The many words for god

Translation is at its most ticklish when beliefs about divinity transmigrate

Updated - December 11, 2017 12:32 pm IST

Published - December 09, 2017 04:05 pm IST

 Hindu-Christian dialogue began with de Nobili.

Hindu-Christian dialogue began with de Nobili.

Well before the advent of printing brought a kind of democracy into knowledge sharing, translators and interpreters were in demand as facilitators of commerce and trade. In other areas such as science and technology, transfers and readings were restricted to small groups of writers and their sponsors. Their role was to explain, inform and instruct non-specialists such as assistants and apprentices who worked alongside their masters but did not understand processes.

Over time, translators found themselves in demand as disseminators and popularisers of new ideas. There would have been no modern science, no medical advancements, no ships, nor trains, nor sophisticated technology without translators. They are the glue that binds together trade and commerce, science and engineering, literature and education.

And religion.

Faith and culture

Translation is at its most ticklish and risky when beliefs about divinity transmigrate from one region and culture to another. What was the importance of the birth of Jesus, son of Mary? The historical Christ demonstrated the character of god, so the gospels — imperfectly translated as they might be — keep his power alive.

A receiving culture may or may not accept a new faith, but what about the great cultural benefits another religion brings with it, enjoyed alike by both ‘translated’ crossover populations and by those who were not convinced they needed to change gods?

Apart from the fact that the ideas generated by the faith in the resurrection of Jesus have been the foundation of Western civilisation and of much of world culture, what would India have been like without modern education and printing presses and a link language that eventually put Patiala in touch with Puducherry?

After Europe discovered spices in India, different Christian powers sent out missions to collect souls for the Kingdom of God. Of all the Europeans who came to India, to me the most fascinating personality is Jesuit missionary Roberto de Nobili who was born in Tuscany, Italy, in 1577 and arrived in Madurai on December 8, 1606.

There began a process of inculturation truly marvellous to imagine. He translated himself into a sanyasi. It was the reverse of the Brown Sahib phenomenon which most of us know, except that for 40 years, de Nobili walked both a spiritual and a social path. He was one of the first Europeans to master Sanskrit and Tamil and to say he found Hindu philosophical terminology a sound vehicle for the expression of profound ideas. He strongly opposed aggressive evangelisation, quoting the Book of Exodus: “Do not speak against the gods.”

The first Hindu-Christian conversations began with de Nobili. He had the greatest respect for Hindu intellectual traditions, unlike many Europeans before and after him who had dismissed Hindu thinking without even trying to understand it. In de Nobili’s method of accommodating local customs and respecting indigenous beliefs, he was three centuries ahead of his time and in a minority of one. He gave up meat and spirits, shaved his head, retaining only a tuft like the Brahmins he hoped to convert, abjured all items of leather, and wore wooden sandals. As he expounded the Christian doctrine in Tamil, he coined several words to communicate his message: prasadam for grace, guru for priest or teacher, Vedam for the Bible , poosai for Mass, etc. He wore only cotton and looked what he truly was — a sanyasi . He lived like this till his peaceful end in Mylapore in January 1656.

Meeting of minds

Like all bold translators of culture and thought, de Nobili was unpopular with conventional missionaries, and sanction for his unusual approach came from the Vatican only in 1623. Finally, he got an audience with the upper caste scholars of Madurai, who seated themselves at a prescribed distance from him. They listened carefully to what he had to say about the New Testament, and while admiring his Tamil and understanding of their shastras , they informed him that the message of Christ in no way contradicted the teaching of the Upanishads. De Nobili’s records of these conversations offer a real meeting of minds.

Moving from scholarship to piety, and into the 20th century, a fine literary and philosophical example of the tradition of Christian works in Sanskrit is the Jesus Sahasranama . Composed in 1987 in Malayalam by K.U. Chacko (Muvattupuzha, Kerala), and modelled on the Thousand Names of Vishnu, it was edited and reprinted in Sanskrit in 1995 by M.H. Sastri and thereafter set to music and sung by T.S. Radhakrishnan and Sunilkumar Thattakkuzha.

In a country which is home to all religions, should this surprise anyone?

The writer edits translations for Oxford University Press, India.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.