Indian Rites Controversy

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The term "Indian Rites" designates certain customs that Jesuit missionaries, notably Roberto de nobili and others, permitted to their neophytes in South India until their practice was forbidden by the Holy See. The region comprises the former kingdoms of Madura, Mysore, and the Carnatic.

Nobili's Approach to Inculturation. According to the missionary method in use in India in the sixteenth century, neophytes were expected to dress, eat, and behave as did their Portuguese colonists, and they were also required to take Portuguese surnames. These demands were considered intolerable by most Hindus, who termed the neophytes parangis (detested foreigners) and treated them as outcasts. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Roberto de Nobili, SJ, introduced to the Madura mission a method of inculturation that had been successfully applied in China by the Italian Jesuit, Matteo ricci, and encouraged by the Jesuit superior of the Far East Mission, Alessandro valignano. De Nobili's approach to inculturation, which then seemed radical and downright revolutionary, consisted in adapting Christianity to the Indian context by adopting indigenous rites and customs as far as possible without conceding any fundamental Christian truth or principle. Instead of forcing Indians to become Europeans, the missionaries would try to adjust their own way of life and preaching to existing Indian cultural heritage and social conventions.

Nobili took the saffron dress of a sannyasi (ascetic), lived and ate as an Indian, and studied the nondualistic Vedanta as a means of gaining entrance to the Brahmin intelligentsia in Madura, at whom his apostolate was aimed. After probing the history of Brahmin and Hindu practices, Nobili permitted his disciples and new converts the following usages that he considered primarily civil, not religious: (1) the kudumi (tuft), a distinctive sign of the Brahmin caste; (2) the thread, also a sign of the Brahmin caste; (3) the santal (mark on the brow); (4) the usual ablutions practiced by upper castes and virtually indispensable in a country with a climate as hot as India's.

Suspicion and Controversy. The Brahmins of Madura welcomed Nobili's method and under its conditions some became Christians. But Nobili's Portuguese colleagues were suspicious. They declared Nobili overtolerant, and apparently they feared that he was placing in jeopardy the Portuguese position as masters of India. Nobili defended himself by appealing to texts from St. Paul, St. Thomas Aquinas, and such later theologians as Juan Azor (15361603) and Domingo Bañez (15281604). At the bidding of Pope Paul V, Christopher de Sa, archbishop of Goa, summoned Nobili before the Inquisition of Goa. The archbishop, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, and the secular priests voted against Nobili, while the Inquisitor D'Almeida, Francisco Ros, SJ (archbishop of Cranganore), and all the Jesuits voted in his favor. Thus from the beginning there were sharply divided views. Nobili had made a distinction between religious rites and civil customs; he justified the latter where necessary by eliminating superstitious elements and directing the intention. For example, Indians often marked their brow with a mixture of ashes and sandal-paste; therefore, said Nobili, let us hallow this mixture with a Christian blessing and impose it not once a year, on Ash Wednesday, but more frequently. His opponents argued that the Hindus were noted for their absence of logic. Therefore, in permitting them to retain certain rites one risked, despite all precautions, leaving them with the idea that Christianity did not exclude their earlier ways of religious thinking and behavior.

The dispute was submitted to Rome and to the grand inquisitor of Portugal. Martins de Mascarenhas (in 1621) and Gregory XV (in 1623, in his constitution Romanae Sedis ) pronounced in favor of Nobili. For the moment, de Nobili's approach had triumphed and the Jesuits adopted it, dividing themselves into two groups: sannyasis to evangelize the higher castes and pandara swamis for the backward castes. In Madura, Mysore, and Trichinopoly good results were obtained; by 1704 the Christians of the Madura district numbered 90,000. In the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries new concessions had been added to those originally adopted by Nobili.

In 1687 French Jesuits arrived to work alongside the Capuchins in the recently founded French colony of Pondicherry. They collaborated with Jesuits in Madura and created a special mission in the Carnatic following Nobili's method. Soon accusations against the Jesuits were being sent to Rome, and in order to uphold them the Capuchin François Marie de Tours returned there in 1703. He submitted 36 questions relating to the usages of the Indian Rites to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith.

Arrival of Charles de Tournon. Meanwhile Clement XI had appointed the Piedmontese prelate Charles Thomas Maillard de tournon as his legatus a later to examine the vexed question of Chinese rites, which was dividing not only missionaries but European thinkers (see chinese rites controversy). In view of the new complaints, he now instructed Tournon to interrupt his journey in order to examine the rites and customs of South India. Tournon, who knew neither Hindi nor the Portuguese language, and was forced to seek his information second hand, arrived in Pondicherry on Nov. 6, 1703, and remained until July of 1704. Sickness prevented him from visiting any part of the inland mission, but he gathered data on the usages in question, notably from the Jesuits Jean Bouchet (16551732) and Charles Bertoldi (16591720). On June 23, 1704, Tournon signed a decree condemning in 16 points several usages permitted to the Jesuits. His decree was confirmed by the Holy Office on Jan. 7, 1706, and at the same time a consultor was named to examine the question further. The Jesuits Boucher and Francisco Laynez (16561715), the former French, the latter Portuguese, came to Rome to defend their method in South India. In 1707 Laynez published Defensio Indicarum carum Missionum Madurensis to show that the missionaries had tolerated nothing superstitious, and he distributed copies in India after his appointment as bishop of Mylapore in 1708. By an oraculum vivae vocis granted to the procurator of the Madura mission, Clement XI declared the missionaries obliged to observe Tournon's decree "insofar as the Divine glory and the salvation of souls would permit." Appealing to this clause of the oraculum, the Jesuits continued to tolerate the usages condemned by Tournon. On Sept. 1, 1712, Clement renewed the Holy Office's decree of 1706, and in a brief of Sept. 17, 1712, reprimanded Laynez for failing to take action to carry out Tournon's decree. On July 24, 1715, the cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith sent this brief and the decree of 1706 to Pondicherry, where they were promulgated on Jan. 11, 1716, Laynez having died meanwhile. In protest, the Jesuits sent Pierre Martin (16651716) and Broglia Brandolini (d. 1747) to Rome to secure further examination of the Indian Rites. Innocent XIII appointed a special Congregation for this purpose, with Prospero Lambertini, the future Pope Benedict XIV, as secretary. Brandolini published a justification of the rites, to which Luigi Lucino, OP, replied on behalf of the Holy Office.

The Oath of 16 Points. The special congregation's examination of the rites continued under Benedict XIII (172430) and Clement XII (173040). In a brief dated Dec. 12, 1727, Benedict XIII confirmed Tournon's decree. In 1733 the decisions of Tournon's decree, formulated in 16 points, were again examined by the Holy Office, and confirmed in 1734 by Clement XII's brief Compertum exploratumque. This, however, did not end the matter, for some missionaries tried to evade the injunctions of the brief. Finally with the bull Omnium sollicitudinum of Sept. 12, 1744, Benedict XIV decided the question of the Indian rites in accordance with the brief of 1734 and obliged all missionaries working in Madura, Mysore, and the Carnatic to swear a 16-point oath relating to the rites.

The oath bound the missionaries as follows: (1) They were obliged in the administration of Baptism to use sacramentals, notably saliva (which Hindus regarded with abhorrence) and insufflation; (2) a candidate for Baptism was obliged to take the name of a saint in the Roman Martyrology, and Indian names, formerly acceptable, were now forbidden; (3) in all ceremonies Latin or Latin translated into an Indian language was to be used; in the latter case exact equivalents must be found for the holy cross, saints, and holy things; (4) missionaries were obliged to baptize newborn babies with haste; (5) marriage before puberty was forbidden, as well as the custom whereby the bridegroom hangs on the bride's neck a nuptial jewel called tali; (6) Christian wives were forbidden to wear the tali; (7) Christians were forbidden to wear the girdle composed of 108 threads dyed red used by Hindus for hanging the tali; (8) the supposed "superstitious" ceremonies of Hindu marriages were forbidden, such as cutting the hair of bride and groom and use of the branch called arasciomara ; (9) the matrimonial rite of breaking a coconut in order to foretell the future was prohibited;(10) it was the custom for South Indian women to remain at home during their menstrual periods until they had been ritually purified; henceforth Christian women were not to be kept from the Sacraments for this reason; (11) celebrations in honor of a young girl at her first menstruation were forbidden; (12) missionaries were commanded to administer the Sacraments to sick backward-caste Christians in their dwellings, publicly; (13) Christian singers and musicians were forbidden to take part in ceremonies in Hindu temples; (14) baths were permitted, provided they were not linked with superstition either in timing or in any other way; missionaries were allowed to wash only as a measure of hygiene, not with the intention of passing as sannyasis or Brahmins; (15) marking the brow with ashes of cow-dung or with red-and-white paste in accordance with Hindu customs was forbidden, and Christians were obliged to keep to the sign of the Cross and the use of palm ashes duly blessed; and (16) Christians were forbidden to read Hindu scriptures and other classical and devotional texts under penalty of excommunication.

All the Jesuits in the designated missions took the prescribed oath and observed its various points. They were, however, allowed to designate some missionaries for the exclusive service of the backward castes. This dispensation disappeared with the suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1773. Pius XII (193958) revisited the Indian rites controversy as part of an overall review of the Chinese rites controversy. On Dec. 8, 1939, the oath relating to Chinese rites was abolished and on April 9, 1940, the missionaries of India were dispensed from the oath relating to the Indian rites.

Bibliography: For bibliography: see nobili, roberto de.

[v. cronin/eds.]

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Indian Rites Controversy

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