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L’Inde des Lumières

Marie Fourcade
Ines G. Županov

L’Inde dans les savoirs / Les savoirs dans l’Inde // Knowledge of India/Knowledge in India

Becoming All Things to All. French Jesuit Scientists and the Construction of the Antiquity of the Sciences of India

Les jésuites scientifiques français et la construction de l’Antiquité des sciences de l’Inde

Dhruv Raina


L’histoire des sciences jésuites était, jusqu’à ce dernier quart du XXe siècle, un objet d’études négligé. Elle devient néanmoins d’actualité grâce à un renouveau historiographique majeur, porteur d’une analyse des relations entre science et religion au plan conceptuel, qui à son tour a ouvert le champ d’investigation des sciences jésuites. Cet essai est divisé en trois parties. Dans la première, une tentative est faite pour localiser les sciences jésuites dans le « grand » récit (en supposant qu’il soit toujours présent) de l’histoire des sciences. Elle est suivie d’une brève discussion sur les réseaux jésuites de la science au cours des xviie et xviiie siècles, intégrant ces réseaux au sein de la préhistoire de la discussion de la science coloniale. Enfin, la dernière partie traite de la particularité de la science des jésuites dans les projets d’astronomes jésuites français en Asie du Sud : les récits jésuites des xviie et xviiie siècles étaient en effet au cœur de la construction par les Lumières de l’histoire des systèmes de savoirs de l’Inde.

Texte intégral

1The relationship between the French Jesuits and the Enlightenment has for long been seen as a contentious one. Newer historiographic perspectives have played a significant role in highlighting the importance of Jesuit scientific activity which in turn has prompted a revision of our understanding of the relationship between the Jesuits and the Enlightenment. Often portrayed as the representatives of the Catholic Counter Reformation opposed to the march of the new sciences and reason, its members, depending on the historiographic preferences of scholars, were characterised either as “devils and dissemblers” or as “saints and savants”. Over the past three decades scholarship has substantially engaged with the Jesuit sciences, and the history of sciences among other historical sub-disciplines reflects a diversity of approaches and questions. The first part of this essay reviews the relationship between the Jesuit sciences and the standard historiography of sciences, in order to suggest that an important relocation in historiographic and social theoretic perspective opens up the field for fruitful investigation. Having underscored the salience of the Jesuit sciences in the history of modern science, the next section discusses the nature of the Jesuit sciences overseas, and how Giovanni Domenico Cassini (1625-1712) employed the network of Jesuit scientists in India and China for an important seventeenth century project. In the last section, the paper discusses the activities of the French Jesuit astronomers in India. Their reports on the astronomical and scientific practices in India as well as their own astronomical projects, it is argued, were important resources in the development of modern science and the Enlightenment construction of India.

2Within the traditional historiography of science, anything like the Jesuit sciences would be considered an oxymoron. This explains why Steven Harris, a leading authority on the Jesuit sciences pointed out that the discourse on Jesuit sciences was marked by a paradox. The paradox being: why “… a religious order… consisting of largely trained theologians and ordained priests”, who were “implicated in the condemnation of heliocentrism and the recantation of Galileo… could at the same time be so successful in nurturing and sustaining a tradition of scientific scholarship in its own ranks” (Harris 1996: 288). In fact, among the many charges pinned on the Jesuits were a blind allegiance to scholasticism and Catholic dogma, the condemnation of Galileo which was seen as an outcome of Jesuit machinations and the opposition to Cartesianism and atomism (Feingold 2003a: 2). The condemnation and subsequent incarceration of Galileo was prefaced by clashes between the Catholic Church and Copernicanism, evident in the latter’s condemnation of Copernicanism as theory in 1616; followed by its declaration as heretical and the arrest of Galileo in 1633 (Caruana 2008: 244). And while both Harris and Feingold attempt to elucidate the Jesuit contribution to the modern sciences, they are divided in that Harris seeks to contextualise how religion shaped the evolution of Jesuit science. To that end for him Jesuit science is defined as an “Jesuit engagement with the recovery, analysis and dissemination of both received and contemporary learning relating to the explanation of natural phenomena, as well as the description, examination and manipulation of nature itself” (Harris 1996: 287). Feingold on the other hand seeks to tease out the purely scientific dimensions of Jesuit science from their religious mission and goes on to establish how these activities and aspirations were no different from those of the secular savant colleagues “irrespective of religious denomination” (Feingold 2003a: 2). In the same vein, Feldhay too reads Jesuit scientific texts not just as a neutral genre but as part of the tradition of early modern science (Feldhay 2000: 108).

3In other words moving beyond conflictual models of science and religion (Brooke 1996), scholarship over the last three decades is inspired by the recognition that the Jesuit contribution to the natural sciences has been substantial. The establishment of the Jesuit order within a few years of the publication of Copernicus’ Revolutionibus and the founding of the Collegio Romano influenced the shaping of its “apostolic style” during the decades of the birth of natural science (Caruana 2008: 243). Christopher Clavius was easily the most influential figure who played the central role in fashioning Jesuit science by creating a mathematics course and initiating a programme for the production of textbooks and commentaries. Consequently, cultural mechanisms for the reproduction of the tradition of Jesuit science were well in place by the middle of the seventeenth century (Lattis: 1994). By which time, the Collegio Romano served as the nodal institution for international networks of Jesuit scholars and became “one of the most prestigious centres in Europe for training in mathematics” (Feldhay 2000: 110).

  • 1 The British historian and philosopher of history, Herbert Butterfield, wrote a work in the 1930s ca (...)

4In addition to the already mentioned historiographic dichotomies and paradoxes that have structured the study of the Jesuit sciences there are a set of metatheoretic concerns from the philosophy of sciences that provide other insights into Jesuit scientific activity of the 17th and 18th centuries. From this perspective three distinct historiographic frames characterize the study of the Jesuit sciences, these being the Whig interpretation (which may be considered the standard one), the Kuhnian one where the Jesuit order is resistant to scientific progress and their scientific efforts a total failure, and the Lakatosian frame of seeing Jesuit science as a research programme whose central emphasis was to exhaust the potentialities of Aristotelian cosmology (Caruana 2008: 243). In the latter two frames it is argued that the two condemnations were not paralyzing for Jesuit intellectuals and left enough space for manoeuvre so that they could pursue their activities and continue with their discoveries. Viewed as a Lakatosian research programme the field of Jesuit sciences was marked by the attempt to build bridges across three distinct regions wherein it was important to safeguard coherence between the Aristotelian cosmology, novel empirical data streaming in from their missions within and outside Europe –evidence that seemed to run against the idea of the earth’s privileged position– and everyday experience1. Perhaps in the vein of Feingold’s argument it is further suggested that this scientific activity was possible because of the space still left available beyond the social and political restrictions imposed by Catholic church (ibid.: 244-5).

5Two questions remain unanswered namely how did they get around the condemnation of Copernicanism, and what was the source of their scientific activity? As far as the first of these questions is concerned by 1599 the Ratio Studiorum or the educational policy of the Jesuits had adopted Thomas Aquinas as the special teacher, however it was recommended in Decree 56 of the Congregation that “… Ours are not to be recommended as so bound to St. Thomas that they may not deviate from him in any respect…”; and furthermore in philosophical and scriptural matters it was suggested that the Jesuits follow the writings of those “… who have professedly been engaged in those areas…” (ibid.: 245-6). Beyond the social roots of this corporate culture the Ignatian ethos required that: “We should become all things to all, so that we may gain all for Christ” (quoted in Hsia 2009: 1). This was further exemplified much later in the accommodatio as practiced in China and India. As Hsia writes: “The ideal Jesuit was thus a shape-shifter, putting on different clothes and roles, speaking in as many tongues and modulating his message in as many forms of diction as his audiences required” (ibid.: 1). This required the preparation of lexicons of regional dialects, which was to become a Jesuit specialty as much in India as in China.

6And even though the pre-eminence of Aristotle and Aquinas was emphasised by the Ordinatio pro Studiis Superioribus of 1651, pragmatic considerations on matters pertaining both to natural knowledge and new cosmology began to shape the Jesuit imagination (Caruana 2008: 247). Thus, for example, the Ordinatio listed theological and philosophical opinions prohibited by Jesuit teaching—on these matters Aristotle and Aquinas were considered authorities. And yet the Ordinatio did not list the hypothesis of the fluidity of the heavens that ran contrary to the Aristototelian theory of the solid spheres. Jesuit pragmatism prevailed since ideas of the fluidity of the heavens were held to be the most common opinion—by not proscribing the theory of the fluidity of the heavens the Ordinatio silently conferred its imprimatur on the latter hermeneutic (ibid.).

7On the European cultural map, Jesuit science emerged as an important intellectual influence between 1620 and 1680, a period during which the pathways and institutions for the transmission of scientific knowledge were secured and the Jesuits engaged in the pursuit of the new sciences had acquired a professional identity. An important development in this period absolutely relevant to this paper was that Rome lost its monopoly as the sole centre of Jesuit learning and in the Italian provinces Jesuit learning crystallized in the cultural field of physico-mathematics; and amongst the French Jesuits there arose the tradition of producing mathematical texts—as mathematics itself became institutionalized later in the German and Italian provinces. However, by the end of period the Jesuit sciences become marginal to the mainstream institutionalization of science but Jesuit scientists themselves had not become marginal (Feldhay 2000: 109). This also explains why an earlier generation of historians saw the Jesuit sciences of the seventeenth century as a tragic failure.

Jesuit Networks and the Space of Jesuit Science

  • 2 Writing about the Jesuits in China between 1582 and 1773, Jami points out that: “… they put their s (...)

8In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries new empirical philosophies of science linked long-distance travel to the growth of scientific knowledge. The underlying premise was that geographical and intellectual discovery widened the horizons and the limits of earlier discoveries (Harris 2011: 59; Teltscher 1995). In deciphering the Jesuit paradox, Harris embeds the Jesuit sciences more generally in the imperatives of long distance corporations; the most important among the imperatives being the transportation of their members across the globe in order to ensure the success of their institutional programmes. Thus corporate and organizational travel played a very crucial role in the making of scientific knowledge across several scientific fields (Harris 2011: 68). In other words the imperatives of sustaining long-distance networks necessitated a set of practices and knowledge that goes much of the way in explaining the social origins of Jesuit science and the Jesuit project overseas. In order to ensure the expansion and maintenance of these corporate and institutional networks Jesuit instruction itself in matters of rhetoric, science, theatre, music and dance appears to have been very tightly controlled and uniform, and distinctive. There were several distinct features of the Jesuit schools, seminaries and modalities of instruction that ensured the sustenance and elaboration of such a large corporate network. In the first instance mathematics and the sciences enabled this immense network to operate and carry out a regular discourse separated by thousands of kilometres. Secondly, the schools provided the Jesuits a systemic view of the disciplines and the arts that was incumbent on all, resulting in the creation of professional cadre of teachers and sometimes even scientists in pursuit of a common knowledge ideal and goal of evangelization2 (O’Malley 2000: 28).

9As practicing scientists they obviously generated libraries of scientific texts produced within well established institutional settings and well developed procedures and protocols for reporting their scientific work. Thus as a scientific discourse Jesuit science inhabited a space that was constantly “negotiated, constituted and reconstituted under the constraints of the cognitive and non-cognitive interests” characterizing the cultural field within which it was embedded (Feldhay: 107-8). Important for our discussion in this paper is one form of Jesuit science namely “Jesuit colonial science”. And here we confront not a paradox but another oxymoron since the Jesuits were never a colonial power or nation and yet they exercised “considerable power in the overseas colonies”, and their contributions to colonial science could not have been possible without state-supported trade and colonial enterprise (Harris 2005: 71). And while this may have helped sustain networks of communication over long distances but any attempt towards substantial generalisation is frustrated both by the diversity of locations of Jesuit science extending as it did from Central and South America to Portuguese Estado da India and Pondicherry, from Brazil to the French West Indies to the settler colonies in Canada, to India and China. This diversity derived in part from the “extensive and complex institutional networks of the ancient regime”, reflecting as it did the immense diversity of cultural and natural environments within which missionaries worked as part of a “complex web of dependencies involving regional cultural traditions, commercial interest and state authorities” (ibid.: 72). Their scientific activities were spread across a canvas that extended from stellar and planetary astronomy, to anthropology and ethnography and natural history.

10The entity that has come to be designated Jesuit science possibly originates in a variety of astronomy that emerged in Jesuit institutions in Italy in the seventeenth century and gradually blossomed into an active tradition of science practiced amongst Jesuits in France in the eighteenth century (Harris 1989: 41). The scientific output of these Jesuit scientists was fairly substantial for it has been pointed out that between the years 1600 and 1773, the year when the Society of Jesus was suppressed, Jesuit scientists had authored more than 4000 published works. About 600 journal articles appeared after 1700 and roughly 1000 manuscripts were available. The society’s known publications include 6000 scientific works covering areas such as Aristotelian natural philosophy, medicine, philosophy, astronomy and mathematics. This scientific writing comprised textbooks and treatises on Euclidean geometry and mixed mathematics, treaties, opuscules and journal articles on observational astronomy, and academic publications on experimental and natural philosophy (ibid.: 41-2). Discussions of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries emphasise the changing role and function of “experience”, wherein experiment was gradually ascribed the task of arbitrating over the status of hypotheses. The movement away from scholasticism towards the modern concept of experience was indicative of the character of early modern natural philosophical frameworks (Dear 1987). In fact, Pierre Gassendi’s search for new foundations for certainty led him to anchor science in empiricism. His writings display skepticism that he employed as a tool to ridicule Aristotle, and argued that the necessary and final causes invoked by the Aristotelians were unknowable. Margaret Jacob writes: “Gassendi sought a synthesis of the scientific investigation of nature with a new ethical posture that offered support to monarchy and a strong central government provided they did nothing to inhibit the individual’s free pursuit of his legitimate passions” (Jacob 1988). As scientist and philosopher he sought to reconcile dogmatism with empiricism, a synthesis the Jesuits too were seeking.

  • 3 When speaking of the revival of astronomy in France under the Jesuits, it is Pierre Gassendi (1592- (...)

11The important work of François de Dainville on the education of the Jesuits traces the flowering of the Jesuit school of astronomy in France. The archives of Jesuit colleges reveal that towards the end of the sixteenth century there existed a centre of science in the region of Provence. The Jesuits interested in science and residing there were inspired by their contacts with the Italian universities. The Jesuit College at Tournon had a chair in mathematics in 1556 (de Dainville 1978: 311). Jesuit astronomy it is suggested then formally commences with Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, and Tonduti de Saint-Léger in the last decade of the sixteenth century at the College at Tournon. Both corresponded with Gassendi3 and corrected the Rudolphine tables of Kepler. Scientists of repute such as Claude Richard, mathematician at the court of Phillipe IV; and La Louvère passed out of Tournon. Similar, activity was initiated at Avignon. By 1616 the curriculum at Avignon included the study of treatises on mathematics, arithmetic, music, geometry, and an exposure to the science of astronomy that included recent developments in planetary theory including the system of Tycho Brahe (ibid.: 312). Thus between 1620 and 1680 a great deal of astronomical and mathematical activity was initiated at Jesuit colleges in France. In the process they were responsible for the growth of the schools of provincial astronomy (ibid.: 314). At these schools they carried out investigations to determine the meridians of the sun and the stars, observed eclipses of the moon, and the satellites of Jupiter that had just been discovered by Galileo. Furthermore, the correspondence between Athanasius Kircher, Gassendi, Peiresc, Tonduti de Saint-Léger, Marin Mersenne reveals that a great deal of activity was generated around the problem of determining longitudes. However, by 1660 in a major institutional movement, the centre for astronomy shifted from the provinces to the capital, Paris (ibid.: 315). It is hardly surprising that Cassini turned to the Jesuits when he conceived his larger project.

12Scholars are agreed that the French Jesuits did not make original contributions to mathematics, even though they did play a significant role in creating the environment in which French scientific culture emerged first among the Jesuits and among the philosophes in the 18th century (Feldhay 2000: 114). Here again we confront the paradox of Jesuit science, since Jesuit knowledge is often counterposed to the Enlightenment portrayed as an age of radical change and social transformation. Cultures of reading responded to the developments in almost every field of knowledge as public digests and journals appeared in late seventeenth century France. One of these was the Journal des Sçavans officially supported by learned academies in pre-revolutionary France, that served as a model for journals that were subsequently established. The itinerant Jesuits published their research findings in the Journals des Sçavans (hereafter JDS) from the late seventeenth century onwards; and sometimes important Jesuit publications that had escaped the eye of an enlightened readership because they were published in lesser known journals and periodicals were often republished in the JDS.

13In 1701 inspired by the idea of the JDS the Jesuits went on to found their own journal—Journal de Trévoux: Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire des sciences et des beaux arts (Palmer 1939). The contributors were largely Jesuits, but included important secular intellectuals such as Voltaire. Palmer who has very carefully scrutinised and organized the publications of the journal into several revealing tables informs us that over 62 years about 150 000 printed pages were published, dealing with the literature that appeared in Europe during those years. Using methods of statistically counting, Palmer points out the published items were spread across religion, history, philosophy, science, social studies, arts and letters. Over the decades statistically a shift in the number of publications from the arts to the sciences, to the practical and technical to the social sciences is evident. In fact the most marked increase occurs between 1702 and 1750, which were the years that the Newtonian system anchored itself in France. In this age of new projects, and new inventions, Palmer informs us that even the Jesuits spoke of an “… age so enlightened as ours…”, and referred to the search for the philosophers stone as “… a disgrace to our century…” (Palmer 1939: 44-50).

Cassini’s Project in China and India

  • 4 The beginnings of Portuguese padroado (patronage) of the Orient are traceable to the expansion of t (...)
  • 5 The “Rites Controversy” erupted in Southern India and was possibly an outcome of the Jesuit practic (...)

14Jesuit presence in India and China dates back to the sixteenth century, however the latter has been far more researched than the former. In the case of China Jesuit historiography periodises Jesuit presence into five phases of 30-40 years each; the first extending from 1583-1616: which is called the age of pioneers such as Matteo Ricci and encouraged by Valignano; 1620-1644: a new group of missionaries well versed in mathematics and Aristotelian philosophy arrive and large scale translation activities begin; 1644-1688: the Ming supersede the Manchu and Schall von Bell is appointed Director of the Astronomical Bureau in Beijing; Verbiest teaches mathematics to the Kangxi emperor; 1688–: the death of Verbiest and the arrival of the “mathématiciens du Roi” –Jesuit order no longer under the Portuguese padroado4. During this period French Jesuits despite their involvement in the Rites Controversy5 became preoccupied with scientific matters. Jesuit activity peaked in China by the end of the seventeenth century and then went into decline (Standaert 2008 170-1; Landry-Deron 2001) and their writings went on to substantially influence the Enlightenment (Clarke 1997).

  • 6 Joseph Tieffenthaler was an astronomer-cartographer and Jesuit missionary (1710-1785) travelling to (...)

15By the middle of the 17th century the Jesuit missionary assumed the “enduring guise” of scientific expertise in China –Florence Hsia points out that the image of the Jesuit as “man of science” is long-lived in both popular and scholarly writings on Jesuit presence in late imperial China. The Jesuit at this time is seen as “… a middle-man brokering cultural goods across the great divides that cleave religion from science and East from West” (Hsia 2009: 1-2). In this process it is often pointed out that the Jesuits in India were not of the same order of scientific acumen as those in China; and it is not my purpose to refute this judgment though just a cursory examination of Joseph Tiffenthaler and others would easily give the lie to the claim6. On the other hand the question is of little interest to the history of scientific ideas.

16The more important question relates to the domain of Jesuit knowledge and the co-evolution of Jesuit pedagogy both within Europe and outside of it. The canvas of the itinerant Jesuit networks compelled them to negotiate with a variety of complicated landscapes that included “courts, societies, academies, observatories, mathematical museums, cabinets of curiosities and the shifting marketplace of print” (Hsia 2009: 4). These activities ensured their place within the Republic of Letters (Feingold 2003a). The policy of accommodation and their flexibility certainly encouraged their pursuit of investigations of the natural world, but both in the case of China and India original investigations were confined to a small segment of Jesuit savants. In the case of China Hsia points out of the Society’s total literary production, the scientific possibly counted just for a tenth of it (Hsia 2009: 4). The larger point that needs emphasis is that the entire corpus played a significant role in shaping the Enlightenment social imaginary about both India and China, and as several scholars have argued certainly played a role in shaping the Oriental renaissance and the Enlightenment historiography of India (Schwab 1984; Murr 1983; Raina 2003).

17Situated within this discourse of the still nebulous modern scientific and social science disciplines were several fields of Jesuit specialty: philology, astronomy, mathematics and natural history, though astronomy and hydrology were certainly predominantly Jesuit disciplines in seventeenth century France (Hsia 2008). Their overwhelming presence in these areas recommended them to Cassini as he was developing his project to draw up a map of the world. He found that the Jesuit presence in regions distant from Europe would prove particularly resourceful in furthering the goals of his scientific project. Cassini’s proposal to involve the Jesuits in obtaining precious astronomical data in order to draw up the latitudes and longitudes of the world was resisted by several members of the Académie des Sciences, and Colbert and others expressed reservations about the same (ibid.). In the end however, Cassini’s scientific agenda prevailed over the reservations of the members of the Académie and the Jesuits were enrolled into obtaining and sending astronomical reports to Cassini from China and India following an astronomical protocol drawn up by Cassini. The legendary Jesuit astronomer stationed at Beijing, Antoine Gaubil, more or less supervised the project in China, and the reports from India were sent to him before they travelled to Paris (Observations 1692; Description 1714).

18The scientific projects undertaken by European Jesuits in India and China between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries were marked by regional variations that in turn bore the imprint of the political climate and cultural diversity of Europe (Jami 1995; Županov 1999), and strayed frequently along quite diverse paths. In other words, it would be difficult to find too many similarities between the Jesuit scientific pursuits in China and India, save for the astronomical project charted out in detail by Cassini (Diény; 1995; Qi 1995; Raina 1995). The homogeneity of the portraiture of the Jesuit project in part arises from the disciplinary fragmentation characterizing the efforts of scholars studying the Jesuit order or Jesuits sciences. This disciplinary fragmentation demarcates the Jesuit projects into the theological, linguistic, scientific and ethnographic domains, and fails to reckon with the evolution of the relationship between the different modes and forms of Jesuit engagements with non-Western knowledge forms and cultural practices. In other words, their status as a religious order has drawn attention of the majority of scholars to their missionary goals, while overlooking the linkages and relative autonomy or inner workings of their scientific project so as to reveal to us the specificity of Jesuit science.

19The important point to note is that the culture of this large corporate network was elaborated through missionary policy that was elaborated by Alessandro Valignano and possibly institutionalised in China by Matteo Ricci and in India by Roberto Nobili in India (Standaert 2008; Županov 1999). An important element of this policy was accommodatio or adaptation to Indian and Chinese cultures, and an optic that was reasonably open to the values of these cultures. It could be argued that despite differences in the Jesuit experience in India and China the corporate culture of the order was an outcome of an internally conceived policy that was an outcome of their engagement with te variety of cultures in both regions for “… the ‘other’ encouraged them actively and passively to become like that” (Standaert 2008: 174). As postcolonial theories of science have pointed out in radical departure from earlier histories of transmission of knowledge the Jesuits then were not just the vectors of Western science but there was a reverse flow in the form of a huge corpus of writing on the sciences of China and India that in many ways inform the debates and practice of science in eighteenth century Europe (Clarke 1997; Han Qi 1995; Petitjean 1992). Again then in the words of Standaert rather than over-emphasizing their role as the “inaugurators of a dialogue”, the new historiography sees the Jesuits as joining a dialogue that “was already in progress (Standaert 2008: 184; Clooney 2005; see also Will 1995). The major transformation in Jesuit historiography has been the shift from an European to a multicultural perspective that looks at the interactions between the Europe and the “Other”, as a reciprocal process not just to understand the nature of Catholicism and Protestantism but the articulation of Jesuit knowledge itself. The shift has also been one from Church and doctrinal history to the social, cultural anthropological, scientific, and economic aspects of Jesuit history and enterprise (O’Malley 2000: 4-26).

20On the other hand, despite its diversity there were themes around which Jesuit science did acquire coherence. The institutional and administrative organisation of Jesuit science was ensured through the disciplinary structures of the Society of Jesus that reinforced a “high level of group coherence and loyalty” (Harris 1989: 39). Nevertheless, despite internal dissension within the Jesuit order witnessed both in India and China, the Jesuits inaugurated historical inquiry into ancient Indian astronomy as they did in China by providing both the impetus and material for French savants and astronomers to develop their histoires de l’astronomie. In the first half of the eighteenth century, we may in fact suggest that the efforts of French Jesuit astronomers in India and China mutually complemented each other.

  • 7 Science in Context published a special issue on Jesuit Science in 1989 (Science in Context, 3 (1), (...)

21Thus in addition to their role as educators within Europe their contributions to a number of scientific disciplines have been significant (O’Malley et al. 2000; Feingold 2003a; 2003b; Harris 1989; Heilbron 1999)7. Following the work of Joseph Needham the role of Jesuits as the vectors of modern science to China (Needham 1969; Keizȏ et al. 1995) has been a heated subject of discussion and this has been naturally followed up by investigations that seek to elucidate their role in India (Ansari 1985; Sen 1982, 1985). Over the years the definition of what constitutes Jesuit scientific activity has expanded to encompass a wider expanse of Jesuit learning and scholarship, a process that has been accompanied by an enriched conceptual and theoretical repertoire for reading the Jesuit archive. This possibly explains the opening remarks in Županov’s Missionary Tropics that the study of Jesuit scholarship has become one of the rapidly growing fields of scholarship on the 17th and 18th centuries (Županov 1999, 2005; Murr 1983, 1986).

Jesuit Sciences in South Asia

22This preoccupation stimulated the interest of the French astronomer-Jesuits in Indian theories of cosmology as well as the astronomical knowledge and practices prevalent on the Indian subcontinent. Their search led them to conversations with Tamil astronomers and astrologers, including an important dialogue with Jai Singh and the astronomers at his court (Ansari 1985; Sharma 1982; Forbes 1982). The details of this encounter have come to us through the Jesuit letters, as well as a variety of other historical material. It is often canonised as the first meeting of European and Indian astronomers, which it certainly was not. Historians of science have in any case conferred on it the status of a central episode of the eighteenth century.

  • 8 Jesuit science in South Asia from the perspective of the history of science could be visualized in (...)
  • 9 The karanas, unlike the Siddhāntas on astronomy, were simplified manuals providing practical rules (...)
  • 10 Harris points out in the case of the French Jesuits in China that “they skillfully fulfilled their (...)

23The French Jesuits in India were requested to collect the Sanskrit classics and ship them to Paris for the King’s library8 (Filliozat 1951). Between 1700 and 1735 about three hundred Sanskrit classics were commissioned, copied and sent to the Bibliothèque Royale in Paris. These included works on literature, philosophy, jurisprudence, logic, metaphysics and a couple of karanas on astronomy and astrology9 (ibid.). Secondly, they were requested by the state at the reckoning of the Académie des Sciences to participate in the cartographic and astronomical project initiated by Cassini10. The Académie des Sciences interest in India was restricted to that domain of knowledge that would serve the purposes of navigation, commerce, the transfer of particular techniques notably in the areas of textiles and pharmacopoeia, and diplomacy as and when France found the need to engage in military operations The Jesuits stationed in Pondicherry were thus in constant communication with royal astronomers in Paris such as Joseph-Nicolas Delisle and Jean-Sylvain Bailly. As scholars engaging with the Indian literary and philosophical traditions, their proto-ethnographic reports on the sciences of India contributed crucially to the historical and encyclopaedic discourses on the sciences of India. This phase of their engagement came to an end with the rise of secular scholarly interest in the sciences of India and China. Furthermore, the period coincides with the ban of the order in France, as well as with the rise of Indology proper. After the ban was lifted almost fifty years later, Oriental studies and Indology proper were to be institutionalised as academic disciplines outside the field of Jesuit inquiry, and the Jesuit contributions were delegated to the pre-history of the new disciplinary formations.

24Surely then it is germane to ask as to what European Jesuit scholars, astronomers and mathematicians at different moments were doing in the astronomical observatories of the astronomer king Jai Singh between 1720 and 1750 and did they in any way shape the practice of Sanskrit-Persian astronomy at this particular institutional location. We have then two immense projects of datagathering, the one that the French Jesuits were participating in at the request of the Académie des Sciences, and the other that Jai Singh had undertaken in order to initiate a process of calendrical reform within his own kingdom as well as within what remained of the Mughal empire. Amongst the tasks to be performed by these Jesuit astronomers was to make astronomical observations and the results of these observations were to be mailed back to Paris (Hsia 2009). Astronomers and cartographers then processed this data. In addition to the task of making these observations, the Jesuits were supposed to explore local traditions of astronomy, document their methods and ferret out sightings of historical astronomical events. This task of historical astronomy and the ethnography of scientific practices was sedulously pursued in both China and India that has been discussed elsewhere (Qi 1995; Raina 2010).

25In addition, the Jesuits, quite independently of the Académie, were renowned archivists in their own right and were involved in several tasks of data gathering extending over two or more continents. Given the spatial and temporal breadth of these projects we could speak of them as transcultural, for they were immersed in several—to borrow a term from Simon Naylor— geographies of scientific culture (Naylor 2010). The table below attempts to capture some of the diversity of their activities in India:

  • 11 As missionaries engaged in proselytization, the Jesuits were forced to acquire an expertise in the (...)

Anthony Monserrate (1536-1600)

Among the first batch of Jesuits in Akbar’s court – cartographer, carefully documented rivers, cities and mountains from Goa to Kabul and produced one of the early maps of India

Jean-Vernant Bouchet (1655-1732)

Stationed in Pondicherry: a cartographer

Jean Richaud (1689)

Pondicherry. The Jesuit astronomer Fontenay discovered
Alpha Crucis off the Cape of Good Hope Richaud discovered Alpha Centauri AB’s duplicity from Pondicherry

Claude Stanislas Boudier (1686-1757)

Chandernagore. Astronomer, cartographer, Jaipur expedition, observations for Delisle

Jean-François Pons (1698-1753)

Chandernagore. Philologist, Sanskritist, Jaipur expedition – was evoked him in a priority dispute concerning the origins of Indology11

Jean Calmette (1693-1739)

Telugu speaking country. Languages, philology

Gaston Cœurdoux (1691-1777)

Pondicherry. Religion, philology; remarked upon the relation between Sanskrit, Greek and Latin, in correspondence with Delisle

Joseph Tieffenthaler (1710-1785)

Astronomer, cartographer and surveyor par excellence

Anthony Gabelsberger (1703-1741)

Astronomer in Jai Singh’s court

Andreas Strobl (1703-1758)

Astronomer in Jai Singh’s court

26(Mclagan 1932; Kocchar 1994: 178; Aitken 1961: 1; Raina 2000; Bernoulli 1785)

Shaping the Historiography of the Enlightenment History of Indian Astronomy and Mathematics

27The first Europeans to probe the astronomy and mathematics of India in the eighteenth century were the French Jesuits. French Indology, according to Filliozat, emerged in the early decades of the eighteenth century, when the king’s librarian, requested Étienne Fourmont, of the Collège Royal, to draw up a list of works of note from India and Indo-China, to be purchased for the king’s library. In the words of Filliozat: “The Indian astronomical systems were among the first scientific or even cultural achievements of India studied by Europeans” (Filliozat 1957). The French savants who produced the first histories of mathematics and astronomy did not base their histories on original Sanskrit or Tamil astronomical texts but on the reports and a couple of manuscripts sent by the French Jesuits stationed in India. Abbe Guerin’s translation of the Surya Siddhānta was the first French translation of a Sanskrit astronomical text, while the British Orientalists had obtained and translated a few mathematical and astronomical texts before the end of the eighteenth century. The French savants did read the English translations of these works and in the first decades of the nineteenth century expressed their strong disagreement with the interpretation of the British Orientalists (Raina 2003).

28The appendix at the end of Pierre-Simon Laplace’s Exposition du Système du Monde was a very important work on astronomy and celestial mechanics and there is an appendix at the end of the work that is a historical summary of the history of astronomy from Alexandria and antiquity to the end of the eighteenth century (Laplace 1813). This historical narrative is deeply indebted to the history of Bailly. Though by the time the Exposition was published, Voltaire and Laplace, who were open to Bailly’s hypothesis that astronomy had possibly originated in India though the Indians had inherited it from another people, were now put-off by his obsessiveness (Raina 2003). Further evident were certain anxieties generated by the disruption of the narrative of progress—in other words Delambre would make note of algorithms he encountered in the Indian mathematical tradition that predated Kepler by more than three hundred years. Furthermore, there were series representations of trigonometric functions and approximation procedures that fascinated Laplace and D’Alembert. These disruptions had to be accommodated within the narrative of progress that was emblematic of the history of science standing in for the history of human intelligence (Raina 2001).

29As pointed out earlier, among the important sources of D’Alembert, Diderot and Bailly’s histories of Indian science and mathematics were the Jesuit reports, though in all fairness it must be pointed out that Diderot did not know that. When the Académie des Sciences became interested in producing a history of the sciences of India, Diderot insisted that these accounts be uncontaminated by Christian prejudice and Jesuits sources. When the astronomer Guillaume-Hyacinthe-Joseph-Jean-Baptiste Le Gentil landed in India on a transit of Venus expedition his Mémoires and Voyages refer to encounters with Indian astronomers of the coast of Pondicherry. It is evident that his interlocutors were none other than those of the Jesuits and that he was familiar with the Jesuit sources (Le Gentil 1787). Le Gentil, Bailly and others would transform the ethnography of Indian astronomy into a diachrony of astronomical and mathematical reason (Raina 2011).

30According to Sylvia Murr, the eighteenth century accounts penned by the Jesuits and the philosophes comprise combinations of several representations of India. Some of these combined coherently, while other combinations were quite contradictory. One could well conceive them in Murr’s own words as figuring as an être-ailleurs, as Utopie, and as l’ici de l’autre (Murr 1983). These were representations of India as a fantasmatic place, sometimes so radically other that it generated both fascination and contempt, sometimes even providing images of a Utopia and social order. Depending on the sequence one followed in viewing the triptych one could get very contrasting ideas, but when viewed as a whole we have an image of an ancient people with a language, religion, social organization, and customs that were different from those of the French. The eighteenth century philosophes postulated that all differences were explicable, for difference was unimportant when encountering the unity of human nature and the universality of reason. These three representations were found superposed within the same discourse, whether it is in the correspondence of Voltaire or the letters of the Jesuit missionaries (Murr 1983, 1987).

31In order to appreciate why these Jesuit reports were considered authoritative it is essential to explore the Jesuit writing practices or the narratology of the Jesuit reports and letters. Amongst other objectives one of the motives for publishing the Jesuit letters was propagandistic and served as publicity material to attract funds for the Society. The demand for funding and legitimacy increased as pressure mounted against the Jesuit order in Europe during the second half of the eighteenth century. Lettres édifiantes et curieuses, a collection published in 34 volumes between 1702 and 1776, were also responding to the expectations and addictions of the reading public back in France. These expectations included “digressions and amplifications containing descriptions of foreign lands and peoples, peppered with eye-witness exaggerations, pious pathos and heroic adventures” (Županov 1999: 6). Furthermore, from the early to the middle decades of the eighteenth century the building criticism against the Jesuit order in France generated self-justificatory tropes that included the representation of their endeavours abroad as successful, their members as virtuous, and untainted by idolatrous practices.

32In this tightly cast and evidently doctored form much of Jesuit writing was subject to free loading and plagiarism (an anachronistic term for the times). The advantage of location and engagement with local populations conferred on their descriptions of the new and old worlds a concrete authority that made them vulnerable to rampant literary piracy. Two cognitive instruments in the Jesuit repertoire conferred their reports with an enviable robustness. These included on the one hand the natural faculties of reasoning, and personal experience, and on the other a healthy empiricism. Again as Županov reminds us: “The other, the foreign, the strange was seen as a “factum” to be surveyed, enumerated, described, explained, catalogued. The data thus produced and collected… remain a witness of various experiments in the methods of conversion, persuasion, surveillance and social engineering” (Županov 1999: 22).

33From the time of Nobili onwards the Jesuits more or less considered the Brahmins interlocutors for Indian civilization. This legacy of the Jesuits was to survive in French Indology, and as Roland Lardinois has shown, the genealogy persisted well into the Louis Dumont’s work Homo Heirarchicus (Lardinois 1997). One of the central preoccupations of the French Jesuits in the late seventeenth and nineteenth centuries was with Hindu chronology. It could even be suggested that a version of the antediluvian theory of Bailly was an inheritance of the Jesuit historiography that grappled with Hindu chronology to accommodate a non-Christian people into a Christian conception of time. Murr identifies the central propositions around which the Jesuit project of accomodatio was organized: [1] All the descendants of Noah had the same monotheist religion; [2] Christendom had inherited the tradition of true religion from the Jews; [3] Like the Jews the Indians were the recipients of the same heritage from Noah; [4] But contrary to the Jews the Indians lost the true religion and tumbled into idolatry (Murr 1987). The second stage of this process involved a historiographical operation that consisted in the invention of two tropes that I have elsewhere called the tropes of forgetting and disfigurement. These two tropes I argue appear reformulated in the Enlightenment historiography of sciences of India and the table below attempts to summarise these perspectives.


Trope of Forgetting

Trope of Disfigurement

Jesuit historiography of the Carnatic

The Brahmins had forgotten the original true Noahic religion from which they had descended and fallen in to idolatry

The religion of the Brahmins had been disfigured over the centuries as they had tumbled into idolatry and superstition

Enlightenment historiography of Indian astronomy and mathematics

The Brahmins had forgotten the intelligence of the astronomical methods that had been their legacy from an ancient people

The Brahmins had disfigured the core of an ancient science that they had inherited from an ancient people

34This Jesuit “inventions”, in the hands of the Enlightenment historians enabled the accommodation of historical episodes from non-Western contexts that disrupted the narrative of progress. From Bailly and Delambre via the work of the mathematician Georg Ferdinand Ludwig Phillip Cantor to that of the historians of mathematics Otto Neugebauer and Bartel van der Waarden these two tropes are constantly encountered in the study of the history of ancient and medieval Indian mathematics and astronomy. In a work published as recently as the 1980s van der Waerden suggests on lines similar to Bailly and Delambre evoking an earlier ancient mathematical wisdom that was apparently forgotten by the Indians. For van der Waerden this wisdom was Euclid’s algorithm: “I also suppose that their methods of calculation were copied, without proof… Jayadeva could learn the method of composition of solutions and of eliminating common factors of the ‘roots’ x and y, but the idea underlying the cyclic procedure, namely the periodicity of the Euclidean algorithm, got lost” (van der Waerden 1983: 154, italics added). Obviously, the latter histories were unaware of the Jesuit sources of these tropes, and very different historical arguments and contexts redefined the ways in which these tropes were deployed.

35In any case, both in historiographical terms and their proto-ethnographic reports the French Jesuits played a central role in structuring the history of Indian mathematics and astronomy, and it may well be premature to push the inference but possibly even the history of Chinese mathematics. The diversity of Western approaches to the study of the object called non-Western mathematics and astronomy and the optics available for their study suggest the existence of a more nuanced episteme than can be enveloped under the rubric of Orientalism. This would suggest that our appreciation of the power relations between East and West and the discourse about the Orient need to be modified in order to accommodate the distinct nature of different kinds of knowledge generation activities. The nested theses concerning the cosy relationship between knowledge and power are a bit too persuasive for one to pronounce that we are now located at the end of the Orientalist episteme. And yet a more nuanced historical approach wherein imperial domination of East by West is “only one of a number of factors in the East-West equation” would open windows to the plural knowledge practices of varied communities. One of the merits of post-colonial scholarship has been to reveal the “… suppressed historical origins and… hidden ideological agendas” of the Occidental discourse about the Orient. The irony about the Enlightenment history of non-Western science was that the savants recognised that the Jesuit accounts on India could be clothed in Christian prejudice. They however failed to see that other prejudices could filter through scientific reports they considered neutral and value-free. Those prejudices were possibly not of a religious nature but were disguised by some of the ideological assumptions that underpinned their historical project.



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1 The British historian and philosopher of history, Herbert Butterfield, wrote a work in the 1930s called The Whig Interpretation, which discussed the tendency say among historians of science to discuss 16th or 17th century science from the perspective of contemporary science. The Kuhnian interpretation would argue that the Jesuits were working within a paradigm of their own and hence were resistant to the later developments in the sciences. In the previous two cases, the Jesuit sciences would be portrayed as a failure. In the Lakatosian frame of the research programme, the auxiliary hypotheses protecting the hard core of Aristotelain cosmology justified their research programme even in the light of Copernicanism.

2 Writing about the Jesuits in China between 1582 and 1773, Jami points out that: “… they put their science in the service of evangelization: the knowledge and the know-how they displayed enhanced the prestige of their religion and served to attract the patronage of officials, as well as that of the imperial state” (Jami 2012: 13).

3 When speaking of the revival of astronomy in France under the Jesuits, it is Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), who is considered the inaugurator.

4 The beginnings of Portuguese padroado (patronage) of the Orient are traceable to the expansion of the Portuguese political dominion beyond the European mainland with the hope of extending political domination in addition through the religious sphere (Saraiva & Jami 2008: ix). By the middle of the seventeenth century Portuguese influence in South Asia and China began to decline and by the end of the century had more or less disappeared (Lach & Kelly 1993).

5 The “Rites Controversy” erupted in Southern India and was possibly an outcome of the Jesuit practice in India and China of accommodating to local practices and customs. As their opponents argued, the Jesuits permitted their new Christian converts to persist with some of their “idolatrous” practices. While the Vatican may have agreed, these Jesuits were never censured for contaminating the purity of the Christian religion (see Županov 1999).

6 Joseph Tieffenthaler was an astronomer-cartographer and Jesuit missionary (1710-1785) travelling to Jai Singh’s court but reached there after Jai Singh had passed away. He maintained a register of the latitudes and longitudes of all the places he visited, and his work was communicated by Anquetil-Duperron to the Académie des Sciences. In addition he wrote in a number of languages including Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit and compiled a Sanskrit-Persian dictionary. The large corpus of his work was translated by Joseph Bernoulli.

7 Science in Context published a special issue on Jesuit Science in 1989 (Science in Context, 3 (1), 1989). As far as the current state of Jesuit science is concerned, an annual conference of Jesuit science still continues to be organized on a more or less international and annual basis.

8 Jesuit science in South Asia from the perspective of the history of science could be visualized in terms of the evolution of an interwoven project along three technological axes: the technologies of the body, the technologies of dialogue, and the technologies of the state. Thus the Portuguese Jesuits landing on the West Coast of India had to find ways of surviving the tropical climate amidst a non-Christian people (Boxer 1963; see chapters 3 and 6 in Županov 2005; Figueiredo 1996). These circumstances initiated a number of Jesuit experiments, among which were the significant ones with local medical systems. The writings of Garcia de Orta provide us the first instance of the exchange between European and Ayurvedic medical systems. Such encounters resulted in novel institutional, epistemological and organizational innovations.

9 The karanas, unlike the Siddhāntas on astronomy, were simplified manuals providing practical rules for performing astronomical and astrological computations.

10 Harris points out in the case of the French Jesuits in China that “they skillfully fulfilled their twin scientific mandates by interweaving the interests of Versailles, the Forbidden City, the Académie Royale des Sciences, the republic of letters, and their general in Rome. In both the linguistic and Latourian sense, Jesuits were masters of translation” (Harris 2005: 74).

11 As missionaries engaged in proselytization, the Jesuits were forced to acquire an expertise in the local languages, and converse with both the high and low churches of the region. The problem of reconciling the other separated by the dichotomies of us and them, interior and exterior, one and many was a source of both frustration and creativity and crystallised in ways of addressing other cultures and ways of knowing, namely the universalist and the ethnic (Županov 1999). Jesuits then from R. Nobili, to Giuseppe Beschi, Jochann Ernst Hanxleden and Jean François Pons, over a period of a hundred and thirty years acquired an expertise and deep scholarly appreciation of Sanskrit and the widely spoken languages of the Southern peninsula. This was manifest in the publication and circulation of scholarly grammars, bilingual dictionaries and lexicons (Clooney 2005; Amaladass 1988). Several of these scholars went on to compose poetry in the local languages. In any case, classical philology had been an area of Jesuit competence, but this linguistic project in India has prompted a number of scholars to suggest that they were the first Indologists. Depending upon the intellectual predisposition of either secular or hagio-biographers, several paternities have been ascribed to the origins of Indology as a discipline (Raina 2000). One sees the French and Italian Jesuits of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as veritable and ignored founders of this discourse. Nevertheless, it is certain that beyond the question of priority, the secular inaugurators of Indology were treading upon a path that had been laid by these Jesuits and they were most certainly the inaugurators of the “discours sur l’Inde”.


Professor of History of Science and Education at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, his research has focused upon the politics and cultures of scientific knowledge in South Asia and on philosophy and history of science with a special focus on India. He includes in his research a philosophical as well as a sociological perspective. Recently, he has been working on cultures of history and science policy in postcolonial South Asia, in addition to a decade long preoccupation with postcolonial theory of science and the historiography of Indian mathematics.
– 2003 Images and Contexts : Studies in the Historiography of Science in India, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
– 2004 D. R. & S. I. Habib, Domesticating Modern Science : A Social History of Science and Culture in Colonial India, New Delhi, Tulika Books.
– 2010 “The French Jesuit Manuscripts on Indian Astronomy : The Narratology and Mystery surrounding a Late Seventeenth — Early Eighteenth Century Project”, in F. Bretelle-Establet, ed., Looking at it from Asia : The Processes that Shaped the Sources of the History of Science, Springer, (“Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science” 265), pp. 115-140.

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