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The Apostle of India

Saint Thomas, Apostle of IndiaMaster and disciple

In India it is often said that “the father is born again in the son.” This ancient adage applies also to the worthy disciple–in him the master continues his work. This being so, the character and mission of Jesus, the Christ of India, can be traced in that of his apostle Thomas. Thomas is a nickname derived from the Syrian (Aramaic) word t’omo, which means twin. The apostle’s true name was Judas, as is recorded in the ancient Syriac gospel texts, but it was not used in later gospel texts so he would neither bear the name of the Betrayer nor be mistakenly identified with him by those who would read or hear them read.

Saint Thomas the apostle in India

After the departure of Jesus from Israel and the empowerment bestowed on his apostles at Pentecost, it was decided that they would separate and go throughout the Mediterranean regions teaching those who sought the revelation of their own Christhood (which is what “Christianity” literally means). Accordingly, eleven of the twelve apostles and many of the seventy (Luke 10:1) determined through divination where they should go and preach the Good News of Christ.

One alone did not participate in this, and that was Judas Thomas, the Twin. His assignment had been given him by Jesus himself. Thomas was to depart for India where he would live in the Himalayas with Jesus and those great masters who had taught Jesus before him. (See The Christ of India.) This was because Jesus had destined him for a work completely unlike that of the other apostles. He was to become the spiritual twin of his master, perhaps the most true in his likeness to Jesus both inwardly and outwardly. (It is a matter of record that Judas Thomas was also physically identical to Jesus. This was unusual but not impossible or even unknown, since he was a cousin of Jesus–as were most of the apostles.)

In the forty days between his resurrection and his leaving Israel Jesus had fully outlined to the apostles and disciples how they should teach others who would also spiritually be his disciples through them. But in India Thomas was to teach and follow another form of the Christ Way. (This is not to imply that the teachings of the other apostles were not legitimate. They were simply different–but in time they became so altered as to be alien and antithetical to original Christianity.)

So overwhelming did his task seem to Saint Thomas that he tried to avoid this mission. Yet it was not long before a government official from India came to Israel to find an architect for his king, who wished a palace built by an artisan from the land of the renowned Hiram Abiff, whose construction of the temple of Solomon was known throughout the world. Jesus manifested to him in a physical body and sold Saint Thomas to the man as a slave, giving him a signed document to that effect. When confronted with this document, Saint Thomas abandoned his resistance and left for India where he did in truth follow the steps of his master and become his twin in all things.

In the life of Saint Thomas written by the Christian Gnostic Bardaisan (154-222), based on letters written by Saint Thomas, perhaps to his Persian disciples, he is referred to as: “Twin brother of Christ, apostle of the Highest who shares in the knowledge of the hidden word of Christ, recipient of his secret pronouncements.” Regarding the records of Jesus’ life that he found in the Himis monastery, Nicholoas Notovitch wrote this interesting remark in relation to Saint Thomas: “[The scrolls] may have actually been spoken by St. Thomas, historical sketches having been traced by his own hand or under his direction.”

Return West

In the Himalayas Saint Thomas was reunited with Jesus until he received the inner call to return to the West for the impending departure of the Virgin Mary from this earthly life. Just as he had been separated from his brother apostles for a special mission, so he was in the final hour of the Virgin’s life. For he did not reach Ephesus in time to be present at her going forth from the body, but only came there on foot the third day after her burial. As he was approaching her tomb unawares, he was astounded to see her radiant living body emerge from the stone sepulchre and ascend. Realizing that she had finished her span of life without his being present, and fearing that he would never see her divine form again, he cried out to her in anguish of heart, imploring her not to leave him desolate. Looking upon him with loving tenderness, the Virgin took from her waist the belt she habitually wore and threw it down to him with words of blessing.

Carrying the precious relic of her belt, Saint Thomas hastened into Ephesus and announced to the grieving apostles and all those gathered in the Mother’s house that she, too, was risen from the dead. Whereas he had doubted the good news of Jesus’ resurrection and had received proof of its reality by touching the resurrected body of his Lord, now it was Thomas who gave physical evidence that Mary, too, was “alive for evermore” (Revelation 1:18).

The holy relic in India and Syria

Saint Thomas took the Virgin Mother’s belt with him to India, and there it became the most valued treasure of his disciples, whose descendants in time came to be known as Saint Thomas Christians. A few centuries ago, in times of upheaval in India, it was taken into Syria, where during subsequent troubles in that country it disappeared. About thirty years ago the present head of the Syrian Jacobite Church, Patriarch Zachariah, felt an intense urge to find the belt, and began studying the ancient records concerning it. Noticing that one of the handwritten books he consulted had an unusually thick binding, he was inspired with the thought that the belt might be hidden there. Cutting it open, he found the prize, whose simple touch began to work great miracles. Most of the belt has been returned to India and enshrined in a great church where every Saturday (the day sacred to the worship of the Mother aspect of God in Hinduism) thousands of Christians, Hindus, and Moslems gather for the sacred Eucharist (Qurbana) and prayers to the Virgin. The miracles granted are beyond number. When I visited the shrine one Saturday as the guest of its administrator, Bishop Gregorios–who preached on the subject of the concept of Mahashakti (Supreme Power: the Divine Feminine) in Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam–I witnessed this wonderful demonstration that it is worship and not theologizing that can unite the adherents of all religions in love and harmony. Bishop Gregorios also spoke of Mahashakti being the same as the Holy Spirit, and the Virgin Mary as a perfect reflection of the Holy Spirit.

To Qumran and India

Before returning to south India for the fulfillment of his commission from Jesus, Saint Thomas went to visit the Essene communities of Israel, urging that some of them come with him to India to both escape the imminent destruction by the Romans and to help him in his spiritual work. Many did so, and a company of Essenes headed by Saint Thomas arrived in South India (Kerala) in 52 A.D. These Essenes started several villages in the same area. At the end of the twentieth century those sites were excavated and many coins like those found in the Qumran caves were unearthed.

A Hindu Brahmin family near the town of Palur, Kerala, has a document of family history wherein it is written: “In the Kali year 3153 [52 A.D.] the foreigner Thomas Sannyasi came to our village and preached there.” It is noteworthy that Saint Thomas is described as a Hindu monk (sannyasi), which he would have to have been if he truly followed in the steps of Jesus.

Ancient records say that frequently Jesus was seen in south India and mistaken for Saint Thomas. He and Saint Thomas were sometimes seen speaking together. Apparently Jesus occasionally came down from his Himalayan abode to visit Saint Thomas and supervise his work.

The disciples of Saint Thomas

In Mylapore near modern Madras, the apostle Thomas was pierced with a lance on December 19, 72 A.D., but did not die until December 21. He was buried nearby, and the earth from his tomb worked many miracles. In 1292 Marco Polo visited his tomb and took some of the red-colored earth from there. Upon his return to Venice he healed many people with it according to his own testimony.

Since in India Jesus was known as “Isha” (the Lord), the disciples of Saint Thomas preferred to be called Ishannis, “of Isha” (just as Lutheran means “of Luther”). Nearly all those who accepted the teachings of Saint Thomas were devout Brahmins of the highest level (Nambudiri and Nair–many of them who had emigrated from Kashmir to Kerala) who were Shaivites of the strictest order. So strict and correct were the disciples of Saint Thomas in their Brahminical character and observance that they were frequently asked by the other Hindus to perform the rites of purification (shuddhi karanam) for defiled objects and even of Hindu temples. Thus the disciples of Saint Thomas were mostly of the Brahmin caste.

Naassenes

Ancient Indian historical records sometimes refer to the Saint Thomas Christians as Naassenes. This may be a corruption of “Essene” but in the ancient Gnostic Christian texts discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, we find the term “Nazoreans,” so the Saint Thomas Christians may also have used it in referring to themselves. If so, this would indicate their esoteric Christian character and affinity with those esoteric Christians of Egypt–most of whom were Essenes or descendants of Essenes. Regarding the Essenes, Alfred Edersheim, in his nineteenth century classic The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, wrote: “the general movement had passed beyond the bounds of Judaism, and appeared in some forms of the Gnostic heresy.”

Because of the great number of Saint Thomas Christians in the southernmost state of Kerala, it is sometimes called “the country of the Nazaranis” even today. The daily train from Madras to Kerala is known as “the Nazarani Express.” When the Pope of Rome wrote a letter to the Saint Thomas Christians in the fourteenth century he addressed them as “the Nazarani Christians.” Considering the spiritual character of the Saint Thomas Christians this expression could mean that they were “Nazarenes”–followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Whatever the derivation, this was definitely a name sometimes used in reference to themselves. In the book of Acts it is said of Saint Paul by his accusers that he was “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5).

The Saint Thomas Christians had much in common with both Hindus and Buddhists. In fact, Tamil historical records contemporaneous with Saint Thomas say that he taught “a Buddhist religion.” This was no doubt because of Saint Thomas’ intense monastic and philosophic nature which contrasted with the usual form of Hinduism at that time which consisted mostly of external rituals and the use of religion to attain utterly materialistic goals (karma khanda).

Surya Vamsa

“Surya Vamsa” was never used by the Saint Thomas Christians in speaking of themselves, but was current for centuries among the other Hindus in referring to them, and was even used on occasion in major legal documents. Surya Vamsa means “People of the Sun,” Surya being a Sanskrit word for the sun. They were also sometimes called by others Suryan or Suryani. These have been assumed to mean “Syrian” because of their ties with the Syriac (Aramaic)-speaking Christians of the Middle East. But they may really be derivations from Surya Vamsa.

The Ishanni Sampradaya

A sampradaya is a lineage of spiritual teaching stemming from an enlightened teacher, such as the Shankara Sampradaya, Ramanuja Sampradaya, Madhavacharya Sampradaya, or according to the form of God they particularly worship such as the Shaivite, Vaishnava, Shakta or Ganapatya sampradayas. Whatever distinctive customs a sampradaya might possess, they all consider themselves to be fundamentally followers of Sanatana Dharma, the religion based on the Vedas and the teachings of the vedic seers known as rishis. And the majority of their customs and spiritual doctrines are absolutely identical and harmonious with one another.

The disciples of Saint Thomas were considered a sampradaya within Sanatana Dharma, not a separate religion. It is historical fact that they were an integral part of Hindu society in every way.

Bar-Hebraeus, an early Syrian Christian writer, records that when Christians from Persia visited India the Saint Thomas Christians told them: “We are the disciples of Saint Thomas.” It was those Persians who created the phrase “Saint Thomas Christians” and first began to use it. But it was not used by the descendants of the first disciples of Saint Thomas. This fact underscores their fundamental difference from the religion derived from the other apostles.

The witness of history

History itself demonstrates the character of the disciples of Saint Thomas as a Shaivite sampradaya within Hindu religion.

In 345 A.D., when the ruler of Carnellur gave the suburb of Muziris to the Ishannis for their exclusive use, they renamed it Mahadevar Pattanam, the City of Mahadeva (Shiva). The king, a Hindu, laid the first brick for the Ishanni temple that was built there, and upon its completion he led the first service of prayers to be conducted there. This would not have been done if the Ishannis were not themselves considered part of Hinduism. Eventually an Ishanni kingdom (district), with Mahadevar Pattanam as its capital, was established.

Whenever a child reached the age of three years the Ishannis always had a Brahmin pandit come to their home and symbolically begin his formal education by guiding the child’s fingers to trace the mantra Om Sri Ganapataye Namah–“I bow to Lord Ganesha”–in a plate of rice before which a ghee lamp was burning that had previously been worshipped as an emblem of the goddess Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom and learning. Ganesha is the Hindu deity that is depicted with the head of an elephant and is the son of Shiva. He is always worshipped before any undertaking, including, in this instance, the beginning of education.

It is interesting that many of the very old Ishanni (now Saint Thomas Christian) temples in South India have golden “dharma towers” in front of them just like those in the temples of Vishnu.

The beginning of the end

Because Kerala was a center of international trade, some contact took place between the Ishannis and the Christians of the Middle East and Europe. Some of these reported in the fourth century that the Ishannis had “lost their priesthood,” not understanding that Jesus and Saint Thomas were Nath Yogis who considered Sanatana Dharma and Yoga to be sufficient and had not taught or practiced anything else. After some centuries the Syrian Christians, some of which settled in Kerala, persuaded the Ishannis to adopt their rituals and worship. Nevertheless their distinctive ways and identity were preserved.

At the coming of the Portuguese colonialists to India in large numbers, however, this began to change. Christians from Europe were always received in total friendship by the Ishannis and often given places to live. In many instances the Ishannis interceded with the local rulers in gaining residency and trade permissions for the Europeans. But sadly, on the part of the opportunistic Europeans there was no such sincere openness, and as soon as any political ascendancy was attained, pressure was brought to bear on the Ishannis to convert to the Christianity of the Westerners.

This came to an appalling climax in the last year of the sixteenth century when the Portuguese Roman Catholic Archbishop of Goa, Alexius Menezes, summoned all the Ishanni clergy and a considerable number of laymen to the town of Diamper to supposedly bring peace and reconciliation between them and the Portuguese Catholics. In response one hundred fifty-three priests and about six hundred and sixty laymen attended. The Ishannis were asked to bring all their liturgical and theological texts–especially their ancient texts containing the teachings of Saint Thomas–so they could be “examined.” Believing that the Europeans wanted to sincerely discover the spiritual traditions of Saint Thomas, and therefore of Jesus, they did so. Their horror was boundless when they found themselves surrounded by Portuguese soldiers who forced them at gunpoint to surrender their precious manuscripts, which were then burned in their presence at the order of the Archbishop. Because of this “It is not possible to write a complete history of the Christians in South-West India, because the ancient documents of their churches were destroyed by fire at the Synod of Diamper in 1599,” as Cardinal Tisserant admits.

“What history will not willingly forgive is the literary holocaust which was carried out on the authority of this decree, when all books that could be laid hands on were consigned to the flames. It was comparable in many ways with the vandalism of Omar, who by similar wanton destruction ordered the noble library of Alexandria to be consumed by flames. The Syrian Christians of today believe that because of this cruel decree, no records are available with them to recover and establish beyond all dispute their past Church history. None will deny that there is some substance in this belief” (S. G. Pothen, The Syrian Christians of Kerala).

Among the books burned were many copies of three books. Two of them, The Book of Charms and The Ring of Solomon, were books of Christian magic. The third was a book on esoteric healing and the making of amulets from gems and herbs (as the Essenes had also done) called The Medicine of the Persians. They now exist only as nearly-forgotten names.

Not only were the books brought to Diamper destroyed, Archbishop Menezes later went from church to church searching for more books and burning entire libraries in many places–even in areas where the Portuguese had no political jurisdictions whatsoever. The liturgical texts containing the rites of the Saint Thomas Christians were especially sought out and destroyed because they revealed how utterly the other churches had departed from the original ways of Christianity, and because they expressed the correct view of Jesus as a Son of God by attainment and not as the creator God incarnate. A list of forbidden books was made at Diamper, and any who read or listened to them being read were automatically condemned.

Over the course of the next days the Archbishop also engaged in harangues to “correct” the ways of the Ishannis (henceforth to be known as “Saint Thomas Christians”) and bring them into conformity with those of “the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic See of Rome.”

The official acts of the Synod particularly inveighed against the Ishannis who taught school and made provisions for the religious instructions of the students in Hindu religion, keeping the images of Hindu deities in the schools so the students could learn and perform their daily worship. Those who sent their children to schools taught by Hindus where they, too, worshipped the deities, were declared excommunicated (from a church to which they did not even belong!) and the children were forbidden to enter anything but a Portuguese-established church.

The Ishanni participation in the worship of Hindu temples was the norm for them since they were a Hindu sampradaya, so that, too, was soundly castigated. Especially denounced was the use of Hindu rites of exorcism by the Ishanni priests, as well as other “idolatrous” and “superstitious” Vedic rituals. Priests who dared to have themselves registered as Nair Brahmins were condemned, not for a religious reason, but because it supposedly made them liable to be called up for military service.

Saint Thomas had given the Ishannis a book which they used for divination to obtain guidance in the making of important decisions and to determine the future. This was a special target of the Portuguese, who also railed against their practice of divination, and all copies of this invaluable document were consigned to the flames of bigotry.

The Ishannis considered astrology a legitimate means of forecast and guidance, and used it accordingly. Their priests were considered to be especially skilled in determining astrologically what days and times were the most favorable for marriage and the starting of journeys or any other type of endeavor. This is still retained by the Saint Thomas Christians in Kerala. In David Daniel’s book The Orthodox Church of India, published and sold by the Orthodox Church in India, we find this: “The Saint Thomas Christians are accustomed to consult astrologers to ascertain the auspicious moment for setting out for any purpose, e.g., for a journey, a wedding, etc. Drawing horoscopes is not uncommon amongst them.” Many of the Saint Thomas Christian priests to this day are astrologers and considered specialists in determining fortunate or auspicious times.

Oddly, condemnation was even pronounced against the Ishannis’ laudable custom of adopting as many orphans as they could so they would not be homeless. This was a custom they had inherited from the Essenes.

They were also condemned for piercing their ears and taking too many baths in a day! Being Brahmins, this was perfectly normal for them

The Synod of Diamper did have one positive effect, though a backhanded one. By reading the fulminations against the “pagan” ways of the Ishannis and the official condemnations of them we are able to establish that the they were indeed orthodox Hindu Brahmins who revered Jesus as a teacher but considered themselves one with the other segments (sampradayas) of Hinduism.

The aftermath

Hardly any of the Ishannis could even understand the language in which all this was done, and they were forced through cajolery and threats to sign documents of concurrence with all that had taken place–these documents being represented to them as nothing more than statements that they had been present at the gathering. Before sending those documents to Rome, Archbishop Menezes interpolated many items into the signed documents to make it appear that they had agreed to things either not actually spoken about or that were firmly resisted by them when they were brought up.

Finally, “approved” Syriac (Aramaic) liturgical texts were issued to the clergy along with other written directives, and they departed in a daze to their flocks, accompanied by Portuguese “assistants” who were to make sure that they carried out the demands of the Europeans.

When the Jesuits that were present at the Diamper assembly officially objected to the outrageous actions of Archbishop Menezes, he coolly remarked that “he behaved like that just to show the way of salvation to the assembled without hindrance.” Cardinal Eugene Tisserant was apparently of the same mentality when, in 1957, he wrote in Eastern Christianity in India: “Instead of destroying the existing Syriac manuscripts, he [Archbishop Menezes] could have had them corrected, but his method was that of certainty, so that any future heresy could be more easily averted.”

Thus was the beginning of the great loss of identity and knowledge which today is no doubt irreparable. Some were the results of persecution and some the results of false friendship and influence on the part of Western missionaries. In this way both Catholic and Protestant Europe managed to wreak undeniable and profound damage on the Saint Thomas Christian Church. Slowly the Ishanni (Hindu) traditions were eroded until today only tokens remain. Their subsequent history and identity is so confused that even the Saint Thomas Christians of today are not sure about much of it. I have met Saint Thomas Christians that were basically standard contemporary Eastern Orthodox Christians, some that were more like rabid Protestant fundamentalists, and some that identified with Hinduism, kept the pictures and images of the deities, wore the sacred thread and rudraksha beads and put Shaivite marks on their forehead, and actively campaigned to wipe out all the innovations of the intervening centuries and return to their status as a Hindu sampradaya with traditional temples and worship.

I saw the effects of this for myself when speaking at a church meeting in Niranam where Saint Thomas had founded the congregation. (Several examples of his woodwork–especially carvings in traditional Hindu temple style, since all the Ishanni temples were in that style–were shown to me.) During my talk, I felt so galled by not being able to speak freely of the higher, esoteric aspects of religion that I decided to break loose and say what I pleased, and hang the consequences. At the far back many very elderly men and women had been sitting with their heads bowed down in abject boredom and disinterest. But when I had spoken just a few sentences of real Christian belief, they all began looking eagerly at me, smiling, nodding and gesturing to one another in approval. At the end they all surged forward to express their appreciation of my talk. It was evident that as children they had heard the very things I was now speaking, but it had been a long and dreary time since those truths had been publicly expressed.

Saint Gregorios of Parumala

Saint Gregorios of Parumala

The crowning glory of Saint Thomas Christianity was the great bishop-saint Gregorios of Parumala, who lived in the nineteenth century. Every day in the major newspapers of Kerala strings of identical small icons of Saint Gregorios are printed, each one a thanksgiving for an answered prayer. In one city of Kerala I saw a shrine to Saint Gregorios at a bus stop with hundreds of candles burning before his icon in petition for those who had prayed there before proceeding on to work or school. The money contributed for the candles was there in an open box, but no one would think of stealing from it. It is a common sight along the roads in Kerala to see large wayside shrines with more-than-life-size icons of the saint enshrined in them.

The tomb of Saint Gregorios in Parumala is visited daily by thousands and tens of thousands of pilgrims–Hindus, Christians, and Moslems–for whom it flows miracles and blessings beyond counting. I can bear witness that the moment you enter the boundaries of the island-shrine you step into another world altogether, and that the room where he left his body is one of the most spiritually powerful places I have ever been. Fortunately I was able to meditate there for some time.

Here in America I met a remarkable yogi and Hindu scholar, Sri Nandu Menon. He told me that Saint Gregorios was the best friend of his strictly traditional Hindu Brahmin uncles, and spent a great deal of time with them in spiritual discussions. Nanduji told me that Saint Gregorios told his uncles that he considered his mission in life was to bring about the restoration of three essential teachings to the Saint Thomas Christian Church:

  1. the belief in karma;
  2. the belief in reincarnation; and
  3. the belief that God and the individual spirit-self are one.

Unfortunately it did not come about in India to the degree he desired.

The situation today

Despite the sad picture I have just given of the Saint Thomas Christian Church having lost most of its heritage from Saint Thomas, the good news is that history itself shows that Jesus was a Sanatana Dharmi and a Nath Yogi. And both traditions are intact and flourishing today. Therefore those who wish to truly be “of Christ” and follow him need only ensure that they are genuine adherents of Sanatana Dharma and Yoga. I say this because many sincere Westerners really do not know authentic dharma or yoga since they have believed those who themselves are neither dharmis or yogis–especially the “gurus” that abound in the West and throughout the world. The purpose of our website, ocoy.org, is to assist them in finding their way to real dharma and yoga.

The Coonan Cross

Oath on the Coonan Cross

After the Roman Catholic Portuguese authorities had assassinated Mar Ahatalla, a Syriac Orthodox bishop who had come to India to find out why the Saint Thomas Christian Church had lapsed in its contacts with the Syriac Patriarchate, a multitude of Saint Thomas Christians gathered at Saint Mary’s Church at Mattancherry on January 3, 1653 and took a solemn oath on the Coonan Cross to no longer have any connection whatsoever with the Roman Church. 

So many had come for this oath-taking, that ropes were tied to the cross and the oath-takers held on to the ropes in order to be “touching” the cross. After this oath was taken, 199,600 Saint Thomas Christians severed all relations with the Roman Church, only 400 remaining loyal to Rome. Since that time the Saint Thomas Church has remained autonomous, its chief bishop bearing the title of Catholicos, as do some other heads of Eastern Churches such as the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Assyrian Church of the East and the Georgian Orthodox Church. 

The most important part of this picture is the clothing and hair of all the Saint Thomas Christians depicted taking the oath. They are wearing the Brahminical sacred thread, a sign of orthodox Hindu religion, as well as the shikha at the back top of the head, another symbol of the Brahmin caste.

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