Several days ago I had a fascinating conversation with a gentlemen who was totally unaware that India is, in fact, has one of the world’s oldest populations of Christians. I made a point of talking about this with a few other people, all of whom were similarly surprised by this information.
While one of the most famous names in modern Christianity, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu (better known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta), ministered to the poor and needy of India, many are still shocked to hear that Christianity, Roman Catholicism in particular, has been a part of Indian culture since at least the 3rd century. In fact, even the most conservative estimates of Christianity’s arrival in India predate the conversions of many European countries. According to a 2001 census, Christianity is the religion of 24 million Indians, ranking it the third largest religion in the country. Roman Catholicism accounts for the lion’s share of those Christians.
I suppose it is not all that shocking that most western Christians are unaware of India’s amazingly diverse cultural heritage. History class in the United States is particularly skewed towards the past exploits of European nations. While this is undeniably important in understanding the history of our own country, it does severely limit our knowledge of the east, and the wondrous expanse of Indian culture. So let us take a moment to look at Christianity in India.
Indian tradition holds that Christianity arrived in somewhere around 50 AD with the appearance of the Apostle Thomas (also known as Doubting Thomas, or Thomas Didymus). He is reputed to have established several churches in modern day Kerala, converting many Indians. He was ultimately martyred, though the exact details of the account vary. A book known as The Acts of Thomas (which most Christian traditions view aspseudepigraphical), covering Thomas’ time in India, relates that King Misdaeus Vasudeva I was angry with the Apostle for evangelizing his wives. The King ordered Thomas to be killed, and the martyr was stabbed to death by spears.