When Jesuit fathers and other missionaries did encounter Hinduism, they were deeply confused, because they had no previous intellectual experience to draw on that helped them to comprehend it. They attempted, on the whole unsuccessfully, to use their knowledge of Greek and Roman religion as a way into understanding Hinduism. The integral role played by caste in the religious, social and economic system, for example, was one which took some time for them to begin to recognize let alone understand. Hinduism, a word that only came into general use in the 1830s, was and is a social system, an economic system, a complex, many-faceted religious system, including in its embrace a range of practices and theologies stretching from monotheism to belief in a pantheon of almost innumerable deities, as well as a number of markedly different philosophic schools.
In the eighteenth century, 'Hinduism' varied markedly in details of thought and practice from one part of the Indian sub-continent to another. It was the aristocratic Italian Jesuit, Roberto de Nobili, who initiated a fruitful encounter with the Hinduism of Tamil-speaking southern India.7 At the time of his arrival in India in 1606, Nobili saw that an Indian Christian was seen as a parangi, that is, as a Portuguese or a European, and that outside the areas of Portuguese control, becoming a Christian was to cut oneself off from all that constituted normal life. Converts ceased in a deeply serious sense to be Indian. The exceptions to this were the members of the two outcaste communities of the Paravas and the Makuas, who had become Christian by way of group conversion. By this means the individual Parava or Makua was not an isolated individual but continued to live an acceptable life in the bosom of his or her family and community, although to other Indians the two groups had become parangi.
Nobili went to live in Madurai, the great southern centre of Hindu pilgrimage and of Tamil Hindu literary and philosophic activity. There he cut himself off not only from the Portuguese but also from Makua and Parava Christians and began to live the life of a sannyassi, that is a high-caste penitent who has given up the world. He emphasized that he was not Portuguese and that he was of noble birth, 'a Roman rajah.'. As such a sannyassi he became accepted gradually as someone with whom Brahmans and other high-caste Indians could have social intercourse. He became fluent in Tamil and he also learned Sanskrit, the classic language of the fundamental texts of Hinduism. The Brahman who taught him Sanskrit became his friend and through long conversations with him Nobili came to realize that there were books, vital to an understanding of Hinduism, of which he knew nothing. He persuaded his friend to give him access to these sacred texts. This was a dangerous thing
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