MUMBAI, India – As India prepares to welcome its newest saint, a controversy over his name and its relationship with the Hindu caste system has come to the fore.
A Vatican decree this weekend announced a miracle had been approved for Blessed Devasahayam, clearing the way for his canonization.
However, when Devasahayam was declared a Blessed in 2012, the name used was Devasahayam Pillai.
The discrepancy is due to protests that Devasahayam allegedly never used Pillai – which signified his caste – after his conversion from Hinduism in 1745.
Nilakandan Pillai was born in 1712 in what is now the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, in the south of the Indian subcontinent. When he was baptized, he took the name “Lazarus” – Devasahayam in the local Tamil language.
After his conversion, Devasahayam suffered severe harassment and persecution – including beatings and imprisonment – until he was finally shot and killed in 1752. His body is now at Saint Francis Xavier Cathedral in the Diocese of Kottar.
The issue over his name has been simmering for years, and 2017 two former Indian civil servants wrote to Cardinal Angelo Amato – then the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints – to urge him to drop the Pillai name.
“India’s Constitution and laws are against the caste system and there is a public revulsion against anyone being referred to by his or her caste name. Only hardcore casteists, which some church leaders are, promote caste to suit their own divisive agenda. In the event, adding caste to the name of the saint of the Catholic Church, will be demeaning to the Saint as well as the Church,” wrote M.G. Devasahayam and S. Devaraj, according to The Hindu newspaper.
The Vatican gave no explanation of why Devasahayam was changed on the latest decree, nor has the Indian bishop’s conference officially commented on the issue.
Father Z. Devasagaya Raj, the former secretary of the office for Dalits and Backward Castes at the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, told Crux he was “happy that Devasahayam is declared as a saint.”
“He is the layperson from the Hindu religion converted to Christianity who gave his life for Christ,” the priest said. Once declared a saint he belongs to the Universal church, not to any region or language or caste,” the priest said.
Although most literature refers to “Blessed Devasahayam Pillai,” Devasagaya explained that Pillai doesn’t function like a surname – an assumption made by many in other parts of the world – but is used to identify caste.
“I am sorry that some groups claim him as their own by adding caste tag to his name. The Vatican purposely avoided the caste name, which is a good sign,” he said.
The priest told Crux that in the “Indian context” the use of a caste name would mean the future saint would be “alienated by others.”
The change in Devasahayam’s designation comes during a surge in Hindu nationalist sentiment in India, exemplified by the success of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which is affiliated with the Hindu nationalist organization, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
“We thank God for the new saint who is an example to bear witness during persecution which is also going on in the present time,” Devasagaya said.
The priest noted that “not all caste people” are complaining about the omission of the Pillai designation: “Only some people of the Pillai caste.”
“Their argument is that he was known as Devasahayam Pillai,” he explained. “But though Teresa was known as Mother Teresa, the Vatican declared her as Teresa of Kolkata.”
He said from now on, Church officials and the media should avoid using the name Pillai.
“In the 18th century, the Indian Church made the mistake of tolerating the caste system rather than opposing it,” Devasagaya said.
“That is why it did not attract many people to Christianity. It is high time that we go for a new model of Church in India where the caste and its practices should be seen as an aversion,” he continued.
“The sainthood of Devasahayam should be the starting point to do so.”
Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.