Devasahayam Pillai: Church defames Hindu raja, must have its ‘persecuted’ saint – Madhuparna Das

Devasahayam Pillai

Madhuparna Das“The stories popularised by the Church regarding the conversion and end of the mythical hero Devasahayam Pillai, through internet, print, and visual media are abusive to the noble Hindu tradition of the land,” says Prof. C.I. Issac – Madhuparna Das

The 18th century Catholic convert and anti-caste crusader Devasahayam Pillai, who became the first Indian layman to be elevated to sainthood by the Vatican in May, was killed not because of his switch from Hinduism to Christianity but because he committed “high treason” and other offences. Or so members of the titular royal family of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore have claimed in a 5 June letter to Pope Francis.

The dominant narrative is that Devasahayam or Lazarus, who was a courtier known as Neelakanta Pillai before his conversion, was persecuted and shot dead for religious reasons under the orders of Maharaja Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma, who ruled the southern kingdom of Travancore—which stretched from present-day Kochi in Kerala to Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu—from 1729 to 1758.

However, in a letter to the Pope, representatives of the family—Gouri Parvathi Bayi and Gouri Lakshmi Bayi—have challenged this story, expressing their “anguish” over the “sustained campaign against our ancestor … in the context of Devasahayam Pillai’s canonisation”.

Speaking exclusively to The Print, Gouri Lakshmi Bayi said that the family had “no problem” with Devasahayam being granted sainthood, but objected to the characterisation of Maharaja Marthanda Varma.

“We in the letter clarified certain false narratives against our ancestors,” Lakshmi Bayi said. “Devasahayam was punished for various reasons, and not for conversion. We have historical documents and evidence to prove this. In fact, a meeting was held by the historic forum yesterday in Thiruvananthapuram and they also said many things against Devasahayam and his conduct. We have nothing to say about the process or the decision … we just do not want our ancestors to be defamed.”

Lakshmi Bayi added that 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 claimed.

Meanwhile, there are also rumblings of discontent in certain Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-linked bodies about the portrayal of Hindu kings. For instance, R. Sanjayan, director of the Bharatheeya Vichara Kendram, a Kerala-based socio-political think tank backed by the RSS, told The Print that characterising the Hindu rulers of Travancore as intolerant was “an attack on the civilisational ethos of the country”.

Devasahayam was cleared for sainthood in February 2020 and canonised on 15 May.

Conflicting narratives

In their letter, which The Print has accessed, the erstwhile royal family have sought the Pope’s intervention to “set the record straight” about Devasahayam and the “negative inferences against our ancestors”.

“The narrative that Neelakanta Pillai alias Devasahayam Pillai was executed because of his conversion into Christianity is absolutely baseless,” the family wrote in the letter.

write-up in Vatican News, the Holy See’s media portal, describes Devasahayam as an “Indian martyr” whose conversion did not sit well with “the heads of his native religion”.

So incensed were the rulers, the story goes, that they not only removed him from his post in the royal administration, but brought “false charges of treason and espionage” against him. “He was imprisoned and subjected to harsh persecution. A Catholic for only seven years, he was shot dead in the Aralvaimozhy forest on January 14, 1752,” the write-up claims.

The Travancore family’s letter to the Pope puts forth a different tale, claiming that Devasahayam was punished for “high treason”.

“His association with the enemies of Travancore like the Dutch and disloyalty to the crown could never have been condoned. Against Devasahayam, there were other allegations of serious nature, which we are intentionally avoiding,” the family wrote in the letter.

Contesting the then Maharaja’s portrayal as “bigoted”, the letter elucidates on his and other rulers’ “generosity” to Christians.

“Though [Maharaja Marthanda Varma] and his successors ruled Travancore as vassals of the deity [Sree Padmanabha Swamy], they never discriminated against their subjects belonging to other religions. Christians were indeed beneficiaries of their generosity,” the letter said.

While Marthanda Varma gave “tax-free lands” to the Varapuzha Church, his immediate successor, Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma, “met the expenses of building the Udayagiri Church at the request of De Lannoy and granted a salary of one hundred fanams to the vicar.”

Eustachius De Lannoy, mentioned in the letter, was a Dutch naval officer who went on to serve as the commander of the Travancore army. It is believed that Devasahayam Pillai embraced Christianity after being influenced by the Dutchman.

Further, the letter claimed that more than one Pope had been impressed by Travancore’s rulers. Pope Clement XIV, in 1774, had thanked the Maharaja “for his kindness towards the members of his Church resident in Travancore”, while Benedict XV, who was pope from 1914 to 1922, had lauded the then ruler’s “great equity and benevolence” towards the Catholics of Travancore, the letter said.

“In the name of fairness and historical justice, we are sure that suitable papal action will ensue,” the letter said, vis-à-vis the narrative about Devasahayam.

The proposal for Devasahayam’s sainthood was sent by the Kottar Diocese, the Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council, and the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India.

Speaking to The Print, Fr. Jervis D’Souza, deputy secretary general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) said, “We have checked with the Kottar Diocese and TN Bishop’s Council. Not us, and none of these organisations, are aware of such a letter to the Pope.  o we will not be able to comment on this now.”

The Print e-mailed the Pope’s office seeking a comment on the controversy, but no reply had been received by the time this report was published.

‘Maligning campaign against Hindu kings’

The dominant narrative about Devasahayam is part of a wider campaign to smear the reputation of Hindu kings, according to some RSS-linked bodies.

“The maligning campaign against the Hindu kings started in 2014. They (missionaries) have been telling the people that the Hindu kings of Kerala were intolerant and they killed their officials for converting to Christianity. This is a false allegation that they have been continuing without any historical evidence or documents,” alleged R. Sanjayan, director of the Kerala-based RSS-affiliated think-tank Bharatheeya Vichara Kendram.

Speaking to The Print, C.I. Issac, a member of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), also alleged that the “managers of the beatification of the mythical hero Devasahayam” were deliberately “popularising” stories to “defame the Hindu society of Travancore, particularly the Brahmins and Nairs.”

Stressing that he was not against Devasahayam’s elevation to sainthood, Issac said that the objection was to the Church’s “stories”.

“The stories popularised by the Church regarding the conversion and end of the mythical hero through internet, print, and visual media are abusive to the noble Hindu tradition of the land.” Issac reiterated that he, despite being a Christian himself, condemned “malicious” attempts to paint the royal family in a poor light. – The Print, 6 July 2022

Madhuparna Das is a senior assistant editor at The Print. 

Commander of Dutch forces De Lannoy surrenders to Raja Marthanda Varma at Colachel