Fri, 19 Apr, 2019

Indian astronomy: Involvement of Jesuits-II

Rachol Seminary has a distinct place in history for its contribution in the field of astronomy and as an institution that has fostered scientific culture

08th February 2019, 03:32 Hrs

Franky Fernandes


The Jesuits who came to the “mission fields” were trained in practical astronomy and considered India as a “theatre for their apostolic work”. Known for their scientific scholarship, Jesuits soon found favour with the Mughal emperors and local rulers in their courts such as Emperor Akbar (1542-1605) and king-astronomer of Ajmer, Raja Jai Singh II. 

By the 17th century, telescopes were available in India. Jesuits were involved in exploring the hinterland as they had expertise, time and opportunity, unlike European traders. Reports of all their activities and observations had to be sent to the Padroado authorities which are known as Annual Reports and Edifying Letters, which became a mine of information for scientists and academies of sciences. 

French Jesuits were involved more in astronomical observation than the Portuguese Jesuits due to their intellectual traditions and social orderings. Many were members of the Academia des Sciences.

 It is also to be noted that the Jesuits were constrained or could not bring to India all the advanced knowledge of science due to the certain Church ideologies it held on to. Therefore the knowledge of Copernican heliocentrism was not introduced. 

 I would like to highlight some contributions of the Jesuit priests. Fr Anthony Monserrate (1536-1600) was a first Jesuit geographer in India. Based on his astronomical observations, he formed a partial map of India. Fr Jean-Venant Bouchet (1655-1732) surveyed the peninsula and his interior map is considered as “the first map of any merit”, dated 1722. Fr Jean Richaud is credited for the first astronomical discovery from India. He discovered in 1689 the bright southern star Alpha Centauri. Fr Claude Stanislaus Boudier (1686-1757) was a “skilled telescopic observer” determined latitudes and longitudes of around 60 Indian cities. Fr Joseph Tieffenthaler (1710-1785) carried out astronomical observations in different part of India, including Goa. He observed the transit of Mercury in Goa on November 4, 1743. 

 Jesuits made important contributions in the field of positional astronomy and cartography. As a result of Jesuits introduction of telescopic astronomy many observatories came up in India, which was later institutionalized by East India Company. Based on the contributions of Jesuits, India has made great progress in the field of astronomy. 

 The Church Fathers were against astronomy for the reasons that it does not benefit one’s salvation but rather limits God’s omnipotence and hence the knowledge should be reserved only to God. However, Jesuit astronomers proved it to be beneficial as it gives the knowledge of God. Some Jesuit-astronomers like Christopher Clavius says astronomy leads men on path to God. Giovanni Battista Riccioli states it is a noble science that leads to the habitation of God while Franciscus Levera says it strengths love of God as well as abolishes idolatry. Johannes Kepler concurs with similar thoughts that astronomy gives ‘knowledge, admiration and worship of the omniscient God’ also, exploring heavens leads man to his original mission that is ‘imago dei’.

 What does the contribution of Jesuits missionaries in astronomy suggest? That faith and science can harmoniously exist together and both can enrich each other in the understanding of God and cosmos.  Many scientists were clergymen like Georges Lemaitre, a priest-astronomer from Belgium who first proposed the “Big Bang Theory” for the origin of universe and Gregor Mendel an Augustinian monk who is considered as “father of modern genetics”. 

Similarly many towering figures of science such as Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brahe and others were Christians. Scholar Dinesh D’Souza in his work What’s So Great About Christianity poses for us a question “where would modern science be without these men?  The Church still engages and promotes science, hence we have ‘Pontifical Academy of Sciences’ and ‘Vatican Observatory’ at Holy See established to promote true science.

As part of broader evangelization mission, Jesuits raised religious architecture. Sarvesh Sinai Borkar, a local archeo–astronomy enthusiast and researcher, opines that those Churches that are east-west facing, constructed between 16-17th centuries has made use of astronomical principles in their architecture in various ways. For instance, use of controlled light to illumine certain portions, on specific days of the year, at a particular time. This type of astronomical marvel was witnessed in the Holy Spirit Church, Margão, which is a Jesuit construction. A beam of light was shining before sunset on equinox, on the image of Holy Spirit on the main altar and two other side altars. 

 Some Churches even served as practical observatories that based on the rising and setting of the sun aligned on the equinox and solstice day with the western and eastern entrance. Many Churches even had astronomical instruments like sun-dial watches. Such watches are seen in Jesuit built Churches even today such as Lotoulim and Verna. Rachol Seminary, which is also a Jesuit architecture, has two such sun-dials, one painted on the seminary courtyard and another made of stone. To conclude, Rachol Seminary has a distinct place for its contribution in the field of astronomy and an institution that has fostered scientific culture. It will be remembered in history as an institution that has endured exchange between Europe and India, the East and West. One cannot undermine the contribution of Jesuits in Goa and beyond who gave rise to the beginning of modern science in India. 

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