Roman Catholic Brahmin!
Roberto De Nobili
by Jyotsna Kamat
First Online: October 02, 2002
Date Last Updated: January 29, 2014
Many Portuguese missionaries followed Vasco da Gama (1498 A.D.) to India, and
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.