The Roman Catholic Church in India owes Hindus an abject apology
Sixty years after Independence, a great newspaper, The New Indian Express, lies dying in Mount Road (this was written before the paper moved to Ambattur and got a face lift), brought low by unprincipled editors and an indifferent owner. The editors believe that cultivating religious superstition and caste prejudice will raise readership and save their power positions. They are unscrupulous, no different from the criminal and communal politicians who sit in our Indian legislatures. But Aditya Sinha and Manoj Kumar Sonthalia, try as they might, have lost the race for subscriptions.
Informed readers of The New Indian Express have left the drab broadsheet for the more enlightened and interesting Deccan Chronicle. Still, Sinha and Sonthalia clutch at straws to maintain a presence in Madras, publishing Catholic propaganda to appease a minority readership and keep missionary travel writers employed. The result is that at least one incensed reader, B.R. Haran, has dubbed the paper the “Evangelical Express”. Ramnath Goenka, great freedom fighter and founder of the Indian Express, must be turning somersaults in heaven!
The tourist feature at issue here is a top-of-the-page, in-your-face piece of “historical” travel writing by Ponnu Elizabeth Mathew called “Where faith resides/The story of faith and courage/The story of a slain apostle/The story of St. Thomas Mount”. It appeared on 20 August 2007, in the Chennai edition of The New Indian Express. It was the usual sentimental story about St. Thomas in Chennai and focused on a description of the 16th century Portuguese church at the top of Big Mount, called St. Thomas Mount.
The church is built on the foundations of a Shiva temple on a hill associated with Brungi Rishi, though Ponnu Elizabeth Mathew neglected to mention this fact in her misleading article. The church contains on its altar reredos a famous “bleeding” stone cross said to have been carved by St. Thomas. That St. Thomas has never been described anywhere as a stone cutter seems to have escaped the writer’s notice, as did the old Pahlavi (Persian) inscription on the carving’s border which identifies the cross carver as Afras, son of Chaharbukht the Syrian. It has been dated to the 8th century by experts, as have other “St. Thomas” crosses found in Kerala churches. Crosses, which were borrowed from Pagan cults, were not used by Christians to identify their religion until long after the Council of Nicea in the 4th century.
Another item of interest the article brought to the reader’s attention is the icon of the Virgin Mary, allegedly painted by St. Luke and brought to India by St. Thomas. There are seven of these icons by “St. Luke” distributed around the world, the most famous one being in Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica at Rome. All of them are medieval productions, and the idea that they could be associated with either St. Luke or St. Thomas is absurd. Both 1st century apostles were practising Jews and fierce iconoclasts. The cult of the Virgin Mary, like the cult of the cross, is a late development in the evolution of Christian religion. The protagonists of the St. Thomas tale always forget to put all the accoutrement’s and accretions of the apostle’s Portuguese legend into a 1st century context.
All these pious items of fable and romance would be of no account except that the legend carries at its heart a vicious communal tale of harassment and murder. St. Thomas, according to Ponnu Elizabeth Mathew, “… lived in hiding [at Little Mount] before he was slain by Raja Mahadevan, the leader in Mylapore, [on Big Mount].” Other versions of the Portuguese fable target Brahmins as the assassins of the apostle. The charge is false and deeply offensive to Hindus, and this has been brought to the attention of The New Indian Express editors years ago, when they were challenged about other stories of St. Thomas they had published and presented to readers as Indian history. Earlier on 29 June 2004, we had written to the editor as follows:
“The allegation that St. Thomas converted a Mylapore king to Christianity and was then murdered is deeply offensive to Hindus as it implicates Hindus in the assassination of an important Christian saint. The true martyrs of the whole affair were the Hindus who lost their ancient Kapaleeswara Temple on the beach when the Portuguese destroyed Mylapore. The Vatican has stated in a letter to me that the question of whether or not St. Thomas came to India is one for historians to decide.”
This letter was published in The New Indian Express on 16 July 2004, after a reminder had been sent to the managing editor. He and his chief, blind and stubborn as they are about the implications of spreading the St. Thomas tale, did not want to know any more about it.
Ironically, the “historian” who has spoken out on the travels of St. Thomas, is the Pope himself. He has stated that the apostle got as far as western India, now Pakistan, called Parthia or Gandhara in the 1st century. He is following the Persian cultural ambiance and desert geography described in the Acts of Thomas, which is logical for a Catholic scholar to do. Another Catholic historian, better equipped than the Pope to decide on St. Thomas in India, is Anglican Bishop Stephen Neill. In History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to 1707 A.D., he wrote:
“A number of scholars … have built on slender foundations what may be called Thomas romances, such as reflect the vividness of their imaginations rather than the prudence of rigid historical critics.”
Bishop Neill was greatly pained by the spread of a spurious St. Thomas history among Indians, such as Ponnu Elisabeth Mathew and her editors at The New Indian Express promote, and observes:
“Millions of Christians in India are certain that the founder of their church was none other than apostle Thomas himself. The historian cannot prove it to them that they are mistaken in their belief. He may feel it right to warn them that historical research cannot pronounce on the matter with a confidence equal to that which they entertain by faith.”
More recently, Dr. Koenraad Elst, in an article near the end of this book called “Why Indians should reject St. Thomas and Christianity” (recommended reading for Indian Christians and Church hierarchs), writes:
“In South India, the myth of St. Thomas provided the background for a few instances of temple destruction at places falsely associated with his life and alleged martyrdom, especially the St. Thomas Church replacing the Mylapore Shiva Temple in Madras. In this case, the campaign of fraud is still continuing: till today, Christian writers continue to claim historical validity for the long-refuted story of the apostle Thomas coming to India and getting killed by jealous Brahmins. The story is parallel to that of Jesus getting killed by the Jews, and it indeed served as an argument in an elaborate Christian doctrine of anti-Brahminism which resembles Christian anti-Semitism to the detail. At any rate, it is a fraud.”
Indeed, it is a fraud, and a wicked fraud at that, filled with communal venom and religious bigotry. It is expected that lndian Christian writers like Ponnu Elizabeth Mathew would subscribe to it, but that editors Aditya Sinha and Monoj Kumar Sonthlia should assist in spreading the poison in Indian society is shocking and inexcusable, especially as they have been seized of the issue many times over over many years.
The bottom line is this, and the Archbishop in Madras, whose palace sits upon the ruins of the original Kapaleeswara Temple, may take note. The Church in India owes Hindus a full and unconditional apology for the vicious canard it has spread and repeated over the centuries accusing Hindus — a Hindu king and his Hindu priests — of the hateful murder of St. Thomas. It must apologise.
It must also apologise for the destruction of Hindu temples that started with the criminal Francis Xavier in the sixteenth century and goes on till today in remote tribal areas, for the Inquisition in Goa that killed tens of thousands of innocents, for conversions made by force or inducement, and for the continued maligning of Hindu society and religion that takes place in churches outside of India by Indian Christian priests on tour.
An eminent Hindu scholar no less than Arun Shourie has called for such an apology in his book Missionaries in India: Continuities, Changes, Dilemmas. He writes:
“By an accounting [of the calumnies heaped upon India and Hinduism] I do not mean some declaration saying, ‘Sorry’. By an accounting I mean that the calumnies would be listed, and the Church would declare whether, in the light of what is known now, the grounds were justified or not, and the motives which impelled those calumnies would be exhumed.”
Can the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy in India make such a public confession and ask forgiveness of Hindu society? Probably not. It would be suicidal from their point of view. The Church has money power and political power. It controls much of Indian education and has psychological power. It has the sympathy of India’s secular intellectuals and through them has propaganda power, as seen in the fact of the publication of the newspaper article under review. But the Church does not have moral power.
Hindus will never hear from Christian leaders a sincere confession of wrong doing. What Hindus will see is more spurious histories of St. Thomas and charges of “deicide” by motivated faith writers and unscrupulous newspaper editors like Aditya Sinha and Manoj Kumar Sonthalia. It is a crying shame and a sad testimony to what India has not gained after sixty years of independence — that is, independence from an imperialist Roman church and its soothsayers in the English-language press.
1. Publishing the St. Thomas tale as a tourist feature has become the favourite means for the Indian media to spread the communal St. Thomas legend. The New Indian Express recently did it on 28 February 2010 with a full page touristic article called “Under the bleeding cross”. The author was called Shilpa Krishnan, a Tam-Brahm agnostic blogger of 23 years and something. The article repeats the vicious communal lie that St. Thomas was killed by a Brahmin priest on Big Mount. Presenting the legend in this “entertaining” manner absolves the newspaper from publishing replies or getting involved in arguments over the historical authenticity of the St. Thomas legend. But the fact remains that this newspaper (and other English-language media like it) has never had the courage or fair-mindedness to give a historian equal space to discuss the St. Thomas controversy in its pages.