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Preaching Wisdom to the Wise. Three Treatises.

Roberto de Nobili, Preaching Wisdom to the Wise. Three Treatises Trans. and intro. Anand Amaladass and Francis X. Clooney. St. Louis: The Institute for Jesuit Sources, 2000. xxi + 345pp. $29.95. ISBN: 1-880810-37-9.

Trans. and intro. Anand Amaladass and Francis X. Clooney. St. Louis: The Institute for Jesuit Sources, 2000. xxi + 345pp. $29.95. ISBN: 1-880810-37-9.

Roberto di Nobili is a unique and important figure in the history of Christian missions to India, comparable to Matteo Ricci in China. Both Jesuits, they engaged with complex foreign civilizations and designed compromises with these civilizations to enable them to bring the Gospel -- potentially at least -- to vast numbers of new believers.

Nobili, born to a noble Italian family in 1577, trained as a Jesuit, reached India in 1605. An extraordinarily gifted linguist, he eventually became fluent in Tamil, Telugu, and Sanskrit, as well as in Latin and Portuguese. Among his singular innovations was to become, insofar as he could, an Indian holy man, or sannyasin, in order to help bridge the cultural divide preventing the preaching of the Gospel to the higher strata of Indian society. He is also believed to have been the first European to learn Sanskrit. Beseiged by almost insuperable difficulties both environmental and human (inflicted by fellow Europeans as well as by Indian religious men), he persevered and worked on in southern India until his death in 1656. How he survived on a diet of rice, vegetables, and herbs, in the hot, unhealthy world of seventeenth century India over the course of half a century is a tale of dedication and determination surpassing that of fictional Robinson Crusoes as well as most of his brother and sister missionaries.

Although his name appears in every general missionary history (there have been several able biographers), two Jesuit scholars -- Anand Amaladass, an Indian, and Francis X. Clooney, an American -- have rightly suggested in their introduction to this excellent edition of three of his works that he should be known to a wider audience for his remarkable efforts in linking the West and India and for the courage and intelligence with which he worked in spreading the true word of God. In lieu of a gifted popularizer, as Ricci had in Jonathan Spence, these translations, prefaced by a valuable introduction, will have to do for the time being.

Of the three treatises here, one is translated from Latin and is aimed at other Christians who might curtail Nobili's labors because of certain views about Indian Brahmins. Highly argumentative and peppered with quotations from Christian and Indian religious texts, Nobili's "Customs of the Indian Nation," held that most Brahmins were not priests, that the so-called "sacred thread" worn by them was a mark of social status and not superstitious religious practice, and that the practice of shaving the head to a hair tuft and utilizing sandal paste on the forehead were also not religious in nature. Nobili sorted out those in the Brahmin caste, locating those most likely to be open to conversion to Christianity because of views of the deity closest to his own. These Brahmins, or wise men, then became the focus of his efforts at the salvation of the Indian nation; thus the title of the book, Preaching Wisdom to the Wise. In order not to be classified as a beef-eating foreigner ordinarily grouped with the untouchabl es, Nobili temporarily cut off open contact with almost all Europeans, changed his diet, and assumed the guise of a holy man beyond caste. Achieving some success in this effort, he made the first converts from among the upper castes, including Brahmins in south India in the seventeenth century. He hoped that by converting upper caste Indians he would then be able to convert large numbers of those from the lower castes. To make a long and fascinating story short, he had some limited success, but after his death most conversions were from the lower and untouchable castes, and the Christian salvation of India was not achieved.

The other two treatises, "The Dialogue on Eternal Life," and "Inquiry into the Meaning of 'God'," are translated from Tamil and were addressed to potential Indian converts. The first is more dense and theological, the second direct and simple. Both required the potential convert to follow Nobili in utilizing his reason and then take a leap of faith to reach Christian liberation and salvation. As the editors, especially Anand Amaladass, make clear, Nobili, for all his subtle understanding of Indian society, retained his antagonism to Hinduism, even as he saw that some of its "wise men" shared the views of the deity that he and his mentor, Aquinas, held.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:A., GORDON, LEONARD
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2001
Words:773
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