Arumuka Navalar

Born Kandar Arumugam Pillai
December 18, 1822
Nallur, Jaffna District, Sri Lanka
Died December 5, 1879
Jaffna, Sri Lanka
Cause of death General illness
Nationality Sri Lankan
Education Tamil Pandithar
Known for Hindu reformer
Religious beliefs Hindu

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Arumuka Navalar (Tamil: ஆறுமுக நாவலர், āṟumuka nāvalar ?) was the first revivalist of native traditions in Sri Lanka. He along with others like him were responsible for reviving and reforming native traditions and religions such as Hinduism that had come under long period of dormancy and attack during the previous 500 years of colonial rule by various European powers. He was influential in creating a period of intense religious transformation amongst Tamils in India and Sri Lanka. He is regarded as the father of modern Tamil prose and a defender of Saivism (a sect of Hinduism) against Christian missionary activity. He also attempted to reform Saivism itself. He has been also criticized for limitations of his reforms because his reforms favored the elite castes at the expense of others.12


  • 1 Background information
    • 1.1 Response to missionary activity
  • 2 Biography
  • 3 Saiva revivalism
    • 3.1 Circuit preaching
    • 3.2 Reformed school system
    • 3.3 Navalar title
    • 3.4 Literary contributions
  • 4 The Impact of contributions
    • 4.1 Criticism
  • 5 Notes
  • 6 Referencess
  • 7 See also
  • 8 External links

Background information

Further information: Religion in ancient Tamil country

The incessant missionary activity by the early Buddhist and Jainas in ancient Tamil country in the early centuries of the common era resulted with the Tamil Hindu literati, defining their own cults and literature. The result was the poems of the bhakti saints, the Nayanars and Alvars. By the twelfth century, Saivas and Vaishnavas (two competing sects) created a unified approach to religious perspective literature in Tamil and Sanskrit, monastic systems, networks of temples and pilgrimage sites, public and private liturgies, and their Brahman and non-Brahmin leadership. They institutionalized definition a Tamil Hindu on the basis Tamil literary culture.

The Vellala and Tamil Brahmin literati were mostly Saiva, the largest and most influential religious sect. Saivas believed that any religion not based on the traditions that Shiva had revealed in the Veda and the Agama were founded on delusion. By the thirteenth through eighteenth centuries, Saiva theologians codified their religious traditions as Saiva Siddhanta, or Saiva Orthodoxy. Saiva theologians did not formally include or confront Muslims and Christians in this classification but they included them along with Buddhist,Jains, and demon worshippers. This confrontation was left to lay Saivas. Arumuga Navalar was the first of these Tamil laymen to undertake as his life’s career the intellectual and institutional response of Saivism to Christianity in Sri Lanka and India.2

Response to missionary activity

Shaiva Siddhanta influence in India and Sri Lanka

Just like Tamil literati had responded to Buddhist and Jaina missionary activity two millennia ago and eventually came to redefine their religious cults, the 18th and 19th century Tamils in India and Sri Lanka found themselves in opposition to Christian specifically Protestant Missionary activity that confronted them intellectually as opposed to through violence as the Portuguese Colonials had attempted in spreading their Catholic belief in the 15th and 16th century. The intellectual confrontation gave space and time for these Tamils to attempt to redefine their religion to fit a modern world. Although Tamil Saivas opposed the Protestant missions from the earliest days they were established, literary evidence for it is indirect. But by 1835 Tamils were able to own and operate presses and immediately put them into service to print Palm leaf manuscripts originals. They also converted Saiva literature from poetry to prose with additional commentary. Most of these activities happened in Jaffna and Madras.

By the time Arumuga Pillai was born, Protestants from England and America had established nine mission stations in the Jaffna peninsula. The first known Saiva opposition to these efforts emerged in 1828 when the teachers of the American Missionary Seminary at Vattukkottai wanted to learn and teach the Saiva scripture Skanda Puranam in their school. This move angered the local Saivas as they correctly interpreted it as a move by the missionaries to understand and then ridicule a religious material. Although the missionaries were able to translate and study the material, they were unable to teach it, as locals boycotted the classes. As a direct response, two long anti-Christian poems appeared around this time in Jaffna. The poet, Muttukumara Kavirajar (1780—1851), wrote the Jnanakkummi or Kummi Song on Wisdom and Yesumataparikaram or Abolition of the Jesus Doctrine. This was followed up by tit for tat publications of polemic nature by both sides. Eventually American Mission Seminary launched a semimonthly and bilingual periodical called the The Morning Star (or Utaya Tarakai in Tamil). This influential periodical challenged all non Protestants to confront and reform their religions to be able to stand up to the intellectual scrutiny. The 19th century Protestant converts of Jaffna believed that Saivism was evil and in the struggle God and the devil, they intended the Morning Star to reveal the falsity of Saivism.2


Navalar, born Arumuga Pillai in 1822, belonged to an elite caste known as Vellalas, a class that along with Brahmins had produced most of the Tamil literature for centuries in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. He grew up in the Tamil dominated regions of Sri Lanka, that had a population of less than two hundred thousand. His home was in the town of Nallur on the Jaffna peninsula, a small strip of land (40 by 15 miles) and separated from South India by the Palk Strait. The principal town Jaffna and the peninsula were predominantly Tamil Saiva in culture distinct from that of the Sinhalese Buddhists elsewhere. It was closely linked to the Saiva culture of South India. It was also home to the Jaffna Kingdom that had patronized this culture before it was defeated by the Portuguese colonials in the sixteenth century. Nallur was also the capital of the long defeated kingdom.

Arumuga Pillai’s father Kandhar was a Tamil poet and he was instrumental in providing a solid foundation in Tamil literature to Arumugam Pillai. His mother’s name was Sivakami and she was known for her devotion to Lord Shiva. Arumugam studied the Indian classical language Sanskrit as well as Tamil grammar. Arumugam studied English in a Christian mission run school as a day student. As he was recognized as a talented student, he was asked to stay on at the Jaffna Wesleyan Mission School to teach English and Tamil. The missionary school principal, the perceptive Peter Percival also requested Arumugam to help him translate the Bible and other Christian literature. Arumugam worked with Percival from 1841 - 1848 during which time he formulated his ideas as to what it meant to be a modern Hindu, specifically a Saiva under the influence of a progressive, secular and ascendant Western culture based on Judeo-Christian values.12

Saiva revivalism

Further information: Hinduism in Sri Lanka and Hindu revivalism in Sri Lanka

To confront the obvious power of the of Christian civilization and to use the instruments of Western civilization’s knowledge to reform their religion, in Sep, 1842 two hundred Hindu men gathered at a Siva temple monastery. The group decided to open up a school to study Vedas and Agamas. The group also decided to start a press with the help of resident Eurasian Burghers. Arumugam Pillai who was part of the organization wrote about the meeting in the Morning Star in a sympathetic tone.12

While Arumugam Pillai was still working on translating the Bible, he published a seminal letter in the Morning Star under a pseudonym in Sep, 1841. It was a comparative study of Christianity and Saivism and targeted the weakness in the argument Protestant missionaries had used against local Saiva practices. Protestant missionaries had attacked the idol worship and the temple rituals of the local Saivas as devilish and of no value but Navar found evidence that Christianity and Jesus himself were rooted in the temple and the temple rituals of the ancient Israelites. His letter admonished the missionaries for misrepresenting their own religion and concluded that in effect there was no difference between Christianity and Saivism as far as idol worship and temple rituals were concerned. Although the Morning Star ors tried to reply to the letter, the damage was done.

As he immerged himself in the study of Vedas, Agamas and Puranas, Arumugam Pillai came to the awareness that Saivas needed a clearer understanding of their own religion if they wanted to stem the tide of conversions. With this in mind he eventually relinquished the only paying job that he had with the Weslyan Mission, although Peter Percival offered him a higher salary to stay on. He also decided not to marry as he felt that it would curtail his freedom. He relinquished his patrimony and did not get any money from his four employed brothers. From then on till the end of his life, he and his projects were supported by those who believed in his cause.2

Circuit preaching

The popular Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil in Jaffna, destroyed in the late 15th century by the Portuguese and rebuilt in 1750 was targeted by Navalar as built not according to Agamic requirements

Using the preaching methods popularized by the Methodist preachers, he became a circuit preacher. His first secession was on Dec 31, 1847 at Vaideeswaran Temple in the sub­urb of Vannarpannai. It became weekly event on every Friday evening. In these secession he read from sacred texts and then preached in a manner that people understood. He was helped by his friend Karttikeya Aiyar of Nallur and his students from his school. This was known as a Prasangams. The sermon topics were mostly ethical, liturgical, and theological and included the evils of adultery, drunkenness, the value of non-killing, the conduct of women, the worship of the linga, the four initiations, the importance of giving alms, of protecting cows, and the unity of God. He attacked Christians and Hindus as well, specifically the trustees and priests of the Nallur Kandaswami Temple in his home town because according him, they had built the temple not according to the Agamas a century ago as well as used Brahmin priests who were not initiated in the Agamas. He also opposed their worship of Vel or the weapon representing the main deity as it did not have Agamic sanction. In effect he formulated a theory to purify local Tamils of all practices that did not find sanction in a written document such as Vedas and Agamas. The lecture series and its circuit continued regularly for several years and produced a Saiva revival, for an informed piety developed and grew among many Jaffna Saivas. This was a direct tactical response to confront the Protestant’s bible based arguments.

While he was becoming a popular preacher, he still helped Percival to complete the translation of the Bible. When there was a conflict as to Percival’s version and another competing translation, Arumugam traveled to Madras to defend his creation. In 1848 he founded his own school and finally parted company with Percival.2

Reformed school system

The school he founded was called Saivaprakasa Vidyasala or School of Siva's splendor. The school did not follow the traditional Tamil teaching system, in which each student worked on his own pace and the teacher pupil ratio was extremely low. Although this system produced stellar experts in subject matter but took too much labor and was inefficient compared to the western system used by the Missionaries. He developed his teaching methods based on the exposure he had with the Missionaries. He developed the curriculum to be able to teach 20 students at a time and included secular subject matters and English. He also wrote the basic instruction materials for different grades in Saivism. Most of his teachers were friends and acquaintances who were volunteers. This school system was duplicated later in Chidambaram in India in 1865 and it still exits. But the school system he founded in Sri Lanka was replicated and over 100 primary and secondary schools were built based on his teaching methods. This school system produced numerous students who had clearer understanding of their religion, rituals and theology and still able to function in a western oriented world.2

Navalar title

As an owner of a pioneering new school with the enormous need for original publications in Tamil prose to teach subjects for all grades, he felt an acute need for a printing press. He and his colleague Sadasiva Pillai went to Madras, India in 1849 to purchase a printing press. On the way they stopped at Tiruvavatuturai Atinam in Tanjavur, India, an important Saiva monastery. He was asked by the head of the monastery to preach. After listening to his preaching and understanding his unusual mastery of the knowledge of Agamas, the head of the monastery conferred on him the title Navalar (learned). This honorary degree from a prestigious Saiva monastery enhanced his position amongst Saivas and he was known as the Navalar since then.

While in India he published two texts one was an educational tool (teachers guide) Cüdãmani Nikantu, a sixteenth-century lexicon of simple verses and Saundarya Lahani, a poem in praise of the goddess, geared towards devotion. These were the first effort at ing and printing Tamil works for Saiva students and devotees.2

Literary contributions

His press was set up in a building that was donated by a rich merchant of Vannarpannai. It was named the Vidyaanubalana yantra sala (Preservation of Knowledge Press). The initial publications included Bala Potam (Lessons for Children) in 1850 and 1851. They were graded readers, simple in style, similar in organization to those used in the Protestant schools. This was followed up by a third volume in 1860 and 1865. It consisted of thirtynine advanced essays in clear prose, discussing subjects such as God, Saul, The Worship of God, Crimes against the Lord, Grace, Killing, Eating meat, Drinking liquor, Stealing, Adultery, Lying, Envy, Anger, and Gambling. These ions were in use 2007.

Other notable texts published included The Prohibition of Killing, Manual of worship of Shiva temple and The Essence of the Saiva Religion. His first major literary publication appeared in 1851, the 272-page prose version of Sekkilar’s Periya Puranam, a retelling of the twelfth century hagiography of the Nayanars or Saivite saints. In 1853 he published

Image:Tirutani murugan.jpg
Murugan having two wives (Deivayani and Valli) was attacked as an immoral deity
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Nakkirar’s Tirumurukarrupatai, with is own commentary. It was a devotional poem to Murugan. This was followed by local missionaries attacking Murugan as immoral deity for marrying two women. As a response Navalar published Radiant Wisdom explaining how the stories embody differing levels of meaning. He also published literature of controversial nature. He along with Centinatha Aiyar, published examples of indecent language from the Bible and published it as Disgusting Things in the Bible (Bibiliya Kutsita). In 1852, he along with Ci. Vinayakamurtti Cettiyar of Nallur, printed the Kummi Song on Wisdom of Muttukumara Kavirajar leading to calls by local Christians to shut the printing press down.

The seminal work that was geared towards stemming the tide of conversions was printed in 1854. It was a training manual for the use of Saivas in their opposition to the missionaries, titled The Abo­lition of the Abuse of Saivism (Saiva dusana parihara).

A Methodist missionary, who had worked in Jaffna, described the manual thirteen years after it had appeared as:

"Displaying an intimate and astonishing acquaintance with the Holy Bible. (the author) labors cleverly to show that the opinions and cere­monies of Jehovah’s ancient people closely resembled those of Shaivism, and were neither more nor less Divine in their origin and profitable in their entertainment and pursuit. The notion of merit held by the Hindus, their practices of penance, pilgrimage, and lingam-worship, their ablutions, invocations, and other observances and rites, are cunningly defended on the authority of our sacred writings! That a great effect was thus produced in favour of Sivaism and against Christianity cannot be denied".

This manual was widely used in Sri Lanka and India; it was reprinted at least twice in the nineteenth century, and eight times by 1956. It even influenced the formation in 1857 of a neo-judaising Christian sect in South India that employed Israelite and Hindu rituals and called their leader Rabbi.2

The Impact of contributions

Veneration of linga or phallic symbol by Saivs was a constant source of derision by missionaries, this is from a Hindu temple in the city of Polonaruwa

Although a full rigorous study of his contributions has not been done in a Western language, Professor Dennis Hudson,DDH›, of State University of New York has done a complete analysis based on available Tamil literature. According to him although Navalar’s work began in Jaffna it spread to both sides of the Palk Straight, thus establishing two centers for his reforms. He had two schools, two presses and struggled against Christian missionary activity on both sides as well as against Hindus he who were unorthodox including those of the elite Brahmin caste. His even admonished the Dikshitars of the famous Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram because in his view they were practicing rituals that were not sanctioned by Agamas. He was opposed by Christians as well as Hindus on both countries. He had wealthy benefactors in both countries who bankrolled his activities. He produced approximately ninety-seven Tamil publications, twenty three were his own creations, eleven were commentaries, and forty were his ions of those works of grammar, literature, liturgy, and theology that were not previously available in print. With this recovery, ing, and publishing of ancient works, Navalar laid the foundations for the recovery of lost Tamil classics that his successors such as U. V. Swaminatha Iyer, C.W. Thamotharampillai and S. V. Damodaram Pillai continued. He was the first person deploy the prose style in the Tamil language and according to Tamil scholar Kamil Zvelebil in style it bridged the medieval to modern. According to notable Tamil author Professor T.P. Meenakshisundaram (1901-1980):

"Arumuka Navalar of the nineteenth century is the father of modern literary prose, the simple, elegant but grammatically correct prose"

Navalar established the world’s first Hindu school adapted to the modern needs that succeeded and flourished. While the school he established in Chidamharam in 1865 has survived to this day, similar schools seem to have spread only to two nearby towns. In Sri Lanka, eventually more than one hundred and fifty primary and secondary schools emerged from his work. Many of the students of these schools articulated a temple-centered Saivisrn in both Jaffna and Madras Presidency and were successful in defending the temple centered Saiva culture not only against Christian missionary activities but also against neo-Hindu sects such as Brahmo Samaj and the Theosophical Society. His reforms and contributions were build upon by scholars such as V. Kalyanasundaram (1883—1953), and the Maraimalai Adigal (1876 -1950), who developed their own independent schools of theology all without leaving the context of the Saiva temple and its devotional heritage.

Although it is difficult to quantify as to how many Hindus may have converted to Protestant Christianity without his intervention but according to Bishop Sabapathy Kulendran,

"When comparing the promise Christian conversions showed in Jaffna at the beginning of the century to their disappointing results, this low rate of conversion was largely due to Navalar".

In the larger Madras Presidency his aggressive preaching of a Saiva cultural heritage led by properly initiated Vellalas and Brahmins contributed to the growing Tamil nationalism. This movement had a specifically Saiva component that fostered the idea that Shaiva Siddhanta preceded all others as the original Tamil religion. Navalar’s insistence on the Agamas as the criteria of Saiva worship, moreover, gave momentum to the tendency among Tamils everywhere to subsume local deities under the Agamic pantheon and to abandon animal sacrifice altogether. 32


In today’s Tamil world, Arumuga Navalar’s reforms are seen by many as too conservative and is overly conforming to principles of sanskritization. His affirmation of caste ideology is officially unacceptable to secular nationalisms, of both India and Sri Lanka. His affirmation of the status of initiated Brahmins and of Sanskrit is unacceptable to Dravidian nationalism of Tamil Nadu state. Nevertheless, in the middle of the nineteenth century he articulated and nurtured the belief that the meaning of being Hindu lies in Shiva’s temple and in the culture it generates.2