Lost & Found Histories

The Fifth Gospel

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A forgotten biography of Jesus that was written for Akbar

THE FIRST-EVER modern biography of Jesus was not written in any of the traditional Biblical languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, or Koine Greek. Nor was it written in any modern European language, nor intended for Christian readers in Europe. Titled Mir’at al-Quds or ‘Mirror of Holiness’, this life of Jesus was written in Persian, and presented in Agra in 1602 CE. Its authors were Jeronimo Xavier (1549-1617), a Spanish Jesuit and diplomat, and Maulana Abdus Sattar ibn Qasim Lahori, an Indian linguist and scholar. Jeronimo was a grandnephew of St Francis Xavier, who takes his eternal rest in the basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa. Lahori, alas, has been consigned to that netherworld of footnotes that is too often the fate of the translator and dragoman. In the late 1590s, Lahori had taught Jeronimo Persian, while learning Latin from him.

Jeronimo and Lahori collaborated to produce Mir’at al- Quds for a single, exceptionally powerful and intellectually adventurous reader (or listener, since the evidence suggests he was dyslexic, an exception in a family that produced many outstanding writers, both male and female): Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar. As a member of a Jesuit delegation at the Mughal court, Jeronimo had had the privilege of conversing with the Emperor at the Ibadat Khana, or House of Religions. A Catholic, he was committed to the divinity of Christ. By contrast, Akbar, who had embarked on a journey of religious dialogue and confluence, venerated Jesus as a prophet and an exemplary human being, but not as the Son of God. In the spirit of sulh-i kul, ‘understanding among all’, however, the Emperor was open to discussion on this subject. The Mir’at evolved from such exchanges.

Jeronimo Xavier was born in his father’s castle in Navarre, northern Spain, in 1549. The world into which he came was knit together across turbulent oceans, by maritime routes of trade, pilgrimage, exploration, piracy, and warfare. His granduncle, Francis Xavier, had been a close friend of St Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Society of Jesus. Ordained a Jesuit at 19, Jeronimo arrived in Goa at 32. He served there, as well as in Bassein (today’s Vasai, north of Mumbai) and Cochin (today’s Kochi). At 46, he joined the third Jesuit mission that Akbar invited, and had his first audience with the Emperor in Lahore, in May 1595. He followed Akbar to the Deccan, was present at his last military campaign, the successful siege of the hill-fortress of Asirgarh, and accompanied him to Agra.

The Jesuit missions to Akbar’s court had met with mixed success. The first, led by the Neapolitan aristocrat Rodolfo Aquaviva, had been shocked by the elegance and opulence of the Mughal court, the erudition of its scholars, and the Emperor’s openness to many belief systems. While Akbar had welcomed the Jesuits, constructed a chapel in the palace, and encouraged the painters in his atelier to adopt Biblical themes, he showed no interest in converting to the Catholic faith. This baffled the Jesuits. Denizens of a system haunted by the Inquisition, where heretics were burned at the stake, they could not acclimatise themselves to the free play of contrary opinions in Akbar’s India.

THE WORLD FROM which the Jesuits came had been shaped by a series of cataclysmic events. The Reconquista of 1492 had established Catholic supremacy in Spain, ending eight centuries of a convivencia among Muslims, Jews and Christians in the Iberian peninsula, and imposing the Spanish Inquisition on a mixed population. The Reconquista meant the persecution, forced conversion, or expulsion of Spanish Muslims and Jews. In 1492, also, Columbus sailed out on a voyage to what he thought was India and what turned out to be the Americas. The methodology of ethnic cleansing perfected in Spain was carried to the New World by conquistadors like Cortes and Pizarro, who inaugurated a genocidal programme of colonialism, destroying the Aztec and Inca empires. Not coincidentally, Cortes and his chroniclers referred to the monumental Aztec temples as ‘mosques’. The proclamation they read, while seizing these new territories, was the Requerimiento, a quasi-theological document that had justified the persecution of Muslims and Jews. It would confer legitimacy on various forms of exploitation, including hereditary slavery.

The Mir'at transformed its supposed original, generating a new conceptual landscape. And yet, it has been abandoned to that wasteland inhabited by phantoms that elude monolithic conceptions of religious, linguistic and national identity

Within Europe, Christianity was afflicted by schism, manifested both in doctrinal and military confrontation. The German theologian Martin Luther flagged off the Protestant Reformation with his critique of Rome in 1517. By the late 1530s, Henry VIII of England had seceded from the Catholic Church. When the 19-year-old Jeronimo entered the Society of Jesus, the Catholic Church was turning its gaze eastward, hoping to find adherents in India and China, to make up for the souls lost to the Protestant upsurge.

The generation of Jesuits that included Aquaviva and Jeronimo’s granduncle, St Francis Xavier, had taken a dim view of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Asia’s other religions. Jeronimo pursued a different approach to evangelism. He realised that, if he hoped to convert Akbar to the Catholic faith, he would have to represent it in a style and vocabulary that appealed to this refined auditor. The Mir’at uses a combination of texts from the Synoptic Gospels, popular Catholic legends, and—as the Biblical scholar RS Sugirtharajah delightfully puts it in his Jesus in Asia— ‘Xavier’s own fanciful imagination.’

Structured into four chapters, the Mir’at begins with a conventional Islamic invocation, praising Allah and the Prophet Muhammad. As readers of Wheeler M Thackston’s annotated translation find out, the narrative offers a physical description of Jesus, absent in the Gospels. He is tall, reddish in complexion, blue-eyed, and, in a bow towards local sartorial taste, wears a turban. The first chapter, ‘The Christ’s Childhood’, extols Mary: a bow in the direction of Islam, which venerates her (the longest sura in the Qur’an, Sura Maryam, is devoted to her). ‘His Miracles and Teaching’ details Christ’s compassionate ministry. In ‘His Death and Suffering’, Jeronimo’s imagination runs riot. Doubtless drawing on his knowledge of the Inquisition’s techniques, he conjures up horrific details of the torture of Jesus. And in the final chapter, ‘His Resurrection and Ascension’, Jeronimo bundles together the Sermon on the Mount, the parables, and an account of Christ’s Passion. The voice that he employs, throughout, suggests eyewitness testimony and an intimate, even apostolic, connection to the Saviour.

In effect, the Mir’at is a fifth Gospel. Its transcultural shuttling between languages and iconographies anticipates the doctrine of inculturation, promulgated at the Second Vatican Council, by nearly four centuries. Like many projects informed by translation, it transformed its supposed original, generating a new conceptual landscape. And yet, it has been abandoned to that wasteland inhabited by phantoms and chimeras that elude monolithic conceptions of religious, linguistic and national identity. In India, the Mir’at found few readers beyond Akbar. To many of Jeronimo’s contemporaries in Europe, his ‘Mughal Messiah’ was an outrageous travesty. In the end, Jeronimo and the Maulana produced a cultural curiosity whose importance as an act of straddling cultural barriers was not recognised. As an evangelical gesture, it alienated those whose theological support should have been guaranteed, while leaving its intended recipient unconvinced.

On Akbar’s death in 1605, the French Jesuit Pierre du Jarric composed an obituary in which he invoked the Emperor’s reading—or listening—habits: ‘After the lights had been lit, he used to sit in a great hall, surrounded by numerous people whose duty it was to read books to him…. Among these books was the life of our Saviour, which Father Xavier had composed in Persian, for he had a great admiration for Jesus Christ, of whom he always spoke with reverence, and whose images he treated with profound respect. But he would sometimes say that he believed our Saviour performed His miracles, giving sight to the blind, raising the dead, by human means, since He was a great and wonderful physician.’