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Vijayanagar-Venad Conflict and the Myth of Francis Xavier's Miracle

Vijayanagar-Venad Conflict and the Myth of Francis Xavier's Miracle

Author: M. P. Ajithkumar
Publication: Haindava Keralam
Date: October 20, 2006
URL: http://www.haindavakeralam.org/PageModule.aspx?PageID=2113&SKIN=C

On July 8, 1497, four ships sailed from the harbour of Belem at the mouth of Tagus. Vasco da Gama, a nobleman of king's household, was in charge of the expedition. The flagship San Gabriel, carrying twenty guns, and its consort San Raphael, commanded by Paul da Gama, the younger brother of Vasco had been built six years previously by the greatest of all Portuguese navigators, Bartholomeu Diaz. The third ship was the fast caravel, while the fourth was a navire de charge under the command of Gonsalo Nunes, ordnance officer. The Captain General's ship flew at its mast a flag on which was painted a large cross of Christ and also carried cannon, symbols of the new power entering the East. (K. M. Panikkar, Asia and Western Dominance)

African nationalist Jomo Keniyatta once remarked: When the Europeans came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said the Bible is the book of God and asked us to meditate with it. After long years of meditation when we opened our eyes we had the Bible and they had the land! So much colonizing and dehumanizing was the work of the missionaries who according to Charles Dickens were "perfect nuisances" who left "every place worse than they found it". All the white man's burden of proselytizing the New World to make it the colony of the West was done with the Bible mesmerism. It may be noticed that Thomas Paine once remarked, "It will be more consistent that we call it [Bible] the work of a demon than the work of God". We may not however take these statements, though they are of those eminent figures of the Christian world, into face value and slapdash into a negative conclusion without an objective analysis.

A student of Indian history in general and Kerala history in particular is well familiar with the history of evangelization, which was the strong tool of Western colonization. In fact the colonization, Westernization and the economic exploitation of India have been the combined effort of the European nations, their economic interests and the Christian churches irrespective of their denominations. Naturally the aggressive and arrogant attitude of the Western missionaries turned many patriotic establishments in India so militant and pugnacious as to defend the national culture, religion and beliefs and made them raise the bulwark of opposition against these anti-national forces. The history of the 16th century South India - the history of Vijayanagar-Venad relations - bears witness to the resurgence of patriotic forces against alien powers and their Indian supporters bereft of any nationalist vision and farsightedness.

It should be noticed that along with the geographical tapering of India towards the south patriotic feelings too got narrowed. On many occasions when North India proved to be the hub of patriotic activities, the south, especially Kerala, remained to a good extent cut off from the rest of India though it sneaked into the forefront of the Freedom fight pensioners in the name of a post-independence uprising that blood-bathed her coastal belt and the Mopla revolt that soaked the Eranad with Hindu blood. (Read Kumaran Asan's Duravastha) This was in fact the standard pattern of Kerala's behaviour even in preceding times. The 16th century development related to Vijayanagar-Venad relations is an important test case in this regard.

Historical evidences say that while the champions of the cause of Hindu culture in South India, the worshippers of Ugranarasimha at Hampi were fighting the alien forces to defend the land's tradition the devotees of Sripadmanabha at Thiruvananthapuram were inadvertently helping the alien forces sworn to do away with the cultural and religious ethos associated with the Hindu tradition. Strange that the devotees of the same deity and the descendents of the same tradition behaved contrarily! But the worshippers of Ugranarasimha were unlike the devotees of the all-suffering and smiling Vishnu of Ananthapuri, and were responding and retaliatory like the fierce deity they adored to any infringement on their Dharma.

It was in fact the support and patronage the Venad rulers extended to the Christian missionaries who exploited their generosity to convert and Christianize the people of Kerala's coastal areas that raised the shackles of Vijayanagar rulers and forced them to take up arms against Venad. "The aim of the Vijayanagar military expedition towards Nanchanad was to check the large scale prozlitization of the Paravas [fisher-folk] of the fisher-villages of Kerala coast", says Prof. A. Sreedhara Menon, the veteran scholar of Kerala history. (A. Sreedhara Menon, Keralacharithram (Malayalam) Kottayam, 1973, p. 300) The unlimited and heinous conversion movement the Christian missionaries embarked on with was done under the complete state patronage of the Portuguese Government, and the invertebrate, self-destructive and lax secular policy of the Venad Government added to the audacity of the evangelists. It amounted to the insult of Hindu tradition and irreparable damage to the land's cultural heritage.

But there were nationalist forces pugnacious enough to protect India's culture, tradition and her icons of worship. Vijayanagar proved the right example. This empire was the real symbol of the long-drawn cultural and spiritual tradition of India nourished by an unending order of saints and seers like Madhava Vidyaranya. Right from the time of its founders, Bukka and Harihara, to the terrible days of Talikkotta when the Hindus of South India saw themselves and their Gods pillaged and destroyed by the barbarian hordes, and even afterwards, Vijayanagar was deeply engaged in measuring swords with the alien forces and spearheading the cultural and spiritual renaissance. She could rightly be hailed as the defender of India's religious tradition, a role she had proudly assumed as a historic mission. No wonder, Venad's policy of entertaining the missionaries beyond the limit and Francis Xavier's audacious mass conversion programme invited the wrath of Vijayanagar and forced her to invade the former (1544 AD).

Vijayanagar force that avalanched across the Aramboli Pass made its tempestuous dance of fury in many parts of Kerala. Before the Vijayanagar army the petty state of Venad had the only alternative of presenting a feeble resistance though the former had no plan to ravage the latter than punish Xavier's anti-Hindu activities. And the Vijayanagar army, after having admirably played its role, returned victoriously, proving that this military expedition was only an attempt to check the audacity of the Christian Missionaries in Kerala. However Xavier and his followers in India fabricated the story that it was the magic of Xavier's cross that frightened and conjured away the Vijayanagar army and saved Venad from the impending disaster.

Francis Xavier was the embodiment of the spirit of evangelization and following his example there was a great movement to convert the heathen in Asia. "St. Xavier had come to the East representing both the Pope - as a legate, and the king (of Portugal) as an Inspector of Missions". (K. M. Panikkar, Asia and Western Dominance, Bombay, 1999, p. 66). Dogmatic and intolerant, he was a man of blind faith. (Ibid, p. 283) Indeed the double-dealings he followed in different places clearly reflected the state-Church combine attitude of European expansionism and attack against the Oriental countries and their cultures. The heinous and intolerant christianizing policies were typical of European barbarity that they would put even Christ to shame! Xavier acted with the help of the Portuguese Governor of Kollam on the west coast of Kerala. This missionary with the help of the Portuguese Governor extended economic help to the fisher folk of the Kollam coast while the latter cautioned about the likely disasters in case they abstain from embracing Christianity. Thus with the twin weapons - economic help on the one side and the method of terrorizing on the other, Xavier converted innumerable Fishers or 'Mukkuvas' to Christianity. (S. D. Kulkarni, The story of Hindu Supremacy, Bombay, 1992, p. 44.) Xavier was committed not only to see the Hindus converted but their icons of worship broken too. But he did it not the way Ghazni or Muhamad II followed in their iconoclastic expeditions. His barbarism was sugar coated with the jackal's diplomacy. The unbound ecstasy Francis Xavier derived from the sight of the Hindu idols being broken is thus described in one of the letters he wrote to the 'Society of Jesus' after his having successfully mass-baptized the people of Malabar Coast:

Following the baptism, the new Christians return to their homes and come back with their wives and families to be in their turn also prepared for baptism. After all have been baptized, I order that everywhere the temples of the false gods be pulled down and all idols be broken. I know not how to describe in words the joy I feel before this spectacle of pulling down and destroying the Idols by the very people who formerly worshipped them. (Letter dated 8 February 1545. See H. J. Colridge, Life and Letters of Francis Xavier, London, 1861, Vol. I, p. 10)

Surprisingly, Xavier did this ungrateful act soon after the Hindu King of Kollam had given him a large grant to build churches. He was also highly critical of the Brahmin priests who were traditionally instrumental in teaching and spreading the Hindu religious tenets. In another letter he wrote: "There are in these parts among the pagans a class of men called Brahmins. They are as perverse and wicked a set as can anywhere be found, and to whom applies the psalm, which says: 'From an unholy race, wicked and crafty men, deliver me Lord'. If it were not for the Brahmins, we should have all the heathens embracing our faith". (Ishwar Sharan, The Myth of Saint Thomas and the Mylapore Shiva Temple, New Delhi, 1991, p. 80). The archenemy of Hinduism, its followers and gods, Xavier did all he could to denigrate Hindus and destroy their idols of worship. His bigotry was, no doubt, to evoke the hatred of any native king committed to the cause of Hindu religion.

While the shameless rulers of Venad showed an attitude of salutary neglect to the anti-Hindu campaigns of Xavier and his men the Rulers of Vijayanagar could not remain mute spectators to it. Sworn to check Xavier's conversion work and to punish those converted to Christianity, Vittala's Vijayanagar army descended on Venad, frightening its ruler. There are different versions regarding this event. But the most idiotic and unsubstantial one is the myth that is attributed to the magical powers of Francis Xavier who is said to have suddenly appeared on the scene, dressed in black, crucifix in hand, and commanded the invaders to turn back. Indeed it looks strange that Xavier who was helpless on the fishery coast when the Badagas plundered his flock, the Paravas, was able to drive Vittala's army out of Venad with supernatural powers. K. P. Pdmanabha Menon observes, "The sublimity of the story is marred by its lack of probability. It is remarkable that Xavier is silent on the subject in his letters from the coast. We may therefore safely take it as a pious invention". (K. P. Padmanabha Menon, History of Kerala, Vol II, pp. 17-18) Since the Vijayanagar invasion had been of great damage to the proselytizing work it must certainly have embarrassed Xavier and his coterie. The story was exactly like this:

"Francis Xavier's work among the Paravas was almost undone by an invasion by the Badagas who planned and put to death the Christian converts… Thinking that these invaders from the hill country were as simple as the Paravas, he tried a little double-dealing on them, and discovered, too late, that they were as wily as himself. In their fury at his attempt to trick them, they burnt his house and ship. (Goswami Dixit Maharaj, Debunking A Myth or The Rediscovery of St. Francis Xavier, Bombay, 1964, p. 20).

There is no historical evidence that speaks of his miracle, which drew away Raya's forces. Besides, Xavier himself confesses the pitiable plight of his followers before the fury of Vijayanagar forces. He writes:

"It was indeed pitiful to see them [his Christian followers]. Some had nothing to eat; others had become blind on account of their age and hardship; many were married men and their wives brought forth children while en route and there were many pitiful things…" (H. J. Coleridge, Op. Cit).

In fact the complaints Rama Raya received about the cruelty of Xavier's conversion programme and the destruction of the temples by the Roman Catholic monks maddened Vijayanagar forces with so much fury that they attacked many Christian centers in the south like San Thome. The attack on Goa was headed by Rama Raya's cousin, Vittala (K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, A History of South India, Madras, 1983, p. 291). After having ravaged the entire rout they fared like whirlwind, the Vijayanagar forces returned victoriously. The Vijayanagar army was so powerful that it could not be turned back by the nimble antics and tricks of Francis Xavier. He could not even save his own religious followers from the wrath of Vittala's army, leave alone the Christian propagandist myth presenting him as the saviour of Venad during this expedition! It would be better to be with Sri. T. K. Velu Pillai according to whom it is difficult to believe that Xavier who failed to protect his own people from the Vijayanagar fury rooted out Vittala's forces with his mesmeric powers. (T. K. Velu Pillai, Travancore State Manual, Vol II, pp. 175-177) Historian Sri. K. P. Padmanabha Menon too takes it as a fabricated story as mentioned above. Indeed this story confines to the realm of the Christian propaganda to raise Xavier as a saint of miraculous powers though the realities relating to him present a very different and worst picture. It lacks historicity like the St. Thomas tradition of Kerala.

Bibliography

1. H. J. Colridge, Life and Letters of Francis Xavier, London, 1861

2. Goswami Dixit Maharaj, Debunking A Myth or The Rediscovery of St. Francis Xavier, Bombay, 1964

3. Holger Kerston, Jesus Lived in India, London, 1994.

4. Ishwar Sharan, The Myth of Saint Thomas and the Mylapore Shiva Temple, New Delhi, 1991

5. Kumaran Asan, Duravastha (Malayalam)

6. S. D. Kulkarni, The story of Hindu Supremacy, Bombay, 1992

7. K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, A History of South India, Madras, 1983

9. K. P. Padmanabha Menon, History of Kerala

10. K. M. Panikkar, Asia and Western Dominance

11. Sita Ram Goel, Hindu-Christian Encounters, New Delhi, 1996.

12. A. Sreedhara Menon, Keralacharithram (Malayalam) Kottayam, 1973

13. T. K. Velu Pillai, Travancore State Manual


(The author of this article is a Lecturer in History, Sanathana Dharma College, Alappuzha)


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