When Did Christianity Come to India? A Review of “Unmasking the Syriacs”
It is a fact that Hinduism, in all its aspects, is purely Indian, while Christianity is undoubtedly a foreign religion in India. The further fact is that this automatically strengthens the moral geographical right of Hinduism over Christianity in India — or at least, will be a relevant factor so long as Hinduism continues to exist in India! Once it reaches a minority, micro-minority, or near-extinct state, it will be as irrelevant to the discussion as any pagan religion whose original territory is today completely under the control of the two proselytizing Abrahamic religions. Thus, it has always been a central tenet of missionary tactics, and the greater anti-Hindu agenda, to minimize the antiquity of Hinduism in India and maximize that of Christianity. While the former claim has been taken to the ridiculous extent of claiming that Swami Vivekananda invented Hinduism in near-modern times, the latter claim consists of tracing the antecedents of Christianity in India to the period of an immediate “apostle” of Jesus: St. Thomas.
In the matter of the latter, every single major politician in India has been at the forefront when it comes to asserting the “2000-year-old” history of Christianity in India: we need not go beyond the Prime Ministers of India — from Jawahar Lal Nehru to Narendra Modi. Nehru claimed that “Few people realize that Christianity came to India as early as the first century after Christ, long before Europe turned to it, and established a firm hold in South India” (1936, p.273). Meanwhile, Mr. Modi, speaking in a televised address to the Kerala Orthodox Church on 27 June 2020, said that “The Mar Thoma Church is closely linked with the noble ideals of Saint Thomas, the Apostle of Lord Christ [….] The contributions of Saint Thomas and, following him, the Indian Christian community, are deeply valued”.
Scholars are also on the list making these unfounded and unverifiable assertions. Indeed, the idea of the entry of Christianity into India in the first century CE is one of the most successful lies in ancient Indian history, comparable, in its fundamentally fraudulent nature and in its near-total sway over common perception, with the “Aryan Invasion Theory” which is my own field of specialization.
Recently, a book has been published questioning this Christian lie on new and original grounds, mainly on the basis of the study of the presence of Christian artifacts (mainly crosses) in the archaeological records of India. This book, “Unmasking the Syriacs: The Hidden Origin of Indian Christianity, An Archaeo-Linguistic Approach” by Jeevan Philip contains a wealth of information on many points, some of which will be pointed below. This book is consequently a valuable addition to the corpus of existing literature on the subject.
Before moving on to the positive aspects of the book, it is necessary to first highlight the biggest and most surprising/glaring absence in this book: no reference to the single greatest and most effective research study on this subject, i.e., the book by Ishwar Sharan, titled, “The Myth of St. Thomas and the Mylapore Shiva Temple“. That the present book highlights new facts or a different aspect of the problem (crosses in the history of Christianity and in the archaeology of India) is no explanation for ignoring this important treatise. Since the bibliography in Philip’s book contains nearly 400 references, the landmark book by Ishwar Sharan is very conspicuous by its absence.
In any case, this makes it necessary to first examine what we learn from Ishwar Sharan’s research, before going on to the work by Jeevan Philip. In short, Ishwar Sharan’s book has to be read in detail first. The contribution of Philip is also very significant, and thus must also be read in detail. I will only highlight, briefly, the main aspects of the two books. For the careful reader, scholar, expert, the books themselves must be consulted.
Ishwar Sharan’s Book
The book by Ishwar Sharan also deals with the earliest presence of Christianity in India, and on the myth of “Saint” Thomas being the person who introduced Christianity in India. In the face of the much-propagated calumny and falsehood that the mythical “saint” Thomas was the original apostle of Jesus and that he was killed by the Brahmins of Mylapore in Tamil Nadu after he had established his “church” at that spot — the spot incidentally of the famous Mylapore Shiva Temple — a story leveraged by anti-Hindu and anti-Brahminical elements in Tamil Nadu in particular and people elsewhere in general to malign Hindus and specifically the Brahmin community. It is necessary to point out that Ishwar Sharan is neither a Hindu nor a Brahmin by birth: he is a Canadian, originally a Protestant Christian, who was initiated into the Hindu religion at Prayag in 1977.
The book is a classic and must be read in full. It contains valuable details on the personal struggles which the scholar had to make to present his case, and the stiff opposition and organized calumny and persecution that he faced from the powerful anti-Hindu media and political forces in India during that process. It also contains valuable material on the history of Christian iconoclasm, and innumerable other fascinating and little-known but extremely crucial details on early Christian texts, theology and church history.
The two main points that he brings out in the historical context which concerns us here are, firstly, the utter falsehood of the Thomas-in-India myth (and also of the malicious story which, additionally, makes Tiruvalluvar, the first century author of the ancient Tamil classic, the Tirukkural, into a “disciple” of this mythical figure; and secondly, and equally importantly but more interestingly to the lay reader, the great moral crisis that Christians who propagate this myth fall into if the only piece of “evidence” for this story, the apocryphal book, Acts of Thomas, is to be treated as an authority. This Acts of Thomas is a third century text, which claims that Thomas, the apostle of Jesus came to India to preach the gospel and was “martyred” for his efforts. All subsequent references to this Thomas arriving in India in the first century are originally based on or inspired by the references in this text. However, it is important to note that one, the Acts of Thomas presents Jesus in a very bad light. It makes Thomas his twin brother (casting a blight on the concept of the “Only begotten Son of God”) and shows him to be a self-centered and ruthless person who, among other things, sells his own twin brother into slavery! Second, the “India” that the text refers to turns out on examination to be Persia (everything east of Mesopotamia was referred to vaguely as “India” in those times, and certainly in this text), and this Thomas turns out to have been “martyred” by the soldiers of a Persian king.
Ishwar Sharan offers evidence to show that Christianity arrived in India only in 345 CE, and that immigration was represented by a small group of Christians from Syria led by a person named Thomas of Kana (p. 96). These Syrian Christians were refugees who had escaped to India (like the Zoroastrians of Persia much later) and were granted asylum and full protection and religious freedom by the local rulers and people. The book offers further details of how and why the descendants of these refugees, much later when the Portuguese under Vasco da Gama arrived at Calicut in Kerala in 1498 CE, identified themselves as Christians and asked the Portuguese to make war on their Hindu king and convert the land into a Christian land. It also records what followed: “The Syrian Christians would soon come to grief for their treachery. The Portuguese regarded them as heretics and schismatics, who were no better in ‘true religion’ than their Hindu neighbours” (Sharan, p. 36).
Even before the arrival of the Portuguese, the Syrian Christians had spread the myth that the Thomas who brought their ancestors to Kerala (in 345 CE) was actually the “apostle” of Jesus, of the same name, and that their ancestors were actually local people converted by him. The first account of this mythical origin is found retailed by Marco Polo in the thirteenth century CE (much later adopted and propagated by the Portuguese after the first Portuguese colonizers entered India. And the first record of it in any Indian text is in 1892 CE!
The first western account even of the presence of any local Christians at all (though not necessarily “Thomas Christians”) in India is in the Cosmas Indicopleustes, a Greek text of around 550 CE, which mentions that there were small communities of Christians in Kerala and Ceylon. The fact that this account (however authentic or otherwise it may be) does not connect these Christians with Thomas the “apostle,” which one would have expected if such a belief were in circulation then, is strong proof that the Christians referred to were the Syrian Christians who are supposed to have come to India in 345 CE, and that the apostolic-origin myth had not yet been concocted or had not yet taken root even at that time.
But this is just a short outline of the evidence and data detailed in Ishwar Sharan’s brilliant book, the reference to which would have further strengthened Philip’s analysis.
Jeevan Philip’s Book
This is a brilliant book. Not being an expert on the subject, I cannot verify the veracity of the information offered in the book but have no reason to believe it is incorrect. Where the book differs from that of Ishwar Sharan (as for example regarding the date of arrival in India of the group led by “Thomas of Kana”), could more competently be commented on by Ishwar Sharan himself or by other experts in this field of inquiry.
A challenged in reading this book is the mass of data offered on different types of crosses, and different Christian groups. It can be confusing therefore to understand the difference (in Kerala) between Malankari Nazranies, Syriac Christians, Nestorians-Persian Christians, etc., and exactly which of these communities are supposed to have arrived in India at what time, as also the exact date and identity of “Thomas of Kana”.
But, one thing that is clear, and which is the main point of departure of this book, seems to be that instead of 345 CE as the date when Syrian Christians, led by a “Thomas of Kana,” are believed to have arrived in India, they arrived somewhere in the post-ninth century CE period! Philip offers copious details of the historical and archaeological material available and says that there is a total “absence of any material evidence of Syriac Christianity or any form of Christianity before the 9/10th century period” (p. xxx), and “absence of any historical or archaeological material from South India concerning Syriac or Persian Christianity before the 9th century” (p. 333). He points out that the “… evolution of crosses especially crosses belonging to Syriac churches, and their archaeological remnants from the region, show that the Malankara Church and South India had no connection with the Syriac churches before the 9th century” (p. 334).
The whole material evidence for Christianity in India, and the St. Thomas story, rests on the Mount Cross, discovered in Mylapore by the Portuguese in 1547 CE, followed by a few more discovered in the Malankara area in Kerala. But, as Philip shows at great length, these earliest crosses in India cannot be dated earlier than the 9th century CE.
After the discovery of the Mount Cross in Mylapore in 1547, such crosses became common in Kerala: Philip quotes the historian KT Joseph, from his book “Malabar Christians and their Ancient Documents” as reaching the conclusion “… that there was not a single Pahlavi-inscribed arched cross seen in Malabar in or about 1547, the year of the discovery of the mount cross, and that the numerous crosses mentioned by Gouvea as existing in Malabar in 1599 were all imitations of [the] miraculous mount cross. These were not more than 53 years old when Gouvea heard in 1599 that they had been set up by Saint Thomas himself or the first Christians of the first century” (Philip, p. 11-12). None of the “detailed descriptions, narratives, and myths discussed by various Portuguese writers about Christians in South India” contain a single word about such crosses in Kerala till 1599 CE, which proves that it was not “the cross of Christians in this part of the world” (p. 10).
As to the story of “Maliyankara, a place where St. Thomas is said to have landed on the western coast of Kerala,” Philip says the “… story has no historical background older than the sixteenth century when the Malankara Nazranies coined their ‘Ramban pattu’ a contradictory ballad” (p. xxxi), and this place on the coast, formed from the “continuous transgressional and regressional activities through centuries [….] had not possibly been formed at the advent of Christianity” (p. xxxii).
About the myth about a “tomb” of the apostle Thomas in Mylapore, the meeting that took place in 1502 CE between Vasco da Gama and a delegation of Christians from Kerala contains the first reference to any tomb of St. Thomas. After this, many Portuguese documents suddenly started referring to this tomb. However, while the documents claimed there was such a tomb in Mylapore, this Mylapore is referred to as being in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), showing that all the references are based on hearsay and rumor (p. 8-9). “These narrators from the sixteenth or seventeenth century are often carried away by the stories or myths of the local people” (p. 10).
The crosses from Mylapore and Malankara are “a continuation of the parallel developments that took place during the 6th-10th centuries in Persia, Central Asia, China, etc.,” notes Philip (p. 2). The knowledge of these crosses among Christians of Kerala is missing in the entire literature of the Syriac Christians (or Malankara Nazranies) of Kerala before 1562 CE (p. 3), and “there was no history of such a cross in the memory of the Malankara Nazranies” (p. 4).
Even more important, these crosses, of the period ninth century CE onwards, are not even Christian crosses in the true sense of the term: they are crosses belonging to another religion (though an offshoot of Christianity) called Manichaeism, founded by a Persian named Mani in the third century CE. In one sense, Manichaeism is partly derived from Christianity, and it gives special importance to Jesus, but which Christian will agree that a religion, whose central beliefs are as follows was a sect of Christianity?
- Mani preached a dualistic religion, which taught of a dualism between a good spiritual world of Light and a bad material world of Darkness, where the Light trapped in the material world slowly returned to the spiritual world over long cosmological processes and different stages in human history.
- As part of this process, Mani also preached the principle of reincarnation, anathema to Christianity, and taught that the soul of the righteous person returns to the Light, but that the soul of a person who indulges in carnal acts like sex, procreation, eating meat, drinking wine, etc., is condemned to rebirth in the material world.
- Further, in spite of giving a place to Jesus, Manichaeism holds that Mani was the fourth and final prophet after Zoroaster, Gautama Buddha, and Jesus.
Manichaeism spread from Iran, and flourished in parts of Iran, Central Asia, and China from the seventh century till the 14th century, after which it faded out. After much discussion and data, Philip quotes the latest research which gives an “interesting situation where the Manichaean church becomes a strong contendor for the ownership of the Pahlavi crosses of South India” (p. 335).
In short, the “Pahlavi crosses of south India are not at all evidence of the existence of an early Christianity in the region of Old-Thamizhakam as claimed by church historians” (p. 337). Philip concludes that all these facts disprove the “stories of Syriac Christianity along with the claims of Indian Christians with respect to the martyrdom of Apostle Thomas at Mylapore” (p. 336).
The true sequence of the events leading to Christianity in Kerala begins with the presence of a “Manichaean settlement area” of emigrants from Persia around the ninth century CE, in Mylapore on the east coast of India, who were later converted to Nestorian (Persian) Christianity. Later, “these recent converts from Manichaeans migrated to the western coast, whereby then another Judeo-Dravidian group (the pre-Porto-orthodox group) of Jesus believers who were the result of an Afro-Eurasian trade network, also subjugated to Nestorianism” (p. 336).
Thomas of Kana was the leader of these converted Nestorians who migrated from Mylapore to the west coast of Kerala. According to Philip, “The group from Mylapore, under the leadership of Thomas Cana, was primarily responsible for this Pahlavi cross and its copies in Malankara,” and that later, “under the supervision of Nestorian prelates, the story of Thomas Cana was also absorbed under the Nestorian brand. Gradually this imagery penetrated the subconscious mind of Malankara Nazranies as designed by prelates of Persian Christianity, whose hagiographies were associated with the St. Thomas legend in Fars and North India. the Thomas Cana legend gradually dissolved into the Saint Thomas legend of Persian Christianity, ultimately evolving as the patron saint of Malankari Nazranies” (p. 337).
Comparing the Syriac claims with the factual history of other migrant communities in India like the Jews and Zoroastrians, Philip points this out: “A peripheral test with the ethnic migrations of Jews, Persians (Zoroastrians), and so-claimed Knanites is powerful enough to reveal the integrity of the stories of Syriac Christianity. The Jews and Persians in India, despite all the oddities, kept their language and culture intact. At the same time, the Knanites are without any reflections of their language, culture and traditions from West Asia. Furthermore, cross-testing with European Roma samples reveals the position of Knanite claims by providing us with a unique preservation of language, culture and traditions by Romas despite intensive mixing with locals” (p. xxii).
Philip firmly dismisses the “stories of Syriac Christianity, along with myths of Malankara Nazranies (proselytization by St. Thomas, Nambuthiri conversions, 71/2 church stories, etc.)” as “unscientific and contradictory” and “historical manipulations” (p. xxii), and calls them “mythical stories/legends of respective existing believers” (p. xxiii), and as “bedtime stories of Syriac Christianity” (p. xxiv), while detailing the total lack of recorded evidence of any of these things amongst the substantial body of contemporary records of all these areas, whether in the records of the Christian communities themselves or the Roman and other foreign travelers, or in the Sangam literature of the South.
This book by Philip is a worthy supplement to the book by Ishwar Sharan, and it offers impressive details about the history and archaeology of Christian artifacts like crosses which will best be understood by scholars in the field. But the sum of the whole case is that it is time the “St. Thomas” myth, and the claims of an early presence of Christianity in India, are given a decent burial or cremation once and for all.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy of any information in this article.
Nehru, J. (1936): An Autobiography. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Sharan, I. (1991/2010). The Myth of St. Thomas and the Mylapore Shiva Temple. New Delhi: Voice of India.
Philip, J. (2022). Unmasking the Syriacs: The Hidden Origin of Indian Christianity, An Archaeo-Linguistic Approach. Kochi: Associated Books and Publishers.
(A version of the review can be read at Shrikant Talageri’s blog: https://talageri.blogspot.com/2023/02/when-did-christianity-come-to-india.html)