Arumuga Navalar made such extraordinary progress and showed such good promise, while in the primary classes that the elders of the family decided to send him to an English school. When twelve years of age, he was admitted to the Methodist School in Jaffna. Thus alone could his talent receive adequate recognition; for in those days a position of security and status could not be assured except via English.
He went to this English School in the year 1834. The Principal was Rev. Peter Percival, a Wesleyan Padre, keen on his work – the improvement of the people in his charge. Many of them were converts and some of them “Panchadchara Christians’’. Soon the Principal discerned in the new Saivite pupil the spirit of a devotee and the making of a scholar. His fondness for the Tamil Classics and proficiency in the English Language could not fail to attract the attention of the Padre who was anxious to increase his knowledge of the “vernacular” that would enable him to establish an easy contact with his people. Therefore he engaged Navalar as his Tamil Pundit, and also gave him work as a teacher of Tamil classes in the Upper School and of English in the Lower School. Soon the Principal discovered that the pupil possessed a bilingual knowledge, unequalled among his contemporaries.
He was therefore specially employed, in his nineteenth year, as a translator of the Holy Bible. He made it a condition, before he accepted this position that he would not be restricted or restrained in the practice of his own faith. This condition was not objected to because the Padre knew that there was no person more able than the Pundit to undertake this work, so important an item in the Missionary’s programme, of proselytization. It was well known that Navalar would carry out the duties once accepted understandingly and conscientiously. This engagement naturally brought the Padre and the Pundit closer. They grew to like and appreciate each other despite the murmurings of those who could not tolerate the Saivite ways of the Tamil Pundit. His courage and conviction had already evoked their jealousy and hatred. They felt that the Padre was too indulgent, but he knew that the Pundit was too valuable to lose. Meanwhile the translation work was proceeding according to plan, the padre confident that he would justify his appointment and the Pundit happy that he would acquire knowledge. Navalar, therefore, relished the work. As was his wont, he made a thorough job of it – making a deep study of not only the Bible in its various editions, but also the different commentaries then available with their supplementary volumes. In this approach of his we have indeed a glimpse of the quality of learning and research, of skill and scholarship which Navalar characteristically revealed in later years when he edited or paraphrased the Tamil Saivite Classics for the benefit of an ever growing circle of readers; this quality was further disclosed in the Tamil Readers and the Saivite Catechisms he produced for the teaching of religion in the elementary classes – rivalling successfully the Missionary efforts during his time.
The more he studied the Holy Bible, the deeper he appreciated the Saiva Agamas. At this time, a body of Pundits in South India were simultaneously preparing their own Tamil version of the Bible and the decision as to which, the Jaffna or the Madras version, was better became unavoidable as no more than one version could receive official sanction. Navalar’s superior scholarship and skill naturally stood the test. At Madras his work won the day and became the Authorized Text. With his choice vindicated the padre returned to Jaffna, proud of his protege. He could thereafter unapologetically call his Pandit ‘Guru’ – an appellation he had used for sometime.
No one could possibly have predicted then, that the Padre’s ‘Guru’ would in later years become an ardent orator, crusading against Christian Missionaries, and a polemical author, controverting his antagonists with the dialectical skill of a legal luminary and thus play the role of ‘the Champion Reformer of the Hindus’ ushering in “the counter-reformation’’ at Jaffna. Truly has it been said that men build more than they know and events have consequences beyond their intentions.
During these years of work under Rev. Peter Percival, Navalar came to understand the Missionary Way of Life. He began to perceive the parlous state of Jaffna’s ancestral faith, and the ignorance of its priests and the indifference of its practitioners. The doubts that assailed and the thoughts that oppressed him with regard to the nature of the disease of the spirit that prevailed and the kind of cure that could be effected may be gleaned from his later writings, especially from Yalpanasamayanilai, the State of Religion in the Region of Jaffna, and Saivathoosanapariharam – Rejoinder to the Caluminiators of the Saivite Religion.
In these works there is implied a two-fold division of the Christian population, the first one of good and genuine Christians and the second of ‘Rice’ or ‘Panchadchara Christians.’ The Saivites were, apart from a few, ignorant like many of the Kurukkals and the majority of the common people, or exploiters like some of the Temple Managers. There was a third group, closely resembling those Romans described by Gibbon, among whom to the philosophers all religions were equally true, to the historians all equally false and to the politicians all equally useful. Every member of this group was a good Hindu among the Hindus and a believing Christian among the Christians. When it suited him, he did not fail to produce incidents of conversion for his personal profit and for the Missionary Societies’ statistics that would help them increase their collections. When he was at home he was quite willing to please his pious wife by pretending to be a firm and fervid adherent of Saivaism. There was yet another group; they were the Saivites, pious but not courageous, afraid to displease any of the members of the Establishment which was Christian, and thereby deprive themselves of the worldly benefits readily available.
A plan was slowly taking shape in Navalar’s mind for the revival of Saivaism and the restoration of its status in Jaffna, the Saivite capital of Ceylon. The insidious ways in which its spiritual conquest had been accomplished, he felt, should be laid bare and counter measures taken without any further loss of time. He hoped to achieve his end by the establishment of Printing Presses for the production of tracts and pamphlets, in a language intelligible to the common man, by the inauguration of schools in every village where modern education would be imparted in a purel Saivite environment, with the aid of books specially prepared for the purpose, and by the building of temples, where sensual songs and sexual dances would be replaced by melodious hymns, and prasangams, delivered by preachers, no longer defeatist or ignorant.
With this growing consciousness over-powering him, Navalar found his position under the Padre oppressive and his relationship irksome. He had no doubt, already organized some private classes for the promotion of Tamil and religion confined to his colleagues and friends; for to him Saivaism was Tamil and Tamil Saivaism. But those classes were not satisfying. He had a bigger and better plan to carryout, without let or hindrance, this self-imposed task of reviving the Tamil language and regenerating the Saivite society of his time. And yet the Padre had been a kind employer heedless of the vituperations of his enemies and always appreciative of his character and capacity. Therefore, he could not summon enough courage to tender his resignation. To his dilemma there was soon, however, an unexpected solution – a God-given opportunity for him to gain the freedom he was long yearning for. Navalar’s influence, though unobtrusive, was infectious. His piety was recognized though he did not parade his Faith. His personal discourses therefore produced a magic effect on those who came to know him well. Two of them encouraged by the padre, were on the verge of baptism, but Navalar had dissuaded them; and they had failed to turn up on the day appointed by the Church authorities. To this interferenece of the Pundit, Rev. Peter Percival could not be blind, however accommodating he desired to be. The temper of his collegues could no longer be disregarded. Navalar was therefore summoned and gently questioned about the part he played in this little drama. He would not embarrass in any way his employer any longer. Thus did he unhesitatingly tender his resignation.
He promptly returned home and confronted his worldly-wise brothers with this fait accompli – a shock to them who had been eagerly hoping for a sure place in the Establishment, which their talented brother would soon occupy. Navalar had other plans to pursue and other ambitions to nurture. He was too fond of the Saiva Agamas, ever conscious of the inevitability of death and the futility, in the final analysis, of any quest after security. Therefore was he fearless of the future uncertainties and heedless of the fraternal admonitions. With missionary zeal and with no loss of time, he commenced his lifework unconcerned with the anxieties of his brothers and unmindful of the illwill of the Establishment, with no visible support from any and the sure opposition of many. This was in 1848. Navalar was then in his twenty sixth year, wedded to the life of a bramachari and avid for action on behalf of the faith of his forefathers.
To him education was the instrument, par excellence, of success for any religious revival. Hence his first achievement was the speedy inauguration in 1849-50 of the Vannarponnai Saiva Pragasa Vidyasalai. The method of collection he adopted on this occasion was ingenious simple and appealing – just a handful of rice, each time a meal was cooked in the house. This school was soon followed by the establishment of a Printing Press at Vannarponnai. In 1853 Saiva Pragasa Sabai was organized. Thus within five years after he left the Padre, Navalar had laid securely and well the foundation of the work that would engage him throughout the remaining years of his life.
In previous months, Navalar had delivered Prasangams, Saivite Sermons in new style, some-what Christian in form, in content purely Hindu. Once he had to substitute for his unavoidably absent colleague, with very little notice. He began with the word – Unprepared, thereby taking the audience by surprise and giving them the impression of a stage fright. Soon they were astounded to find him giving an eloquent discourse on the grand theme of “Unprepred for Death”.
Navalar could no longer be ignored by his former colleagues and others. His “Rejoinder to the Calumniators of the Saivite Religion” – Saivathoosanaparitharam, was noticed in the Wesleyan Methodist Report for 1855. The writer commented specially on the new techniques and strategy adopted by Navalar, the Saivite Apologist. “He undertakes to prove that every one of the distinctive articles of Savite belief and observance has its parallel and warrant in the credenda and ceremonial set forth in the Christian Scriptures. The amount of Scripture brought to the defence… is most surprising and the adroitness with which every possible objection is anticipated and repelled belongs only to a first rate mind. The book is doing much mischief.’’
His polemical writings were producing some effect; for in the year 1872, the school authorities of one of the Christian managed institutions refused permission to the Savite students to attend classes with the symbol of their religion, visible on their foreheads; and they left in protest. They would not have been so bold in previous years. For them, Navalar established the Saivangila Vidya Salai where English could be taught with the necessary religious background. But the school did not endure beyond four years on account of the scanty support received from the parents concerned and the positive discouragement of the Government at that time. Navalar was however undaunted and was for the solution of these difficulties preparing a New Plan, which he did not live to complete or carry out.
During his last two years he took a leading part in some of Jaffna’s political activities. He agitated against the agents of administration for their abuse of power in connection with the cholera epidemic and the famine of 1877. When the nominated seat for the Tamils in the Legislative Council became vacant, he was strongly in favour of the nomination of (Sir) P. Ramanathan and addressed several meetings canvassing support. A few months later Navalar died, on the 5th December, 1879.
The Printing Press he founded and the publications he introduced were continued successfully after him, by men personally trained by him in his ways and methods. His Readers and Catechisms continue to inspire, even today, those desirous of promoting the growth of indigenous cultures in our land; the new prose style, which was his, in Tamil literature, has not lost its freshness or validity. His critical editions of the ancient Tamil Classics and his popular works meant to educate the common man in his religion provide an imperishable monument to his zeal, skill and scholarship; the school he founded in 1872 was phoenixlike, reborn twenty years later and is now known as the Jaffna Hindu College, Vannarponnai – the Premier Hindu Institution of Ceylon.
Thus is Arumuga Navalar the Father of the Tamil Renaissance and the Leader of the Saivite Reformation. Owing to his achievements in the realms of language and religion – Tamil and Saivaism – History will undoubtedly assign to Navalar the role of a pioneering hero in the transition from the Age of Submergence to the Age of Survival, a significant period in the short chapter on Modern Ceylon, in the long story of the Cultural Relationship between the East and the West.