Christianity and Hinduism

The first encounter of western Christianity with what has come to be called Hinduism came with the creation of a number of Portuguese bases on the coast of India in the first decade of the sixteenth century. Christianity and Hinduism had already met in the early centuries of Christian history as the presence of the Christians of St Thomas, or Syrian Christians, in southern India attested; however, that encounter had had little or no impact on western Christianity. The Syrian Christian community had, by the time of the arrival of the Portuguese, come to be an acceptable part of Indian society and made no attempt to reach out to people beyond the bounds of their own community. They were to all intents and purposes a caste, following caste rules like endogenous marriage, ritual cleansing when in touch with members of lower castes and so on. Indeed in Kerala where the majority of the community lived, this Christian community was treated as one of the highest castes, only Brahmans being superior.5

The initial reaction of the clergy who came with the Portuguese conquerors was to see Indians either as 'Musulmans' (their ancient enemies) or as 'pagans'. There was no attempt to study or understand what form this 'paganism' took. Inside the various small Portuguese enclaves, many non-Muslim Indians became Christians in a way that meant they also became Portuguese. The noted Catholic historian, Henri Bernard-Maître, referred to this process as 'Portugalization'.6

It was the missionaries of the Society of Jesus who initiated a genuine encounter between western Christianity and the complex system of philosophies, and religious, economic, and social practices that the west came to call Hinduism. This was slow to develop. For example, Francis Xavier, founder of the Jesuit mission in the east, did not encounter Hinduism directly during his stay in India. Goa was simply Portugal in the east, and later, while working among the Paravas in the south, Xavier still did not encounter Hinduism directly, because there he was attempting to raise the quality of Christian life in what was already a Christianized community.

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