Sunday, August 26, 2012

Seva Niketan and the Jesuits in Bombay

- By Deepa Krishnan

If you drive past Byculla, you'll spot this handsome building on the main road. I've always wondered what this building is about, especially given the prominent logo in the middle. The logo looked vaguely Christian to me, but could well have been something Jewish or Zoroastrian.
Today I did some searching around, and found out: this is Seva Niketan, a Christian Life Community (CLC) centre in Mumbai.

The CLC is what is called a Sodality; a group of lay Christian people who get together for their own spiritual upliftment and to do pious acts and charity. The CLC congregations have traditionally been led by Jesuit priests. 

In case you didn't know who the Jesuits are, they are a group of trained priests, who on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church, do missionary work. Ignatius of Loyola was the founder of the Jesuit order (the correct name is the Society of Jesus). Loyola is a small village in Spain. It was Ignatius who sent Francis Xavier to India in 1542, to begin the (very successful) Jesuit presence in India.

Ignatius wrote a set of exercises, called Exercitia Spiritualia, which is even today used to train novitiates.  The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius involve a sequence of specific silent prayer and meditation, divided into 4 weeks or phases. These can be used, not just for those training for priesthood, but also by more devout Christians for a more spiritual life.
At Seva Niketan, based on the teachings of Ignatius, the Christian Life Community organises spiritual get-togethers, prayers and community programmes. Several non-profits are also based here, in keeping with the Jesuits belief of "prayer in action".

Here's the logo that I struggled to make sense of:
See the X and the P in the middle? That combination stands for Jesus. XP includes the Greek letters CH (Chi) and R (Rho) which means Jesus (ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ). And there is an M which stands for Mary.

Whew. Finally the mystery of the logo solved!

Seva Niketan also is home to an employment bureau and provides hostel accommodation for boys who study at the St. Xaviers College. The Jesuits run several programs from here; and if you're curious about what happens inside the building, here is one excellent example with photos.

It is impossible to miss the Jesuit presence in Mumbai. They run parishes in Mazagaon, Byculla, Bandra, Andheri, Vasai and Thana. They have two centres in Bandra and Andheri where they offer retreats and counselling. But they are best known for the many schools and colleges that they run in the city. These institutions are often quite different from each other, but have at their core, strong Jesuit values. Each institute reflects the culture and socio-economic background of the neighborhood where it is located, as well as the influence of the Jesuit admission policies.

My daughter goes to St. Xavier's College in VT, which is ranked among the city's premier colleges. Because of the high admission cut-offs, the college is home to some extremely bright and talented young people. 
The college has a "quota" system, with 50% of all seats reserved for Christians. To fill these quota seats, the college usually has lower cut-offs for Christians. Apart from this, there are seats reserved as per government norms, for students with disabilities, students from backward communities etc.  The "open" quota seats are very few, and the competition for those is fierce. 

The students at St. Xaviers come from all walks of life; from the very rich to the very poor. There is a dress-code for college - no short skirts, no sleeveless /halternecks /spaghetti-strap tops, no capris even. Jeans and T-shirts are what most students wear on a daily basis.
The dress code is a recent thing. In earlier years, the college used to be quite the fashion parade :)

Parents are expected to know and be involved in the college lives of their children. There is an active social work program, and it is mandatory for all students to do a certain number of hours of community service each year. The Jesuit philosophy is clearly at work in this college, and seems to be working well. As a parent, I certainly have no complaints.


TaNuja said...

That seems a really nice find about the place. Of course where in India Hinduism always dominates, other religions should have space like such :)


Anonymous said...

outstanding work. see you,

Mahesh Vijapurkar said...

Like the stuff you write, Ma'am.

Haddock said...

Having grown up in Byculla, as a child I have often heard this word 'Sodality house' which was used as a land mark.... "you go down the road and turn left just before Sodality House"

Michael Andre said...

I was educated in Canada by the Jesuits.

Michael Andre said...

I was educated in Canada by the Jesuits.

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Aadil Desai said...

Seva Niketan is where I had my aptitude test done when I was in St. Mary's High School (SSC) just across the Olivant Bridge. Both being Jesuit institutions, I had the experience of a lifetime and having my father and uncle also in the same school meant that there was someone from my family in the same school for more than thirty years at a stretch!!! After I finished school, I tried getting admission to St. Xavier's College but could not because of my low grades but made up for it by going there regularly since 1982 to the Amateur Astronomers' Association, Heras Institute and Bombay Local History Society!!! I learnt a lot of good things from being in these Jesuit run institutions.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. Living in Colaba since 1987and always wondering what that building was about :)