‘Carpenters and Kings — Western Christianity and the Idea of India’ review: A political history of a religion

Christianity’s journey to India and the local and external processes at work

Published - July 13, 2019 04:31 pm IST

When did Christianity arrive in India? Why is it sometimes considered an “inevitable adjunct” to the colonial experience? Where does the truth lie? In Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the Idea of India , the writer traces the advent of Christianity in India, pointing out that it arrived in the subcontinent during the Apostolic Age, sometime in the first two centuries CE.

Though the subject has been well-researched, one is disappointed that Siddhartha Sarma seems to have a one-point agenda in the narrative, of faulting the Hindu right for not giving the religion its due place in history. Sarma says as “revisionism becomes a key tool for reimagining Indian history through a very narrow nativist and bigoted lens, it has become increasingly necessary to examine the history of Christianity in India and set the record straight.”

Antiquity established

Much research has been done on Christianity in India and as history cannot be written according to the will of some group, his statement that the record should be set straight is quite unnecessary. In The Bible and Asia, Prof. R.S. Sugirtharajah establishes the antiquity of Christianity in India and it is a well-known fact that when the Bible reached India, Christian scriptures bore the traces of “Asian commodities and Indian moral stories.” Sugirtharajah compares the verses from The Kings and Sangam poetry to establish the early links.

Sarma declares that for the Hindu right “it is necessary to delegitimize the presence of Islam and Christianity by creating a narrative that claims that the history of these two Abrahamic faiths in the subcontinent was a disruption in an otherwise harmonious society.” He builds his case to defend against two “wrong” notions — that Islam spread primarily by the sword and Christianity because of the colonialists. With the help of three key sections, ‘Antiquity’, ‘Medieval Ages’ and ‘Colonial Period’, the book narrates the story of Christianity in India.

In ‘Schisms’, we get a glimpse of the local and external processes at work, from Greek trading activity, the arrival of the Mongols, the influence of the Arabs, to the politics of Western Europe, and their impact on Christianity. He tells us about the councils of Nicaea, Chalcedon, and about Manichaeism and how it weakened due to lack of support from the state. According to him, when the faith disappeared from the rest of the world, Indian Manicheans would either have reconverted to the larger Christian or Jewish faiths.

We are told of the legends of Barlaam and Josaphat and the story of conversion to Christian faith in the “exotic land of India”. There are several misses. For instance, while talking about Socorta, he doesn’t mention a study done in 2001 by a group of Belgian speleologists who discovered a large number of objects, including inscriptions in the Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts. Sarma only mentions that the Christian communities were thriving there.

Carpenters and Kings — Western Christianity and the Idea of India ; Siddhartha Sarma, Hamish Hamilton/PRH, ₹599.

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