Swami Tapasyananda, the author of this article, was an erudite Indian sanyasi scholar and vice-president of the Ramakrishna Order from 1985 to 1991. He wrote the article when he was president of the Ramakrishna Math in Mylapore, Madras, in 1989. A comment by the equally erudite Hindu yogi scholar and Samkhya philosopher Ram Swarup follows this article.
This article has been provoked by two write-ups in the Madras edition of the Indian Express. The first of these is “In Memory of a Slain Saint” by C.A. Simon in the Express Weekend of the Indian Express of 30 December 1989, and the second, a rejoinder to it by Ishwar Sharan in the “Weekend Post” of the Express Weekend of 13 January 1990.
The first write-up, C.A. Simon’s, whether based on facts or fiction, is highly derogatory of Hinduism, which is, even to this day, highly tolerant of other religions. The chief items of information contained in C.A. Simon’s writings are as follows: (1) St. Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Christ (a disputed fact), came to India in AD 52 with Habban, a foreign trader. (2) He landed at Maliankara (Cranganore) in Kerala, preached the Gospel, wrought miracles, and got many converts. (3) Then he came to Mailepuram (Mylapore), then went to China, after some time returned to Maliankara, and from there came again to Madras where he spent the rest of his life teaching, preaching and drawing a large number of the oppressed and the suppressed into his fold. (4) He performed miracles which made the local king Mahadeva offer him a place near the seashore where the old church of Mylapore now stands. (5) His conversion activities incensed the orthodox and enemies from their rank vowed to finish him. (6) He had therefore to hide himself in a cave at the Little Mount near the present St. Thomas Mount (about five km away from Mylapore). (7) Finally, he was murdered there, i.e., at St. Thomas Mount, by those fanatical enemies, and (8) his body was brought to Mylapore and buried in AD 73 at a spot which was forgotten for many centuries.
But the greatest miracle was to occur in 1523, nearly fifteen hundred years after the saint was supposed to have died. That was the rediscovery of the tomb and remains of the murdered saint by the priest in charge of the Mylapore church for building a new church – pieces of bones, a skull, a vessel containing mud supposedly from the place where the saint’s blood was shed, and a spearhead of the shape of an olive leaf fixed on a wooden shaft.
Wonder of wonders! Even after about fifteen centuries these remains, including the stick, had not become fossilized or crumbled into dust, but could be got intact and buried at an undisclosed place in the church. That church was damaged beyond recognition in the course of the battles waged round it during the rivalry between the Dutch, the French, and the British and Hyder Ali. (Strangely, the Portuguese are not said to be involved in it, perhaps because they were the heroic defenders!) At last in 1893 the present Santhome Church with Gothic architectural excellence was built. (It must be by the Portuguese and none else.) The papal seal over this whole story was stamped in 1956 when Pope Pius XII gave it recognition as a Minor Basilica, all the four major ones being outside India.
The above legend, that is dexterously built into a mighty balloon to boost Christian fanaticism, is neatly pricked in the rejoinder by Ishwar Sharan, published as a letter to the editor in the “Weekend Post” of the Indian Expressof 13 January 1990. The points mentioned by him are as follows: In his book Papacy: Its Doctrine and History, Sita Ram Goel writes:
Some Catholic scholars have been busy for many years marshalling literary and archaeological evidence in an effort to prove that St. Thomas came to India in 52 AD, converted some Hindus in the South and was killed by the Brahmins in Mylapore in Madras. Suffice it to say that some historians have seriously doubted the very existence of an apostle named St. Thomas. Distinguished scholars like R. Garbe, A. Harnack and L. de la Vallee-Poussin have denied credibility to the Acts of Thomas, an apocryphal work on which the whole story is based. Some others who accept the fourth century Catholic tradition about the travels of St. Thomas, point to the lack of evidence that he ever went beyond Ethiopia and Arabia Felix. The confusion, according to them, has arisen because the ancient geographers often mistook these two countries for India.
He further refers to Stephen Neill’s book History of Christianity in India: From the Beginnings to 1707 A.D. published by the Cambridge University Press, England, in 1984, as follows:
A number of scholars, among whom are to be mentioned with respect Bishop A.E. Medlycott, J.N. Farquhar and the Jesuit J. Dahlman, have built on slender foundations what may be called Thomas romances, such as reflect the vividness of their imaginations rather than the prudence of rigid historical critics.
Pained by the spread of this spurious history among large sections of Christians, he observes:
Millions of Christians in India are certain that the founder of their church was none other than apostle Thomas himself. The historian cannot prove it to them that they are mistaken in their belief. He may feel it right to warn them that historical research cannot pronounce on the matter with a confidence equal to that which they entertain by faith.
Stephen Neill was a bishop who had spent long years in India.
To these we want to make ensuing comments to disprove these assumptions of pious Christians. Further absurdities in Thomas legends are revealed in S. Muthiah’s Madras Discovered published by Affiliated East-West Press. The following are the facts gleaned from it: Thomas shunted between St. Thomas Mount and Mylapore, separated by about five km, doing his preaching work and converting thousands. He lived in a cave at Little Mount in Saidapet, three km from St. Thomas Mount. There is, to the east of the cave, an opening which is said to have opened in those days into a tunnel from the Little Mount to St. Thomas Mount. The saint is supposed to have fled from his persecutors through this cave. He was however murdered by them at St. Thomas Mount. Mylapore has only the honour of being the place where his dead body was brought and buried. From there his remains were taken to Edessa in Syria where every July a great festival is held to commemorate his reburial. From Edessa they are said to have been moved to the Greek island of Chios, thence to Ortona on Italy’s Adriatic coast where they remain to this day. But each resting place still has some relic of Thomas – Madras has a small hand bone and the head of a lance in the St. Thomas Basilica crypt.
More miracles in proof of this legend of murder are yet to come. In 1547 the Vicar of Mylapore during excavation at St. Thomas Mount discovered a “bleeding” cross with old Pahlavi inscriptions. It had spots that looked like blood stains which, it is claimed, reappeared after being rubbed away. This cross is built into the wall behind the altar of the church on the Mount dedicated to Madonna of the Mount. The tradition about this cross is that it was chiseled from a rock by the apostle himself. It is said that it used to bleed periodically. The first publicly noticed bleeding was on 15 December 1558 and the last in 1704.
Apart from these fanciful anecdotes about St. Thomas in Madras, Christianity of a brand which had nothing to do with Western Christianity had come to the Malabar coast very early. Sometime about AD 450 (sic) one Canai Thomas with seventy-two Syrian families arrived in Kerala and whatever traces of early Christianity there were got mixed up with this Syrian brand of it. So these Christians, known till then as Nazaranis (Nazarenes), got also the name Syrian Christians. Their connection to this day is with the Orthodox Church of Syria. The grafting of this powerful group with the existing fragmentary Christian groups must have led to the identification of Kerala Christians with the Thomas tradition, to which they hold steadfastly to this day. The St. Thomas of their fancy must really be Canai Thomas of Syria. The members of this community were adventurous traders with business connections with many countries abroad, and through commerce they brought much wealth to the country. They therefore enjoyed the patronage of the local kings. Their numbers increased not only by the absorption of the existing fragment of the Christian community but the influx of many Hindus from highly aristocratic classes owing to the rigorous rules of excommunication that prevailed among them. Such excommunications were common among them for breach of caste rules, and these excommunicated individuals, men or women, had no other course than to join this new community. This crossbreed Christian community of Kerala is distinguished from the converts by later Catholic and Protestant missionaries both in appearance and talents. In modern India they are everywhere found to occupy high positions in the professional and business life of the country. Their names too are usually different from the European names by which most of the later converted Christians were known till very recent times.
Now to go back to the legend of St. Thomas in Madras. It is clearly the fabrication of the Portuguese to camouflage their destruction of the Hindu Temple of Kapaleeswara which was situated on the seashore, probably at the very place where Santhome Church now stands. The great Saivite saint of sixth century AD, Tirujnanasambandar, sings in the 6th Poompavai Padikam Thevaram:
The Lord of Kapaleeswaram sat watching the people of Mylapore
A place full of flowering coconut palms
Taking ceremonial bath in the sea on the full moon day of the month of Masai.
In the same strain sings Arunagirinathar, who came to Mylapore in 1456, in his Tirumayilai Tiruppugazh:
O Lord of Mailai (Mylapore) temple, situated on the shores of the sea with raging waves …
This clear and indisputable evidence gives the lie to the legend that the Portuguese invented to hide their nefarious work. The Portuguese domination of Mylapore was from 1522 to 1697, by which time the British had established themselves in the Fort St. George and adjoining territories, and the Portuguese had to withdraw to Goa where their empire lasted till 1962. In Goa their rule was noted for a spree of destruction of Hindu temples and persecution of the Goanese, so much so that large sections of them had to flee that territory and settle all along the west coast of India. They are theGauda Saraswats. The fate of these Goanese would have overtaken the temples and the people of Madras also, a foretaste of which contingency they got in the destruction of the holy Kapaleeswara Temple. Thanks to the British domination of the region and the consequent elimination of the Portuguese, this tragic fate did not overtake them. The British had more political maturity and diplomatic perception, which helped them perceive that trade was more important for themselves than religious propaganda. And so they kept an attitude of indifference towards the religion and religious edifices of the people in whose midst they carried on their trading activities, which eventually led to the establishment of a political empire.
The destruction of the seashore Temple of Kapaleeswara is said to have taken place in 1561. The new temple at its present site, about one km to the west, was built by pious Hindu votaries about three hundred years ago, i.e., about two hundred and fifty years after its destruction. When the Santhome Church was repaired in the beginning of the current century, many stones with edicts were found there. Among them one mentions Poompavai, the girl whom Tirujnanasambandar is said to have miraculously revived from her ashes kept in an urn.
These are all matters of the forgotten past. Both the Kapaleeswara Temple and the Santhome Church are now thriving and catering to the spiritual needs of the Hindus and the Christians. In such a situation it is better not to rake up the memories of these unpleasant facts. According to forward-looking people many things of the past are better forgotten than remembered and ruminated upon. The history of the Kapaleeswara Temple and Santhome Church belongs to this category.
But the priests of the Santhome Church will not allow this. They want to keep the flame of fanaticism bright. It is distressing to note the following passage in C.A. Simon’s write-up in the Indian Express of 30 December 1989:
Today Santhome has in its possession only a piece of bone and the metal spearhead with which the saint was assassinated at Madras. These are under the safe custody of the priests. It is exposed for public veneration during the annual solemn novena for the feast of St. Thomas on July 3rd every year.
What is still more threatening is the concluding sentence:
Fr. Charles, assistant priest, further informed this writer that there may be celebrations on the 3rd of every month, starting from January 1990 onwards, with the help of the parishioners.
This attempt to keep up the fanaticism of the minority may inflame the fanaticism of the majority too, and lead to situations like the Babri Masjid controversy. All right-thinking men should foresee and avoid the occurrence of such a contingency.
This article appeared in the June 1990 issue of The Vedanta Kesari, published by the Sri Ramakrishna Math in Mylapore, Madras. It had been submitted three months earlier to the Indian Express, Madras, but had elicited no response from the fearless newspaper – though, as will be seen, the resident editor was fully aware of its existence in his office.
Ram Swarup of New Delhi, on reading the article, sent a letter to The Vedanta Kesari editor on June 27th:
Reference Swami Tapasyananda’s piece, “The Legend of a Slain Saint to Stain Hinduism”, in your journal of June 1990. I beg to point out respectfully that a most excellent article has been marred by a bad ending. Can’t we in all veracity speak of Semitic iconoclasm without first accusing ourselves of fanaticism? And where is the much feared Hindu fanaticism in the so-called Babri Masjid’ controversy? Does it consist in our remembering that fanatic forces destroyed our temples and that we must do something about it? But must we start indulging in self-condemnation even before we have started doing anything and the issues have joined? In the language of the Gita, this state of mind comes from hridaya-daurbalyam and karpanya-dosha and can achieve little.
The psychological disarmament of Hinduism has been going on for a long time and we have learnt to pull down our defences even before we have built them. Unfortunately, it has been often preached by some of the best minds of Hinduism.
This letter was not published in the magazine. The Vedanta Kesari does not publish letters to the editor.
We had also sent copies of Swami Tapasyananda’s article to C.A. Simon, the Archbishop of Madras at Santhome, and the Indian Express editor. C.A. Simon was the only one to respond with a letter on August 9th. He had learned from the Express Weekend editor that we planned to include his article in the appendix of the first edition of this book, and though he had not yet been informed of the project, he wrote:
Thank you for sending me the xerox copies of the articles written by Swami Tapasyananda and published by Vedanta Kesari.
My interest in that article is purely academic as I am not championing anybody’s cause. Also I was not aware of the version given in your letter or in the article.
Main sources for my article was two books:
- In the Steps of St. Thomas by Rt. Rev. Herman D’Souza.
- St. Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia edited by Sri George Menachery.
A few of the leaflets were also referred for the article. A facsimile of postal stamp released by Govt. of India during the occasion (said to be) of the 19th centenary in 1972 also was seen. The speech given by Dr. Rajendra Prasad, former president of India, “Remember St. Thomas came to India …” was also referred.
I am trying to say that the article was not written with any malafide (sic) intention, and I was not aware of the controversial version given by Sri Sita Ram Goel. Since I am aware of it now I note to honour the other version also.
I learned that you are going to publish a book and intend to include my article as the Christian version. As I do not stand for any religious sect or group you may desist from doing so. Instead you may refer to more authoritative works of this subject if you feel so.
Being a scholar of great understanding about the subject, I hope, you may take this in proper spirit.
You may bring this to notice of Swami Tapasyananda in order to clear any misunderstanding.
Kindly acknowledge this letter. You may feel free to write to me.
We did indeed acknowledge this letter and replied to it on August 14th as follows:
This will acknowledge receipt of your letter of August 9th.
My essay on the myth of St. Thomas has been written in reply to your article which appeared in the Indian Express of 30 December 1989.
Considering this, and that you and the Indian Express initiated the controversy by publishing the sly communal tale as Madras city history, you can hardly ask me to desist from reprinting it.
Your article is the subject of public discussion and a necessary reference, and is being reproduced as an appendix to my reply.
It is difficult to believe that your interest in St. Thomas is only academic. You have not named any unbiased scholar nor given any credible academic reference.
In fact you have written an excellent piece of Roman Catholic propaganda – in the steps of Rt. Rev. Herman D’Souza who went to great lengths to manipulate Indian history and vilify Hindus in his work – and I must congratulate you on your success.
As you quote Marco Polo and Rajendra Prasad as proof that St. Thomas came to India, so Indians will now quote you and the Indian Express as further proof that St. Thomas came to India.
Your letter amounts to a disclaimer and should really be directed to the editor of the Indian Express, but if you wish to communicate further with me you are of course welcome to do so.
This was the end of the correspondence. C.A. Simon did not communicate further with us and as no disclaimer appeared in the Express Weekend, it may be assumed that neither he nor his editor regretted the publication of the “historical” communal tale in Indian Express columns.
1. Thomas of Cana and the seventy-two Syrian families arrived in 345 CE. They were the first Christians to arrive in India. Swami Tapasyananda has made an error here and identified the Jerusalem merchant with a later migration from West Asia. All early Christian groups in Malabar, whether called Nazaranis (Nasranis) or Nestorians, were of Syrian or Persian origin. They were divided into two basic groups: those who married Indians and those who did not.
2. In the first edition of this book, published in February, 1991, where Simon’s article appears in the appendix.