In the course of an address delivered by Mr. T. Ponnambalam Pillay, M.R.A.S., the Retired Excise Commissioner of Travancore, at Chidambaram, on "Tamil learning" on the evening of the 9th January, before the Saiva Prakasa Vidya Salai, on his way back from Conjeevaram, after presiding over the Saiva Mahasamajam, he is reported to have given the following sketch of the life of the late Mr. Arumuga Navalar, the Famous Tamil Scholar, Philosopher, Saiva Theologian, preacher and founder of the above-said institution, and we have great pleasure in publishing the same for the benefit of the followers of the Saiva Siddhanta Religion.
Arumuga Navalar was born of respectable and wealthy parents, about eighty years ago in the Parish of Nallur in Jaffna. Everything in the world was in his favour, and his parents were therefore in a position to give him the best possible education, available at the time. As was usual, he was first inducted into Tamil, and Sanskrit was added to the curricula of his studies. Owing to the enterprise of Christian missionaries – particularly the American – English education had made rapid strides at the time in Ceylon, and it was sought even by people from the adjacent continent. As his education could not be completed without it, Navalar was given the benefit of it. At the time he completed his education missionary influence was dominant all over the Island. His guardians naturally turned to them in order to secure for their most promising ward, advancement in the world. The Missionaries on their part, were prepared to enlist him into their services, as his erudition and intelligence had already forced themselves on their attention. This kind of association with the missionaries was a good school for him for further study, which was in short, a kind of Post-graduate education. For during the short period he was connected with them, he had not only learnt their ways and the tenets of the Christian Religion in all its details, but also closely observed with great sorrow the harm they were inflicting on his own religion. Arumuga Navalar found that a large number of his countrymen were embracing Christianity, not on conviction, but owing to certain undesirable influences brought to bear on them. After a connection of some years with the missionaries, he thought that it was time for him to dissociate himself from them and work for the amelioration of his countrymen. His country was not the little island of Jaffna. It was the land where the Tamil language and the Tamil Religion – the Saiva Siddhanta were prevailing. It therefore lay between Pt. De Galle at the Southern extremity of Ceylon and the famous Venkadam – the modern Tirupathi, which is generally considered as the northern limit of the land of Tamil.
During the time he was employed under the missionaries our Navalar found time to improve his knowledge of his mother tongue, and that of his ancestral religion. He found capable teachers to help him, particularly in the latter. He ravenously devoured all that he was able to get hold of in that department. At the time he bid farewell to the missionaries, he was well versed in the Saiva Siddhanta including the Agamas. In those days, printed books were rare and owners of Manuscripts which were mostly engrossed on the leaves of the Palmyra palm, were not willing to part with them even as a temporary measure. Notwithstanding these difficulties, young Navalar did his best, but they were minimised owing to the respectable condition of the family library. Fully equipped as he was for his self-imposed task, he set his heart on preventing people from becoming converts to Christianity on insufficient knowledge. For he had no objection for any one of his co-religionists to embrace that faith on conscientious conviction. Aware of what he was about, the Christian missionaries – particularly those with whom he worked, treated him with the highest respect, and one of them even went to the length of writing a short account of his career. To attain the object he had in view, Navalar began with preaching the Saiva Siddhanta. Accustomed as he was to listen to the trained eloquence of the missionaries, in course of time, he became a perfect master in the art of public speaking, and his lectures were effective particularly whenever he touched on the shortcomings of the Bible. One of his duties when he was employed under the missionaries was to translate their Sacred books into Tamil, and this opportunity gave him every facility to study every portion of it carefully, compare notes with his own religious tenets and jot down whatever he considered to be defective in that great system. Those preaching's brought round him a large number of followers, and there was every sign of the revival of the Saiva Siddhanta within a short time. Respectable and wealthy people both in Ceylon and Southern India, co-operated with him and the late Ponnusamy Thevar, father of the late Pandi Thuraisami Thevar, and elder brother and Chief Minister the then Sethupathy of Ramnad was the foremost amongst them. This enabled Navalar to print and publish all the leading Tamil works on Religion and morality that had not seen the light of the day, and thus save them forth destruction. The printed books that existed then, with the exception of those that were brought out under the auspices of the defunct "old college" were full of grammatical and typographical mistakes. Navalar did also a great 'service' in bringing out correct editions of most of the important ones of these. I shall not trouble you with a list of the works published by him as they are known to you. His original works were in the direction of Prose writing as he wanted to be practical and be of real service to the public. The prose was all his own and the style inimitable. Excepting the late Thandavaraya Mudaliar – author of Panchatanthra in Tamil, Arumuga Navalar was the first to popularise Tamil prose. If we eliminate some of the great commentators who have written very terse and obscure Tamil Prose, it may fairly be said that he was the father of Tamil prose. His graduated Series of Readers for Schools, his catechisms of the Saiva Religion, and his prose renderings of the Periapuranam and Tiruvilayadal Puranam are excellent Tamil books. The University of Madras has complimented him by adopting the last mentioned books as texts for the B.A. and other examinations. It is generally supposed that he was not a poet. But, as I have already stated, the object of his whole life was to prove useful to the public, and he did not therefore want to waste his time in building high rhymes which he was able to do as is evident from some of the pieces that are extant.
In Jaffna he established a model School under the designation of "Saiva Prakaasa Vidya Salai" the first of the kind where secular and religious education was imparted to Hindu boys. The first batch of students of this institution were afterword's some of the greatest scholars of the day. When the students had passed out of the highest class, he had arranged for a system of post-graduate study, and whenever possible, he himself took up some of the subjects in that advanced class. The Saiva Prakasa Vidhya Salai did not stand alone. Similar institutions were founded by public-spirited men in other places on its model, and at the present moment they are spread all over the Province. The present Hindu College of Jaffna, though not directly founded by him, its existence is due to the influence of his teachings.
After making the necessary arrangements for carrying on the work of the School at Jaffna, and for periodical preaching of the Saiva Siddhanta, Arumuga Navalar left for Southern India where his fame had already preceded him, that he may work amongst the people there. Though it is thirty years since he met with his premature death, his name continues to be a household word both there and in Ceylon. He established his Head Quarters at Madras and founded a press to meet the increasing demands due to his activity. It may not be out of place to mention here that every farthing that was derived from the sale of books, was devoted to the institutions founded by him and other public beneficence. From Madras, he toured through the Southern districts, preaching the Saiva Siddhanta and the regeneration of Tamil. He also advocated reforms in the management of Saiva temples and charitable institutions such as the monasteries of Tiruvaduthurai and Dharmapuram. There is no doubt that people appreciated his labours, and this fact is evident from the formation of several societies to carry out the objects of his mission. But all of them died a natural death with the Oozing out of their enthusiasm on the part of the people, and our Navalar had to carry on his work single-handed. As a result of his teachings, the temple priests who were grovelling in ignorance, awoke to the situation and began to educate their sons and learn the Agamas. It was in this Sanctified place, (Chidambaram) that he worked harder than anywhere else, and it is refreshing to note that everything connected with the shrine here, is carried on, on authorised lines, that the Dikshathars (the priests of this particular temple) are educated and that they adopt every means in their power to spread education amongst that community. The recital of the Thevaram and other sacred hymns which was in a state of desuetude, was resuscitated and brought into every day practice. It is with pleasure I note that two Boarding Schools have been established in this city for the teachings of these hymns – one under the auspices of the Hon. Dewan Bahadur Ramasamy Chettiar and the other under the Mudaliars of the place. Under the scathing invective of Arumuga Navalar, the heads of the several Mutts which were dens of iniquity, were trembling in their shoes and were doing their best to reform themselves. In this city, he established this school on the model of the Saiva Prakasa Vidhya Salai at Jaffna. It is very gratifying to me to note that its records have been as satisfactory as the parent institution, and the present management speaks volumes in favour of those concerned, particularly as the school is conducted on the lines chalked out by its founder - the great Arumuga Navalar.
In doing his work, he met with considerable opposition, but he was able to carry everything before him. In the early days of his preaching, the title of Navalar was conferred on him by the learned in Southern India headed by that great Scholar and Philanthropist Ponnusamy Thevar, having been struck by his fervid eloquence, unparalleled as it was in those days. Though he had made Madras his headquarters, he visited Jaffna now and then, and towards his latter days, he spent his time there in introducing reforms amongst the Hindu Community and supervising his pet school. As in the case of all reformers, his life was short-lived. He died in Jaffna in the fifty-four year of his life before he was able to complete the work he had set to himself.
The late Arumuga Navalar was one of those rare spirits that lived for the sake of others extinguishing self altogether. The object of his whole life was to place his mother tongue in its pristine purity, and restore the Saiva Siddhanta to its place as one of the oldest religions of the world. The spirit he has infused has not died out, and I am sure that it will live till the Tamil language and Saiva Siddhanta lives. In Ceylon his memory is held green and every man and woman quote him as their authority for everything in their daily concerns. It may be safely said without exaggeration that but for him, no vestige of the Siddhanta would have been left in that island, and everybody would have embraced Christianity.
While ministering to the requirements of the Souls, Mr. Navalar did not neglect the material advancement of his people. He was always ready to further it and when occasion required he never hesitated to remedy any disabilities or political wrongs under which his countrymen were labouring, by heading any movement.