It has been exactly 500 years since Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses in 1517, and precipitated religious reforms that ultimately led to enlightened and tolerant societies we now see in the West. In comparison, if we look at the Indian sub-continent of the 15th and 16th centuries we do see religious currents in the shape of Bhakti Movement, Mahdavi Movement led by Syed Muhammad Jaunpuri, Baba Guru Nanak’s movement that later became a fully-fledged religion of Sikhism, Emperor Akbar’s Aaeen-e-Rahnamuni (which some people latter dubbed as Din-e-Ilahi), and Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi’s (later known as Mujaddad-e-Alf Saani) movement against Akbar’s religious antics.
In India, the causes and results of these movements were entirely different from the ones that expedited the religious reforms in Europe. The purpose of this article is to have a look at the religious changes that took place in Europe 500 years ago and understand how the Western civilization has benefitted from those changes. The article will also attempt to draw some conclusions and lessons that may help us understand how Europe embraced religious reformation, albeit after a lot of bloodshed, but our region despite having witnessed numerous religious movements almost at the same time never truly benefitted from them, and if it did at all it was only at a much smaller scale in comparison with Europe.
The main distinguishing factor appears to be the Renaissance, a period of cultural and intellectual upheavals that changed the landscape of Europe and paved the way for the religious reformation. Looking at India, we don’t see any such movement that could have radically transformed the Indian religious scene. The intellectual atmosphere of Europe in the pre-reformation period had witnessed a notable revival of interest in and appreciation of the classics of Latin and Greek literature.
This led to a humanist movement that turned away from the medieval preoccupation with theology. The emerging humanism also shunned asceticism toward a lively enjoyment of natural beauty. The medieval mindset propagated by Catholicism had frowned upon the earthly activities, though the clergy and the rulers themselves enjoyed such indulgence. The humanism of the Renaissance period encouraged the rise of a spirit of enquiry, skepticism, and criticism that was nowhere to be seen in India, though there might have been pockets of such activity, they never became a dominant force as it happened in Europe.
A broadening of intellectual interests that we notice in Europe of that period, was almost missing in India. For example, the invention of printing and the discovery of new routes stimulated the European population at large and these changes were not confined to a select few. Similarly, the rapidly expanding commercial life of Europe led to more explorations and the European civilization started spreading. So, in a way the intellectual movement interacted with the new commercial life of Europe; and that never happened in India. Perhaps, one reason for this complacency was an overall self-sufficient and agricultural economy that was mostly static; whereas the European economy became interdependent and commercial.
The difference between the religious movements of Europe and India can also be attributed to the breakdown of feudalism in Europe and the rise of states based on national unity. This breakdown of feudalism also led to the break-up of the religious unity of Europe under the Roman Catholic Church. Though India didn’t have a unified church, religion did occupy a preeminent position in almost all spheres of life. The Church in Europe and the religion in India, both struggled to maintain spiritual control in their respective regions, but the Catholic Church delved into temporal matters in a more organised manner than religion had done in India.
Both tried to gain popular support based on their moral influence, but the Church had much more landholding and material wealth to buttress its influence and support. In India, the situation was different mainly because the religion of the rulers was Islam and the populace were mostly Hindu. And, that is one reason political leaders in Europe had behaved differently by recognising the superior authority of the Church. In India, most political leaders offered no such recognition to religious leaders. While we find the real despotism of the medieval era in the Church, the religious leaders in India hardly ever enjoyed any such despotism.
The nature of religious solidarity in Europe and in India was poles apart. Though the Church in Europe and the religion in India affected almost all areas of human endeavour, their magnitude was not the same. The presence of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) was another factor that claimed a general suzerainty over all the Christian princes of Europe, but these claims were not always recognised. The HRE was a loose association of German princes under the nominal leadership of an elected emperor. Three hundred feudal states of the “Germanies” made up the Holy Roman Empire just prior to the Reformation.
Bimonthly magazine History of the National Geographic, in its Sept-Oct 2017 issue carried a detailed article titled Luther’s Legacy. It highlights the fact that the origins of reformation in Christianity can be traced back to 14th and 15th centuries when scholars such as John Wycliffe of Oxford (1320 – 1384) and Jan Hus (also spelled John Huss (1369 – 1415) of the University of Prague confronted the Catholic Church. Wycliffe denounced the wealth of the Church, and called for a greater emphasis on scripture. He also oversaw an English biblical translation. Inspired by Wycliffe, Jan Hus also believed that scripture was greater than tradition and preached in his native language, Czech.
The Reformation (sometimes also called the Protestant Revolt) was the culmination point of the continued conflict between spiritual and temporal power. This type of conflict was also present in India, but it never reached the culmination it saw in Europe. In Europe, this conflict was brought to a head by nationalism which, to some extent, we see in India in the shape of Sivaji’s nationalism. In Europe, the great wealth of the Catholic Church and its heavy taxes upon the common people had enraged them against the Church.
In India, a religious tax (Jizya) was intermittently imposed by the Muslim rulers on their non-Muslim subjects; the clergy did not directly benefit from it. In Europe, the causes for the breaking away of a group from the Catholic Church also included the presence of certain abuses in the Church such as immorality, simony, and nepotism. And finally, the growth of a new spirit of religious piety also contributed to the rise of religious dissent. After Wycliffe and Hus, a Dutch scholar who paved the way for the Reformation was Erasmus (1466 – 1536). He was also a Catholic priest who turned a social critic and Renaissance humanist.
By preparing important new Latin and Greek editions of the New Testament, Erasmus raised questions that would be influential in the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation. His writings such as On Free Will, In Praise of Folly, and On Civility in Children, give us an idea about what kind of thinking he promoted. While he was critical of the abuses within the Catholic Church and called for reform, he never came closer to Luther, and continued to recognise the authority of the Pope. Erasmus wanted a middle way with a deep respect for traditional faith, piety, and grace; he also rejected Luther’s emphasis on faith alone.
The teachings of Wycliffe, Hus, and Erasmus offered the foundations for the new ideas. Their new theology stressed upon the personal spiritual regeneration of the individual and rejected the formulas of the church. Perhaps, more than Wycliffe and Hus, it was the humanist movement that attacked abuses in the Catholic Church. We need to keep in mind that the Protestant leaders were not the inheritors of the humanistic tradition of tolerance and free intellectual inquiry; as we see the four major leaders of Protestantism — Luther, Calvin, Knox, and Zwingli — all later became intolerant and enemies of free inquiry; something they demanded of the Catholic Church but were not willing to offer others.
The Protestant Revolt started in Germany and spread to Scandinavia, Poland, Dutch Netherlands, Switzerland, Scotland, England, Bohemia, and parts of Hungary. One form of Protestant Christianity was Lutheranism named after the German priest, Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) whose theology was based on the idea of ‘justification by faith’ in opposition to the Churches’ doctrine of ‘justification by sacraments and works.’ The sale of indulgences by the Catholic priests had prompted Luther to publish his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517. His ideas became identical with the views of Hus who had been condemned as a heretic over a century earlier.
A lot had changed in that century, and Luther was able to begin an open war against the whole church system. In 1520, he issued three powerful pamphlets attacking the church on both political and theological grounds. The Pope excommunicated him, but the new theology appealed to simple people. The pious loved it because of its spiritual fervour, the materialist saw in it an opportunity to seize the rich church property, and the patriots regarded the Pope as an obstacle to German national unity. But when peasants tried to grab land, Luther sided with the nobles and helped to crush their revolt in 1525.
Inspired by Luther, almost at the same time in 1520s, Zwingli in Switzerland started to oppose the Roman church and attacked the old dogmas. In 1523, Zurich declared its independence from Catholicism. In 1529, an attempt was made to bring about a union between Luther and Zwingli; they met but could not agree on some of the doctrines of the new theology. Zwingli died in 1531 and John Calvin (1509 – 64) took his place by propounding Calvinism which was part Lutheran and part Zwinglian. But differences remained between Luther and Calvin; Protestantism never united. Calvinism later provided the basis for the modern Presbyterian, Congregational, and Reformed Churches.
In Scotland, John Knox (1505 – 72) fostered Calvinism; he was younger than Calvin but learned a lot from him after spending a few years in Switzerland. Knox changed the landscape of Scotland through a political and religious coup by making Calvinism supreme. Even in England, Calvinism influenced the Anglican Church that was the handiwork of King Henry VIII in the 16th century. Under Oliver Cromwell in the mid-17th century, Calvinism had a temporary triumph in England. In addition to Lutheranism and Calvinism, a third branch of Protestantism is Anglicanism of which the Episcopal Church in the United States and the Established Church of England are the modern outgrowths.
Anglicanism is perhaps the most conservative form of Protestantism, being essentially the old Roman Catholic Church modified and separated from the Pope and his hierarchy. The British weekly newspaper, The Economist, in its issue of Nov 4th – 10th carried a detailed essay on Luther that may be of interest to the readers. In the next part of this article, we will look at some of the religious movements that influenced India in the 15th and 16th centuries.