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Roman Catholic Brahmin!

Biography of Roberto De Nobili
by Jyotsna Kamat

First Online: October 02, 2002
Date Last Updated: January 03, 2018


Many Portuguese missionaries followed Vasco da Gama (1498 A.D.) to India, and Goa  became a center of Christianity and part of papal hierarchy in the East. Society of Jesus (SJ) founded by Ignatius Loyola in (1542 A.D.) induced many enthusiastic youngsters to the church and serve Christ and spread Christianity among heathens.


Roberto De Nobili
Roberto De Nobili (1577-1656 A.D.) 
Roman Catholic Brahmin

St. Francis Xaviour (of SJ.) was the first missionary to arrive in Goa, whose sole ambition was to convert non-believers. The Portuguese missionaries who followed him continued the work from Kochi, Krangnur and Mylapur. But Roberto De Nobili was the first ascetic who tried hard to understand true Indian spirit and tried to Indianize preaching and spreading Christ's message. he worked very hard to endear himself to masses, by adopting Hindu customs. Roberto De Nobili was born in Rome in 1577 A.D., and was related to the royal family. His father was a general of the papal army which fought the Turks during crusades. Roberto was spiritually inclined at a very young and dreamt of working as a missionary in the East. He was inspired by the adventurous life of the missionaries in parts of Africa, Japan, and other eastern countries. he received no encouragement at home and ran away to join church. he did all menial jobs like scrubbing and washing vessels and helping in kitchen, but studied logic, science, theology, etc., and finally qualified himself to become a preceptor. 

He started for India. After a disastrous journey which took more than a year he reached Goa in 1605. He found that converted Goans were Christians only in name. Most of them came from very poor family and had no inclination to lead a pious life. Later, he stayed with pearl gatherers of fisheries coast and was touched by their miserable existence. In those days pearls of India were in great demand in Rome and fetched fabulous price. But the divers who collected them were among the poorest. He started learning Tamil from these fishermen. But for lack of textbooks and written word, he could not progress. 

He went to Madurai--The temple city, which was a great cultural center and started learning Tamil, Telugu as well as various Hindu manners and customs. He found very close resemblance between life of Hindu monks and Christian missionaries. He tried to convince the locals that he himself was an ascetic having given up all worldly attachments. But people were not convinced. They thought all "parangis" (foreigners) were unclean, ate beef and drank liquor. Roberto had a tough time. 

He was convinced that converting only the poorest brought no credit to Christ. He had great admiration for brahmins, who were very much respected in society and thought converting some brahmin scholars will help him serve his mission better.

He started wearing ochre-robes, wooden shoes; gave up meat and carried danda (stick) and kamandalu (water jug) like a Hindu monk. He started wearing Gandha (Sandal paste) and shaved his head. But he was careful enough to obtain prior permission from Archbishop stationed at Crangnoor. He engaged a Brahmin cook, ate only rice and vegetables and started sleeping on the floor. He spent time studying Sanskrit and holy books besides writing Christian psalms and prayers in Tamil. Opened a school of catechism and slowly started introducing Christian theology. He became an "Iyer" (preceptor) to local people who started venerating him for his austere life, kind manners and healing powers which he had acquired modestly. 

He did not criticize the customs like Sati, which were outrageous to foreign eyes. In fact, he was an eyewitness to the scene of four hundred women committing Sati on the death of Nayaka of Madurai. He actually praised the extraordinary courage and steadfastness of these women.

There was lots of opposition among Christians about the mode of living and preaching Roberto had adopted and they complained to papal authority. Secret enquiry was instituted by the church. But by now Nobili had converted a good number of people (more than 100) to Christianity, had built a church modeled on a Hindu temple and had very good following among natives. He wrote psalms on palm leaves like a brahmin pundit and studied Sanskrit from the Telugu brahmin Shivadharma who spent hours and days teaching Roberto Hindu philosophy and mythology. Ultimately Shivadharma himself got converted to Christianity. He was allowed to wear sacred  thread with cross and continue with tuft. This prompted others  who wanted to retain the traits of their earlier faith to become Christians,  drawn to  teachings of Christ, and saintly living and guiding by Roberto. 

Gregory XV who was the Pope at the time appointed a tribunal to deal with the complaints received against Nobili as well as his letters. There was a very learned member of the Tribunal Peter Lombard by name who studied thoroughly all the letters, cases and arguments put forth by Nobili and convinced other members that here was a novel way of bringing more following to church. After a struggle of thirteen years, the Vatican Church agreed to localization of several modes of preaching in Eastern and African countries. This helped Nobili a good deal in his mission.

Meanwhile Nobili acquired fame and name as a healing sadhu. He preached against many superstitions associated with different ailments. He cured ailing royal members of Salem, who came to seek his blessings. He convinced them to become Christians. They agreed, but earned a lot of hatred from local Hindu clergy.

Thus he had to face opposition from both the church and the locals, and was imprisoned in the absence of the royal patron and on one occasion, was about to be killed. But timely return of king Tirumala of Madurai,  saved Nobili's life. He was shifted from Madurai and sent to Jaffna (Sri Lanka) by the Church. But here also he continued writing books. He wanted to spend his last days in Madurai only, but was kept in Mylapore near Madras.

He had converted 1208 members of higher caste and 2675 of lower castes in an area where there was not a single Christian earlier. in Jaffna along with other associates 40,000 were made Christians. in Mylapore he was called "O Santho Padre." (saintly priest). He was old, partially blind and frail but kept his austere habits and vegetarian food habits. Some friends tried to make him drink chicken soup when he became extremely weak, but he threw away the bowl and observed fast unto death like any Indian ascetic (1656 January 16th.) There is no tomb or any memorial connected with his name at Madurai, Mylapore or Salem but hundreds of letters he wrote to his sister, friends and the Church throw light on his pioneering efforts in popularizing Christ's message in Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit. His efforts to replace Latin in Seminary by Sanskrit bore no fruit.

Roberto De Nobili was a rare missionary who tried to understand Indian ethos in an age when intolerance, superstitions and ignorance ran roost, and is often referred to as Roman Catholic brahmin.

See Also:

  • Tribal World of Elwin -- Story of a missionary who came to India to banish the "spiritual darkness" of the tribals. He banished the darkness about them as well.


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