A self-made saint

At the age of 51, 19th-century South Indian poet-mystic Ramalinga Adigal locked himself in a room and never emerged. His body was never found.

Dr Rick Weiss, Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies, is writing a book on this popular Tamil spiritual figure with funding from a Marsden grant. He was attracted by Ramalinga’s purported magical powers, his attempts to become a modern-day saint and his ideas, which were radical for the time.

“Ramalinga engaged in the practice of feeding the poor and was vigorously anti-caste—innovations which are commonplace in Tamil culture today, but were controversial then,” he says.

Rick is also interested in examining Ramalinga’s work in the broader context of religious change in 19th-century India, when colonialism and Christianity were influencing religious culture.

“Ramalinga was a middle-caste Hindu who was an outsider to dominant institutions of the day. He didn’t speak English and, as far as I can tell, didn’t have contact with Christian missionaries, yet he picked up the Christian idea of philanthropy—setting up houses to feed the poor, which wasn’t usual Hindu practice.”

Ramalinga’s works are largely unstudied by Western scholars says Rick, because his writing is in Tamil, a South Indian language, and little has been translated into English. However, Rick is able to read the texts in their original format, having studied Tamil for four years in the United States for his PhD.

Rick’s research draws on a large volume of Ramalinga’s poems, mostly devotional verses to the God Shiva, as well as letters to his devotees, other prose and the often inflammatory responses from conservative Hindu leaders to his writing.

“Ramalinga was literate and used print technology to challenge the establishedauthority,” says Rick.

“These days he has become an ideal figure for society to revere—and the Tamil State Government recently created a day in his honour.”