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Home > Sathyam - Truth is a Pathless Land > Unfolding Consciousness > Arumuga Navalar - M.K.Eelaventhan > Arumuga Navalar and the Hindu Renaissance Among the Tamils - D.Dennis Hudson
Spirituality & the Tamil Nation
D. Dennis Hudson
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The Religious Context of the Shaiva Literati
In the early centuries of the common era, Buddhists and Jainas provided the occasion for the Tamil Hindu literati to define their own cults and literature. Most notably they produced the Tamil poems of the bhakti saints, the Nayanars and Alvars. Devotees consider these poems the “Tamil Veda.” By the twelfth century, Tamil Shaivas and Vaishnavas - with their literature in Tamil and Sanskrit, their monastic systems, their networks of temples and pilgrimage sites, their elaborate public and private liturgies, and their Brahman and non-Brahman leadership had systematized the definition Hindu and institutionalized it as the basis for Tamil literary culture.
The Vellala and Brahman literati were mostly Shaiva members of the largest and most influential religious tradition (camayam) among sectarian groupings. Any religion not based on the traditions that Shiva had revealed in the Veda and the Agama, they believed, was founded on delusion. During the thirteenth through eighteenth centuries, Shaiva theologians defined the details of their religious tradition and called it Saiva Siddhănta, or “Shaiva Orthodoxy.”
The way the Shaiva Siddhanta literati perceived themselves in relation to other traditions is instructive for our discussion. Their perception used the common Indian idea of the mandala, a center that expands outwards into peripheries bounded by barbaric and demonic powers.(2) At the center of the mandala stood Shaiva Orthodoxy. Around it four circles expand concentrically, (3) three inside the realm of dharma (puram), and a fourth outside of dharma (purappuram).
This was the realm of darkness and delusion, where those sects reside that altogether reject the Veda and Agama. Shaiva theologians did not formally include the Muslims and Christians in this classification, but it was evident that they fall in the outermost circle to dwell in the wilderness with the Buddhists, Jainas, and demon worshippers. Intellectual encounter with Muslims and Christians, it seems, was a task never taken by the monastic leaders who had provided this scholastic mapping. (4) It was left to “lay” Shaivas, who encountered an increasingly aggressive Muslim and Christian presence in their everyday lives. They felt pressed to address such issues as the “monotheistic” nature of their theology, their own definition of a ‘heathen,” and the relation of Shiva and his temple to the cults of the popular and violent deities of the villages.(5) Arumuga Navalar was the first of these Tamil laymen to undertake as his life’s career the intellectual and institutional response of Shaivism to Christianity.
Hindus opposed the Christian missions from the earliest days they were established among the Tamils; literary evidence for it is indirect, (6) largely because the printing press was not available to Tamil ownership until 1835. (7) Hindus, who wrote anti-Christian literature during this period, circulated it as oral literature or in handwritten copies, few of which survive.(8) Hindu works that did appear before 1835 were printed on government or missionary presses and were written generally by Tamil scholars who worked for Europeans.(9) Once Tamil Hindus gained ownership of presses, they immediately used them for two religious purposes. One was to strengthen the realm of dharma (puram) in those places where its social basis was eroding, namely Madras and Jaffna. They transferred currently popular Hindu literature from palm leaf to printed book, sometimes adding new commentaries. The second was to attack Christian propagandists who had used the press to condemn dharma from a position of privilege in the European domain.(10) Arumuga Pillai became adept in this propaganda war; he was the Shaivas’ most successful strategist who served them as social organizer, apologist, and reformer.
Hindu-Christian Disputes in Tamil
Arumuga Pillai, Navalar’s original name, belonged to a high-status caste known as Vellalas, a class that along with Brahmans had produced most of the Tamil literati for centuries, perhaps millennia. (11) Born in 1822, he grew up in the Tamil regions of Sri Lanka where the total population was less than two hundred thousand.’2 His home was in the town of Nallur on the Jaffna peninsula, a forty by fifteen mile strip of land separated from southern India by the Palk Strait.’3 Jaffna—the name of both the principal town and the peninsula—was predominantly Shaiva with a Tamil Shaiva culture distinct from that of the Sinhalese Buddhists elsewhere on the island, but closely linked to the Shaiva culture of southern India.
Because his father was a Tamil poet, Arumuga Pillai received a solid foundation in Tamil literature at an early age. Like many high-status boys of the second generation to live under British rule, he entered a Christian mission school to study E.nglish. Mutiiuga ~ias t~tW~ ~htn he attended this school as a day student. He did so well that he was asked to stay on at theJaffna Wesleyan Mission School to teach English and Tamil. More importantly, the missionary principal. ‘the gifted and plodding” Peter Percival, asked him to serve as his own Tamil pandis, to assist him in writing and editing treatises and hymns and, most importantly, in translating the prayer book and Bible.’4 Arumuga Pillai worked with Percival from 1841 to 1848, eight years in his late teens and early twenties, when he wrestled seriously with the question, What does it mean to be Hindu?
At the time of Arumuga Pillai’s birth, Protestants from England and America had established stations in nine villages on theJaffna peninsula from whence they conducted vigorous campaigns to convert the Hindus and Muslims into Christians.’6 The first significant Hindu opposition to these efforts emerged in 1828 when the teachers of the American Missionary Seminary at Batticotta (Vattukkottai) began to stress the Shaiva scripture Skanda Purana (Xanla Purănam) in their school. The decision angered Jaffna Hindus, who doubted that in such a foreign setting the sacred quality of this Tamil story of Murugan, the warrior son of Shiva, would be respected or that its esoteric meanings would receive a sympathetic hearing. A missionary report of this incident’6 noted that the Christians had difficulty obtaining a copy of the text, for
Once they had received a portion of this text, the report continued, the principal Tamil instructor of the Seminary refused to teach it.
The study nevertheless took place.
Christians had their portion translated from poetry into prose and trained a senior student to teach it. The classes immediately created a stir. Though they were voluntary, social pressure caused attendance to gradually dwindle until they were abandoned. From the Shaiva point of view, this act by Christian educators had pulled a text from the sacred center (akam) of dharma out into the darkness of the wilderness (purappuram), stripping it of its ritual context and laying it bare for profanation. Indeed this is what the educators had intended, as the end of the report said:
Two long anti-Christian poems appeared around this time in Jaffna. They reflected an increasingly vocal opposition. The Vellala poet, Muttukumara Kavirajar (1780—1851), wrote the ‘Kummi Song on Wisdom” (Jnanakkummi) and ‘Abolition of the Jesus Doctrine” (Yesumataparikaram). The timing of their publication suggests a connection with this opposition.’7 The “Kummi Song on Wisdom,” moreover, attacked the Christian Bible and Christians just as the Christians had criticized the .Skanda Purdna and Shaivas.’8
Events inJaffna had their effect in Madras. Polemical literature circulated widely, it seems, even when it was not printed. Muttukumara Kavirajar’s ‘Kummi Sang on Wisdom” received a rejoinder in Madras from a recently baptized Shaiva sddhu’9 whose own ‘Kummi Sang on Wisdom” (jnanakkummi) appeared in print in 1827. It was followed in
1840 by a kummi on the Hindu scriptures written by the Vellala Protestant Vedanayaka Shastriar: Shă.stirakkummi: A Satincal Poem on the Superstitions of ghe Hindoos~’ In 1840 or 1841, Hindus in Madras organized the Association for the Philosophy of the four Vedas, which resembled the Calcutta Brahmo Samaj in its worship. It was led by educated Christians who had renounced their conversions. The Samaj proceeded to defend Hinduism against Christian attacks.2’ In this charged atmosphere, a Madrassi Vellala Hindu published a condemnation of the Bible entitled The Misunderstanding of Veda (Vetavikarpa) and a Vellala Catholic responded with Contempt for ‘The Misunderstanding of Veda’ (Vetavikarpa tikkaram) .~
In Jaffna, meanwhile, the Christian assault on Shaivism intensified. Just like the Shaivas’ view of Christianity, Christian leaders saw Shaivism as in a dark wilderness. In 1841, two Tamil Christians at the American Mission Seminary launched a semimonthly and bilingual periodical. They devoted The Morning Star (Utaya Tarakai) to ‘Education, Science, and Literature, and to the Dissemination of Articles on Agriculture, Government and Religion, with a Brief Summary of Important News.” The intentions of the editors were clear. Europeans, they observed in volume one, were politically and economically powerful and prestigious because of their secular and religious knowledge. Tamils did not have this knowledge since most of the ‘useful sciences and arts” were not written in Tamil. Only a few science courses were taught to “the higher classes of society and Brahmins,” except for those who attended English schools. Therefore, the editors intended this periodical to fill the educational gap between ordinary Tamils and Europeans, “imitating the Europeans in the improvements they have made by such means.”23
Because they were Protestants of the early nineteenth century, the Tamil editors were naively confident that the emerging knowledge and values of modernizing AngloAmerican culture were perfectly consistent with their interpretation of the Christian Bible. They assumed that the fulfillment of human nature depended upon knowing the truths about God and the world and that assumed that all people had the innate ability to learn to read and understand those truths found in a single text, the Christian Bible. As devout Protestants, they took great efforts to translate the Bible and distribute it among the Tamils. The editors of The Morning Star were confident that those who read the Bible would see the truths, choose them, reject evil, and undergo an improvement in moral character. These aggressive Tamil Protestants persistently challenged Catholics, Muslims, and Shaivas to open their sacred books for public scrutiny and judgment. The fact that they did not do so could only mean that these non-Protestant religious leaders believed their own scriptures were too weak and obscure to withstand public scrutiny.’4
This dualistic, black-and-white point of view admitted few gray areas. Shaivas, Muslims, and Catholics all lived in the darkness of falsehood. But of the three, Shaivism was the most evil system in the moral wilderness. These religious journalists stated that:
Believing that Shaivism was a creation of the Brahmans and contained nothing of value, these converts admitted of no middle ground:
In this struggle between God and the devil, they intended the Morning Star to reveal the falsity of Shaivism.
The Tamil Hindu literati of Jaffna could not deny the power of Christian civilization as they experienced it, but they rejected the validity of the Morning Stat’s judgment about Shaivism. In the long run, the Tamil Hindus’ task would be to use the instruments of Western civilization’s knowledge without undermining their own traditions in the process. Could they bring elements of the barbarian wilderness (purappuram) into the center (akam) of the mandala without polluting Shaivism’s world view and removing its sacred power? The Christians thought not, for they believed true knowledge to be all of a piece and in harmony with the Bible. The Shaivas in Jaffna had not yet tackled the issue formally, but in 1842 they made a beginning.
In September of 1842 over two hundred Hindu men of high status gathered at the monastery (matam) of the Shiva temple inJaffna to discuss plans for establishing a Veda and Agama school to teach Shaivism. Five wealthy leaders had called the meeting and spoke to this question. According to a letter to the Morning Starwritten by a Hindu sympathetic to the idea, probably Arumuga PiIlai himself, the speakers declared that Christian doctrine was the creation of the missionaries and that Tamils converted because they knew little about Shaivism. The gathering expressed pity and compassion for the converted. At the third
meeting it was decided to collect money to open a school to help ward off future conversions of students.27 They agreed to purchase a printing press, if possible, in collaboration with “the white men of this place,” the Eurasian burghers, and to publish tracts on the absurdities of the Christian religion, “which would effectually shut the mouths of the missionaries and stop their abuse.”’8 The school opened in October. The organizers planned to send to India for a man to teach the Agamas and in the meantime appointed a former teacher from the Christian Seminary as an instructor of grammar and literature.29 The twenty-year-old Arumuga Pillai may have reported these developments to The Morning Star. Subsequent events suggest that Arumuga Pillai had been part of these educational efforts all along.30
Arumuga PiIIai’s Emergence as a Shaiva Activist
In October 1842, when the Veda and Agama school opened, Arumuga Pillai had been teaching Tamil and English at the Wesleyan Mission School and working with the British missionary Percival for a year. He read the Morning Starand Wrote to it. His first published letter appeared in September 1841, with a question about the science of the eyes and the nature of “vision.”3’ But almost twelve months later, eleven days after the first meeting to discuss the idea of a Veda and Agama school, he wrote a letter to explain what the speakers at the meeting meant when they said “Christian doctrine is doctrine fabricated by the missionaries.” He dated the letter October 10, 1842 amid signed it anonymously as The lover of good doctrine who is the son of a Shaiva.”32 The name suggests that his father was on his mind.33 In the letter, Arumuga Pillai presented himself as a Shaiva who had heard the preaching of the American missionaries and had read their books. Sympathetic to their arguments,34 he studied the Christian path. He read the Bible regularly, he said, but while doing so began to have questions about it.
The first question arose from the striking parallels he noticed between the liturgies of the temple in Jerusalem and the temples of Shiva in Sri Lanka and India. After providing many examples of ritual injunctions in the Old Testament, he asked, What are the differences between the rites and ceremonies of Shaivas and those of the Bible? Using the words of the editors’ translation, modified slightly, he drew parallels between the Shaiva worship of God in the linga, and the Mosaic worship of God in the tabernacle and temple:
Given their similarities, he next asked, Why do the missionaries mock as meaningless the Hindu distinction between the pure and the polluted and other observances? They are analogous in many ways to what the Lord commanded through Moses.
But should the missionaries argue that the Mosaic rites were only symbolic and were pedagogically useful, the same maybe said of the Shaiva rites:
Arumuga Pillai then made a personal confession, ending with a metaphor expressing his intellectual dilemma.
But while reading the Bible he found a striking resemblance between temple worship in the Bible and temple worship in Shaivism. The similarities were so strong, he said, that he felt like the demon who came up from a well. The demon was afraid to go to the village of the tiger, SO he went to the village of the jackal, only to find that the jackal’s village belonged to the tiger too.
This brought him to his third question: since God in the Bible said that the rites and ceremonies of temple worship should continue for-
ever and Christ and the early Christians followed them, how could the missionaries abandon them? The Bible makes it clear, he reminded the reader, that it is the duty of every Christian to observe those ceremonies it describes, just as did Christ for his disciples. Thus it was unreasonable for Christians to scoff at them when they were practiced by Shaivas. 1-Ic concluded that the Lord of the temple in Jerusalem and Shiva in the temple icon were both able to give grace to all. And that the Shaivas’ ceremonies were not ridiculous unless Christians said that God was ridiculous in setting up the temple in Jerusalem and Jesus ridkulous, in v~omh~p there.
It was significant that Arumuga PilIai admitted that at one time he had been moved by the Christian teachings and had entertained the possibility that Shaivism was false and Christianity is true. Probably this occurred during his student years at the Seminary. It indicated that he was not deaf to Christian teaching, but that having opened himself to it in the way Protestants urged—by studying the Bible directly—he turned away in favor of his own heritage. His reaffirmation of his family’s tradition was thus self-conscious. It was linked to a penetrating insight into the vulnerability of a Protestant system that staked everything on doctrines found in a book that had been divorced from the cultic context that produced it. Indeed, because of his own temple-centered culture, Arumuga Pillai probably thought he had a greater understanding of the liturgical context of Jesus’ own life and worship than did the Protestant missionaries.
Peter Percival had provided Arumuga Pillai the occasion to analyze the Christian Bible in detail as Protestants interpreted it. Pillai’s analysis, however, did not focus only on the domain of doctrine, which the Protestants cherished, but also on liturgical behavior, which Shaivas cherished and Protestants largely ignored. His was a comparative study of religions, one that led him to the conclusion that at the basis of both religions there was temple-centered worship with similar liturgical patterns. From this point of view, the Protestants were inconsistent with their own Bible when they insisted that Shaiva worship was false and only Protestant worship was true. Protestants need not give up their path and follow Shiva’s, he maintained, but they did need to see that on the basis of their own scriptures they had every reason to respect the Shaiva path and to leave it alone.
Arumuga Navalar presented his interpretive stance at the beginning of a letter that expressed a Shaiva Siddhanta docti~ine but in a manner that a Protestant could have affirmed as well:
The missionaries interpreted the “high and full condition” as conversion to Christianity and to Western civilization. Arumuga Pillai meant it differently, viewing Shiva as the one who had brought the missionaries to chastise Shivas disciples and to awaken them to his own path, from which they had departed. The missionaries did not know it, he suggested, but Shiva was using them to punish the Shaivas and to awaken them to the truth that he had revealed in the Agamas. Christianity belonged to Shiva too, as Arumuga Pillai said in a veiled way when he referred to himself as the demon who came out of a well: Just as the royal tiger rules both his own village and that of the wild jackal, so Shiva rules both the realm of dharma (puram) and that of the barbaric Europeans (purappuram).
The editors of Morning Star knew they had a difficult task in responding to this long and carefully wrought document. It took them three issues to do so. They understood this calculated challenge, for they referred to its contents as “the pretended Resemblance between the rites and ceremonies of the Mosaic dispensation and those of the Sivas.”’6 Whether they knew that the man who wrote it was in mission employ and was translating the Bible, however, is not clear.
Arumuga Pillai worked with Percival until September 1848 when, nearly twenty-six, he quit to devote himself fully to his own projects. He had studied in depth the Agamic literature forming the scriptural component of Shaiva orthodoxy, a task that required him to learn Sanskrit. He was now adept in the three literary languages of modern religious discourse in the Tamil world: Tamil, Sanskrit, and English; he would draw upon the religious literature of all three for his projects. Not surprisingly, his reputation had been growing among local Shaivas as a man who knew more about obscure Agamic literature than anyone else.37
It was his immersion in the Agamas, which began years earlier, that fueled his desire to turn into realities the projects that the Hindu literati had gathered to discuss in September 71842. The Veda and Agama school had not survived and a printing press was still a dream. The press required considerable funds, but teaching was cheap. In January 1846, therefore, Arumuga Pillai began night and early morning classes in the primary and secondary literature of Shaivism. His students were a few of his friends, young Vellala, Brahman, and Cettiyar men.N The classes were free and informal. He also persuaded two Vellalas not to take Christian baptism from Peter Percival, despite the fact that it could have cost him his job.3~ In June he crossed the Palk Strait and went with a companion to Madras to look at schools and to meet scholars, perhaps his first trip to the continent.40 A Shaiva school was clearly on his mind.
His knowledge of the Agamas also led him into conflict with the leaders of the temple of Murugan near his home. The Kandaswami Temple in Nallur had been built about a century earlier, but not in accord with the Agamas. During its festival in the month of Ati (July—August), Arumuga Pillai took it upon himself to advise its trustees that they violated the Agamas in three ways: by the manner of the temple construction, by using a spear as the primary icon of Murugan rather than an image, and by employing Brahmans ‘who had rejected Agamic initiations to conduct the worship. The trustees did not accept his advice, and this disagreement ultimately led to a lifelong conflict.41 At the heart of the dispute was the authority of local custom, which the Kandaswami Temple followed, versus the authority of the Agamas: this contest pitted unwritten and immemorial practice against revealed and written scriptures.
The issue of revealed scriptural authority for the religious life had been alive in Shaiva Orthodoxy for centuries. The aggressive Bible-centered tradition of the Protestants, however, had intensified its importance in Arumuga Pillai’s mind as he reconsidered the meaning of Shaivism. He seems to have decided that Shaiva practice demanded possessing a written and revealed set of scriptures that paralleled the Christian Bible in its comprehensive authority. On the one hand, Agama scriptures eliminated some elements of popular Shaiva culture, such as animal sacrifices and the worship of malevolent deities and demons, that the missionaries attacked ceaselessly and that had no scriptural basis. On the other hand, they provided a sophisticated and profound theological interpretation of temple worship and of the Puranic stories of the gods that nullified the sneers of the missionaries. Arumuga believed that the Sanskrit and Tamil scriptures of Agamic Shaivism purified popular and Puranic religion, elevated the ignorant, and inspired the literati.
Struggling against Christians and some Hindu reformers as well as orthodox priests, he made a dramatic move at the end of 1847 to spread the “Splendor of Shiva” (Sivaprakäsam) and disperse the darkness” shared by Hindus and Christians. Religious tensions at this time were high. The Christian assault on Hindu culture had accelerated dramatically through the preaching of a catechist convert from Point Pedro and through missionary insistence on integrating an untouchable student into the Wesleyari Central School. Vellala and Brahman students, nearly half the student body, left the school in response and formed their own. Moreover, they persuaded the chief Tamil tutor at the Wesleyan school, a Christian, to be its headmaster.42
On December 31, 1847, Arumuga Pillai took the preaching methods of the Methodists into the Shaiva temple. He became a circuit preacher. Every Friday evening at the Vaidishvaran Temple in the suburb of Vannarpannai, Arumuga Pillai read sacred texts and preached. He was assisted by the Brahman Karttikeya Aiyar of Nallur (his friend and former student at the Wesleyan school) and by his students. Preaching (prasanga) was not new to Shaivism, but Pillai’s systematic and scripturally based style was, as was the circuit of preachers he eventually developed. He intended to educate and morally reform his largely Vellala and Brahman audience. He believed that if they knew the rudiments of Agamic Shaivism and acted on them, they would strengthen dharma and weaken the Christians. He threatened to sue the Morning Star if that paper published any unauthorized report of the meetings.43 The sermon topics were mostly ethical, liturgical, and theological and included the evils of adultery, drunkenness, the value of non-killing, the conduct of women, the worship of the linga. the four initiations, the importance of giving alms, of protecting cows, and the unity of God.44
He attacked Christians and Hindus as well, specifically the trustees and priests of the Kandaswami Temple in his home town; they accused him of slandering Murugan himself.45 The lecture series and its circuit continued regularly for several years and produced a “Shaiva revival,” for an informed piety developed and grew among many Jaffna Hindus.46 Inevitably, such openly public work on behalf of Shaivism brought him into conflict with Peter Percival. Arumuga Pillai was no longer anonymous. When missionaries complained to Percival that his own Tamil pandit was successfully undermining the very reason for their being in Jaffna, Percival raised the issue with him: “I hear that you preach every Friday right in the Shiva temple. And I hear that now and then you talk as an enemy of our sect. What about it?” Arumuga Pillai’s reply was simple and to the point: “Is there is anything wrong in my fulfilling my duties? If there is, please tell me.” Percival said nothing. He told the other missionaries that his pandit was too valuable a scholar to lose.4’
Arumuga Pillai was indeed invaluable to Percival. From the end of 1845 the missionary scholar had been devoting himself entirely to Bible translation, working six hours a day with his Tamil assistants, of whom Arumuga Pillai was the chief.48 Even after Arumuga Pillai had launched his preaching sessions, Percival took him to Madras between March and July of 1848. Their Bible translation was being considered for publication by the Madras Auxiliary of the British and Foreign Bible Society. It was in dispute, and he needed Arumuga Pillai to help him defend the majestic literary style they had created, a style shaped by Arumuga Pillai’s own immersion in Shaiva literature.49 His break with Percival finally came, but it was not because of their disagreements. Arumuga Pillai decided to devote full time to his work for Shaivism. In August 1848, he founded a Veda and Agama school, the School of Shaiva Splendor (Saivaprakasa Vidyasala), and in September he left Percival.
Navalar Arumuga Pillai, “The Learned”
Twenty years later Arumuga Pillai briefly described the desire that had driven him during his early twenties.50 His sole source of income at the time, he recalled, was the salary from Percival and the Wesleyan school. He had received no patrimony and nothing from his four brothers, though they had money and jobs. Nevertheless, Arumuga quit his teaching position even though Percival urged him again and again to stay at a higher salary. He knew that he could easily get ajob commensurate with his abilities and live prosperously, as had many who had studied English under him. Arumuga knew that not holding ajob would only bring him disrespect, but he did not wish to do so. Nor did he want to get married, for in Jaffna, he said, the bride provided the bridegroom with everything—house, lands, garden, jewels—and took in return, presumably, his independence.3’ He left his secure job and future family life, because he wanted to use his learning to make Shaivism prosper, a desire that had been with him since childhood.
Having abandoned future prosperity and the householder’s life, the very basis of dharma, he must have appeared socially irresponsible to others in the community. Few gave him their support.32 He began the school of Shaiva Splendor in a house opposite the Vaidishvaran Temple in Vannarpannai and after six months moved it to the temple’s monastery (matha). Its teachers were his own students, and they received no salary except what came by way of donations. Their task was to teach the pupils not only the curriculum common to the traditional schools, but sectarian texts as well, for Arumuga Pillai sought to produce Shaivas who were grounded in their own tradition and had the ability to dispute others when necessary.
Navalar’s concept of the school was something new in Tamil Shaivism; it was an adaptation of the Protestant schools he knew intimately. The traditional Tamil school primarily served the educational needs of the higher castes, It taught the values of dharma shared by those who lived within its cultural borders (puram). These values were imparted through Tamil texts like Valluvar’s Kural and Auvaiyar’s Atticüti, texts that avoided divisive doctrines that split the inhabitants of the puram into various sects.53
Writing, reading, arithmetic, literature, and ethics were taught to a group of boys according to a fixed syllabus. Each pupil progressed according to his ability to imitate, memorize, and comprehend. The teacher explained the texts in vernacular Tamil, but the texts themselves were in poetry, often accompanied by prose commentaries in a style difficult to understand. Perhaps twenty boys would be taught by one man, and each pupil advanced at his own rate; success was affected by pressure from the teacher and other students, since each boy was rewarded when he began a new book or chapter of a text.~ Compared to the method of instruction used by the British and Americans, in which all the students were instructed simultaneously in the same subject and progressed at the same rate, the Tamil system, one British scholar observed. “turns out every pupil a fair scholar, though at a great waste of labour. The class system ensures a much higher average, but permits confirmed dullards.”55
Once an unusually motivated and talented student completed this education, he might want to pursue higher studies in Shaivism without becoming a sadhu. He was left to find a teacher. In some cases it might be a relative or a local resident, in others someone affiliated with a monastery, but not necessarily a sadhu.~ The degree of sophistication that any student attained, therefore, depended entirely upon his individual talent, motivation, and personal circumstances. Tamils might be Shaivas by birth and yet know little about their tradition, except what they absorbed through stories, songs, festivals, and family instruction, or through whatever expositions of the epics and Puranas they gained from temple attendance. Among these aspirants, some would receive one or more initiations into the Agamic worship of Shiva from a guru. Such rituals included instruction in the specific doctrines of Shaiva Orthodoxy and explanation of the esoteric meanings of the rites to which they committed themselves. A very few, the motivated intellectuals who may or may not have received Agamic initiation, would study Shaiva texts in Sanskrit and Tamil and become, eventually, the local Shaiva scholars from whom others would seek out private instruction.
Arumuga Pillai believed that the traditional system would not offer the kind of education Shaivas needed in the modern world. As he had indicated in 1842, Shiva was chastising the Tamils through the missionaries in order to elevate them. Educating Shaivas was his response. To be efficient, Shaiva education had to use the classroom system of the West, and to be modern, it had to include some imported subject matter, but that meant a complete revision of teaching methods. Instead of relying on palm leaf books that students would copy out by hand and memorize at their own rate, Shaiva education needed printed books that everyone in the same class could read, memorize, and
understand simultaneously. This meant that difficult poems and commentaries had to be transformed into comprehensible prose, but the prose itself had to be sufficiently elegant to convey the contents of the poems in order to improve the thinking of the students. When Navalar founded the School of Shaiva Splendor, he assumed three enormous tasks: constructing a Shaiva curriculum designed for sequential classes, creating an appropriate style of Tamil prose in which to write it, and establishing a press inJaffna on which to print it.
In July 1849, Arumuga Pillai, together with his former student and colleague, Sadashiva Pillai, set out for Madras to purchase a printing press. The money had been donated by wealthy benefactors. On the way they visited the important Tiruvavatuturai Atinam monastery (in Tanjore District), whose leaders periodically sent specialists in the “Tamil Veda” (Thvăram) to recite it publicly in the temples ofJaffna.57 Through this channel and others, the monastic leaders (mathddipati) had heard of Arumuga Pillais unusual knowledge of the Agamas and his efforts on behalf of Shaiva Orthodoxy. When he arrived, they examined his knowledge and heard him preach. Impressed by his mastery of the tradition, they conferred on him the title ndvalar, “the learned.” Considerably enhanced in his status among Shaivas by this “honorary degree” from the scholastic heart of Orthodoxy, he has been known ever since as Arumuga Navalar, or simply as Navalar.
Arumuga Navalar: Writer, Publisher, Polemicist
While waiting for his press in Madras, Arumuga Navalar published two texts he had been editing from various copies. One was an important educational tool, the Cüdămani Nikantu, a sixteenth-century lexicon of 1,197 easily remembered verses giving approximately eleven thousand words in both their verse and prose forms.~8 The other text, SaundatyaLahań, a poem in praise of the goddess, was important for devotion, and was published with explanatory comments (uraO.59 These first efforts at editing and printing Taniil works for Shaiva students and devotees reflected a talent for producing unusually reliable editions, a talent for which he was to remain famous.
Returning toJaffna by way of the monastery at Tiruvannamalai, he set up the printing press in a building near the monastery where the school met, a building that a wealthy Cettiyar of Vannarpannai had turned over to him late in 1849.60 He named it The Preservation of Knowledge Press (Vidya-anubalana-yantra-sala) and hired workmen to operate it who had been trained by the American mission press at Manepy.61 In order to direct both the press and the school, he spent his nights in the monastery, which became, in effect, his residence.62
The new press started publishing early in 1850. It produced a list of pamphlets and books that Arumuga Navalar had been working on for years.ta His two-volume Lessons for Children (Bala Patam) appeared in 1850 and 1851. They were graded readers, simple in style, similar in organization to those used in the Protestant schools.~ A third volume appeared in 1860.65 It consisted of thirty-nine more advanced essays in clear and dignified prose, discussing subjects such as God, Saul, The Worship of God, Crimes Against the Lord, Grace, Killing, Eating Meat, Drinking Liquor, Stealing, Adultery, Lying, Envy, Anger, and Gambling. Contrary to one missionary’s judgment, these three volumes of Lessons for Children were not the “blending in conflict and compromise of Hinduism and Christianity,”66 but were simply the presentation and explanation of values imparted in the traditional Tamil schools and in the teaching of Shaiva Orthodoxy. Some of those values were shared by both Shaivas and Christians.
Other texts published in 1860 included “The Prohibition of Killing” (Kolaimansttal) by Shantalingaswami of Tirutturaiyur,’7 a devotional poem about Murugan with his own commentary (uras),U and a grammar.66 Navalar wrote and published “The Rule for Darshana in the Shiva Temple” (Sivălaya-darshana-vidhi), a manual to teach Shaivas the ways to worship Shiva in a temple, as the Agamas prescribe it, for the four social classes (varnas) and the four stages of life (ăsrama) ?~ He also published small bits and pieces known collectively as “The Essence of the Shaiva Religion” (Saiva-samaya-sdram) for their doctrinal education.7’ His first major literary publication appeared in 1851, the 272-page prose version of Cekkilar’s Periya Purdnam, a careful retelling of the twelfth century hagiography of the Nayanars, the saints devoted to Shiva.72 Periya Purănam set a new standard for prose in Tamil, a standard Navalar maintained the rest of his life.
Like “The Rule for Darshana in the Shiva Temple,” his version of the Periya Pisrdnam revealed to Navalar the importance of piety and how far from satisfactory it seemed to be in mid-nineteenth-century jaffna. In “The Rule,” for example, he gave the following evaluation, beginning with the traditional affirmation of how fortunate one was to be born a Shaiva:
Then he described the indifference some Shaivas felt towards this great blessing:
He observed how ignorance could trap even those who make some effort to be pious: “A few, however, do try to perform a few meritorious deeds one way or another, but they have no idea at all how to perform them correctly.. .and so they only go on gathering more sins for themselves.”?S
By “meritorious deeds” (punya) he meant liturgical acts that, like those of the Vedic fire sacrifice, brought well-being when performed correctly and harm when performed incorrectly. Navalar intended the pamphlet to instruct the devotee how to behave when he or she went to see Shiva in a temple. By being so informed, he believed, the Shaiva’s educated acts of worship would focus his or her mind, speech, and body on love for Shiva and would bring the devotee eternal joy.
The same concern fueled the enormous labor required to turn the lengthy Periya Purdnam into prose. In the introduction to his prose rendering he noted that Cekkilar wrote the work in finely wrought poetry that was now useless to anyone except scholars. He intended-his prose version, he said, for everyone—learned scholars, failing scholars, literate lay people, and illiterates who could listen to it being read. Although it was in prose, it was still a Shiva Purana and would confer its benefits only on those who read it or listened to it in the proper ritual context and with the appropriate attitude. First they must have received initiation from a Shaiva ăcdr)Ia and they must have lived in purity by abstaining from meat and liquor, by applying sacred ash daily to their bodies, by using consecrated rudrdksa beads for reciting the five-syllable mantra, and by worshipping regularly in the temple. He then described how it should be read:
The analogy, of course, is to the way Protestants used the Bible in their worship services. And Navalar’s motivation in this task of “translation.” as in his later prose renditions of sacred texts, was analogous to the work of translation he had assisted Peter Percival with for eight years. In his case the translation was from medieval poetry to modern prose, a style he largely had to create, but to his mind the prose did not alter the sacred nature of the work.
His most dramatic use of the press, however, was the publication of anti-Christian tracts between 1852 and 1854. In 1852, Navalar, together with Ci. Vinayakamurtti Cettiyar of Nallur, printed the “Kummi Song on Wisdom” (Jnanakkummi) that Muttukumarakavirajar had composed about twenty years earlier. It immediately angered some Christians, and they wanted to get rid of the press. Christian preachers and papers—presumably the Morning Star—attacked the “Kummi Song on Wisdom,” and one minister started vilifying Shaivism as he made his circuit. Navalar could not tolerate this, so he wrote “The Diamond Axe” (Vajra-damda) against them and published it in Vinayakamurtti Cettiyar’s name.75
In 1853, Navalar printed Nakkirar’s “Tirumurukarrupatai,” adding his own commentary.7’ It was a devotional poem to Murugan that was part of the canon of Shaiva Orthodoxy. Whether this prompted the attack by Christians on Murugan that appeared in their preaching and newspapers at the time is not clear, but the missionaries aimed their verbal weapons at this portrayal of God who married one woman and seduced another who became his second wife.” To missionary minds, Murugan-Skanda was neither God nor a moral example for people to follow. Navalar, of course, would not abide this sneering slander at the Lord whom he believed to be Shiva himself. So that same year he published “Radiant Wisdom” (Subhra-bodha), his explanation of how the stories embody differing levels of meaning.78 He also matched the missionaries’ treatment of Puranic lore by compiling with a Brahman colleague, Ci. Centinatha Aiyar, examples of indecent language from the Bible and published it as “Disgusting Things in the Bible” (Bibiliya Kutsita).” Another Brahman, Nirveli Civa. Shankara Panditar from Cunnakam, aided him in these disputes. He wrote three attacks on the Christians under Navalar’s direction during this period, but they were not published until about 1877.~
Arumuga Navalar’s most effective weapon, however, appeared in 1854. It was a booklet published for the use of Shaivas in their opposition to the missionaries—a training manual of sorts—entitled “The Abolition of the Abuse of Shaivism”(Saiva-dusana-parihara), which he signed in the name of “the members of the Splendor of Shaivism Association” (Saiva-prakasaSamajiyar) rather than his own. He wanted to focus attention on the subject instead of on himself.8’ The booklet was a further development of Navalar’s approach to Protestant teachings taken twelve years earlier in his letter to the MorningSiarof October 1842.
AWesleyan missionary, who had worked in Jaffna, described “The Abolition” thirteen years after it had appeared:
“The Abolition of the Abuse of Shaivism” was widely used in Sri Lanka and Madras; it was reprinted at least twice in the nineteenth century, and eight times by 1956.83 It appears even to have influenced the formation in 1857 of a Christian sect in South India that employed Israelite and Hindu rituals and called their leader “Rabbi.”84
In the booklet Navalar admonished Shaivas to study its contents for their own salvation—”do not leave piety off for the next birth,” he urged, “for this birth as a Shaiva is the boundary of the end of all births”—and to study it to use against Christians when they abused Shaivism. His comparative discussion of the ritual practices recorded in the Bible and those prescribed by the Agamas took up most of the booklet. It was a sophisticated counter to the Protestant argument that the rituals of this “Old Dispensation” were symbols whose meaning was the crucifixion of Jesus, which, now that the crucifixion had taken place, no longer served a valid function in the “New Dispensation.” What was significant for this discussion, however, was the manner in which he urged Shaivas to oppose the missionaries.
Without bothering to study Shaivism on its own terms at all, he observed, missionaries described it incorrectly and then attacked their false understanding in printed pamphlets that circulated widely.M The Agamas and Tamil hymns, he said, proclaim it was a great sin for Shaivas, for reasons of fear, friendship, or wealth, to sit back and accept such abuse. Shaivas did not need to fear punishment from the English government if they openly opposed missionary excesses, he noted, for even though the government was Christian, it protected all religions equally and had even threatened to expel the missionaries from the country if they continued to harass Hindu temples. Even if Shaivas did suffer because they opposed the abuse aggressively, Shiva was in charge: “He controls all events, he knows all of our deeds, and he determines what we shall experience at a given time. The purpose
of this birth was to serve him and to attain moksa, not to gain pleasures for the body.” He added,
Therefore, he said, fearing no one but Shiva, contemplating him alone, and relying only on his grace, ‘it is our duty to oppose the missionaries who abuse Shiva, to refute their vile Christian doctrine, and to endeavour to establish Shaivism, the true religion (Sot Samaya) .“~
Like the Methodists, Navalar used a method based on the regeneration of the individual. First, he said, pray everyday with deep devotion for Shiva to remove the obstacles to this virtuous deed. Second, help each other out generously for the expenses of this work. Third, with this money purchase the books we print and read them carefully over and over. Fourth, explain what you read to others very clearly so they will not fall into the Christian pit. Fifth, whenever missionaries and their catechists abuse Shiva and preach Christian doctrine, ‘do not seek to please them in anyway, but stand up against them, refute the abuse they heap on Shaivism, oppose their doctrine, and shut their mouths.” Sixth, do not allow your children to associate with those of other doctrines (maiam) and at the right age have them initiated and properly instructed in Shaivism. And seventh, select men outstanding in their knowledge and devotion to the Guru, to the lingo, and to the Assembly of Sadhus (piru-linga-sanghatna.bltakt:), appoint them as Shaiva propagandists, and have them conduct weekly teaching sessions for everyone in the temples, monasteries, and other pure places of the villages. In this way, he concluded, we can spread the great light of Shaivism throughout the land of the Tamils, destroy the darkness of other doctrines, and many will attain salvation (muhti).88
In 1857, “The Abolition of the Abuse of Shaivism” received a rejoinder from a Protestant Tamil, D. Carroll Vishvanatha Pillai, in his essay “The Dazzling Light” (Subhradipa).89 This sixty-page refutation may have convinced others, but in the long run, it was not persuasive to its own author. He later repented and became a Shaiva?~
Arumuga Navalar had now laid out the lines of work he would continue the rest of his life: writing, publishing, preaching, teaching, and reform. As the result of his growing fame, pressures on him to marry increased. He had no intentions of marrying, yet he had no intentions of becoming a sddhu, for that would prohibit his active involvement in society. Late in 1854, therefore, he and his student Sadashiva Pillai closed the door to marriage by receiving the final initiation in the series of four rituals conferred by dcdryzs, the nirvana diksa. It required
daily liturgical acts that the normal pollution of the householder’s life would not allow. Now the two men were officially recognized as religious celibates, naistika brahmdcănns, each committed to the daily and private service of a lingo appropriate to his varna status and to his level of knowledge.91 Carrying his personal Shiva lingo with him wherever he went, Arumuga Navalar was always in Shivas temple.
The Impact of Navalar: The Later Years
Arumuga Navalar lived his most active and productive twenty-five years after his initiation as a naistika brahmdcărin. He did not open any new fields to work; however, he vigorously weeded and harvested the ones he had already sown. A full examination of his life is yet to be done in a Western language,92 but a sketch of some of his achievements will indicate his significance in the history of religions in South Asia.
Although Navalar began in Jaffna, he worked both sides of the Palk Strait, establishing twin centers for his reforms. To the printing press he set up inJaffna, he added one in Madras; the School of Shaiva Splendour he established in Vannarpannai was matched by one in Chidambaram; he battled non-Agamic Brahmans in Jaffna and struggled against Dikshitars of the Nataraja Temple; a challenger to the devotees of ‘erroneous” Shaivism in Sri Lanka, he also opened conflict against the followers of a Siddha saint in Madras; and everywhere he disputed the claims and refuted the abuses of the Christians. His financial support in both places came from wealthy benefactors to whom he frequently made ardent appeals for money. Much to his personal distress, he was opposed not only by Christians but also by some Hindus in both places.
His literary production was amazing. Among his approximately ninety-seven Tamil publications, twenty-three were his own creations, eleven were his commentaries (urai), and forty were his editions of those works of grammar, literature, liturgy, and theology he thought Tamils should know.93 With his recovery, editing, and publishing of ancient works, Navalar laid the foundations for the recovery ol’ lost Tamil classics, a task his successors continuedY~ In his own writings he created a style that ‘bridged” medieval and modern prose, as Kamil Zvelebil characterized it:
Navalar was the first in Jaffna to establish a Hindu school adapted to the modern world that succeeded and flourished. No doubt its success was due in large measure to his skill in adapting Protestant methods of education to Shaiva institutional and curricular needs and to his ability to gain patronage for it. While the school he established in Chidamharam in 1865 has survived to this day, similar schools seem to have spread only to two nearby towns.96 In Sri Lanka, however, the School of Shaiva Splendour became the center of eleven schools, all but one in the Jaffna region; and one was an experiment in using English as the medium of instruction.97 Eventually more than one hundred and fifty primary and secondary schools emerged in Sri Lanka from his work.96 Navalar, however, viewed the school in Chidambaram and that in Vannarpannai as parts of one establishment; both were administered by a single man and shared funds.96
The students educated by these schools were the measure of their impact. It appears that their influence was considerable. Many of Navalar’s students articulated a temple-centered Shaivisrn in bothJaffna and Madras Presidency that, by the end of the century, stood up convincingly to the neo-Hinduisms of the Brahmo Samaj and the Theosophical Society. Navalar’s temple-centered Shaivism effectively engaged the minds of young intellectuals through The Association for Shaiva Orthodoxy (Saiva Siddhanta Sabha) founded in 1886, seven years after his death. Due to Navalar’s scholarship and reform, intellectuals of the early twentieth century, like the householder Tim. Vi.
Kaliyanasundaram (1883—1953), and the sddltu Maraimal Adigal (1876—1950), were able to develop their own independent thinking without leaving the context of the Shaiva temple and its devotional heritage.’00 Also, the prolific Tinnevelly Shaiva Siddhanta Works Publishing House that emerged in 1920 can be traced back to Navalar’s vigorous literary productivity, for it took his flawless editions as its standard.’0’
The impact Arumuga Navalar made on missionary efforts to spread Protestant Christianity among the Tamils is difficult to assess. How does one count people who might have converted if he had nc t existed? Judging from the literature of dispute that continued throughout the century, however, Navalars own intellectual critiques and his organized preaching circuits were powerful weapons that Shaivas used
effectively to win the loyalty of the Shaiva literati in Jaffna. As Bishop Sabhapathi Kulendram observed, when comparing the promise Christian conversions showed in Jaffna at the beginning of the century to their disappointing results, this low rate of conversion was largely due to Navalar.’96
In the larger Madras Presidency, he could not have such a decisive impact. But his aggressive preaching of a Shaiva cultural heritage led by properly initiated Vellalas and Brahmans no doubt contributed to the growing Tamil “nationalism.” This movement had a specifically Shaiva component that fostered the idea that Shaiva Siddhanta preceded all others as the original Tamil religion.’03 Navalar’s insistence on the Agamas as the criteria of Shaiva worship, moreover, gave momentum to the tendency among high-status Tamils everywhere to subsume local deities under the Agamic pantheon and to abandon animal sacrifice altogether.’~
In today’s Tamil world, Arumuga Navalar’s reform would be seen by many as too conservative. On the one hand, his affirmation of caste ideology is officially unacceptable to “secular nationalism,” while on the other hand, his affirmation of the status of initiated Brahmans and of Sanskrit is unacceptable to “Dravidian nationalism.” Nevertheless, in the middle of the nineteenth century he articulated and nurtured the belief shared by many of the literati that the meaning of being Hindu lies in Shiva’s temple and in the culture it generates at the center of dharma (purarn); and he did enable that belief to thrive in the twentieth century and to continue to face the “wilderness” (purappuram) of modernity on its peripheries. From the viewpoint of this belief, Navalar was a model of devotion like the great saints of the past; his response to Shiva’s compassionate chastisement of the Tamils by the missionaries was to strengthen the temple at the center (akam) and to weaken the Christians on the edges. Now, many believe, he dwells with Shiva eternally, freed from these issues. Today Tamil Shaivas, however, are anything but free from them, confronted as they are by nationalisms of various sorts that Arumuga Navalar no doubt would say are the ways Shiva is now dancing his Tripura Tandava to bring them inoksa.