with the untouchables!

The untouchables were the members of the lowest social castes and consumed flesh and lived in ghettos far away from the colonies of the higher castes. The high caste and orthodox people, therefore, could not even think of having normal relationship with these Europeans, all of whom were referred to as firangis. Even those persons who maintained contacts with these firangis faced the risk of excommunication from their respective communities.

De Nobili had traveled thousands of miles from Rome in Europe to preach the gospel in India and to his horror, now he realised that in the eyes of the local people, he was a firangi.  It would be impossible for him to have any kind of contact or dialogue with anyone from the high caste community as long as they thought of him, as a firangi, and therefore kept him at a bay. Before De Nobili, other European priests too had reached Madurai and nearby places but their propagation of Christianity had remained confined only to the untouchable communities. Now Fr Robert De Nobili understood the reason for the same. He realised that to get blended with the local community, one had to mingle with the local culture.

Instead of bringing about changes in the customs and traditions of the locals, Robert De Nobili preferred changing his own lifestyle. The first thing he did was to give up consumption of flesh. As per the prevalent tradition among the Christian priests, Robert De Nobili used to wear a black cassock. He started using saffron coloured clothes and wooden sandals like Hindu hermits. He tonsured his head and started applying sandalwood paste on his forehead. He started moving about with a wooden staff in his right hand and a small kamandalu (water bowl) in his left hand. In the Indian society, only hermits used to wear such a costume.  It was for the first time in the 1,500 year-old history of Christianity that a missionary had accepted such type of costume. It was a revolutionary change in the history of the Church.

To bring about this change and make it acceptable to his religious colleagues and superiors, De Nobili had to face a long drawn battle with his fellow Jesuits and the hierarchy in the Catholic Church. De Nobili using the Hindu hermit’s costume and life style was just not acceptable to some of his colleagues and religious superiors. Some of them even argued that De Nobili's behaviour was against the basic tenets of Christianity.

But Fr. De Nobili justified his stand by citing a few references of arguments that had taken place during the early years of Christianity. Christianity has originated from the Jewish religion. Jesus Christ himself was a Jew and all his 12 apostles also were Jews. Thereafter, some non-Jews too started following Christianity and this led to a long debate on whether the gentiles, the non-Jews, should adopt Jewish traditions to embrace Christianity.

Circumcision is an important custom in Jew community. Some of the Christians insisted that every person aspiring to follow Christ, to be a Christian, must follow this Jewish custom.  But St. Paul said that acceptance of all Jewish social and religious customs need not be made mandatory to be a Christian. It was not at all necessary for people to give up their social, cultural moorings in order to be Christians.

We come across many such examples in the 2000-year-old history of Christianity. Having this background of theological and philosophical arguments to defend his stance, Fr. De Nobili maintained that following local traditions of India was not against Christianity.

Soon De Nobili became well versed in Tamil and Sanskrit. He ceased to be a firangi in the eyes of the locals when he adorned the costume of a hermit and gave up non-vegetarian food.  This foreign seer was slowly accepted by the locals as their ‘aiyar’ or ‘guru ’. The doors of this country had remained firmly closed for several years to the European missionaries who had come before De Nobili. One of the main reasons behind this was these Europeans' pride in their own culture and contempt for the local culture. De Nobili understood this very well. Therefore, he preferred to blend with the local traditions before preaching Christianity among the local populace. Due to his laborious work, for the first time in the medieval period the gates of India were opened for Christianity.

While learning the local languages, De Nobili also started studying the Vedas, the holy scriptures of the local people, in order to understand the basic tenets of Hinduism. Although, the Vedas were composed thousands of years ago, no westerner before him had ever studied them!  De Nobili was thus the first person from the western world to study Indian classics after learning Sanskrit.

De Nobili did not stop at changing his attire and life style alone. He was of the opinion that the locals who embraced Christianity need not give up their social and cultural traditions even after conversion. The Portuguese, who were ruling Goa on the west coast, had tried to force western culture on the local neo-Christians. De Nobili strongly opposed the imposition of western culture on the neo-Christians in southern India. He conveyed his opinion even to the Holy See in Rome. Some years later, even the Catholic Church allowed the neo-Christians in Madurai and neighbouring areas to apply sandalwood paste on their forehead and wearing a sacred thread across the neck as per old customs.

Fr. Robert De Nobili preached Christianity mainly among the Brahmins and other high caste people. In those days, any local persons embracing Christianity were immediately identified as firangi and excommunicated by society. The Brahmins enjoyed leadership status in religious, social and other matters and none dare go against them. So Robert De Nobili concluded that conversion of these high caste persons to Christianity would help percolate Christianity in all other castes.

Jesus Christ preached his gospel to the rich and the poor, the ostracised and the influential alike. And so his followers are also expected to preach the Good News to all, irrespective of their caste, religion, race or social ranks. However, some scholars have accused De Nobili of favouring the high caste Brahmins in his religious mission. Why was he inclined towards them more than the poor and untouchable classes?

In those days, the way to untouchables and low caste people was through high caste Brahmins only. De Nobili felt that the low caste and untouchable people too would embrace Christianity if the Brahmins took the lead in this regard as the high caste Brahmins were leaders in almost all fields. The low caste and the ostracised sections of the society would not dare unless and until the high caste people embraced this religion.

Acceptance of this firangi religion clearly meant inviting the wrath of the influential and getting excommunicated from the society. Robert De Nobili successfully launched an incultaration movement within the Church, assimilating Indian culture in Christian living and thus wiped out the stamp of firangi given to Christianity. Christianity became a part of the culture in south India and the local culture was reflected in Christian prayers and the life style of Christians there.
Fr Robert De Nobili is credited with introduction of the inculturation process among the Indian Christians in the seventeenth century. He was centuries ahead of the time in this regard as the Church officially encouraged this process only after the Vatican Council II, which took place in the twentieth century. Unfortunately, this principle of inculturation was ignored by the other Christian priests who succeeded De Nobili.

Fr. De Nobili felt that the spiritual leaders of the Indian Christian community should come from within their own community and the candidates for priesthood should be specially trained as per the Indian spiritual traditions. With this goal in mind, he tried in 1610 A. D. to establish a Sanskrit medium seminary to teach Christian Philosophy. The seminary was to conduct a five-year course in theology. Robert De Nobili had even prepared an appropriate Sanskrit terminology for the seminary. But due to some problems, the seminary was not established. Had De Nobili succeeded in this endeavour, the first Christian seminary in the world having Sanskrit medium would have come into existence.

St. Francis Xavier and other missionaries arrived in India before De Nobili. It must have been difficult for them to preach Christianity among the high caste, wealthy Brahmins who cherished pride in their religion. Nonetheless, De Nobili concentrated on preaching Christianity among the Brahmins. He changed his attire, became pure vegetarian to earn the respect of the local populace as he wanted to remove the stigma associated with being a firangi. Not only that, he also discontinued having meals with his own firangi religious colleague priests.  Once, when he went on a visit to meet his religious superiors in Madurai, he took his own Brahmin cook along so that he could avoid having non-vegetarian food or any other food cooked by the firangis.

In his attempt to open the doors of Christianity to the high caste Brahmins, De Nobili is often accused of meting out injustice to the untouchable community. It is indeed a fact that this missionary who preached Christianity that cared for the neglected, offered the untouchables the back seats in his church. However, considering the social conditions prevalent at that time, even allowing the untouchables to enter the church was a great reform initiated by De Nobili. One should remember that in Maharashtra and in many other parts of the country, the untouchables had to launch long struggles to gain entry into temples. This was as late as the twentieth century. Besides, many Catholic and Protestant churches in southern India with domination of high caste people did not permit entry to untouchable Christians until the last few decades. Under these circumstances, De Nobili should not be condemned for treating his high caste and untouchable Christian followers differently.

De Nobili also insisted that, in India, Sanskrit should be used in Christian liturgy and prayers. As Hindus conducted their religious ceremonies only in Sanskrit, the Christians all over the world for several centuries conducted their prayers and liturgy only in Latin. It was a taboo to use the language of the common people to converse with God! De Nobili tried very hard to introduce the use of Sanskrit in Christian prayers. I remember prayers and liturgy being conducted even in rural parts of Maharashtra only in Latin as late as three decades ago. It was in late 1960s that Catholic churches all over the world started conducting prayers, masses and other religious ceremonies in local languages consequent to the second Vatican Council.

It is said this Vatican Council II, convened by Pope John XVIII and later officiated by his successor Pope Paul VI, introduced liberalism in the Catholic Church. This council attended by bishops and Church theologians from all over the world introduced the mass liturgy and prayers in local languages all over the world. De Nobili should be credited with making the pioneering efforts for encouraging the use of a local language, Sanskrit, in Indian church as early as the 17th century. He was indeed a visionary missionary. Unfortunately, his successor missionaries did not pursue his mission of inculturation within the Indian Church. The face of the Indian Church would have been different had the priests who came after De Nobili continued with his religious liberalism and incultaration process.

Fr. De Nobili faced several difficulties while carrying out his missionary work. Some of his own religious colleagues accused him of restricting his apostolic mission to high class Brahmins and introducing racism and casteism in Christianity. Some of the Catholic priests also argued that allowing the local Christians to use a sacred thread around neck, sandalwood paste on forehead and a tuft of hair on head was against the principles of Christianity. Many a time, his religious superiors had to even conduct probes to find out whether De Nobili was conducting himself against the tenets of Christianity.

As a result of a long tirade launched by some orthodox priests against De Nobili, between 1612 A D and 1623 A D, the Holy See banned De Nobili from propagating Christianity among the Brahmins. Thereafter for many years, a debate  went on whether the converted Brahmin Christians should be allowed to continue their practice of keeping the sacred thread around their necks, sandalwood paste on their foreheads and tuft of hair. At the end of 1623 A. D., Pope Gregory XV issued a verdict that the acts and beliefs of Fr Robert De Nobili were not against the Christian faith. Thus almost after a decade, Fr Nobili’s views were endorsed by the Church and his priestly right to baptise people was restored once again.

De Nobili had come to India with the sole mission of preaching Christianity among the local populace. However his noble efforts to offer an Indian base to the practice of Christianity in this country were not immediately appreciated by his colleagues and superiors. Instead, he was misunderstood and doubts were also raised about his intentions. One cannot imagine the emotional turmoil De Nobili faced when he was banned from preaching Christianity and baptising people for over a decade. One of the three vows taken by him as a Jesuit was to be obedient to his religious superiors and he observed this vow totally.

It is remarkable that even after being banned from carrying out the apostolic work among the Brahmins, De Nobili continued his other activities as a missionary for 13 long years. But he sought justice from the Church hierarchy against the injustice meted out to him. Luckily for him, the Pope later issued another decree, which ruled that De Nobili’s missionary conduct, his views or the process of inculturation launched by him were not against the Christian faith. De Nobili was at last absolved of the crimes he had never committed.

Although the Church had now lifted the ban and allowed him to continue his apostolic work among the Brahmins, De Nobili thereafter shifted his focus to the lower strata of the society. He had adapted the lifestyle of the Brahmins to win over them. But it would be unfair to say that De Nobili had also believed in or practiced casteism and chaturvarna system.  

In 1640, Fr. Robert De Nobili got unexpected support from a 27-year-old priest, Balthazar De Costa, who had come from Portugal. This disciple of De Nobili wore saffron robes and earrings like his guru and preached Christianity among the local masses. De Nobili was content that his style of missionary work now had the sanction of the Holy See. He no longer needed to fight back the opposition of his own colleagues or superiors.  He must have experienced great satisfaction to see that the new missionary paths carved out by him were now well acceptable. 

The credit for composing prose in Tamil language for the first time goes to Fr. Robert De Nobili.  De Nobili wrote a lot in three Indian languages, Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit as well as three European languages, Italian, Portuguese and Latin. In 1656, one priest mentioned in his letter that the Indian scholars used to get astonished by De Nobili’s mastery over so many languages.  Some of his literary works are still available for scholars to study and appreciate De Nobili's intellect. These books are considered as important treasures of Tamil language.

After he turned 68, his Jesuit superiors sent Fr De Nobili to Jaffna in Shri Lanka so that he could rest. He had become frail due to old age. His eyesight had become very weak. But De Nobili did not wish to leave Madurai. He wanted to continue living at the place where he had worked since his youth. But he obeyed his Jesuit superiors and shifted his residence to Jaffna. Two years later, he was allowed to return to India, his  'home' land.  He spent the last eight years of his life in the city of Mylapore, an important pilgrim centre for Christians.

Mylapore is believed to be the place where St. Thomas was martyred. St Thomas who arrived at the south Indian coast in 52 A. D. had baptised many local people. It is indeed a coincidence that 16 centuries after Saint Thomas, Fr Robert De Nobili who propagated Christianity on a large scale in south India, found a final resting place in Mylapore.

Until he breathed his last, Fr De Nobili used to wear saffron cassock. Towards the end of his life, he had also started fasting. Though his eyesight had become weak, he continued improvising his books with the help of his disciples. This great missionary breathed his last on January 16, 1656, at the age of seventy-nine.

References: -

1. ‘A Pearl to India-The Life of Roberto de Nobili’-Vincent Cronin, Published by-Rupert Hart- Davis, Soho Square, London, 1959.

2. ‘The Christian Community and the National Mainstream’-Louis D’Silva, Printed by Dr. M.E. Cherian, Spicer College Press, Ganesh Khind, Pune-411 007.

3. ‘The Unquenchable Quest for scholarship- Interview of De Nobili Scholar Fr. Rajamanickam’ (S.J.) Published in a periodical ‘Jivan’ ‘Jesuits of India: Views and News’ (April 2000), Published by the Jesuits conference of South Asia 225, Jor Bagh, New Delhi, 110 003

4. ‘Dnyanayogi : Robert De Nobilinche Jeevan Charitra’ (Marathi) By- Fr. Bertie Rozario (S.J.) Publisher- Fr. Namdeo Salve ( S. J.) Marg Prakashan, De Nobili College, Pune, 411 014 (1969)



  1. great work !!

  2. good work..with essential content and evaluvation

  3. much useful.. thanks to the editor and praise to the saint Fr. Robert

  4. Please mention about the literary contributions of Robert de Nobili. Especially the names of the literary works