DE’ NOBILI, Roberto

DE’ NOBILI DE MONTEPULCIANO, Roberto (Robertus de Nobilibus, Tattuvapodagar [‑pōtakar]). Montepulciano near Siena 1577 — Mailapur (Chennai) 16.1.1656. S.J. Italian Missionary in South India. Born of a family of high nobility (related to the Duke of Modena), joined the S.J. in 1597. Studies of theology in Naples and Rome. In 1605 arrived at Goa and after brief stay in Cochin in the next year went to Madurai. There he soon saw that the Christian religion should be presented in an Indian garb in order to have any success at all with its propagation. Therefore he started the study of Sanskrit with Indian religions and philosophy. He adopted the life of an Indian ascetic in every respect where it was not in direct contradiction with Christianity. Thus he was a vegetarian, had the robe of a sanyāsi and Brahman hairstyle, presented himself as a Kṣatriya (as an Italian nobleman) following the caste rules of a Kṣatriya. After several years of studies under pandits, he settled down among other gurus in the Brahman quarter of Madurai and began explaining Christianity.

Roberto De’ Nobili is said to have known perfectly Sanskrit, Tamil, and Telugu, and he wrote a number of religious and philosophical works in Sanskrit and Tamil dealing with Christianity in a purely Indian manner. In his Latin works he refers to Nyāya methods and shows knowledge of Manu and other Sanskrit and Tamil classics. Unlike many others he turned to the higher castes. He strictly separated religion and culture, acceptinculture,  including in it many features his colleagues rejected as religious, but as a missionary he, too, strongly condemned Hinduism.

His unconventional methods soon evoked the opposition of some other missionaries (and of some orthodox Hindus, too). His first opponent was the fellow missionary in Madurai Gonçalo Fernandes (1541–1619). In 1613 he was even criticized by a Cardinal, but with the support of the Archbishop of Cranganore and because of his high birth he won the case. The final victory came in 1623 with the Letter of conciliation (?) by the Pope. In his late years he became blind. He spent a few years in retirement in Jaffna, but felt unhappy there, and moved to Mailapur, where he died. He was not the author of the Ézour-védam.

Publications: Apologia, with some notes on Sanskrit, in abridged French version published by Bertrand in his La mission du Maduré. 2. 1850, then P. Dahmen (ed. & transl.): R. De N. l’Apôtre des Brahmes: Première apologie 1610. 207 p. Bibl. des missions 3. P. 1931.

Severat unpublished letters preserved.

A. Amaldass & Fr. Clooney (eds.): Preaching Wisdom to the Wise: Three Treatises by R. de N., S.J., Missionary and Scholar in 17th-Century India. 345 p. Jesuit Primary Sources in English Translations 19:1. St.Louis 2000.

Tamil works ed. by S. Rajamanickam (all in Tuticorin/Tuttukodi): Ñāṉōpadēcam, 26 Pircaṅkaṅkaḷ. 1963; Cēsuṉātar Carittiram. 1964; Tuṣaṇat tikkaram. 1964; Attuma Nirṇayam. 1967.

On his works in Indian languages see also Dahmen and Caland (with citations) below.

Sources: A. Bal[lini], Enc. Ital. 12, 1931, 619 with portrait; W. Caland, “R. de’ N. and the Sanskrit Language and Literature”, AO 3, 1924, 38-51; *Koch, Jesuitenlexikon; A. Sauliere, Indica. The IHRI Silver Jubilee Comm. Vol. Bombay 1953, 372-376 with portrait; published works listed in *Sommervogel; Tucci 2005, 134-136; I.G. Županov, Disputed Mission. Jesuit Experiments and Brahmanical Knowledge in Seventeenth-century India. Delhi 1999 (with further references); Wikipedia with portrait (another in German version).

Monographs on R. De’ N.: *P. R. Bachmann, R. N., 1577–1656. Ein missionsgeschichtlicher Beitrag zum christlichen Dialog mit Hinduismus. 301 p. Bibl. Inst. Hist. 1:32. Rome 1972; *V. Cronin, A Pearl of India. The Life of R. de N. 297 p. N.Y. 1959; *P. Dahmen, R. De N., S.J. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Missionsmethode und der Indologie. 12+82 p. Missionswiss. Abh. 6. Münster 1924 & Un Jésuite Brahme, R. De N., S.J. 10+103 p. Bruges 1924  [the same work?]; *S. Rajamanickam, The First Oriental Scholar. Tirunelveli 1972.

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