Culture

Echoes of Christ

"Echoes of Christ" Continued...

Issue: "Lord of the Rings," Dec. 20, 2003

Non-Hindus normally are not allowed into the inner sanctum, but we were with Mr. Deivanayagam, who looks like a guru, and he expressed a willingness to participate in the temple's central rite. So the priest, naked from the waste up, gave him coconut water and some solid pieces of a medicinal leaf, chanting as he did. It hit me: Was that a Hindu imitation of communion?

Then, holding a flashlight, examining the wall sculptures, I shone the light on a figure of a man undergoing punishment by being impaled on a sharp stake. Both of his arms were thrust out so the portrayal looked like a man on a cross. Next to that icon was the figure of another man, hung upside down as (by tradition) Peter was in Rome. Is this what happened to the early Christians of India?

Later, I kept asking Hindus why the number three was such a repeated motif in their religion. Standard answers were, "that's what my mother told me" or "we've been doing this for a long time." Scholars had more complicated answers that generally amounted to a "we don't know." So it was time neither to accept the Deivanayagam theory nor curtly dismiss it, but to ask additional questions and take a first pass at some answers.

Where I've come out does not satisfy the historian in me: The answers are murky. The Deivanayagam theory is speculation based upon piecing together scattered pieces of evidence, and I haven't gotten much further. But the possibility is so intriguing that I hope to pay attention in future years to research in this area, and I hope that knowledgeable readers will help by sending me information they run across.

Here are some questions I've asked, beginning with queries about the apostle Thomas, revered by Christians in India as the man who brought Christianity to their continent in a.d.52.

Could Thomas have come to India?

It would not have been hard for him to get there, because India and the Mediterranean world had been in contact for centuries. The port of Ophir mentioned particularly in the first book of Kings and both books of Chronicles may have been in India, with Israelite traders returning from there with sandalwood, ivory, apes, and peacocks. Some scholars think Ophir was located in Africa, but others have commented on patterns of trade and also noted that some words in Hebrew and Tamil, the language of southern India, are similar-such as the words for peacock, tukki and togai.

Indians may have borrowed from Israel stories of Solomon's wisdom: One tale dating from at least several centuries after Solomon has a wise judge finding out which of two women is the real mother of a child by having them pull on the child's arms and legs. When the child cries out in pain the woman who stops pulling is the true mom. Tales from India also suggest one reason the disciples had such difficulty recognizing Christ's Godhood when He walked on water: They may have heard about Indian gurus who purportedly could perform that feat.

By the time of Thomas, India apparently had Roman colonies, including some Jewish ones. Roman coins have been found all over south India. In about a.d. 100 the emperor Trajan hosted an Indian delegation in Rome, and gave the diplomats seats at the theater that would otherwise have gone to senators. Meanwhile, the historian Pliny was complaining about Rome's shipment of gold to India for pearls, ivory, precious stones, and especially black pepper. (Pliny did not think that pepper, whose "only desirable quality [was] a certain pungency," was worth leaving Rome with a negative balance of trade-but "the desire for gain brought India near.... The voyage is made every year.")

Did Thomas come?

No one today knows for sure, and the three sites traditionally associated with Thomas in the city of Chennai, formerly known as Madras, do not exactly inspire confidence. One looks like a putt-putt golf course with larger-than-life colored Jesus and Thomas statues and footprints in stone that some say Thomas left-except that the footprints are about double the size that even Shaquille O'Neal would leave. Another site includes a portrait of Thomas purportedly painted by Luke, except that the style is that of paintings done 1,000 years later.

And yet, as Professor Ravi Tiwari, Head of the Department of Religions at Gurukul Theological College, notes, the Thomas tradition is very strong. When I visited Dr. Tivari at his home in Chennai, he jumped up every few minutes to dig out a relevant book or manuscript. Wiping his glasses, he noted how some churches date their origins from that period, and pointed out that a bishop from India attended the Council of Nicea. (India, though, may have been a loose term for a very broad area.)

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