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Disputed Mission: Jesuit Experiments and Brahmanical Knowledge in Seventeenth-Century India.

Ines G. Zupanov. Disputed Mission: Jesuit Experiments and Brahmanical Knowledge in Seventeenth-Century India.

(Oxford India Paperbacks.) Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. xvi + 277 pp. index. illus. bibi. $15.50. ISBN: 0-19-565053-0.

The issue of Robert Nobili "going native" in order to convert the Brahmins in India to Christianity in the seventeenth century has generated as much disquiet and debates as inspiration in missiological field. Disputed Mission gives a detailed account of that debate better known as the Indian or Malabar Rites controversy, which dominated the first half of the seventeenth century. The nucleus of that famous controversy was the Jesuit Madurai Mission in Tamil Nadu in South India. The two main disputants or warring Jesuit missionaries were Robert Nobili (the creator and protagonist of the controversy) and Goncalo Fernandes. But soon it became a controversy among the Jesuits or as some might like to say a clash between the Italian and Portuguese Jesuit mentalities (68, 143). The book presents Nobili as an intellectual with humanistic formation and a Roman aristocrat, master of Tamil and Latin languages and a writer, and Fernandes a Portuguese ex-soldier poor in Latin and with no writing skills.

The work is divided into prologue, four chapters, and epilogue, which are based on correspondence, letters, and writings of Nobili and Fernandes and of others involved in the dispute. Disputed Mission begins with a brief description of the life and ambition of Nobili. The seventeenth-century Tamil Nadu is described as a complicated region in which various warriors challenged and killed each other, and when settled they needed swamis (priests) even Christian to purify them and their achievements (21). The work contains very useful information on the political, social, and economic climate of south India and Madurai as well as on the profile of Brahmins. Zupanov goes on unfolding the personality of Nobili and Fernandes and the manipulation or influence used by both to score a point and defeat the opponent. She provides the reader with sufficient background and foreground information and deals with them from different angles in each chapter, which helps the reader to understand the complexity of the dispute.

Nobili "going native" and renouncing relationships with low-caste people was resented by the Jesuits (5). The so called accommodation or adaptation method of conversion or cultural experimentation narrative that provoked at least two centuries of disputes, first among the Jesuits themselves and then among the other missionary orders and church hierarchy, has been constructed by the author in a very fascinating, attractive, and highly scholarly manner (5). For Nobili accommodation was to be in "accidents" not in essence (26); both parties refuted paganism. Nobili and Fernandes stand for different methods in the mission, but the goal was the same--conversion of the natives from the lower pagan (Tamil) to the higher Catholic (European) wisdom, the author says (157). Despite Nobili's seeing similarities between Hinduism (Brahminism) and European society, Nobili did not dialogue with the natives but affirmed the Jesuit position and tried to show that Christianity was not a "foreign religion" for low castes (192).

Disagreements between the disputants at times led to personal confrontations and character assassination. The book presents the clashes of personalities and the quality of participants. Throughout the debate Nobii appears to win but at the end he loses, when his methods are discarded for lack of supporters and followers.

Zupanov brought together a number of letters and correspondence written by both Nobili and Fernandes and others as found in several archives in a very ingenious analysis of them. The author's ingenious dissection of the "ideal" Jesuit letter/text was executed with a remarkable surgical precision (10, 16). The bibliography is extensive, especially the primary sources of unpublished manuscript or letters from the Archivum Romanun Societatis Iesu. The author comments on the "ideal" Jesuit letter, its writing production which aimed at changing the world, the dryness of those letters due to the imposition of a format, their limitations, and uses that epistolography to recreate and evaluate the debate from different angles. The work is a new unfolding of the disputation but the plot of the debate could not be different--Nobili is a winner without a trophy. But the author does not take sides in the debate. The verdict is decided by the vast source material Zupanov presents to the reader.

Much is known about the Malabar Rites issue and Nobili's unorthodox missionary methods and action (154). But Disputed Mission is more than a contribution to Nobili's thought and life; it is an insight into the letter production of the Jesuits and the methods of inculturation; moreover, it is a contribution to the history of the Society of Jesus in India and church history as well. Zupanov has shown that no longer are the Jesuits the only experts of their history, but that a "layperson" can understand it as well or even better.
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Author:De Mendonca, Delio
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
Words:811
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