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Home >Tamils - a Nation without a State> One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century > J.M.Nallaswami Pillai

Studies in Saiva-Siddhanta (1911)
by J. M. Nallaswami Pillai with V. V. Ramana Sastrin (Introduction)


English Translation of Sivagnana Bodham, 1895
Light of Truth or Siddhanta Deepika.(An English Monthly), First Series Vols. I to VI, 1897
சித்தாந்த தீபிகை - உண்மை விளக்கம், Volume 1
English Translation of Sivagnana Siddhiar 1897
Cameos from Tamil Literature, 1897
English Translation of Tirumular's Thimantiram,1897
English Translation of Unmai Vilakkam ,1902
Siddhanta Deepika and Agamic Review, Second Series Vols. II to XIV. 1906-1914
English Translation of Sri Kanta Bashyam 1906
English Translation of Siddhanta Gnana Ratnavali, 1907
English Translation of Dravida Maha Bashyam, 1907
Studies in Saiva Siddhanta (A Collection of Essays in English) 1911
Sekkizhars Life of Salva Saints in English,1912
English Translation of Irupa - lrupahdo , 1912
English Translation of Vina Venba, 1913
English Translation of Kodi Kavi, 1914

One Hundred Tamils
of the 20th Century

J M Nallaswami Pillai

V. S. Sundaram
in News Today, 19 February, 2008

In the last quarter of the 19th century, two great Tamil Scholars and Savants created a Saivait Revolution in Madras Presidency by reviving and resurrecting Saiva Siddhanta System and Philosophy. One of them was Arumuga Navalar (1822-1879) from Jaffna in Sri Lanka. The other Scholar was J.M. Nallaswami Pillai (1864-1920).

J M Nallaswami Pillai was a contemporary of Vedanayagam Pillai (1826-1889) and Dr U V Swaminatha Iyer (1855-1941). He was a multi-faceted genius and his wide ranging literary activities as a powerful writer, translator and propagandist of Saiva Siddhanta were mainly responsible for re-kindling the revival of academic interest in Saiva Siddhanta in Europe and America in the first decade of 20th century. He was acknowledged by all his contemporaries as an outstanding authority on the philosophical works known as Saiva Siddhanta Sastras. By his translations of nine (9) of the fourteen (14) books coming under this category and by his authoritative commentaries and essays on the Saiva Siddhanta he become, probably, the most voluminous writer on that philosophical system in the English language.

Nallaswami Pillai was born in a respectable Vellala Family at Trichirappalli on 24 November, 1864. He came from a very influential family, many of whose ancestors had held high official positions under the Carnatic Nawabs. His father was Manickam Pillai who was employed as a Clark in the District Police Office at Tiruchirappalli. He studied at SPG High School in Tiruchirappalli, passing the Matriculation Examination with Distinction in 1879. He then went to SPG College, Tiruchirappali for his Intermediate College Education.

His College Principal Mr. C.W. Pearco, an Englishman, was the first recognize the genius of Nallaswami Pillai and described him as 'a radical student'. He passed his Intermediate Examination in First Class obtaining the First Rank in 1881. Soon thereafter he joined the Presidency College, Madras in 1881 and passed his B.A. with distinction in 1884. What is significant is that he took up Logic and Philosophy as his special subjects in his BA Class and this academic training turned out to be a great asset in his activities as a Philosopher and Religious Savant in his later years. Two distinguished Professors of Presidency College Dr D Duncan and Mr Bilderbeck rated Nallaswami Pillai as 'An outstanding Scholar with an incisive mind with concern for minuteness and exactness'.

In 1884, he was married to Lakshmi Ammal who was the daughter of one of his relations called Parasurama Pillai of Tiruchirappali. He led the ideal life of a Grihasta.

After qualifying for Law from the Madras Law College, he enrolled himself as a High Court 'Vakil' in 1887 and worked as a junior under Sir S. Subramania Aiyar, at Madurai. Sir S. Subramania Aiyar was a leader of the Madurai Bar then. Apart from devoting himself to his legal work and public affairs, Nallaswami Pillai started concentrating on the study and discussion of Religious and Philosophical Subject, particularly Saiva Siddhanta.

Nallaswami Pillai was elected as Member of the Madurai Municipal Council. His brilliance as a Lawyer was noticed by Mr. Ross, I.C.S. who was then the District and Sessions Judge at Madurai. On his recommendation, Nallaswami was recruited to the Judiciary in 1893 as District Munsif, in which capacity he served for 20 years in various places. Though he became a District Munsif early in his life, he was not one of those routine beings who get lost in a job without regard for the finer instincts of a nobler and detached life. He early in his life he had developed a proper perspective on all aspects of leading a meaningful life with a balanced sense of proportion.

Nallaswami Pillai resigned from his Judicial post and reverted to the Bar in Madurai in 1912. He continued his practise as a Lawyer at Madurai till his death in 1920 at the comparatively early age of 56.

Nallaswami Pillai is best remembered as a Tamil Savant, whose writings on the Saiva Siddhanta Philosophy have an enduring value. He came early under the influence of the writings of Arumuga Navalar of Jaffna and Somasundara Nayagar of Madras, two of the most powerful champions of Saiva revivalism of the last century.

In 1895 Nallaswami Pillai published his English translation and exposition of Sivagnana Bodham of Meikanda Devar, a short work of twelve sutras, with explanatory prose and some illustrative stanzas. The Sivaghana Bodham is considered to be the most authentic Saiva Siddhanta scripture for which a most brilliant and authoritative commentary was written by Sivagnana Swamigal in the 18th century. It is known as the 'Mapadiyam' (Tamil form of Mahabhashyam). Nallaswami Pillai's translation and exposition are based on this commentary. In the sixties of the 19th century an English translation of this work was published by Rev. Hoisington but it did not attract as much notice as that of Nallaswami Pillai's which was better in every respect.

Nallaswami Pillai's English translation of Sivagnana Bodam in 1895, attracted worldwide attention in the West. In this book he wrote:

'Sivagnana Bodham is a unique book of unrivalled compression of words and ideas alike.Its terseness of diction and brevity of expression will baffle the powers of exposition and beggar the attempts at translation by even the biggest of Tamil Pundits.'

In June 1897, in commemoration of the Diamond Jubilee of the accession of the Queen Empress Victoria to the British throne, Nallaswami Pillai started a monthly journal called the SIDDHANTA DIPIKA OR THE LIGHT OF TRUTH at Madras.

Writing in the first issue on 'OUR AIMS' he said:

'We have considered it a shame that we should be coached in our Vedas and Vedanta by German Professors on the banks of the Rhine in Europe and that an American from a far off country should be the first translator of the foremost work in Tami Philosophy and that an old Oxford Professor like Dr G U Pope should sit poring over the Tamil 'WORD' and render into English verse. Far from condemning such noble examples which redound greatly to the glory of the European, I would say 'Noble examples they! May we follow! Our journal will devote itself to bring out translations of rare works in Sanskrit and Tamil, Literary, Philosophical and Religious, will devote its pages to a more critical and historical study of Indian Religious Systems, to develop a taste for and to induce a proper and more appreciative cultivation of our Indian Classical and Vernacular Languages and Literature. Greater attention will be paid to the language and history of South India and the Dravidian Philosophy and Religion will find their best exposition in its pages and in this respect it is intended to supply a real and absolutely felt public want.'

Nallaswami Pillai also published English translations of Tirumular's great poem Tirumantiram and nine of the Siddhanta works in his monthly magazine Siddhanta Dipika. They were all published under his personal guidance for 14 years from 1897 to 1911 for popularising Tamil Classics and Saiva Siddhanta Philosophy among the English knowing public. He wrote many essays on the various aspects of this system, which were later, collected and published as a book under the title 'Studies in the Saiva Siddhanta', which shows his power as a lucid thinker and forceful and dignified controversialist.

His magnum opus, however, was his English translation of the Sivagnana Siddhiyar with a commentary, which, though based on earlier works was singularly profound. This appeared in a serial form for several years in the Siddhanta Dipika and was later published in a book form in 1913 with a learned introduction. The author of Sivagnana Sidhiyar was Arulnandi Sivacharya who was a most learned Vedic and Agamic Brahmin Scholar of his age. He became a disciple of the young Vellala saint Meikanda Devar, considering him to be an illumined soul and set an example of totally ignoring caste in the religious and spiritual field, which was followed by the equally great Umapathy Sivacharya. There had been an earlier translation of the Sivagnana Siddhiyar by Dr. Graul, a German scholar but it was only a pioneer attempt, which was replaced by Nallaswami Pillai's more accurate and brilliant translation...

In the Convention of Religions held at Calcutta in 1907 and at Allahabad in 1911, it was Nallaswami Pillai who was the spokesman for Saivism and the Siddhanta philosophy and delivered stirring addresses.

The value of his works was recognised and their entire copyright was acquired by the Dharmapuram Mutt, which has published a few of his works. A collection of all his English writings including his translations of the religious books, if brought out in a single well-edited volume, will show the wide range of his learning, the strength of his intellect and the tireless and devoted work, which he did for popularising the Saiva Siddhanta philosophy and establish his lasting fame as the most well read and level headed Saiva Siddhanta scholar of his age.

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