After about 300 years of intense persecution under the Portuguese and the Dutch, the Hindus of Jaffna heaved a sigh of relief when the British took over at the fag end of the 18th century.
The era of forcible conversions to Catholicism (under the Portuguese) and to Protestantism (under the Dutch) was over.
In the liberal atmosphere created by the British, most converts reverted to their traditional religion, namely, Hinduism.
Daniel Poor, a pioneer of the American Ceylon Mission (ACM) noted that with the Dutch yoke off their shoulders, the Hindus of Jaffna returned to "sweet idolatory" and temple building was resumed at a frenetic pace.
As Dr Murugar Gunasingam says in his book, Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism: A Study of its Origins (MV Publications, Sydney 1999), there were as many as 329 Hindu temples in Jaffna in 1814. Many had come up in the first few years of British rule.
Earlier, the Portuguese had destroyed as many as 500 temples. In Dutch times, temples were in disuse, as the Brahmin priests had been chased out.
Threat from a new quarter
But British rule did not turn out to be an unmixed blessing.
It had created a new danger, the danger of conversion through education and systematic propaganda through the use of the new print medium.
The new political and economic order established by the British was creating employment opportunities for the Hindus of Jaffna, which necessitated an education.
And the Hindu Tamil youth of Jaffna were eager to seize these opportunities and acquire an English education for that purpose.
Seeing a potential in this for gaining converts, the new Protestant missions which followed the British flag, set up schools and boarding houses, including some for girls.
Printing presses were established to churn out easily accessible Christian literature on a large scale.
The new British rulers handed over government-run schools to the missionaries, and gave grants-in-aid to non-government schools. The latter was a great help to missionary-run schools.
The missionary-run schools and medical missions, with their dedicated and selfless staff, presented a very new and beguiling face to the people of Jaffna, who, under Portuguese and Dutch rule earlier, had been dragooned into accepting Christianity and economically exploited thereafter by the state-backed missionaries.
Missions fail to make headway
However, despite possessing all the necessary tools for mass conversion, the Protestant missionaries did not make much headway.
According to Dr Gunasingam determined evangelisation by the American Ceylon Mission (ACM) from 1816 to 1839 had yielded only 492 converts.
Success eluded the Wesleyan Mission and the Church Missionary Society (CMS) also.
Gunasingam says that conversion was low because, unlike the Portuguese or the Dutch, the British did not make conversion a necessity for obtaining government jobs or state patronage.
The British had also declared that they would not allow forcible conversions.
Missionaries create insecurity
But many Jaffna Hindu Tamils, mainly of the elite Vellala, Chettiar and Brahmin castes, felt that the power of the missionaries was insidious.
They feared that if the Hindus, mainly Saivite, were not careful, they could be overwhelmed by the missionaries armed with all the tools of modern propaganda then available, namely, a virtual monopoly over the educational system and the printed word.
The liberal education, which the mission schools provided, had created awareness among the Saivites and sharpened their critical faculties.
While the missionaries hoped that education would make the young Saivites see the truth of Christianity and the falsehood of Saivism, it had the opposite impact, notes Gunasingam.
Often, education made the student critical of Christianity and see the danger that it posed to his own indigenous religion.
But this, by itself, did not make the Saivites take measures to assert their faith and oppose the proselytising activities of the missionaries.
What triggered active resistance was the stepping up of vile anti-Saivite propaganda by the missionaries.
According to Gunasingam, the missionaries started attacking Saivisim and Saivite practices viciously because they were frustrated with the poor rate of conversion.
In his article entitled Arumuga Navalar and the Hindu Renaissance Among the Tamils in the book "Religious Controversy in British India" edited by Kenneth W Jones, D Dennis Hudson gives a particularly telling example of the missionary view of Saivism.
He quotes the Protestant periodical Morning Star as saying: "There is nothing in the peculiar doctrines and precepts of the Saiva religion that is adapted to improve a man's moral character or fit him to be useful to his fellow men".
"If the world were to be converted to the Saiva faith, no one would expect any improvement in the morals or the happiness of men."
"Everyone might be a great liar and cheat, as great an adulterer, as oppressive of the poor, as covetous, as proud, as he was before without the purity of faith."
The "Skandapuranam" one of the most sacred texts of Saivism, was denounced as a set of "extravagant fictions many of which are of immoral tendency."
The Morning Star and other publications were also making disparaging remarks against the famous Kandaswamy temple in Nallur, saying that it was a den vice.
The attacks on this temple, which was the nerve centre of Saivisim in the Jaffna peninsula, was seen as a frontal assault on Tamil culture and Tamil pride.
Rise of Hindu protest
The first to protest against such characterisations and write against Christianity was Muthukumara Kavirajar (1780-1851).
His works, which were printed later, became an important weapon in the armoury of the Saivites.
The first collective action on the part of the Saivites of Jaffna was a meeting held by a group drawn from the elite Vellala, Brahmin and Chettiar communities, at the Siva temple at Vannarpannai in September 1842.
Among the leading lights present were Sathasiva Pillai, Swaminatha Iyar, Viswanatha Iyar, Arumuga Pillai, Kandaswamy Pillai and Arumuga Chettiar.
The group decided to set up a "Veda-Agama" School to teach children the Vedas, the Agamas (temple worship) and the elements of Saivisim.
The plan was to discourage parents from sending their children to Christian mission schools.
It was also decided to purchase a printing press to counter the media war unleashed by the missionaries.
Though the purchase of a printing press took time, the Veda Agama school started functioning in 1842.
Enter Arumuga Navalar
It was at this time that Arumugam Pillai (1822-1879) entered the scene with a bang.
As Arumuga Navalar or simply as Navalar, he was to become Sri Lanka's foremost Saivite or Hindu revivalist; the harbinger of Tamil nationalism; and the cutting edge of the long, and successful campaign against Christian proselytising.
Navalar was unique among the campaigners for Saivism in Jaffna in as much as he was into it full time.
He had stubbornly remained unmarried to retain his independence.
Having been a student of, and a teacher in, the Wesleyan School, where he was the favourite of the Missionary cum Principal, Peter Percival, Navalar, came with a good grounding in Christianity. This helped him argue against it authoritatively.
He took to Christian methods of preaching which had been effective. Like the Christian pastors, he preached in the places of worship.
On December 18, 1847, Navalar set the ball rolling with a lecture at the Vaideeswara temple in Vannarpannai. He lectured there every Friday.
And he went from place to place together with his devoted colleague and assistant, Kartikeya Aiyar of Nallur.
Taking the cue from the Christian missionaries, Navalar made his religion relevant to real life. In his lectures, he would stress, apart from the theological and liturgical aspects of Saivism, the evils of adultery and drunkenness; the virtue of non-killing; the need to treat women with respect; the importance of giving alms; and the need to protect the cow.
Navalar gave a new interpretation to Saivisim which instilled in his audiences pride in their traditional faith. Simultaneously, he sought reform of Hindu society.
His endeavours helped blunt the Christian missionaries' criticism of Hinduism and Hindu practices.
Drew similarities between Saivism and Christianity
Hudson notes that Navalar took a very novel approach to Saivism and and Christianity.
He drew similarities between them and used them to argue that the Christian missionaries had no right to criticise Saivism and paint it in lurid colours.
Navalar noticed striking parallels between the liturgies of the temple in Jerusalem and the temples of Siva in Sri Lanka and India.
He pointed out that the Israelites, who were chosen by God as his own children, believed that the Lord dwelt in the ark made of wood and lived between the cherubim. And He had bestowed grace upon them.
Likewise, the Saivites believed that God dwelt in the idol of Siva and bestowed grace on them.
The Israelites made a sanctuary for the worship of God. The Saivites built temples.The Isrealites worshiped the cherubim and the bronze serpent. The Saivites worshiped images made of gold and silver.
The Israelites displayed bread and wine in their temples. The Saivites kept fruits as prasadam. Both Israelites and Saivites burnt incense.
The Israelites burnt the heifer (cow) and took its ashes for use. The Saivites used the ashes from the dung of the heifer as "Tiruneer" or "Vibhuti".
Navalar wondered why the missionaries approved what the Israelites did, and disapproved a similar thing done by the Saivites.
If they could justify the Israelite rituals as a means to absorb the thoughts of God, the Saivities could justify their rituals too, he argued.
Navalar pointed out that Christ and the early Christians followed the rites and ceremonies of the temple.
The bible had said that it was the duty of every Christian to observe them. How then could the missionaries now abandon them, he asked.
In Navalar's view, the proselytizing Christians were a blessing in disguise, because he believed that Lord Siva was using the Christian missionaries to awaken Saivites to the truths of Saivism as contained in the Agamas.
Need for comprehensive written scripture
Navalar's familiarity with Christianity led him to feel that Saivism required a written and revealed set of scriptures that would parallel the Bible's comprehensive authority.
And he believed that the Agama scriptures would serve the purpose because they eliminated the unsavory practices in popular Saivism, even as they gave a sophisticated justification of temple worship.
Writing on Navalar's view of the Agama scriptures, Husdson writes: "On the one hand, the Agama scriptures eliminated some of the 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 Navalar believed that the Sanskrit and Tamil scriptures of Agamic Shaivism purified popular and Puranic religion, elevated the ignorant, and inspired the literati."
Changes character of Hindu schools
With the aid of wealthy persons in both Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu ( with which he was in close touch), Navalar started many schools.
These schools taught Saivism as well as modern subjects to make them relevant to the needs of the modernising world.
He discouraged learning by rote, which had been the traditional method in schools, especially religious schools.
He put difficult Saivite poems and commentaries into easily understandable prose, which would also be as elegant and thought provoking as the original. He designed a graded Saivite curriculum.
The other most important contribution of his was the establishment of a Saivite press with a machine he brought at Madras.
The press, which started functioning in 1850, churned out Saivite literature and commentaries, and Navalar's own writings in a big way.
According to Hudson, the most dramatic use of the press was the publication of anti-Christian literature between 1852 and 1854. In 1954, came a booklet for effectively countering Christian propaganda, entitled "Abolition of the Abuse of Saivism."
Commenting on this booklet, a missionary wrote in Morning Star that Navalar had shown an "intimate and astonishing" acquaintance with the Holy Bible and that he had "cunningly" defended the rituals, practices and lingam worship of the Saivas "on the authority of our own writings!"
The missionary then concluded that it could not be denied that the booklet had "great effect" in favour of Saivisim and against Christianity.
Navalar's tireless work, which included ceaseless traveling, writing, and speaking, had a telling impact on Tamil society in Jaffna.
It revived pride in the traditional religion, reinforced ties with Hindu India, reined in the marauding state-backed missionaries, and sowed the seeds of Tamil nationalism.
Bishop Sabhapathi Kulendran had no option but to admit that it was largely due to Navalar that Christian conversions in Jaffna did not live up to the promise they showed in the early part of the 19th century.
PK Balachandran is Special Correspondent of Hindustan Times in Sri Lanka)