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date: 19 January 2021

Jesuits and India

Abstract and Keywords

Jesuits have been a continuing presence in India since the sixteenth century. With the help of local people, they not only spread the Christian faith but also did a lot for the growth of the Indian nation, especially through education, scientific advancements, and betterment of the lives of underprivileged people. They attempted enculturation of the Christian faith in multicultural India; learnt of, discussed, and respected other religions; and mastered and contributed to the growth of Indian languages. Now about 4,000 Jesuits—mostly Indians—are working in eighteen Provinces/Regions in India. There are three major phases in the history of Jesuits in India—the beginning, suppression, and restoration. All along, true to the Ignatian charism, members of the Society of Jesus have kept their daring missionary zeal of moving to the frontiers—challenging, unknown, and unexplored.

Keywords: Jesuits, Society of Jesus, Tamil Nadu, Madurai, Mughal, Brahmin, Sannyasi, Pandarasamis

Jesuits are members of a Catholic religious order of men known as the Society of Jesus. Its origin is traced to a group of university students in Paris (1528–1536) who came under the influence of St. Ignatius of Loyola and decided to form a religious order to serve God under the authority of the Roman pontiff. The term “Jesuit,” referring to one who used too frequently the name of Jesus, was first applied to members of the Society of Jesus as a reproach against them. Though this term was never used by St. Ignatius, later the Jesuits accepted the name in the positive sense of referring to Jesus—“The Company of Jesus,” as it was called by St. Ignatius, later Latinized as “Societas Iesu.”

St. Francis Xavier (1506–1552)

The relationship between Jesuits and India began in the sixteenth century with the arrival of St. Francis Xavier on the shores of India, and it continues into the twenty-first century. Even the suppression of the Society of Jesus worldwide by Pope Clement XIV on July 21, 1773 did not obliterate the presence of Jesuits in India. Some of them continued to serve the people of India as “former Jesuits,” and one of them—Fr. Francessco D’Andreas from Naples, Italy—was readmitted into the restored Society of Jesus (1814) and died on December 31, 1818. From 1834 onward Jesuits started coming once again from different parts of the world to work in India, restoring the old and inaugurating new areas and activities. Together with their collaborators, Jesuits have contributed and are still contributing to nation building in India.


Xavier landed in Goa on May 6, 1542. Before proceeding to Tamil Nadu, he stayed in Goa till the end of September that year, since it was the rainy season and not conducive for a sea voyage. Though Xavier came to India with the title and authority of a papal nuncio, he did not use any of the privileges that were his due. He stayed in the hospital premises and not in official buildings. As he ministered to those in the hospital and prison, he went around in the streets of Goa with a bell in hand giving religious instruction. He criticized the laxity of morals of the Portuguese Christians, which he saw as a negative influence for the spread of Christianity. He demanded that they change their lives.

Already when Xavier landed in Goa, the Confraternity of the Holy Faith, founded in 1541 in Goa, was constructing the Holy Faith Seminary (later christened as St. Paul’s College). This was planned as a seminary to train future priests to work in India and elsewhere. When an offer was made to Jesuits to be in charge of the college, Xavier accepted it and appointed Jesuits to teach and take up the college’s administration. In 1543 Jesuits started teaching, and in 1545 they took on full responsibility for the college. St. Paul’s College and the Jesuits in India were seen as so closely connected that the Jesuits were referred to as “Paulists.”

St. Paul’s College was the first educational institution established by the Society of Jesus,1 which soon came to be seen as the “teaching order”—the first religious order to undertake formal education as a major ministry. At St. Paul’s (which later became a Jesuit house of formation as well), the seminarians learnt philosophy, Latin classics, and moral theology. Moreover, an elementary school was established near the college where students learnt reading, writing, mathematics, and Christian doctrine. The Jesuits also established a college and a school at Margao. By 1608 there were at least fifteen Jesuit schools in Goa. In their schools, the Jesuits sought to provide a holistic education, developing the talents of students in drama, music, and calligraphy. They also taught both Portuguese and Konkani in their schools. Jesuits were also involved in parish activities in Goa, providing socio-pastoral ministries to Christians in Goa. Through their regular religious instruction, they sought to improve the beliefs and practices of Christians. And through the writings published by the press they established in Goa, Jesuits were the first to establish a printing press in India; thus they were able to spread Christianity throughout India. Among the works published by the press in Goa, the most important one was Krista Purana (“The Christian Puranas”)2 by Fr. Thomas Stephens (1549–1619), written in a mix of Marathi and Konkani. It influenced and inspired Christians and attracted others to Christianity. Its influence among Christians is testified by the fact that, when the Konkani-speaking Mangalorean Christians were taken as prisoners from Mangalore to Srirangapattinam near Mysore by Tipu Sultan, what kept the faith of the people alive was their recitation of Krista Purana and their practice of reciting the rosary.3

Tamil Nadu

When the weather was opportune for a sea voyage, Francis Xavier set sail from Goa to the Fishery Coast in Tamil Nadu,4 where he provided religious instruction to fisher folk there who had embraced Christianity en masse in the years 1536 and 1537. Franciscan Friar Lawrence had written about this conversion movement to the Portuguese King John III, also mentioning that there was a possibility of more conversions in the area. Meanwhile Master Jerome Osorius, a fellow student of Xavier in Paris, informed their former principal, Dr. Diogo de Gouvea, president of Saint Barbara’s College in Paris, about the conversion movement. Diogo de Gouvea wrote to King John urging him to get Ignatius and his companions for the evangelization of India, stating that he could not think of better missionaries. King John asked his ambassador Mascarenhas to pursue the matter. Things moved so fast that even before Pope Paul III had given the official papal approval of the new religious order,5 Ignatius was asked by the Pope to send some of his companions to India. On March 10, 1540, Mascarenhas could report to the King that two missionaries had been granted to him; and in June he arrived in Lisbon with Xavier, who left Portugal for India the following year. In October 1542, Francis Xavier landed at Manappad on the Fishery Coast and began his missionary work there (Schurhammer 1977; Thekkedath 1988).

Francis Xavier went on foot from Manappad to Tuticorin, getting accustomed to the land and the people he came to serve. He baptized the children born after the group baptism of 1536 and 1537. Then he spent four months in Tuticorin, focusing on having essential prayers, necessary parts of the catechism book, and a short talk prepared by him on what it meant to be a Christian translated from Portuguese into Tamil. He was helped in this work by the three seminarians who accompanied him from St. Paul’s College, Goa—deacons Gaspar and Manuel and another minor seminarian, all from Tuticorin. The prayer sessions and the religious instructions of Xavier were further explained by the local seminarians, who later, as ordained priests, continued to help the Jesuits in their missionary work. Besides these local agents of evangelization, Xavier appointed catechists in each village to conduct prayers, give children baptism in case of necessity, and oversee the life of Christians. The catechists were the connecting link between the missionaries and Christians. He paid them from the 4,000 fanams provided to him by the Portuguese governor of India, Martin Afonso de Souza.

Besides helping Catholics grow in knowledge and practice of the Christian faith, Xavier also played a major role in the founding of new Catholic communities on the coast—Kombuturei village during Xavier’s first trip from Manappad to Tuticorin, and later the fourteen villages on the Travancore coast (today in Kanyakumari district, Tamil Nadu) and in Mannar (off the coast of Sri Lanka). Xavier not only baptized people and gave them religious instruction but also stood by them when they were in need or in dire straits. For example, when the soldiers of the Vijayanagar empire attacked the Christian villages, he made arrangements for food to be brought to the affected villages via the sea route and even dared to go to where the soldiers were staying and rebuked them. This courageous act, along with his life of prayer and asceticism, endeared him to people and inspired them to embrace Christianity and grow in attachment to the Christian faith.

In 1546, before Xavier left for Malacca, he appointed his Jesuit companion from Italy, Fr. Antonio Criminali (1520–1549), to be in charge of the Christians in Tamil Nadu. Criminali was the first missionary to learn to read and write Tamil. The following year, Fr. Henry Henriques (1520–1600) and others joined Criminali. Then n 1548 Xavier came back to the Fishery Coast and appointed Criminali as Superior of the mission in the coast. With the future of the mission in mind, Xavier asked Henriques to learn Tamil well and to compose a Tamil grammar after the model of Greek and Latin grammar, so that the missionaries could become proficient in the language of the local people. Over the course of time, some Jesuits became so well versed in various Indian languages that they added to the richness of literatures in Indian languages.

As in Goa, Xavier asked his Jesuit companions to establish schools in every parish in the state. Providing schooling in remote villages, and education to those denied for centuries in India, was a revolutionary step taken by the Jesuits in India. Ensuring that each village had both a church and a school was the method followed by subsequent missionaries in India, thus contributing toward furthering the upward social mobility of those long denied that opportunity by the discriminating and oppressive caste system in India.

Fr. Henry Henriques, the Apostle of the Fishery Coast (1520–1600)

Henriques took the wish of Xavier seriously and learnt Tamil so well that he could converse with Tamils fluently, hear their confessions. and explain to them effectively the Catholic belief system. When in 1549 Criminali was killed at Vedalai by soldiers of the raja of Ramnad, Jesuits in the Fishery Coast elected Henriques as the new Superior of the mission, which was later approved by Xavier. The three reasons given by the Jesuits for their choice of Henriques as their mission Superior was that he was the apt person for the job, he understood the language of the local people, and he had a good relationship with the local people (Wicki 1963).

Henriques insisted that the Jesuits coming to the Fishery Coast should learn first of all the language of the people before anything else. The importance given to language was such that the Jesuits decided to speak among themselves only in Tamil. If they failed to speak in Tamil, they took upon themselves some penance or other.

When Henriques was Superior of the mission, new institutions were established in quick succession. An elementary school already existed in Punnaikayal. To that, a higher grade school was added. Thus promising young men were given the opportunity to receive further studies there so that they could gain enough knowledge to be able to complete their studies in the college in Kollam, Kerala, directed by Fr. N. Lancilotti. The aim of this type of education was to create well-brought-up and influential Christians, who could, by their example and superior knowledge, show others a truly Christian spirit and turn of mind (Castets 1926).

From 1549 onward Henriques selected a group of men from among the Christians in the Fishery Coast who were best instructed in the Christian faith and lived an exemplary life for a special mission. When they expressed their willingness to spend their lives spreading and witnessing the message of Jesus without receiving any salary, he invited them to make a public act of oblation and offer themselves to God. Henriques had a high regard for the quality of the Christian life of these itinerant preachers. He called them “these brothers of ours” and wrote high praise of them in his letters. For example, on January 12, 1551, he wrote from Kochi to his companion Simon Rodrigues in Portugal:

They [itinerant preachers in the Fishery Coast] show a great desire to serve God and they do this every time in a better way. They are quite ready to obey the Fathers, as if they lived under obedience, and they are quite ready to die for the love of Christ Our Lord. You may believe that one of the great consolations which we, Fathers and Brothers, have here is to see these men, or better these brothers of ours, because we consider them as such for their great virtue and for the deep friendship they have with us. And it is certain that in some of them we notice such virtues that we would be very grateful to God our Lord if he would grant them to us. Such men edify the people very much by their good life, free from all self-seeking. And so, after they are placed in the various villages, by the goodness of God a very different fruit is produced in those places compared with the earlier times [when only foreign missionaries worked there].

(Wicki 1950, 155)

In 1560 Henriques organized devout men and women of the coast into a confraternity of charity. Confraternity was one of the ways adopted by the Jesuits worldwide to seek lay collaboration in their ministries to the people. It was almost like a religious society for married people. Its members were expected to lead devout Christian lives and do works of charity, like the Jesuits, by helping those in need—the sick, poor, and abandoned. They established small hospitals in some villages and took care of the sick and dying. In Punnaikayal, Tamil Nadu, Henriques founded a hospital where the sick and invalids could be properly taken care of. Manual Coutinho, the Portuguese captain, fully supported this venture. A local Catholic couple managed the running of the hospital.

By 1600 twenty Jesuits (17 priests, 2 coadjutor brothers, and 1 scholastic) were working in the Fishery Coast. There was a desire among the Jesuits to move into newer areas and establish Christian communities there.

Madurai Mission

Since 1595 Fr. Goncalo Fernandez, S.J., had been living in Madurai. With the permission of the ruler of Madurai—the nayak of the Vijayanagar empire—he had built a church, a residence, and a school. He took care of the spiritual needs of the Portuguese Christians and the Christians from the coast who were living in Madurai. In spite of his ascetic life and contact with local Hindus. he could not win any new converts to Christianity.

A change in the attitude of Indians toward Christianity was brought about by the bold and innovative approach of the “renaissance missionary” Roberto de Nobili, S.J. (1577–1656) (Letson/Higgins 1996). He belongs to the category of missionaries who, like Matteo Ricci in China, respected the local cultural traditions and customs of the people and tried to incarnate Christianity within the Indian cultural ethos. He came to Madurai on November 1606. He studied the situation and realized that there were no new converts because Christianity was looked down upon as an impure paranghi religion.6 With the permission of his superiors, he left the Jesuit residence in Madurai and lived in a hut built in the Brahmin quarters of Madurai dressed as an Indian sannyasi,7 eating only one meal a day consisting of vegetarian food. He presented himself as a person from the noble family in Rome (Kshatriya in the Indian caste system) and a sannyasi who had come to preach a new spiritual law. His adaptation to Indian customs made him acceptable to Brahmins and others who had earlier despised Christianity as a paranghi religion. He studied Hindu scriptures and became proficient in Tamil, Telugu, and Sanskrit languages. He discussed Christianity and Hinduism with those who came to visit him. Some Brahmins, nayaks, and people of other castes became convinced and embraced Christianity. He allowed the Christians to retain their Tamil names, to follow their social customs like the tuft of hair, and to continue to celebrate the harvest festival Pongal.

But from 1610 de Nobili faced opposition of his methods from his Jesuit companions, other clergy, and religious sectors. De Nobili was asked to appear before an inquisition at Goa to defend his lifestyle and methods of inculturating the Christian faith in India. It was discussed again in Rome. including a written defense of de Nobili on his policy of adaptation. Finally, in 1623, Pope Gregory XV decided the issue in favor of de Nobili and approved his approach.

After his methods had been approved, de Nobili began to establish Christian centers beyond Madurai, beginning with Tiruchirapalli and Salem. As a result, people from different castes embraced Catholicism. Given the existing caste system of those days, a concrete problem emerged: how to give religious instructions to these different groups of people and how to gather them together for religious worship. Roberto de Nobili realized that the same Jesuit cannot minister to groups of people considered by the society as belong to either high or low castes. So he introduced two classes of Jesuit missionaries— Brahmin Sanyasis, to look after the spiritual needs of Brahmins and others who the society considered as high-caste people; and the rest to be served by Pandarasamis. Brahmin Sanyasis had to be Sanskrit scholars, strict vegetarians, and committed to fasting every day like de Nobili. Pandarasamis were free from all these obligations. As the years went by, the Pandarasamis were able to win more converts to Christianity than the Brahmin Sanyasis. As a result, the number of Jesuits who were Brahmin Sanyasis dwindled to a negligible number. It must be added that this method of Brahmin Sanyasis was also adopted by Jesuits in Andhra Pradesh and Mysore with great success.

Fr. Balthasar de Costa, S.J., was the first Pandarasami. He was followed by Frs. Alvarey, Proensa, Freire, Britto, Bonchet, Laynes, Beschi, and many others. Thanks to their indefatigable commitment to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a great number of people of the oppressed and so-called middle-caste groups embraced Christianity. By 1643, within three years of his work, de Costa had baptized some 2,200 adults. Once de Costa and a few Brahmin Sannyasis and Pandarasamis tried to bring together Christians belonging to high and low castes. Though de Nobili cautioned them against it, they went ahead because in that way they wanted to put an end to caste discrimination within Christianity. People complained against this to the governor of the region. Both Brahmin Sanyasis and Pandarasamis and their Christians were arrested, put in prison, and later expelled from the town. At the suggestion of de Nobili, the missionaries appealed to the ruler Tirumala Nayak, who granted them permission to remain in his kingdom and preach the Gospel. No further attempt was made to bring together the converts of Pandarasamis and Brahmin Sanyasis.

John de Britto (1647–1693)

More and more Jesuits embraced the life of Pandarasamis. They were ably assisted by the lay catechists. People from different villages and towns in Tamil Nadu embraced Christianity in great numbers. The persecutions they faced did not deter them. Pandarasami John de Britto, known by his Tamil name Arulanandar, worked first in the kingdoms of Thanjavur, Gingee, and Golconda. Then he entered Marava Nadu, a tributary of the Nayak of Madurai. His successful mission in the latter was short lived. Ranganatha Thevar, the raja of Marava Nadu, arrested him with his six companions—two catechists, Siluvai Nayakkar and Kanagappan, and four Christians, Suran Gaunder, Sathianathan Chetty, Arulan, and another young man. They were tortured. Excepting Sathianathan Chetty, all the others remained strong in their Christian faith. The five with de Britto were dragged for ten miles to Kalayarkoil and imprisoned near the temple there. From there they were brought to Ramanathapuram. The raja ordered all the Christians to be set free, but he forbade de Britto to preach Christianity in his land.

But against the expressed order of the raja, on May 27, 1691 de Britto reentered Marava Nadu, and during the eighteen months of his stay, many people embraced Christianity. One among them was Prince Thadiya Thevar, Poligar of Sirupalli. To remain true to his newly embraced faith, Thadiya Thevar dismissed all but his first wife. The youngest one dismissed was a niece of the raja Ranganatha. In fury, the raja condemned de Britto to death. He was executed at Oriyur on February 4, 1693. The place where the blood of the martyr was spilled attained the status of a sacred space, and pilgrimages to Oriyur began very soon after de Britto’s martyrdom. It is a great pilgrimage center now. The local tradition says that the red sand of the place is due to the blood of the martyr.

Constantine Joseph Beschi (1680–1747)

Another Pandarasami of great fame is Constantine Joseph Beschi (1680–1747), popularly known by his Tamil name Veeramamunivar.8 While his fellow Italian Jesuit de Nobili is called the “father of Tamil prose,” Veeramamunivar is acclaimed for his literary contributions in Tamil bhakti literature. His expertise in the Tamil literature of devotion, along with his incarnation of the Christian religious message into Tamil culture and language, helped him to bring about a renaissance of the Tamil bhakti movement begun earlier by the Nayanmars (from about the sixth century) and Alvars (from about the seventh century), the Tamil Saiva and Vaishnava saints respectively, and paved the way for Christianity to be inculturated and deeply rooted in Tamil soil.

Beschi not only adopted a Tamil name and lived as an Indian ascetic but also was a pioneer in introducing Tamil themes and attributes into Christian art. After erecting the church in Konankuppam,9 near Vridhachalam, Chennai, Beschi went to Mylapore and asked the bishop to procure for him, from Manila, an image of Mary with the child Jesus in her arms, according to a model he had drawn for that purpose. The bishop obliged. As a result, what we have today in Konankuppam church, to which pilgrims go in great numbers, especially in the month of January, is a life-sized statue in wood of Mary as a Tamil woman, dressed in a sari with earrings and bangles. He called her Periyanayaki, “the Great Lady, a term borrowed from the local bhakti tradition” (Gnanapragasam 1988, 176). It is to be regretted that this presentation of divine figures as Indians in Christianity was not continued. We had to wait till the twentieth century, when artists of different religious traditions began to paint and make statues of Jesus, Mary, and the saints in Indian style.

It is interesting to note that it is in Konankuppam that Beschi began to write his great epic Thembavani (The Unfading Garland). Among his many and varied forms of religious hymns, what won him great laurels is this epic poem Thembavani, composed in 1726. It contains 3,615 stanzas in 36 cantos, to which in 1729 Beschi added to each verse a prose interpretation. K. V. Zvelebil highlights the influence of Tamil great epic poems and world literature on Thembavani. He says that it “follows as models Civakacintamani, and to some extent, Kampan’s Ramayana; besides, certain echoes of Tasso were recognized in the work, and a more careful study would probably reveal the influence of other Latin and Italian models” (Zvelebil 1974, 159–160). Beschi’s achievement, in a sense, is more than that of Kambar, because while Kambar in his Kambaramayanam consisting of 12,016 stanzas has 87 varieties of cadence (sandam), Beschi in his Thembavani has only 3,615 stanzas but has introduced 90 variations. This factor has been pointed out by Beschi himself in his book Grammatica de Elegantori Dialecta (The Grammar of High Tamil, Translated from the original Latin by Benjamin Guy Babington. Thanjavur: Tanjore Maharaja Serfoji’s Sarasvati Mahal Library, 1974). The content of this most voluminous work of Beschi is the legendary life of St. Joseph, the patron saint of Beschi. It is based on the Gospels. But the atmosphere and form of the book is Tamil. He even Tamilized Joseph as Valan “the one who has Plenitude of Grace.” Hindu religious terms like suruthi (the sacred book) and archanai (worship) abound in Thembavani. Besides the classical epic, Beschi composed popular religious hymns like Kittheri Ammal Ammanei and Tirukavalur Kalambagam, drawing from the rich resources of Tamil poetry.

The Mughal Mission

The Mughal emperor Abu-ul Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar (1556–1605), who had encouraged lively discussions between members of many religions and different groups within Islam, became interested in knowing more about Christianity. What led him to that was information that two Jesuits, Anthony Vaz and Peter Dias, had rebuked Portuguese merchants in Bengal who cheated pm taxes due to Akbar. The Jesuits demanded from the Portuguese Christians retribution. Akbar wanted to know about a religion that demanded its followers to be just in their dealings, even with those who were not members of their group.

In response to the firman10 (Maclagan 1932; Wicki 1950) sent by Akbar to the Portuguese viceroy in Goa, the archbishop of Goa, and the Superior of the Jesuits in Goa, there were three Jesuit missions to his court. The first was in 1580–1583. Three Jesuit priests left Goa on November 17, 1579, and reached Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar’s capital, on February 28, 1580. All the three were non-Portuguese: the Catalan Anthony Monserrate; Francis Henriques, a Persian Muslim convert from Hormuz; and the Naples-born leader Rudolf Aquaviva, son of the Duke of Arti, who though youngest of the three was sent as the leader of the group. While Akbar wrote in his firman asking the Jesuits to “bring with them the chief books of the Law and the Gospel, for I much wish to in my heart to study and learn the law” (Fernando/Gispert-Sauch 2004, 135), the Jesuits nurtured the hope of converting Akbar to the Christian faith. Among the many gifts they brought to Akbar were a ninth-century Borghese Madonna painting (Amaladass/Gudrun 2012) and an eight-volume Royal Antwerp Polyglot Bible. They participated in the discussion in court with other religious leaders, and in private they answered Akbar’s questions on religious matters. Akbar was respectful and cordial to the Jesuits, but he did not show any inclination to become a Christian. With great disappointment, the Jesuits one by one returned to Goa.

Seven years later Akbar again asked the Goan authorities to send some Jesuits. Two priests and a brother were sent in 1590. But the mission ended abruptly in the same year because of the hostile atmosphere in the court. Four years later, in 1594, Akbar asked once again for learned Jesuits to be sent to him. This third and final mission lasted from 1595 till the death of the last surviving Jesuit of the Mughal mission—Fr. Francis Xavier Wendel in 1812. The leader of the third mission was Jerome Xavier. He spent twenty years at the Mughal court. He and the Jesuits who came with and after him laid the foundation for the Christian community in North India. Geographical and astronomical interests occupied the attention of the Fathers of the mission, who were involved in observatories put up in Jaipur and Delhi.

One additional result of the Mughal mission was the cultural enrichment of the Mughal court of Agra and Delhi—a mural and miniature paintings of Christian themes and European paintings enriched by the cultural influence of India (Amaladass/Gudrun 2012).

Restoration of the Society of Jesus

Four decades after the suppression of the Society of Jesus,11 on August 7, 1814, Pope Pius VII restored the Society through the Apostolic Letter Solicitudo Omnium Ecclesiarum. As in the old Society, missions to different parts of the world were an integral part of the new Society. In 1831 Pope Gregory XVI told Fr. Roothan, the then Superior General of the Society, that he was very keen that the Jesuits take up some of the mission areas they had worked in before. Fr. Roothan took up the challenge and wrote a letter to the entire Society on the feast of St. Francis Xavier in 1833, urging generosity in volunteering for work abroad. The response to this letter was astounding: over half of the two thousand members of the Society wrote in, volunteering for foreign missions.

Like the early Society, the restored Society sent members to work in different parts of India. Unlike in earlier days, the new Society did not come to India under the auspices of the Portuguese king or any civil authority. At the request of the Jesuit headquarters, Jesuits from different countries came to work in various parts of India. The earlier provinces of Goa and Malabar along with the Madura mission were refounded and extended their areas and activities. The Jesuits also pitched their tents in altogether new areas where they had been never before.

In the early Society, Ignatius had erected India into the third province of the Society of Jesus (after Spain and Portugal), and he appointed Xavier as the first Provincial by a letter of October 10, 1549 (that actually reached him only in November 1551). The missionary work begun by Xavier in India was continued by his dedicated and committed Jesuit companions. By 1553, out of the 700 Jesuits in the world, 65 were in the Indian province. The number of Jesuits in India continued to be on the increase, as did the areas in India where they extended their missionary work. More than 2,100 Jesuits followed Xavier to the East over a period of 200 years. At the time of the suppression, there were two provinces in India, Goa and Malabar, where close to 228 Jesuits were working.

The first Bengal Mission founded in 1834 (by Irish, English. and French Jesuits) was closed down in 1846 due to ill treatment of the Jesuits by the Padroado authorities in Calcutta. After that the six Missions founded were Madurai (1838), Bombay (1858), 2nd Bengal (1859), Calicut-Mangalore (1878), Goa (1890), and Patna (1919). They were established by different European Provinces: Madurai by the French Toulouse Province, Bombay by the Upper German Province, 2nd Bengal by the Belgium Province, Calicut-Mangalore by the Italian Venice-Milan Province), Goa by the Portuguese Province, and Patna by the Missouri (USA) Province. Some more European Provinces came to supplement others in times of need, such as the Spanish Aragon Province, which came to work in Bombay when the German Jesuits were interned by the British government in India during World War I.

As Jesuits extended their ministries into different parts of India, there was a felt need for further collaboration with the Jesuits worldwide. Jesuits from the Provinces of Europe, America, Australia, and Canada volunteered to offer their services in India. Thus, the Santal Mission of the Bengal Mission was entrusted in 1924 to the Maltese Jesuits of the Sicily Province, the Singhbhum District of the same Mission was given over in 1947 to the American Jesuits of Maryland Province, and Darjeeling and Sikkim were given to the Canadian Jesuits in 1950. The Palamau District area was handed over in 1952 to the Australian Jesuits by the Ranchi Mission, which had emerged as an independent Mission from the Bengal Mission in 1935. The Missions/Provinces further extended and developed new Missions/Provinces or Regions. The Madurai Province expanded to Andhra Pradesh (1953); and Bombay Province developed the Ahmedabad Mission (1893), which eventually became the Gujarat Mission (1934). The Ranchi Mission expanded to Chattisgarh (1907). Along with other Mission centers in Madhya Pradesh, it developed into a separate Madhya Pradesh Province (1992). Patna Mission extended its work to include other North Indian places, which eventually developed into Delhi Province in 2005. In 1970 Jesuits from the Karnataka Province started working in North-East India responding to the invitation of the Bishop of Kohima. They extended their areas of work in other North-Eastern states and eventually developed into the Kohima region. Thus, the present-day eighteen Province/Region units of the Society in India emerged from the original six Missions.

Today most of the members of these Provinces and Regions are Indians, and in some of them almost all are Indians, though not all are from their mission area. But in the “old” Society, Indian vocations to the Society of Jesus were not encouraged. Between 1542 and 1773 there was only one Indian Jesuit—Pedro Luis from Kollam, Kerala. Pedro Luis began his novitiate at Goa in 1561, which lasted for three-and-a-half years. He pronounced his vows in 1565, and was ordained the first Indian Jesuit around 1575. After his death in 1596, no other Indian was admitted into the “old” Society of Jesus.

In the restored Society of Jesus, however, things were different. The Madurai Mission had Indian vocations from 1860s, and the Italian Mission in Mangalore and Calicut had vocations within ten years of their founding. In late 1890s, within a few years after their arrival, the missionaries in Ranchi Mission recruited local vocations from first-generation converts. This policy of recruitment of Indians as Jesuits increased the number of Jesuits in each Mission/Province, which enabled it to expand ministries to newer and larger areas.

Jesuit Contribution to Nation Building in India

The Jesuits were/are involved in multiple activities in their attempts at nation building in India through continuity with past traditions and new initiatives. The Jesuits’ involvement in liberation movements; empowerment of the marginalized; individual and social transformation through socio-pastoral ministries; their specific contribution to education, languages, social and physical sciences, arts, and mass media; their commitment to the “triple dialogue” of life, cultures, and religions; their role in guiding and animating clergy and religious communities and in promoting leadership of youth and lay faithful; and their readiness to go boldly to the frontiers are some of the ways in which they are contributing to nation building in India.


Jesuits focused on school education from the beginning of their arrival in India, and they continued this effort when the Society was restored again. This time they also started colleges to respond to the needs and wishes of Catholics. Their educational institutions opened their doors to people of all castes and creeds. Jesuits in India now run 118 primary and middle schools, 155 high schools, 50 university colleges, 22 technical institutes, and 15 business administration institutes with 11,225 teachers, educating 3, 24,538 students belonging to different religious, linguistic, and socioeconomic groups. Many of their institutions are among the most reputable, and their share in the country’s educational undertaking is substantial.

The government of India introduced the concept of “autonomous college” in the 1970s to bring about qualitative innovations in higher education. Some Jesuit colleges were granted this status because of their performance and contribution. Today there are around 15 Jesuit autonomous colleges in the country. The Ministry of Human Resource Development in the Indian government has recognized four Jesuit colleges with the award of “College of Excellence.” They are: Loyola College, Chennai; St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore; St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata; and St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.

We have seen earlier that Jesuits in India were involved at the beginning in teaching and administration of St. Paul’s College. Later they also established seminaries in different parts of India. When the Society of Jesus was restored, the Jesuits once again started seminaries to train diocesan priests. Most of them have been given over to diocesan bishops and priests. Now the Jesuits run two papal faculties of philosophy in Pune and Chennai and two papal faculties of theology in Pune and Delhi, where Jesuits and others study.

Contributions to Scientific Advancement

Besides their contribution to education, the Jesuits in India have excelled in their contribution to scientific knowledge in India.


Some Jesuits who came to India were astronomers and cartographers. The French Jesuits Guy Tachard, Jean Richaud, Pierre Mauduit, Jean-Venant Bouchet, Jean Calmette, Claude Stanislaus Boudier, and Jean Francois Pons made accurate astronomical observations about lunar eclipses and the longitudes and latitudes of many Indian cities as well as determining the meridional altitude of a few stars.

Joseph Tieffenthaler (1710–1785) did extensive work in astronomy and geography. Based especially on his extensive travel in West and North India for about thirty years (1743–1773), he wrote his famous book Historisch-geographische Beschreibung von Hindustan (The Historical and Geographical Description of Hindustan). This book has thirty-eight illustrations—maps, plans of cities, views of cities—most of which were drawn by Tieffenthaler himself. Another pioneering work of his featured drawings of maps of the rivers Ganges and Ghogra. His geographical works surpassed in vastness and accuracy all the works done in that field up to that time. Dr John Bernoulli, an astronomer and member of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Berlin, who got hold of the manuscripts of Tieffenthaler, published them in the 1780s. Tieffenthaler achieved most of this work without any royal patronage and against heavy odds. Toward the end of his life, things became more difficult for him when the Society of Jesus was suppressed in 1773. So there was always the fear of being deported back to Europe by the Portuguese. Tieffenthaler was supposed to serve Raja Jai Singh of Jaipur at his observatories, but the premature death of the raja put an end to this plan. A contemporary of Tieffenthaler was the Jesuit Francis Wendel, who is known especially for his high-quality maps, which were used later by others to prepare the map of Hindustan.

Life Sciences

The Sacred Heart College in Shembaganur, Tamil Nadu, played a great role in the development of life sciences in India. At the suggestion of Jesuit Brother J. Ciceron, the collector of Madurai, Vere Levinge, created Kodaikanal Lake in 1863 by damming up the streams of the marsh. Many Jesuits contributed to the natural history museums at Shembaganur and at St. Joseph’s College, Tiruchirappalli. The collections of insects by Fr. J. Mallat, professor of science at Shembaganur, were the first of its collections. In 1895 Schs. P. Décoy and M. Schaul laid a garden with ferns and begonias, which has developed into the present-day orchidarium. Fr. A. Anglade, who came to Shembaganur in 1909, collected plants of the Palani hills and illustrated them in 1910 plates. He also made the “Library of Timbers,” consisting of more than 300 kinds of timber of the same hills, cut and arranged like books. He began a field study of the Dolmens of the Lower Palani hills, which was carried on by others. Some of the findings connected with the Dolmens are kept in the museum in the Sacred Heart College. Meanwhile another group of Jesuits residing in Shembaganur, G Andrè and J. Queste, started a collection of mosses, many of which were new to science. Fr. A. Rapinat did botanical illustrations in Tiruchirappalli. The Herbarium at Tiruchirappalli named after him has his collections and those of others like Gombert, Wafflart, and Pallithanam. The work of these pioneers was continued with great success by the Jesuit priests—Frs. K. M. Matthew, V. S. Manickam, John Britto, and others. A training program for students and teachers in nature conservation and eco-development, funded by the government of India (Department of Environment, Forests and Wildlife), has been in operation in Shembaganur since 1984.

Fr. K. M. Matthew did fieldwork in the Carnatic region of Tamil Nadu and published the findings in a fourivolume series (Matthew 1981–1988). A total of 2,260 species was covered in this work. Another contribution by him was the illustrated Flora of the Palani Hills in three volumes, which contains 1,233 plates and 2,144 pages of text.

Fr. V. S. Manickam carried out botanical explorations in the Western Ghats of South India. Under his leadership, various families of South Indian ferns have been subjected to cytological, ecological, micromorphological, phytochemical, and biotechnological studies. In 1987 he established the Centre for Biodiversity and Biotechnology at St. Xavier’s College, Palayamkottai. This center has a tissue culture unit, a molecular biology unit, a phytochemical unit, a herbarium with 100,000 specimens of ferns and flowering plants, a greenhouse with 200 species of ferns and flowering plants, and an herbal garden with 230 medicinal plants. The Center for Biosystematics, also started by him, is involved in study of the flora of the Tirunelveli hills and adjacent plains.

Modern artificial agricultural practices of using chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and monocropping have created negative impacts on agro-biodiversities and the health of people. Fr. S. Ignacimuthu, S.J., the director of the Entomology Research Institute at Loyola College, Chennai, has made significant contributions on botanical pesticides for use in the field and in the storehouses. Fr. S. Maria Packiam, S.J., has developed a new biopesticide called Ponneem. It is found to be more effective in controlling insect pests in the agro-ecosystems of Tamilnadu, Kerala, and Orissa. This biopesticide, which is ecofriendly and economically viable in controlling insect pests, has been given a patent right by the government of India.

Fr. Ethelbert Blatter, S.J. (1877–1934), the founder of Blatter Herbarium at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, was a plant taxonomist who specialized in plants of Maharashtra. Eight plants have been named after him in recognition of his great work. Fr. Hermenegild Santapau, S.J. (1892–1970), was associated with the National Institute of Sciences of India, the Linnean Society of London, and the Indian Botanical Society, among many others. He has more than 216 publications to his credit. For his contribution to the plant wealth of India, the government of India honoured him with the Padma Shree Award. Cecil Saldahna (1930–2001), an acclaimed plant taxonomist, served on many official bodies of the government of India. In recognition of his contribution several plants have been named after him.

Physical Science

Fr. Francis Laurent, S.J. (1886–1963), was an ingenious designer and maker of scientific instruments. The research activities of Fr. Charles Racine, S.J. (1897–1976), were in the field of relativity and celestial mechanics. Fr. Lourdu M. Yeddanapalli, S.J. (1904–1970), did valuable research in chemical kinetics, high polymers, chemisorption, heterogeneous catalysis, adsorption of polar gases on collagens, and paper chromatographic studies of amino acids and proteins. Fr. Francis P. Xavier, S.J., is one of the Founding Fathers of the Loyola Institute of Frontier Energy (LIFE), which is engaged in producing new, cost-effective sources of energy, particularly to meet the needs of the third world.

Fr. Eugene Lafont of St. Xaviers College, Kolkata, had the distinction of introducing modern science into India with his knowledge of experimental physics and his ability to popularize science among the people. He was called the “Father of Science” in India. Sir J. C. Bose and Dr. C. V. Raman found encouragement for their introduction to science in the person of Fr. Eugène Lafont.

Indian Languages

As in the “old” society, in the restored society too the Jesuits have made great contributions to Indian languages. The most noteworthy among them is Fr. Camille Bulcke (1909–1982), a Belgian Jesuit, who is India’s most famous Christian Hindi scholar. He enriched the Hindi and Sanskrit languages and literatures by his writings. He was an authority on the Rama theme and a well-known lexicographer. The government of India awarded him the Padma Bhushan in 1974 in recognition of his contribution to Hindi research and language.

History and Geography

In the field of history and geography, too, Jesuits have contributed. The most known among them is Fr. Henry Heras (1888–1955) of Bombay province, a Spaniard, archaeologist, and historian in India. He founded the Indian Historical Research Institute (1926), which trained numerous historians. The institute was later renamed the Heras Institute of Indian History and Culture. Heras is also the founder of the Bombay Historical Society and was also actively involved in the Indian Historical Records Commission, Indian History Congress, and the International Congress of Historical Sciences.

Empowerment of the Marginalized

Adivasis,12 dalits,13 and women are the most marginalized groups in India. Jesuits have worked and are still continuing to work for their betterment in life.

Jesuits made a great contribution to the empowerment of the adivasis in India. Fr. Constant Lievens, S.J. (1856–1893), known as the Apostle of Chotanagpur, came to Chotanagpur in 1885. When he came the adivasis were in dire straits. They had lost most of their lands and were subjected to forced labor. The loss of land to the outsiders, whom they called dikhus, was a great source of agony for the tribals. Fr. Lievens listened to their sufferings and hardships. He studied the situation of the adivasis and understood the root cause of the problem the adivasis faced.

He realized that the tribals had been deprived of their traditional rights to their ancestral lands through deceit in the courts of law, because the judges did not know the language of the people and the people did not know the language of the court. Both were misled by the landlords. To rectify the situation, Fr. Lievens put the adivasis in contact with trustworthy pleaders in the court. Following his guidance and encouragement, the adivasis began to win their cases and get back their lands. That boosted their confidence in themselves, in their rights, and in God. They realized that Fr. Lievens and people like him had become one with them and had taken up their cause for justice. They were no longer seen as outsiders by the tribals. Moreover, the adivasis experienced them as men of God. So, the people readily listened to Fr. Lievens when he shared the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He presented Jesus as the unique and universal savior, who could liberate, transform, and empower them through baptism in water and the Holy Spirit. Thousands of people came forward to become members of the Catholic Church. When Fr. Lievens arrived in Chotanagpur, there were only 56 Catholics in the area entrusted to him for evangelization. Within seven years of his arrival there were at least 80,000 baptized Catholics and more than 20,000 catechumens.

The other Jesuit Fathers in the Chotanagpur mission, with the help of catechists and other local agents, consolidated this group conversion movement known as the “miracle of Chotanagpur.” Fr. John Baptist Hoffmann (1857–1928) made significant contributions to the welfare of the adivasis. Hoffmann was a German who joined the Belgian Jesuits and came to India in 1878. In 1909 he started the Catholic Cooperative Credit Society (CCCS), popularly known as “the Catholic bank.” It was a savings bank where individual tribals deposited their savings. From the Cooperative the tribals could make small borrowings for their urgent needs at moderate rates of interest. This innovative organization, the first of its kind in India, gave the people financial security and freedom from dependence on cruel moneylenders. The Cooperative was run by the tribals themselves, who saw to it that the borrowed money was returned promptly. It functioned as a parallel organization to the parish and used the parish infrastructure to ensure smooth administration. It was a great success.

A few years later the “grain bank” (Dhan Gola) was begun. Paddy collected at the time of harvest was kept in the grain bank for sale during winter when the prices would be more beneficial to the farmers. It also ensured that grain for sowing would be available in the new year.

Hoffmann made a thorough study of ancestral land rights of tribals and with the help of Mr. Lister, the settlement officer, drafted the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act in 1908. This Act regulated the transfer of tribal lands in the area, thus preventing tribal lands from passing into the hands of nontribals. He also wrote the Munda Grammar Book, which was printed in 1903. He is best known for his Munda dictionary, titled Encyclopaedia Mundarica, in fifteen volumes that contain 5,000 pages, on the culture and civilization of the Munda tribe. This encyclopaedia helped the tribal world to partially recover their cultural identity.


From the time of Roberto de Nobili, Jesuits worked with the dalits along with the people of other castes. But they accepted the hierarchical caste system and allowed discrimination within the church and in religious services. Later Jesuits like Fr Adrian Caussanel, J.P. Trincal, Faustine Corti, and Archbishop John Peter Leonard worked for the eradication of the caste system in the church. And in recent years Jesuits have started working on conscientisation and empowerment of Dalits thorough their various programs and social action centers. Still, there is a long way to go. It should be accepted that the Jesuits have not been as successful with the empowerment of the dalits as they were with the adivasis.


With regard to the empowerment of women, the Jesuit priest J. P. Trincal has to his credit a blessing of the first marriage of a widow in 1843 amid great opposition. This heroic step was followed by other remarriages of widows. They also conscientised people against child marriage. So the Jesuits welcomed these decisions by the Indian government: the Child Marriage Restraint Act (1926) and the Age of Consent Bill (1981).


The activities of the Jesuits in India are varied and not restricted to the Christian community. As of this writing, 3,893 Jesuits are working in eighteen Provinces/Regions in India. The establishment of the Indian Social Institutes in Delhi and Bangalore, social service centers, parishes, schools, and colleges have contributed much to the empowerment of the marginalized. By networking with their collaborators and likeminded social activists, they work toward building a just Indian society.


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(1) Jesuit educational apostolate in Europe began only in 1548 when the Jesuits accepted the offer to run their first school in Messina, Italy.

(2) Krista Purana, consisting of 11,000 stanzas and 4 verses, is an epic poem on the life of Jesus Christ written after the model of Hindu purana in lyrical verse form.

(3) Another popular Jesuit work, this time among the Keralites, is Puthen Pana written by Fr. John Ernst Hanxleden (1681–1732), popularly known as Arnos Padri. He was a German Jesuit who was a grammarian and philologist and wrote verses in Malayalam and Sanskrit. Puthen Pana is a Malayalam epic on the life of Jesus Christ. This epic is still popular among the people, contributing to their religious devotion.

(4) The Fishery Coast, which is also known as the Pearl Fishery Coast, the pescaria of the Portuguese, extends from Kanyakumari to Rameshwaram and from there to Mannar off the coast of Sri Lanka.

(5) On September 27, 1540, Pope Paul III by the Apostolic Bull Regiminis Militantis Ecclesiae approved and constituted the Society of Jesus as a religious order in the Catholic Church.

(6) The Brahmins called the religion of the Portuguese Christians paranghi (from the Persian “farangi,” or Frankish, used to refer to foreigners) religion, and other Indians followed suit.

(7) The term sannyasi refers to a religious ascetic who has renounced the world.

(8) This title was given to him by the Tamil Literati, and is equivalent to Constantine, with the addition of the term “great devotee.”

(9) This was the first place of worship erected by him.

(10) From farman in Persian, meaning royal edict or mandate, issued by an emperor from an Islamic state including the Mughal Empire.

(11) As mentioned earlier the Society of Jesus was suppressed worldwide by Pope Clement XIV on July 21, 1773. But even before that suppression came into effect, the Portuguese authorities in India in 1759 expelled the Jesuits living in Goa and its adjoining areas like Diu and Daman to Lisbon.

(12) Adivasis is a Hindi word which means original inhabitants. These indigenous people are called by others and the Indian constitution “tribals,” though they prefer the name adivasis.

(13) Dalits were called by different names in Indian society, some of them derogatory. The Indian constitution calls them “scheduled castes.” But they prefer to be called dalits.