Defending the Sri Lankan Hindu of Yesteryear: Arumuka Navalar and Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan

published on May 21, 2010
Romesh Jayaratnam

Kandy, Sri Lanka

Samuel Ratnajeevan Herbert Hoole’s article ‘The Internet and Mobility in the Reconstruction of the Past: A Study through a Reassessment of Navalar and Caste Claims’ was published on 14 May, 2010 in David Jeyaraj’s transCurrents website. The paper had been presented at the Fifth Annual Tamil Studies Conference of the University of Toronto.
The study lacked academic rigour, accuracy and citations. It instead made unsubstantiated derogatory references to Arumuka Navalar, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan and Tamil Hindu society in Sri Lanka. As always, Ratnajeevan Herbert Hoole never misses an opportunity to attack Hinduism in his westernized Christian zeal. The fact that the Tamil Studies Conference in Toronto accepted this paper indicates that many of the seminars and conferences on Tamil studies are no longer serious forums of intellectual discourse. Many expatriate Tamils lack the meticulous attention to the truth when it comes to a review of Sri Lankan history. David Jeyaraj’s internet website gives space to the fundamentalist Hoole but denies Tamil Hindus the right to respond. Further, all comments are censored by Jeyaraj.
Sri Lankan Tamil Hindus are faced with the challenge to help restore the lives and livehood of those displaced by the confrlict. We need to attend to the forsaken, the poor and the war-maimed in the Vanni. This is our foremost Dharmic responsibility at this junction. But we can not take attacks on our religious identity lying down. It is in that spirit that I respond.
Arumuka Navalar

Let me recapitulate Hoole’s harsh invective against the 19th century Sri Lankan Hindu leader Arumuka Navalar. Hoole asserts that Navalar did not translate the Bible into Tamil at the behest of the English missionary Peter Percival. He adds that Navalar was a rabid caste conscious bigot, a ‘relatively uneducated’ Tamil teacher and had low caste origins. Hoole provides no citation except to make a cursory reference to Dagmar Hellman, an academic who had previously researched the LTTE with the latter’s consent. I am not sure whether she would endorse Hoole’s outburst on Navalar. Hoole asserts that Navalar was not the father of Tamil prose. He then claims that earlier translations of the Bible and Christian prayer books represented the first instances of Tamil prose.
Let me respond. I refer the reader to two earlier articles of mine.;;
One needs to revert to primary sources if one is to accurately describe Arumuka Navalar. Navalar lived between 1822 and 1877 CE. Works of his including the ‘Prabandha Thirattu’, ‘Saiva Thooshana Parihaaram’, ‘the Prohibition of Killing’, and his classic deconstruction of the Bible helps one to understand the person. Hoole is unlikely to have ever read these texts in Tamil, more familiar as he is with Milton, Shakespear and Cardinal Newman. One has to also rely on the earliest two 19th century biographers of Navalar. Relevant here are the Tamil language biographies by Kanakaratna Upadhyayar and T. Kailasapillai.
One discovers herein an astonishing man who grasped the imperative to establish Hindu primary and secondary schools in the 19th century, modernize and broadbase Hindu education,  use simple Tamil prose to disseminate Saivite Hindu doctrine and leverage the printing press to republish the Tamil classics, Saivite Hindu scripture and Hindu doctrine. Navalar made it a point to study Christianity to more effectively combat the white missionary enterprise. Navalar worked in North Sri Lanka and in neighboring Tamil Nadu. He established schools in North Sri Lanka and in India of which the Saiva Prakasa Vidyalayam was the first. He was the first person to avail of the modern printing press to publish rare Tamil classics in the mid-1800s anticipating the subsequent seminal work of U.V. Swaminatha Iyer and the other Sri Lankan Tamil Hindu stalwart C.W. Thamotherampillai.
Professor Dennis Hudson of the State University of New York has chronicled Navalar’s use of the printing press on both sides of the Palk Straits in the 19th century. Navalar published 97 Tamil language documents. He published rare works of Tamil grammar, literature, liturgy and religion that were previously unavailable in print. Navalar established a printing press in Sri Lanka and in Tamil Nadu. The one in Jaffna was called the Vidyanubalana Yantra Sala. Noted Czech scholar of Tamil, Kamil Zvelebil, demonstrated that Navalar was the first author to use modern Tamil prose in a manner understandable to the layperson. Professor Meenakshisundaram echoed this view when he reiterated that Navalar was the first to use simplified and unadorned lay Tamil. So yes, Navalar made stellar contributions to Hinduism, the Tamil language, Tamil prose and Sri Lankan Tamil Hindu identity.
The Hindu revival preceded the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka by a full generation. Both movements were robust in their origins. Arumuka Navalar’s emphasis on a modern Hindu education in Sri Lanka was the prelude to the later Hindu Board of Education in Sri Lanka. It was Navalar who first articulated in modern times that the Sri Lankan Tamil identity was parallel to and not the same as the South Indian Tamil identity. As Bishop Kulendran of the Church of South India in Jaffna conceded, it was Navalar’s Saivite Hindu revival that stemmed the conversions to Christianity in northern Sri Lanka in the 19th century. This perhaps explains Hoole’s harsh invective. It is irrelevant therefore whether Navalar played a key role ini the translation of the Bible into the Tamil language or not. I care less about the Tamil translation of the Bible!
The origins of Tamil prose go much earlier to the medieval Brahmin, Saivite and Jain commentators on classical Sangam and post-Sangam literature. I refer here to the Urai-asiriyarkal i.e. Ilampuranar, Senavaraayar, Per-asiriyar, Parimel-alakar, Nachi-naar-kiniyaar and Theiva-chilaiyaar. That prose however was medieval and archaic. It had to be modernized and this is where Navalar helped. Hoole is unlikely to have ever heard of or read these medieval commentators, more familiar as he is with Christian theology.
Ponnambalam Ramanathan
Let’s address Hoole’s rant against Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan. He describes Ramanathan as sex obsessed, a failure at school, dishonest, who had never been elected and opposed to the grant of the vote to the lower caste. Hoole provides no credible citation nor supporting evidence except for a passing reference to K. Sivathamby, an academic once linked to the LTTE. I am not sure whether Sivathamby would endorse Hoole’s outburst either.
One can dismiss much of what is leveled against Ramanathan. I have covered this in an earlier article of mine.
Ramanathan lived between 1851 and 1930. He was a legal scholar and Solicitor General. Several Sinhalese leaders considered him to be one of the most distinguished Sri Lankan statesman. Ramanathan was an educationalist, a publisher and one who articulated the development needs of both the impoverished Tamil and Sinhalese peasantry. He was the first Sri Lankan to be elected on an all-island electorate. Ramanathan was elected in 1911 and in 1916.
Ramanathan envisioned a university for Sri Lanka’s North and established Parameshwara College as a first step. He subsequently established Ramanathan College. In this, he was similar to the Hindu educationalists in the princely states of Mysore and Travancore. Ponnambalam hired leading educationalists in Europe to staff boths centers of education. He later supported the efforts of the Hindu Board of Education, the Jaffna Bar Association and the incipient Cooperatives Movement. He worked tirelessly for Hindu Buddhist concord and defended Sinhalese interests in the colonial crackdown on the Sinhalese leadership in 1915. The holiday of Vesak that marks the birth and enlightenment of the Buddha was declared a public holiday by the colonial administration due in large measure to his lobbying efforts in the legislature when the Sinhalese Christian legislators kept aloof.
Ramanathan did have his faults. Like several elite Sinhalese and Tamils, he was wary of universal adult franchise. He expressed his wariness on just one occasion in the late 1920s that the principle of one man one vote would harm Tamil interests. This was presumably due to the inevitable Sinhalese majority in the legislature. In that, he echoed Muslim League concerns in pre-partition India that democratic franchise would lead to Hindu domination in India. Ramanathan fell short of his noble achievements in this regard.
However, to argue that he opposed universal franchise to deny the lower caste the vote is untrue. It was race politics, not caste that made Ramanathan fearful of universal adult franchise. This said, he did not take an active part in that debate. It was G.G. Ponnambalam and his then junior protege Samuel James Velupillai Chelvanayakam who stand accused for having openly raised the anti-Sinhalese race bogey in the years leading up to independence.
Caste in Sri Lankan Tamil Society

Hoole embarks on a tirade against the institution of caste as practiced in Tamil Sri Lanka. He makes sweeping generalizations without supporting evidence. It was a shoddy discussion and I am surprised that David Jeyaraj so readily reproduced it. Let me respond.
Christianity had been linked to the colonial enterprise, to the murder of Jews in the Inquisition and the Pogroms which constituted  the cultural-religious backdrop to the Holocaust, the murderous crusades against Islam, the extermination of the Maya and Inca civilizations in the Americas, the extermination of the Australian aborigine and the trans-atlantic enslavement of the African. The roots for the bloodshed, persecution, genocide and enslavement of the infidel lie in the Bible.
Hinduism had caste. There is the four-fold schematic classification of society into the Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra. This was the conceptual Varna system. Then there was the social reality of Jati with a myriad of castes, some with power, many without it. The colonial-era white missionary scholar tried to retrofit the Jati classification into the textual four fold schematization of Varna. This lead to conceptual dilemma because social configurations with power, influence, ritual status, ownership of land and patronage of religion often could not be easily retrofitted into the Kshatriya, Vaishya or Sudra frameworks.
The Vellalar or the Tamil peasantry, the Karaiyaar or the Tamil maritime caste and the Chettiar or the Tamil mercantile caste in Tamil Sri Lanka illustrated this paradox. All three had authority and social autonomy in their respective realms. None subordinated themselves to the other. All three only acknowledged the authority of the King of Jaffna. The Arya Chakravarty kings in Jaffna were in all likelihood not Vellalar, Karaiyaar or Chettiar but may have had Pandyan country Brahmin antecedents if one were to accept the research findings of Professor S. Pathmanathan at the University of Peradeniya. Whether the Vellalar, Karaiyaar or Chettiar were designated as Kshatriya, Vaishya or Sudra was irrelevant since we are talking about the social reality of Jati, not the four fold theoretical schematization of Varna as conceptualized in the classical texts.
Hoole makes the same blunder as colonial-era missionary scholars, one that is repeated by others such as Pffafenberger who conflate Varna with Jati. Jati exists, Varna does not outside the conceptual framework of the social texts! We go by Jati. Varna is a mere metaphor without real social sanction. Much of what Hoole argues is therefore nonsensical from the point of view of social reality on the ground. He gets his facts mixed up. The details he alludes to can be challenged. He provides zero supporting evidence. But then again, lets understand that Hoole is no accredited sociologist. He after all is more familiar with Tennyson and Wordsworth given the self-description of his very westernized family antecedents. Hoole is no authority on Tamil sociology.
The Manu Dharma Shastra is just one text that defines the Hindu social ethos. We also have to read the Rig Veda, the Mahabharata, the Artha Shastra, the Tevaram, the Tiruvachakam and other works. Hinduism, unlike Christianity, is not mono-textual. Hoole assumes that Hinduism positions the physician lower in the social hierarchy. But Siva, the highest form of divinity, is the divine healer himself! The medical profession was much respected in classical India as witnessed in the works of noted classical-era physicians such as Atreya, Agnivesha, Charaka, Sushtura and Vagbhattacharya, many of whom were incidentally Brahmins. And yes, the Brahmins did cross the seas as witnessed in the Hindu empires of Angkor, Mataram and Majapahit in Cambodia and Indonesia. Cambodia and Indonesia also had Buddhist empires of note.
Hoole commenced his shoddy article with a remarkable opening and I quote “Our society creates defining myths, myths that define who we are, using the progress of space and time which prevents exposure of the subterfuge through a dissection of our the past’. He adds that ‘little of our histories is credible’.
Bravo! Excellent words that can be used to good effect to deconstruct the role of post-independence Tamil politics with particular reference to the destructive anti-Buddhist role of the Federal Party. Relevant here would be Samuel James Velupillai Chelvanayakam, E.M.V Naganathan, K. Nesiah and Joseph Pararajasingham, all of whom were Tamil Christian. Let us include here the imperative to deconstruct contemporary Tamil Christian clergy such as S.J. Emmanuel and Jagath Gasper Raj. It would be similarly useful if one were to dissect Canon Somasundaram, Elijah Hoole and the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in North America in the very same spirit.

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