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Stephens, Thomas


Jesuit missionary and poet in Marathi-Konkani; b. Clyffe Pipard (Wiltshire), England, 1549; d. Goa, Portuguese India, 1619. Stephens was the son of Thomas Stephens (Stevens) of Bushton, a merchant; he was elected scholar of Winchester in 1564 and probably attended New College, Oxford. After conversion to the Catholic faith, he proceeded to Rome and was admitted to the Society of Jesus on Oct. 20, 1575.

The Portuguese had settled (1510) in Goa, and the conversion of Hindus followed the arrival of Francis xa vier as papal nuncio in 1542. But the converts often remained devoted to their old religious literature and traditional ritualistic practices, a situation that caused the institution of the inquisition in 1560.

Stephens sailed from Lisbon on April 4, 1579, and arrived at Goa by way of the Cape of Good Hope on October 24, being, perhaps, the first Englishman thus to reach India. An account sent to his father in England of his voyage and of Portuguese commercial ventures in the East acquired wide currency; it was included or referred to in the travel books of Hakluyt, Purchas, and John Hamilton Moore, and may have occasioned the incorporation (1599) of the East India Company.

Stephens spent approximately 40 years in Goa, where he was widely known as Padre Estevao, and served for a time as rector of Salsette College. He quickly learned Konkani, the spoken dialect of the region, and composed a grammar (Arte de Lingua Canarin, 1640) and a manual of Christian doctrine (Doutrina Christã em lingua Bramana-Canarin, 1622) for the benefit of his Konkani flock. He also mastered both Sanskrit and literary Marathi, the language of the medieval Maharashtra saints, Jnānēshwar and Nāmadēv.

Stephens thought that a new native Christian literature in literary Marathi, seasoned with living Konkani speech, could wean converts from the old pagan literature. As a beginning, he composed a voluminous work, Discorso sobre a Vinda de Jesus Christo, a Krista [Christian]-Purana narrating in epic detail the coming of Jesus Christ the Savior into the world. Based on the Old and New Testaments, this treatise, in two parts of 36 and 59 cantos, totals more than 11,000 strophes in the ovi meter. Stephens was clearly acquainted with the work of Jnānēshwar and of his own contemporary, Ēkanāth (154899), whose major works also were in the ovi meter. Krista-Purana, first published in the Roman script in 1616, was well received, and two more editions appeared in 1649 and 1654.

Like Costanzo beschi's Tēmbāvani in Tamil, Krista-Purana is more than a tour de force; it is a high poetic achievement that opens new vistas on the landscape of the spirit and demonstrates the singular flexibility of the modern evolved Indian languages to meet the impact of new themes and inspirations. Encouraged by the success of Krista-Purana, other Puranas appearedone on St. Peter, by Étienne de la Croix, and one on St. Anthony, by Antonio Saldanha. With a growing native Christian literature to sustain them, converts less frequently provoked the rigors of the Inquisition by indulging in reading that was frowned upon. Krista-Purana thus appeared at a crucial time and made history in more than one sense.

Bibliography: t. stephens, The Christian Purana, ed. j. l. saldanha (Mangalore 1907). m. k. nadkarni, A Short History of Marathi Literature (Baroda 1921). c. sommervogel et al., Bibliothéque de la Compagnie de Jésus (Brussels-Paris 18901932) 2:468469; 12:281282. g. schurhammer, "Thomas Stephens, 15491619," Month NS 13 (1955) 197210.

[k. r. srinivasa iyengar]

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