Essay on the Religious Policy Of The Portuguese

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Even though the Portuguese failed to leave any lasting legacy in the political life, or produce any impressive impact on the administrative system of India, they did succeed in introducing a permanent schism in the Christian faith here through their sanguinary attempt to reduce the Syrian church of Kerala into subjection to the Romanist.

Christianity had a long and uninterrupted history in South India since the days of St. Thomas, the Apostle, as tradition would have it, but it existed and grew all the while without the remotest connection with Rome. Christendom owed, at least with regard to India till the time of the Portuguese, no allegiance to Pope, Violent changes were introduced in the Kerala church by the Portuguese when their hegemony was not yet on the decline in Cochin and their power was undisputed in Goa.

Latinization of Christianity and conversion of the entire population in their dominions to that faith were the twin aims of the Portuguese besides promotion of commerce. The Fransiscans, and later on the Jesuits brought in their ships along with the goods to be sold or exchanged here, did everything from coaxing, harassing, cutlassing and burning, to spread the Holy Faith and to convert the local races. Bishoprics were created in Goa and Cochin and the Viceroys were specially instructed by the King of Portugal to direct all their political machinery and power toward conversion and annihilation of idol worship in their dominions in India.

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Thus the Viceroy was “to discover by diligent officers all the idols and demolish them and break them up in pieces where they are found proclaiming severe punishments against anyone who shall dare to work, cast, make in sculpture, engrave, paint or bring to light any figure of an idol….or bring them from other places; and against who publicly or privately celebrate any of their sports, or assist and hide the Brahmins, the sworn enemies of the Christian profession… It is our pleasure that you punish them with that severity of the law without admitting any appeal or dispensation in the least.”

Accordingly in 1540 all the Hindu temples in the Island of Goa were destroyed. This clearly indicates that the Portuguese were as much against the Hindus as they were against the Moors. In the Indian context their opposition to the Muslims was not bas on religion but obviously on commercial competition. Their enmity toward the Hindus had no bearing on commerce; it was because they resisted the spread of the Holy Faith through conversion.

When the policy of conversion on a large scale failed in Kerala, the Portuguese turn” against the local Christians, the Syrians, who continued to obey their Nestorian patriar and not the Pope. These Christians long enjoyed the benevolent protection at the hands of their Hindu rulers and were treated as equals to their Hindu brethren, with all the privileges most religiously guarded. But the moment the Christian Portuguese POW became a recognised political factor in their native land, they hastened to disclaim the: allegiance to the Hindu King and to accept the sovereignty of the King of Portugal.

In the words of K.M. Panikkar “Little did they imagine that by this change they were inviting on themselves a reign of religious terror and oppression which was to culminate in the Synod of Diamper. The centuries of schism and split, which have weakened the ancient and prosperous church of Malabar, may be traced to the foolish and short-sighted action by which its representatives accepted the authority of Portugal.

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They surrendered their privileges and authority to Portugal and undertook to conduct their affairs only in the name of the Portuguese King. The ancient records and insignia which their chief possessed were also handed over to Gama. More than even this they suggested to him that with their help he should conquer the Hindu Kingdoms and invited him to build a fortress for this purpose in Cranganore. This was the recompense which the Hindu Rajahs received for treating with liberality and kindness Christians in their midst.”

Ever since this event the Portuguese attempt was, when they realised that it was impossible to convert the Hindu population to Roman Catholicism, to make the Syrian Christians shift their religious allegiance from the Babylonian Church to the Roman Church. They considered the local Christians as heretics and tried every stratagem to make them accept the authority of Rome and follow the Roman practices.

The Syrian priests were trained and ordained by the Portuguese to peacefully bring the laity to the Latin faith; however they were disowned by the Syrians. The Portuguese now adopted a series of repressive measures including arrest and despatch to Goa and Portugal and even murder­ing of the Metrans sent out from Bursorah to manage the Syrian Church of Kerala.

Alexis de Meneses, Archbishop of Goa, came-to Cochin in January 1599 to finally coerce the Malabar Christians to accept the Roman Church order. The Syrian Archdeacon George was asked to submit to Meneses but he heroically fought for the independence of his church and the synod he convened at Angamally categorically rejected the Roman claims.

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De Meneses was the last person to be disconcerted by these developments. He made a political settlement with the Raja of Cochin which in effect was in the nature of a large bride to him, and made him declare that all churches in his realm should obey the order of Rome. The Archdeacon was also compelled to send his flock to the Roman fold and to sign a document before Meneses renouncing the supremacy of the Patriarch of Babylon over the Malabar Church.

The Portuguese Archbishhop thereafter toured the country visiting parishes in the midst of the revulsion of many Syrians. Latin liturgy and Roman rites were immediately forced upon an unwilling Syrian Church and clericals of Roman faith introduced therin. To give legality of sorts and regularity to these proceedings, Meneses called a Synod (meeting of clergy and laity) on June 20, 1599 which has become famous as the Synod of Diamper (Udayamperur).

It was attended by 813 delegates including the Portuguese Governor of Cochin accompanied by his armed soldiers. In the atmosphere of violence produced by threats and show of arms, Meneses got all his 267 decisions passed with the dissenting Syrians meekly submitting.

As part of the drama which lasted for eight days Meneses got all the Syriac. Book either burned or corrected. In the bonfire perished much of the tradition of the Malabar Christians and the invaluable documents of their churches; from their ashes sprang up the monster of schism that plagued the Christians of Kerala in the succeeding centuries.

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The merger of Syrian Church with the Roman church affected under duress was short­lived. In response to the prayer of the discontented non-Catholics of Malabar church the Patriarch of Babylon again sent in 1653 a Bishop by name Ahatalla whom the Portuguese captured and killed.

The infuriated non-Catholic Christians with the support of the Dutch gathered at Mattancherry in front of the ancient Coonan Cross in January 1653 and swore that they and their descendants would never have any connections with either the Portuguese or the Roman Catholics.

Thereafter the Syrian Church was reorganised with a Bishop sent by the Patriarch of Antioch and thus we find a new element appearing in the religious life of Kerala Christians with their connection with another of the historic churches of the East. The Coonan Cross oath marked the beginning of a schism which had far reaching effects on the religious life of Kerala.

The enormity of the failure of the Portuguese endeavour to Latinze Kerala the enormity of the failure of the Portuguese endeavour to Latinize Kerala church will be evident from the fact that out of two lakhs of Chirstians only four hundred remained in the Latin Church. However, the division into the Roman Catholic and the Jacobite Syrian remained, each section suelling its rank with more members in course of time and contributing to the inter-denominational and intrasectional disharmony.

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The religious policy of the Portuguese was marred by violence and bigotry, as it was necessarily a part of their commercial and colonical policy. More converts to Christianity in the areas with which they had commercial relations meant to them added prop to their political designs.

With a large number of Christian populations to support them, they could very well bargain with the local chiefs for their commercial and political gains. Over and above this was their zeal to evangelize the whole world. Conquest either in the realm of politics, or economics or religion has got to be affected according to them though violence had nothing but violence.

In the midst of corruption, and barbarities, the Portuguese tried to implant their cilvilization in India they succeeded in doing it in the Island of Goa. In Kerala, excepting the Latin liturgy and rites in the Roman Catholic Church nothing of their legacy remains. The missionary work of Francis Xavier among the fisher-folk and other low caste people of Travancore however stands out in clear contrast with the Menesesian religious work in Kerala.

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