A controversy has arisen in Jaffna after Maravanpulavu Sachithananthan who claims to be a member of the Federal Party’s Central Committee (while the party general secretary Xavier Kulanayagam says he is not even a member). He wrote a long letter of complaint alleging forced conversion of Tamils to Christianity. He holds that religious conversions are wrong, especially of Tamil Hindus. In particular, he has accused the Bishop of Mannar of over 30 anarchic activities. He also refers to forced conversions in Tellippalai (Kalaikathir, Eela Nadu, TamilWin) on and around 23 Sept. 2021).
I have not heard of forced conversions to Christianity here when Christians have little power to force conversions in present times. On closer examination, Sachithananthan is referring to the parents of a Tellippalai girl refusing permission for her to marry a boy unless he takes baptism. There is no force in this, and the groom was being given a choice.
One daily reported Sachithanathan’s allegations as fact although the Mannar Bishop has been in office just for a short time. Inquiries are in order to determine if the allegations are supported by evidence, but not by Sachithananthan or the Sri Lanka government which is the biggest perpetrator of unethical conversions through lavish support for Buddhists.
To be sure, Sachithananthan is the leader of Sri Lanka’s Siva Senai that plastered Jaffna with posters in 2018 asking us to vote for candidates who will support the Saivite religion and the Tamil Language. Shiv Sena founder Uddhav Thakeray has insulted South Indians for our dress (Uthao Lungi, Bajao Pungi – i.e., “Remove those who wear the sarong [that is, South Indians], and celebrate the event”). In Bombay, Shiv Sena cadres became involved in various attacks against South Indian workers. They vandalized South Indian restaurants asking them not to serve the large number of Tamil migrant workers there, and pressured employers to hire Marathis. Lakmal Harischandra has detailed some of Siva Senai’s activities. They reflected the “Masala Vadai, Appita Eppa” (We do not want Masala Vadai) ethos of the Bandaranaike era.
Based on these complaints, Vidura Wickremanayake, the current State Minister of National Heritage, and Rural Arts has initiated action. This news comes at a time when K. Rajkumar the Secretary of the “Association of those Disappeared in the Tamil Motherland” has just announced that many of the disappeared persons from the LTTE and other Tamil organizations are now converted to be Sinhalese and Buddhists. Many Hindu temples are being taken over as Buddhist temples as at Chemmalai. There are reports from border areas where old government buildings like a hospital have become Buddhist temples. To go to a government that does these things is for Sachithananthan to empower forced conversions to Buddhism.
Is religious conversion wrong? Are all religions the same? Is there a religion for the Tamils?
Sachithananthan assumes yes to all three of the above, whereas I hold the right answer to all three is no. We take these up now.
Tamil Religious History
It is good to look at the religious history of the Tamils first. Religion should really make us better people and where our religion fails to do that there is a good reason to jettison our religious attachment. Historically we Tamils have always done that.
In ancient times we Tamils worshipped rivers, trees and mountains, besides blood and war drums. Then Buddhist missionaries from Emperor Asoka’s time came to us and we had the high period of Buddhism and Jainism, the time of the Epics – Silappadikaram and Manimekalai – with vegetarianism, animal hospitals and rest houses and tree-planting. This period of religious freedom also saw the entry of Christianity with St. Thomas.
The sharing of the Good News is inherent to the Christian faith. As Jesus taught, “No one lights a lamp and hides it in a clay jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, they put it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light.” This sentiment has been expressed by a Hindu savant too – yaan petra inpam … –the joy I received is to be shared. If one has something that one believes is of value, to share it is natural. As Christ was taken up to heaven, he commanded Christians to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,” to spread the Good News and the values of the Christian faith. To say that Christians must not share the Good News is to prohibit Christianity and a violation of religious rights.
In South India, the Buddhist-Jaina period was followed by the Thevaram period as Saivite missionaries expanded. Although initially a peaceful expansion, we see the first coerced conversions as Saivites’ strength of numbers grew. Conversions to Saivism began to be coerced; for example we see Saint Sivagnasampanthar ordering the death by impalement of 8000 Jain teachers who refused to convert. The event is still celebrated to this day at the great Madurai Temple (Nambi Andar Nambi, Aludaiya Pillaiyar Tiru-ula-malai, Stanzas 59 and 74) towards the close of the last millennium – Jesudason (1961; p.79); Kingsbury and Phillips (1921, pp. 11, 29); Sastri (1958, p. 413) and Majumdar (1960, p. 430).
Nilkanta Sastri says that many Buddhist temples were made Hindu temples in this period, i.e., the end of the last millennium during the ascendancy of the Cholas.
Growth and Demise of Christianity
Tracing the ups and downs of Christianity among Tamils, one can discern these changes in religion. There are two Christian cycles.
In the first century itself St. Thomas is said to have established the Church among the Tamils (mainly in Kerala, which was Tamil then, but also in Madras). Although Christianity is now firmly rooted in Kerala there, among Tamils the Church has almost collapsed. Marco Polo (1293) first reports the story of the martyrdom of St. Thomas on the Mount, but the shrine on the Greater Mount was visited by Hindus and Muslims, as well as by the Christians themselves. Thirty years after Marco Polo heard the story of St. Thomas, Friar Odoric found some fifteen houses of Nestorian Christians beside the church, but the church itself was filled with idols. A century later Conti reckoned a thousand Nestorians in the city; yet early in the sixteenth century Barbosa found the church in ruins, with a Muslim fakir charged with keeping a lamp burning.
In keeping with the adage that the religion of the king is the religion of the people (quoting from King Chankili II), throughout history we Tamils have switched religions for various reasons. For example during the Dutch period, Tamils converted to the Dutch Reformed faith to position themselves to get government jobs. The political symbiosis between the Dutch Reformed Church and Dutch colonization is akin to the symbiosis between Buddhism and Asoka’s expanding rule, or Saivism and the ascendency of the Chola kingdom. Parents had to be married for children to inherit property – which meant marriage in the Dutch Reformed Church. For that, and to get government employment, people had to be members of the Reformed Church.
Colonial Secretary Emerson Tennent writing in 1850 (pp. 73-74) says that, unlike the Sinhalese, we Tamils readily accepted in succession the conflicting claims of Roman and then Dutch doctrines. As public practice of Hinduism was prohibited under the Dutch, even the majority of Brahmins, unable to bear the loss of income and social status, readily professed the Christian faith with their wives and families, whereas there was no record of even one Muslim being induced to covert. All important personages in Jaffna, and the three Mudaliars, were baptized (Rev. Fr. Fernao Queyroz, 1688, Rev. Fr. S.G. Perera’s translation, 1930, p. 659).
In 1619 when Jaffna was annexed by Portugal, there were 1200 Christians. However from 1624 to 1626, Franciscan monks alone baptized 52,000 Tamils. Tikiri Abeysinghe of University of Colombo (1986, p. 54) confirms this.
Following this, in Jaffna’s population of 278,759, Protestant Christians numbered 180,364, or more than two thirds of the population. In those days of low population growth, discounting the Muslims who refused to convert, it may be surmised that all Hindus had taken baptism, even though Hinduism had been prohibited only in the towns by the Dutch.
This number then begins to fall. Prof. S. Pathmanathan, citing the Dutch historian Valentyn, informs us that in 1722 Jaffnapattinam had 189,388 Christians. 38 years later, by 1760, this number had fallen to 182,226. This was towards the end of Dutch rule when they were less strict about Hinduism, and allowed the rebuilding of Hindu temples.
After the arrival of the British in the 4-year period 1802-1806, Non-Roman Christianity had virtually vanished. According to a Christian priest in Jaffna in 1806, once magnificent Churches were seen in ruins, with a Hindu preacher in charge of all the ruins in the province.
Today, we seem to be at the end of the second cycle of Christianity. Already like Friar Odoric finding idols in Church, today we see the picture of Jesus in offices and buses placed with other deities. The mainline churches are fearful of aggressive Buddhism. The Roman Catholic and National Christian Council Churches tacitly accuse the new “Fundamentalist Churches” of unethical conversions even as they in their joint statement state that all religions in Sri Lanka send out missionaries and perform works of charity:
The fact that missionaries are being sent out from Sri Lanka to propagate religion in other countries demonstrates our appreciation and our exercise of that fundamental right in other countries. No fetters should be placed in the path of the exercise of that freedom by legislative or other means. All religions teach their adherents to perform works of charity and all such works of charity cannot be permitted to be criminalized on the assertion that they serve as allurements. It is both a basic feature and duty of all religions to teach and propagate their faith, for in doing so they spread the highest human values.
They affirm the longstanding tradition of doing good works and preaching the Good News. However, they stab the new churches in the back for doing the same.
This second cycle of moving away from Christianity seems to be approaching its peak. Already Christian grooms are difficult to find in Tamil areas. Against biblical principles, many Christian women are marrying outside the religion and marrying in two ceremonies, one Hindu and one Christian. The church looks the other way ignoring that they are performing sacred marriage rites for a couple that is already now married. Given that Hinduism is ascendent in these times, the children effectively become Hindus, or by becoming polytheistic. Naturally, the Churches are compromised in singing Hari Krishna hymns and even preaching the Bagavad Gita from the pulpit, alluding to all religions being the same. How can they be the same when the Bagavad Gita (4.13) says we Sudras (that is nearly all Tamils in Sri Lanka) were created as bad people by Him based on our works. Most of us, despite being Sudra, have seen unwinnable debates being closed by saying the opponent has shown his caste qualities (chaathi puththi). That Bagavad Gita verse is ingrained in Tamil society. Any of us Sudras with dignity and a little pride would resist this oppressive narrative and seek out faith doctrines that acknowledge our full humanity and bring out the best in us.
At the consecration and enthronement of the Bishop of Jaffna, it was comical to see consecrating Bishops wearing Siva’ pottu to pass on the Holy Spirit by laying on of hands in colorful, expensive chasubles (vestments). At a later ceremony I saw Bharata Natyam in front of the altar, an altar where we the faithful are asked to bow in reverence every time we pass.
To the objective observer, it should seem clear that we are in a period of history where Hinduism is ascendant, and Christianity is on the wane. The false narrative of forced conversions to Christianity are a weapon of the Shiv Sena nationalism, which aims to stir up ill-feeling and violence.
Our history shows that Tamils have always been open to other faiths – it is how we have survived waves of war, expansion, and colonialism where others have died out. But now, those who assert Hinduism as the Tamils’ one true religion are coercing us to abandon our histories, and the diversity within us.