Preferred Citation: Ramaswamy, Sumathi. Passions of the Tongue: Language Devotion in Tamil India, 1891-1970. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.

To Die For

The Devotee as Publicist

“In my dreams and in my thoughts, I forever think about Tamil and Shaivism. May the Lord offer me grace so that I continue to think about them” (Anbupalam Ni 1967: 56). So declared Maraimalai Adigal in a public meeting in Madras in 1949 at the end of a life dedicated to the task of publicizing the glories of Tamil. Years before, in 1912, during the early years of his career while he was travelling to numerous small towns all over the Presidency as well as Sri Lanka to spread the message of Shaivism and Tamil, he noted in his diary: “I am leading a life happier than that of a prince” (quoted in M. Tirunavukarasu 1959: 130). Service to Shaivism and to Tamil appears to have been the motto of Maraimalai’s “princely” life. A devotee with ardent faith in the power of reform, Maraimalai made full use of the modernist technologies of print, associations, and public lectures to convert his fellow speakers into devotees of Tamil.

Maraimalai’s use of such technologies of publicity, which were much favored by many reformers all across colonial India, may be traced back to his early youth. Growing up in the coastal town of Nagapattinam, he founded the Intu Matāpimāṉam Canḳam (Society for Pride in Hindu Religion) to combat missionary attacks on Hinduism in 1892 when he was sixteen. At this time, he was an ardent believer in Vedantic and Sanskritic Hinduism (Nambi Arooran 1976: 312-13). Within a few years, however, he came under the influence of the well-known scholar Somasundara Nayakar (1846-1901), on whom he subsequently wrote a biography, and was converted to the latter’s philosophy of Shaiva Siddhanta. In 1897, as a young man, he had his first encounter with the power of print when he published several essays defending his mentor’s version of Shaivism against Vedantic detractors (M. Tirunavukarasu 1959: 4-19). A year later, he secured regular employment as a Tamil teacher in Madras Christian College. This did not stop him from continuing with his proselytizing activities, using weekends as well as his vacation days to give public lectures on Shaivism and Tamil; to publish his researches on Canḳam poems; and to establish reform societies such as the Caiva Cittānta Makā Samājam (Society for Shaiva Siddhanta), founded in 1905, and the Camaraca Caṉmārkka Nilaiyam (Sacred Order of Love), founded in 1911 (Nambi Arooran 1976: 319-27).

Maraimalai’s diaries and letters offer interesting glimpses of the lives of those devotees who turned into publicists and reformers dedicated to the Tamil cause. They formed associations, published books and journals, and organized literary conferences to spread the message of Tamil. These conferences were festive occasions marked by religious hymns and popular songs on Tamil, speeches on the wonders of its literature, and debates about how to go about restoring the language to its former glory. Speakers like Maraimalai were treated particularly well. On one occasion, when he visited Salem, he was taken in procession around the town and greeted by local notables; he then gave a talk for about an hour and a quarter on “the nobility and antiquity of Tamil.” His talk was followed by discussions and lectures by other scholars and devotees (M. Tirunavukarasu 1959: 700-702). Yet it is also clear from his son’s account, as well as from the reminiscences of others, that Maraimalai was a demanding publicist for the Tamil cause. Fellow devotee K. A. P. Viswanatham recalls that after being invited to address the annual conference of the Shaiva Siddhanta association of Tiruchirapalli in 1921, Maraimalai presented a formidable list of demands which included detailed specifications on his lodging, provisions for worship and for his food, as well as payment of two hundred silver coins. When asked, “How many will invite you if you ask so much for service to Tamil and to Shaivism?” Maraimalai acerbically replied that while his fellow Tamilians were willing to heap thousands on actors and singers, they refuse to similarly honor Tamil scholars (Viswanatham 1989: 15-17). For Maraimalai, the honoring—both materially and otherwise—of speakers like himself was the honoring of Tamil itself.

His speeches certainly appear to have influenced at least one young man to convert to the Tamil cause. R. P. Sethu Pillai, who later became professor of Tamil in Madras University and published numerous books and essays on Tamil and its literature, many of them Indianist and compensatory classicist in sentiment, recalls a public lecture on Tamil that Maraimalai gave in the small town of Palayamkottai in June 1912. Tirunavukarasu, to whom Sethu Pillai talked later about this event, describes the impact of Maraimalai’s speech on the young man: “His being pulsed with the consciousness of Tamil. ‘I, too, will learn this great Tamil. I, too, will spread Tamil by lecturing and by offering my services,’ he thought to himself” (M. Tirunavukarasu 1959: 162-63).

Maraimalai appears to have been paid well for his speeches. Much of the money he made on these lecture tours was ploughed back into his publication and reform activities. In a 1941 letter to a friend, he observes, “I have spent an enormous amount of wealth on Tamil” (Anbupalam Ni 1967: 24-26). Yet, like the majority of Tamil’s devotees, he appears to have led a life of only middling prosperity, and the prefaces to his various books as well his letters contain frequent references to the financial hardship that he faced in continuing with his publication efforts, to the lack of appreciation for his work, and so on. Nonetheless, he worked on tirelessly, beginning most days at the crack of dawn with prayers and going to bed past midnight (Anbupalam Ni 1967: 49-51).

In 1911, at the age of thirty-five and as the sole breadwinner for his family—consisting of his aged mother, his wife, and seven children—Maraimalai decided to give up his teaching career and become an ascetic instead. In doing so, his son tells us, he was following an age-old tradition: “Having dedicated himself to the cause of Shaivism and Tamil, he donned the ascetic’s robes and the lifestyle of a renouncer” (M. Tirunavukarasu 1959: 128).[27] At least in his son’s reckoning, Maraimalai’s act was justifiable, his dedication to the cause of Shaivism and Tamil overriding his family responsibilities. Indeed, it is as an ascetic that Maraimalai entered the most productive period of his career as Tamil devotee; these were the “golden years of his life” (Tirunavukarasu 1959: 481). He published prodigiously and his books sold well; there were numerous requests for his presence as inaugural speaker at conferences; he became a member of the local vegetarian society and led campaigns against the performance of animal sacrifices in rural and low-caste temples. Scholars and admirers thronged to visit his home in Pallavaram, a suburb of Madras where he had taken up residence after becoming an ascetic. “Ah! How many people are now filled with Tamil devotion! They are filled with pride in their community. My work has had its impact. In the future, my books will sell abundantly, and my thoughts will spread far and wide. Tamil will flourish! Shaivism will triumph!” he remarked in contentment to his son in the 1940s (M. Tirunavukarasu 1959: 836-37; Anbupalam Ni 1967: 25).[28] Above all, these were the years in which he earnestly pursued the taṉittamiḻ cause, republishing pure Tamil versions of his early essays and striving to create a language that would be as free of Sanskrit words as possible. He refused to lend the prestige of his name to any publication that did not conform to his notion of Tamil, and periodically he had public disputations with fellow scholars on the purity of their language. Indeed, though his livelihood partly depended on the remuneration he received from-speaking at conferences, he refused (in a letter he wrote in English) “to attend any Tamil meeting which is not willing to maintain and advance pure Tamil. Of all the Cultivated ancient Languages, Tamil is the only one which is still living in all its pristine glory. I am strongly convinced that any mixture of foreign words in it will tend to vitiate its healthy life and hamper its vigorous growth. Please, therefore, excuse me for not attending your conference which does not seem to meet my ideal” (quoted in Ilankumaran 1991: 127).

In his personal life as well, his son tells us, he attempted to meet his ideals. After 1912, he refused to allow the participation of Brahman priests in the domestic rituals performed at home, deeming this a non-Tamil practice; after 1916, he attempted to speak only in pure Tamil; in the shrine that he built in his home in 1931 in Pallavaram, worship was offered only in Tamil; and he was a devout Shaivite, regularly visiting Shaiva temples where he would sing Tamil hymns to his heart’s content and, we are told, would bring tears of joy to all those who heard him.

All the same, his devotion, like that of so many others, was not without its share of contradictions. Later in his life he was neutral, even hostile, to the cause of Indian nationalism, but in his early years, according to his diary entries, he composed nationalist songs, attended nationalist lectures, and even wrote in 1906 that he bought a bundle of swadeshi (nationalist) candles (M. Tirunavukarasu and Venkatachalapathy 1988: 25-30). On the incarceration of the nationalist leader Tilak, his diary entry in English dated 23 July 1907 reads, “Oh! Mother India! Are thy sons to suffer thus!” (Anbupalam Ni 1967: 40). At the same time, he also composed songs commemorating George V’s accession in 1911 and joined the celebrations in Pallavaram marking that occasion. In 1912, noting that the government probably had him under surveillance, he comments on the stupidity of this, for he was after only a preacher, and he writes that he desired British rule to continue (M. Tirunavukarasu and Venkatachalapathy 1988: 35-36).

He may have spent much of his public life castigating Sanskrit for its evils, but unlike those in a later generation of Tamil devotees who criticized the language without any knowledge of it, Maraimalai had formally learned Sanskrit and even translated from it into Tamil a well-known play, Shakuntala. In his later published writings, he may have ardently preached the inherent superiority of Shaiva Siddhanta, but in his diaries he expresses admiration for Vivekananda’s Vedantic teachings and even gave a public lecture in 1909 on the Bhagavad Gītā’s importance in modernity (M. Tirunavukarasu and Venkatachalapathy 1988: 32-33). Indeed, although in a large number his writings on Tamil he may appear a classicist, in his own personal reading habits he appreciated a good number of modern works written in other languages. His love for English offers another similar contradiction. He seems to have spent a good part of his limited funds on purchasing English books to stock his personal library, and he translated numerous English classics into Tamil. His son tells us that on his many lecture tours and pilgrimages, he would carry along with him as reading material English books, rather than Tamil. He maintained his personal diary in English. When asked about this, he told his son, “My thoughts, speech, and writing are all in Tamil. To ensure that my knowledge of English does not fade away, I write my daily diary in English” (M. Tirunavukarasu 1959: 700). Such contradictions lasted until the end; when he died in September 1950, he requested that his body be cremated rather than buried in what had been deemed the authentic Tamil style (Viswanatham 1989: 22).

To Die For

Preferred Citation: Ramaswamy, Sumathi. Passions of the Tongue: Language Devotion in Tamil India, 1891-1970. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.