Hindu Nationalists Try to Demonize St. Devasahayam

In the wake of the May canonization, fundamentalist networks are continuing their campaign of online defamation, as they have with other revered Christians.

Devotees of St. Devasahayam pray June 5 at the spot where the Indian saint is said to have knelt down and prayed before his execution, which has become a shrine.
Devotees of St. Devasahayam pray June 5 at the spot where the Indian saint is said to have knelt down and prayed before his execution, which has become a shrine. (photo: National Catholic Register / Anto Akkara)

When the Catholic Church conferred sainthood on popular Hindu convert lay martyr Devasahayam, it was unpalatable for Hindu fundamentalist networks that thrive on demonizing Christianity. 

With the mid-May canonization, they were upset that St. Devasahayam — son of a Hindu temple priest and trusted solider of a Hindu king — had led hundreds to Christ during the seven years he was Christian and many more after his martyrdom in 1752.

As the local Church in the southern state of Tamil Nadu rejoiced over the long-awaited canonization, secular national dailies like Indian Express published laudatory features

But this flurry of news headlines over the canonization of the convert prompted a leading Hindu nationalist portal, Bharata Bharati (“Mother India”), to publish a defamatory article against the canonization of the lay martyr, who was secretly shot dead at the age of 40 for professing his new faith.

The claims of the article, which branded St. Devasahayam a “thief and spy” who was deservedly executed for his crimes, are rooted in the “Travancore Manual” authored by Nagam Aiya in 1906 for the then-ruler of the Hindu kingdom of Travancore, which had begun with King Marthanda Varma, who had ordered Devasahayam’s execution.

Born in 1712 as a son of a Hindu temple priest, Neelakandan Pillai had been a trusted lieutenant of the Hindu king when he embraced the Christian faith in 1745 and became a martyr in 1752, as profiled by the Register.   

“This [allegation] is a baseless lie, initiated by Nagam Aiya,” Father John Kulandai, vice postulator for the canonization process for Devasahayam and one of the most knowledgeable authorities on the life of the lay martyr, told the Register June 30. 

Nagam Aiya, commissioned to write the history of Travancore by its contemporary king, stated that his book had one important duty, “to prove the praiseworthy tolerance of the native government from remote age.” Quoting Aiya himself, Father Kulandai noted this fact in his latest book, A Saint for Our Times: Martyr St. Devasahayam — a Comprehensive Historical Research. The book was released at the June 5 grand celebration and thanksgiving Mass near the saint’s martyrdom spot at Kattadimalai, attended by hundreds of thousands of people, including three dozen bishops.

“It is in this background that we should understand what Aiya says about the [cause] of the execution of Devasahayam,” Father Kulandai said. 

This concocted account, the priest added, is contradicted by G.T. Mackenzie, a British national living in the kingdom who had been asked by Aiya himself to write about its Christian history.

Mackenzie’s Christianity in Travancore, published in 1901, stated unequivocally that Devasahayam “was imprisoned because of his change of religion, and after three years of imprisonment he was shot in 1752 by the order of the Raja [King].”

Father Kulandai noted further that “even Hindu scholars and historians contradict Aiya’s contention.”

After the grand celebration of the canonization at St. Devasahayam’s martyrdom site of Kattadimalai, which generated major favorable coverage in the state of Kerala, the Bharata Bharati article was modified and published in Kerala’s mother tongue of Malayalam. Kerala is known to have a large Christian minority The article’s publication provoked immediate condemnations from local Church organizations, including the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council.

Earlier, when the Vatican announced Devasahayam’s canonization last November, another Hindu nationalist website called the “World Dialogue Center” had appealed to the Vatican to hold off on the canonization, on the basis of the same claims. And, in 2012, a different nationalist website called “Vijayvaani” (Messenger of Victory) had published a similar article, titled “Encashment of Virtuous Tamil Hindu Psyche: Sainthood of Devasahayam Pillai.” It was republished in 2022 by Bharata Bharati.


Anto-Mother Teresa Funeral
Mother Teresa's body is transported Sept. 13, 1997, in the gun carriage that had been used for Mahatma Gandhi's funeral. | Anto Akkara(Photo: National Catholic Register)

Attacks on Mother Teresa 

Bharata Bharati had carried a similarly calumnious article, titled “Tainted Teresa — Hypocrisy” when Mother Teresa was canonized in 2016. 

“Maligning the Christian community and its icons has been always part of the core strategy of the Hindu nationalists,” John Dayal, a Catholic activist and former journalist, told the Register from New Delhi.

“It was clear in the numerous canards they used against Mother Teresa. When the secular Indian society and the world hailed her as ‘saint of the gutters’ for serving the poorest and the dying, they claimed her motive was ‘conversion only,’” said Dayal, the former president of All India Catholic Union.

When Mother Teresa joined a protest of Dalit Christians in 1995, Hindu fundamentalists took out a march to the venue with placards with the words “wolf in sheep’s clothes.” And Hindu nationalists protested when India’s national government rushed the gun carriage used in 1948 for the funeral procession of Mahatma Gandhi, who is revered as India’s “Father of the Nation,” to Calcutta for the funeral of Mother Teresa on Sept. 13, 1997. They have also repeatedly demanded that the nation’s highest honor, Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India), which was conferred on Mother Teresa in 1980 after she was awarded with Nobel Peace Prize, be revoked. 

Furthermore, Dayal said, whenever Hindu nationalist anti-Christian violence erupts, as in the notorious burning alive of Australian Baptist missionary Graham Stuart Staines and his two young sons in 1999 and the orchestrated violence directed against Christians in Kandhamal in 2008, “they try to put the blame on the Christians.” 

Another example occurred last year following the death in custody of 84-year-old Jesuit social activist Father Stan Swarmy, who had been arrested following accusations of “terrorism.” In the wake of widespread international criticism, Hindu nationalist students networks responded with a protest campaign against a Catholic college’s plans to commemorate the late priest. 

On the positive side, Dayal said: “Though the denigrations go on endlessly, it has not yielded much benefit to the Hindu nationalists, as the minority Christian community has not responded with violent protests to the provocations.”

However, he warned, insufficient efforts to push back verbally “against the demonizing propaganda, due to the timidity of the Christian leadership, results in falsehoods being perpetrated as truth in the long run.”