The number of books incorporating “the Idea of India” into their title in recent times is indicative that this idea has been in a crisis for a while. Siddhartha Sarma’s Carpenters and Kings is one more response to this crisis of India, dealing with an oft-ignored population group. In an environment where the Hindu Right suggests that Christianity and Islam are foreign to India, this book seeks to “set the record straight” and demonstrate that the history of Christianity in India is a nearly two-millennia-long story of great complexity.
Divided into three sections that deal with Antiquity, the Medieval period, and finally the colonial, Siddhartha Sarma’s book admirably demonstrates that Christianity was present in India from its very inception.
How Christianity came to India
Sarma writes that Christianity in India predated the conversion of the Syrian Christians, who claim to be the first Christians in the subcontinent converted from local groups. He points out that Christianity’s emergence was rather the result of the Gospel taking root among Jewish communities of the western coastal region, who may not have consciously broken from the religion of their ancestors.
The presence of these communities was the result of a network of Greek-speaking traders linking the subcontinent’s maritime commerce with Egypt, Persia, and Rome. Sarma’s book further challenges the popularly-held idea that the Latin Church, or the Church of Rome, was first established in the subcontinent via the Portuguese. Rather, Sarma writes, it was through the efforts of the Franciscan Giovanni of Montecorvino in the late 1200s, who, among other things, established a church at the tomb held to be that of St Thomas in Mylapore. Sarma uses these facts to affirm that the subcontinent has “never been a land for a single people, or culture or religion”, but populated by a diversity of groups, transient and settled, which were always in conversation with one another.
Carpenters and Kings is clearly a political history, locating early Christianity in the subcontinent among political processes, both local and global, be it Greek trade networks, the assertion of the Mongols, the rise of the Arabs, or the expansion of Western Europe. By dealing with the councils of Nicaea, Chalcedon, or the heresy of Manichaeism Sarma demonstrates that to explain contemporary Christianity in India it is necessary to go into the very foundations of the religion, and be familiar with the theological discussions within Christianity across the world.
Given his desire to stress the foundational nature of dialogue to the idea of India, in various chapters Sarma stresses intercontinental and intercultural dialogues, pointing, for example in the chapter titled “The Fruits of the Wisdom Tree”, which discusses the legend of the saints Barlaam and Josaphat, to how the subcontinent impressed on Western Christianity.
Sarma is not focused only on how the East influenced the West and Christianity, however. His chapter “The Forge of the World” refers to how Tibetan Buddhism, in particular, seems to have interacted with Christ and Nestorian Christianity. The section that deals with the medieval world references how the period of the Crusader states in the Middle East saw conversations between Franks and Arabs. All in all, the book is a delightful exercise in comparative history, which Sarma manages in elegant prose.
Assumptions of early nationalism
Nevertheless, the merit of Sarma’s work is compromised by the methodological nationalism that guides it – ie, reading the existence of a contemporary nation-state back into time. For example, despite acknowledging that the ancients referred to a wide swathe of Asia, and at times even eastern Africa, as India, Sarma persists in referring to the subcontinent as if it were the same as the nation-state established in 1947. This ensures a number of erasures, like that of the contemporary states of Sri Lanka and Nepal which he subsumes into India, as well as the narratives and agency of Christians in India.
Another error flowing from Sarma’s methodological nationalism is the suggestion of the “natural multiculturalism of Indians”, which is not only mistaken, because it presumes the existence of an Indian society as if the polities in the subcontinent were an integrated, unified and relatively homogenous unit, but also a dangerous proposition, since it erases the kinds of violence that have been engaged in subsequent and prior to the founding of the Indian state in 1947.
An acknowledgement of caste, the foremost of these subcontinental violences, is glaringly missing from this reading of subcontinental history. Illustrating this is Sarma’s description of “an old man who had been born a Brahmin and had sailed across both the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal” and then converted to Latin Christianity, leading the author to surmise that “apparently, caste restrictions on sea voyages were different in that period, or perhaps more relaxed.” He ignores the possibility that the brahmin converted precisely because he had lost caste. Like Islam in the subcontinent, Christianity has been the refuge of outcastes, and indeed Christians have often been treated as untouchable.
A strange demonisation
The presumption of an Indian society existing before 1947 does not strengthen the idea of India, but is in fact at the root of the contemporary problems that are unfairly laid at the feet of the Hindu Right alone. For example, this presumption of a society ensures that he argues that “the victory of the British over the French and their rapid expansion in India in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries created its own form of disruption, which would have a long-term impact on the Indian society that was emerging in response to modernity”.
To look at the British presence and colonialism in India as a disruption of a natural evolution is to go back to the same kinds of hiving that Indian, and Hindu, nationalists engage in – only, his are limited to different periods. While Hindu nationalists see the “Muslims”, whom Sarma correctly refers to as Turko-Afghans, as foreigners, Sarma accepts them as Indian, but excludes those who arrived in the subcontinent via the European expansion.
The burning problem that contemporary Christians in India face is not that their history is improperly told, rather, it is that their links with Christianity with the colonial period are seen as problematic. What is required is a history that accepts and naturalises this, rather than harking back to an earlier, glorious past.
Unfortunately, having spent more time on antique and medieval Christianity, this is precisely what Sarma does not do, and perhaps because of his methodology is unable to do so. Rather, Sarma engages in the kind of demonisation of the Portuguese that is standard fare among nationalist historians of all shades. His description of the Inquisition as motivated by the need for “Faith … to be tested on the rack and by the fire” has all the marks of the dated Protestant and Northern European propaganda against the Iberian empires.
Given that contemporary Christians in India are held responsible for the factual and imagined actions of the Inquisition, this period and the institution deserves a more nuanced treatment, rather than the popular histories from which he has drawn his references. Such treatment drawing from contemporary international scholarship and Dalit histories of the subcontinent would have highlighted that the violence associated with Portuguese presence, inclusive of the Inquisition, was just one more violence in a subcontinent filled with violence, but one that allowed hitherto marginalised castes, both Catholic and otherwise, the options of social mobility.
What the Portuguese did (not do)
Contemporary scholarship would have also pointed out that unlike what Sarma avers, it was not the Danish missionary Ziegenbalg who was one of the original Orientalists, but in fact, as Ângela Barreto Xavier and Ines Županov have pointed out in their 2015 book Catholic Orientalism, it was Catholic missionaries and the Portuguese Estado da India who laid the ground work for much that was then later appropriated without reference by later Orientalists.
That the empathy required missionaries to understand local cultures and attempt conversion through dialogue, a strategy attempted even by the Portuguese-supported missionaries, is not recognised, and that the Portuguese are not seen as belonging despite their five-century-long stay in the subcontinent speaks of the unfortunate nationalist lens through which Sarma writes his history of Christianity in India.
Sarma’s history also suggests that Indian agitation against proselytising and conversions were born from Portuguese violence and brutality or proselytism in the shadow of imperial British support. These suggestions, in fact, share much with the assumptions that undergird the ironically named Freedom of Religion legislation, which effectively prohibits conversion to Christianity or Islam. Sensitive histories of India and the British Indian anti-imperial nationalist struggle have already pointed out that, on the contrary, the Hindu sensitivity to conversion resulted from the savarna fear that Hindus would be reduced to a minority, ideally embodied by Gandhi’s opposition to separate elections for Dalits.
Like Gandhi, Sarma seems to naturalise caste, suggesting in his brief reference to the Revolt of 1857 that had the British accommodated caste, things may have been resolved more amicably. Fortunately, this observation allows us to perceive that the violence in the subcontinent was the result of caste, rather than solely because of colonial intervention.
Despite its erudition, charming language and noble intentions, Sarma’s work does not eventually respond to the needs of Christians in India. Rather, it reveals that much of the battle around the idea of India is restricted to ideological battles between savarna Hindus, some who prefer secular nationalism, others who prefer religious nationalism. Both, it turns out, in one way or another minoritise non-Hindus.
Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the India of India, Siddhartha Sarma, Hamish Hamilton.