Why the Brahmins of Kerala Became Christians

Now and then, when this column irritates a type of patriots, they call me “rice bag” on X.com. By this, they imply that I had converted to Christianity in exchange for a bag of rice offered by a missionary. I am offended by this high-carb insult; I would rather be accused of renouncing my religion for a bag of avocados, or even asparagus. The insult is also oddly funny, and it would have been especially hilarious to my grandparents. Many of the people who called me “rice bag” or their ancestors would not have been allowed to enter the homes of my grandparents, at least through the front door. My people, though some of them were poor landowners, considered themselves high caste and looked down upon not only other Christians, but also most Hindus.

The Christians of Kerala, unlike those in other states, are a part of the social and economic elite. Many consider themselves ‘upper castes’ even though a section of them believe their ancestors were the early Christians who came from the Middle East and settled in Kerala around 2 CE. But some Kerala Christians are specific about their lineage—they say they were Brahmins who had converted. There are ‘Brahmin Christians’ in Goa and Mangalore too. In case you did not guess it, they love the idea that they were Brahmins once. I don’t find this very interesting. What is fascinating though is this question: Why would high-caste Indians in olden days renounce their exquisite privileges for Christianity?

Recently, a bishop in Kerala had had it with Christians who claimed Brahmin heritage. He lamented that they hosted feasts to rejoice their lineage and invited him, too. He said their claim is bogus; Kerala’s Christians were not Brahmin converts. 

Some historians who have sympathy for the bishop’s assertion have pointed out that the fact that there were Christians in Kerala by 2 CE meant that they predated the Brahmins as we know them today because the the Brahmins were yet to rise to the very top of the caste structure. (The hierarchy of the top three castes constantly shifted in ancient India until the priestly class somehow won.) However, there is some evidence that some people from Kerala identified as Brahmins back then and that they were in fact Christian. There are old historical accounts that mention this. And there is Brahminical behaviour, too, which is even more persuasive. 

In The Ivory Throne, Manu S. Pillai writes that a few centuries ago in Kerala, “…there were temples where only oil ‘purified’ by the touch of a Malayali Christian could be used to light lamps and holy fires.” This appears to be a continuation of a Brahmin privilege, which was unaffected by their fling with Christianity. Also, in ancient and medieval Kerala, as bad a place for the ‘low-born’ as the rest of India, where Brahmins considered it tragic even to have seen ‘low-castes,’ there were joint processions of Hindu deities and an image of Saint Thomas. That was not a sign of secularism, but a cosmopolitan cooperation of high-castes from two different book clubs.

Some of this Brahminical behaviour among Christians percolated down to modern times. Sujatha Gidla, in her memoir about growing up as a Dalit, mentions that a Malayalee Christian girl who had an affair with her uncle used to smuggle the man into her house, but only from the back-door because he was “an untouchable.” So there are indicators that Brahmins and other high-castes converted to Christianity, but there is no historical certainty around why the biggest beneficiaries of Hinduism renounced their faith.

There are some feeble explanations. That a Semitic or European evangelist came to Kerala and talked Brahmins out of their religion that gave them a life-long exclusive club membership. That is not convincing. I also wonder what language was used. Another explanation is that as the Europeans grew influential in India, their Christian evangelism too grew more persuasive. But this does not explain why there were Brahmin Christians long before the first Europeans landed in Kerala, towards the end of the 15th century. The Christians of Kerala probably predated even the advent of Christianity in Europe. In fact, when the Portuguese landed in Kerala, they found Christians among the local elite who had not heard of the Pope or Vatican. Across the centuries, something was making some Brahmins become Christian and they did not have the same emotional or economic logic as low-caste Hindus who converted.

My theory is that the Brahmins did not ‘convert’ to Christianity. ‘Conversion’ is a new term. They merely adopted Christianity as it was new and exotic. Just like how Tom Cruise, born Christian, ‘became’ a scientologist. Hinduism was so deeply ingrained that the adoption of Christianity, even if it came with a sprinkling of water, did not alter much. Certainly it did not alter the caste of the elite. Also, globally, polytheism preceded monotheism. The many gods of Hinduism point to an ancient polytheist society. Once upon a time, it was no big deal for people to have more than one faith.

In Gem in the Lotus, Abraham Eraly notes that the early success of Buddhism and Jainism in India were because their founders were upper-caste Hindu elites, and so too their disciples, who did not think they were renouncing their faith; certainly not their castes. Once in India, people were rigid about caste and broad-minded about religion. ‘Conversions’ happened in time, with new generations, in later eras when people began to take religion seriously, and everyone had to choose what they were.

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