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In A Familiar Frame of Reference

Amlan Dasgupta

By Leonard Fernando and G. Gispert-Sauch
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2004, pp. xv 336, Rs. 475.00


An easily accessible history of Indian Christianity was much needed, and Fernando and Gispert-Sauch’s work supplies this deficiency. The work describes concisely, but with care and scholarly acumen, the long history of the religion in India: from the legends of the first arrival of the message of Jesus Christ in India with St Thomas in the first century AD to recent debates about the place of Christianity in the modern Indian state. As a work of study and reference, Christianity in India is likely to become a standard authority. The relatively small space given to the Reformed churches may disappoint some, but then most accounts of Christianity written from the perspective of faith show a clear subject-position, and this work is no exception.   The work begins with a brief introduction to the phenomenon of Christianity. The first two chapters deal with the idea of Christian commonality and the figure of Jesus Christ. This is evidently indicative rather than exhaustive, but the picture that emerges is coherent and attractive. Subsequent chapters deal with the different moments at which Christian thought made an impact on Indian life. The early encounters—the legends of Thomas and Bartholomew, the arrival of the Syrian Christians and their place in local life—are well described. The story is resumed many centuries later, with the first arrival of the Portuguese in Kerala in 1498. The history of early Christian contacts in Kerala and Tamil Nadu are full and informative, and there is much to engage the attention of the reader. Predictably, the account tends to be rather bland, concentrating more on the organization of Christian life than with the troubled reception of the faith. The section on early martyrs is strongly heroic, and there is comparatively little on the politics of European trade and missionary activity.   The next chapter takes us first to the west coast and the Jesuit missions to Goa, the Konkan and Maharashtra. This is the time of Father Stephens and Father De Nobili, and is more familiar to many readers. Of interest is the account of Akbar and the founding of the North Indian mission. The careers of early missionaries—from De Nobili to Sundar Singh —are prominent in this account. Subsequent chapters takes us through the arrival of the Protestants, the careers of Ziegenbalg and Carey and the Bengal “Renaissance” to a detailed treatment of the contact of Christianity in India with ...

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