I arrived shortly after Christmas in Chennai, previously known as Madras. It is in tropical India, just above the equator and technically winter, so it was only ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit. Christmas trees with lights and ornaments were ubiquitous inside and out, as were nativity scenes complete with manger, Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, and wise men. I didn’t see a single image of Santa Claus. Christmas with minimal commercialism….Nice. I rode past a “Jesus saves” sign several times, but saw no other evidence of proselytizing. And during my entire time in India I saw only two other Westerners, so I doubt the Christmas trees were for our benefit. Actually, Christianity has continuously co-existed with Hinduism in this section of India for almost 2000 years.
Their Christianity dates back to the “Apostle of India”, Doubting Thomas, one of the twelve apostles. He sailed to India around 52 CE to spread the Christian faith among Hindus and members of the Jewish Diaspora. He didn’t exactly go willingly, according to an early 3rd-century Syriac work, the Acts of Thomas. Reluctant to accept the mission to India, he had a vision of the Lord saying, “Fear not, Thomas. Go away to India and proclaim the Word, for my grace shall be with you.” He still didn’t want to go, so “the Lord overruled the stubborn disciple by ordering circumstances so compelling that he was forced to accompany an Indian merchant, Abbanes, to his native place in northwest India, where he found himself in the service of the Indo-Parthian king, Gondophares.” Moral: It is hard to fight with destiny, even if you are a saint.
Saint Thomas quickly gained respect and then his freedom from servitude to the king, whom he converted. This no longer reluctant missionary then went South, converted over seventeen thousand people, and established the Ezharappallikal, or “Seven and Half Churches,” in Kerala. The “half church” is called Thiruvithamcode Arappally and is supposed to be the oldest Christian church in the world.
Initially this church was adjacent to Sri Thrikpaleswara Hindu Temple of Lord Shiva. Because Shiva is the destroyer in Hindu theology and Krishna is the lover and maintainer, perhaps founding the church next to a Vishnu (Krishna) temple might have been a better choice. When St Thomas returned two years later in 54 CE, he heard that his church’s cross had been thrown into a nearby river. He recovered it down stream, the site where he relocated Thiruvithamcode Arappally and where it still stands. This picture shows the church in its fourth building, which dates to 1912.
A hill, now called St Thomas Mount, provided shelter for St. Thomas until he was martyred there in 72 CE, while praying to a cross. He was stabbed, supposedly by a high priest because of his Christian teachings, and buried in India. His death is a source of controversy and the blame placed on Brahmins is considered an insult to many Hindus to this day. Also, the Portuguese built a church on St. Thomas Mount in the 16th century on the foundations of a Shiva temple, which has added to their outrage.
Only three churches in the entire world have been built over the tomb of an Apostle of Jesus: The Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela over the tomb of St.James in Spain, and the Basilica of the National Shrine of St.Thomas in Chennai, India. It is a pilgrimage site for that reason, but not a widely known one in the Western hemisphere.
How was St Thomas able to convert so many in such a short time? I suspect that the similarities between the stories of Jesus and Krishna helped. According to Hindu mythology, Krishna was born on earth so that the balance of good in the world could be restored. Hindus believe that Jesus, like Lord Krishna, is another avatar or incarnation of the Divine who came down to show humanity how to live a righteous life. The word ‘Krishna’ is the same as ‘Christos’ in Greek. Both are believed to be sons of God who were divinely conceived. Their births and missions were prophesized, resulting in their lives being threatened as infants by evil kings. Both were thus born away from home- Jesus in a manger and Krishna in a prison cell. Jesus is often depicted as a shepherd and Krishna as a cowherd. Both appeared at a critical time in history to save mankind and taught love, compassion and peace. And both left us with wisdom needed as much now as 2000 years ago.