Thomas Stephens and the condition of Konkani Today

Christianity came to India two thousand years ago. It is believed that it came because of the labours of St. Thomas the Apostle. But it remained mainly in the south of India which we today know as Kerala.  India was not the same at that time. It was not simply one nation as we are today.  Even what we call Goa was not frozen in time. It evolved with time and came to intensify and codify the social, political, anthropological, religious and territorial maps that we have today. We cannot fix Goa into its past. It has been evolving and continues to do so.  In this complex and interesting Journey, we find several milestones that have led us to the point that we are today.  We may view these events, persons, institutions favourably or unfavourably. It all depends on how we view the past, present and future of Goa as well as what we consider authentic Goa and Goan-ness is. These and several other assumptions become our lens of seeing, colour how we view the past, present and future of Goa.  An awareness of our assumed positions can allow us to see a more integral picture of Goa, Goans and Goan-ness. While we look at Goa and its dynamic history from different positions, it will be interesting to explore some events, persons and institutions that have laid the foundation of our present condition. It is within this perspective that we can make an attempt to view the work of Fr. Thomas Stevens. I have chosen him because we are celebrating the fourth centenary of his death anniversary.  

Thomas Stevens was an English man who arrived in Goa as a Jesuit scholastic and studied in the then St. Paul College after initially studying Philosophy in Collegio Romano. Earlier he had met Edmund Champion who was an Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism and became a Jesuit. It was Champion who brought Thomas Stevens into the Jesuit society.   He spent thirty-nine years in Goa and one year in Vasai.  This means he lived forty years in India until his death and was buried in Goa. His grave unfortunately is lost and no one so far can trace it.  Although he died four hundred years ago, Fr. Thomas Stevens remains immortal in his work in Konkani and Marathi. It is said that his early education in Latin facilitated his proficiency in Konkani, Marathi and Sanskrit. This might be because Latin and Sanskrit belong to the Indo-Aryan family of languages and Konkani and Marathi have arrived from Prakrit which itself has emerged from Sanskrit.   Although his Dourtrina ChristaemLinguaBramana-Canarin(1622)is said to be the second book published under the same title, it occupies a place of pride among the Catholics and is hailed as one the sixteen important Konkani books published by the then College of Salcete which we know today as Rachol Seminary. 

It is said that there were several attempts to write Konkani grammars at the College of St. Paul in Old Goa. But Fr. Thomas Stevens has the credit of developing the first Konkani grammar, Arte De LingoaCanarin(1640) that is published. We can read its facsimile copy even today. Along with the grammar of Konkani, we can have an idea of the state of Konkani in his writings.  It is interesting that he does not use the term Konkani to name the language that he studies to develop its grammar. He calls it Canarin or BaramanachiBhasha. This fact does indicate that Konkani as the name of our mother tongue is younger and may not have been in use at his time.  It seems that another Jesuit Ignazio Arcamone was first to name our mother tongue concaini. Some Konkani scholars say that since Goa had been  largely ruled by the then Deccan rulers which is today’s Karnataka before the Portuguese, the language of the then people in Goa was scripted in old form of Kanada script and was called Canarin. Besides, the issue of nomenclature, his Grammar as well as his Doutorina Christa becomes our lens into the condition of old Konkani which itself can open us vistas on how it has changed today. His greatest work admired by stalwarts of Marathi literature was KristaPurana (1616). It is not just a theological master piece but also acknowledged as a great work in Marathi poetry. It brings about Christian encountered with Vaishnavism, the then sect of Hinduism of today that he encountered in Margao.  We can draw parallels with Christian encounter with Greek philosophy during what has been termed as the patristic period in Christian circles. Even before we could think of theology of inculturation, we have Thomas Stevens actually doing it in his magnum opus.  He is said to have also influenced Robert De Nobili who would carry on a similar project of adaptation with brahminismat  Madurai in  Tamil Naidu and present the gospel of Jesus as the fifth Veda which he called Yesur Veda. Today, we can find a lot of interest in the work of Thomas Stevens.  Konkani Stalwart and prominent Educationist, Suresh Amonkar has skilfully translated the entire Krista Purana into nagri Konkani. The pioneering work of Thomas Stevens places him among the greatest of Konkani literature.  In fact, he is called the father of Konkani literature. The fourth centenary of his death is indeed an auspicious occasion not just to honour his contribution but to understand our journey as Goans and embrace every bit of our pasts with all its shades without letting our ideologies of today, as well as religious biases, come on the way.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao