Syrian Christians were not part of aristocracy until Europeans’ arrival; St Thomas tradition, a hoax

The article, How the earliest Christians of India absorbed Hindu traditions, by Adrija Roychowdhury, a journalist with The Indian Express, published in the Christmas Special on December 25, 2017 is nice and praiseworthy. This is a rejoinder to Adrija’s said article by a Syrian Christian of Kerala. Some of her observations and conclusions are based on myth rather than history. I think it is either due to ignorance or deliberate design. Of the first one is the myth of the St. Thomas tradition of Indian Christianity. It is believed that Thomas, one of the Apostles of Jesus, visited the Indo-Parthian kingdom of West Asia might be true. In no way the kingdom was part of Hindu India. The earliest Indian Christian presence felt only in the Chera Kingdom on the Malabar Coast, specifically south of Kodungalloor (Muzris). There were practically no Christians in North of Kodungalloor and Muslims were the only Semitic religious group there prior to the Portuguese charisma. There were historical reasons behind this divide: that is the Crusades and its outcome of Muslim Christian antagonism. Anyhow St. Thomas tradition is built up as a fiction rather than a reality.

Until the arrival of Europeans in Kerala, Christians were not part of native aristocracy. According to Col. Ward and Conner even after two centuries of the birth of Christianity the number of Christian population in the Malabar Coast shrank into eight families. Hence, the first Christians of Kerala may be the early maritime merchant community and their offspring hailing from the new faith (Christianity) who settled here temporarily or permanently for business purposes. It is similar to the birth of Black Jews. The Christian religion usually travelled along with caravan traders. The merchants who converted to early Christianity traveled far and wide as the part of their mercantile activities. In their short stay at distant parts of the world they usually married (concubines) local women and the progenies in these affairs were formed the part of early Christians. Certain of the progenies of this type marriage were brought up in the Christian tradition, practices and ritualistic order. Hence the Christian society of Kerala was not much different from their Hindu counterparts, except only in the case of an upasana moorti [deity of worship].  Thus the currently debating story of St. Thomas’ direct mission activities in Kerala is a later addition and targeted to protect various interests in the Church hierarchy. The origin of this story goes back to the days of Portuguese.

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The epithet Syrian Christians evolved due to the reason that they used Syriac liturgy. It was due to Syrian refugee migration due Islamic persecution of the early medieval West Asia. Long before this, the offsprings of maritime Christian mercantile wedlock with natives continued as Hindu counterparts with a Christian worshipping another deity or upasana moorthy.  Hence Syrian Christians of Kerala are culturally as well as genetically Hindu race of this land.

Adrija’s few conclusions are based on the book Acts of St. Thomas. It is to some extent true that the only historical record pertaining to the arrival of St. Thomas is this book. But this book does not mention the Malabar Coast. Hence this story was the articulation Roman Catholic interest. The only reference in this book is that Thomas died at Mazda. Mazda is in the present day Afghanistan. The Saint Thomas Christian Encyclopedia of India, (Vol. II, Trissur, 1973, p 3) says that the Acts of Saint Thomas is a historical romance written in the Syriac language towards the end of the second or by the beginning of the third century. Thus, it is not a dependable source of information. Therefore, the Syrian Christians’ claim of their descent from the apostle, Saint Thomas is false.

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Another one is the existence of Nasrani kingdom in Udayamperoor in present day Kerala is the articulation of Roman Padre interest accompanied by the Portuguese maritime interest of the fifteenth century and subsequent. GT Mackenzie observes, Christians prior to the arrival of the Portuguese, not forms the part of Travancore aristocracy. Pope Nicolas IV sent Monte Corvino, a missionary, to convert India and China and he wrote to the Pope in 1306 that “There are very few Christians and Jews (in India) and they are of little weight.” (GT Mackenzie, Christianity in Travancore, Government Press Trivandrum, 1901, p 8).  Cosmos Indicopleustus, sixth century Egyptian Christian Monk comments in his book Christian Topography that “Christians of India are not masters but slaves”.

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Another point of contention is that ‘Chera ruler Perum Cheral Irumporai is known to have been tolerant to all non-Hindu religious traditions under his reign’. The faculty of tolerance was not only the attribute of Chera kings; it is applicable to all the Hindus from the days of Vedas to till the day. To them this specific faculty functioned beyond tolerance and it was recognition of all other faiths as equal to that of him.  Because of this reason Hindustan welcomed Jews, Christians, Parsis, etc into this land. Hindustan is the only land in the world where a single drop of blood of Jews was shed.

Author is a Syrian Christian and Member, Indian Council of Historical Research

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