Ratnajeevan Hoole, Heritage Histories: A Reassessment of Arumuga Navalar, Thesam Publications, London, 2020.
It is beyond my competence to write a review of this book, and the intention here is only to give readers some inkling of it. As the title makes clear, the work is a “reassessment” and not an introduction. That being the intention, we are taken, “in medias res” into circumstance, characters and controversy: those without any knowledge, particularly of the last two, may find orientation difficult. Secondly, the author has carried out thorough and meticulous research, often drawing on original texts including past newspaper reports, minutes of meetings and correspondence. The wealth of substantiation; the detail, the minutiae, are for readers with a special interest.
We must briefly pause over the word “Heritage”. Etymologically, it’s connected with “to inherit”. What we inherit is many and varied, but not everything can be credited with veracity. Heritage history, not being rigorous and factual, must be scrutinised and interrogated – as Professor Hoole attempts to do with the ‘inherited’, popular history of Navalar. Heritage history, as he notes, can be nothing but heritage myth: sometimes, history is fabricated rather than made. As it has been ironically said, historians have a power that the gods themselves don’t possess, namely, to alter the past. ‘The Mahavamsa’ records that the dying Buddha prayed to the Hindu god, Vishnu, to protest Vijay who would establish Buddhism in Lanka – in turn, replacing Hinduism! Books have influence (if not authority) in that what one book states can be picked up and repeated in another, and so on until it comes to be accepted as truth. Professor Hoole frees himself from the “inherited”, and looks at things with an independent mind.
The central character is Arumuga Navalar, 1822-1879, (Navalar = “learned”) described in one source as “a Sri Lankan Shaivite Tamil-language scholar, polemicist, and a religious reformer who was central in reviving native Shaiva Tamil traditions in Sri Lanka and India.” The other important character is the Rev. Peter Percival (1803-1882) who came to Jaffna at the age of twenty-three. Most Englishmen during those imperial days didn’t deign to learn the language of the “natives” over whom they or their compatriots ruled, but Rev Percival mastered Tamil and went on to publish many works in the language. He saw education, rather than direct evangelism, as the more effective tool in Christian missionary work. In re-examining Navalar, his role and contribution, Hoole demolishes the belief that Navalar translated the Bible into Tamil: that work was undertaken and accomplished by Percival. Another and far more important aspect, and the one on which I will focus, is that of caste.
Navalar was “a notorious casteist” (page 155). Even as a schoolboy (then one of Percival’s pupils) he refused to sit on the same bench as a low-caste fellow pupil. When this protest was not accommodated, Navalar led several other upper-caste boys in leaving the school: see the book’s cover illustration. One is reminded of apartheid South Africa where buildings and facilities were strictly segregated.
The incident of Gandhi being ejected from a whites-only compartment in South Africa is well known but what is not equally well known is his reason: he wouldn’t move to compartments occupied by “kaffirs”, a derogatory terms for black South Africans. What follows is drawn from Perry Anderson’s article, ‘Gandhi Centre Stage’, in the ‘London Review of Books’, 5 July 2012, pages 3 – 11. At the Round Table Conference in London, Muslims, Sikhs and the Untouchables (the last led by Dr Ambedkar) demanded separate electorates. However, if Untouchables were to be treated as external to the Hindu community, it would be confirmation that caste was a vile system of discrimination, relegating the lowest orders of society to a subhuman existence with which the smallest brush was pollution. And since Hinduism was founded on caste, it would stand condemned with caste (Anderson). There was also Gandhi’s fear that the ‘Untouchables’ would link forces with the Muslims. Gandhi who had never fasted against ‘untouchability’ itself, now declared a ‘fast unto death’ and Ambedkar, fearful that the Mahatma’s death would lead to a mass massacre of the untouchables, withdrew his demand for a separate electorate. Of the Satyagraha of 1932, Ambedkar wrote: “There was nothing noble in the fast. It was a foul and filthy act. The fast was not for the benefit of the Untouchables. It was against them and was the worst form of coercion against a helpless people [forcing them to] agree to live on the mercy of the Hindus” (Anderson, page 10). For a fairly recent work on the lived experience of caste in India, see Sujatha Gilda’s ‘Ants Among Elephants’, reviewed by me in Colombo Telegraph (28 March 2019) under the caption, ‘The curse of caste’.
In as much as (non-existent) ‘race’ proves stronger than religious affiliation, so caste is more potent than religious doctrine. Many of those who convert to Buddhism or become Christian, do not jettion the inherited baggage of caste. Professor Hoole claims it is difficult for someone who is not from the Govigama caste to win political leadership at the national level (page 42). Advertisements for marriage often specified (specify?) the caste of the prospective bride or groom, despite the Buddha having clearly and decisively turned his face against it.
Going back over sixty years, I recall a friend, Dharmasiri de Zoysa, picking up a book and exclaiming in mock (if cynical) surprise: “How did these two entirely different subjects get into the same work?” The title was: ‘Love and Marriage’. Similarly, religious doctrine and religious practice are separate; very often, contradictory. Like many Buddhists, Christians also remain infected with caste: for example, Hoole states that Bishop Kulandran justified ban on low caste temple entry (page 126). ‘Mirage’ by K. Daniel (translated by Subramaniam Jebanesan, 2016) is a novel but, as the author states, based on fact. It is a searing indictment of caste, both in Hindu and Christian society. As I wrote (Colombo Telegraph, 28th March 2019), it’s an instance of the novelist as witness and testifier. I cite from this article: In the name of religion and ancient time-honoured practice, power and privilege are preserved on the one side; exploitation and suffering perpetuated on the other. (The Tamil Tigers, apart from their many and grievous faults and failings, are reputed to have disapproved of caste, even as they tried to advance female emancipation.)
It can’t be easy for a member of a defeated minority group to publicly attack a fellow member. As I wrote in that Colombo Telegraph article on caste in Jaffna: “There’s no doubt that those Sinhalese incurably infected with ugly racism will gleefully grab this … as a bludgeon with which to beat the Tamils, pretending to a moral outrage and a compassion of which they are completely devoid. To change the metaphor, casteism among Tamils can be used as a red herring to divert attention away from racist acts. Racists can come before their victims clothed in the garment of solicitous saviours.” But evidently with Professor Hoole, the guiding principle is “Veritas vincit omnia”. It’s now for others, far more knowledgeable on the subject, to enter into discussion and debate, if not disputation.