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A Review: Arumuga Navalar and ‘Heritage History’ Deconstructed

Oct 17, 2020 11:18:15 AM - groundviews.org

Photo Courtesy of TimeOut

Ratnajeevan Hoole, 2020, Heritage Histories: a Reassessment of Arumuga Navalar a.k.a Candar Arumugavan, London: Thesam Publications, i-xxvii, 327 pages.

Professor Ratnajeevan H. Hoole’s book on Jaffna Heritage Histories is a fascinating critique of several strands of invented recent histories of Sri Lanka’s Jaffna Tamil society. The central narrative of invented history which he subjects to extensive critical scrutiny is the claim that Arumuga Navalar translated the Bible into Tamil.

Arumuga Navalar is to Sri Lanka’s Tamil Hindus what Anagararika Dharmapala is to Sri Lanka’s Buddhists. Both were pioneers in the cultural nationalist resurgence in their societies during the British colonial time. Navalar was the senior of the two. While Navalar lived between 1822 and 1879, Dharmapala was born in 1864 and passed away in 1933. When the latter grew up to be the foremost cultural nationalist activist of Sinhalese Buddhists in British colonial Ceylon, he may have obviously heard and read about the former, although Dharmapala never mentions Navalar in his diaries or numerous other writings. It is perhaps the case that Sri Lanka’s Tamil Hindu cultural nationalism and Sinhalese Buddhist cultural nationalism have not crossed their paths, despite the fact that there are many historical and other parallels that have not yet been explored in Sri Lanka’s historical scholarship.

One key similarity between these two figures of cultural resistance to colonialism in Sri Lanka is that, after death, they have been elevated to the status of ethno-nationalist heroes through vast bodies of biographical, adulatory and even ‘historical’ writings. Their biographies are often hagiographies. Even biographies of these ‘national heroes’ written by professional historians and social scientists happen to have been worked within the broad tradition/s of what Dr. Hoole describes as ‘heritage histories.’

What are heritage histories? They are “created histories” seeking to cast members of a group “in superior terms.” They also “define a people and their culture” in such a way that that definition eventually becomes a part of their identity. A heritage history would thus “define a group and its attributes – caste, nobility, exclusivity” – in order to strengthen and bind the community together. Therefore, a heritage history would be “prone to outsider and insider bias.” And whenever doubts are expressed about the authenticity of any such “heritage”, they become “soul wrenching” and are “resisted” (p. 1).

As Dr. Hoole shows in this book, ‘heritage histories’ galore in Jaffna society. They are ‘historical’ narratives about individuals or institutions invented to glorify the biographies as well as legacies of such individuals and institutions. Dr. Hoole’s extensive documentation of several Jaffna heritage histories show that they constitute a specific genre of history writing. They have spawned a mode of writing that of course have a kernel of historical facts, but around the facts are exaggerations, falsehoods and unsubstantiated claims meant to establish glory, authenticity and fame. Few such invented heritage histories that are documented and commented on in this book suggest that it is a widespread and popular practice among a range of identity communities associated with caste, religion, religious sect, school and so on in contemporary Jaffna society.

An independent observer can also say that there is nothing unique in this specific strand of intellectual culture among Jaffna Tamils. All histories of communities anywhere would have the heritage dimension which the author of this book so meticulously deconstructs through a range of examples from the colonial and post-colonial Jaffna society. The Sinhalese history from Mahawamsa to contemporary school texts books, which the author also highlights, show a long lineage as well as continuity to a legacy of heritage history in Sri Lanka.

What should one do to narratives of heritage history with false and invented claims? Dr. Hoole has chosen the path of confronting such histories among contemporary Sri Lankan Tamils by juxtaposing fiction with empirical facts mined through painstaking archival research. He does it with sharp forensic and polemical skill as well. His paragraphs are often interspersed with pithy and sarcastic comments as well as memorable one liners, which we don’t find in usually boring social scientific writings. Dr. Hoole is not, nor does he claim to be, a professional historian trained in historical analysis. Nor is he a social scientist. His training is in the natural sciences. As a practitioner of natural science, his intellectual fidelity is to facts and facts-based interpretation. He is aghast at the ways in which some Western social scientists, trained in elite Western universities, too accept some major heritage historical claims without bothering to check the facts from original archival sources. The point he makes in this regard is quite alarming. Some invented claims in heritage historical narratives have now become ‘authentic’ social scientific knowledge as well.

Navalar Narrative

The main narrative of heritage histories which the author deconstructs is that of Arumuga Navalar. Through evidence gathered from archival research conducted in the United States as well as the UK and of course in Jaffna, the author makes a series of counter claims on the life and ‘achievements’ of Arumuga Navalar. His main focus is on the claim that Navalar translated the Bible into Tamil. This claim is a major thesis in Tamil nationalist historiography, although some trained social scientists such as Professors K. Sivathamby and K. Kailasapthy have been careful not to share that claim in its entirety. The counter fact which the author establishes through numerous contemporary documentary records is that Arumuga Navalar was only a member of the team of Tamil scholars from Jaffna that Rev. Peter Percival of the Wesleyan Mission consulted in revising an already existing Tamil translation of the Bible. “The Jaffna Bible is not the first Tamil Bible as often claimed. The Jaffna or Percival Bible is certainly not a translation by Arumuga Navalar as commonly held” (p. 228).

Dr. Hoole questions several other ‘facts’ about Arumuga Navalar’s ‘heritaged’ life and portrays the Tamil nationalist leader to be an acutely caste-conscious, social conservative. He also ‘corrects’ several historical accounts of the Christianity in Jaffna.

Navalar’s casteism and social conservatism is well-known. Progressive Tamil scholars have shown how Navalar made the Saivaite Hinduism the cultural property of upper caste Jaffna Tamils. According to Sivathamby, “in the ideal Saivaite society” which Navalar imagined, “those of the lower castes definitely had no equal place with those of the high castes. The scheme he had for educating the Hindus would naturally have not benefitted many of the non-Vellala castes” (Sivathamby, 1979: 68). Thus, Navalar’s ‘reformism’ was a socially conservative one.

This indeed has parallels with Anagarika Dharmapala’s ‘reformism’ in the Colonial Sinhalese society. He did not raise the issue of caste inequalities in Sinhalese society, although he was moved by the poverty in rural Sinhalese society. He attributed it to British colonialism, rather than to the traditional caste system and landlessness. Dharmapala also expressed deep anguish about caste oppression in India and also actively argued for social equality in the Indian society through economic modernity and industrialization.

There is another somewhat similar point implicitly present in his book that warrants deeper inquiry elsewhere. How could a Hindu Tamil of South Asia translate to his language, so easily as claimed by many in the Jaffna society, a whole range of philosophical-ontological categories from a classical text belonging to the European Judeo-Christian tradition?  This profound challenge may have been confronted by those Sinhalese scholars who assisted the translation of the Bible into the Sinhalese language too. The translation of classical religious texts across different cultures with different ontologies, or world views, is no easy task, contrary to what the heritage historians might want us to believe.

This is where comparative studies on the intellectual history of the cultural nationalist movements during the European colonial period of Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Sinhalese societies is certain to yield a great deal of new knowledge. Sadly, such a task will have to await the arrival of a new generation of creative social science scholars from our intellectually dilapidated universities.

Meanwhile, there is something irresistibly new in Dr. Hoole’s book. It is the polemical force and the argumentative spirit with which the author’s main point- Arumuga Navalar was not the translator of the first Tamil Bible in Jaffna and his role, if at all, in the Percival translation may have been a minor one– is made and remade throughout the book. Therefore, this is a book that has the potential to generate not only a great deal of interest, but also much passion, debate and controversy among Tamil Hindu as well as Tamil Christian intelligentsia in Sri Lanka.

However, one also has to be skeptical about the intellectual openness with which such debates can be conducted in the present circumstances of Sri Lanka, or South Asia, for that matter. It is because, among many reasons, of the very epistemological character of the genre of heritage histories.  Heritage histories, as strands of intellectual imagination and writing, are also part of ethno-nationalist, or religio-cultural, or social group, identity politics. As we have seen in so many other instances, identity politics thrives within frameworks of epistemological closure, and not openness. Intellectual closure prevents mutual learning through solidarity even among victims of the same past.

Reference

Sivathamby, Karthigesu, 1979, “Hindu Reaction to Christian Proselytization & Westernization in 19th Century Sri Lanka,” Social Science Review, No. 1 (Sep., 1979), 41-75.