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How to Negotiate “Sacrifice” and “Idolatry” in Religious Encounters

Identifying the Native Religious Informants of Catholic Missionaries in Early Modern South Asia

In the 16th century, when the Jesuits first reached South India, they discovered that its religious landscape was too complex and diverse to be described by using the concepts they inherited from previous missionaries out of Europe. To Catholic missionaries, the Brahmins appeared as the most representative members of Indian society: endowed with religious and social authority, the Brahmins were reluctant to interact with Europeans. For the first time, in the beginning of the 17th century, Roberto Nobili, an Italian Jesuit, challenged local class barriers in India, establishing direct relations with the Brahmins, in and around Madurai, and became an expert interlocutor of them in religious and philosophic matters. His method of conversion, known as “adaptation,” was strongly criticized by other Jesuits. Chief among them was the Portuguese Gonçalo Fernandes Trançoso, who accused the Italian of sowing the seeds of a new form of idolatry through his attempts to adjust Christian beliefs to local practices. While Nobili’s “adaptation” later became the focus of a theological controversy, his works on “the customs of the Indian People” remain the most accurate European reports about religious diversity in early modern South India. In his response to Fernandes, Nobili advanced new ways to assign meaning to the actions of the natives in the process of converting them.

This project aims to inquire about the identity of the Italian Jesuit’s high-class interlocutors, by exploring precisely how he developed the above processes of translating the Brahmins’ meaningful action. To this end, the project analyzes scenarios of religious encounter in 17th-century South India by comparing Nobili’s descriptions of Brahmanical doctrines, rules and practices with researches on Indian medieval religions and philosophy.