Roberto de Nobili came from a military family in Montepulciano, Italy. He was expected to follow in his family’s footsteps, so naturally, when he announced his desire to become a missionary, it did not go down well. So, young Nobili ran away, arriving at the Christian mission of Madurai in 1606, which, until then, had not even managed to convert a single person to Christianity.
After observing his colleagues for some time, Nobili noticed a few key factors that were detrimental to their success – factors that were ignored by his fellow missionaries because they refused to acknowledge the importance and influence of the dominant culture and religion (Hinduism). The other missionaries did not pay heed to the customs of the society they were in and practiced their own European culture, completely ignorant of the effect it had on how they were perceived (in fact, they looked down on the local culture, but being the minority, this hardly made any difference). As a result, the European Christian missionaries were dismissed as unclean parangis (a variation of firangis) who ate beef, did not respect the caste system, and amassed converts only from the most ‘polluted’ communities.
Nobili’s goal was to convert large numbers of people to Christianity, and to do so he realised that the most important change he would need to implement was a ‘rebranding’ of Christianity – it had to be perceived as a desirable religion. And for this to happen, it had to be openly accepted by the highest classes of society (a strategy widely used in advertising even today). Barging into a foreign culture as an outsider and condemning said culture most definitely would not work; rather, Nobili chose to work from within the dominant system, and set his sights on the highest social class – the Brahmins.
To gain acceptance within this community, Nobili first became well versed in Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit. He also gained limited access to the Vedas, and used this knowledge to build his case for Christianity. He embraced the life of a native – he exchanged his cassock for the garb of a Sanyasi, ate food only cooked by Brahmins, served on a plantain leaf, and kept a clear distance from his colleagues, establishing somewhat of a caste system within his Christian order.
When he constructed a new church, he made sure a ceremonial coconut was broken at its founding (as was the local custom); within the church, he made sure seating arrangements were segregated according to caste. He also positioned the Bible as a lost Veda, immediately making it more palatable to the Brahmins. Instead of abolishing the caste system (that was not his mission), he worked within it, as an insider.
His methods, though unconventional, yielded incredible results – the Brahmins began to convert to Christianity. And with their conversion, many others followed, so that by the time Nobili died, he had successfully converted 4,000 people to Christianity. By working with society instead of against it, Nobili achieved what none of his predecessors were able to do.
Of course, not all Brahmins approved of Nobili’s methods, and he was jailed for a short spell. But even worse was the reaction of his own Christian mission – their idea of a successful conversion was not simply the acceptance of Christianity, but also the European culture (clothes, food, lifestyle, language, etc.). In spite of Nobili amassing a greater number of converts than all of his peers combined, their inflexibility resulted in Nobili being transferred out of Madurai in 1644. He died ten years later in Mylapore.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that Nobili’s story was one of the greatest successes for the Christian mission at the time. He understood the power of social dynamics, and worked from within them, setting a clear, singular goal for himself. He understood the importance of compromise, and instead of altering an established system, he integrated into it and by doing so, brought about more change than an outsider ever could.
DISCLAIMER: This article neither claims that any religion is superior to the others, nor condones the caste system. This is a story from a period in Indian history where the caste system was the norm that governed social dynamics, and merely highlights one individual’s understanding of said norms.
Pillai, Manu S. The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin. Chennai: Westland Publications Pvt. Ltd., 2019. Print.