Dr Rick Weiss

Seminar to explore impact of printing on religion

As the internet has changed the way religion is interpreted in recent times, another technology had a similar impact on religion in the 19th century – printing press. The press made religious literature easily accessible, and opened gateways to religious knowledge which untill then was the reserve of the learned.

These are some of the issues that the second New Zealand India Research Institute seminar by Dr Rick Weiss (pictured below) will try to explore. This seminar will be on the 19 April at 5pm in Room 101, 16 Kelburn Parade, Wellington, New Zealand.

Dr Rick Weiss is a senior lecturer at the School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies, Victoria University of Wellington.

Dr Rick Weiss

Dr Weiss will review the impact of the publication of Tiruvarutpa, a book of verses by the Hindu mystic Ramalinga Adigal in  1867. The book consolidated his place among Hindu saints, and the work served as a centre for his growing community.

At the time of publication, Ramalinga’s poems and teachings were enjoying increasing fame in Chennai and throughout the eastern regions of the Kaveri Delta.

His students had worked for years to publish his poems on a grand scale, says Dr Weiss. “They framed the work as an authoritative Hindu Saiva text. Their success in doing so was confirmed by the vitriolic attack on the work by Arumuga Navalar, a staunch advocate of Saiva ritual.”

In this seminar, Dr Weiss argues that print provided a new avenue for religious leaders and their followers to make claims for textual authority.

“As a technology new to religious communications in South Asia, print provided novel possibilities for such claims, especially for people like Ramalinga, who was without the backing of established institutions.”

Dr Weiss discusses this impact with The Global Indian magazine.

What was the exact impact of the printing technology on the religious beliefs in Colonial India? 

Dr Rick Weiss: The impact of print on Hinduism was significant. Print allowed for very cheap publications, of wide distribution, so it really increased the availability of religious works.

So, many people had greater access to religious writings. Of course, literacy was still low, but people would often share these published works through oral, public readings.

For example, Arumuga Navalar, when he published a version of Periya Puranam in simple, prose Tamil, wrote that literate people should read the work to those who couldn’t read. In Ramalinga’s case, publishing Tiruvarutpa allowed both for the wider circulation of his poems, but it was also printed in the very same way that the canonical works of the Tirumurai, such as Periya Puranam and Tevaram, were being published at the time.

In my seminar, I argue that Ramalinga and his followers, who were alienate from the major Shaiva institutional centres, were claiming an authority for his work that was equal to the Tevaram, all through the printing of Tiruvarutpa.

What was the counter-view (probably by Arumuga Navalar) that was challenged by the works of Ramalinga? 

Dr Rick Weiss: Ramalinga’s work challenged the orthodox Tamil Shaiva views held by those in the mathas, such as Arumuga Navalar. These views were highly caste-based and conservative.

Ramalinga’s views were radical for his time, because he claimed a direct connection to Shiva, even though he was not the head of any major institution. He was also critical of caste, and he had more flexible views about Shaiva authority, texts, etc.

What role did the British play, if at all?

Dr Rick Weiss: This is a very interesting question. Even though print technology spread in part through British/European influence, the British didn’t really play any role in these events.

Tamils bought printing presses and published their own works, independently of the British. The British at the time (1860s) were fairly open in their laws about Indian publishing, and they almost never cracked down on/censored Indian writings.

So, the British had perhaps a very indirect influence on these events, but for the most part, they played no role. This was purely the initiative and work of Ramalinga and his followers.


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