Arumuga Navalar of Jaffna

Thread started by Eelavar on 5th January 2006 03:53 PM

Arumuga Navalar of Jaffna (1822-1879)

Arumuga Navalar is regarded as the "father" of modern Tamil prose and a staunch defender of Shaivism against Christian missionary attacks. Less known are his attempts to reform Shaivism itself. He worked within the heritage of Shaiva scholars as he responded to the newer challenges of an intrusive Western Civilization. A Hindu of Hindus, affectionately called the 'Champion Reformer of the Hindus', author of numerous treatises on Saiva Literature, was a pioneer prose writer and publisher of rare books of the Sangam Age.

Arumuga Pillai, Navalar's original name, belonged to a high-status caste known as Vellalas, a class that along with Brahmins had produced most of the Tamil literati for centuries, perhaps millennia. Born in 1822, he grew up in the Tamil regions of Sri Lanka. 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 English. Arumuga was twelve when he attended this school as a day student. He did so well that he was asked to stay on the Jaffna Wesleyan Mission School to teach English and Tamil. Peter Percival, the principal asked him to serve as his own Tamil pandit, to assist him in writing and editing hymns and translating the prayer book and Bible. Arumuga Pillai worked with Percival for eight years in his late teens and early twenties, when he wrestled seriously with the questions, What does it mean to be a Hindu?


At the time of Arumuga Pillai's birth, Protestants from England and America, had established stations in nine villages on the Jaffna peninsula from whence they conducted vigorous campaigns to convert the Hindus and Muslims into Christians. 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 (Kanta Purana) 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 Shaiva, would be respected or that its esoteric meanings would receive a sympathetic hearing.

Christians had their portions translated from poetry into prose. The classes immediately created a stir. Though they were voluntary, social pressures 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 sacred center (akam) of dahrma 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:

"Enough, however, was read to convince all who would reflect, that the book is filled with the most extravagant fictions, many of which are of an immoral tendency, (just as the Bible says,) "for the people will walk everyone in the name of his god."

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. The "Kummi Song on Wisdom," moreover attacked the Christian Bible and Christians just as the Christians had criticized the Skanda Purana and Shaivas. In Jaffna, the Christian assault on Shaivism intensified.

In September of 1842 over two hundred Hindu men of high status gathered at the monastery (matam) of the Shiva temple in Jaffna to discuss plans for establishing a Veda and Agama school to teach Shaivism. They also agreed to purchase a printing press, if possible, in collaboration with "the white men of this place," and to publish tracts on the absurdities of the Christian religion, "which would effectually shut the mouths of the missionaries and stop their abuse."

In October of 1842, when the Veda 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. Sympathetic to the Christian arguments, he studied the Bible regularly, but while doing so began to have questions about it. Soon he turned away from it in favor of his own heritage. In 1848, he quit to devote himself fully to his own projects. He had studied in depth the Agamic literature forming the scriptural Sanskrit. He was now adept in the three literary languages of modern religious discourse in the Tamil world: Tamil, Sanskrit, and English. Not surprisingly, his reputation had been growing among local Shaivas as a man who knew more about obscure Agamic literature than anyone else.

The Veda and Agama school had not survived and a printing press was still a dream. In 1846 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 Chettiyar men. The classes were free and informal. Soon he crossed the Palk Strait and to Madras, his first trip to India. A Shaiva school was clearly on his mind. 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" (Sivaprakasam) and disperse the "darkness" shared by Hindus and Christians. He believed that if the people knew the rudiments of Agamic Shaivism acted on them, they would strengthen dharma and weaken the Christians.

In 1849, He set out for Madras, with his colleague, Sadashiva Pillai, to purchase a printing press. While waiting for a press, Arumuga Navalar published two texts he had been editing from various copies. One was an important educational tool the Cudamani Nikantu, a sixteenth-century lexicon of 1,197 easily remembered verses giving approximately eleven thousand words, in both their verse and prose forms. The other text, Saundaryalahari, a poem in praise of the goddess, was important for devotion, and was published with comments (urai). He had laid out the lines of his work he would continue for the rest of his life: writing, publishing, preaching, teaching and reform. He openly disputed with the claims and refuted the abuses of the Christians.

The Impact of Navalar

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. With his recovery, editing, and publishing of ancient works, Navalar, laid the foundations for the recovery of lost Tamil classics, a task his successors continued.

The religious revival among the Hindus in Sri Lanka was largely due to the pioneering efforts of Arumuga Navalar (1822-1879). This is not the place to narrate in detail the crucial and seminal role played by him in kindling a consciousness among the Tamils in Sri Lanka and South India about their spiritual heritage. In many ways Navalar could be compared to Dayananda Saraswathi (1824-1883) who founded the Arya Samaj in North India. What Dayananda did for the Vedic religion in the North, Navalar accomplished for the Saiva-Agamic faith in South India and Sri Lanka.

(For more refer to chapter on European Imperialism and FirstIndologists).


Arumugam Navalar, Great Saiva Revivalist of Jaffna, Sri Lanka, Honored on 181st Birthday

SRI LANKA, December 15, 2003: Tamils in several parts of the northeast observed the 181st birth anniversary of the Saiva-Tamil revivalist Sri Arumugam Navalar on Sunday. Sri Arumugan Navalar is chiefly remembered for his work to revive Saivism in Jaffna and South India. He is also considered one of the important pioneers of Tamil revival in the 19th century. Though Sri Arumugam Navalar's 181st birth anniversary falls on 18th December 2003 the Trincomalee District Young Men's Hindu Association organized his Guru Pooja on Sunday. The TDYMHA organized the event with the octogenarian Saivite activist Mr. P. Kandiah (Gandhi master). Attorney-at Law Mr. K. Sivapalan and Assistant Director of Education Mr. S.Vipunasekaram spoke of the services Navalar rendered to Saivism and Tamil language.

Many Tamils in South India and Sri Lanka are Saivaites. Sri Arumugam Navalar was born on 18th December 1822 in Nallur in Jaffnapeninsula at a time when several elite and middle class Tamils in Jaffna felt that Ceylon's British rulers were promoting Christianity and the English language at the expense of Saivisim and Tamil.

Navalar's original name was Arumugam. For his services rendered to Saivaism and Tamil language and culture, the head of the great Tamil monastery/temple complex in South India, Dharmapuram Aadheenam, conferred on him the title "Navalar" in recognition of his literary and debating skills. Since then he was known as Arumugam Navalar. At the age of twelve he completed his Tamil education under the traditional, non-formal education "Guru-Shisya" mode of learning. He later joined Jaffna Methodist English School, currently known as Jaffna Central College for his English education when Rev Peter Percival was its Principal.

Navalar emerged the champion of the Saiva renaissance movement of the nineteenth century, both in Jaffna and South India. He published several ancient Sangam literary works, which were found in Palmyra (Ola) leaf manuscripts. He also wrote learned commentaries to ancient and medieval Tamil grammars Navalar was versatile writer, eloquent speaker and efficient debater. Navalar wrote several books on Saivaism such as Saiva Vina Vidai, which is a Saivite catechism. Navalar developed a prose style even laymen could understand. Arumugam Navalar established schools in several parts of Jaffna peninsula to propagate Saivaism

Source :


Want to post a response?

(Hello Guest, you need to login to post a response. Are you a New User? Register first.)