Category Archives: Hinduism’s Interaction with Other Religions

Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois

Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois was a French-Catholic missionary with the Missions Etrangeres de Paris sent to India in the early seventeen-nineties whose mission-work continued until the early eighteen-twenties. During this time Dubois authored a number of important detailed accounts of the Hindu faith and culture, which were valued by many for their ethnographic knowledge. Once such contemporary proponent of the Abbe Dubois’ work was Lord Bentwick. As discussed in the articleCastes of Mind, Nicholas B. Dirks quotes Bentwick, writing that, “in a political point of view, the information which the work of the Abbe Dubois has to impart might be of the greatest benefit in aiding the servants of the Government in conducting themselves more in unison with the customs and prejudices of the natives.” (see Dirks  65).

Little information is known about the Abbe’s life before his ordination an subsequent missionary work in India, where he was first stationed with the Pondicherry mission in the south of India. Following this the Abbe worked in Mysore aiding the reorganization efforts of the Christian community in the area, (see Dubois 1823:1-2). To better coalesce with the natives, Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois adopted the diet and clothing tendencies of his Hindu contemporaries, effectively renouncing the Euorpean lifestyle of the time. During his time in India many small agricultural communities were said to have been founded by the Abbe Dubois, as well as the introduction of vaccinations as a method of disease prevention, (See Dubois and Beauchamp 1897:19). By eighteen-twenty-three Dubois left India and returned to Paris, where he later became the director of the Missions Etrangeres de Paris (see Dubois and Beauchamp 1897:xxviii).

Of the works authored by Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois, the most influential of which is Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies, which is divided into three distinct parts, each of which discusses at length a different pillar of both Hindu culture and religion. The first and second sections discuss respectively the ‘General View of Society in India, and Especially of the Caste System’ and ‘The Four States of Brahmanical Life’, having a primary focus on cultural and societal implications of the Hindu tradition. While the third section aptly titled ‘Religion’ is concerned with the actual spiritual beliefs of practitioners of the Hindu tradition. Each of the three larger sections is further divided into chapters concerned with specific topics falling within the overarching theme of the section.

The first five chapters of the first section discuss at length the caste system found at the epicentre of  Hindu culture. The Abbe suggests that the ubiquity of the caste system in Hindu culture is the sole reason the Hindus did not regress into total barbarism which had been observed by other cultures occupying the ‘torrid region’ (Dubois  and Beauchamp 1897:29). Dubois further illustrates the importance of the caste system by observing what  became of social ‘pariahs’ a demographic of Hindu society with which he had become very familiar with. Stating that a population composed of such individuals quickly devolves into something altogether worse than the cannibalistic hordes observed in the African continent (see Dubois and Beauchamp 1897:29).

The second section takes an in-depth look at the Brahmin caste of Hindu society, covering a vast array of religious practices and expectations. It discusses at length all stages of brahmanical life starting with upanayana a ceremony in which young brahmin males are bestowed with a sacred cord, signalling their entrance into brahmic life. From this point until the age of matrimony they are acknowledged as residing in the condition of brahmacari. If the young male does not marry for any particular reason in the prescribed time period is no longer viewed as brahmacari andthe name of grhasthais not given to him. However, the six privileges afforded to the caste are still available to him. The six privileges being ‘to read, and get to read the Vedas, to make and to cause to me made, the sacrifice of the yajna, and lastly to receive alms and to give presents to the Brahmins,(Dubois 1816:101-102).

The second stage of brahmanical life  is that of grhastha, a title afforded to Brahmin males who have married and had produced children. The Abbe highlights myriad of different observances this state of Brahmins is required to maintain, a significant portion of which focus on ritual purity and auspiciousness. Not the least of these practices is ritual bathing in water that is deemed sacred, like that of the Indus or Ganges rivers. While in the water, it is of utmost importance that the man to keep his thoughts transfixed on Visnu and Brahma, the ritual bath is finished “by three times taking up handfuls of water, and with their faces turned toward the sun pouring it out in libations to that luminary”, (Dubois 1816:149). After exiting the water the grhastha brahmin dresses himself in a particular fashion that does not affect his purity or auspiciousness. This practice is conducted three times over the course of a day.

Dubois also discusses at great length the assortment of different prayers devout members of the Brahman caste observe and provides an exhaustive example highlighting the specific mechanics of the sandhya or ‘triple-prayer’ (see Dubois 1816:154-157).

The third and final section of Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies focuses more attentively on religious beliefs at the core of Hindu tradition. The first chapter of this section begins to draw a parallel between the Roman and Hindu primary deities, comparing Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto to Brahma, Visnu, and Siva (see Dubois 1816:370). The Abbe continues by explaining the origins of each member of the trimurti (the aforementioned Hindu gods) and begins to highlight the henotheistic nature of the Hindu faith. Following this the Abbe gives a more in-depth description of each member of the trimutr, as well as other prominent figures like Krsna or Indra.  Discussing in detail the role each member plays in the Hindu religion. Special attention and detail is given in the discussion of Visnu, as Visnu is said to take up to ten different forms or avatara, each of these forms and the situation(s) they correspond to are briefly illustrated.

In his Letters on the State of Christianity in India in which the Conversion of Hindoos is Considered Impracticable, a work composed of a collection of correspondences written by the Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois which were sent to his superiors in Paris, the Abbe gives a detailed account of the state in which the Christian, and especially the Roman-Catholic faith(s) were in India. The opinion held by Abbe Dubois was that because the caste system was so deeply entrenched in the Hindu tradition, the conversion of natives proved to be a task of immense difficulty. Abbe Dubois writes that “during a period of twenty-five years that I have familiarly conversed with them, lived among them as their religious teacher and spiritual guide, I would hardly dare to affirm that I have anywhere met a sincere and undisguised christian,” (see Dubois 1823:63). Dubois continues to describe the degree to which this effect was observed, noting that one of the greatest points of contention for Hindu converts is the christian belief of total equality between people of varied societal position in the eyes of God, that a Brahmin of high standing should be treated as equal to a ‘pariah’. Continuing this sentiment, the Abbe suggests that even a totalitarian or despotic rule could be imposed upon the Hindu people with greater ease than it would be to dismantle the caste system; thus highlighting the vast emphasis placed upon the caste system in the Hindu tradition.

The writings of Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois offered a valuable insight into the complexity of the Hindu culture and the religion as a whole. The thirty years of experience working and residing among the Hindu people, adopting many of their customs and practices, allowed the Abbe to accrue a wide and intimate knowledge of the manners and customs of the Hindu tradition. Henry K. Beauchamp writes that “any account given by such a man of the manners and customs of the people amongst whom he lived must in any case be instructive,” (see Dubois and Beachamp 1897: xxii).

Works Cited and Bibliograhy:

Dubois, Abbe Jean-Antoine (1816), Description of the Character, Manners, and Customs, of the People of India; and of Their Institutions Both Religious and Civil. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, (1816)

Dubois, Abbe Jean-Antoine (1816), Beauchamp, Henry K (1897), Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies. Oxford: Clarendon Press (1905)

Dubois, Abbe Jean-Antoine (1823), Letters on the State of Christianity in India in Which the conversion of Hindoos is Considered Impracticable. To which is added a vindication of the Hindus, male and female, in answer to a severe attack made upon both by the Reverend ****.

London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green (1823), Reprinted by Asian Educational Services

Dirks Nicholas B. (1992) “Castes of Mind.” Representations, No. 37, Special Issue: Imperial Fantasies and Postcolonial Histories (Winter 1992): 56-78

Related Topics:

  • Sadhya
  • Protestant missionary work taking place at the same time
  • Lord Bentwick

Related Websites:

Article Written By: Brendan Spiess (February 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Jews of India

Judaism within India has traditionally been represented by three distinct Jewish communities, the Cochin Jews, the Bene-Israel and the Baghdadi Jews (Egorova 2006:1, 4). It is notable that only the Cochin Jews and the Baghdadi Jews are “recognized as ‘conventionally’ Jewish” (Egorova 2010:108). Nathan Katz has stated that Indian Jews have traditionally been treated better than other Diasporic communities, and as a result were able to flourish within, as well as contribute to, Indian society (Katz 4). The Cochin Jews are the oldest Jewish community in India as well as the most well known. This group is extremely proud of their history, as well as of their acceptance in India (Katz and Goldberg 1989:54). This community is further divided into three different groups known as the “White Jews”, the “Black Jews” and finally the Meshuhrarim, which are the former slaves of the first two groups (Egorova 2006:4). The Bene-Israel have a relatively unknown history and scholars are forced to rely primarily on Christian missionary writings for information dating prior to the nineteenth century. According to these missionaries, they began as oil-pressers on the West Indian Coast before moving to Bombay and changing occupations in the mid 1800s (Ergova 2006:4). The Baghdadi Jews also emerged in the late 1700s with their main communities in Bombay and Calcutta (Ergova 2006:5). Despite the name, this group includes a diverse range of Jews originating throughout the Middle East (Egorova 2006:5). In spite of sharing the same religion, each community mostly kept to themselves, although at times they have shared synagogues and cemeteries (Egorova 2006:5-6). As a result, the dominant Indian culture has affected each community differently and each group enjoys distinct rituals and texts. [It must be noted that other Jews, not affiliated with the above three communities, immigrated to India as refugees during World War II, but they will not be discussed in regards to the established Jewish groups in India.]

The Cochin Jews have a unique foundation myth that contains two sacred origins, Israel and Shingly (Katz 11).  This myth is depicted in rituals, songs and most notably, a series of paintings in their main synagogue. The paintings begin by linking Palestine to India by depicting trade dating to the time of Solomon, with the next image showing Jews fleeing by sea to Shingly following the destruction of King Herod’s Temple. The third image shows their ship landing on the Indian coast, complete with a map of India with Shingly clearly marked. The remaining images illustrate the Indian King receiving them and the establishment of their synagogue in the modern period (Katz 13-15). Despite this rich myth, very little is known about the Cochin Jews in pre-Colonial India. According to Nathan Katz, “no external documentation proves Jews lived there between the fourth and ninth centuries”, however, Arab journals refer to Jewish merchants in India as early as c. 850 CE (26-30).

One of the earliest references to the Bene-Israel may be found in a letter from the Jewish scholar Maimonides, who refered to a group in India that only practiced circumcision and the Sabbath. The first definitive mention is found in 1768 in a letter between a Cochin Jew and “his Dutch business partner” referring to the group by name (Katz 91-92). Traditionally, they were referred to as Shanwar Telis, meaning “Saturday Oil Pressers” (Katz 96). Scholars are unsure when the group emerged in India, but Christian missionaries wrote that in the early 1800s, the Bene-Israel claimed to be descendents of an ancient shipwreck leading some missionaries to declare them a “Lost Tribe of Israel”(Katz 2000, 93-95). In attempts at conversion, missionaries taught the community Hebrew and English, which in turn strengthened their own identity and link to Judaism, rather than aiding in their conversion to Christianity. This allowed them to translate their own distinct prayers and songs (Katz 95). The Bene-Israel currently has two synagogues in India (Egorova 2010:106).

The Baghdadi Jews began as a growing community of Middle Eastern Jews who spoke Arabic and Persian. According to Katz, they were attracted to the economic opportunities to be found in the new thriving centre of Calcutta, and as a result their community began to spread throughout the major cities within British Colonial India (Katz 128-130).

Each of the three respective communities has a variety of religious and societal practices. The Cochin Jews have their own unique “festival prayer books”, first published in 1757 in Amsterdam (Katz 49). This group also has more elaborate and distinct Passover rituals. For example, there is a greater emphasis on purity, which will be discussed in greater detail in regards to the influence of Hindu Society below (Katz and Goldberg 1989:56). There are a number of unique songs found in various religious festivals that are not found in any other Jewish community as well (Katz 73-82). The Bene-Israel have a notable emphasis on “Elaihu Hanabi” or “Elijah the Prophet”, who they claim visited their ancestors, and thus connects them to the Book of Kings found in the Hebrew Bible (Katz 101-102). The Bene-Israel also engage in a food ritual known as the “Malida rite”, which is a special food offering (Katz 103). Additionally, women often practice fasting rituals for auspiciousness and there is also an increased emphasis on arranged marriage and related rituals (Katz 116). In a similar vein, the Baghdadi Jews raise Ezra to an elevated status, although their religious practices are similar to those of other mainstream Jewish groups (Katz 135).

Despite maintaining their Jewish identity, their geographical location and the existing societal pressures found in India have greatly influenced all three of the main Jewish communities. The Cochin Jews are unique in that they are considered to be both Jewish and Indian, an achievement that relied on three distinctive aspects of the community. As described above, they have a foundation myth that celebrates both their homeland and their Diasporic status. As such, they have “emulated and thereby affirmed the social hierarchy” found in their new land, and finally they used Hindu rituals and symbols within their own religion (Katz 10). Perhaps most notably, they emulated the Brahmin class, to legitimize their own identity within India (Katz 9-10). As discussed above, they have a unique foundation myth, which they claim is further legitimized in the Cochin Synagogue by the presence of two copper plates. These plates, which they claim to date to 379 CE [though likely dating to 1069 CE], describe their royal reception by King Cheramanperumal and this story is repeatedly celebrated through unique folk songs, which celebrate their founder, Joseph Rabban, and the Indian king as well as their new home rather than Israel (Katz 2000:33-37).

The Cochin Jews also established their own caste system. In the 1500s, Sephardic Jews traveled to Cochin and blended with notable elite families, creating a “sub-caste”, often referred to as “White Jews” or “Paradesi (foreign) Jews”. This group enjoyed an elevated status in the synagogue (Katz 38, 59-60). In a similar vein, there is an emphasis on having “untainted” Jewish blood as well as light skin colour. It is likely that this emphasis on “purity” is a result of their emulation of the Brahmin elite class (Katz 44, 61, 72). Perhaps most interesting is the extent that Hindu purity notions are reflected in kosher laws. For example, if a Gentile touches the surface kosher wine is place upon, it is no longer considered to be pure, and during Passover, every grain is analyzed for outside contact. In addition, during preparations for Passover, there is extensive cleaning and scrubbing and, everyday items are replaced with those deemed pure whenever possible (Katz and Goldberg 1989:60-61). According to Katz and Ellen S. Goldberg, “the ritual observances of the Cochin Jews serve as a means of periodically reaffirming their status in the Indian caste hierarchy” (Katz and Goldberg 1990:202).

Adaptations can also be seen within the Bene-Israel, when large groups took jobs in Bombay, which meant working on the Sabbath. As a result, there was a shift in emphasis to their Friday evening service rather than the traditional Saturday service (Katz 97). The Bene-Israel also created a sub-caste, not based on skin colour but instead upon supposed lineage; notably, however, all castes shared the synagogue, but the elite, known as the Gora, enjoyed special privileges and a heightened status (Katz 99-100). It is also interesting that traditionally they also chose not to consume beef and engaged in other traditional Hindu practices such as “shunning widow remarriage and propitiated certain Hindu deities” on occasion (Katz 100).

Despite their contact with Indian society, the Baghdadi Jews continued to speak Arabic and enjoy Arabic culture. When they moved to Bombay however, the group found themselves identifying with the British, rather than the Bene-Israel who were the dominant Jewish group in the city (Katz 136). According to Katz, the Baghdadi Jews were more “cosmopolitan” and thus identified more strongly with British customs than traditional Indian ones and as a result, they adopted English, but also retained their Hebrew and Arab-Jewish identity (Katz 141-143).

Finally, it must be noted that the creation of the State of Israel has created a drastic population shift for Diasporic communities, including those in India. Beginning in the 1950s, Cochin Jews began to immigrate to Israel en masse and as a result, the once thriving community has greatly been reduced. For many, it was the Promised Land and a new beginning (Katz and Goldberg 1993:251-253). Despite initial questions of the “authenticity” of the Bene-Israel’s form of Judaism, many saw economic opportunity in a young nation requiring craftsmen and skilled workers. As a result, the Bene-Israel’s population, in particular its youth, has largely immigrated to Israel (Roland 247-252). Due to their close ties with Britain, following Indian independence, many Baghdadi Jews considered emigration but only those with close ethnic ties with Israel left, due to the opportunities that remained in India (Roland 263).

Despite sharing a common religion, it is apparent that the three main Jewish communities in India have developed their own respective traditions and celebrated history.  Each has reacted to their unique relationship with their adopted Indian homeland and it is clear that certain aspects of Indian culture and religion, such as concerns with maintaining proper societal hierarchy and purity have influenced each community, most notably the Cochin Jews and the Bene-Israel. Despite their proud Jewish-Indian identities it is clear the creation of the State of Israel has had a profound affect on the Cochin Jews and the Bene-Israel and their future in India remains unknown.


Egorova, Yulia (2006) Jews and India: Perceptions and Image. New York: Routledge.

_____ (2010) “From Dalits to Bene Ephraim: Judaism in Andhra Prades.” Religions of South Asia. Vol. 4. pp. 105-124.

Israel, Rachael Rukmini (2002) The Jews of India: Their Story. New Delhi: Mosaic Books.

Katz, Nathan, and Ellen S. Goldberg (1989) “Asceticism and Caste in the Passover Observances of the Cochin Jews.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol. 57. pp. 53-82.

_____ (1990) “The Ritual Enactments of the Cochin Jews: The Powers of Purity and Nobility.” Ritual Studies Vol. 4. pp. 199-238.

_____ (1993) The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India. South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press.

Katz, Nathan (2000) Who are the Jews of India? Los Angeles and Berkley: University of California Press.

Roland, Joan G (1989) Jews in British India: Identity in a Colonial Era. Hanover: Brandeis University Press.

Slapak, Orpa (1995) The Jews of India: A Story of Three Communities. London: University Press of New England.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

The Malida Rite

British Colonial India

Missionaries in India

Dutch Occupied India

Sub-Castes in India

India and World War II

Hinduism in Israel

Purity in Hinduism

Bene Ephraim

Cochin Jews


Baghdadi Jews

Islam in India

Christianity in India

Noteworthy Websites

Article written by Jessica Swann (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.