When the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea was written in the mid-first century, the West thought all beyond the Mediterranean was Red Sea. Likewise geographically it was difficult to describe Asia as a continent. The author starts from here and points out that the first group that took the Bible to the East was that of the Nestorian or the Church of the East. Asia was a different region as per Jews’ noting and by the time of New Testament the geography is seen differently. While earlier Asia was portrayed as a place of riches, in the portrayal of the New Testament, Asia is not so appealing. In fact, colonialism created a collaborating comprador class, which subjected itself to the Westerners and conveyed a different meaning to both the people and religion of the West.
The book highlights the three features of this pre-colonial reception of the Bible in the East. First, the Bible did not come from a superior civilisation; the people that brought it were mostly on the fringes of the society and the East was already part of a superior civilisation. Secondly the Bible remained un-translated and therefore not understood. Thirdly, it was not the aggressive instrument as handled by the colonialists, who came much later.
Hinduism & Buddhism
In the seven chapters of the book, the author Sugirtharajah, Emeritus Professor of Biblical Hermeneutics at the University of Birmingham, takes the reader through various stages of the reception of the Bible by the societies of the East. He notes that the Christian writings were affected by Merchandise and Asian Fiction, and material contributed by the important people of the countries practising Hinduism and Buddhism. He also deals with intellectual-converted Christians and their reaction to Bible.
The book on the whole makes an interesting study, not just of the religion but of the people who were in direct contact through religious practices, of other regions and their reactions. He asserts, “No culture is pure; it draws on a variety of sources. Such a hermeneutical to-and-fro does not allow one religious tradition to have final say or claim monopoly of a thought or story.”
John Zephaniah Holwell of the East India Company who acted as a temporary Governor of Bengal, was one of the survivors of the Black Hole of Calcutta, and is quoted by the author. In Howell’s Interesting Historical Events. . it is stated that the ancient religion of Brahma was the most ancientand consequently most pure of religions. In fact Holwell appears to have claimed his Chartah Bhade Shastah could act as a catalyst to reform Christianity.
Books of Joshuas, Judges, Samuel and Kings date several centuries before Christ, and from their time to the first century, India was seen as a rich country with fascinating people and material. In fact some of the fables and personalities from the religious books of India have found their way into the scriptures. Later it became a fertile ground for evangelisation long before colonialism made it a prime target for conversion.
The author deals with the subject dispassionately, and with a remarkable detachment; nowhere he seems to have taken sides with the people he is dealing with, a point which makes the book an excellent read.
The author notes, in the Hebrew literature, one of the seven princes of Persia and Media is called Carshena that could be Krishna of the Hindus. The author feels that the possibility of the presence of Hindu deities cannot be ruled out if the geopolitical condition of the time is considered. That shows that there was not only exchange of merchandise but deities themselves, says the author. He convincingly argues that the extension of Persian Empire to India and the presence of a Hindu colony in West Asia point to the possibility of mixture of the deities long before the common era as in Syria the Vedic Gods were mentioned. The recently discovered inscriptions in Quaseir al-Qadim, near the Red Sea in Brahmi characters refer to two Tamil names. That there was a strong presence of Indians in the area is proved. Several stories told in the Genesis denote the influence of India.
The findings by the University of Southampton during excavations between 1999 and 2003 at Quaseir al Qadim proved this place to be Myos Hormos as mentioned in the Periplus and together with its sister port Bernice articulated trade between Rome and India, especially Muziris.
In the Book of Kings, mention is made of Ophir and since some Sanskrit names occur in the text, according to Max Muller, Ophir could have been a seaport in India. Ptolemy places it in the mouth of the Indus. Again mention of Almugwood could according to the author be sandalwood from south India. The trade from India to Rome was much more than from Rome to India.
History records that Roman historian Pliny lamented how India was draining Rome of Gold. During the reign of Augustus Romans finding it difficult to pay the Indians tried to send counterfeit coins to India; but as Srinivasa Iyengar notes, “Tamils proved to be too shrewd, for the silly experiment was not repeated.”
Sugirtharajah says that there is a possibility that the Song of Solomon could have been influenced by Tamil poetry Ahananuru. He quotes Chaim Rabin, an Israeli professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages saying it was “written … by someone … and there became acquainted with Tamil poetry.”
In Chapter three, the views of three Asians, Raja Rammohun Roy, J. C. Kumarappa and Hong Xiuquan are analysed. Roy was proficient not only in Sanskrit, but in Persian, Arabic and in Biblical languages. The Baptist missionary who confronted him Joshua Marshman was no match for him. The author concludes that while Marshman was asserting the power of the conqueror, Roy’s was well founded logically.
The importance, the author says, is in the cultural context — the colonial milieu in which the controversy took place. Similarly the confrontation between J. C. Kumarappa a Christian himself and the English Anglican bishop of Calcutta Foss Westcott, in the context of Gandhian movement, makes for excellent reading.
This book is a stimulating work; it explores the complex relationship between the Bible of the colonialists and the conquered. It goes far beyond the conventional studies provided so far, which were mostly one-sided and looked from the colonial point of view. In this work he packs a lot of information such as the complex relationship between the Bible and the colonial enterprise examining in depth some areas that have been overlooked in earlier studies.
The author concludes with a firm conviction that Asian biblical interpretation has been informed by this ‘West’ and has evolved in dialogue with it. Asian biblical interpreters should break away from such a stranglehold now, however, and should initiate and broker new conversations that encourage people to look at scripture anew and transform their understanding.
(K.R.A. Narasiah is a marine engineer who writes fiction and historical works)