Religion revisited

How a translation mistake ended up making India a part of the Bible

Whether medieval Christians saw India as a symbol of evil or as the home of saints, the Subcontinent remained a source of fascination.

Christianity has long been a part of India’s religious diversity. Syrian Christians claim that Thomas, one of the original 12 disciples of Jesus, established their community almost 2,000 years ago. Medieval Christians in Europe believed that Bartholomew, another disciple of Jesus, evangelised North India while Thomas headed south. India also influenced Christianity in the West. Around the year 1,000, reports reached Europe of two Indian saints who, supposedly, had continued the work of Thomas. These saints, known as Barlaam and Josaphat, soon became popular, and their biographies were read throughout Europe. In fact, their life stories were slightly altered translations of Sanskrit narratives about the life of Siddhartha Gautama. The Buddha became not one, but two Christian saints.

Another error in translation brought India into Jerome’s Latin Bible, where it remained at the heart of Catholic belief for over 1,500 years. Jerome, who lived in 347-420 CE, was a monk from modern Croatia who undertook a pioneering translation of the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament into Latin, the language of the Roman empire. But Jerome also found time to indulge other interests, including a fascination for India. He seems to have read nearly everything about the Subcontinent that would have been available in Greek and Latin. His letters to friends, colleagues and potential converts are full of references to features of South Asian life in that period – the caste system, Buddhism, and sati. They also mention magical gems and fabulous creatures, like the unicorn, that people in the Mediterranean region believed could be found in India.

With India on his mind, Jerome made a mistake in translating the Hebrew Bible that would influence Christianity for many centuries. In a passage of the Book of Job (chapter 28, verse 16), Jerome translated a Hebrew expression meaning “the gold of Ophir” (a region in East Africa) as “the dyed colours of India”, referring to the brightly-coloured cotton cloth that India was already exporting throughout the world. Indian textiles were a highly valuable commodity in the ancient Mediterranean. Greek and Roman traders travelled to Indian ports like Arikamedu, near present-day Puducherry, to buy cloth, spices and other luxuries, in exchange for gold. It was only natural, therefore, that Roman subjects like Jerome associated India with rich colours and valuable dyestuffs.

Fascination with India

After the decline of the Roman empire in the 5th century, and particularly after the rise of Islam in the 7th century, Europe was isolated from India. Westerners saw little of the Subcontinent’s vivid cotton cloth until Vasco da Gama’s 15th-century voyage to India around the coast of Africa. But Europeans of the Middle Ages were still enthralled by India, and particularly by the allusive reference to it in Jerome’s translation, which had become the standard version of the Bible used by the Roman Catholic Church.

Generations of Christian thinkers pondered the spiritual significance of “the dyed colours of India”. One of the most popular interpretations came from Gregory the Great, a 7th-century pope. Gregory said that Indian cloth was a metaphor for “the brightness of false philosophy”, for people who seem wise and holy but are really only dyed with “an exterior colour of righteousness”. India itself, “which produces a black race, is this world, in which the dark life of man is engendered in sin”. Bright Indian cloth and dark Indian bodies signified sin, he insisted, while Christian virtue was white “like an undyed garment”. Gregory’s interpretation casts the Subcontinent as a land of temptation and vice, yet it also shows that India was seen as a place of wealth and sophistication with which Europe, then in its dark ages, could not compare. Whether medieval Christians saw India as a symbol of evil or as the home of saints like Thomas and Barlaam, the Subcontinent remained a source of fascination.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.