Sunday, September 18, 2011

Marathi, Konkani litterateur Fr. Thomas Stephens Kristapuarana,

'Kristapuarana', an epic written by Fr. Thomas Stephens, a British Jesuit, is included among the medieval classical literature in Marathi language. Kristapurana, incidentally, is also the first printed book in Marathi although its text was in Roman script and not in the Devanagari script. It is the most important literary work of Fr. Thomas Stephens. His name would remain forever in the history of Marathi literature because of his Kristapurana that was composed entirely in Indian traditional purana style.
In the medieval era, Fr. Stephens successfully tried to narrate various concepts from Bible, many incidences from the Old and New Testaments in simple words that could be understood by the local people who were till then not exposed to any western religion or traditions.
It is indeed a creditable that a British national who came to India in his thirties could write an epic of high literary value in native form.
Till now, Bible has been translated in different languages in the world. But Kristapurana is not a mere translation of Bible in Marathi. While reading Kristapurana, those acquainted with the Indian mythology and cultural traditions are bound to marvel at the way the author has skillfully incorporated various Hindu concepts, local sayings and proverbs in the book based on a
theme of a foreign religion! The new converts to Christianity for whom the epic was composed must have developed a sense of belonging towards Kristapurana
Thomas Stephens was born at Clyfee Pipard, Bushton of Wiltshire province in England in 1549. His father who was a merchant was also named Thomas Stephens (Stevens) and his mother's name was Jane. Stephens was elected a scholar of Winchester in 1564 and may have attended New College in Oxford. He joined the Society of Jesus on October 20, 1575 at the age of 26. He had expressed his desire to work as a missionary in India. Four years after joining the society, he was allowed to travel to India. He was studying the second year of philosophy in Rome when his superiors permitted him to join the Portuguese East India mission. He, along with 12 other young Jesuit scholastics, left Lisbon by sea on April 4, 1579. They reached Goa via the Cape of Good Hope on October 24, 1579. He had arrived in India in the ship S. Lourenco.
Stephens is widely known as the first Englishman to have set foot in India. But according to Fr George Schurhammer, there were two Englishmen who were among the persons wounded in the seize of Diu in 1546.
Soon after his arrival in India, Stephens wrote to his father in England about the Portuguese ventures in the East. These letters must have gone around his father's commercial acquaintances, which aspired them for future business prospects. It is also said that the account given by Stephens may have encouraged the British to look for business opportunities in India which ultimately led to the incorporation of the East India Company in 1599. ",1]
Thomas Stephens was born at Clyfee Pipard, Bushton of Wiltshire province in England in 1549. His father who was a merchant was also named Thomas Stephens (Stevens) and his mother's name was Jane. Stephens was elected a scholar of Winchester in 1564 and may have attended New College in Oxford. He joined the Society of Jesus on October 20, 1575 at the age of 26. He had expressed his desire to work as a missionary in India. Four years after joining the Society, he was allowed to travel to India. He was studying the second year of philosophy in Rome when his superiors permitted him to join the Portuguese East India mission. He, along with 12 other young Jesuit scholastics, left Lisbon by sea on April 4, 1579. They reached Goa via the Cape of Good Hope on October 24, 1579. He had arrived in India in the ship S. Lourenco.
Stephens is widely known as the first Englishman to have set foot in India. But according to Fr. George Schurhammer, there were two Englishmen who were among the persons wounded in the seize of Diu in 1546.
Soon after his arrival in India, Stephens wrote to his father in England about the Portuguese ventures in the East. These letters must have gone around his father's commercial acquaintances, which aspired them for future business prospects. It is also said that the account given by Stephens may have encouraged the British to look for business opportunities in India, which ultimately led to the incorporation of the East India Company in 1599.
In his letter to his father written on November 10, 1579, Stephens has described his first impressions of the people in East Portuguese India (Goa) and the nature. He has written: "The people be tawny, but not disfigured in their lips and noses, as the moors and Kaffirs of Ethiopia. They that be not of reputation, or at least the most part go naked, saving an apron of a span long as much as in breadth before them, and a lace two fingers broad before them, girded about a string, and no more. And thus they think themselves as well as we with all our trimming. Of the fruits and trees that be here I cannot now speak, for I should make another letter as long as this. For hitherto I have not seen tree here whose like I have seen in Europe, the wine excepted, which, nevertheless here is to no purpose, so that all the wines are brought out of Portugal. The drink of this country is good water, or wine of the palm tree, or a fruit called cacoas. And this shall be suffice for this time."
After arriving at Salcette in Goa, Stephens started studying the local languages and their scripts. He wrote a letter to his younger brother, Richard, on October 24, 1583, describing the specialties of the local languages. He has written: "Many are the languages of these places. Their pronunciations is not disagreeable; and their structure is allied to Greek and Latin. The phrases and constructions are of a wonderful kind. The letters in the syllables have their value, and are varied as many times as the consonants can be combined with the vowels and the mutes with the liquids."
Stephens did his missionary work by integrating himself with the lifestyle and culture of the local people. While doing so, he learnt Marathi and Konkani. He was proficient in Sanskrit, English and Portuguese languages.
Six months after his arrival in Goa, Stephens was ordained a priest. He spent 39 years in Goa and one year (1611-12) at Vasai in Thane district near Mumbai. He was rector of a Jesuit College at Rochol in Salcette region of Goa from 1590 to 1594. He worked as a priest at places like Margaon, Loutalim, Benaulim and Navelim.
The literature of Thomas Stephens includes 'Dautrina Krista Eem Lingua Brahmana- Canarin or 'Kristi Dharmasar' (a manual of Christian doctrine in Konkani, a Konkani grammar 'Arte de Lingoa Canarim' (1640) and 'Kristapurana'.
Out of these books, Dautrina Krista em lingua Brahmana-Canarin is a book on catechism. This book does not have much literary value. However, the book is important for the reference of history of language since it is the first book in Konkani. This book has been written in question-answer form. In the 17th century, the book became popular in Konkani-speaking Christian community. It was a posthumous publication; the first edition was released in 1622. One copy of this edition is in Lisbon Government Library in Portugal and the other copy is in the Vatican Library in Rome.
The credit of composing grammar in Konkani language for the first time goes to Fr. Stephens. The grammar is well known as ' 'Arte de Lingoa Canarim'. However Canarim does not mean Kannada. Konkani language was known as Canarim then. History researcher A. K. Priyolkar has explained Canarim language as the language of people living in coastal areas. It was the first grammar of an Eastern language that was written by an European. This book is handy to study Konkani language spoken in Goa in the 17th century. The grammar book was created for foreigner missionaries with the purpose of learning Konkani systematically.
The edition of this valuable grammar of Konkani literature available now was published in 1640 in Rochol College and Fr. Diego Rebeiro and other priests further contributed to it. Later many Christian missionaries followed footsteps of Fr. Stephens, went to different States of India, learnt local languages and composed grammar in those languages.
Fr. Stephens completed writing Kristapurana between 1605-1608 and the first edition of this book was printed in 1616. The second and third editions were printed in 1649 and 1654. But the epic reached to the readers mostly in handwritten copies, which made it most popular among the local Christian population.
The book was printed in Roman script, as printing technology was not developed for printing in Devanagari script. The author of the book had desired to print the Marathi book in Devanagari script only and had also made efforts in that direction. He had written to the Jesuit General, Fr. Cladius Aquaviva, in Rome, pleading to use his authority to ensure publication of the epic in Devanagari script. After all, Stephens was not the first Jesuit missionary who was seeking publication of his literary work in the script of an Indian language. Before him, the Tamil catechism of Fr. Henry Henriques was printed in Tamil types in 1578.

In a letter written in Portuguese to his superiors in Rome in 1608, Fr. Stephens had said: "I have desired to see in this Province some books printed in the language and the script of the place, as there are in Malabar, with great profit for those communities. My desire, however, has never been realised and this for two reasons: Firstly, it seems impossible to make so many moulds - there would be over 600, because the characters are syllables and not letters like ours in Europe. Secondly, because this holy curiosity cannot be accomplished without the permission and good will of the Provincial, and they have so many other things to see to, that they make no time to care for this, and much less to take it to heart. The first difficulty has its remedy, for the moulds can be reduced to 200; the second one will be removed if Y. P. will deign to write to Fr Provincial about this, strongly recommending him to do that which he may find to be for the greater glory of God and for the edification and benefit of the Christian community."
Had Stephens succeeded in his efforts, it would have been the first Marathi book printed in its own script, Devanagari. Thereafter, it took good 200 years for printing the first Marathi book in Devanagari script.
The Portuguese had conquered Goa in 1510. St. Francis Xavier arrived in Goa as Papal Nuncio (the papal representative) in 1542. The arrival of the missionaries in Goa led to the conversion of local Hindus to Christianity. The western missionaries were not very proficient in local Konkani and Marathi languages. A religious conference held in Goa in 1605 decided to impart religious education in Marathi. A rule was also made then that the European missionaries should learn Marathi within six months for imparting religious education in that language.
The converts to Christianity had little knowledge about their new religion. The educated among them missed reading Hindu scriptures in Marathi. The converts to Christianity were forbidden to read Hindu scripture. However they converts had no access to the Portuguese classical literature, as they did not know the language. The converts needed a literature, not as catechism doctrine but which could be used for religious celebrations and to fill hours of leisure, like they had in Hindu puranas, kirtans and bhajans.
In the initial chapter of Kristapurana, Stephens has explained what prompted him to write the epic. At the end of the catechism class, a Brahmin convert approached him and said that catechism was good but the new converts needed also something entertaining for their hours of leisure; otherwise they would waste their time with idle talk, even with gambling. They wanted a Christian literature in their own language, in story form, as they had it earlier in Hindu puranas. This was a challenge to Stephens, who was a foreigner, had no knowledge of the Indian philosophy, traditions and culture. But he took the challenge and succeeded in his mission much to the astonishment of even present day scholars.
Veteran theologian and indologist Fr. (Dr.) Josef Neuner (S. J.), in a preface to 'Kristapurana: A Christian-Hindu encounter' has said: "Stephens faced the challenge. He had to start from a scratch: learning the language, which was spoken by the higher level of population of Salcette. He studied not only the grammar but made himself familiar with the religious literature with its rich symbolism. He was also aware that he had to write for people of various levels, and therefore avoid antiquated or too difficult expressions, find the style that was understood by the people and appealed to them. It was an enormous task for a man who had come as a foreigner to a totally new culture."
Fr. Neuner further wrote: "In a spirit of deep faith and apostolic commitment, Stephens presented Jesus Christ in the form of India's religious literature, as purana, in a manner which initiated his readers into the depth of the Christian faith while feeling fully at home with the traditions of their national culture."
The importance of this epic is not restricted to being a religious book or literature of medieval history alone. Due to the use of language, proverbs, basis of local culture and traditions, while explaining concepts of Christianity the book has become a great treasure of Marathi classical literature.
In the preface to the first Devanagari edition of Kristapurana, published in 1956, its editor Shantaram Bandelu has written, "Fr. Stephens was not only an excellent missionary but also a great poet which can be realised while reading his great epic."
Fr. Stephens indigenised Kristapurana so that the people for whom he wrote should easily understand Christianity - a religion originated in Asia but brought to India by western people. Because of the inculturation, local people did not face any difficulty in understanding Christianity. For example, the Christian concepts like heaven, Satan; hell could not have been understood by local people. Fr. Stephens therefore used most commonly known concepts like Vaikunth, Devchar, Yamapuri and thus helped the new converts to identify with their new religion easily. He also used the most familiar titles like Swami, Tarak, Anand Nidhi, Parameshwar, Jagatguru, Moksharaj, Gosavi to refer to Jesus Christ.
While reading the epic, one marvels at Stephens' in-depth study of the spirituality of Hindu religion. Without thorough knowledge of this religion, it would not have been possible for him to use words like tribhuvan, hoam, amrut, shadripu and yadnya in the Christian purana.
In keeping with the Indian style of Puranas, the Kristapurana too begins with a salutation to the creator 'Om Namo Vishwabharita,' and continues with 10,000 couplets in the same indigenous style.
As per the traditional purana style, the entire first chapter of Kristapurana has been devoted to naman (prayer), praise of saints and seeking help of God for completion of the book and tete a tete with readers.
Veteran Marathi research scholar S. G. Tulpule has said: "Fr Stephens has succeeded in the difficult task of presenting Christ in such an oriental garb as appeals to the Hindu mind without abandoning the principles of the Christian religion. Kristapurana is like a sanctuary in the centre of which is the image of Christ while the structure and decoration that surrounds it are in genuine Hindu styleThe author has made two parts of Kristapurana - namely Pahile (first) Purana and Dusare (second) Purana. The first part deals with the Old Testament and the second part deals with the life of Jesus Christ as described in the New Testament. The Kristapurana edited by Shantaram Bandelu has 10,962 ovis (couplets) while Kristapurana from William Mersdon's collection available at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London has 10,641 couplets.
Veteran Marathi research scholar S. G. Tulpule has said: "Fr. Stephens has succeeded in the difficult task of presenting Christ in such an oriental garb as appeals to the Hindu mind without abandoning the principles of the Christianity."
Many scholars have been amazed by the proficiency attained by a foreigner like Stephens over Marathi language. Some of them have even expressed that it was impossible for an Englishman to compose such an epic and have argued that Fr. Stephens may not have been the author of this literary masterpiece and that a local convert must have composed the epic. Fr. Caridade Drago, the editor of the Shreyas 1996 edition of Kristapurana, has conclusively proved that the literary work was indeed of Fr. Stephens only.
During the controversial inquisition period in Goa, the religious authorities had imposed censorship with stringent rules. The texts of every literature used to be thoroughly checked and the objectionable matter were destroyed immediately. Publishing any matter without the prior permission by the inquisition committee was not allowed. Thus, Kristapurana too was printed only after securing prior permission of the inquisition committee. Besides, Stephens had also obtained permission of his Jesuit superiors for publishing the book.
Fr. Stephens had presented the translation of his book Kristapurana in Portuguese for its scrutiny by the inquisition committee. The confirmation by the inquisition committee about similarity between the Marathi Kristapurana and the translated Portuguese version, so also the permission by this committee was published in the first three editions of Kristapurana. The letter of consent clearly mentioned the author as a Jesuit priest.
Many English proverbs, idioms and phrases were translated into Marathi in Kristapurana. For example - proverb 'Rome was not built in a day' was translated as 'Eke divashi Rome nagari ubhavili nahi' in Marathi. The phrase 'warm love' was translated as Unhu Moho. The use of such translated English proverbs by local scholars was not possible then. Thus, Fr. Drago has emphasised that Fr. Stephens himself was the author of Kristapurana beyond any doubt.
Fr. Stephens published three editions of his book in 1616, 1649 and 1654. Today not a single copy of these three editions is available.
Francis Lavore, the viceroy of Goa, announced a decree in 1648 to banish local Goan languages within three years, to be replaced by Portuguese for all official functioning. Accordingly, all Marathi books were confiscated. Consequently Kristapurana of Stephens also went into the oblivion. In those days Kirtan and Nirupan (discourse) of Kristapurana used to be held in Goan churches. Due to the Portuguese government's policy, this practice was also banned. The diktat of the Portuguese viceroy hunted the growth of Marathi and Konkani literature and also development of Christian literature in these local languages.
Luckily for Kristapurana and Marathi language, recital of Kristapurana continued in Christian community outside Goa at places like Mangalore and this literary treasure was preserved for the future generations. Many handwritten copies of Kristapurana were also made and circulated. This helped Joseph Saldhana to publish the fourth edition of Kristapurana in Mangalore in 1907.
Of course, all the four editions of Kristapurana were in Roman script. Therefore, Marathi scholars did not pay any attention to this great literary work. Thus, Kristapurana remained completely ignored in Marathi literary world for several years. Archbishop Henry Doering of Pune diocese transcripted some parts on life of Jesus Christ from Kristapurana in Devanagari script and published them in the early 20th century. Doering printed three booklets of the parts of Kristapurana in Devanagari script. But the entire Kristapurana could be published in Devanagari script only in 1956. Prasad Publications of veteran Marathi writer Y. G. Joshi published this Devanagari edition that was edited by Shantaram Bandelu, a teacher from Ahmednagar College.
This valuable heritage of Marathi literature, though written in early 17th century, was published in Marathi language's Devanagari script three centuries later.
The credit of printing the Devanagari edition of this original Marathi scripture and also attracting attention of Marathi scholars to this literary treasure goes to Fr. Hans Staffner. This Jesuit priest played an important role in publishing the first Devanagari edition of Kristapurana. While this edition was being printed, it was learnt that a handwritten Devanagari copy of Kristapurana was available at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. It was suspected that this copy could have been one of the copies of the epic, which escaped confiscation of Marathi books after the decree issued by the viceroy of Goa. During his visit to London, Fr. Staffner managed to secure a microfilm of that rare Devanagari copy of Kristapurana and prepared two copies from it. One of these handwritten copies has been preserved at Dr. Mukund Jaykar Library of Pune University and the other copy is with Snehasadan Pune, an institute of the Society of Jesus.
Three doctoral researches have been completed on this classical Marathi epic. The first research was conducted in Italian by Benedetta Quadra in Rome in 1943 and the second doctoral research was conducted by S. G. Malshe in Marathi in Mumbai in 1961. Fr. Nelson Falcao (SDB) completed the third doctoral research on Kristapurana in English at Pune University and published it in 2003.
Fr. Stephens received a great honour during his lifetime due to this literary work. Superiors of the Society of Jesus also took note of his literary contribution.
An obituary report written soon after Fr. Stephens' death has described the missionary's contribution in evangelisation in Goa. The tribute to the missionary said: "Fr. Stephens acquired complete mastery of the Canarim language (Konkani); he also composed a grammar in this language; this grammar proved such a success that whilst till then we had no one who could hear confessions of the people. He had the joy of seeing his grammar produce not only confessors, but even numerous preachers and writers."
The report further states: "All this did not satisfy his zeal and thus in addition to these labours he applied himself to the study of the Indostani language, the language of the upper classes. His progress therein was such that at the suggestion of his superiors he had printed in this language a volume dealing with the main truths of our faith: the creation, the fall and the more important prophesies regarding the coming of the redeemers. This work is so delightful that not only do the Christians derive much profit from it, but also even the non-Christians speak of it with pride. On Sundays and feast-days this book, or Puranas as it is called, is being read in the churches with as much profit as it gets applause."
This poet-priest passed away at the age of 70 at the Jesuit priests' residence at the famous Bom Jesu Basilica in Old Goa. The remains of St. Francis Xavier have been preserved at this basilica. Fr. Stephens needs no memorial. His epic Kristapurana itself is his eternal memorial in Marathi literature.
References: -
1. 'Kristapurana' - by Fr. Thomas Stephens, Editor - Fr. Caridade Drago, Popular Prakashan, Mumbai (1996).
2. 'Kristapurana' - Editor - Shantaram Bandelu, Prasad Prakashan, Pune (1956)
3. Kristapurana: A Christian-Hindu Encounter- A study of inculturation in the Kristapuarana of Thomas Stephens, S. J. (1549-1619) – Fr. Nelson Falcao (SDB), Snehasadan Studies, Snehasadan Institute for the Study of Religion, 250, Shaniwar Peth, Pune- 411 030, and Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, P. B. 70, Anand, Gujarat, 388 001

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