Thomas Stephens and Christ in the Alphabets of Puranic Tradition

Thomas Stephens’ great work Krista Purana  necessitates the study of puranic tradition. His deliberate choice of a religious literary genre to present the message of Christ  to the Goans and people from surrounding areas is indeed a pioneering act. After him, other Jesuits also attempted to enshrine Christian message or life of saints in the literary form of a purana.  We can already trace other Christian Puranas  that  present the life of St. Peter and St. Anthony.  The purana on  the life of saint Anthony was composed in Konkani. St Peter Purana was composed by  Etienne da la Crois  (1629-1634) while St. Antony Purana is said to be composed by  Antonio Saldhana.  Besides these, there were other puranas on the life of Jesus by others   like Francisco Vaz de Gimaraes  which went into several editions. Hence, in a very significant way presenting the Christian message in the alhabets of purana became one of the important evangelizing practices in Goa. Perhaps to understand the importance of this practice which  made its beginning  with the writing of Krista  Purana  maybe  we have to understand the nature and character of a purana and it importance in the life of pre-Portuguese Goans.  In our days, the word ‘puran’ has acquired some kind of negative use. We sometimes use it to win argument or shut someone from speaking. Maybe we have often heard someone saying,  ‘puro tuje puran’.

Purana is an ancient form of literature.  It deals with ancient religion, philosophy, history, geography, sociology and politics.  Puranas were popular in the ancient society of our country. There were Buddhist, Jain as well as Hindu Puranas.  Hindu puranic tradition is a vast literature composed of over four lacks slokas  that enshrined the ideals of people of that time.  They were considered with great reverence as the fifth Veda.  This gave them high spiritual authority.  The Sanskrit tradition classifies puranas under the category of Shamitas which have vedic authority .  The puranic tradition really grew under the Bhagavata movement centring on the primacy of Lord Vishnu.  Thomas Stephen comes in contact with a version of this Vaishnava tradition as it developed in Goa.  In the 13th century several Goan Brahmins adopted dvaita  Vaishnavism as taught by Madhavacharya.  Stephens brings Christianity in dialogue with this form of Vaishnavism in Goa.  This happened at time that we can call Hindu only in retrospection. Even the Brahmans did not use the term Hindu at the time. Perhaps, the term  Dharma may be more apt to view it. This is why we may view the dialogue was with the dharma of vaishnavism. Even today in Goa, we have the term Dhorm  to refer to a religion. Somehow the original meaning of the terms have transformed or got hybridized in the process of the encounter of East with the West under colonization.

Along with the authoritative social location of a purana in our society and a theology of Light that can be traced in the famous Purana  Gyaneshwari  for instance, offer the space that  is congruent to the  insertion of  the message of Christ into a form of a purana. It has been already established that great Vaishnava saints had profound influence on Stephens.  This would mean that he has been somehow in contact with the gyaneshwari of Jnanadevta. The same can be said of the work of Sant Eknatha. These Marathi Vaishnava saints seem to be popular with the Vaishanava Brahmins of Salcete, particularly Margao.  These Brahmins who were the interlocutor s of Stephen seems to have been responsible for introducing the Vaishnava spiritual wisdom to Stephens.  But there is a paradox. The bakhti literature  that Stephens was introduced was one that dissented against the excesses of the Brahmins. It was a kind of protestant literature and hence was very popular with the people. Hence, it was surprising  and even against  brahminical interest that the Viashnava Brahmins in Salcete , especially from Margao introduced  Stephens to such a literature.  Being a dissident literature, it was a rebel in our society and was very popular. This is why the choice of putting the message of Christ in a purana became profoundly successful. We can in fact trace its popularity in the whole of Konkan as well as Magalore. It is again paradoxical that we in Goa have forgotten it.

To deepen our understanding of the role of literary form that we call purana  in the communication of the message of Christ , we will have  to perhaps take a look at the principle of hylemorphism of Aristotle.  Aristotle taught that all reality is made of matter and form.  Taking our cue from Aristotle, we might see how there is a matter and form in Krista Purana. The matter is Christian while the form is that of Vaisnhnavism. The form made the message accessible, understandable and acceptable to all people. Perhaps, this strategy of presenting a message of Jesus rapped in the form of a Vaishnava purana may have brought great success to the evangelical work of the Jesuits and others in Goa. Although, we do not have a single original printed copy, we have the Saldana, Drago, Falcao, Amonkar editions  that is still popular among the people. For research scholars advice us to use Marsden version.  We in Goa  have a Konkani translation of Krista Purana skilfully and faithfully done  by Konkani stalwart and educationist  Suresh Amonkar . The missionary methods of Thomas Stephen and his Jesuits confreres are complex but the composition of the purana in the form of Krista Purana has to be admitted as one the great step towards inter-religious encounter.  Stephens could not have made this wise decision without the help of his Brahmin interlocutors.  Indeedl, Christian theology was artfully and skilfully grafted by Stephens on a Vaishnava  theology.  We have the imperative and sacred duty to study the how Vaishnava theology  facilated the growth  catholic theology in Goa. Indeed, Konkani translations of our bible, liturgical and other prayers have successfully produced a theology grafted on Vaishnavism. It may not be difficult to understand this fact and manifest  the process as well as promote further dialogue with present Hinduism and other faiths  present in Goa.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao