Were Christ's birth, death, and resurrection the decisive events in human history? As "God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ" and "making peace through His blood, shed on the cross" (2 Corinthians 5:19, Colossians 1:20), did not just transformed individuals but world culture change in a noticeable way?
Sometimes we take that on faith, saying that slow changes began at that time but major changes won't occur until near the end of the end times. Many historians, though, have noted the positive contributions of Christianity over the centuries in fields as diverse as charity, education, medicine, government, justice, and science. And the research I've been doing suggests that, just as the veil at the Temple was ripped in two, so Christ's crucifixion and the resurrection changed every existing religion. Biblical Judaism, of course, morphed into Talmudic Judaism (WORLD, March 2, 2002). Buddhists developed a new form of their faith that soon became dominant (see sidebar).
Hinduism also went through a great change-at least according to the theories of a father-daughter team of Ph.D.s in southeastern India. Dr. M. Deivanayagam and Dr. D. Devakala Jothimani say the two major denominations of Hinduism today-Vishnu-followers and Shiva-followers-arose not from early Hinduism but from early Christian churches probably planted by the apostle Thomas in India from a.d. 52 to 68.
They say that ancient India had five religions: three sacrificial (Indus Valley, Ancient Dravidian, Aryan) plus two nonsacrificial (Buddhism and Jainism), and that new doctrines emerging after Thomas's evangelism-salvation by faith, no more need for animal sacrifice-were part of a Trinitarian faith that proclaimed God's willingness to come to earth as an avatar (incarnation).
They state that the original argument between Vishnu and Shiva devotees concerned whether the Holy Spirit was male (as Vishnu followers stated) or female (the position of Shiva followers). They claim that ancient Indian sculptures-better to call them idols, as Hindus regularly do-repeatedly try to communicate a confused idea of trinity through Somaskanda, the depiction of God the Father with an uma (wife) and skanda (son).
They emphasize the frequency of three in Indian religion. Followers of Vishnu draw on their foreheads three vertical lines in honor of their three most important gods: Creator Brahma, Preserver Vishnu, Destroyer (of Evil) Shiva. Followers of Shiva often use ash to smear on their foreheads three horizontal lines depicting their trinity: Father Shiva, Son Ganesha, Holy Spirit Shakti. Shiva carries a trident. The sacred thread worn by Hindu young men has three strands.
They say the frequent depictions of Shiva dancing in the cemetery suggest victory over death through resurrection. They say early Indian Christians tried to show that God was neither male nor female through depiction of Arthanareeswarar -artha (half), naree (female), Iswarar (God, Lord).
They point out that Vishnu (his name derives from Ven, the term for heaven in south India's Tamil language) is often depicted as lying on a snake-controlling evil within biblical symbolism. They say the snake around Shiva's hips also shows him controlling evil, since the serpent has now become an ornament of God and a testimony to his power.
They exegete Hindu mythology according to their sometimes peculiar interpretations. For example, Shiva's wife Shakti makes a son, Ganesha, out of dust, but Shiva cuts off his head; Shakti, though, puts an elephant's head on Ganesha and he comes back to life, with the head of an elephant (India's most glorious animal). They say that is the Hindu representation of the Son of God dying and then being glorified.
They explain the attributes of Hindu gods as reflections of biblical teaching. They say Shiva traditionally has a red body because Moses first saw God in the fire of the burning bush; Indians thus showed God as one who is fiery red. They say the wall of one temple refers to the flood when it shows Krishna-the god Vishnu incarnate-lifting up a big hill to make it an umbrella for his devotees and their cattle.
My wife and I visited numerous temples alongside the father-daughter research team. With the tap-tap-tapping of idolmakers' chisels and hammers at seventh- and eighth-century Mahabilipuram temple sites resonating in our ears, we felt like saying, for several reasons, that the Deivanayagam theory was too fanciful to be true. None of the temple sculptures we examined show fish symbols, crosses, or other iconographic representations of early Christianity. Besides, what would Christians who understood the biblical prohibition on graven images be doing making idols, anyway?
And yet, late one evening we walked with the two researchers through the Valkuntha Perumal temple in the little village of Kancheepuram. Hindu temples today are essentially square, but to enter this ancient temple we walked through a gate into an outer courtyard, then up three steps into an inner courtyard, then three more steps into one further in. We stood before what the priest said was the Holy of Holies, and at that point it hit me: Hindu temples for the past thousand years have been squares, but was this temple, longer than it is wide, loosely modeled on the Temple in Jerusalem?
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.)
Some scholars cite Eusebius's writing in around a.d. 303 and Jerome's writing later in the century about the mission of Pantaenus, a Christian philosopher sent by bishop Demetrius of Alexandria, "to preach Christ to the Brahmins and to the philosophers of India" in a.d. 189 or 190. Pantaenus is said to have found a Christian group with an Aramaic version of the Gospel of Matthew.
Other church fathers, including Ephraim (a.d. 306-373), Gregory of Nazianze (324-390), Ambrose (333-397), Rufinus of Aquileia (345-410), Gregory of Tours (538-593), and Isidore of Seville (seventh century), also wrote about Thomas and Christians in India. Some Europeans took back to their continent Indian religious practices: One that caught on was the use of rosary beads. Three sixth- or seventh-century stone crosses found in south India bear inscriptions like these: "Let us not glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus."
Do Hindu writings show evidence of Christian influence?
The Vishnu Purana, thought to have been composed around a.d. 100 or 200, presents the idea of the god Vishnu having many avatars or incarnations, one of the most important of which is Krishna. According to the story, Krishna's foster-father, Nandu, journeys with his pregnant wife, Yashoda, to pay taxes. The result is that Krishna is born in a cow-stall, with shepherds coming to adore the baby. Moreover, a fierce meteor appeared at the birth; the prophet Narada told King Kansa that the child would overthrow him; Kansa ordered the male children of the country put to death.
Other Hindu stories that emerged after Thomas's time also seem imitative. The Jaimini Bharata includes tales of a pious man wishing not to die until he has seen Krishna, and of Krishna raising to life the dead son of Duhsala and healing a woman with a discharge of blood.
More significant, perhaps, are Indian echoes of Christian doctrines. Suddenly, after the time of Thomas, four key doctrines-a trinity of sorts, the appearance of avatars, the fulfillment of sacrifice, and salvation by faith-begin showing up in Indian writings such as the Tirukkural, the noted Tamil poems of the second century.
Tirukkural couplets include pleas to follow One who gives his life for others: "They prosper long who walk His way/Who has the senses singed away." Faith in that God, rather than sacrifices to Him, delivers believers from the great chain of reincarnation: "The sea of births they alone swim,/Who clench His feet and cleave to Him." God is a Trinity: "The ideal householder is he/Who aids the natural orders three."
Historians of religion note the way that leaders of an established religion under challenge from a new one may find new ways to market their beleaguered product-by adding attractive parts of the new high-flyer, and thus clipping its wings. Is that how some Indian gurus reacted to Christianity?
What does analysis of the Bhagavad Gita reveal?
The most famous Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, displays some surprising echoes of Christ. Scholars have long debated when it was written, but the consensus is that big chunks of it emerged in the decades after Thomas preached and died. Among the late additions are statements of Khrisna such as that in chapter 9, verse 18 of the Gita: "I am the goal of life, the Lord and support of all, the inner witness, the abode of all. I am the only refuge." Does that sound like a version of John 14:6's famous words, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me"?
What about the statement in Gita 10:20 that Krishna is "the beginning, the staying, and the end of creation.... I am the true Self in the heart of every creation ... the beginning, middle, and end of their existence." Might that have grown out of the Bible's emphasis on Christ as the alpha and omega, or is it just a parallel thought running on a wholly separate track? And look at statements in the Gita like this one from 17:27-28: "To engage in sacrifice, self-discipline, and giving without good faith is without worth or goodness either in this life or the next." Is that thought parallel to Romans 14:23, "Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin"?
Of course, even if a writer or editor of the Bhagavad Gita picked up some of his understanding from biblical teaching, he still showed no awareness of Christ as the only One who can offer salvation: The Bible clearly teaches that there is only one way to heaven. But the possible echo of Christ in the later sections of the Gita, as commentator Stephen Neill noted, is worth noting because it was "completely without parallel in the earlier Vedic or Hindu literature. When toward the end of the Gita, Krishna twice says to his companion Arjuna 'thou art dear to me,' (18:64-65), we encounter a personal god concerned about the welfare of his votaries, and expressing himself in terms which ring familiar to a Christian, but must have seemed strange to those who first heard them against a Hindu background."
What happened between the third and the eighth centuries?
It's hard to know amid the fog of history. Statues and other material evidence are important, and the Deivanayagam researchers point out tantalizing aspects while probably reading back into an ambiguous record their own hopes. But evidence in some theological literature of the period is hard to overlook.
One key example is the Tiruvacagam (translation: divine utterance), a collection of poems by Manikka-Vacagar, who taught the existence of one supreme personal God-"The God of Gods, the Triple Lord"-in three persons. Manikka-Vacagar taught that souls are immortal and that Shiva had come to earth as a guru to save all who sought Him-and he taught those concepts, according to translator G.U. Pope, because "Christian influences pervaded the whole South."
Manikka-Vacagar wrote that the God he worshipped "became an earthly babe" and defeated his ancient enemy: "Praise to Thee, our own, waving that envenomed snake." That sounds like an echo of the prophecy in Genesis 3, and throughout Manikka-Vacagar showed deep reverence: "Father, Lord, Who drew and made me Thine ... He showed His sacred form of power and grace ... The God of Gods His sacred name ... Within my soul He made deep waters rise ... He formed for me a frame where grace might flow,/ And as an elephant explores sweet cane and fruits, at last/ He sought, and found, and made even to live."
Parts of Manikka-Vacagar's work sounds like Francis Thompson's The Hound of Heaven, written over a millennium later: "My inmost self in strong desire dissolved, I yearned;/Love's river overflowed its banks;/My senses all in Him were centred; 'Lord!' I cried./With stammering speech and quivering frame/I clasped adoring hands; my heart expanding like a flower,/Eyes gleamed with joy and tears distilled./His love that fails not day by day still burgeons forth." Again, this was not writing about Christ: Biblical hope is based on His objective sacrifice, not the emotions of devotees. Still, how remarkable that mixed into the sounds of Hindu temples was an echo of Christ.
What Crucial weakness appeared in the Indian church?
Maybe that mixing. The Western church produced creeds and confessions that defined the church; the Indian church, as far as today's scholars know, did not. In the West, those who lost out in theological struggles (which were not wholly immune to power politics) yelled foul, and heresy-hunting created problems of its own. The absence of boundaries, though, often creates problems even greater, as today's Episcopalians have found out. In India, that absence of creeds probably underwrote a tendency to merge Christianity with Hindu worship rather than to maintain it in uniqueness.
Here's another speculation: Christianity in the Roman Empire offered theological challenge. Pagans had idols but Christianity, growing out of Judaism's idol-free temple worship, emphasized ideas. Early leaders showed faith that over time peasants and slaves could believe in things un-seen. But the Indian church may have gone in a different direction, emphasizing idols as educational aids-and that left Indians vulnerable to syncretism, the merging of Hindu and Christian belief.
The pressure to create idols also grew out of what Professor D. S. Sarma of Vivekananda College, Chennai, describes as "two characteristic Hindu doctrines called the doctrine of spiritual competence (adhikara) and the doctrine of the chosen deity (ishta-devata)." The first doctrine means that "the religious discipline prescribed for a man should correspond to his spiritual competence. It is worse than useless to teach abstract metaphysics to a man whose heart hungers for concrete gods. A laborer requires a different type of religion from a scholar-so instruction should be carefully graded."
In Indian practice that first doctrine emphasized the creation of idols for the laborer-and that tendency was enhanced by the doctrine of the chosen deity, which means that a devotee could choose to adore the manifestation of God that best "satisfies his spiritual longing.... It may be any one of the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, or it may be even a tribal deity, rendered concrete to the eye of the flesh by means of an image."
But we know none of this for sure. Not until much later, in the early 14th century, do we have some tantalizing descriptions of what Indian churches had become. Odoric of Udine described his visit in 1322 to Thomas's burial site and reported that "his church is filled with idols." Jordanus, a Dominican priest, reported to Rome that he had baptized many people and urged that more friars come, because many Indians "call themselves Christians but are not so, nor have they baptism nor do they know anything about the faith." But how far back that idolatry or ignorance reaches is hard to say.
Plus, these reports were about churches in southeast India, near what is today the city of Chennai. Some churches in southwest India have different histories, and denominations of various kinds (including Syrian Orthodox) claim a brighter history. But little brightness of any kind is present in the historical record; we see through a glass, very darkly.
What opposition did devotees receive?
We do still have poetry such as Manikka-Vacagar's, and we can see how upsetting it must have been to Hindu theological powers. Manikka-Vacagar had a sense of man's depravity, repeatedly referring to himself as a "cur" in relation to the Lord of all, and noting that man lived "by His grace alone, bowing before His feet.... To me, mean as I was, with no good thing, Thou didst grant grace." Manikka-Vacagar scorned the arrogant priestly class: "From them who toiled with mystic scrolls didst hide Thyself!/From those who in their homes practiced virtue, Thou didst hide Thyself!. From those who boasted to see Thee by some rare device,/By that same device, there-didst Thou hide Thyself."
Manikka-Vacagar also taught that souls are immortal and that salvation is available to people from every caste. That created opposition. India even then already had a loose, four-caste system designed to create an efficient human society. Priests and scholars (Brahmins) emphasized the attainment of knowledge, rulers and soldiers (Kshatriya) met civil and military needs, farmers and merchants (Vaishya) supplied food and economic goods, and peasants (Shudras) were to whistle while they worked in jobs that fit their heavy-lifting capabilities.
Originally, the castes may have been flexible rather than intergenerational, and those at the bottom were still seen as spiritually capable. In the eighth century, those on top wanted to lock in positions for themselves and their posterity. Brahmins developed a varna dharma (varna means color, and dharma is the duty required by one's placement in life) stipulating that members of different castes have, generation after generation, different fundamental qualities of purity (sattva), energy (rajas), and inertia (tamas), with the top dogs defined as mostly pure and those on the bottom as laden with inertia and incapable of spiritual discernment.
Why would others agree to give up inalienable rights-if not life, certainly liberty and the pursuit of happiness? A Bhagavad Gita verse that may have emerged during the final editing has Krishna warning that if individuals take liberty concerning their positions in life, order will break down: "Better to do one's own caste duty, though devoid of merit, than to do another's, however well performed" (18:47). But that was still duty for a time, not forever.
How was bigotry theologically enshrined?
The Bhagavad Gita is part of a larger epic, the Mahabharata, which probably achieved its final form in the eighth century. The Mahabharata spelled out the work of the lower caste: "The Creator intended the Shudra to become the servant of the other three orders.... By such service of the other three a Shudra may obtain great happiness. He should wait upon the three other classes according to their order of seniority. A Shudra should never amass wealth, lest by his wealth he makes the numbers of the three superior classes obedient to him. By this he would incur sin.... A Shudra cannot have any wealth that is his own. Whatever he possesses belongs lawfully to his master."
Early in the ninth century Sankara, now known as India's greatest theologian, developed the philosophical synthesis that provided ammunition for those who wanted to exalt themselves and place in concrete the social divisions that already existed. He taught that Brahmins are not currish creatures but are gods who alone understand the way things truly are. Most people see the phenomena that occur around us as real, but they are deluded: "This entire apparent world in which good and evil actions are done, etc., is a mere illusion ... and does in reality not exist at all." Brahmins, though, have the intellectual qualities to gain true understanding: For them, "The Self is within, the Self is without, the Self is before and the Self is behind. The Self is on the right hand, the Self is on the left, the Self is above and the Self is below."
Over time a caste even lower than the Shudra developed from those stuck for some reason-probably skin color, perhaps theological incorrectness-with doing "unclean" jobs, such as removing dead animals and tanning leather. These lowest caste members were said to be ritually unclean and "untouchable." Those on top felt they could be polluted by being near those at the bottom, eating food touched by them, or drinking from the same well as them.
So, even though Shudra were rendered spiritually inferior -a Shudra "is not competent to utter swaha and sadha or any other Vedic mantra"-they could still join other castes in despising humans considered even lower, the Dalits ("untouchables"). Crucially, this dehumanization was all decreed by the gods, and acquiescence was good because current suffering would lead to better placement in the next life. Submission created good karma. The law of Manu decreed that the four castes existed "for the sake of the prosperity of the world," and those at the bottom had one calling only: "to serve meekly."
What was the Christian reaction to casteism?
Christianity at various times in European history was the religion of the poor and oppressed-but by the time European and Indian Christians began having a lot of contact 500 years ago, Indian Christians were sharing many rituals with the Hindu aristocracy. High-caste Hindu infants were (and to this day, are) bedecked with a "sacred thread," so Christian infants received the same, but with a small cross added. (Of course, the "sacred thread" may have grown out of some Christian influence, since it is often not one thread but three.) Similarities in birth and marriage rituals suggest either Christians caving in before Hindu influences, or-if the Deivanayagam theory is correct-Indians echoing Christian influence.
In any event, many Christians became part of the Indian elite. Many apparently did not touch untouchables, and they were welcome at Hindu temples. Instead of proselytizing the poor, they in essence became a special, respected caste within the Indian system. Weakened by idol worship and other indications of theological syncretism, some Christian churches may have forgotten that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither Brahmin nor untouchable. Today, though, they are coming out of that malaise, and Christian churches and churchgoers in India are among the leaders in touching the untouchables and showing that Christ's grace is for people from every ethnic and economic group.
The Deivanayagam theory
And what about the Deivanayagam theory? Much more research is needed, as its adherents themselves acknowledge. One supporter in Chennai, Dr. David Baskara Doss, acknowledges that "unless you have the knowledge of the Bible, it's very difficult to decipher the remnants of early Indian religion"-but the danger is that those with such knowledge will read into the evidence more than it can bear.
Another thoughtful supporter, Michael Prabhu, found it "difficult to swallow parts" of the Deivanayagam theory but was "overcome by the dedication and sincerity" of the dad and daughter. He said their concepts "help me to relate Hinduism to Christian principles. Hindus don't have an advantage over me." But sincerity does not necessarily yield truth, and the study of history is not for the purpose of gaining advantage; it's to find out how God has worked in space and time.
And yet, seeing the failure of Christianity to build more than a beachhead in India also provides a new perspective on Western culture. Christianity's success in Europe was a close call many times. Historians have written about how, when the Roman Empire ended, the Irish saved civilization. Yet what about an earlier close call: when, as Acts 17 relates, Paul had Athens leaders hanging on his words until he spoke of the resurrection of the dead? That's when most of his listeners began to sneer, but a few-including a man called Dionysius and a woman named Damaris-believed.
What if Paul had not been content with that meager catch? What if he or his successors had reasoned that they could win over more Athenians if they merged Christ's story with Greek mythology? What if they had come up with a trinity of Zeus the father, Hercules the son, and Hermes as a fast-moving Holy Spirit? Or, if they wanted a female form within the trinity to increase their appeal to some women, how about Athena as the Holy Spirit?
If the church had taken that turn 1,900 years ago, Christians would probably not have had to hide in the catacombs or undergo martyrdom. Greek and Roman temples could have been retrofitted with Zeus, Jesus/Hercules, and Hermes/Athena sculptures displaying the new Trinitarian family. Jesus/Hercules could have become a superhero appearing in our imaginations whenever trouble loomed. We could pray not for a second coming but a 10th or a 100th.
Paul, though, did not compromise the truth. He knew that the gospel is discontinuous with all religions that say we can save ourselves, or that we can choose who will save us. Christianity affects cultures as the moon does the sea, creating tides of reform. In other religions we sometimes can hear echoes of Christ. In response, Christians must stress that salvation comes only through Christ: Accept no substitutes. As Christmas approaches, we can be thankful that when we are tempted to syncretize Christianity and other religions, the Bible sets us straight. As Paul proclaimed, "I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in the Lord Jesus" (Acts 20:21).