Fr Thomas Stephens SJ – A Visionary who Mastered Konknni & Marathi in Goa
Miramar-Goa : Fr. Thomas Stephens, the first English Jesuit reached Goa by ship on 24th October 1579. He lived, worked in Goa for 39 years, and one year at Vasai, Maharashtra and died in Goa. He is popularly known as Padre Estevão. Before his arrival, he knew English, Latin, Portuguese and probably Greek too. In Goa he learned and mastered Konknni and Marathi. He had the working knowledge of Sanskrit. He held many administrative positions in the Society of Jesus, of which he was a member. From his contribution to Konknni and Marathi, we could deduce that he was an original thinker, great creative poet and visionary. He could possibly be called the “Father of inculturation” in India.
Fr. Gaspar de Sam Miguel a Franciscan priest who was a contemporary of Fr. Stephens worked for Konknni in Goa, composed a poem in honour of Stephens, where he calls him “The poet par excellence”. His contribution to Konknni and Marathi languages is as follows:
1. “Arte de Lingoa Canarim…1640”. This is a Konknni grammar written in Portuguese. In those days the name “Konknni’ did not exist. Instead it was called “Canarim”. Among all the Indian languages, it is the first grammar ever printed in India. It was revised, corrected, and edited with additional information by Diogo Ribeiro, S.J. and four other Jesuit priests and printed after the death of Fr. Stephens in the printing press of Jesuits at Rachol Seminary, Goa in 1640. Already in 1570 Konknni grammar and vocabularies were prepared by Jesuits to teach Konknni to European missionaries who were sent to Goa. Fr. Stephens, made use of these works to write his grammar.
2. “Doutrina Christam em Lingoa Bramana Canarim…1622”. It is a Christian catechism book in Konknni, printed in the printing press at Rachol Seminary in 1622. Among the available printed Konknni books, this is the first one. It was based on the Portuguese catechism of Fr. Marcos Jorge.
3. “Discurso sobre a vinda de Jesus Christo…1616”. (Discourse on the coming of Jesus Christ..). This work is popularly known as “Krist Purann” and is written in Marathi language with “ovi” meter and to be understood by common people many Konknni words are used. This is a masterpiece of Marathi literature. It is based on the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, with 95 chapters, totalling 10,461 stanzas in the ovi meter. Krist Puran’s first edition was printed in 1616, second edition in 1649 and third edition in 1654 in Roman script. Unfortunately, so far not a single copy of these three printing is found anywhere in the world today!!! While composing Krist Purann, Fr. Stephens studied in detail the Old Marathi Saint literature, at least 18 works.
According to Prof S.G. Malshe, who has done his doctorate on Krist Purann, concludes in his summary, “Language is a common heritage and culture. It is, therefore, not uncommon to find contemporary authors expressing themselves in a common idiom and utilizing almost the same imagery and symbolism. We find many such instances in the works of old Marathi poets. Mere similarity of usages and ideas does not necessarily mean that one has borrowed from the other. The parallels illustrated, therefore, hardly take away anything from the originality and pristine beauty of the epic work of Fr. Stephens. From these comparisons one is led to the conclusion that this ‘Catholic devotee’ of Marathi language to make his work extremely readable to the natives of Goa, who used to read the Marathi classics…” (quoted from “Fr. Thomas Stephens (1549-1619): His works” by Fr. Nelson Falcao, SDB 2020). So far there are three doctoral thesis and several articles and books written on Krist Purann in various languages.
Fr. Stephens works and life influenced many Jesuits to become preachers, scholars, and writers of Konknni and Marathi. For example, Diogo Ribeiro (1560-1633), Antonio Saldanha (1598-1663). Thus Fr. Stephens became a model and source of inspiration to successive Jesuits and others to devote their talents to work for Konknni and Marathi.