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The rebirth of Hinduism in Jaffna

It was Arumuga Navalar who made Hindus combat Christian evangelism in Jaffna, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Jun 19, 2006 19:12 IST

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.