Master 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.”
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.
Although Jesus’ Aramaic name was Yeshua, in India he was known as “Isha” (the Lord). By their own preference the disciples of Saint Thomas were usually referred to in India as Ishannis, “of Isha,” just as Lutheran means “of Luther.” Some Indian scholars such as Swami Abhedananda make the conjecture that either Ishanni is actually a derivation of Essene (Essenees), or that the Essenes themselves were called Ishannis, “Isha” in their case being a reference to Ishwara, God “the Lord.” This would certainly reveal their Indian spiritual roots. However, since in time they came to refer to themselves as disciples of Saint Thomas, “Saint Thomas Christians,” I will use that appellation in this study.
In his commentary on the gospels, The Second Coming of Christ, Paramhansa Yogananda wrote: “It is important to note the difference between Jesus the man and Jesus the Christ. Jesus was the name of the man. The Sanskrit origin of this name is found in the word ‘Isha,’ or Lord of Creation. Mispronounced by travelers in many lands, and being used in many different languages, the word ‘Jesus’ came to be used in place of Isha.” This very sentiment was spoken long before by Saint Thomas himself. According to The Acts of Thomas, when King Mazdai, who would eventually have him martyred, asked Saint Thomas: “Who is thy master? And what is his name?” Saint Thomas answered: “Thou art not able to hear his true name now at this time, but the name that is given to him is Jesus the Messiah”–that is, Jesus Christ (Yeshua Messiah). After the death of Saint Thomas his murderer, King Mazdai, became converted to Saint Thomas Christianity, and it was then that he learned the true Name, Isha, which he had not been qualified to even hear beforehand.
The disciples of Saint Thomas
Nearly all those who accepted the teachings of Saint Thomas were devout Brahmins of the highest level (Nambudiri and Nair–many of them from Kashmir who had emigrated to Kerala) who continued their religious observances, adding those that were distinctive to the Saint Thomas Christians. Acknowledging this fact, Cardinal Eugene Tisserant wrote in Eastern Christianity in India: “Christianity was introduced in Malabar [Kerala] and accepted spontaneously without changing the indigenous character of the inhabitants.” So strict and correct were they 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. Today some Saint Thomas Christians still wear the sacred thread (yajnopavita) that is the distinctive mark of Hindu Brahmins.
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” 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 Saint Thomas Christian 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.
Even though they would have primarily described themselves as Saint Thomas Christians, they considered themselves a sampradaya within Sanatana Dharma, not a separate religion. It is historical fact that externally the Saint Thomas Christians were an integral part of Hindu society in every way. This is the trait that most horrified and infuriated the Christians from outside when they encountered the Saint Thomas Christians.
“Christians” with a difference
After their encounters with European Christians the Saint Thomas Christians began to call themselves by that name to make their spiritual nature comprehensible to them and also to affirm that their form of the teachings of Jesus was their heritage from the apostle Thomas himself and was positively to be distinguished from the Petrine (Roman Catholic) or Pauline (Eastern Orthodox or Protestant) forms of Christianity.
Although they had friendly interchange with the Eastern Christians of Persia, Syria, and Iraq, they were insistent upon their distinction from them, as well. 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.
Because there were profound ties between India and Persia–many Persians being followers of Vedic religion–the Saint Thomas Christians always considered themselves brethren of the Persian Christians, who were of the Chaldean tradition which after the destruction of Christianity in Persia became centered in Iraq. Both the Persian and Iraqi Christians were condemned as heretics by the other churches of East and West since they did not believe that Jesus Christ was God in the sense of being an incarnation of one Person of the Trinity. Rather, they believed that he had begun as a man just like us and had attained the status of Christ–Son of God–as could (and should) all Christians.
The Saint Thomas Christians believed this as well, and they, too, were called heretics by the Western Christians who persecuted them. Just as modern Christians ignore the fact that reincarnation is an orthodox Jewish belief (see May a Christian Believe in Reincarnation?), so they ignore that there exist two churches–one founded by the apostle Thomas in India and the other founded by the apostle Thaddeus in Iraq–with a continuous history from the apostolic age that do not believe in the Mediterranean doctrine of Jesus being the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity. This is why Cardinal Tisserant could (uncomprehendingly) write: “It does not seem, however, that the Indian Christians were ever greatly concerned with the great Christological disputes of bygone days.” That was because the doctrinal controversies, alterations, and aberrations of Mediterranean Christianity meant nothing to them as followers of Jesus and Saint Thomas.
The fact that the Saint Thomas Christians did not originally use the expression Christian underscores their fundamental difference from the Mediterranean Christianity derived from the other apostles. In the last century or so, mostly as a result of pressure from the latterly mentioned Christians of the East, for the sake of expedience the titles of “Indian Orthodox Christians,” “Indian Orthodox Church” and “Malankara Orthodox Church” have also become current usage.
Regarding this, Father Jacob Kurian, teacher of theology at the Kottayam seminary in Kerala, had this to say to Christine Chaillot, the author of The Malankara Orthodox Church: “We should feel that we have an Indian role to play and we should present to the world a specific picture of our church. We cherish so much the Indian Orthodox Christian tradition that we could build our Christian tradition on the foundations of the Sanatana Dharma, that is the ancient Hindu samskara (ritual) life style. Of course, there is the foundation laid by Christ and the apostles and the long spiritual tradition of Christianity. But the theological tradition of the Indian Church has to be in line with the Indian philosophical tradition, which is not necessarily only the Hindu one, but also that of the Buddhists, the Jains and other non-Christian traditions which also contribute to the Indian philosophical tradition. So we have to take this into consideration together with the Eastern Orthodox spirituality and theology. We want to present to the world a model of Christianity that has lived for the last twenty centuries in a tradition of pluralism, but at the same time we want to keep the central elements of Orthodox Christian spirituality and doctrinal integrity.…When Christians adopt this attitude of Sanatana Dharma which incorporates all truth, they will be able to overcome all anxiety regarding syncretism”–an anxiety not on the part of the Saint Thomas Christians but on the part of those who simply do not understand their historical and spiritual character any more than they understand the true historical and spiritual character of Jesus himself, whose teachings contain quotations from the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Dhammapada.
The witness of history
History itself demonstrates the character of Saint Thomas Christianity as a sampradaya within Hindu religion.
When, because of the movement of population, the Saint Thomas Christian temples became Hindu temples, the Saint Thomas Christian icons remained in those temples and were worshipped by the Hindus along with the other images. Even more revealing was the discovery in 1925 and 1926 of scores of ancient stones at Kodiveri upon which are engraved symbols of the various Hindu sampradayas, including those of the Saint Thomas Christians. (At Tangste, in Ladakh, there are also large stone boulders upon which crosses have been carved.) It is a matter of historical record (sometimes by European Christians who were displeased) that as a matter of course the other Hindus contributed money and labor for the building of Saint Thomas Christian temples and the Saint Thomas Christians did the same when other types of Hindu temples were built. This was because they were of one religion.
The traditions of the Saint Thomas Christians say that Saint Thomas built a temple in Nilackal, presently a completely deserted area. Recent excavations in the area of Nilackal have revealed that a kind of Hindu temple city existed there at the time of Saint Thomas and that the Saint Thomas Christian temple had been built within the compound of the Mahadeva (Shiva) temple as a subsidiary temple. This demonstrates that Saint Thomas and his followers were considered a Shaivite sampradaya. At the time of Jesus and Saint Thomas, Shaivism in South India was fundamentally a philosophy of non-dualism (advaita) and yoga. Many Saint Thomas Christians still wear rudraksha beads, a mark of Shaivites.
In 345 A.D., when the ruler of Carnellur gave the suburb of Muziris to the Saint Thomas Christians for their exclusive use, they renamed it Mahadevar Pattanam, the City of Mahadeva (Shiva). The king, a Hindu, laid the first brick for the Saint Thomas Christian 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 Saint Thomas Christians were not themselves considered part of Hinduism. Eventually a Saint Thomas Christian kingdom, with Mahadevar Pattanam as its capital, was established. At Nilamperur, near the site of a Hindu temple, the effigy of a king wearing a pectoral cross was unearthed at the end of the nineteenth century. In the north, in the area traditionally known as the Hindu Kush a coin from the first century was found depicting the local raja riding a horse and carrying a cross in his hand. In time the Saint Thomas Christians were made the legal patrons and supervisors of all carpenters, metal smelters, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, and barbers–whatever their religion.
Whenever a child reached the age of three years the Saint Thomas Christians 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. This is still the custom among the Saint Thomas Christians, but the mantra is now usually Hari Sri Ganapataye Namah. Ganesha is the Hindu deity that is depicted with the head of an elephant. He is always worshipped before any undertaking, including, in this instance, the beginning of education. Hari is a name of the god Vishnu, the Preserver in the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. It is interesting that many of the very old Saint Thomas Christian temples in South India have golden “dharma towers” in front of them just like those in the temples of Vishnu.
In The Orthodox Church of India the author, David Daniel, himself a Saint Thomas Christian, writes: “The festivals in Hindu temples and Christian Churches are often festivals of the entire village community. A church procession, for example, will have the same familiar music played in Hindu temples, the same type of lace silken umbrellas, flags and festoon, decorated elephants and ear-breaking beating of drums and noise of crackers. The festivals invariably end with remarkable displays of fireworks in the night.” And he concludes, “Needless to say, the Saint Thomas Christians have assimilated many of the social customs and practices of the land and are indistinguishable as an entity in the society.”
History of the Saint Thomas Christians
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.
The spiritual family of Saint Thomas continued and grew. Just before his martyrdom, King Mazdai said to him: “I have not been in haste to destroy you, but have had patience with you; and you hast added to your deeds, and your sorceries are spoken of through the whole country. But I will do unto you so that they shall accompany you and go along with you [in death], and that our country shall be relieved of them.” To this Saint Thomas answered: “These ‘sorceries,’ which you say shall accompany me, shall never fail from this place.” And so it has been seen to be. Saint Thomas Christianity spread throughout India, though never of large numbers. It is remarkable, but historical records indicate that there was no region of India in which the Saint Thomas Christians were not represented, though they were mostly in South India. In 1430, Nicholas di Condi in writing of his travels in India said that the Saint Thomas Christians “are scattered over India like the Jews with us.” Except for the vicissitudes that all societies endure, the Saint Thomas Christians lived in complete peace, enjoying spiritual interchange with various Eastern Christian churches, though jealously maintaining their autonomy and distinctive ways.
“Christian” treachery and persecution
More than one unsuccessful attempt was made in the early centuries by the Mediterranean Christians to establish their form of Christianity in India. At the coming of the Europeans in large numbers, however, this began to change, culminating in a full-scale persecution by the Portuguese colonialists, who first came to India in 1498. Christians from Europe were always received in total friendship by the Christians of Saint Thomas and often given places to live. In many instances the Saint Thomas Christians 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 would be brought to bear on the Saint Thomas Christians 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 Saint Thomas Christian clergy and a considerable number of laymen to the town of Diamper to supposedly bring peace and reconciliation between the two churches. In response one hundred fifty-three priests and about six hundred and sixty laymen attended. The Saint Thomas Christians 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 apostolic 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 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 power whatsoever. The liturgical texts containing the rites of the Chaldean tradition 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 Saint Thomas Christians and bring them into conformity with those of “the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic See of Rome.” The Portuguese even forced the Christians of Saint Thomas to change the way they made the Sign of the Cross (right to left) to the way the Western Christians had only recently themselves come to do it (left to right).
The official acts of the Synod particularly inveighed against the Saint Thomas Christians who taught school and made provisions for the religious instructions of the students in their own religions, 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 a Portuguese-established church.
Since participation in “idolatrous” worship and the making of offerings in Hindu temples was the norm for the Saint Thomas Christians–since they were a Hindu sampradaya–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 Saint Thomas Christians 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 the use of Hindu diviners by the Saint Thomas Christians, and all copies of this invaluable document were consigned to the flames of bigotry. However the Saint Thomas Christians still use divination of various sorts.
The Saint Thomas Christians 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. 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 in not uncommon amongst them.” Even today many Saint Thomas Christian priests are astrologers.
Oddly, condemnation was even pronounced against the Saint Thomas Christians’ 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 (see The Christ of India).
As it is the Hindu custom to name children after deities, the Saint Thomas Christians naturally were accustomed to sometimes name their male children Isha or Yeshua (Joshua/Jesus). This–along with their habit of giving Old Testament names, as well–was violently censured by the Portuguese.
They were also condemned for piercing their ears and taking too many baths in a day!
The Synod of Diamper did have one positive effect, though a backhanded one. By reading the fulminations against the “pagan” ways of the Saint Thomas Christians and the official condemnations of them we are able to establish that the Saint Thomas Christians were indeed practicing Hindu Brahmins who revered Jesus but considered the other segments of Hinduism–as well as the other religions of the world–to be equally viable in the search for God.
Hardly any of the Saint Thomas Christians 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 the Saint Thomas Christians had agreed to things either not actually spoken about or that were firmly resisted by them when they were brought up.
Finally, “approved” Syriac 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 sorrows” that were to continue for nearly a century. Slowly the ways of “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” were eroded, though in the rural and mountainous areas not prosperous enough to attract the rapacious attention of the Portuguese clerics and traders little changes occurred.
The end of oppression approaches
Friendly clergy from the Syriac-speaking Orthodox Churches who came to visit their Indian brothers were arrested and deported or imprisoned. (The fact that they made no objections to the Saint Thomas Christians’ obvious Hindu character indicates that in earlier centuries they themselves held comparable or compatible ideas or else considered them neither heretical nor of any spiritual detriment.) Some were actually taken to Portugal and Rome and subjected to interrogation by the Inquisition. A few were burned to death for heresy. Others vanished forever. Atrocities committed against the Indian Christians were not unknown, though never officially sanctioned by the invaders–a common tactic of tyrants.
In 1653, at the order of Portuguese ecclesiastics, a Syrian bishop (some say he was the Patriarch of the Syrian Church) who had come to find out why communication with the Saint Thomas Christians had been so long in abeyance, was imprisoned. When the Saint Thomas Christians learned of this outrage they came in thousands to protest. The bishop was then smuggled out of the prison and eventually murdered by drowning, his body being washed up on the coast a few days later. This so exasperated the Saint Thomas Christians that many thousands of them assembled at the church in Mattanchery and swore on the Coonan Cross the solemn vow that they would no longer have any association whatsoever with the Portuguese or their “Petrine” religion. Happily, this was successful, and the yoke of spiritual bondage was thrown off permanently. Despite skirmishes with the Europeans who were determined to re-impose their enslavement, the Saint Thomas Christians managed to keep their spiritual integrity, protected by the Hindu rulers from further persecution.
It is tragically true that false friendship is often more treacherous than open enmity, and so it proved to be in the nineteenth century when the Protestant missionaries (mostly Church of England) managed to exert great influence over the Saint Thomas Christians and bring about the abandonment of many valued traditions and beliefs. In time this form of invasion was repulsed to some degree, but not until many had forsaken the ways of their ancestors and embraced the minimal religion of the missionaries instead of Saint Thomas Christianity. In this way both Catholic and Protestant Europe managed to wreak undeniable and profound damage on the Saint Thomas Christian Church.
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–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 were sitting, 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
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.
Saint Thomas Christianity in America
The end of the nineteenth century was distinguished by an incident whose far-reaching effects could not have been foreseen, except in the illumined consciousness of Saint Gregorios of Parumala.
Learning that in America a small group of Europeans who were originally Old Catholics and had converted to the Eastern (Russian) Orthodox Church were experiencing persecution from the same enemies that had recently been routed from the life of the Saint Thomas Church, he insisted to his astonished brethren that this little flock should be relieved of its fears by being accepted as an autonomous entity within the Saint Thomas Christian Church.
This was not an unheard-of idea, for in the fifth century some Christians from Persia immigrated to India and became an autonomous part of the Saint Thomas Christian Church. Today they consist of several large and prosperous parishes. When in Kerala on one trip I spent most of a day with their bishop, Mar Clemis. Interestingly, there is a single parish in Anchor, Kerala, that is officially an independent church within the Saint Thomas Christian Church. So the autonomy of the minuscule church in America seemed perfectly natural as well as necessary. Consequently the Saint Thomas Christian bishops supported Saint Gregorios and an autonomous segment of the Saint Thomas Christian Church was established.
The little mission was never of any significant size, though heavily persecuted by the same enemies of the Church in India, and for nearly three quarters of a century it was confined to monastic foundations headed by a nephew of the famous Roman Catholic Cardinal, John Henry Newman. The openly esoteric views of the monks (among whom was Bligh Bond, the clairvoyant discoverer of the holy sites of Glastonbury) did not appeal to the ordinary Americans of that day, and they were usually denounced as “theosophical”–which they happily were. Some of them even used the esoteric forms of traditional Roman Catholic rituals formulated for use in the Liberal Catholic Church by bishops James Ingall Wedgwood and Charles Webster Leadbeater, major figures in the Theosophical Society.
In the nineteen-seventies the ranks of the tiny mission were joined by the monks of Light of the Spirit Monastery who eventually became all that was left of the tiny mission of Saint Gregorios. Having a background in Indian philosophy and yoga, they readily took up the original ways of the Saint Thomas Christians. (A small minority of the Saint Thomas Christians in India are advocating a similar complete return to tradition.)
In view of what has been written so far, it is a virtual understatement to say that Saint Thomas Christianity is a unique spiritual entity, vastly differing from what is commonly known as Christianity.
If you have not already done so, we recommend that you read The Christ of India which tells of Jesus’ spiritual connection with India. Also we recommend The Basic Beliefs of Saint Thomas Christianity, and Our View of Dharma as Saint Thomas Christians