Roberto de Nobili: A case study in accommodation

In the year 1606 a young Italian Jesuit, Roberto de Nobili (1577-1656), was sent to the strategic inland town of Madurai in southeast India. Within two years this fledgling missionary began utilizing a new approach to evangelizing high caste Indians. In so doing, he incited a storm of protest and controversy. The missiological issues raised by the de Nobili case remain unsettled and provoke heated discussion even today.

The background of a missionary

Roberto de Nobili was born in Rome in 1577. He was the first son of an Italian nobleman who was a general in the papal army.
     When at the age of seventeen — a year after his father's death — Roberto announced his intention to enter the Jesuit order and to become a missionary to Asia, the family objected. Their opposition was not to the idea of his entering the priesthood per se, for the de Nobili family had contributed numerous clerics to the Church, including several Cardinals and at least two Popes.
     Roberto's folly, his family members insisted, was in choosing the Society of Jesus. That path offered few possibilities for ecclesiastical advancement and position. Roberto was adamant: "When God calls, no human consideration should stop us." Thus in 1596, ignoring his family's wishes, he entered the Jesuit novitiate with the intention of becoming a foreign missionary.
     For a brief period de Nobili appeared to be destined for Japan. Then, in response to appeals for reinforcements in India, he volunteered for missionary work in the Portuguese colony of South India. After a period of orientation and language study, and the usual delays, de Nobili embarked for India in April of 1604. More than a year later, May 1605, he arrived in Goa, a Portuguese island off the southwest Indian coast.
     Adjustment to new living conditions was not easy and during his first months in India, Roberto was very ill. Finally, early in 1606, Roberto was sent to the Fishery Coast to live among the Paravas, a large tribe of outcastes.
     While most Paravas lived along the coast where they were fishermen and pearl divers, some had migrated inland. By and large, the Paravas of the Fishery Coast professed to be Christian, but it was common knowledge that in the 1530s several thousand had been baptized in exchange for Portuguese protection from the Muslim raiders from the north. Roberto observed that the Paravas, like other converts he had met in Goa and Cochin, dressed like Portuguese, had assumed Portuguese names, and in general conducted themselves like Portuguese.

Early missionary experience

In his first seven months with the Paravas, Roberto immersed himself in studying their culture and the Tamil language.1 Possibly Roberto de Nobili would have spent his entire missionary career working with these people and thus would have remained on the outer fringes of India's life, but his superior Alberto Laerzio asked him to move to the city of Madurai, five days' journey inland.
     A mission had been established there in 1594 by a fifty-four year old Portuguese Jesuit, Gonçalo Fernandez. Though not necessarily by choice, Father Gonçalo worked exclusively with Paravas who had immigrated to Madurai and with Portuguese tradespeople. The hub of his activity was a missionary compound on the city's outskirts. Fernandez said mass and heard confessions in the small mission chapel, directed the mission school for boys, and oversaw the mission dispensary. He had made attempts to reach higher caste people with the gospel and had sought to interest the Nayak (the regional king) in Christianity. However, these evangelistic efforts among people of caste had been unsuccessful. In eleven years, the Madurai mission had seen no converts from Hinduism. All of the one hundred individuals to whom Father Gonšalo ministered were either Paravas or Portuguese.

An attempt to understand the Indian context

Roberto struggled to understand why the Madurai mission was confined to outcaste Paravas and Portuguese. He felt himself fortunate therefore to have become associated with the Hindu schoolmaster whom Fernandez had placed in charge of the school. From the schoolmaster, Roberto was astounded to learn that the term used by the Indians to refer to the Portuguese and their converts, Parangis, was not, as the missionaries believed, a Tamil word meaning simply "Portuguese." Rather it signified polluted, uncultured, contemptuous foreigners and their proselytes. Parangis were despised, the Hindu schoolmaster said, because they ate meat, drank wine (usually to excess), bathed irregularly, wore leather shoes, and ignored the rules of social interaction.
     Thus, by proudly referring to themselves and their converts as "Parangi Christians," the missionaries were unwittingly erecting a huge barrier between themselves and the Hindus.
     With the help of his Hindu mentor, Roberto also came to understand how the caste system was the cornerstone of Indian society and culture. To violate caste was to threaten divinely ordained structures of life. To the Hindu, the single most important thing about an individual was his or her caste.1
     When the Portuguese first came to India, the question was asked: To which caste do these foreigners belong? It seemed to the Hindus that the Portuguese were ignorant, uncouth, unscrupulous people who were unworthy to associate with anybody except the outcastes. How else could one explain their total disregard for basic religious and social principles? No Indian who valued his rank in society or who esteemed his religious faith would ever consider adopting the ways of these foreigners. This was the reason, according to the schoolmaster, why Hindus avoided contact with the Portuguese except for trading purposes. To be touched by or even gazed upon by a Parangi was even contaminating.
     Roberto became convinced that Hindus would never listen to the gospel until a break was made with Parangi Christianity. He therefore determined to disassociate himself from people and customs which might identify him as a Parangi.
     So, he sought the support of his older colleague. He shared his ideas with Father Gonšalo, attempting to persuade him of their soundness. Fernandez, however, had been in India since 1560, and for nearly twelve years he had worked virtually alone to establish a Christian base in Madurai. As vicar of that parish, he had the responsibility for all the believers in the area, and so what he heard from Roberto filled him with dismay.
     Roberto told him he wanted to deny that he was a Parangi. He wanted to speak only Tamil and avoid touching or even associating with the Portuguese and outcaste Christians. He wanted to bathe daily, sit down cross-legged and to refer to himself as a sannyasi (a Sanskrit word meaning "one who has given up everything," but for a Brahman, being a sannyasi was the last stage of life). He wanted to eat no meat, and wear wooden clogs and a saffron robe instead of the traditional Jesuit black cassock.
     Such a course of action, responded Father Gonçalo, would be a repudiation of three generations of missionary work in India and an irretrievable concession to social evils which Christianity should eradicate. Hundreds of missionaries had given their lives in India in an attempt to plant the Church and root out social evils. For Roberto and him now to withdraw from outcaste believers and accept the prohibitions of caste would be turning their backs on the Indians who had first accepted the gospel. Furthermore, the other changes Roberto was suggesting, such as refusing to eat meat or wear leather sandals, wearing Indian clothing and speaking only in Tamil, calling himself a sannyasi, would deny his priestly identity and sanction superstitions and prejudices.
     Roberto decided that he had no alternative but to appeal to his superior, Laerzio, who did confess that he was uneasy with the unconventionality of Roberto's ideas. Was it necessary, he asked, to go to such extremes? Laerzio affirmed that he longed for the conversion of Hindus as much as any missionary in India, but he could not himself grant permission for such radical departures from the traditional missionary strategy. Nonetheless, Laerzio indicated that he would consult with the Archbishop.
     After several weeks a response came from the archbishop. According to Laerzio, the archbishop said Roberto could cease using the name Parangi, and he could refer to himself as a sannyasi. No mention was made, however, regarding his other proposals.
     Meanwhile, the relationship between de Nobili and Fernandez deteriorated further. "How was it possible," Father Gonçalo asked, "for a new missionary who has been in the country less than three years to determine the best way to evangelize India?"
     Roberto was not to be deterred. He simply ignored Father Gonçalo's protests. As long as he had the approval of Laerzio and of the Archbishop, Roberto felt he could continue.

A radical accommodation to Hindu life

In his letters, Roberto described the growing breach between himself and his older missionary colleague. It was evident, Roberto said, that there was no possibility of reconciling two missionary philosophies. As a result, he decided to move ahead and accept the restrictions of caste and refuse to condemn any social custom or idea, even the despised Hindu practice of suttee2. He moved from the missionary compound into a hut in the Brahman quarter of the city and shaved his head except for a small tuft of hair. He spoke only Tamil, hired a Brahman cook and houseboy, and became a vegetarian. Like all Brahmans, Roberto limited himself to one meal a day. He abandoned the black cassock and leather sandals of the Jesuits for a saffron robe and wooden clogs. To cover the "nakedness" of his forehead, he put sandalwood paste on his brow to indicate that he was a guru or teacher. He referred to himself not as a priest but as a sannyasi. Eventually, he ate only with Brahmans, and for a brief period he also wore the Brahman thread of three strands of cotton cord draped from the shoulder to the waist as a sign of rank. He bathed daily and cleansed himself ceremonially before saying mass.
     Roberto's first Hindu convert was the Sudra schoolmaster. By the end of 1608, just two years after arriving in Madurai, de Nobili had baptized at least ten young men of caste. As his circle of disciples expanded, he became friends with a Brahman Sanskrit scholar named Sivadarma who, after considerable hesitation, permitted de Nobili to see and study the Vedas and the Upanishads. As a result, Roberto de Nobili is thought to be the first European to study Sanskrit and even to see the Hindu sacred writings. At the beginning of their relationship, Sivadarma may have believed that he was converting the personable European to Hinduism, but by 1609 Roberto had persuaded Sivadarma to read the Bible — which de Nobili referred to as the "Christian Veda" — and to accept Christian baptism.
     With that baptism, Roberto faced two difficult questions. He knew that, as a Brahman, Sivadarrna would be reluctant to worship with people of lower castes. Would it then be proper to segregate the believers according to caste? Secondly, was it necessary, as other missionaries insisted, for Sivadarma to discard the triple thread and shave the kudumi or single braid of hair marking him as a member of the highest caste? Roberto resolved the first problem by forming a totally Brahman church. For an answer to the question of the thread and the kudumi, he appealed to his superior Laerzio, insisting that the thread and the kudumi braid were social symbols rather than religious ones.

Opposition to de Nobili's accommodations

Father Gonçalo did not hide his mounting distress. The young missionary's innovations, including acceptance of the caste system, seemed detrimental to the spirit of the gospel. Fernandez warned that Roberto's innovations would unravel the existing work in Madurai and ultimately would jeopardize Christian work across India. Fernandez made a trip to the coast to talk to priests there. Then, he wrote a denunciation of Roberto's activity and sent it to the Archbishop. Soon, the entire Jesuit mission in South India was debating the wisdom of de Nobili's approach. Many of Roberto's friends and even members of his family in Rome were dismayed when they heard of the extent to which he was adapting himself to Indian customs. To try to calm the storm, Laerzio wrote a letter to the Jesuit General defending de Nobili.
     By the end of 1609 Roberto had gathered around him some sixty new converts, incluidng a few Brahmans. The new converts were not asked to violate the rules of caste or to give up any custom which was not indisputably idolatrous. The signs of caste such as the thread and the kudumi were given a Christian blessing.

Official condemnation

Two years elapsed before de Nobili's methods were officially condemned by a member of the church hierarchy in India. That censure was issued by Nicolau Pimenta, newly appointed Papal Visitor to the provinces of Goa and Malabar. Pimenta declared that Roberto's accommodations went too far. Pimenta's condemnation represented a serious obstacle to the continuation of de Nobili's strategy. Both Pimenta and Roberto wrote detailed reports to the General. Communications between Rome and Goa were painfully slow, and so another two years passed before a reply came. In the meantime, nearly twenty of Roberto's disciples had lapsed, and his supportive Superior, Laerzio, had been replaced by Pero Francisco.
     The letter from the Jesuit General arrived in August of 1613. It indicated that de Nobili's methods were in error on three counts: (1) the use of the Brahman thread, the sandalwood paste mark, and the wooden clogs, as well as his denial that he was a Parangi; (2) the adaptation of Hindu ceremonies such as the baths; and (3) the separation from his missionary colleague Fernandez.
     "You must," the General wrote, "during the day and in the sight of all, deal freely with the Fathers of the other residence, go to their house and talk with them, and they, in their turn, must be allowed to come to your house without any restriction and not by night only." Francisco's added comments included a prohibition against de Nobili's baptizing any further converts unless he submitted to the conditions stipulated by the General.
     Roberto responded that these changes would undo all he had accomplished and would sound the death knell of his mission to the Hindus. He based his refusal to make changes on a single sentence in the General's letter: "No change should be made which would compromise the existence of the mission."

Reconsideration: The Goa Conference, February 1618

The affair dragged on for another five years during which time Roberto could not baptize anyone. In 1617 Pope Paul V ordered a conference to be held in Goa in which de Nobili would defend his missionary methods. At that meeting, twenty theologians and priests were present including two Papal Inquisitors. They were charged with deciding the future of Roberto's innovative mission strategy. The debate was intense. Then came the vote.

Study questions

  1. What religious beliefs and practices called "Hinduism" distinguish a Hindu from a Christian?
  2. How would you define "accommodation" as exemplified in the missionary method of Roberto de Nobili? Are there examples of this kind of approach in the New Testament?
  3. What did de Nobili regard as the primary impediment to Indians of caste becoming Christians? What steps did he take to remove that impediment? How did colleagues and superiors react to his innovation?
  4. Imagine yourself to have been appointed by the Bishop of Goa to either defend de Nobili or to bring charges against him. Which course of action would you take and why? Was de Nobili's strategy sound?
  5. De Nobili insisted that the Brahman thread, the sandalwood paste mark, diet, and caste were cultural rather than religious distinctions. How can we distinguish between what is simply cultural and what is religious? To what degree can a missionary "accommodate" aspects of culture without compromising the Christian faith and ethic?

Suggested Biblical texts for reflection

  • Job 4:1-8. The doctrine of retribution declared by Eliphaz to Job.
  • John 1:1-14. The Word of God incarnated in Jesus Christ.
  • 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. Adaptation for a higher purpose.
  • 1 Corinthians 12:12-26. One body, many body parts.

Notes

1Tamil is a Dravidian language spoken in Southern India and in Northern Sri Lanka (Ceylon). De Nobili did not study Tamil from prepared grammars, for there were none at the time. He learned it from the Paravas whose limited vocabulary provided at least an introduction. Proficiency in Tamil was, however, difficult to acquire. It bore no resemblance to any European language such as Italian, Latin, and Portuguese. Its alphabet consisted of thirty letters plus a few symbols borrowed from Sanskrit. Twelve of the letters were vowels called "souls," and the other eighteen were consonants referred to as "bodies." Seventeen of the "bodies" could be combined with the twelve "souls" making a total of 204 different characters. These, together with the thirty original letters, made a total of 234 different signs which Roberto had to master — all of them in script.

2Indian society was composed of four principal castes: the Brahman (sacerdotal or learned), the Ksatriyas or Rajas (governors or warriors), the Vaisyas (traders or farmers), and the Sudras (serfs). Each principal caste was divided into innumerable subcastes. Finally, there were the despised outcastes. The Hindu schoolmaster was, like the majority of caste people, a Sudra.

3Suttee was the self-immolation of Hindu widows on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands. Supposedly, it was an evidence of devotion. Roberto said he witnessed 400 widows burned to death in this fashion soon after he arrived in Madurai.

4One commissioned by the Pope to make official inspections and report directly to him.

This case study in its original form in Alan Neely's Christian Mission: A Case Study Approach, published by Orbis Books in 1995. Adapted and used under the "Fair Use" provision of the 1976 U.S. Copyright Act.

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