Book examines history of Christianity in India

New Delhi: The story of how Christianity arrived and found a home in India has lessons for Indians as well as the world, says a new book which examines the history of this religion in India in the context of local and global events.

The history of Christianity in India is a nearly two-millennia-long story whose complexity rivals the history of the subcontinent itself, says Siddhartha Sarma in his book "Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the Idea of India".

Christians comprise a significant minority population, which, he says, played a key role in the post-independence period in the country, as have Christian institutions and clergy.

But in terms of historiography, he claims the treatment of Christianity in India has remained problematic.

"As the political climate of India changes, as the Hindu right extends its political dominance into the intellectual sphere, and as revisionism becomes a key toll for reimagining Indian history through a very narrow nativist and bigoted lens, it has become increasingly necessary to examine the history of Christianity in India and to set the record straight," Sarma argues.

India, he says, has always been connected to the East and the West, and there were always people and ideas arriving in the subcontinent to contribute in small and large measures. Christianity, which has been here for 2000 years, is as Indian a religion as any other.

According to the author, the story of Western Christianity in India also shows how the interplay between faith and political structures depends on the fundamental doctrines of the religion.

"Christianity was never meant to be a political or imperial religion. The earliest Christians were part of an underground movement driven by piety and humility, living a precarious existence under two empires - Roman and Persian - which persecuted them ruthlessly," Sarma writes in the book, published by Penguin Random House.

He says churches like Rome and Constantinople grew and evolved in an imperial climate and Christianity benefited from being considered a state religion.

"The medieval Latin and Catholic churches passed through phases where they tried to purge decadent elements and return to the spirit of early Christianity, and phases when they sought to act as imperial entities or representatives of such entities themselves, such as during Inquisitions of through the Portuguese padroado system.

"It has been a chequered history, but it is also undeniable that Western Christianity, both in India and in the West, has been at its best when it was represented by reasonable, kind and gentle people. When the carpenters were in charge, not the kings," he writes.

Sarma, whose first book "The Grasshopper's Run" won the Crossword Book Award (2010) and the Sahitya Akademi Award for children's literature (2011), says this story is about such people across faiths.

"It is about Jordanus, Giovanni Montecorvino, William of Tyre and Usamah ibn Munqidh, or Ziegenbalg and Nathan Brown. It was these people who made the effort to understand one another, and the world around them, who were in the truest sense ambassadors of their faith. Western Christianity was at its best when it was truly Christian," he says.

"Here are many and boundless marvels; in this First India begins another world", Jordanus Catalani, the first bishop of the Church of Rome in India, introduced the northern part of the subcontinent to his readers in 14-century Europe in this manner.

Two hundred years before the advent of Vasco da Gama, Western Christianity - which comprises the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion and Protestant denominations today - had already arrived in India, finding among its diverse people and faiths the Church of the East already at home since the beginning of Christianity.

The book also tells how global events, including the crusades and the Mughal conquests, came together to bring Western Christianity to India.

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