Foreign Affairs

The Story Of Johnians And The Controversial Practice In Our Teaching In Sri Lanka

Prof Suresh Canagarajah

Prof. Suresh Canagarajah

It is a pleasure to be back in my alma mater on its 190th anniversary. All old boys will agree that we owe a lot to St John’s College for all that we have achieved here in Sri Lanka and abroad in our personal and professional lives. I want to start with two brief stories to demonstrate how the foundation provided by St John’s has helped me in my academic career. I hope that these stories show our students how a strong and meaningful early education is important for our success.

When I went to the US for graduate education from University of Jaffna, I was worried that the knowledge there would be so advanced that I won’t be able to follow the courses. For one particular course, I thought I should talk to the professor before the class to see if he would recommend that I delay following that course. Professor John Baugh spoke with me for about ten minutes and asked me what books I had read in my field and which scholars I knew. Half way through the conversation, his eyes widened, and he said, “Do you realize that you are one of the most widely read students in this department? You obviously have good reading skills and academic training. Where did you get this educational foundation?”

My mind immediately went to my training at St John’s. From my early grades here, St John’s has always reserved time for the library. Students were taken to the Handy Library for a whole class period, to learn how to search for books, get familiar with the cataloguing system, and read quietly without talking to others in the silence of the library. That experience trained me in many things. It developed an appreciation for books, it disciplined me to focus on the reading, and it inculcated patience to read without distractions. It is this training that helped me to cultivate my reading habit. When I went to the US, I found that I was not only ready for my graduate education, I could also overcome the new academic challenges I faced there because of the reading skills St John’s had developed in me.

My second story relates to the skills of public speaking and memory. The college has always reserved time for literary associations, speech competitions, and concerts. Particularly challenging to me was the Tamil Oratory competition in upper school. We were provided a choice of topics, given a few hours to prepare, and then expected to stand before three judges and the audience to deliver the speech. This competition required good skills of thinking, planning, memory, and spontaneous delivery. This is because the time given was not enough to write a whole speech and read it. The skills I developed from this experience still remain with me. I still prepare the outline of my talk mentally, organize the points effectively, and speak without writing down the whole speech. This skill sometimes surprises my listeners. Recently, a senior professor from the US took me aside after I gave the keynote in a major professional conference and whispered: “That was a great talk. But tell me the truth: you wrote the talk and then memorized it, right?” She was surprised by my memory (that I can speak for an hour without notes), organization skills (that the talk was still very coherent), and delivery (that it was done with confidence). I had to explain that the talk wasn’t written or memorized. I had developed all the skills she mentioned during my early education at St John’s.

What is interesting about both examples is that these skills of reading, speaking, thinking, and planning cannot be developed on a single day or in a short time. You can’t develop them simply before an examination or a lecture. They take time to develop. It is for this reason that a solid educational foundation is important. The habits and practices we develop in childhood support us in the challenges we face later in life. They develop further and help us achieve even more complex and demanding tasks. Many scholars think that some of these skills are dying today. Young people are losing the discipline of reading consistently for a long period of time because technology offers them instant and disconnected messages from multiple media. Memory is impoverished as students depend on readymade sources for information and are not expected to remember them for future use. I would suggest that the skills St John’s developed in me are still valuable and have helped countless former students succeed in their education and professions.

These skills are part of the tradition of St John’s. From its very beginning, the college has given a high place for these skills. The first school library association was started in 1890. There are other Johnian traditions everyone in Jaffna and even in Sri Lanka talks about. The college is well known for developing a solid background in English, cultivating a good discipline, and providing a balanced education that includes spirituality, sports, and extracurricular activities. However, we cannot remain satisfied with these traditions. When we have profound social changes around us, both locally and globally, we have to reconsider what new traditions we have to develop to serve our students and communities better. So, I want to focus in this talk on five changes we need in education to respond to the changes around us. To make it easier for students to remember them, each of the changes I propose starts with the letter C. Let me see if you can remember them after this talk!

The first change to consider is orientating to learning as creative. We have to focus on creating new knowledge rather than repeating old knowledge. There has been an observation that while western communities are good in inventing new things, eastern communities are good in applying and implementing them. Is there something in the culture of the western people that values novelty, while eastern people value tradition and orthodoxy? This attitude to knowledge could also be because we in Asia give so much importance to examinations, which cultivate a focus on established knowledge and the ability to repeat it. However, learning involves more than passing an examination. Our students have to also produce new findings, discover new knowledge, and invent new technology. If not, we will always be followers of other communities rather than leaders. We will also not be able to develop our own communities in the ways that are relevant for us.

Consider how students are encouraged to be creative in the United States. Every year, there are nationwide science competitions for school students to display their new inventions. One of the winners in this year’s competition was Eesha Khare from California, whose parents come from India. She produced a supercapacitator, a gadget that will fully charge cell phones in 20 seconds, in extremely short time. She won a prize of 50,000 dollars, which she is going to use to attend Harvard. These inventions are not playful. They actually lead to industrial production and make real changes in people’s lives. Eesha is already courted by major high tech companies. They say “Necessity is the mother of invention.” In our community now, we have a lot of need.  We have experienced a lot of destruction during the war. You can invent things that make a difference in the lives of our people.

Change number two: learning should be critical. By critical, I mean that we should have a questioning attitude towards knowledge and facts. This is connected to the previous change. We cannot be creative without questioning old knowledge. Asian communities don’t always encourage a questioning attitude because they believe that authorities such as parents, teachers, and leaders know what is right for everyone. Questioning is discouraged because it is considered a challenge to those in authority. I think the tragedies of our community in our recent history have resulted from our inability to question our leaders. Eventually, such an unquestioning attitude led to destructive policies and actions.

However, questioning doesn’t mean rejecting everything that our community holds as important. A critical learning can actually help us understand and appreciate our traditions and values. It can also help us understand our limitations and work towards formulating new values and traditions. Questioning can start from what goes in our schools and go all the way to what goes in our country and even in the world. Consider how students in a school in the United States, Wilcox County High School in Georgia, engaged in critical thinking. Their school had a tradition of holding two year-end parties—one for white students, the other for colored students. This April, some students thought this tradition was flawed. They wanted to establish a new tradition in which students from all the races can have one unified party. A group of four students from different racial backgrounds organized a committee to plan this party. There was considerable opposition from their town. There was talk that these students will be punished or ostracized. However, these students didn’t give up. Eventually, when they held a successful party for all the racial groups, their story was in the national news media. They were applauded by the whole country for inventing a new tradition for their school.

Change number three: learning as civic. Civic means relating to the community we live in and being good citizens. Do we see our learning connected to making a better living condition for our community? Or do we engage only in learning for the sake of learning? If our only objective in going to school is to get all A’s in the AL examinations, learning is not civic. It is selfish. Our competitive examinations have made us focus only on displaying our own mastery of knowledge, rather than considering how this knowledge can be used in the service of our community. The civic attitude can enhance learning rather than distracting students from education.

Consider the example of civic learning from a school in the United States. In the city of Madison some years back, teachers in a high school divided their students into small groups and gave them projects relating to some burning issues in their community. Students had to study the problem and write a report on how to solve it. One group focused on the increasing rates of asthma in their town. The four students divided the responsibilities among themselves. One student visited local communities and talked to parents and leaders about their view that pollution was causing asthma. Another student interviewed the municipal authorities in the town on sanitary conditions. The third student did library research on news reports and scholarly research on the connection between asthma and environmental pollution. The fourth student interviewed scientists in the local university to understand how pollution caused asthma. As they conducted this project, the students were sharpening their learning skills—they were reading advanced research and news material; they were developing interviewing skills; they were writing reports on what they observed and learned. Their motivation to solve the problem in their community made all this learning interesting and engaging. Eventually, they wrote a combined final report on their recommendations on how reducing environmental pollution can reduce the rate of asthma and submitted it to the mayor. When they connected their education to solving a problem in their community, the students found learning motivating, meaningful, and enjoyable.

That example also illustrates the fourth change I wish to propose: learning as collaborative. What we see in the Madison example is how students work together, pool their collective strengths, and collaborate in solving a problem. There is more strength and more knowledge when four people put their heads together. More importantly, collaborative learning develops a new attitude and value towards learning, based on cooperation. The examination-based learning in our community has developed in us a lot of selfishness. Each student for himself or herself, seems to be the guiding principle. We are expected to show how we can outsmart the other students. However, in the adult world of work, we need to collaborate with others to solve problems or implement changes.

While collaboration between students is important, another sort of collaboration now involves teachers and students. Even teachers are adopting the attitude that they are not there to lecture to students, pretend they are the sole authorities on all kinds of knowledge, or give the right answers that have to be accepted uncritically. Teachers now think of themselves as facilitators of learning. They arrange the class, texts, and assignments in such a way that students can collaborate with each other and with teachers to learn creatively and critically. In my teaching in the US, I am always open to the possibility that some students might know more about certain areas or topics than me. When I am asked a question for which I don’t know the answer, I immediately confess that and promise to find it out in the next class rather than giving students a false answer simply to save my honor. I am open to being challenged by students on some of my positions, and engage in a dialogue with them to move to a higher understanding. Rather than portraying me as a weak teacher, this collaborative attitude actually shows that I am strong and confident. I know what I know that I can be humble about my limitations and be open to learning new knowledge from others.

This attitude is going to be difficult for Sri Lankan teachers who are treated like Gods. I want to discuss a particularly controversial practice in our teaching in this country that is drawing a lot of attention these days: Caning, or corporal punishment. Recently, I have received many email messages from Tamil people living abroad. They tell me: Teachers in Sri Lanka seem to have no limits on how they can use either the cane or their own hands in hitting their students. In some cases, this goes beyond punishment to physical abuse. Students end up with marks all over their body. We have to start a discussion in our community on the relative effectiveness of caning versus non-physical punishment.

Physical punishment has been banned in many countries. It has been absent from French schools since the 19th century. In 2008 a teacher was fined for slapping a student in France. In UK, in state-run schools, and also in private schools where at least part of the funding came from government, corporal punishment was outlawed by Parliament with effect from 1987. The Supreme Court of Canada outlawed caning in 2004. In the US, it is left to each state to develop a policy for schooling. Majority of the states have banned caning in public schools. New Jersey was the earliest to ban it in 1867. Physical punishment has also been banned from many socialist countries because they believe that it is contrary to socialist values. From the 1917 revolution onwards, corporal punishment was outlawed in Russia and the Soviet Union. Other socialist countries have followed this practice. In all these countries, if a teacher hits a student, he or she will be taken to the courts.

However, not caning or hitting the student doesn’t mean not punishing. Punishment is important for cultivating discipline. But certain non-corporal forms of punishment can be more effective. For example, my 11 year old son is very talkative in the class. He is very naughty and gets punished a lot. But he has never been slapped or caned. Teachers have many other good options. They can detain him after school or keep him in the class while others are playing during the interval. When other students earn reward points for being good, he will lose his points. These points are used at the end of the school year to buy things donated by parents. In the worst case, the parents can be called up (which my wife and I did once) or he can be suspended from school (which hasn’t happened to him yet: Thank God!). Some of these forms of punishment are very effective because they motivate my son to be good on his own recognition. He has the choice of either earning points or losing them, and suffer the consequences at the end of the year. So, caning motivates students negatively through fear and pain, rather than positively by encouraging students to do better.

I know that many parents and teachers in our community feel “aTiyaata maaTu paTiyaatu” and feel that caning is the only form of effective punishment. But soon we have to come to terms with the changing orientations to punishment and schooling around the world. We are living in a connected world where events and practices in one community are relayed to others in a matter of minutes. If a student in Jaffna gets beaten this morning, his uncles, aunts, and cousins in UK, Canada, Australia, and the US know within minutes how many times he was beaten, how many marks he has on his body, and which doctor he was taken to. So many Tamil people abroad have started asking: “Why is this primitive practice still continuing in our community? Why are teachers so abusive, angry, and out of control with their students? Are teachers taking out their own frustrations on their students? Is caning a legalized form of cruelty in our community? Is caning a reflection of how our community has become comfortable with violence after many years of war?”

That brings me to the final point: learning as cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitan means being a global citizen. Today we cannot separate ourselves from developments in other communities. As I just mentioned, we cannot think anymore that what we do in Jaffna will remain isolated in Jaffna. Within minutes it is known all over the world. More broadly, our fate is interconnected with the fate of other communities. Think of the global economic crisis, climate change, nuclear arms, and environmental pollution. What one community does affects all of us. So, it is important for our students to develop the attitudes, values, and orientations to consider other cultures and people. However, being cosmopolitan doesn’t mean losing our own values and identity. A better approach is to be proud of who we are, as we engage with other cultures. This is a two-way process. We can evaluate the things we learn from others from the point of view of our own culture and society. But we should also be open-minded so that we can be self-critical and change our values and traditions. In fact, when we engage with other cultures and learn new perspectives, we might in fact rediscover the secrets and wisdom of our communities that we may have forgotten over time.

Let me apply cosmopolitanism to my talk this morning. Are the new traditions of learning I am proposing influenced by my engagement with other cultures? To some extent they are. I am now a teacher educator—that means a person who trains others to be teachers. What I have shared with you are the principles that guide my teaching philosophy when I teach students from US and many other countries to become good teachers. However, remember that I started this talk by appreciating some of the traditions St John’s shaped me with—i.e., reading, speaking, thinking, and planning. I criticized many trends in the western world—such as instant communication and multi-tasking—that are leading young people to losing these important skills. St John’s should continue to develop the positive traditions in its history. However, there are other ways in which St John’s should develop a new educational tradition—namely,learning as creative, critical, civic, collaborative, and cosmopolitan. Even these are not new to our culture. My engagement with other cultures helps me rediscover elements in our culture that we may have forgotten. So think about Auvayaar’s saying “kaTRatu kai maNNaLavu kallaatatu uLakaLavu” (i.e., What we know is a fistful, what we don’t know is a world full.) This verse reminds us why we have to think of learning as creative, collaborative, and critical. No one can be satisfied with what we already know. We have to constantly critique what we accept as truths. Or think of Puranaanuuru: “yaatum ooree yaavarum keeLir” (i.e., Every place is our village, every person our kin). This verse reminds us of the importance of cosmopolitanism and engaging in civic learning that is useful to all people.

The changes that I spell out this morning have also been present in the missionary history of our school. Just think of the founder of our school Joseph Knight. When he came to Sri Lanka in July 1818, he was a representative of the Church Missionary Society. This society opposed the practice of treating Africans as slaves. They thus displayed critical thinking. Before he started classes for local students in Nallur, he first learnt Tamil language with the help of a local Hindu priest. It must have been difficult for both parties to engage in such learning. Knight would have thought of the Hindu priest as a heathen, and the priest would have thought of Knight as unclean. It is said that the Hindu priest used to stop by at a village well after these classes to cleanse himself before he went home. Despite their cultural differences, both people collaborated in learning from each other. That was not only collaborative learning, it was also cosmopolitanism. Both didn’t change their own systems of belief; but that didn’t prevent  them from cooperating and learning from each other and enriching their world view. Knight went on to lay the foundation for the first Tamil/English bilingual dictionary. When the Winslow’s Comprehensive Tamil and English Dictionary was published in Madras in 1862, the preface acknowledges how Rev. Knight had started and contributed to this project. That was civic learning—i.e., knowledge that was useful to other people. There is also creativity, because Knight sought new knowledge. He started a comparative exploration of Tamil and English that we are still continuing today. Knight went on to start lessons for 7 students in his house in March 1823, before renovating the decaying Old Dutch Church at Nallur and getting permission from the government to start a school there. Motivated by a vision and sprit of service, Knight established a new institution and invented new traditions that have gone on to be a blessing to thousands of youth in our town.

Today there is a similar challenge for all of us to be missionaries, path breakers, tradition-builders in our community. With one history of our community coming to an end, we are in the beginning of another. We are almost starting from scratch. Buildings have been demolished, community leaders killed, families displaced, students orphaned. The question for our school is: what kind of education is going to address the changes around us. The task of slowly rebuilding our community is starting. Old boys have been sending money to St John’s to put up new buildings and support displaced and orphaned students. But an important question everyone is asking now is this: St John’s is proud of the new buildings it has put up; but is it paying enough attention to building the moral, spiritual, and intellectual life of its students? Should the school be more interested in building up the quality of education needed for the new age?

This is the time to initiate new traditions of learning and education for St John’s College. Though we may be materially disadvantaged, we are still culturally, spiritually, and intellectually rich. Buildings may be destroyed; but nothing can destroy our mind and soul. Nothing can stop someone’s mind from growing, influencing others, shaping the environment around us, conquering disadvantages, and achieving great things. This is the story of Johnians from the past. We grew up in a disadvantaged community, with less buildings than you have now. But that didn’t stop us from achieving impressive things on the global stage. It was not about what material resources we had. It was about what cultural, spiritual, and intellectual resources we developed in our community. You students can still achieve all that. You can develop to be powerful inventors, thinkers, and leaders, though now you may not have a house over your heads, family to care for you, or enough things to provide a comfortable life. Remember our school motto: “Light shineth in darkness”. It is precisely at this time in our history that we are called upon to shine. And the only thing light can do, something that comes naturally to it, is shine! I wish the staff of St John’s college, the parents, the local community, and especially the students the very best as they work towards building more meaningful educational traditions for the future.

Speech by Prof. Suresh Canagarajah,Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Applied Linguistics and English, Pennsylvania State University, USA, at the THE ANNUAL PRIZE GIVING was held on Saturday 6th July, 2013, at St.John’s college Jaffna in Sri Lanka

Print Friendly
Follow @colombotelegrap

Foreign Affairs

Sri Lanka: Winning The War But Not The Peace


Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed

The 30-year-old ethnic conflict in the Sri Lankan state, an essentially Sinhalese majoritarian preserve, and the uncompromising and relentlessly violent Tamil leadership claiming a separate state, Tamil Eelam, on behalf of the Tamil minority of north and east Sri Lanka, culminated with a comprehensive military defeat of the Tamil Tigers at the hands of the Sri Lankan military and paramilitary forces. However, it also turned out to be a terrible example of collective punishment for the Tamil minority. This is the tragedy that the political scientist, former political activist with a strong Marxist-humanist commitment and a Sri Lankan diplomat, who till recently was serving the UN in Geneva and France and UNESCO, analyses with courage and insight.

After the British transferred power in 1948 virtually without a freedom struggle being waged against them, the ruling elite, Sinhalese and Tamil, initially adhered to the pluralist model bequeathed by the British based on liberal constitutionalism. However, that did not last long and Sinhala ethno-nationalists, lay and clerical, began to assert a majoritarian Sinhalese-Buddhist identity and ideology that sought to marginalise the Tamils. The adoption of the Sinhala only bill in 1956 as the sole national language literally rendered the hitherto more advanced Tamil intelligentsia illiterate.

The moderate Tamil leadership failed to dissuade the majoritarian Sinhalese nationalists to accommodate the legitimate interests and concerns of their group. As a result, disappointment, frustration and despondency spread among the Tamils. The leadership then passed into the hands of extremists, and the Tamil Tigers, led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, emerged in 1976 as the most uncompromising and ruthless protagonists of Tamil separatism and secessionism.


Book Review: Long War, Cold Peace: Conflict and Crisis in Sri Lanka Author: Dayan Jayatilleka Publisher: Vijitha Yapa Publications, Columbo; 2013

Jayatilleka convincingly demonstrates that in the armed conflict that ensued, exclusive ultra-nationalism took up uncompromising positions on both sides. However, whilst the Tigers never relented, the Sri Lankan government on a number of occasions sought a compromise granting autonomy/devolution within a formally unitary state. He especially regards President Ranasinghe Premadasa as the leader who was most forthcoming to accommodate Tamil concerns including those related to the national language. He was pitilessly assassinated by the Tamil Tigers, who rejected all such overtures as their goal was to create a sovereign and independent Tamil Eelam. The Tigers also assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and several Sri Lankan ministers and politicians including Tamils.

The author is at his masterly best when he applies his vast theoretical and conceptual knowledge, including normative political theory, to distinguish a freedom fighter from a terrorist. He defines terrorism as deliberate policy to target innocent civilians. In this regard, the review of Marxist theory and practice associated with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara is especially instructive, because although they resorted to armed struggle they considered it a necessary evil. Prabhakaran made a virtue out of violence and terror and personified that cult.

He reveals the psycho-ideological mindset of Prabhakaran as intrinsically fascistic. We learn that the leader of the Tigers actually hero-worshipped Hitler and kept a copy of Mein Kampf by his side, and like his hero extracted complete submission from his followers to his whim and caprice. Moreover, the Tamil Tigers showed no mercy to dissidents within the party or the opposition within Tamil society, or to innocent Muslims and Sinhalese. Their record of carrying out assassination attempts and suicide bombing predates by many years similar trends in South Asia.

Jayatilleka rejects the right of national self-determination to mean an absolute and automatic right to secede through the use of force and terrorism from an existing state. He asserts that secession from an existing state is not to be confused with liberation from colonial rule. Such an interpretation is an accurate understanding of the norms upheld by international law.

The author then examines the right of the state to wage war against an intransigent terrorist group in the light of classic just war doctrine and concludes that the Sri Lankan state had no other choice but to wage a war against the Tamil Tigers. It did so, but with such overwhelming force and ruthlessness that hapless non-combatant Tamils wholesale became its victims. It shocked the world and the United Nations expressed its concerns in no uncertain terms.

The author warns that a triumphant, vindictive, majoritarian Sinhalese mindset cannot win the peace. It is important to heal wounds and win back an estranged, defeated and humiliated minority. Currently a cold peace prevails that isolates and alienates the Tamil minority. He pleads for a just peace, which guarantees substantial autonomy, economic, political and cultural, equal rights for all citizens, and respect and acceptance of ethnic identity. To the Tamils his recommendation is to abandon secessionism and seek fair and equitable treatment within a pluralist, decentralised but unitary Sri Lanka integrated in a power-sharing framework. He argues that neither neo-liberal capitalism nor neoliberal conservatism can serve as the basis for building peace, which he argues has three important dimensions: the North-South axis; the rich-poor axis; and the country-world axis.

In my book, State, Nation and Ethnicity in Contemporary South Asia, London and New York: Pinter, 1996; 1998, I propounded a theory to analyse within a comparative framework a number of separatist movements in South Asia: Khalistani and Kashmiri in India; Sindhi and Mohajir in Pakistan; Chakma Hill Tribes in Bangladesh; and Tamils in Sri Lanka. I predicted that secession was doomed. The modern state is too well-armed vis-à-vis separatists. Moreover, international law and praxis is biased heavily in favour of the integrity of the state. Only when powerful neighbours or global powers support a challenger to the state can the balance of power possibly be tilted in favour of secessionism (pages 69-76). In the final showdown neither India nor any global power backed the Tamil Tigers: their extermination became inevitable. Seventeen years later Jayatilleka’s authoritative case study on Sri Lanka verifies the soundness and relevance of that theory.

*The reviewer is a PhD (Stockholm University); Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; and Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. Latest publications: Pakistan: The Garrison State, Origins, Evolution, Consequences (1947-2011), Karachi: Oxford Unversity Press, 2013; The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012; New Delhi: Rupa Books, 2011). He can be reached at [email protected]

Print Friendly

Foreign Affairs

A Rejoinder To Hoole: Tamil Hinduism And Arumuka Navalar

I respond to the three opinion pieces of Samuel Ratnajeevan Herbert Hoole namely (i) “Arumuka Navalar: Fake Images and Histories” published in the Colombo Telegraph on March 30, 2013; (ii) “The Jaffna Version of the Tamil Bible: By Peter Percival or Arumuka Navalar” published in the Colombo Telegraph on April 5, 2013; and (iii) “Heritage Histories: What They Are and How They Operate Through Jaffna” published in the Colombo Telegraph on April 6, 2013.


Mr. Hoole asserts that Arumuka Navalar was built up by “ill-educated” “Tamil Saivite extremists” and that everything about Navalar was “fake” be it “his portrait, caste and name, and perhaps religion..”. He alleges that Navalar, a “high school dropout”, had ‘tiny ears and a big forehead on a huge head, thin hands and legs, strong facial hair, and huge body without any strength”. Hoole explains that Navalar was unable ‘to complete high school after 6 years in Tamil school and 13 years under Percival”. He adds that Navalar had a multitude of names each spelt differently and that he was but an “unpaid” “menial assistant” to the missionary Percival!

Hoole similarly claims that the Tamils “were Buddhist and Jain before Saivism took root after the seventh century AD”. He adds that 8,000 Jains who refused to convert to Saivite Hinduism were impaled in the 7th century. He asserts “that many Hindu temples today were once Buddhist and Jain”, agreeing with a Sinhala Buddhist nationalism that is eager to plant Buddha statues in places of old Hindu worship in Sri Lanka. He ends by asserting that “Christians live in fear – living oppressed and as the the oppressed’.

I will be brief as I respond. In the interests of brevity, I will focus on just two subjects i.e. (i) the roots of Tamil Hindu tradition prior to the period of Jain and Buddhist literary influence; and (ii) Arumuka Navalar. Hoole needs to verify his information. His is a highly selective and wishful narrative with numerous errors. Little of what Hoole says is credible. Its time to set the record straight in the interests of a more nuanced interpretation.

Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism in early Tamil history

If one were to appraise the religious character of early Tamil society, one will need to refer to the earliest specimens of Tamil literature that exist today i.e. the Sangam-era work. The Sangam works consist of two literary compendia namely the Ettutogai or Eight Anthologies and the Pattu Paatu or 10 songs. Both are dated to between the 1st and 3rd centuries of the Common Era (CE). It is also important to cite the earliest Tamil grammar in existence today i.e the Tol-kaapiyam. The latter text is usually dated to the early centuries CE. There is an academic debate on the internal consistency and date of the Tol-kaapiyam.

The Sangam compendia I refer to excludes the 18 later works or the Pathinen-keezh-kannaku nool which subsumes the Silapadikaram, the Manimekalai, the Tirukural and other later texts. Those are post-Sangam works.

If one were to explore the Sangam-era, one finds a bardic tradition interspersed with references to the veneration of the Hindu gods Seyon or Murukan, Maayon or Vishnu, Venthan or Indra, Korravai or Durga and Varuna. These were the patron deities of the Tamil land. Seyon or Murukan was the benefactor of the hill tribes while Venthan or Indra was the God of Rain and the protector of the fertile agricultural tracts. Varuna, the God of the Sea, was the guardian of the maritime tracts and all those whose livelihood depended on the sea. Korravai or Durga was the patron of the fierce tribes of the arid tracts. Maayon or Vishnu, also known as the lotus-eyed or Taamarai Kannanaar, protected the herdsmen. The Sangam literature refers to the mighty womb of Korravai that gave birth to Seyyon. There are allusions to the three-eyed God, Siva.

There are references to the Brahmins who tended the sacred fire and studied the four Vedas or Naan Marai. Several Brahmins contributed to the corpus of early Sangam literature. This included Kapilar, Uruttira-kannanaar, Nakeerar, Paalai Kauthamanaar and Perum Kausikanaar to mention just a few. There were several others. Several of the Chera, Chola and Pandya monarchs performed the Vedic sacrifice as documented in the Sangam corpus. The practice of suttee existed. This inheritance is what we today call Tamil Hinduism. The literary allusions to the Jains and Buddhists were far fewer in the Sangam-era.

The pottery and stone inscriptions in Tamil Brahmi dated to the decades before the dawn of the common era offer insights as well. The potsherd inscriptions linked to a megalithic culture contain references to Murukan while the few early rock inscriptions document individual donations to itinerant Jain monks.

The more copious literary record that has survived to date reflects a Hindu folk idiom linked to the rural populace, chieftains and the priesthood while the rock inscriptions suggest individual traders sponsoring Jainism. Buddhism in that early era was numerically less significant. Hoole’s point that Hinduism influenced the Tamil land only in the 7th century is therefore false.

Buddhism emerged in a significant manner in the Tamil land with the later Kalabhras. The Kalabhra dynasty had invaded and ruled Tamil Nadu between the 4th and the 6th centuries CE. Inscriptional and literary evidence indicates that the Chola, Chera and Pandya kings were ruthlessly suppressed. The Kalabhras patronized Buddhism and used Prakrit. Buddhism remained an urban phenomenon. Most Tamil Buddhist monks of this period chose to write in Pali, not Tamil. This included Buddhadatta Thera from Uragapura (Uraiyur) and Dhammapala Thera from Tambarattha (Tirunelveli) who traveled to Sri Lanka to translate the proto-Sinhalese language commentaries into Pali. The celebrated Buddhist commentator Buddhaghosha lived for a while in Madhura-sutta-pattana (Madurai) en route to Sri Lanka to study the proto-Sinhalese texts. Hoole’s contention that Sinhalese literature is a 9th century phenomenon linked to the suppression of Buddhism in the Tamil land is therefore flawed!

The Buddhist zeal of the Kalabhras triggered a home-grown Saivite and Vaishnava revival in the 6th century. This in turn saw the eclipse of Pali scholarship in the Tamil land and a renewed pride in the Tamil language.

Buddhism however continued in urban Tamil Nadu until the 14th century. The Culavamsa describes Sinhalese kings inviting Tamil monks from South India to visit Sri Lanka between the 12th and 14th centuries CE. The Tamil grammar, the Vira-choliyam, was authored by a Buddhist in the heyday of Chola rule in the 10th century CE. The Saivite Hindu Cholas sponsored this Buddhist author. Meanwhile, the Jain center of Sittanavaasal continued to flourish between the 7th and 9th centuries. Saivite Hinduism did not annihilate Buddhism or of Jainism in 7th century Tamil Nadu as Hoole writes. The Buddhist presence in Tamil Nadu ended with the establishment of the Madurai Sultanate in the early 14th century. Tamil Jainism continues to exist to this day.

Hoole highlights the alleged impalement of 8,000 Jains in 7th century Tamil Nadu and cites Nambi Aandaar Nambi, an early medieval Saivite scholar, in support of his claim. This was a literary allusion with no independent evidence. The Chalukyas and Rashtrakutas ruled in neighboring Karnataka. Several of the near contemporary Chalukya and Rashtrakuta monarchs, not to mention the Pallava kings in Tamil Nadu were Jain. There is no corroborating Jain literary or inscriptional evidence of any such impalement. The inquisition was a Christian instrument of persecution, not Hindu.

Hoole is likewise dishonest in selectively quoting Nilakanta Sasti’s History of South India to extrapolate that Buddhist and Jain temples were converted into Hindu places of worship ignoring the extensive evidence provided by Professor Sastri on the Brahmanic and Vaishnava presence in the earliest period of Tamil history.

In conclusion, what we now designate as Hinduism was pre-eminent in the earliest years of recorded Tamil history. The Jains did extensively contribute to Tamil literature at a subsequent date. To argue that we were Jains and Buddhists before we became Hindu is simply incorrect.

Arumuka Navalar

Let me now turn to the subject of Arumuka Navalar. Whether Navalar had any input in the translation of the Bible into Tamil, how he looked, how he spelt his Tamil name in English in a era where such spelling had not been standardized and where births and marriages were unregistered, what caste he belonged to and whether his father was baptized is irrelevant to his legacy as a pioneer who recognized the importance of the media, print technology and western education to the dissemination of Tamil Hindu learning.

Mr. Hoole has had a 15 to 20 year track record of attacking Hinduism and individuals linked to the Hindu revival in Sri Lanka. I had rebutted an earlier article of his dated May 14, 2010 where he had attacked Arumuka Navalar and Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan. “In Defense of the Sri Lankan Hindu of Yesteryear: Arumuka Navalar and Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan” was published in the Sri Lanka Guardian on May 20, 2010 and in the HaindavaKeralam and LankaWeb. What I stated there still holds. Let me repeat what I said there rather than reinvent the wheel.

One needs to revert to primary sources if one is to accurately describe Arumuka Navalar. Navalar lived between 1822 and 1877 CE. His works include the ‘Prabandha Thirattu’, ‘Saiva Thooshana Parihaaram’, ‘the Prohibition of Killing’, and his classic deconstruction of the Bible. These texts help one to understand him better.

One discovers herein an astonishing man who grasped the imperative to establish Hindu primary and secondary schools in the 19th century, modernize and broadbase Hindu education, use simple Tamil prose to disseminate Saivite Hindu doctrine and leverage the printing press to republish the Tamil classics and Saivite Hindu scripture. Navalar made it a point to study Christianity to more effectively combat the white missionary enterprise. Navalar worked in Jaffna and Tamil Nadu. He established schools in Jaffna and in South India of which the Saiva Prakasa Vidyalayam was the first. Arumuka Navalar’s emphasis on a modern Hindu education in Sri Lanka was the prelude to the later Hindu Board of Education in Sri Lanka.

He was the first person to avail of the modern printing press to publish rare Tamil classics in the mid-1800s anticipating the subsequent seminal work of U.V. Swaminatha Iyer and the other Sri Lankan Tamil Hindu stalwart C.W. Thamotherampillai.Navalar established a printing press in Sri Lanka and in Tamil Nadu. The one in Jaffna was called the Vidyanubalana Yantra Sala. Professor Dennis Hudson of the State University of New York has chronicled Navalar’s use of the printing press on both sides of the Palk Straits in the 19th century. Navalar published 97 Tamil language documents. He published rare works of Tamil grammar, literature, liturgy and religion that were previously unavailable in print. For instance, the first ever Sangam text that saw the light of print was the Tiru-murukaatru-padai of the Pattu Paatu. Navalar brought this out in 1851.

Noted Czech scholar of Tamil, Kamil Zvelebil, demonstrated that Navalar was the first author to use modern Tamil prose in a manner understandable to the layperson. Professor Meenakshisundaram echoed this view when he reiterated that Navalar was the first to use simplified and unadorned lay Tamil. He had adopted a highly effective and unadorned preaching style borrowed from the missionaries that consisted of five steps to quote Hoole i.e. (i) preface; (ii) exposition; (iii) doctrinal analysis; (iv) applying the interpretation; and (v) conclusion. So yes, Navalar made stellar contributions to Hinduism, the Tamil language, Tamil prose and Sri Lankan Tamil identity.

The Hindu revival preceded the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka by a full generation. As Bishop Kulendran of the Church of South India in Jaffna conceded, it was Navalar’s Saivite Hindu revival that stemmed the conversions to Christianity in northern Sri Lanka in the 19th century. It was Navalar likewise who first articulated in modern times that the Sri Lankan Tamil identity was parallel to and not the same as the South Indian Tamil identity.

Navalar, like almost all in the mid-1800s, suffered from caste prejudice. The 1800s was an unenlightened age where the Christian missionaries in India and Ceylon exemplified a deep religious bigotry, the Sri Lankan Tamils exemplified a hateful caste prejudice while the Europeans were busy enslaving or exterminating the Black population in America, Australia and South Africa often in the name of Christianity. Navalar can not be absolved on the issue of caste. This said, a critical interpretation of history forces one to acknowledge his other accomplishments.


(i) K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, A History of South India: From Prehistoric Times to the Fall of Vijayanagar, Oxford University Press, 1955;
(ii) V.R. Ramachandra Dikshitar, Studies in Tamil Language and History, University of Madras, 1936;
(iii) Vaiyapuri Pillai, History of Tamil Language and Literature, Chennai, 1956;
(iv) George Hart, The poems of ancient Tamil, their milieu and their Sanskrit counterparts, 1975 (University of California, Berkeley);
(v) Takanobu Takahashi, Tamil love poetry and poetics, 1995;
(vi) Kamil Zvelebil, The Smile of Murukan on Tamil literature of South India, 1973; and
(vi) V.S. Rajam, A comparative study of two ancient Indian grammatical traditions: The Tolkapiyam compared with Sanskrit Rk-pratisakhya, Taittriya-pratisakhya, Apisal siksa, and the Astadhyayi, University of Pennsylvania, 1981.

Print Friendly


2013 Price range Highlights

 ·         Government allocates Rs.1000 million for 3 12 months housing loan scheme for safety forces personnel.  ·         Government targets a US $ one hundred billion GDP by year 2016 to make the country a middle cash flow nation.  ·         Re-forestation will be carried out to boost the forest coverage up to 35%.  ·         Guaranteed price tag for paddy will be increased to Rs.35 and Rs.37 per kg.