Robert de Nobili – An Italian Missionary in a Brahmin’s Hide


Jharkhand Jesuits run 8 ICSE schools named in honour of de Nobili. Loyola University,Chicago has a huge residential hall called de Nobili Hall at its Lake Shore campus. Who was de Nobili who has been thus honoured by fellow Christians ?


This Italian Jesuit missionary used a novel method of adaptation called ‘accomodatio’ to preach the gospel in 17th century , adopting many local customs of India which in his view were not contrary to Christian beliefs.(which only represented social customs and not religious ones)


There has been a reent spurt in the use of Hindu symbols and rituals by the local Clergy in southern and eastern India- Christ and Virgin Mary images mirroring traditional Krishna-Yashoda images , Christ steering a Rath resembling Krishan atop one in Kurukshetra , saffron flags flying on Churches a la Hindu temples’ Dhwaja Stambham , clergymen wearing ochre clothes with forehead smeared in white and so on and so forth. Contrary to what the simple-minded would like to believe , these are not  demonstrations of any kind of oneness between Krishna and Christ , but deceitful attempts at using Indic symbols / religions to further the agenda of proselytization.


Robert de Nobili (b.1577,Tuscany,Italy) arrived in Goa in 1605, where he possibly met Fr. Thomas Stephens, the author of Khristapurana. Soon he was sent to Cochin and then to Madurai, where he lived with the local Christian community called Parangis (fishermen and clergy). Christianity in Kerala had ancient roots, but it could not grow beyond the shores despite the best efforts of local Church.


It was through his interactions with a local Hindu schoolmaster that de Nobilis understood that parangis were considered despicable because they didn’t bathe regularly, ate meat, drank wine to excess, wore leather shoes and ignored rules of social interaction. It was obvious that to attract converts from the higher classes/castes, Christianity would have to establish some kind of a meeting ground with them, and also submit to the norms of Hindu social behaviour.


To this end, de Nobilis himself became the agent of change. Despite incurring the displeasure of his superiors and a lot of resistance from every quarter before going ahead with his strategy, he got his head tonsured but left a tuft behind, started wearing ochre-coloured dhotis and wooden footwear, began smearing his forehead with white sandalwood paste, took to wearing three –threaded janehu ( justified to himself as representing Father,Son and Holy Ghost), carried a danda ( stick) and introduced himself as someone belonging to uttam kul, who would associate only with people hailing from higher classes.He learnt Sanskrit,Tamil and Telugu, read Hindu texts and freely conversed with the Brahmins of the coast. He was accepted as a peer, and in a few years time, managed to convert scores of Brahmins to Christianity. Roberto de Nobilis split churches into two parts- one only to cater to the needs of the Brahmins, and the other for remaining castes.


The Italian Sanyasi called himself Tattvabodhak Swami,  expounded  the Christian doctrine in Tamil and in process introduced various words/ terms into the language- kovil (place of worship), arul and prasadam (grace),vedam (Bible),guru and poosai (Mass), which are still in use. He was also earlier credited as the author of Ezourvedam (Gospel of Jesus), which meditates on the essential monotheistic nature and polytheistic manifestation of Hinduism. The Sanyasi is the subject of Ekaveera, a novel by Telugu Jnanpith Winner Vishwanatha Sathyanarayana, in which the Italian is defeated in ‘shashtrartha’ .


It is not that the Portuguese took to de Nobili’s antics kindly. There was a lot of resistance among the clergy in not just Madurai, but also in Cochin and Goa. IT was finally Pope Gregory XV who ruled in favour of his methods in 1623, that gave legitimacy to his manner and work. This process is called INCULTURATION, which is the adaptation of the way Church teachings are presented to alien cultures , keeping in mind their sensitivies and in a bid to avoid confrontation. This contextual theology can be raised to lofty heights, yet it remains an exercise in deceit – ultimately you want to beguile the hapless native into believing that by becoming a Christian, he is not following a different religion, rather a variant of his own.(and most probably getting bribed for it). This tactic is being used by the proselytisers and neo-converts even today. The coasts of Andhra and Tamil Nadu are full of Churches resembling temples, Christ images looking like Krishna, padris walking about like sadhus and neo-converts keeping their Hindu names (for fear of losing reservation).

Beware !




One Comment Add yours

  1. Naresh says:

    Wow! Very interesting. Gotta read this up soon. Thanks for this wonderful insight. And I agree that a lot of missionary religions the world over use ‘pagan’ beliefs to ingratiate themselves and then convert the gullible into believing they have not left their own beliefs, and that the new one is just further refinement. Cunning indeed.


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