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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