In 2009, Thiru Arumugam, a Sri Lankan Chartered Engineer presently domiciled in Sydney, Australia, published a well-researched book titled, Nineteenth Century American Medical Missionaries in Jaffna, Ceylon with special reference to Samuel Fisk Green1. The book pays a glowing tribute to the vital role played by the American Missionaries and their selfless dedication in promoting the study of Natural Philosophy and the Sciences as well as Western Medical Practices among the native population of Jaffna, apart from their usual missionary activities of evangelising. The author poses the question “…why didn’t our society give due recognition to Dr Green’s work as they did to the work of others… ?” and goes on to explain that Nineteenth Century Tamil society confined its recognition of contributors to its history, only to the ambit of language and literature. “Dr. Green dealt with an alien discipline, which was totally new to the society. Science in general and Western medical science in particular were new to the Tamils and the society did not really understand the nature of his contribution”.
In reviewing2 Arumugam’s book, Sri Lankan playwright in English, Ernest McIntyre, refers to the famous Two Cultures essay, in which C.P. Snow (1905 ‒1980), novelist, scientist and Labour Government Minister in the U.K., had lamented the great cultural divide that separates two great areas of human intellectual activity, science and the arts. Snow argued that practitioners in both areas should build bridges, to further the progress of human knowledge and to benefit society. McIntyre observes that “this book of Arumugam needs wide proliferation because of the role it must play in closing the gap in our own case of ‘The Two Cultures’.” McIntyre tacitly leaves out what exactly he means by ‘the gap in our own case of The Two Cultures’ to the reader’s imagination. It could very well be the gulf between the English educated and the vernacular educated or that between the Christian – and the Saivite – communities; some may even think of that as between the Sinhalese and the Tamils.
In 2020, S.R.H. Hoole, a distinguished Engineering academician, researcher and prolific publisher residing in his native Jaffna, had published a book titled Heritage Histories: A Reassessment of Arumuga Navalar, a.k.a Candar Arumugavan3. Two reviews of this book that appeared in the online forum, Colombo Telegraph (on 18/10/20 and 7/5/21) had generated much debate among the readership.
The respective main characters in the two books mentioned above, Dr Green and Arumuga Navalar, were contemporaries and their similarities are as much striking as their contrasts: both were born in 1822, the former in a community of Christian true believers in New England, and the other in a community of Saivite true believers in Nallur. Dr Green started his missionary work in Batticotta (Vaddukoddai) in October 1847, whereas Navalar commenced his famous series of prasangams4 (discourses) at Vannarpannai Sivan Temple in defence of Saivaism in December 1847. Both were against any Westernisation of the people.
What was Jaffna like at that time?
Martin in his book5 published in 1923 notes that in the1830s “there were no roads, properly so-called, beyond the Pettah. Even the Main Street from the Jaffna Fort terminated near the 3rd Cross Street, beyond which it was a mere sandy track. In the villages, the ‘Parish Roads’ of the Dutch were the sole means of communication (transportation), while there were no traces of the present trunk lines … The salt lagoon running through the Peninsula, from Ariyalai to Thondamannar, was not bridged either at Puthankuli or Vallai, and the rainy season terminated all intercourse and trade between the parishes of Jaffna and those of Vadamaradchi to the north and Tenmaradchi to the east. Pachchillapalli, now the coconut garden of the North, was comparatively little known, except as the domain of the elephant and the black bear. Elephants roamed about Kaithadi and paid surprise visits to the town; Cheetahs committed sad havoc on cattle, and Jackals in plentiful packs held their midnight concerts in close proximity to the town. The age of gang robberies, of ear-cutting, torch-light robberies and highway robberies had not then passed. Travelling was beset with sure and certain danger.”
What was Navalar’s background and education? 5,6,7
From the inception of the Jaffna Kingdom in the 13th Century to the present, Nallur has remained the Saivite capital of Northern Sri Lanka. Art, learning and culture flourished in the Jaffna Kingdom. Eminent scholars were invited from South India to hold discourses in the King’s court.
Navalar’s father, Kanthapillai (1766 – 1842) as well as his mother, Sivakami Ammaiyar, were both born in Nallur. Navalar’s grandfather, Paramananthar, was the son of Illankai Kavala Mudaliyar, a descendant of Pandi Mallavan, a pioneer settler of Jaffna from Ponpettiyur in Tamil Nadu just prior to the establishment of the Jaffna Kingdom.
Kanthapillai lived during both Dutch and British regimes. He had his early education in Tamil under Sanmugam Chaddampiyar. Later, he received tuition from the reputed veteran Kulankai Thambiran. He also became proficient in English, Dutch and Portuguese under Rev Phillip De Mello. He had acquired some medical knowledge from his father, who was a reputed Physician. Being so versatile, he became a very useful person to the community and to the Government. He was given a special appointment by the government and named Visaranai (or Aradchi). His function was to inquire and report on events.
Navalar had his early education under distinguished scholars, Senathirajah Mudaliyar and Saravanamuttu Pulavar. They imparted to him sound groundwork in Tamil, Tamil Culture, and Sanskrit. He was sent to study English as well in a small Christian school maintained by Rev Percival.
What was Navalar’s contribution to Tamil and Saivaism? 5,6,7
Having achieved high proficiency in both Tamil and Sanskrit under eminent scholars of the time (in the tradition of Thinnai schooling), and later in English and Christianity as a result of his association with Rev Percival, Navalar set up his own press and commenced publication of simple books on ethics for children. Realising the difficulty that the common people had in understanding the many sacred Hindu Puranams, because they were in verse, he commenced publishing them in simple prose. He matured into a Tamil prose writer of high esteem. He mastered the tenets of Saiva Siddantha philosophy and acquired eloquence in speech. He kindled a consciousness among the Tamils about their spiritual heritage and spearheaded the movement for its revival. He also established schools in Jaffna and Tamil Nadu.
This is what a highly reputed scholar of Tamil of the Twentieth Century, T.P. Meenakshi Suntharam said about Navalar: “On the one hand there was prose known as High Senthamil, and on the other hand Kochchaithamil an ascent and a descent (a crest and a trough). Navalar levelled these, applied plaster to it; he made it a shining white wall. Yes! In this leveling process, many beautiful paintings on the peaks have disappeared …. But Arumuga Navalar did yeoman service, by ploughing and levelling a rugged old terrain that never saw the plough, and he had to sow the seeds and clear the weeds …. Therefore, Arumuga Navalar was the father of modern Tamil prose, and laid its foundations firm and secure”.
What can we take from Hoole’s Recent Book on Navalar?
In reviewing the life and contributions of a historical figure such as Arumuga Navalar, it is fitting to quote Stanley Jones (1884–1973) on a book he had read on Mahatma Gandhi: “It is a microscopic examination thoroughly done, but in the end the real man is lost. After you have looked at him through a microscope, you have to look at him through a telescope. For, he stands against a background of ages, and must be interpreted with that background to get the full stature and meaning of the man.”
The book by Hoole on Navalar can be described essentially as a microscopic examination of Navalar on two fronts: Navalar’s role in perpetuating the caste system, and in translating the Bible. Although the book touches on a host of other topics (such as a separate chapter on Rev Percival and his contribution to Tamil), the present review is confined solely to the above two subjects. The author’s frustration at the habitual aggrandization by Tamil Saivites of their religion, language and culture as well as historical figures such as Navalar, and their caste prejudices are clearly borne out in the book. Not only Navalar, but many characters mentioned in the book including the author’s ancestors and academic researchers from leading universities in the US were not spared of criticism. While some of these criticisms are valid and justifiable, discerning readers will notice significant inconsistencies in the book. A few specific examples are given below.
The choice of Arumugavan in the book title, instead of the commonly used names Arumugam or Arumugavar in the literature is debatable (pages x and xi).
Rev E.J. Robinson was quoted to describe Rev Percival as “unsurpassed as a preacher in the Tamil language,” (Pages 151, 215 and 216). But the author in another instant goes on to dismiss Rev Robinson’s statement4 that Navalar “had been for a long period, day after day, the worthy companion and valued assistant of the gifted and plodding Mr Percival in preparing and editing Treatises and hymns in Tamil, and translating the Prayer-Book and the Holy Bible,” by saying Rev Robinson “carelessly wrote in his book which did not make clear if Navalar was an Assistant to Percival like a valet/servant or as actual translator.”
Prof Bernard Bate of Yale University however had a different take on the same passage, saying8 it is “foundational to almost all subsequent writing about what happened,” vis-a-vis the translation of the Bible. The beauty is in the eye of the beholder indeed!
The author insists that “after failing to pass out of school Navalar was helped by Percival by keeping him on as some kind of assistant, perhaps keeping his papers and things in order, but not assisting in translation.” And then contradicts himself by saying “it is possible that Navalar, knowing the Tamil language well, might have engaged in discussions with Percival while Percival was working on the Fabricius Revision. This may explain the Morning Star of May 26, 1953 saying: “Mr Arumugam who was educated in part in the Wesleyan Mission Establishment was a pundit in certain branches of Study, and for a time rendered valuable assistance as a pundit in the revision of the Tamil Scriptures.” (p. 120). This issue which is of little concern to people outside the academic community would remain unresolved, as the two persons who would really know the answer, namely Rev Percival and Navalar, are longer with us.
While accusing Navalar of practising and promoting caste discrimination (which is true as evident from some of Navalar’s publications), the author admits “Navalar’s reforms of Hinduism have Percival’s and the Missions’ stamp – for example, removing the erotic parts of Hindu scriptures, the use of terms like ‘divine providence,’ the movement towards monotheism, the position against caste – even though it is widely practised in private, rejection of polygamy and slavery, etc.” (p. 218). If this is true, and Navalar had indeed changed his earlier held conservative views, which is something to be celebrated. Some would argue that there were Tamil saints, Thirumoolar for example, who had advocated similar reforms in the distant past.
One cannot miss the malice transparent in the terminology, like school drop-out, man-Friday, valet, layabout, servant etc., used to refer to a great scholar. The author’s fixation with portraying Navalar in a bad light compels him to distort facts. His efforts to seem a warrior against casteism are deflated by the casteist prejudices evident in his association of people’s conduct with their caste (p. 130). Besides, the book lacks coherence and drifts from topic to topic rather arbitrarily. Winding through the maze of anecdotes, hearsays, contradictory statements and frequent repetitions was not an easy reading experience.
It is hard to see the book as the work of a neutral and objective researcher. Many readers, specially, among the Tamil Saivite community, will come to the sad conclusion that the author had gone out of his way to pick up trivia to defame Arumuga Navalar.
The positive contribution of the Christian missionaries to the Saivite community in reforming and rejuvenating Saivaism, should be celebrated by both sides. This along with Missionaries’ other important contributions such as: an early and very successful introduction of Western medical practices to Jaffna residents, providing a pathway for the upliftment of the underprivileged in the society, and providing a well-rounded education to all communities in Sri Lanka, should be gratefully acknowledged and appreciated. Early converts to Christianity should be seen as pioneers in being the conduit for the early flow of Western knowledge, practices and technology into the country. It is only by sharing/borrowing from one another that we can fill the gaps in our own cultures.
“… it is proper to value one another and to receive lessons from one another and by doing these things they shall be more learned, and hand over to one another such things as each of them understands …” ~ Emperor Ashoka (c. 268 to 232 BCE) Edict XII
My sincere thanks to nine fellow Sri Lankans of varying backgrounds for their invaluable suggestions in improving the initial draft.
 Arumugam, T., 2009, Nineteenth Century American Missionaries in Jaffna, Ceylon with Special Reference to Samuel Fisk Green, MV Publications, Sydney, Australia.
 Macintyre, E., 2014, The human drama underneath the factual medical, historical material – An impressionistic reaction, Sunday Times, Sri Lanka/100314
 Hoole, S.R.H., 2020, Heritage Histories – A Reassessment of Arumuga Navalar, a.k.a. Candar Arumugavan, Thesam Publications, London, UK.
 Robinson, E.J., 1867, Hindu Pastors: A memorial, Wesleyan Conference Office, London, UK.
 Martin, J.H., 1923, Martin’s Notes on Jaffna, Chronological, Historical, Biographical, Jaffna, Sri Lanka.
 Kailasapillai, T., 1918, Arumuga Navalar Carittiram (in Tamil), Madras, India.
 Arumugam, S., 1997, Dictionary of Biography of the Tamils of Ceylon, London, UK.
 Bate, B., 2005, Arumuga Navalar, Saivite sermons, and the delimitation of religion, c. 1850, The Indian Economic and Social History Review.