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Brief History


“Joseph is a fruitful bough……… by a well whose branches run over a wall”. - Genesis 49:22

In 1975, when Vedanayagam was only 21 years old, he married his cousin Vyagammal in obedience to the wishes of his father and Rev. Schwartz. It was a heavy blow to Vedayananagam when his wife died a year later, before she could deliver their baby. The mourned thus:
“My heart grieves very sorely
Dost Thou not comprehend? Do tell me
Art Thou cruel hearted? If thy hearted does not melt
Thou art stony hearted! O most compassionate One!”

Two years later, Vedanayagam faced another grievous loss. One Feb. 7, 1798, his guru and mentor, Father Schwartz passed away. About this Vedanayagam says:
“My soul is dried up,
I fade away from deep grief,
Refuge there is none.
O Lord, Thou whose lotus feet art my refuge, grant me grace!
Wicked sinner that I am,
Embrace me and shelter me
In Thy five wounds, O Lord”

The very next year he faced yet another tragedy. His own father who had carefully nurtured him into a Tamil scholar, died on a trip to Jaffna.  His only comfort was his Lord.
While Thou art with me
And Thy word sustains me
When my heart is one with Thee, I prostrate at Thy feet,
My mind seeks shelter with Thee,
When Thy Son, the God of my salvation,
Whose love is with me?
Why should I, the babe, cry out?
When Thou my mother, art always with me?

Thou who offered Thyself as sacrifice
To redeem the world
The Son of the Heavenly Father
To whom will we turn but Thee?
Is there any other means of redemption?
Art Thou not He who bore us or whom else,
Art Thou wholly without concern?
Rule over us, O Lord Jesus Christ.”

When Vedanayagam was 27 years of age he married another cousin Michael Muththamma whom he had educated. Rev. Kohloff performed the ceremony. Since she was childless, he adopted his sister’s daughter, Gnanadeepam in 1811. This lady became well versed in her father’s work, was proficient in music and was a good vocalist. Hence, she was of immense help to her father in his mission to preach the Gospel. She had mastered the English language and translated a book by her father on faith. This was published in Madras. When she was 32 years old, she was married to a relative, Daniel Mangalam Pillai and bore a daughter Gnanagaram. Poet Vedanayagam took with him his family and team of singers and set forth to distant cities and villages to propagate the Gospel of Jesus through musical discourses (Kalakshepams). In 1811, Sastraiar traveled to Ceylon with his entire family. When they reached Pamban, they found that the North-easterly wind had not set in. They spent almost one month waiting for the right wind and Sastriar’s purse had during that time dwindled to a single coin. The boatman asked them to entreat their gods. Sastriar replied that with his God all things are possible and forthwith composed the following verse.

Beset by many troubles and left alone in despair,
The Northerly breeze wafts us not to Jaffna
Stranded we were for a whole month.
Do Thou command the North wind to blow
O Triune God, Who are enriched by my love.

While he was still singing the breeze set in. The boatman bundled them all aboard and the vessel made the crossing safely to Jaffna. They arrived in the home of Rev. Christian David with that single coin. But they need not have worried because Rev. David met their overland expenses.

Another incident which occurred while they stayed in Rev. David’s house was the loss of all their clothes. The dhobi( laundry man) to whom they had given the laundry was robbed and he came running to them to report the theft.  When Sastriar had verified that the theft had really taken place, he composed the following lyric:

Pallavi                  My heart, do not despair
                             Forgot not the Lord of Zion
                             Weep not,” What shall I do?”
                             O heart, do not despair!

Saranam:             One woe follows another,
                            Though wife, child or friend turn against me
                            And all my kith and kin are lost to me
                            Even if the sky should crumble
                            Do not despair, O my heart”

(Gnanappadakkeerthanaigal 286)

One is reminded of Habakkuk’s song of praise.
“Although the fig tree shall not blossom and the
Olive shall fail, and the fields yield no
Mean….yet will I rejoice in the Lord
I will joy in the God of my salvation”.

(Habakkuk 3:17, 18)

A Hindu merchant, Ramasamy Pillai heard him singing this song and requested permission to enter the house to enable him listen. Sastriar welcomed him. The merchant was so moved by the lyric that he gifted the poet with a bank note worth Rs.400 to buy clothes. And just like the good Samaritan, he assured the Sastriar that if the poet lacked anything, he should be informed, whereupon they would not be found wanting. Sastriar remained for a while in Ceylon preaching the Gospel with great effect in the surrounding towns and villages.

By 1808, when he was 34 years of age, he had composed 52 prices of verse. In 1810, he started working on the Jebamalai and continued to add to it till 1855. By 1814 that is at the age of 40 he had authored 80 books, both big and small. In 1813, a son Gnanasigamani was born to Vedanayagam. He was educated like his sister, Gnanadeepam. He taught Tamil to the priests in the Theological seminary. He wrote two books to refute Islam called “Messiah Magathuvam” (The Glory of the Messiah) and a (Dialogue between two Religions). Gnanasigamani traveled widely and conducted Kalakshepams. Like the herald, John the Baptist, he prepared the way for Sastriar’s team to continue the work.  They were well received and people contributed to their support.

Vedanayaga Sastriar was invited on one occasion to the court of the Travancore Raja and on another, by the Maharaja of Mysore. He preached the Gospel and was rewarded with gifts. So he become known as the “Suvisesha Kavirayar” (King among Evangelical Poets).

When Vedanayaga Sastriar was 55 years old, he lost his second wife also and later married Varodayammal, daughter of  Santhappa Pillai of Thanjavur. Rev. Brotherto solemnized the marriage. She was an educated woman and was of great assistance to Sastriar in his old age. When she fell grievously ill, Sastriar prayed to God to prolong her life and assured her that she would survive him. She, in course of time, had three children - Noah Ganandickam, Elia Devasigamani and a daughter Manonmani. Devasigamani helped his father with the Kalakshepams and sometimes preached on his own. Naoh Gnanadickam married Arulammal and had a number of daughters besides a son, Vedananadham. Vedanayaga Sastriar’s daughter Manonmani sang beautifully at her father’s discourses and would read the Bible aloud.  She married Masilamani Pillai when she was 24 and had a daughter, Vedasastram. In 1861, while she was teaching both English and Tamil at Nagapattiunam, she passed away. Elia Devasigamani assisted his father and composed lyrics. He was able to recite the entire Acts of the Apostles from memory.

In 1826, Bishop Heber visited Thanajavur, when about 1300 people assembled in St. Peter’s Church to listen to him. He purchased a copy of the Jebamalai and another of Sastrriar’s volume of hymns and sent them to British Museum in London. Elia Devasigamani Sastriar recollects that his father used the Jebamalai in his private as well as in family prayers. Hardly a day passed by when he did not use it.  The lyrics collected in the Jebamalai show Sastriar’s indebtedness to well known Tamil poets for their “imagery, emotion and prosodic features that he had appreciated”. The poet yearned to have the figure of the crucified Christ indelibly impressed on the tablet of his heart.

Vedanayaga Sastriar’s messge as portrayed in his compositions has a single major theme i.e. the gospel of Jesus Christ. He deeply convinced of the importance of evangelism and used his compositions to glorify the Triune God and propagate the God poetic forms which were familiar to the common people even while maintaining high literacy quality. Just as in the gospels when talking about Christ, it is mentioned, “The common people heard Him gladly”, so the Sastriar’s catchy tunes as well as his major compositions spoke to the heart of the people. Wherever he traveled he was welcomed and the people spent many hours listening to his musical presentations. Hence it would not be our place to call him a ‘Poet of the people’ (Makkal Kavigner).
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