Sunday, June 3, 2012


Hi Friends,

This post is about M.C.Alasinga Perumal, the man who played a huge role in Swami Vivekananda's visit to the West.

M.C.Alasinga Perumal was born in Chickmagalur in 1865 in an orthodox Vaishnavite family as the eldest of two brothers and a sister. His father, Chakravarthy Narasimhacharya, was employed with the local municipality. Alasinga Perumal had his elementary education at a local school. With his job being unable to sustain the family, Narasimhacharya left Chickmagalur in the 1870s and came to Madras, where he managed to get a job with the Customs Department with the help of a few contacts.

The family settled down in Triplicane near the residence of Yogi Parthasarathy, Alasinga’s maternal uncle. Alasinga continued his education at the Hindu High School and after completion, joined the Presidency College for his pre university course. It was around this time that his marriage was performed to Rangamma, a girl from an Iyengar family from Karnataka. Alasinga then entered the Madras Christian College for his graduation, where he caught the eye of William Miller, who was then the Principal of the college. Thanks to Miller, Alasinga got a scholarship, which helped him financially. He graduated with a B.A degree in Science in 1884. He then started pursuing the law course which he however discontinued due to family circumstances.

In 1885, leaving his family behind in Madras, Alasinga moved to Kumbakonam where he took up a job as a temporary science teacher at a school. He left Kumbakonam for Chidambaram in 1887, where he joined the Pachaiyappa’s High School as an assistant Master of Science. However, this stint too lasted only for a couple of years as he had to return to Madras in 1889 due to the death of his father, which left the family in need of support. On his return to Madras, he took up an opportunity to teach at the Pachaiyappa’s School in George Town. He was soon promoted to the post of Headmaster, a position he held almost till the end of his life. Just a year before his death, he was appointed as Professor of Physics at the Pachaiyappa’s College.

Alasinga Perumal was a patriot at heart. He was concerned by the many problems that were plaguing the motherland. The hoary past and heritage of the country was being forgotten with modern education taking shape. He started frequenting places like the Triplicane Literary Society and the Theosophical Society, where he and a group of friends discussed the various problems of the country and steps to stem the rot.

It was around this time that the news of the upcoming Parliament of World Religions reached Madras. Alasinga learnt of it through his uncle, Yogi Parthasarathy Iyengar who by virtue of his connections with the Hindu League of America and scholarly reputation had been invited to participate. Representatives from various communities except the Hindu community had been named. Alasinga and his friends saw the Parliament to be a good opportunity for the Hindus to represent their faith but the question of who would to travel to Chicago and represent Hinduism remained unanswered even after days of discussion. The answer came with the arrival of Swami Vivekananda in Madras in early 1893.

Alasinga Perumal and his friends went to meet Swami Vivekananda, who was then a guest of Manmathanath Bhattacharya, the First Indian Accountant General of Madras, at his residence at Santhome. They were deeply impressed with the Swamiji’s persona and were soon regular visitors to meet him. Swamiji’s introduction to the Madras public was at the Triplicane Literary Society, a place he was to later frequent and deliver many lectures. The Madras public were fascinated by this monk, who with his oratorical skills and command over various subjects drew huge crowds. Swamiji too was impressed by Alasinga Perumal, who shared his ideas and concerns about the motherland and was raring to doing something towards the rejuvenation of the country. Thus, Alasinga became a close confidant and disciple of Swami Vivekananda.

A thought then struck Alasinga that Swami Vivekananda could be sent to Chicago as the Hindu representative. On this idea being put forth before him, Swami Vivekananda readily agreed, having earlier been requested by various dignitaries such as the Maharaja of Mysore and the Raja of Ramnad to travel to the West and propagate the ideals of Hinduism. Soon, preparations started in full earnest for the travel of Swami Vivekananda to the West. A subscription committee was formed under the leadership of Alasinga to raise funds, which did not always come easily. Alasinga even had to resort to door to door begging at times to raise the money. Soon, a princely sum of Rs.500 was collected. However, this sum was redistributed as Swami Vivekananda had second thoughts about his participation in the Parliament, as he took as a bad omen the fact that the Raja of Ramnad had failed to pay up the money promised by him for the purpose. Alasinga was disheartened that his efforts had gone waste.

However, much to Alasinga’s joy, the whole idea was revived, as Swami Vivekananda, encouraged by the reception received from the people of Hyderabad during his visit there, showed interest in going ahead with the trip. The Nawab too offered a sum of Rs.1000 towards meeting the costs. Swamiji also had a vision of his Guru, Sri Ramakrishna, which he took as a divine command to make the journey. Alasinga then renewed his efforts to collect subscriptions and soon, nearly Rs.4000 was collected. He spared no efforts for the cause, even going as far as Mysore to meet with the Maharaja and getting contributions from him. Swami Vivekananda set sail to Boston from Bombay, where he arrived after a stay with the Raja of Khetri. Alasinga went to Bombay to send him off.

Throughout his stay in America, Swami Vivekananda wrote letters to Alasinga and his other close disciples, keeping them in touch with his activities. When he once wrote about running short of funds, Alasinga immediately borrowed Rs.1000 from a merchant, which along with his monthly salary and money raised from selling his wife’s gold ornaments, he sent by cable immediately.

What happened at the Parliament of World Religions is now a part of history. Swami Vivekananda became a hero and started drawing large crowds wherever he spoke. Many newspapers wrote about him and he was starting to become known to a larger audience. In the midst of all the good publicity was also some adverse publicity, mostly by the missionaries, who were taken aback by the tremendous response to Swamiji. The papers in India also seemed to give a lukewarm coverage to the whole event, thus sending Swami Vivekananda into despair. He wrote to Alasinga, exhorting him to convene a public meeting in Madras and pass a resolution expressing utmost satisfaction at his representation at the Parliament, and send the resolutions for publication to various newspapers in the USA. Alasinga convened the meeting on 28th April 1894 at the Pachaiyappa’s Hall. Present in the meeting were many dignitaries of Madras such as Rajah Sir Savalai Ramaswamy Mudaliar, Sir S.Subramania Iyer and Dewan Bahadur Raghunatha Rao. A resolution was passed, thanking Swami Vivekananda for the work he was doing. This event was widely covered in the press, with both The Hindu and The Mail publishing full page reports. Similar meetings were organised by Alasinga at various other places like Kumbakonam, Bangalore and Mysore. Swami Vivekananda expressed his utmost satisfaction at the work done by Alasinga and his friends and mentioned in a letter that he was only a figurehead and that all the work was done by the young men at Madras.

In 1894, Alasinga started the Young Men’s Hindu Association. His literary contribution started in 1895, when at the behest of Swami Vivekananda, he started the Brahmavadin, a journal dedicated to the Hindu religion. Assisting him in his efforts were fellow disciples of Swami Vivekananda such as Dr.M.C.Nanjunda Row and Venkataranga Rao. The first issue came out in September 1895 from the Brahmavadin Press, which had been setup at Broadway. Swami Vivekananda himself contributed articles regularly to the journal and also helped get overseas subscribers. The Brahmavadin Publishing Company was also established by Alasinga, through which he edited and published titles under the “Brahmavadin Series”. In July 1896, Alasinga was also instrumental in starting the “Prabuddha Bharata” or Awakened India, a journal that has been in uninterrupted publication ever since, making it the oldest magazine of its kind in the country.

Alasinga was actively involved in the various celebrations and meetings that were held across the city during the nine day stay of Swami Vivekananda on his return from the West. He kept in touch with the Swami even after his return to Calcutta, meeting him at various places and discussing plans for the two journals that were being published and also on the way forward. He also played an active role in the early years of the Madras Math that was established by Swami Ramakrishnananda in 1897.

The death of Swami Vivekananda, who passed away on the 4th of July 1902, left Alasinga in despair, who felt handicapped by the loss of his Guru. A condolence meeting was convened by him at the Hindu Theological High School. The next setback for Alasinga was the death of his wife in 1905, the lady who had been his pillar of strength through all the difficulties he had faced due to his public spiritedness. His family, which now consisted of 4 children and an aged mother, came to depend on him fully. Alasinga however carried on gamely, managing both his personal life and his association with the Ramakrishna Math.

But the years of selfless public work and service had taken a toll on his health. He was diagnosed with the cancer of the jaw, to which he succumbed to it on the 11th of May 1909. His death was mourned by thousands in Madras and elsewhere.

However, Brahmavadin continued to be published until 1914, when it was finally wound up. It was succeeded by the Vedanta Kesari, a magazine that has been in uninterrupted publication ever since. In a remarkable act of conservation, the Ramakrishna Math has digitised all the issues of Brahmavadin and the Vedanta Kesari (Up to 2009) and made them available for sale. In a way, it is an act perpetuating the memory of Alasinga, the man who played a vital part in Swami Vivekananda’s mission. A biography of Alasinga Perumal has also been recently released.

A slightly abridged version of this article was published in the latest issue of Madras Musings.

The man who made it possible: Vivekananda's Chicago visit