"Stephens studied how Marathi poet-saints spread their message through literature and poetry.... He became the bridge between Hindu and Christian spiritual literature" - Francis D’Britto, writer and Catholic priest
On April 4, 1579, a young Englishman named Thomas Stephens boarded the Laurenco, a ship sailing to India, at Lisbon, Portugal, clinging to his most precious possession: his faith. A Roman Catholic, he was compelled to leave Wiltshire, his hometown in England, as it was a time when Catholics were being persecuted in the country.
The Laurenco docked in Goa on October 24, and Stephens went on to spread the gospel through songs, in the language of local people in this distant land, so distant from his home where his faith was under threat of the sword. Krista Purana, the epic poem that he wrote in Marathi, celebrates the fourth centenary of its publication in 2016.
Stephens was born in 1549, by some accounts. A 1995 essay by Brijraj Singh in the Journal of South Asian Literature, titled ‘The First Englishman In India: Thomas Stephens’, mentions that Stephens was born in 1547. But another essay, published by the University of London’s Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies in 1924, says the date of his birth cannot be given with absolute certainty. “The early Jesuit writers place it at 1549; but painstaking inquiries by Mr Herbert Chitty show it could not be before 1550,” reads the essay.
Singh says Stephens was the first Englishman to arrive in India by sea. “Born in Wiltshire to a well-to-do Catholic merchant family, he attached himself early in life to Thomas Pounde, the nephew of the Earl of Southampton, who was a one-time favourite of Elizabeth I, but left her court, or was expelled, on account of him being a Roman Catholic,” writes Singh.
Some writers have suggested that Stephens studied at New College, Oxford. But Ram Chandra Prasad, author of Early English Travellers in India, argues that there is nothing to validate this claim except for a remark by English clergyman and geographer Richard Hakluyt. “A careful search of the matriculation registers of the University of Oxford would have given them sufficient evidence of the unlikelihood of his having been to any of the colleges of Oxford,” says Prasad in his book. “The error of believing Stephens to have been an Oxonian may easily have arisen from mistaking his name either for that of Richard Stephens (his brother) or for that of Thomas Steveyns who took his degree at St John's college, Oxford, on June 25, 1577.”
AMONG THOMAS STEPHENS’S friends were Edmund Campion, an eminent Roman Catholic of that period, and Thomas Pounde. Along with Pounde, Stephens travelled across Britain, visiting Catholic families and developing a network till Pounde was arrested. Stephens then escaped to Rome and obtained permission to enrol as a novice at the Society of Jesus at St Andrea in Rome in 1575. He made sure that his friend Pounde was admitted to the society in absentia. After his novitiate, he studied philosophy and theology.
Stephens’s initial years in India were full of wonder, which he expressed in his writings. In a letter to his father, which appears in the book Early English Travellers in India, he wrote: “The people be tawny, but not disfigured in their noses and lips as the Moors and Kaffirs of Ethiopia. They that be not of reputation, or at least the most part, go naked save an apron of a span long and as much in breadth before them, and a lace two fingers broad before them, girded about with a string, and no more.”
He started out as the rector of a college in Rachol. In a letter to his brother, he described coconut as a “nut containing water that tastes like light beer and serves very well to quench thirst”. Unlike the Portuguese, he fell in love with the land and the local language, a mix of Marathi and Konkani, whose phrases and constructions he found wonderful. During his life in Goa, he rescued four English merchants—the famous Ralph Fitch, John Newberry, James Story and William Leeds—who had been imprisoned by the Portuguese on suspicion of being spies.
Stephens later moved to Salcete, where he came face to face with the Portuguese way of spreading Christianity. The destruction of a temple in Cuncolim and the killing of a cow at its altar by a Portuguese priest had enraged the local Hindu population. Stephens distanced himself from such actions. He learnt the Konkani language instead and talked to locals in their language. He preached and heard confessions in Konkani. He also learnt Marathi and eventually wrote Krista Purana, an epic poem to spread the message of Jesus Christ.
KRISTA PURANA IS a poem of immense significance for Marathi and Konkani. It comprises nearly 11,000 verses written in ovi metre, a poetic metre used in narrative poems in Marathi. Bhakti saints from Maharashtra, like Sant Dnyaneshwar, Tukaram and Eknath (a contemporary of Stephens) composed ovis in praise of Lord Vitthal of Pandharpur. The quartets of Krista Purana and the ovis written by the Bhakti saints of Maharashtra sound very similar.
Written in Marathi in the Roman script, Krista Purana has two parts: Pailem Puran (Adi Puran, based on the Old Testament) and Dusrem Puran (Deva Puran, on the New Testament). Organised in chapters, Pailem Puran can be called a free versification of the Old Testament beginning with the story of Adam and Eve. Dusrem Puran, which is about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, is much more detailed and covers all four gospels in the New Testament.
According to scholar S.G. Tulpule, through Krista Purana, Stephens completed the difficult task of providing an “oriental costume that will convince the Hindu mind about the life of Christ”. Stephens retained in pure Marathi all the aspects of poetry such as language, metre, imagination and symbolism. “The structure of this purana is such that the inner statue is that of Jesus Christ and the decorum of the entire mandir (temple) is that of Hindu style,” says Tulpule.
In Krista Purana, Stephens took Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Portuguese and Italian teachings about Jesus Christ and expressed it in Indian vaishnavite tradition. “It is a monumental work, which I think very few can undertake,” says Father Nelson Falcao, who translated Krista Purana into English in 2009. “Very few such examples will be available, because you are taking one text and re-narrating it into another without making a mistake. It is like a tightrope walk, without offending anyone, neither sacrificing the doctrine nor hurting the sentiments of Hindus.”
FALCAO SAYS Krista Purana was first printed in 1616 at the Portuguese press in Goa, and reprinted in 1649 and 1654. “That press was originally meant for Ethiopia, but the people there did not want it. So it was sent to Goa,” he says.
He says not a single copy from first three prints is available today. “Even if we were to say that a minimum 750 copies were printed during each printing, not a single copy seems to have survived,” says Falcao. “I have tried searching for it in some of the very prominent libraries in Europe. If at all it is there, it has to be in Goa in some family collection. But we do not know.”
Krista Purana is believed to have been banned by Portuguese rulers in Goa, because they did not want Christ’s divine message to be corrupted by the vernacular. “Many copies were burnt, as the rulers felt that only Portuguese and Latin should be used to keep the message pure,” Falcao says.
Some books have stated that when Tipu Sultan captured thousands of Christians in Mangalore and sent them to Srirangapatna, the only way they could pray in captivity was by singing Krista Purana. Hence, many Christians memorised the entire book.
Krista Purana was the topic of Falcao’s doctoral thesis. The only other person to have written a doctoral thesis on Krista Purana is S.G. Malshe, an eminent Marathi scholar who is no more. “Noted scholar A.K. Priolkar was the guide to Malshe,” says Falcao. “Malshe looked at this work very rigorously [in the 1940s]. Both of them have opined that Krista Purana is a genuine work. In my own thesis, I have attempted to dispel the myth that some portions of Krista Purana are copied from Yoga Vasistha. It is not so. They are very different works.”
Writer and Catholic priest Francis D’Britto says Maharashtra has a long tradition of saints conveying divine and spiritual messages in the local language, not in Sanskrit. Saints like Mahanubhav, Dnyaneshwar, Tukaram, Janabai and Eknath wrote in Marathi. “Krista Purana is the first attempt to spread the message of Jesus Christ and the Holy Bible in a local language. It should be seen as an attempt by the church to acknowledge the greatness of local culture,” says D’Britto, who was recently honoured with the Maharashtra government’s Dnyanoba Tukaram award for his contribution to Marathi literature.
D’Britto says Stephens was the first to print a book of Konkani grammar. “He was the teacher to missionaries, teaching them Konkani and Marathi languages. He was here to preach the teachings of Christianity and he never hid it. Indians are openminded and very welcoming to people who preach the message of God. So local people asked him to explain to them scriptures in such a way that they could understand them. So, Stephens studied sant sahitya, spiritual literature by Marathi poet-saints. He also studied how these poets and mystics spread their message through literature and poetry. He was thus inspired to spread the message in a similar way. The method he adopted was that of abhangs, as written in the time of Sant Eknath using Hindu mythological terms like vaikunth (heaven) and Jagannath (lord of the universe). He thus became the bridge between Hindu and Christian spiritual literature,” says D’Britto.
In the late 1960s, when D’Britto wrote an article analysing karuna rasa (the emotion of compassion) in Krista Purana, Prof Narhar Kurundkar, an eminent Marathi writer and scholar, asked him to carry out an in-depth study of Krista Purana. “When I first read Krista Purana, I was in love with it almost instantly,” says D’Britto. “After my article appeared, Kurundkar wrote to me saying Maharashtra would love to know more about Krista Purana and that I should study it in depth. It was, perhaps, the first book in India to express the Christianity’s message in a local language.”
Falcao calls Stephens the pioneer of Hindu-Christian dialogue. “He had the right style and held values like human dignity and respect for other traditions very high. Unlike some of his contemporaries, who criticised holy Hindu texts, Stephens never hurt the feelings of others in his hermeneutics,” he says.
Falcao believes the contribution of Stephens in spreading Christianity in India is greater than that of Father Roberto De Nobili, who became popular in south India as the “Roman Brahmin”. Falcao cites a beautiful quartet written by Stephens to illustrate his command of Marathi-Konkani languages:
Jaisi puspamaji puspa mogari,
Ki parimalamaji kasturi,
Taisi bhashamaji sajiri,
(As among the flowers is the jasmine,
or among scented perfumes musk,
so among the languages
is the gracefully neat Marathi.)
“Stephens gave us the word jnanasnana for baptism,” says Falcao. “Nobili arrived in India later than Stephens. When he went to Tamil Nadu and started his work, he introduced the word jnanasnanam for baptism in Tamil. The word is still used. Similarly, in Krista Purana, original sin is described as aadipurushache karma; the word for salvation is muktimoksha. So, you see that Stephens created his own words, and promoted Indian ethos and culture. He was the one who understood and valued unity and diversity.”
Prof Leena Kedare, head of Marathi department at Ramnarain Ruia College in Mumbai, says Krista Purana has immense literary value, too. “Thomas Stephens was among the first to introduce punctuation marks in Marathi,” she says. “He did not just learn a new language, but also consciously brought about a confluence of two cultures through his Krista Purana. In doing so, he became Marathi, not just in letters, but also in spirit.”