Nobili, Roberto de
NOBILI, ROBERTO DE
Missionary in South India and pioneer in the method of missionary adaptation; b. Rome, September 1577; d. Mylapore, India, Jan. 16, 1656. His parents, Count Pier Francesco de Nobili, a general in the Papal Army, and Clarice Cioli, a Roman lady, were both of noble birth. He was educated at the Roman College and there declared his intention of becoming a Jesuit missionary. On the death of his father (1593), his guardian and cousin Cardinal Francesco Sforza brought pressure to bear to dissuade him from this plan, and Nobili fled from Rome and put himself under the protection of the Duchess of Nocera. He completed his education in the Duchess's house; and, in 1596, with his family's reluctant consent, entered the Jesuit novitiate in Naples. In 1600 he returned to Rome for theological study, and he was ordained three years later.
Missionary Endeavors. In April of 1604 Nobili left for India. He sailed from Lisbon in a Portuguese carrack and, like all non-Portuguese missionaries, was considered a vassal of the king of Portugal, who, by his privilege of ecclesiastical patronage (the padroado ) bore the responsibility for the evangelization of India. After suffering a shipwreck near Mozambique, Nobili arrived in Goa on May 20, 1605. He learned Tamil among the Paravas of the Fishery Coast and in November 1606 was sent by his provincial, Alberto Laerzio, to the important inland town of Madura. This was a new departure; before this the Gospel had been preached only to Indians on the coast, where missionaries could be protected by Portuguese naval guns.
Nobili's older companion in Madura was a Portuguese Jesuit, Gonçalo Fernandez, who followed the missionary method used in India throughout the 16th century. Neophytes were required to dress, eat, and behave like the Portuguese colonials. Moreover, they had to take Portuguese surnames. Conversion was, in fact, linked with cultural domination and was therefore strongly resented by the Hindus. Christian converts were, along with the Portuguese, considered as parangis (despised foreigners) and as such were outcastes in Indian society. The parangis were further despised for eating beef, drinking wine, and wearing shoes (leather was considered impure).
Nobili believed this method was mistaken, and decided to adapt himself to native customs, as Matteo ricci had done in China. After trying vainly to persuade Fernandez to work within the framework of the caste system rather than to cut across it, Nobili decided to live separately. He adopted the saffron dress, wooden clogs, and vegetarian diet of a sannyasi (holy man). He marked his brow with a rectangular shape of paste to signify that he was a teacher. When the people of Madura learned that he was the son of a count, they identified him with the caste of rulers, or Rajas. As a Raja sannyasi Nobili was now free to associate with Indians of the higher castes without defiling them.
Conversion of Sivadarma. Nobili's method met with success. In the first 18 months he converted 50 people of Madura, his first convert being a Sivaite school-teacher whom he christened Albert in honor of his provincial. In 1608 Nobili became friendly with Sivadarma, a Brahmin Sanskrit scholar, who tried to convert Nobili to the system of nondualistic Vedanta professed by most Brahmins in Madura. Through Sivadarma, Nobili became the first European to get firsthand knowledge of Sanskrit, the Vedas, and Vedanta. Meanwhile other Brahmins, jealous of Nobili's successes, tried to have him dubbed a Parangi and expelled. At a meeting of 800 Brahmins, Sivadarma defended Nobili and explained that even though his skin was white Nobili was a learned sannyasi and quite different from a parangi. Nobili was allowed to remain, and in 1609, he converted Sivadarma. But his baptism raised grave questions. Should Sivadarma have to discard the characteristic Brahmin thread, a triple strand of white cotton worn from the left shoulder across the breast, and the kudumi, or single plait of hair? On the coast Brahmin converts had been forced to do so and as a result were treated as outcastes by other Brahmins. After studying the Laws of Manu and the history of the thread and kudumi, Nobili drew a distinction between religious and civil signs; the thread and kudumi he decided belonged to the latter group. With the approval of his ordinary, Archbishop Ros of Cranganore, Nobili baptized Sivadarma on Whitsunday 1609, allowing him to retain thread and kudumi.
Controversy over Adaptation. Fernandez complained about Nobili's methods, including his tolerance of such Indian habits as the marking of the brow with santal and the ceremonial ablutions. In 1610 the newly appointed visitor of the provinces of Goa and Malabar, Nicolau Pimenta, censured Nobili, who promptly appealed to Rome. Claudius acquaviva, the general of the Jesuits, wrote to India suggesting modifications of Nobili's method—notably that Brahmin converts should discard the thread—but adding that "no change should be made which might compromise the existence of the mission." In a brief dated Feb. 18, 1618, Paul V ordered Archbishop de Sa and the inquisitors of Goa to hold a conference at which Nobili was to be present and to write a report on the whole affair. After Nobili had presented his case, the first inquisitor voted against his method, the second in favor of it; of the remaining 20 theologians and Indian priests only four sided with Nobili. However, when the report was forwarded to Europe, both the grand inquisitor of Portugal and the new pope, Gregory XV, in the constitution Romanae Sedis Antistes of Jan. 31, 1623, approved Nobili's method and decided that Brahmin converts should be allowed to retain the thread and kudumi.
During the years of controversy Nobili was forbidden to baptize, and spent much of his time writing, chiefly in Tamil. His most important book, Gnanopadesam (spiritual teaching), is virtually a Summa theologiae. In 1623 he was again free to baptize, and thenceforth traveled widely in South India, founding new missions. In 1640, as the result of a Portuguese war against the Nayak of Madura, Nobili and his fellow missionaries were arrested and imprisoned for about a year. In 1654 Nobili, his eyesight failing, was retired from Madura. When he had first arrived, there was not a single Christian in the hinterland of South India. When he left, the number of Christians totaled 4,183.
Nobili spent his last years in a hut outside Mylapore, still wearing his saffron clothes, living on a vegetarian diet, and dictating revised versions of his books.
Bibliography: j. bertrand, La mission du Maduré d'après des documents inédits, 4 v. (Paris 1847–54). robert de nobili, Première apologie, tr. p. dahmen (Paris 1931). v. cronin, A Pearl to India: The Life of Roberto de Nobili (New York 1959). p. m. d'elia, "L’abolizione del giuramento contro i riti Malabarici in India," La civiltà cattolica 91.2 (1940) 331–340, 424–431. p. dahmen, Robert de Nobili (Münster 1924); Un Jésuite Brahme (Bruges 1924). r. streit and j. dindinger, Bibliotheca missionum (Freiburg 1916) 5:40–43, 1042. Archivum historicum Societatis Jesu 22 (1953) 690, no. 135. c. sommervogel et al., Bibliothèque de la Compagnie de Jèsus (Brussels-Paris 1890–1932) 5:1779–80. f. de graeve, "Roberto de Nobili: A Bold Attempt at Inculturation," in Religion in the Pacific Era, eds. f. k. flinn and t. hendricks (New York 1985). j. gallagher, Apostle of India: The Story of Roberto de Nobili (London 1982). f. x. clooney, "Roberto de Nobili, Adaptation and the Reasonable Interpretation of Religion," Missiology 18 (1990) 25–36. s. arokiasamy, Dharma, Hindu, and Christian according to Roberto de Nobili: Analysis of Its Meaning and Its Use in Hinduism and Christianity (Rome 1986). i. g. zupanov, Disputed Mission: Jesuit Experiments and Brahmanical Knowledge in 17th-Century India (New York 1999).