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Brief History

THE FORMATIVE YEARS

"And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life: and man became a living soul". - Genesis 2:7

To trace the roots of the Venerable Vedanayaga Sastritar, we have to travel south to Tirunelveli district. Sastriar’s father was born in 1735. His name was Arunachalam and he was the son of the Iyamperumal Pillai. Arunachalam was a devout Hindu like his forefathers.  He undertook several pilgrimages to holy places including Sathutagiri Hills to fetch medicinal herbs. He wished to visit the holy city of Kasi (Benaras) but his relatives and friends dissuaded him. Instead, he was asked to take a1000 baths in sacred ponds and streams to acquire equivalent spiritual blessings. He fell desperately ill for six months as a result with what must have been bronchial pneumonia!

While practicing his profession as a money lender, he helped many of the poor. This was noticed by one Gnanenthirak Kanian who, aware of his spiritual quest directed him to Kamanaickanpatti to meet a Catholic priest. Arunachalam was so struck by the exposition of the One, True invisible, omnipotent God that he discarded his sacred beads and stopped smearing sacred ash. In 1760, at the age of 25, he was baptized and assumed the name of Devasagayam.  As a result, he was cast out of his community. But his close relatives also believed in Jesus Christ and accepted baptism. In keeping with the affirmation of faith expressed by Joshua: “As for me and my house we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:25) they made a whole hearted commitment to live only for the Lord Jesus.

Devesagayam Pillai learnt Latin and the Scriptures but was refused ordination as a priest.  However he was allowed to officiate as a Catechist. In 1770, at the age of 35, he married Gnanapoo, daughter of Savarirayan Chettiar, another Catholic believer. A son, Vedapodagam (named in honor of his mentor) was born on September 7th 1774.. This name was later changed to Vedanayagam’s mother fell ill and died. Vedanayagam was only seven years old at that time. He had two sisters called Susaiammal, and Bakkiammal. The three children were brought up in their maternal grandparents’ home.

Vedanayagam received his early education in grammar when he was just five years old. After his mother’s death while he stayed at his grandparents’ home, he lost interest in studies. His grandfather was a land lord and Vedanayagam occupied his time tending cows along with other cow-herds. This reminds us of King David, the sweet singer of Israel who tended his father’s sheep.

In 1783, his father employed a tutor to instruct him in literature and mathematics. As he was studying one evening, Vedanayagam beheld a giant wooden cross which appeared on his left and disappeared on the other side after about 12 minutes. When he had a divine purpose in granting him this vision. He was to remember this for a long time. It made an indelible impression on him and the cross was the central theme of almost all his compositions.

Two years passed by after the death of Gnanapoo. Devasagayam then married Mariamuthu of the same family. She bore him two children Gnanabaranam and Backiamuthu Pillai. Thereafter, Devasagayam left Anaikulam and returned to Tirunelveli with his wife and Vedanayagam.  While Vedanayagam was studying in Tirunelveli, he visited a cucumber garden along with other boys. There he slipped into a hidden well. He submerged twice, but when he surfaced the third time he grabbed the ramp of the well and dragged himself to safe ground. He recounted this to his father much later and they thanked God for his miraculous escape. After his episode, he refused to study and insisted on running away from his tutors.

One day he noticed his father interceding in prayer with tears and asked whom they were for. His father told him that it was for his (Vedanayagam’s) sake as he was not applying himself sufficiently to his studies. Vedanayagam was so touched that he reformed and diligently applied himself to literature and arithmetic. Whenever he accomplished something, his father rewarded him with money or delicacies.

Due to a quarrel, the local priest excommunicated Devasagayam. He later got acquainted with Clarinda, wife of one Colonel Beaton. Through her, along with the help of a Catechist named Gnanaprakasam, he learnt about the doctrine of redemption. This gentleman advised, he learnt about the doctrine of redemption. This gentleman advised Devasagayam to travel to Thanjavur to meet the great missionary Rev. Christian Frederick Schwartz. This he did in 1785. He fell under the spell of Rev. Schwartz and embraced Protestantism. Devasagayam returned to Tirunelveli after four months.

When Rev. Schwartz visited Tirunelveli in1786, he was impressed by the capabilities of the boy Vedayanayagam and requested Devasagayam to allow his son to accompany him back to Thanjavur, promising to educate  him and make him a worthy Christian. This occurred when Vedanayagam was 12 years old.

In Thanjavur, he was brought up as Rev. Schwartz’s own son and was provided with food and clothing. Rev. Schwartz’s school was modeled on the lines of a Gurukulam where the Master (guru) and the disciples (sishyar) lived together and the students imbibed many valuable lessons from the teacher. The first book given to him study by Rev. Schwartz was the book of Psalms. It was providential as Vedanayagam later became the sweet singer of Tamil Christians.

Rev. Schwartz had about 10 students. Thulasi Maharaja of Thanjavur entrusted his son Serfoji’s education also to Rev. Schwartz . Serfoji was 10 years old while Vedanayangam was 12.  So Serfoji referred to Vedayanagtam as his elder brother. This close association was to be resumed in the future at a crucial stage in the life of Vedanayagam. God’s leading hand could be discerned in this development.

Vedanayagam was given chores to do in his spare time. He read aloud from the Bible to the missionary, when Rev. Schwartz took a short period of rest at 4 p.m. He also performed tasks like massaging his master’s feet or fetching him water to drink. Rev. Schwartz not only gave him a good grounding in theology, but also opened his mind to a vast variety of subjects. This state of  affairs continued for two years until Vedanayagam’s family moved to Thanjavur.

Rev. Schwartz sent Devasagayam money to enable him to travel to Thanjavur with his family and work as a catechist. Devasagayam was well-versed in Tamil and excelled in composing poetry.  According to his book “Suviseda Gnanam” (Gospel’s Wisdom) he was known to have 60,000 verses. He was given the title (Disciple of Great Joy), because of his great knowledge, great religious fervor and poetical talent. In Sastriar’s book “Gnankkummi” he refers to his fathers as a servant of Tamil form Tirunelveli. In the “Jebamalai” he says: “Praise to him who created me as the son of Devasagayam of Tirunelveli” in a note of thanks giving to God.

But to return to young Vedanayagam, Rev. Schwartz fearing that Vedanayagam’s mind would be distracted by family affairs sent him away to Tranquebar in 1789 to a Theological Seminary. This was a Lutheran institution. So Vedanayagam became well versed in Lutheran theology. He came under the influence of Dr. John with whom he had many an enlightening conversation in the evenings while he had many an enlightening conversation in the evenings while he was walking with him in the garden. Dr. John told him about his country and about other nations also and rendered spiritual discourses. Dr. Kammerer and Rev. Rottler also book an interest in Vedanayagam and helped him in many ways. Vedanayagam spent the next two years studying scripture and any branches of knowledge and acquiring a smattering of German and English, but his chief interest was the study of Christian doctrine.

When Vedanayagam returned to Thanjavur, Rev. Schwartz who felt that his education was adequate for the purpose, appointment him as an assistant to the catechist Gnanamuththu. He traveled to the surrounding villages and was very helpful in preaching the Gospel, when he was 19, Rev. Schwartz appointed him as a class teacher in the Mission school.  He excelled in teaching literature and arithmetic besides other subjects. Rev. Schwartz impressed by his prowess and the discipline he maintained, made him the Head master. He was put in charge of the education of foreigners’and pastors’ children. During this period, he composed works such “Parabaran Malai” (Garland of praises to the Lord), “Gnana Eththappattu” (Songs of Wisdom), “Gnana Vazhi” (Divine Way), “Adi anandam” and “Parama Needhi Puranam” (The story of Divine Justice). There were written in spoken Tamil and were therefore easy for students to comprehend. His tribute to Rev. Schwartz in “Sastrkkummi” ran as follows...

At the first the book of Psalms was given to him:
Scriptural knowledge was also imparted
He was made to excel in both,
O, wise lady!
“SASTRAKKUMMI” 766

Meanwhile Devasagayam paid a visit to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where he sojourned in Jaffna and preached the Gospel. Unfortunately during this time he fell ill and was cared for by or Michael Mahendran but Devasagayam passed away. It was in 1799 when Vedanayagam was just 25 years old. Stricken by grief,  Vedanayagam composed 50 verses on the death of his father.

This marks the early life of Vedanayaga Sastriar, who though born in Tirunelveli (he calls himself Nellai Vedanayagam) settled in Thanjavur and became know as Thanjai Vedanayagan Sastriar. He was no mean scholar, and adept at composing verse, possessed the talent to excel in all that he did, whether it was teaching evangelism. His faith in God was deep and he lived and worked glorify the name of Jesus Christ.
 
 
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