“To seek God in all things”: The Jesuit encounter with botany in India

By contributing writer Joseph Satish V

Only a month after India gained independence from the British in 1947, the Indian botanist Debabrata Chatterjee wrote of his

hope that in the new India the Government will… effect among other things the early revival of the Botanical Survey of India. If it is possible to recruit men of knowledge and qualities of those giants of the past… no man of science in India need doubt that the revival of the Survey would be of the greatest help and of far-reaching benefits to India.

In 1954, the first independent Government of India appointed the taxonomist Hermegild Santapau as its Chief Botanist and Director.  Santapau had a PhD in Botany from the London University, had worked at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew (England), was a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, editor of the Journal of the Bombay Museum of Natural History, and a Professor of Botany. His services to reviving botany and science education in the country were recognized with the award of the Padma Shri from the Government of India. But this “giant” was neither British nor Indian — he was a Catholic Jesuit priest from Spain. Fr. Santapau was only one of the many Jesuits who established a legacy of “Jesuit science” in India after the religious order was “restored” in 1814.

Ignatius at the River Cardoner - By Dora Nikolova Bittau in Chapel of St Ignatius, Seattle University

Ignatius at the River Cardoner .By Dora Nikolova Bittau, in the Chapel of St. Ignatius, Seattle University

The Society of Jesus is a religious congregation of Catholic clerics founded by Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) in 1540. Only two years later, Francis Xavier (1506-1552), one of Ignatius’ first companions, reached Goa on the western coast of India. When Ignatius died sixteen years later, the number of Jesuits had grown to a thousand members around the world. With a unique “way of proceeding“, the Jesuits established themselves firmly in secular culture — arts, astronomy, anthropology, even naval architecture — all “for the greater glory of God“. However, the growing influence of the Jesuits in the Church, State, and society caused resentment in many of Catholic Europe’s nations (chiefly Portugal, Spain, and France), which led to the Suppression of the Jesuits by Pope Clement XIV in 1773. Forty-one years later though, Pope Pius VII restored the Society in 1814.

Scholarship in the history of the Jesuits has witnessed a significant shift in the past few decades. Since the 1980s, the number of non-Jesuit (also non-Catholic) scholars interrogating what has come to be called “Jesuit science” has increased. Historians of Jesuit science have generally explored the relationship between the Jesuit missionary goals and their scientific activity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, often portraying the Jesuits as ‘transmitters’ of European science to the colonies in the New World. Steven J. Harris’s description of early modern Jesuit science continues to be used as a universal description of Jesuit science across space and time. But some scholars have begun arguing the case for a more nuanced engagement with regional variants of Jesuit science.

Dhruv Raina explains that the European Jesuits who arrived in South Asia not only transmitted European science but also discovered, collected, and interpreted indigenous knowledge in the colonies. Agustin Udias argues for a broader exploration of Jesuit science in the post-Restoration period beyond Europe. It is worth exploring, even briefly, why post-1814 Jesuit science is considered different in comparison to early modern Jesuit science.

After 1814, the “new” Jesuits of the restored Society found themselves in an alien scientific landscape, which, among other things, was characterized by the emergence of specialized disciplines and “professionals” who were paid to pursue science. Subsequently, the Jesuits reinvented themselves as a teaching order in schools and colleges across the world. But they were forced to shift from the eclectic scientific tradition of their past to the new disciplines like seismology in North America and the “new botany” (laboratory-based botany research) in England and Germany. It was also in this period that the Jesuits returned to India – a group of Belgian Jesuits came to the eastern coast and set up the Bengal Mission in 1834. Later in 1837, the French Jesuits established the Madurai Mission in southern India. While the sixteenth-century Jesuits interacted with Hindu kings and Mughal emperors, now the Jesuits were obligated to cooperate with the British Empire. However, one feature remained common to the scientific enterprise of the “old” and the “new” Jesuits in India: collecting plant specimens.

Harris notes that medical botany – identifying local plants and their benefits for health reasons – was fairly consistent across all the early Jesuit missions. In India, the Jesuits in early modern Goa acquainted themselves with the native medical traditions – the Portuguese Jesuit Garcia de Orta (1500-1568) provided the first instance of the exchange between European and Ayurvedic medical systems. The early Jesuits to India lived as pilgrims, moving between villages and kingdoms, and evangelized the natives. In the process the Jesuits gained knowledge about the local customs, including that of native plants which they consumed as food or medicine. The restored Jesuits were no longer evangelizers but educators of the evangelized. They established training houses (novitiates) for teaching candidates for the priesthood (novices) in subjects that included philosophy, theology as well as the natural and physical sciences. Training in the natural sciences included collecting, identifying and preserving different flora and fauna. Yet, the focus on nature and the sciences was not only necessitated by the educational mission of the Jesuits; it was an integral part of their “spiritual” training.

Ignatius of Loyola believed that one could experience God in the natural world. He writes in his autobiography that he had spiritual experiences while gazing at nature, be it the stars in the night sky or the Cardoner river in his native Spain. Ignatius maintained notes of these experiences, reflected upon them, and later felt that “some things which he used to observe in his soul and found advantageous could be useful also to others, and so he put them into writing”. This took the form of a series of contemplative exercises called the Spiritual Exercises which later became the foundation for the compulsory spiritual training of the Jesuit novices and continues to be so.

The goal of the Spiritual Exercises was (and is) to help the Jesuit to identify his vocation in life. Guided by a spiritual director in solitude, the novice was urged “to use his senses, particularly sight to fix their mental gaze upon the scene of the meditation” during each exercise. Following this, the novice was expected to write down notes of his contemplative experience, like Ignatius did, and maintain an “observational” record of his spiritual experiences. The acme of the exercises was the ‘Contemplation to Attain Love‘ in the Fourth Week where the novice was asked to consider: “… how God dwells in creatures; in the elements, giving them existence; in the plants, giving them life; in the animals, giving them sensation; in human beings, giving them intelligence …” This tradition of contemplating “how God dwells in” nature remained unchanged in the restored Society. This along with an emphasis on silence and solitude encouraged Jesuits to establish their formation houses amidst pristine natural habitats. It was for this reason that the French Jesuits established their novitiate in Shembaganur (1877) close to Kodaikanal, a south Indian hill station favored by the British.

Hand painted plate by Anglade 1919 - Courtesy Rapinat Herbarium Trichy

Hand painted plate by Anglade, 1919. Courtesy Rapinat Herbarium Trichy

Less than a decade before the Shembaganur novitiate was established, the British taxonomist Joseph Dalton Hooker had completed his botanical expedition in the Himalayas and published several illustrated flora (1871). The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew outside London became “the center of a worldwide network of colonial gardens”. Acknowledging these developments, the French Jesuits (who had already received some training in the natural sciences in Europe) promoted the teaching and learning of the biological sciences at Shembaganur. A part of the novice’s education also included plant taxonomy; the novices had to venture into the nearby Palni hills to identify and collect plant specimens. The young novices had several Jesuits to guide and inspire them. Pierre Labarthere (1831–1904)  cultivated botanical gardens on the novitiate premises (of course, with the help of the novices). Emile Gombert (1866–1948) collected orchids and established a garden dedicated to orchids (which survives till date). Louis Anglade (1873–1953) documented local plants through a collection of nearly 2000 paintings. George Foreau (1889–1959) assembled a collection of mosses, lichens, algae, and fungi while Alfred Rapinat (1892–1959) collected flowering plants and ferns. These Jesuits and the young novices often sent plant specimens to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew for proper identification. Santapau, though not a resident of Shembaganur, had begun his life’s work at the Kew Garden. Soon enough, the French Jesuits encouraged the young novices to interact with Santapau, who was then in the Jesuit college of St. Xavier’s at Bombay (1940). It was only expected that the younger Jesuits would follow his botanical legacy.

Jesuits with the oldest tree on the Palni Hills 1903 - Courtesy Rapinat Herbarium Trichy

Jesuits with the oldest tree on the Palni Hills, 1903. Courtesy Rapinat Herbarium Trichy.

As a young novice at the Sacred Heart College, KM Matthew (1930-2004) was acquainted with botanical surveys in Shembaganur. With the nomination of Santapau to the Botanical Survey of India, Mathew was encouraged to pursue his doctoral research with the senior botanist. In 1962, under the supervision of Santapau, KM Matthew became the first Indian Jesuit to acquire a PhD in botany, focusing on the alien plants of the Palni Hills. In 1963, another pupil of Santapau, Cecil Saldanha (1926-2002) was awarded his PhD for his thesis on Taxonomic Revision of the Scrophulariaceae of Western Peninsular India. Like Santapau, both the Jesuits made significant contributions to plant taxonomy: KM Mathew published the four-volume Flora of Tamil Nadu Carnatic (1981-1988) while Saldanha published Flora of the Hassan District, Karnataka (1976).

Matthew and Saldanha were among the first Indian Jesuits to engage with science in a globalized, industrial era, where science and technology came to be seen as intertwined with “social, political and cultural issues of societal relevance”. Observing the wider implications of modern science and technology for the Catholic Church, its bishops observed at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that “if these instruments (of science and technology) are rightly used they bring solid nourishment to the human race”. After Vatican II, the Jesuit Superior General of the Jesuits, Pedro Arrupe (1907-1991) named the first delegate for what came to be known as the “scientific apostolate” of the Jesuits. In 1979, the Jesuit scientists of India, Nepal and Sri Lanka came together to organize the first ever meeting of south Asian Jesuit scientists. Responding to a report of this meeting, Arrupe noted the “apostolic aspect of the Jesuit [s]cientist’s work” and emphasized the need for Indian Jesuits “to reflect more on Indian problems”. This provides a hint of how the “new” Jesuit scientific activity became “localized” in the backdrop of the Catholic Church’s wider embrace of modern science and technology. Further investigation of how Jesuit science is manifested locally in the context of a global missionary ethos is required, especially with respect to Jesuit botany in southern India.

Contemporary Jesuit botanists in India have widened their horizons beyond the plant taxonomy of their French mentors. This engagement has extended into specialized terrains like molecular systematics and agricultural biotechnology for solving “Indian problems” like drought, crop pests and diseases, extinction of native flora, and deforestation. While Jesuits have also ventured into the twenty-first century (and contentious) disciplines like genetic engineering, there is little scholarship on how the trajectory of Jesuit biological sciences evolved in India. The establishment of the Shembaganur novitiate and the arrival of European Jesuits like Santapau signify a milestone for exploring the dawn of post-Restoration Jesuit science in southern India.

The election of the first Jesuit Pope (Francis) in 2013 has renewed interest in Jesuit studies. Historians of Jesuit science and historians of post-colonial science could consider stepping into this uncharted domain of why the quintessential Jesuit botanist did what he did in independent India. Young historians of Jesuit science must wonder why then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi observed after Santapau’s death in 1970 that:

In Rev. Fr. Santapau’s death we have lost an eminent scholar who has served education and science for over 40 years. His deep love for India urged him to become a citizen of the country. He had a great knowledge of, and concern for, our plant wealth and wrote intensively on it for experts and laymen. May his memory long continue to inspire all those interested in our flora.

Joseph Satish V is a PhD student in Science, Technology and Society Studies (STS) at the Centre for Knowledge, Culture and Innovation Studies (CKCIS), University of Hyderabad, India. His research focuses on the work of Jesuit scientists in the botanical sciences in independent India.

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