The Catholic Response

Intellectual approaches to the Mystery Roberto de Nobili (1577—1656)

In the following pages we shall present the description of the Mystery of God by some of the mystical theologians whose writings have inspired the emergence of an Indian Catholic Theology. We begin with a brief reference to Roberto de Nobili, the Italian Jesuit, who could rightly be described as the trail-blazer of an Indian theology.

De Nobili, the first one to take the road to the contemplative experience of the Mystery, reached South India in 1605. He realized the role of the Brahmins in making Christian inroads into Indian society. The Brahmins were prejudiced against Christianity as a religion of the low castes. Hence at a time when other religions were 'anathema' (condemned) in the Christian world view, de Nobili learned Hinduism in Sanskrit and attempted to meet the Hindu world in its own religious sources. 'He sought for a point of insertion of the Gospel message in the world of Hinduism by making the Gospel intelligible to the Indian mind',5 comments Wilfred.

Through his efforts to present the Christian gospel in the language and thought patterns of the Brahmins, he evolved a Christian theological vocabulary and thus laid the foundation for today's inculturation. He was convinced that the life-style of a sannyasi was the best way to make Christianity acceptable to people of the upper castes and to implant the church into Indian soil. According to the Indian church-historian Joseph Thekkedath, he evolved a theological structure for communicating the Christian faith and coined a terminology for Christian theology in the Indian context.6

De Nobili's attempts, however admirable they were, were embroiled in the inter-congregational rivalries spinning off accusations and counter-accusations, leading to the eventual banning of all experiments with local cultures by a papal bull in 1754. This explains the absence of any Catholic initiative to produce a local theology in any part of the colonial world.

F. Wilfred, Beyond Settled Foundations: The Journey of Indian Theology (Madras: University of 6 Madras, 1993), pp. 15—16.

J. Thekkedath, History of Christianity in India, vol. II (Bangalore: Theological Publications of India, 1982), p. 73, cited by W. Teasdale, Toward a Christian Vedanta (Bangalore: Asian Trading Corporation, 1987), p. 27.

Brahmabandhab Upadhyay (1861—1907): a Hindu—Catholic Interestingly, the seminal ideas for an Indian Christian theology in modern times were sown by a group of reform-minded Hindu scholars, foremost among whom were Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1774-1833) and Keshabcandra Sen (1838-84) of Bengal. These thinkers had a profound impact on a young Brahmin, Bhabanicaran Bandyopadhyay, later assuming the name Brahmabandhab (Theophilus = friend of God) Upadhyay, at the time of his baptism in 1891. Upadhyay, who 'made a significant contribution to the shaping of the new India', was described by Rabindranath Tagore, his contemporary, as 'a Roman Catholic ascetic yet a Vedantin'.7

Upadhyay's orthodox Hindu tradition as a Brahmin and his unflinching nationalism oriented him to move towards giving shape to a 'Hindu-Catholic' faith, constructed on the Advaitic philosophical theology and an idealized understanding of the caste system. He was convinced that becoming a Catholic did not imply adopting a foreign life-style. Rather, he made it known how he was a Catholic by faith without ceasing to be a Hindu by culture.8 He wanted to articulate his faith in such a way that it could be receptive to Hindus so that he could bring educated India to Christ. Hence he set out to indigenize the Catholic faith by synthesizing east and west in a new spirituality. To this end he turned to the Advaita system of Shankara, the eighth-century philosopher-theologian. Advaita, both as the theory of the Ultimate advocated by the Upanishads and as the philosophical and theological system developed by Shankara, was considered as the core of religious Hinduism.

He was convinced that Vedanta could serve as a source of theism in conformity with Christianity. Following the Thomistic distinction of nature and grace, Upadhyay took Vedanta as the nature on which the divine revelation, Christianity, is to be constructed. He writes:

It is on account of the close connection between the natural and the supernatural that we have taken to ourselves the task of expounding the Hindu scripture systematically and of fishing out the theistic truths from the deluge of pantheism, idolatry and anthropomorphism and thus glorify him who enlightens every man who comes into the world.9

Keeping with the distinction between the natural and the supernatural, he upholds the preparatory role of Hinduism which is to be fulfilled in

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