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HomeOpinionSaint Devasahayam's anti-caste struggle angered Brahmins and Nairs, not his conversion

Saint Devasahayam’s anti-caste struggle angered Brahmins and Nairs, not his conversion

Devasahayam Pillai's new life became a cause of serious concern among high caste Hindus. They accused him of betrayal, and of insulting Brahmins and the royal throne.

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Weeks after 18th century anti-caste crusader Devasahayam Pillai was canonised—declared as saint—the Travancore royal family wrote to Pope Francis expressing “anguish” over the “sustained campaign against our ancestor.” Saint Devasahayam was allegedly shot dead for converting to Christianity on the orders of Maharaja Marthanda Varma, who ruled Travancore—Kochi in Kerala to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu—from 1729 to 1758. I belong to Kanyakumari district which was part of Travancore state when I was a toddler.

Gouri Lakshmi Bayi of the royal family said they had “no problem” with Devasahayam’s canonisation, but that they were against the characterisation of Marthanda Varma. “We in the letter clarified certain false narratives against our ancestors… Devasahayam was punished for various reasons, and not for conversion… Successive rulers of Travancore had been “kind to all religions”, including Christianity…. They made enough contributions to the churches, which included giving the missionaries tax-free land to build churches in Kanyakumari and Travancore,” she wrote.

Hardcore Hindutva elements have opposed Devasahayam’s elevation to sainthood since it was announced in December 2021, calling his ‘martyrdom’ a hoax. They wanted Prime Minister Narendra Modi—who had invited the Pope to India—and his government tell the Church to put a halt to the process.

“It is hard to believe the ‘existence’ of Devasahayam Pillai and his “martyrdom.” It appears to be more of a myth, fiction and unhistorical, spread by Roman Catholic church solely to augment their conversion drive. Canonisation of Devasahayam Pillai could pave way for communal disharmony and denigration of native culture and civilization. It would be in the interest of larger communal harmony if Devasahayam Pillai’s canonization is put on hold forever,” the opponents said.

While the anguish of the ‘royal family’ is understandable, the real reason Devasahayam was tortured and slayed was not because he converted to Christianity but because he revolted against the oppressive caste atrocities prevailing in the State of Travancore during his time.

Also read: ‘18th-century Catholic saint not killed for converting’ — Kerala royals want Pope to ‘absolve king’

Casteism in Travancore

One must understand the cauldron of caste and communal hatred in the state of Travancore during the times of Neelakantan Pillai who was the son of Vasudevan Namboodiri (Brahmin) and Devaki Ammal (Nair), both upper caste Hindus. Ironically, it was these Hindus who practised the caste system with venom. It was so horrendous that Vivekananda was compelled to call this region ‘the lunatic asylum’.

By all accounts, the obnoxious caste system as described in Manusmriti, also known as the Mānava-Dharmaśāstra or Laws of Manu, was the one practised in the State of Travancore during the time of Neelakantan Pillai. The high-caste people, to which category Pillai belonged, were very touchy in matters of caste and caste-based religion, particularly as these customs were observed as laws, manners and traditions of the State. Any violation was considered a betrayal of one’s clan and incurred punishments such as heavy fines, excommunication and permanent marginalisation.

Brahmins and Nairs were the high-caste people who had extraordinary influence over the rulers of Travancore and carried out the government functions. They were the landowners too. The Brahmins, the highest caste in the social hierarchy, were divided into two groups, namely, the Namboodiris and the Pottis. Namboodiris were more numerous and more powerful. With the kings of Travancore considering Brahmins as demigods they virtually ruled the roost,

Next in the social ladder came the ‘Nair’ caste to which almost all the prominent people belonged, including the king himself and the royal family. Nairs formed the militia of the Malayala, directed by Namboodiris and governed by Rajahs. Their chief occupation was in arms. In times of peace, they devoted themselves to agriculture. As a dominant caste, they assumed the position of the land-owning class. Generally educated, 60 per cent of them held important posts in the government of Travancore. Only the Brahmins and the Nairs were considered “noble.” Others—Nadars, Ezhavas, Mukkuvas, Paravas, Kammalans, Pulayas, Allyans, Vaniyans, Vannars, Kanis and Pariahs—were ‘low caste’ people.

With this major caste division into high and low castes, there was a rampant practice of discrimination in terms of untouchability and ‘unseeability’, meaning that it was not only the physical touch of the lower caste that was ‘pollutant’ to the upper castes but even the very sight itself would be considered ‘polluting’. And this automatically led to political and social ostracism of the worst order.

Also read: BJP-RSS hounding Missionaries of Charity, drying up ocean of love filled by Mother Teresa

Devasahayam’s revolt 

With a caste system so virulent, can communal divide be far behind? In the 1750s, Maharaja Marthanda Varma’s dedication towards Sri Padmanabhaswamy made Travancore the property of Sri Padmanabha. With the Travancore royal household becoming a ‘centralised’ temple management team, any hostility against the king was considered swamidroham (treason against God). With Hinduism declared as the State religion, followers of other religions became second-class citizens.

As envisaged in the Manusmriti, people of high castes controlled all important temples and there was discrimination even among the deities. While ‘upper’ castes worshipped the “superior deities”, low castes were relegated to “inferior deities”.

During Marthanda Varma’s time, there were already Christians in the kingdom of Travancore and conversions were taking place. But these were confined to the lower castes of Nadars, Ezhavas, Mukkuvas and Paravas who were considered untouchables and unseeables. It was but natural that conversions from castes like Nairs and Brahmins was considered contemptible and blasphemous.

Rev. Joseph Elphinston, the Vice-Postulator who worked towards the beatification of Devasahayam Pillai, wrote: “Devasahayam started an apostolic mission of evangelising people, including upper castes. His first convert was his wife Bhargaviamma. His continuous and courageous propagation of the faith, spreading the Good News, leading many to conversion and to Christ, while performing his high office at the King’s palace angered the Brahmins. The neophyte also mixed and mingled with people of every status and caste disregarding all caste distinctions. He threw away the symbols of his “high” caste, ate and lived with people of “low” birth and returned to his office in the palace as a polluted person according to their custom and belief. He even dared to challenge the Brahmins in respect of their superstitions and heinous and inhuman oppression of the oppressed castes — among whom the vast majority were the Christians of the coastal Travancore. His new life became a cause of serious concern for all in the court and among high caste Hindus, who became his bitterest enemies. They accused him of the crime of betrayal, apostasy, contempt of religious practices and of insulting the Hindu gods, the Brahmins and the royal throne.”

Elphinston added that the King gave in to the hostility of caste Hindus against Devasahayam and dismissed him from office. Devasahayam was arrested and put in prison on 23 February 1749. The following day, he was condemned to death.

This is the real story and the ‘conversion’ narrative is a spin to justify the recent draconian anti-conversion laws targeted at Christians mainly to perpetuate the Manusmriti doctrine of caste supremacy and discrimination, which is Hindutva’s core agenda.

M.G. Devasahayam is a retired IAS officer and chairman of People-First. He also served in the Indian Army. Views are personal. 

(Edited by Prashant)

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