With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Friday, September 15, 2006

Inculturation Through the Ages IV: Robert de Nobili in India

One has to know the Veda of the Lord – but also act ccordingly. It is as if someone knows the way to the reach the city but, because he does not take the way, he never reaches the city. So too, if one knows the Lord’s Veda but does not act accordingly, he will not reach liberation. -- Roberto de Nobili, “Dialogue on Eternal Life,” in Preaching Wisdom to the Wise. Trans. and ed. Anand Amaladass and Francis Clooney. (St Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2000), p. 234 – 5.

Speaking like a guru to one of his disciples, Robert de Nobili might appear as if he were a Hindu ascetic telling how one obtained moksha: Listen to the Veda, do what it tells you to do, and you will be liberated.

While this is the way he portrayed himself in India, Nobili was a Jesuit missionary. To him the Veda or revealed wisdom of the Lord was the Christian Scriptures. Hindu intuition was correct in looking for such a holy text. And they were correct in thinking it would be the guide for liberation or salvation. Hindus were prepared for the Gospel, and Christians were ready to provide it to them.

Born in 1577, Robert de Nobili joined the Jesuits in 1597, was ordained a priest in 1603, and arrived in Goa in 1605 only to be the base of departure for his work in Southern India. He took a considerable interest in Indian society and culture. A year after his arrival in in India, he studied Sanskrit, Tamil, and Telugu, and became competent in all three of them by 1607. He came to believe that if Christianity is to be preached in India, Christianity would have to understand Indian society and its cultural practices. Converts should not be expected to abandon their traditions just because they converted to Christianity. Such expectations would only cause Christianity to be rejected because its way of life would be seen as a practical impossibility. Any such convert would be kicked out of the community and quickly perish.

Nobili did not believe every aspect of Indian culture could be accepted by Christians. He made the distinction between cultural norms which are harmless, and religious practices which could contain superstitious error. His model was what was established in the Council of Jerusalem as recorded in the book of Acts. Just as the gentiles were not expected to become Jews and follow Jewish norms, Indians should not be expected to become Europeans. Their cultural practices were, on the whole, compatible to Christian livelihood. Those which are not should either be modified, if possible, or, as a last resort, abandoned.

Nobili took upon himself the form of a brahmin priest, dressing up as the brahmins did, even wearing the twisted cotton thread which indicated he was a sage. He studied Sanskrit and the Sanskrit classics, but he read them within the light of his prior Thomistic education. His writings show how indebted he was to St Thomas Aquinas. St Thomas’s firm commitment to the light of reason allowed him to affirm the good within Indian society, and to use their literature as the starting point for religious discussion. When the question of idolatry came up, like St Thomas, he believed the cause lay on the side of human error and mistake. For example, some idols could have originally been understand as a symbol, but later became confused for the thing in itself:

To show that God has no beginning or end, some drew a circle in their picture. By this picture they did not intend to say that God is round; rather, their intention was to show that just as a circle with its round shape has no beginning or end, so too the transcendent-and-immanent Being has no beginning or end. This was their only intention. […]

But, after a long period of time, a later generation of being who lacked understanding about the transcendent-and-immanent Being and were dull-witted starting calling the round-shaped figure, the circle itself, God. Even though some did not [explicitly] equate the circle with God, in their confusion they accepted the idea that God has a round shape.
--Ibid, 302 - 303.

Nobili’ adventure in India was quite successful. He was able to establish, despite much contention from his peers, an Indian form of Christianity. He was respected by the Indians for his wisdom and learning. But in doing so, he had to often set himself apart from the rest of his Jesuit order, because they did not, like him, go native. He believed such an association could confuse his converts. Would they eventually be expected to imitate the European way of life?

We must point out that initially his mission was controversial. From 1612 -1623, he had to defend his methodology with his superiors and various ecclesiastical authorities in India and Rome. Moreover, during this time he was not allowed to receive converts until a decision was made upon the validity of his work. Because of this controversy, he developed a theory to defend inculturation, a work of ingenuity way ahead of its time. He distinguished cultural customs from religious activity. While they certainly influence one another, they are not the same. If one were to reject all customs that were practiced in non-Christian religious devotion, then one could not do anything as simple as eat or drink, because some non-Christians had eating and drinking as part of their religious devotion. One must distinguish what aspect of the act is permissible, and what aspect (perhaps a prayer or incantation) is not. This distinction allowed him to gain the support of Rome in 1623, a support which he had until his death in 1656. It also allowed him explain why various customs long equated with Hindu practices were, to him, acceptable as long as the intention was approrpiate.

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  • At 9/19/2006 6:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

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