The Webster's dictionary defines syncretism as the combination of different forms of beliefs or practice. From a very early date, the Christian church had to struggle with various interpretations of its faith which seemed to many to endanger a crucial aspect of that faith. Converts were coming to Christianity from several different religious and cultural backgrounds. As was to be expected, these various origins influenced their interpretation of Christianity.

At the same time other religious movements were taking important elements of the Christian faith and incorporating them into their systems. For example in the Pancaratra literature (around 5th c AD) we find five manifestations of God - para, vyüha, vibhava, arca and antaryämi. The para is the highest form of God in the highest heaven and this is similar to God the Father. Next in the vyüha and vibhava manifestations we have both the Incarnation and the deification of man. The avatar concept which is syncretised from the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ fits in these manifestations. In the arca manifestation God condescends to live in an idol and as antaryämi God resides in the hearts of His people.1 In these manifestations we see the earlier idolatry and worship of men which was prevalent in India, syncretised with the Trinity - Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Was this sufficient to call them Christian? Where was the line to be drawn between true Christianity and what was in fact a different religious with Christian elements?

This problem faced the early Church since quite clearly, that line could not be drawn a priori, for those who were eventually considered heretics did not work outside the Christian community, but rather counted themselves as faithful Christians attempting to explain the gospel in terms that their contemporaries might understand. Also, those who were eventually declared orthodox did not agree on all matters, and therefore a contemporary observer would have had great difficulty in distinguishing them claiming to be the correct understanding of Christianity.

The Church today is faced with the same problem, and most of the confusion arises since there is a lack of systematic understanding of the Bible. Scholars who decipher iconography (sculptures) will tell us that early Christianity in India was corrupted just as Christianity in Europe was corrupted by syncretism and idolatry. When God's children deviate from Him, it always leads to bondage. This principle is seen in the nation of Israel and never changes. In India, the deviation of His people from His ways led to the bondage and slavery of the Caste system.


1 Birth of Bhakti in Indian Religions and Art, Susmita Pande, Books and Books, New Delhi, 1982.

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