We think of India as Hindu . Yet Christianity in India is the 3rd largest religion ... and a part of Indian life since 52 AD — earlier than some parts of Europe!
Began When: Roughly 30 AD in the Middle East
First Brought to India: Christianity in India began around 52 AD with St Thomas's voyage to Kerala.
Central Figure: Jesus Christ
Holy Book: The Holy Bible (Old & New Testament)
Basic Information: A number of different denominations, or sects, exist within Christianity. However, these can mostly be grouped within four larger categories: Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, and indigenous. There is, however, an ancient sect of Christianity in India that traditionally had loose ties to the Catholic church, known as the St Thomas Christians, also called Syrian Christians or Nasranis (see below).
Indigenous Christianity: While at least some of the church movements within India wear a form Western churchgoers would be somewhat familiar with, many Indian Christian movements have consciously separated basic Christian faith from European and American customs. The cultural aspect is not required. There is no biblically prescribed worship form. Focusing on the Asian/Middle Eastern roots of the faith, many Indian church movements made a point of evaluating which native cultural influences and expressions they could retain while being true to biblical teaching as they see it and describing the meaning of Jesus via categories and constructs familiar to them.
Salvation: Salvation in Christianity is based solely on faith in the salvation offered through Jesus Christ — through the grace of God alone. It is not based on works, or particular acts of the worshipper. It is this belief in grace, more than any other, that sets it apart from other world religions.
Central Belief: God loves us beyond measure, but He is also a holy God. Our sins (lust, adultery, lies, stealing, murder, idolatry, etc.) therefore separate us from God. To bring us back into right relationship with Him and cleanse us from our sins, God sent the only perfect sacrifice to wash us clean: His only Son, the god-man Jesus Christ. Through His perfect life, death, and resurrection, He has conquered sin and death. All who repent of their sins and ask His forgiveness, making Him Lord of their lives, are made new. The old has gone; the new has come. We are saved and made perfect in His sight.
Currently, roughly 2.4% of the total population of India, and about 20% of the population of the southern Indian state of Kerala, are Christians — the largest representation of Christianity in India. Nearly 20 million of these 25 million Christians are Dalits...Untouchables.
Famous Indian Christians, Past & Present
There are many more Indian Christians who are famous either for their formative influence on the Indian church movements or for their secular contributions, but here is a sampling:
Christianity in India may have come as early as 52 AD. It is said that St. Thomas — “doubting Thomas” from among Jesus’ first disciples — came to share Christianity in India, and that he came to Kerala on a Roman trading vessel plying the spice trade routes.
Even today, St Thomas Christians make up 20% of the population of Kerala, numbering roughly 7 million believers. The St. Thomas brand of Christianity in India is similar to Middle Eastern Orthodox churches and uses the Syriac language for much of its liturgy (Syriac is similar to Aramaic, a main language of Jews during Jesus’ time).
It is believed that St Thomas established seven churches in Kerala during his time of founding Christianity in India: in Malankara, Palayur, Paravoor, Kollam, Kokkamangalam Niranam, and Chayal.
There was contact between early Christianity in India via St Thomas churches and the Christian bishops of Syria during the 6th century. However, it was never regular, and communication ceased some time during the Middle Ages.
Arrival of European Christians
When the French arrived in the 13th century and the Portuguese in the 15th century, they were quite surprised to find both spices and Christianity in India already. It is also worth pointing out that the religious conflict in northern India — including the persecution of Christians there — could be tied to its spread by outsiders with whom native Indians were in conflict.
Meanwhile, the peaceful spread of Christianity in India along the southern coast, as well as of Islam, via trade, left a legacy of peaceful cooperation and synthesis between these various religions and their Hindu neighbors. There was a thriving Christian community already in place. European Christians were, however, concerned over supposed “heresies” within the type of Christianity in India and its practices.
Because of this, Portuguese Catholics destroyed much of their holy writing, replacing it with authorized Roman Catholic versions of the same.
Beyond expressed reasons of heresy, there may also have been political motives for Portuguese attempts to stamp out the Indian church— that being that Christianity in India was more resistant to European colonization.
This is still the case throughout the world, that a person with a deeply held faith is more difficult for temporal or government powers to influence and control. Thus at least a portion of the drive by political powers to weaken native Christianity in India.
The Story of Jesus
The history of Jesus’ coming can be found in three of the four Gospel accounts: Matthew 1 and 2, Luke 1 and 2, and a brief mention in John 1. A summary of them follows with a short introduction preceding it, only because an understanding of Jesus would be incomplete without understanding why He came:
Introduction: God made the world perfectly and beautifully and filled with infinite complexity. He set a man and woman, Adam and Eve, in the heart of His garden there to be close to them and walk in relationship with them. They were made in His image. In the Bible, Genesis says that He would “walk with them in the cool of the day,” like a friend.
Yet even there in this early paradise, evil worked to deceive them and separate them from God...to fool them into questioning His design and thinking they could be their own gods... God set His plan in motion.
In the Galilean town of Nazareth, a young girl named Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel with good news that must also have been troubling: God had chosen her to be the mother of His promised Son. What an unbelievable honor! And how frightening.
Her betrothed, Joseph, could have her stoned. Yet she was filled with joy at this miracle...
There are rumors of Jesus in India somewhere between the ages of 12 and 30. While this notion is intriguing, it may be merely legend.
What we do know is that some time around the age of 30, the “Kingdom of Heaven” was at hand: Jesus began His ministry, teaching with authority, baptising, and performing miracles of healing, feeding the multitudes, raising from the dead, and showing mastery over the forces of nature — as when He calmed the storm or walked on the water.
He taught about the importance of faith and how it can move mountains. But more importantly, Jesus taught that the all the “Law and the Prophets” of the Jewish faith could be distilled into just two laws:
He then clarified who our neighbors are — and they aren’t always the people just like us. Jesus made a point of reaching out to people despised by the rest of society: fallen women, lepers, poor people, working people, those who had made mistakes but wanted to come back into relationship with God. The way we love our neighbors should be at the heart of Christianity in India today.
Jesus taught within the Jewish Temple, but He didn’t bow down to the priests there. His teachings were a powerful force for social change and set the establishment on its head.
Jesus had some revolutionary teachings including ideas many of us now take for granted — and some that are still hard to accept — like:
As a result, they weren’t happy with Him at all. Many Jews had wanted a political messiah who would free them from the grip of Rome.
Instead of supporting their long-awaited Messiah, they denied Him and began plotting His death. (Even as Satan, in the background, felt confident that he was well on his way to winning this fight against God.)
The priests talked one of Jesus’ disciples into betraying Him. And even as Jesus washed His disciples’ feet, humbly teaching them that no task was beneath a leader who loved His people, Judas walked into the Temple to receive his bribe to turn Jesus over to them.
Later, as Jesus finished praying at the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas came among some temple guards to find Him. He signaled to the guards which was Jesus by kissing Him on the cheek, as one would “a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” As the guards moved to arrest Him, the disciple Peter drew his sword and cut off a guard’s ear in the fight. Jesus confirmed that he who lives by the sword dies by the sword and healed this man who had come to arrest Him.
After a mock trial in which witnesses were paid to lie about Him, Jesus was turned over to the Romans to be tortured and put to death on a cross. Yet even as He hung there suffering, He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
And even as He died, giving His mother into the disciple John’s care, the sky turned black and the veil in the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple was torn in two. No more was mankind to have a barrier between him and God. When Jesus bore our sins on the cross, He made us able to come directly into the Presence of the Creator of all things.
Then three days later, when He arose from the dead, He showed that He had conquered sin and death. The enemy, Satan, lost the greatest battle because he could not understand the Love of a God, holy and sinless, who would sacrifice Himself to make things right and enable us to walk in the garden with Him once again — forever.
Some St Thomas Christians have been known to say, “We are Christians in faith, Indian in citizenship, and Hindu in culture.”
On the face of things, this brand of Christianity in India seems to be a well-balanced, well-integrated, and tolerant way to operate. Churches were modeled after Hindu temples and even had women deacons, just as some of the earliest Christian churches did according to Biblical accounts.
But this integration of Hindu culture with Christianity in India also carries with it its own problems. One of these is a deeply entrenched caste system that has no place within the teachings of Jesus in which all souls have equal value and purpose.
Sometimes those Christians who claim Brahminical descent will associate with Hindu Brahmins and continue to treat “lesser” castes within the Christian body as inferior. To this day, Christian Dalits remain discriminated against within much of the Indian Christian church, as is also reflected in their disproportionately low numbers within the church clergy and administration.
Before God, we are all impure — regardless of caste, what we eat or don’t eat, regardless of our feelings of righteousness. Before God, we are all Untouchables, when left to ourselves. Our sin makes it so, for we are not able, even for a day, to live free of untruth, anger, selfishness, lust, or pride. To fail to realize this is to lie to ourselves ... a roadblock for Christianity in India today.
Always, we feel the need to put ourselves above someone else ... to justify our anger and unforgiveness ... to hurt someone else for no better reason than to satisfy our own wants. And we have all been hurt or betrayed by others who have done this much and worse to us.
Yet the incredible thing — the most incredible thing — is that the One who created all things loves us as something precious. He does not cease to care that we’ve sinned; His holiness requires that we give Him our sins and become pure. Our God loved us so much that He took our sins upon Himself and died for us — the willing and only Holy sacrifice that paid all debt.
Our Debt, His Money
This debt our sins created, we can never pay on our own. It is as if the money lenders stand upon our necks with a debt too great to bear, that is always growing. No amount of good karma, no number of lifetimes can bring us closer to payment for this debt. Surely we all have felt that if we have sought Truth or God at all, for they are indeed One and the same.
It is only by realizing our need for Him to take away our sins and pay the debt for us that we come close to God. And as we accept His pure sacrifice through His one and only sinless Son, Jesus Christ, in our place, that we become His children — sons and daughters of the Most High God. Beloved and beautiful in His sight and filled with purpose.
We are made without stain forever. As we look upon Him, accepting His gift of grace and refusing to worship any other so-called gods — be they in a temple somewhere or the gods of self or money — that we can come into His Presence. We become filled with His Glory, His Love, His Light, His Truth ... even His Joy — a joy that passes understanding.
We are Untouchable no more.
This is the Truth. And Jesus said, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set your free.”
This truth, this joy, must be the focus of Christianity in India. Jesus said that the world would recognise us as His followers by the way we love one another. To bribe with money or force someone or make them feel inferior is to cheapen the debt that He paid on our behalf.