English Jesuit’s biblical poem on Radio 3

 1654 edition of the Kristapurana
1654 edition of the Kristapurana

English Jesuit Thomas Stephens SJ has been the subject of a BBC Radio 3 Sunday Feature documentary. Professor Nandini Das, scholar of early travels and voyages of exploration, tracks the life of the author of the Kristapurana, a forgotten jewel of Anglo-Indian contact, in the hour-long radio piece first broadcast on Sunday 18th November.

With Protestantism taking over the country during the reign of Elizabeth I, Thomas Stephens SJ fled Britain, finding refuge first in Rome where he entered the Society of Jesus in 1575. As a missionary, he then travelled to Goa in 1583, becoming the very first English man to set foot on Indian soil.

Long before the British Empire arrived in the region, the Portuguese claimed Goa, gaining a key trading centre. After a softer initial phase, the conquerors gradually started a process of systematic destruction of other religions on the territory. “To be a good Portuguese, you had to be a good Catholic” suggests one of the interviewees. And, as a proof, quite unusually in comparison with the rest of the country, the Christian faith is still very strong in the region.

Stripped of their traditional texts, the people of Goa were left by the Portuguese with a void that the Kristapurana filled.

From the Jesuit Basilica of Bom Jesus and the original Jesuit Mission in Goa – today the Rachol Seminary -  the documentary presenter took her research also to Britain, where she paid a visit to the Jesuit College of Campion Hall in Oxford. She interviewed Professor Peter Davidson, Curator of collections and archivist at Campion Hall, who, in the items preserved around the Society’s history, demonstrated the keys to success of Jesuit missions around the world: sensitivity and a pragmatic willingness to accommodate each culture to Christianity. “It is accommodation or what the Jesuits sometimes call ‘going in by the other person’s door’: never imposing but dealing always in their language” explained Prof Davidson.

It comes therefore as no surprise that Thomas Stephens soon learnt the two local languages, Marathi and Konkani, with which he then wrote the Kristapurana. This 11,000 stanza epic poem - telling the Scripture stories from the Creation to Jesus’ Resurrection - was composed fifty years earlier than its relative Paradise Lost by John Milton.

Rich in images of India and adopting the lyrical verse form of the Hindu puranas, this biblical poem is a unique testimony of the profound encounter between Christianity and the local culture. None of the original copies survived, but such was its importance that the text has been preserved for years -until finally back in written form - thanks to the memories of the faithful.

Thomas Stephens SJ died in Goa in 1619, “but literature, poetry, has a life of its own” concludes Professor Das.

The Kristapurana documentary is available on BBC Radio iPlayer