Roberto de Nobili

Roberto de Nobili
Roberto de Nobili

Roberto de Nobili (1577 – 16 January 1656) was an Italian Jesuit missionary to Southern India. He used a novel method of adaptation (accommodatio) to preach Christianity, adopting many local customs of India which were, in his view, not contrary to Christianity.

Born in Montepulciano, Tuscany in September 1577, Roberto de Nobili arrived in Goa on May 20, 1605. After a short stay in Cochin, he took residence in Madurai in November 1606. He soon called himself a "teacher of wisdom" (தத்துவ போதகர்) and began to dress like a Sannyasin. He took advantage of his noble parentage to approach high caste people and was willing to engage in dialogue with Hindu scholars on the truths of Christianity.

De Nobili studied Sanskrit and Tamil literature and gained mastery in those ancient languages with the help of a competent teacher by the name of Shivadharma.

As he expounded the Christian doctrine in Tamil he coined several words to communicate the message to his Tamil audience. He used the word "kovil" (கோவில்) for a place of worship, "arul" (அருள்) and "prasadam" (பிரசாதம்) for grace, "guru" (குரு) for priest or teacher, "Vedam" (வேதம்) for the Bible, "poosai" (பூசை) for Mass, etc.

Roberto de Nobili adopted also the Indian custom of shaving one's head and keeping only a tiny tuft. He wore white dhoti and wooden sandals to don the look of a sanyasin. Another symbol he embraced was the wearing of a three-stringed thread across the chest. He interpreted the three-stringed thread as representing the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

He certainly was one of the first Europeans to gain a deeper understanding of Sanskrit and Tamil. He composed several Catechisms, apologetic works, philosophical discourses in Tamil. He contributed greatly to the development of modern prose writing in Tamil.

His method raised a fierce controversy among his fellow Jesuits and with the Archbishop of Goa Cristóvão de Sá e Lisboa. The dispute was settled by Pope Gregory XV with the Constitution Romanæ Sedis Antistes issued on 31 January 1623. The customs of the three-stringed thread, the tuft, the use of sandalwood paste on the forefront and baths were allowed, inasmuch they did not imply any superstitious ritual. The Pope invited also the Indian neophytes to overcome their caste sensitivity and their despise against the pariahs.

Some have alleged that Roberto de Nobili was the author of a forged document written in French and purported to be a translation of an ancient Sanskrit scripture by the name of Ezourvedam. Max Mueller, a great Orientalist who edited the series The Sacred Books of the East has concluded convincingly that de Nobili did not author the forged work.[1] Ludo Rocher has published a detailed study about the Ezourvedam which shows that the author of this text must have been a French missionary. He offered several names: "The question who the French Jesuit author of the EzV [Ezour-vedam] was we can only speculate on. Calmette was very much involved in the search for the Vedas; Mosac is a definite possibility; there may by some truth to Maudave’s information on Martin; there is no way of verifying the references to de Villette and Bouchet. The author of the EzV may be one of these, but he may also be one of their many more or less well known confreres. In the present state of our knowledge, we cannot go any further than that.[2] Urs App recently offered new evidence for the authorship of Jean Calmette (1692–1740).[3]

Father Roberto de Nobili died in Mylapore on the 16th of January 1656 at the age of 79.

See also


  1. ^ The Ezour-Veda is not the work of Robert de Nobili. It was probably written by one of his converts» ISBN 0-915027-06-2.
  2. ^ Ludo Rocher (1984). Ezourvedam: A French Veda of the Eighteenth Century. University of Pennsylvania Studies on South Asia 1. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: J. Benjamins, 1984, p. 60. ISBN 978-0-915027-06-4
  3. ^ Urs App (2010). The Birth of Orientalism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 372-407. ISBN 978-0-8122-4261-4

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