Christian influence and science: South India stands out

Through the missionary educational institutions the students of south India imbibed scientific method in their class rooms and it served as a trigger for scientific thinking and interest in science.

Christian influence and science: South India stands out

By Joe Palathunkal

As Chandrayan 2 was blasting off from Sriharikota in Karnataka at 2:43 PM on 22 July 2019 a couple of young Gujaratis watching the event spontaneously exclaimed: Wow, aren’t all these scientists from south India? Perhaps ISRO chief Dr. K. Sivan’s presence might have been an obvious reason for their quip but even objectively it appears to be true. What the young people were unaware was that the first rocket of India launched in 1963 was not only from South India but it was also from a Catholic church in Thumba.

But equally they were unaware of one crucial fact that connects Chandrayan 2, south India and Christianity. Hardly anybody spoke about Dr. Vanitha Muthayya, a Methodist Christian from Bangalore who was the project director of Chndrayan 2 that made the whole India proud. She has spent 32 years at ISRO as an electronic system engineer. A former student of Indian Institute of Science Bangalore (IISc), she has become the face of Indian women’s resilience and intelligence.

(Dr. Vanitha Muthayya - the woman who raised Chandrayan 2 to heights)

The Indian Institute of Science itself has a Christian history though the founders of the Institute were Jamshedji Tata and Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV but Tata entrusted the selection of the location to Nobel laureate Sir William Ramsay, a British Christian who chose Bangalore as the best location for the IISc. And the 1909 established institute’s first director too was a Christian in the person of Moris Travers, a co-worker of Ramsay. Its first Indian director was Nobel Laureate Sir C. V. Raman from Tamil Nadu, south India’s prominent identity.

A formidable male bastion, the Institute’s patriarchal prejudices blocked several brilliant women aspirants and the second female student enrolled in 1922 was Miss R. K. Christie and her Christian identity is obvious from her name itself. And by 1940 misogynistic forces of IISc began to melt down with the admission of 21 January 1917 born Ms. Violet D’Souza, a Goan Catholic. Now 102 years old she lives with her grandchildren in Delhi today.

The relationship between the church, south India and science cannot be dismissed as a pure coincidence if one has an objective and realistic mind-set to discover that essential mutual connection. When the French Dominican missionary Jordanus Catalani landed in Quilon (Kollam), Kerala, in 1323 AD, little he realized that he was opening a path of science for south India.

Thereafter the European missionaries who landed the southern shores infused science into the people even without their own knowledge. How science came to the south through these Christian missionaries had a couple of concrete reasons. Most obvious one is the spread of education all over south India through the Christian missionaries. They never built a church first but a school to impart education and that was the most important step to introduce science.

(Trichy St. Joseph's College - Monumental testimony to Christian influence and science)

These schools had a peculiar characteristic that it was open to all sections of the south Indian society irrespective of their caste, creed or ethnicity. Consequently, scientific genius blossomed from all the people breaking down all the narrow domestic walls as written by Rabindranath Tagore.

A large number of missionaries who pitched their tent in the south were of the Catholic stock which had already a great tradition of science that grew in the convents and monasteries of Europe. In fact, after the fall of Rome these monasteries became the cradles of scholarship where scientific study of nature, mathematics and the motion of stars went along with the spiritual and the theological fields. In the middle ages, it was the Church that founded Europe’s first universities producing such luminous scholars like Bishop Robert Grosseteste, Dominican Albert the Great, Franciscan Roger Bacon and Dominican Thomas Aquinas who greatly helped to establish the scientific method.Interestingly all these were Catholic priests.  A. C. Crombie callsRobertus Grosseteste  "the real founder of the tradition of scientific thought in medieval Oxford, and in some ways, of the modern English intellectual tradition".

(Thomas Aquinas - One of the ten greatest minds ever)

Through the missionary educational institutions the students of south India imbibed this scientific method and intellectual tradition in their class rooms and it served as a trigger for scientific thinking and interest in science. When Christian educational institutions dotted the length and breadth of India’s southern landscape, as a fringe effect scientists also mushroomed. Besides, the Christian education demolished the gender barriers and girls began to fill the classrooms in big numbers; Tessy Thomas, Vanitha Muthayya and other women scientists of south India are the shining results of this dynamic process. The scientific genius of the south Indian women blossomed in an unusual way, see the number of women scientists in the region surpassing any other regions of India.

(Tessy Thomas - missile woman of India, luminous alumni of St. Michael's School and St. Joseph's Higher Secondary School, Alappuzha)

With the spread of education, Christian missionaries awakened the whole south India to challenge all kinds of superstitions and inhuman social practices and as a result several rational movements originated in the south like the Periyar movement in Tamil Nadu and scientific movements in Kerala. An intellectual war against superstition greatly helped science to grow because south Indians were liberated to ask the why which ultimately led to scientific explorations and inventions. The taboo of crossing the seas was demolished and the European scientific thinking began to flow to the south. When science challenged putrefied social thinking, female foeticide came down drastically and girl students increased all over south India.

Not only the missionary educational institutionsgave boost to the intellectual and scientific vigour but the books the missionaries printed also indirectly helped people to read and know about various scientific inventions and inventors from different parts of the world. This gave young children to have an interest in science.

Besides the Christian colleges of south India started several departments of science like the Saint Joseph College of Trichy where Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam was a prominent student. Our great scientist President and the Father of missile programme often referred to his alama mater in public as well as in his writings. Physicists K. S. Krishnan and Nobel laureate Dr. C. V. Raman were the towering scientists from Madras Christian College. If we add to this Mathematician M. S. Narasimhan and the Father of White Revolution from Madras Loyola College, the galaxy will have a greater luminosity.

(C. V. Raman - pride of Madras Christian College)

This shows Christianity did not come to south India merely as a religion but as a dynamic vehicle of science and scientific thinking which produced numerous stars on the milky way of science. It really proved what the Catechism of the Catholic Church unambiguously states: “Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.”

It is this approach that gave us the Fathers of Science like the eleven amazing Catholic clergy men: Nicolaus Copernicus, Albertus Magnus, Georges Lemaitre, Gregor Mendel, Giuseppe Mercalli, William of Okham, Giovanni Battista Riccioli, Francesco Maria Grimaldi, Nicolas Steno, George V. Coyne SJand Stanley Jaki. It is the same approach that produced in south India such towering priest scientists like Hermenegild Santapau and K. M. Mathew. And add to these the great southern Christian scientists who are the lay people like George Sudarshan, Varghese Mathai, Jose Chacko, George Menacherry, Lucy Oommen, Mary Verghese and Tessy Thomas, then one will realize the enormous contribution of Christianity in bringing about a scientific revolution in the whole region.

(Gregor Mendel - founder of the modern science of genetics)

Indeed south India where Christianity reached in the first century itself through Saint Thomas the Apostle, now has turned into a science hub of the nation through the Christian influence especially through education. Out of the 2.78 crore Christians of India, 1.28 crore of them live in the five southern Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telengana where institutions of higher learning like Madras Christian College, Saint Joseph’s College, Trichy, Loyola College, Madras, Saint Aloysius College, Mangalore, Christ University, Bangalore, Loyola College, Vijayawada, and others keep on grooming future scientists of India for a golden future of the nation. And I do believe scientifically and objectively thinking sociologists and historians will take a serious note of it.

(Image Courtesy:,,,

(Joe Palathunkal is Associate Editor, Living in Faith)

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