A Page From History
Ponnambalam Ramanathan's 160th birth anniversary
A 19th cenutry Hindu renaissance in Sri Lanka
By Priyadarshi Dutta
ON April 16, 1851 Gate Mudaliyar Arumuganatha-pillai Coomaraswamy, the first occupant of ‘Tamil seat’ in the Legislative Council of British Ceylon (estd 1833), was blessed with a grandson. The boy, born in maternal grandfather’s stately mansion, located on what is today the Sea Street in Colombo, was named Ramanathan. He was named so in the honour of Ramanathswamy, as the Jyotirlinga of Lord Shiva at Rameswaram (Tamil Nadu) is known as. He was born a year after his parents had returned to Colombo following a five month long pilgrimage to temples and holy sites of South India and Jaffna peninsula in 1850. His father Ponnambala Mudaliyar had worshipped at the Rameswaram, praying humbly for a second son, who might dedicate his life for his country and religion. A year after was born the promising son, destined to distinguish himself as the ‘greatest Ceylonese of all time’. That was how DS Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), described Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan (1851-1930), whose 160th birth anniversary falls this month.
Ramanathan was a myriad-minded public figure, who iconised the Tamil genius, in the setting of British Ceylon (Sri Lanka). He engaged in all four strands of public life viz. law, legislation, journalism and modern education. He was also the fabricator of ‘Ceylonese Nationalism’, but lived to see its collapse at the onset of Donoughmore Commission. This Tamil colossus was also an exponent of Hinduism who rebuilt the Ponnambalamvaneshwarar temple (1907) in Colombo; mesmerised the American audience (1905-06) with his lectures on spirituality and philosophy; wrote the monumental Tamil translation of Bhagwad Gita (1914); was an ardent student of the Vedas and Agama texts and practiced meditation.
Doubtless Sir Ramanathan hailed from a privileged background. But the epoch and the political order in Ceylon that he inhabited were also propitious for actualisation of his genius. Ceylon had become a Crown Colony on January 1, 1802. In 1833, consequent upon the Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms, a Legislative Council had been established with communal nominations viz. British, Tamils, Sinhalese, Moors (Muslims), Burghers etc. Apparently the Tamils, in minority vis-à-vis the Sinhalese, were biggest benefactors of British rule. The British had abolished ‘torture and other barbarous modes of punishment’ while granting ‘liberty of conscience and free exercise of religious worship’ (vide orders of September 23, 1799). “Now under the rule of Great Britain, not only has there been a great and intelligent revival, but the sacred edifices have been, and are restored,” said the Hindus of Jaffna while welcoming Swami Vivekananda on January 24, 1897. These were unavailable under the Portuguese and Dutch rules. The British rule in Ceylon —in contrast to India — was non-repressive, non-exploitative and the mutual relationship between British and Ceylonese populations was cordial.
All that, however, did not imply the absence of evangelical proselytism. Evangelical activities were consistently targeted the Tamils (mostly Hindus) and Sinhalese (Buddhists), prompting separate responses from the Saivite and Buddhists, without any common cause. The Buddhist response, wholly led by the monks, was based on theological-political premises of revivalism, which as history bears testimony, did not augur well for the civil society. The Tamil (Hindu) response was a civil society response, aimed at advantageously engaging with modernism, but within Hindu cultural framework. The ‘Hindu Renaissance’ in Ceylon could be traced to ‘champion reformer’ Arumuka Navalar (1822- 1879) of Jaffna, a master of Saiva Siddhanta, and controverter of Christian evangelism. He established Saiva Pariparilini Sabhai (1853). He also founded Saivamangala Vidyasalai School (1872), where English was taught, and which later blossomed into Jaffna Hindu College. The Jaffna Hindu College (actually a school) became the prototype for many ‘Hindu Colleges’ in Ceylon where English and Tamil education are provided in Hindu environment. These schools exemplified the favourable Tamil view on western education, which turned them into a prized community in British dominions in Indian Ocean region. Hindu Renaissance also meant arousal of pride in Hindu identity, which actuated the island Tamils to invite Swami Vivekananda to Ceylon in January 1897. Mudaliyar Ponnamalam Coomaraswamy (1849-1905), elder brother of Sir Ramanathan, read out welcome address to Swamiji at Colombo.
Sir Ramanathan’s era antedated the rise of mass politics in Ceylon, which triggered an avalanche of communalism. His was the best hour of to be a constitutionalist. In his first stint as Tamil member of Legislative Council, Ramanathan broached important issues of governance and public life. A thorough rationalist he supported the government’s decision of holding population Census, which had superstitiously been opposed by many members (October 28, 1880). He advocated the need for establishing post office saving bank in Ceylon (November 10, 1880) and need for registration of land titles as a remedy for needless litigation (November 30, 1881). But he opposed the compulsory registration of Muhammadan marriages (November 25, 1885) in person, favouring the registration of Kadutham (written contract of Muslim marriage) only.
A touching story is told that when Ramanathan was leading a famous and opulent life in Sukhastan, his bunglow in Colombo, his life was alchemised by the advent of a barefoot spiritual guru. That was Arulparanandha Swamigal of Tanjore. The Swamigal was not a monk to begin with and additionally deputed by the royal family of Tanjore to meet Ramanathan on a legal affair. But it turned out to be a meeting of the souls, as the Swamigal stirred the inner depths of Ramanathan. Ramanathan now turned to meditation and richness of Saiva Siddhanta and Hindu scriptures. He abjured liquior and became a vegetarian. He and his illustrious younger brother Ponnambalam Arunachalam became his disciple. Its effects were visible when as Solicitor General of Ceylon, Ramanathan visited the USA on a yearlong lecture tour in 1905. The New York Times (October 8, 1905) described him as Brahma-Jnani (Truth-Sear). Sir Ramanathan grew up through Victorian liberalism, which put faith in inherent goodness of man, despite his religious and ethnic identity. Though a devout Hindu, he never believed that spirituality is a Hindu monopoly.