How Buddhism influenced Christianity in Kerala

Christianity spread all over the world in the early centuries of Common Era (CE) as a mercantile religion and its survival may be restricted to coastal towns everywhere. But paradoxically it got access into hinterlands or inland regions of Malabar coastlines of India. How it happened so? How it spread all over Kerala? Of course, such queries possibly will arise in front of an authentic investigator.

Before answering these questions we must see the true nature of the social composition of Kerala in the early centuries of the CE. To a certain extent the decline of Buddhism since 4th century CE onwards and the vacuum that generated much helped to the spread and growth of Abrahamic religions like Christianity and Islam. The spread of Christianity on a large scale in the interiors of Kerala was an incident of later years and much more an affair of organized foreign missionary exercise since 16th century CE. By the 4th century CE onwards large-scale migration of merchant-cum-missionary bands was very common.

Early Christians of Kerala were known as margapillas means man who embraced new path or religion. Christians claim that later this word became Moplah/Mappillai by elision. (Christians of Travancore are known as Moplahs/Mappillai. At the same time, Moplahs/Mappillai in Malabar are Muslims. It is a Tamil word. Its popular meaning is the bridegroom. Another meaning is to address a younger man, feel close. The title Moplah/Mappillai denotes the conversion of the Buddhists. In the dominant regions of Buddhism, after its decline, the followers either joined Christianity or Islam. The best example for Buddhist exodus to Central Asian Religions is Afghanistan and Kerala. N. K. Jose, Adima, op cit, pp 101, 102). This use (Moplah) justifies the conversion from Buddhism to Christianity.

The core of the Buddhist code of belief is the Ashtangamarga or Eight Fold Path. In the Malayalam language, the word maargam is used for non-Hindu faiths. The synonym of the word ‘maargam’ in Malayalam is nirvana or salvation. Before the advent of Buddhism, the people of Kerala followed religions without the guaranty of concrete salvation or as mere safety valve cults. Even after the decline of Buddhism, the word maargam remained in the Malayalam vocabulary for conversion.

From the title of maargapillai or moplah one can understand the help that rendered by the vanishing Buddhism to the nourishment and expansion of Christianity. Above all ideological similarities between Christianity and Buddhism accelerated the course of action. Similarly, several domestic terminologies in common use in the native Christian circle like angala (brother), pengal (sister), pempila (wife), etc proves its attachment to non-Vedic and non-Nair rather than Namboothiri bequest. Several Kuruma jati’s vocabulary still dominating the Syrian Catholic Christian transactional language justifies its non-Namboothiri origin. For instance, Appen (father), muttappan (grandfather), muthiamma (grandma), elemma (matrilineal aunt), thalanaru (hair), katala (earrings), eruth (ox), eruu (pair), thalu (colocasia), paki (bird), etc are best specimen to this. (N. Rajasekaran Nair, “Mullukkrumarude Bashayoum Samsakaravoum”, Anjuru Varshathe Keralam, (Ed) Skaria Zachria, Kottayam, pp 374 – 376. Kuruma jati is a subaltern section in Kerala.

The names of the Buddhist villages of ancient Kerala are suffixed with the expression palli. In Kannada, the term halli indicate the same expression. Above all, the Buddhist places of worship were also known as pallis. There are so many place names of Kerala ending with the term palli. (For instance, place names like Kanjirappalli, Karthikappalli, Karunagappalli, Mallappalli, Monippalli, Puthuppalli, etc). These all were once the vigorous centres of Buddhist faith. Now all these places that are suffixing palli are either a Christian centre or a Muslim centre suggests the above-noted transition of faith. Besides to it Christian and Muslim centres of worship are still popularly known in Malayalam as pallis. It is noteworthy that the term palli non-conforms to the universal Christian and Muslim terminology for their place of worship. No doubt the Christians acquired the word palli along with their conversion to the new faith, Christianity, and substituted it to their places of worship, i.e., church.

The degree of Buddhist influence over the Christians of Kerala can be comprehended through its morphological analysis. The typical dress pattern of the pre-independent Kerala’s Syrian Christian women is a sufficient example of the Buddhist influence over this community. The dress code of the baduga jati ladies of the Coimbatore and around is not different from the ladies of the old Syrian Christians. Vaduka is the old popular nickname of the Syrian Christians of Kerala and it is the transfigured form of the term baduga.

The baduga relation of early Christians is a subject to be enquired further in the anthropological perspective because badugas further along with the spread of Buddhism migrated up to Sri Lanka. This is sufficient to disprove the claim of the Namboothiri conversion of the ancient Kerala Christianity. Furthermore, the word maargam or path is in use amongst the Christians of Kerala is of Buddhist origin. Another cardinal evidence for the Buddhist sway over the Christians is that the icon/image/idol that they worship as St. Thomas resembles or looks like Buddhist hermit or bodhisattva. It may be true that the Buddhist community who embraced Christianity carried their favourite moorthy (idol of worship) along with the new faith and ‘baptized’ or re-named as Thomas.

A Roman appendix to the theory of containment of Buddhism

This is not a new affair to the Catholic Church because along with the Roman conversion thousands of pagan idols were allowed to migrate as Catholic saints. To substantiate this historical event, it is indispensable to look into the history of Romans translation into Christianity. Long before this process of change in the faith, Romans were pagans. After a short break, the second generation of Roman Christians reinstated all their old gods as saints and members of the holy family in their new faith by simply altering its old name with some Christian names. Most of the images that are still worshipped by the Roman Catholics all over the world are the baptized assortment of Roman gods and goddess. Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) removed 2000 saints from the ecclesiastical calendar of the Catholic Church in 1962 during the time of 2nd Vatican Council. The absence of historicity was the reason behind this step. The business of this Council was from 11th October 1962 to 8th December 1965. Most popular Indian saints like St. George, St Philomena, etc were also removed from the galaxy of saints. From this Roman Christian experience, we cannot set aside the possibility of baptizing the saint of the below par Buddhist faith of Kerala as a Christian saint, i.e., Thomas and so on.

No doubt, each and every in the contemporary society are in the fray of competition in depicting the past of their respective caste as glorious in the annals of history. In such calisthenics, they may be forced to construct icons of their choice and imagination. The icon that was built by the Syrian Christians is not above this widespread example of aristocracy building. In a nutshell, early Christianity reached in the land of Perumals (the kings of ancient Kerala were known as Perumal) not through any organized and conscious efforts of any individuals or agency but because of historical reasons. The state-of-art of the St. Thomas tradition is the outcome of later colonial as well ecclesiastical interest that operated through a variety of agencies of Christendom.

Before concluding this chapter it is better to quote P. N. Oak: “Saint Thomas arrived in India as early as 52 AD is a deliberately spread canard”. (P. N. Oak, Blurb on the book “The Myth of St. Thomas and the Mylapore Shiva Temple” by Ishwar Sharan, Voice of India, New Delhi, 1995, p vii). Thus the tale of St. Thomas’ arrival and Thomas origin of Indian Church is logically an argument that comes under the logical space of petitio principii.

Image courtesy: Artist Prakash Borude