Thomas Stephen – A Man Between Two Traditions

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Being human is being between. Heidegger described it as being with. Like other existentialists, he also showed that humans have the tendency to fall into a ‘they self’ and escape into a crowd and become faceless. This means that we have several ways of being in the world. Some are authentic others are inauthentic. Our being in the world is characterised by understanding. All understanding is interpretive. It is always informed by the perspective that we bring to bear on the act of understanding. Understanding requires a preunderstanding. It is a product of our history, tradition and language.  It becomes our pre-sub-positions, pre-judgements or prejudice that offers us further lens into our world.  We are not detached from our world but are involved and entangled into our world. We belong to the world and to each other by belonging to language, culture and tradition. We are players or dancers who play or dance into the spirit of our cultures and traditions. This raises the question of possibilities of encountering, understanding, transcending and dialoguing with other traditions. Our openness to the world allows us to enter into another worldview or tradition and understand it. It produces an enrichment of our understanding of that tradition as well as enrichment of our understanding of our own tradition that we belong.  It brings about a fusion of horizons between the two traditions. It may lead us to recast our understanding of our tradition and reach a deeper understanding of the same.

The sojourns of Fr. Thomas Stephens can be seen as an encounter between two traditions. We may also find other little traditions within the two broad worldviews that came into dialogue in his work. This is why hermeneutics holds the key to understand the process that opened him to a new tradition. Gadamer's fusion of horizons can provide us with a good model. Raimundo Panikkar’s  diatopical hermeneutics is also a good candidate to understand this dialogue developed by Fr. Thomas Stephens. I propose maybe we can develop an even deeper understanding of the encounter through pluritopical hermeneutics developed by Water Mignolo from Argentina. It opens hermeneutics to the broadest possible domains and is rooted in the lusophone that might open new vistas on luzitanized  Goa under Portuguese. In his book, the dark side of Renaissance, he expanded Parinkkar’s diatopical hermeneutics to embrace a pluritopical hermeneutics and developed  it further in his book, Local/Histories and Global /Designs.  Science, Thomas Stephens being Western, he may have consciously or unconsciously privileged the West over the East and we may be able to trace several shades of orientalisms in him yet understanding his work from a pluripotical hermeneutics is much more emancipative and free us from imitating the form that we find nauseating in the colonizer. It opens us to a decolonial mode of thinking.  Escaping colonial modes of thinking is difficult.  We end up with reactive modes of thinking that imitate the colonial form of the colonial modes of thinking. This is why a movement away from imperial universal thinking  to an integral pluriversal thought is a welcome mode of thinking. Pluri-topical and pluri-logical hermeneutics is certainly counter-hegemonic to the reigning mode of thinking.

Pluritopical hermeneutics that we propose overcomes the mono-topical Eurocentric hermeneutics. Such mono-topical hermeneutics are certainly absent  in the  work of Stephens. We can clearly trace diatopical hermeneutics in his work. His work attempts to bring about a fusion of both the Christian and the Vaishnava (Hindu ) Traditions. But a shift from the diatopical to the  pluritopical hermeneutics can truly enrich our understanding of the great work of Fr. Thomas Stephens. To do this, we will have to understand how both Christianity and Hinduism are embedded into a pluriverse which we may narrow down into an imperial pluriverse. Before these two traditions are thought together, they already belong together into the pluriverse. This strategy relativizes the hegemonic western worldview. Thus, we can see how there came about an osmotic semiosis between Catholicism and Vaishnavism of the time of Thomas Stephens.  Set in this manner, we can see how coloniality of power or power differential that built the imperial hegemony of Christianity come to meet the pluriverse of Vaishnavism. This dialogue is actually a polylogue as it is pluriversal as well as pluri-logical. For Thomas Stephens it was indeed a polylogue because being an English men, catholic  and Jesuit he already stands into a pluriverse and when he mediates Christianity with the context of Vaishnavism ( Hinduism) he is already entering and cohabiting the world of Goans of his times. This world of Goans was not monological  but was also standing into a pluriverse.  The mother tongue/ kanarin/ bhamnachi basha embedded a plural word although Stephens names it narrowly and reductively to refer to the upper caste. His shift into the study of Marathi opened him to a larger world of the common people and had a territorial embrace beyond Goa. Besides, the choice of Smrti over Sruthi also widens his audience and embraces the simple folks. Literary motifs of a Hindu Purana itself is a pluriverse and the insertion of the life and message of Jesus made it accessible to a large number of people.

Thus, Thomas Stephens is a man between two traditions which are both plural.  There seems to be one strong incompatibility of the Western and Indian traditions. But Stephens finds a way out through the insertion of life and message of Jesus in Ovi meter of popular saints like  Gyaneshwar and Eknath. Thus, the book lived in its recitation that was enacted for centuries by the people. It is through the rendering of the life and message of Jesus into poetic form that Thomas Stephens  brought together the Greek Logos and Indian anubhava. The primacy of experience or anubhava meant the logos/ ratiocinated texts  had very little popular appeal. Thus, by inserting the logos into an anubhava ethos offered by the poetic structure of the Purnas led Stephens to render his message acceptable to a large section of people. Thomas Stephens, therefore, enriches Christian message by placing it between the two dynamic and living Vaishnava traditions and the same has to be admitted of the Vaishnava faith.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao