By Frances Bulathsinghala/South Asian Monitor
It is during the busy Christmas week that I boarded the night bus to Jaffna and taken to a world away from the glitter and glamour of seasonal festivities in the Colombo, which, depending on your temperament, could be just too much on your nerves.
Jaffna, that historic ancient Tamil kingdom in Sri Lanka’s north, is dotted with Hindu temples and is known for a resilient people. For 30 years, it was only known for a bloody war which cost hundreds of lives as the Tamil Tiger rebels fought the military with the aim of setting up a separate North-Eastern state.
In the mayhem that followed from the 1980s to 2009 when the war ended, what was forgotten was that Jaffna was a seat of spirituality and the home to many sages and seers. Many wandering mystics were found, especially in Nallur, a suburb of Jaffna town, which was the capital of the Tamil kings of the district and famed for the majestic Nallur temple, the most important shrine dedicated to Karthikeya, also known as Murugan. Areas such as Colombothurai and Velvettithurai, besides several others, were also known for Hindu and sufiascetics and mystics who did not identify with any religious doctrine as such but sought to be one with the universe. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Jaffna was known to provide spiritual solace to many who sought it, whether from the south of Sri Lanka or from foreign lands.
It is this vanished Jaffna that I wished to resurrect as I packed my bag and left behind the festive madness of Christmas, which sadly does not resonate with the spiritual significance of a great sage being born in utter poverty in a manger. Reaching Jaffna at 5 am and after a quick breakfast, my inquiries with a few Christian priests revealed that Jaffna was home to many Hindu mystics and sufi fakirs and that many public spaces in the district, such as the bases of large trees and in front of places of worship, would be occupied by them. There were several ashrams where the ascetics lived.
I am keen to find some living proof of Jaffna’s mystique past. I am told that the ashram of the famed sage, Yogaswami, is not very far away. Although Yogaswami passed away in 1964, most people in Jaffna have heard of him. Yogaswami transcended all religious faiths. He was educated in a well-known Christian school in Jaffna and that he was well versed with the wisdom of the gospels of the Bible and the Holy Quran and that he would name Allah during Muslim festivals and of the sufis. Legend has it that during monsoons, wandering mystics who had no home of their own but the whole of the Jaffna at their disposal, would laugh and walk about in the roads and alleys, even in the downpour, arm in arm. There were many such sages – Kadaiyit Samiyaar, Varidapappara Desiyar and Thuththukudi Samiyar.
These men preached peace. It is not hard on the imagination because the Jaffna of today retains the simplicity and charm as opposed to Colombo’s gigantic buildings that have come in the name of ‘development.’ Jaffna town’s industrious people have rebuilt their homes that were destroyed in the war. Bicycles and motorcyles ply the roads, as do cattle which are in no hurry to make way for humans.
The smaller roads in Jaffna’s suburbs are a haven of tranquility and greenery, and the welcoming smiles of the people when they recognize a ‘non-Jaffna person’ warms one’s heart. My objective, however, is Yogaswami’s ashram which is located on K K S Road, 5 kms outside of Jaffna town.
The Yogaswami ashram, also known as Sivathondam, is a modest but well-kept building. From its interior emerges a young man with sacred ash smeared on his forehead and dressed in a white verti of the kind associated with Hindu temples. His name is Muralitharan, he informs, and his father runs a similar ashram in eastern Batticaloa devoted Yogaswami. Muralitharan hands out a few books on the sage, including one that contains Yogaswami’s songs and preachings.
Muralitharan explains that there have been several other disciples of Yogaswami, such as Cellathurai Swami, the immediate successor, who took over as resident teacher at the Jaffna and Batticaloa ashrams. There was also Santhaswamy, (birth name James Ramsbotham), the son of Lord Soulbury, the last British Governor General of Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon. A Christian by birth, Santhaswamy had written ‘Recapitulation of the Lord’s Prayer, with deep reflection.
As we speak, a doctor from a Jaffna hospital walks in for his daily meditation and I am invited by Muralitharan to take a look at the ashram which includes large photographs of an aged Yoyaswami with his silver hair tied in a knot and bowed down in a posture of meditation.
After leafing through the pages of a few of the books that Muralitharan gave me, I go into the room where the things Yogaswami used are kept. More smiles welcome me. Later, when I join Muralitharan in the pristine surroundings, he serves some soya coffee. Being a Christian and a Sinhalese, I am happy that no one at the ashram is interested in the religion, caste or creed of others. The ashram is in essence one of the Hindu tradition and on the lines of Saivism.
Sipping coffee, I first read through a booklet by Susunaga Weeraperuma, by birth a Sinhalese and Buddhist, and an eminent writer of spirituality-related subjects, on how as a young man from Colombo who then could not even afford the train fare to Jaffna, he was miraculously accorded the secret wish of his heart to meet Yogaswami.
The story goes that he was accosted by an aged Tamil gentleman from Jaffna one evening in a Colombo suburb while ruminating on some universal truths, sitting on a beachside rock. The old man told him that he must come to Jaffna and that he will fund his trip. Subsequntley, a Sinhalese Buddhist man who did not have any friends or relatives in Tamil-majority Jaffna, ended up staying there for over a month. Finally, when his host decided it was time to meet Yogaswami, the sage greeted Susunaga with a broom, declaring, “I am doing a coolie’s job,” he said, asking, “why have you come to see a coolie?” An hour or so later after serving his guests breakfast, the sage lapsed into a state of meditation but soon after said: “Look at those trees. They are meditating. Meditation is silence. If you realize that you really know nothing, then you would be truly meditating. Such truthfulness is the right soil for silence. Silence is meditation.”
A large book titled ‘Yogaswami: Life and Spiritual Guidance’ contains accounts of people of many faiths, who recall their association with the sage. One of the personages who was a devotee of Yogaswami was the famous Muslim Supreme Court judge and solicitor general of Ceylon, M T Akbar who was known to have practiced the humane teachings of Islam to perfection. He would retire to his chambers to seek forgiveness of Allah whenever he passed the death sentence.
The meditation hall upstairs is spacious, kept meticulously clean and has the pleasing scent of incense. Not much is known about Yogaswami’s younger days but it is said that when his mother died he refused to follow in the footsteps of his father who was a businessman in the hilly region of Maskeliya in the central province. In his early youth he worked as a storekeeper under a British boss and soon left this to ‘become nothing.’ His guru is said to be another Jaffna ascetic known as Chellapah Swami, who was a homeless, wandering man. Soon young Yogaswami decided that he would follow in the footsteps of this sage and was reportedly made to do rigorous penance or tapas, probably to test the young devotee’s fortitude.
For much of his life, the open skies and the benevolence of trees were Yogaswami’s shelter. It is said that he came to occupy a small vacant hut at the insistence of a compassionate old woman and that is where his first devotees gathered. His various so-called miracles, some absolutely astounding, are recorded in the books written on him. Significantly, among Yogaswami’s last words before he passed away was a prediction of the tragedy that was to occur in Jaffna in the years that followed from the 1980s to 2009, where he saw ‘temples crashing to the ground.’