The Revival of Martyr Cults among
Schalk - Copyright Temenos 33 (1997),
The article was first published in the Journal Temenos edited
by Dr.Tore Ahlbäck (Temenos 33, 1997, 151-190) and is published here with the
permission of the author and Temenos. The article extracts passages from a forthcoming
book by Professor Schalk on the concept of martyrdom of the Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Ealam. He points out that by Ilavar he means those who agitate or fight for Tamil
(Ilam). For the historisation of the LTTE - see Schalk 1997a.
For LTTE's martyrdom as political resistance - see Schalk
1997b. For the woman fighters of the LTTE - see Schalk
1992 and Schalk 1994. Negative moral judgments about
the Tigers are given in The Broken Palmyra that is inspired by Gandhian, Buddhist and
Christian ethics of nonviolence and by feminist theories that promote gender
distinctions - see Hoole and Thiranagama 1990 . Professor
Schalk has written extensively on Tamil
related subjects and plans to publish a volume called Pauttamum Tamilum - Buddhism
"...What will be described below is the ideal
or idealised self consciousness of LTTE men and women about their struggle for cutantiram,
"independence", of the projected language nationstate called Tamililam. We
shall describe their concepts, i.e. what motivates them, and what at the same time
rationalises them to fight. To fight implies, of course, the option to kill and the
possibility to get killed in armed struggle. For cutantiram, individual life is
sacrificed. A famous saying from 1990 by Veluppillai Pirapakaran
is: "Having spilled sweat, having spilled blood, obtaining death with unbearable
sorrow, (after this there is) independence. Without independence (cutantiram) there is no
meaning in the life of man."...
Part I : Introduction | Sacrilisation of Politics by the LTTE |
Part II : The concept of martyrdom of the LTTE
| Devotio, the
ideal act of the tiyaki of the LTTE|
Part III : Great Heroes' Day | The celebration of heroism by
the Government and other former IIavar movements |
Part IV: The veneration of martyrs by the
LTTE | Summary | References
What will be described below is the ideal or idealised self consciousness of LTTE men
and women about their struggle for cutantiram, "independence", of the
projected language nationstate called Tamililam. We shall describe their concepts, i.e.
what motivates them, and what at the same time rationalises them to fight. To fight
implies, of course, the option to kill and the possibility to get killed in armed
struggle. For cutantiram, individual life is sacrificed. A famous saying
from 1990 by Veluppillai Pirapakaran is:
"Having spilled sweat, having spilled blood, obtaining death with unbearable
sorrow, (after this there is) independence. Without independence (cutantiram) there
is no meaning in the life of man."
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) advocate a Tamil nationalism that is
expressed by its leaders in religious terms referring to the cult of martyrs. The LTTE
selectively revives religious concepts relating to a martyr cult, and that is connected
with the aim to establish a separate state. The background to the revival of this martyr
cult is then the formation and fortifying in armed conflict of a new state.
Veluppillai Pirapakaran said in 1994, looking back
at his own intellectual development, that he developed a deep attachment to the Indian
Freedom struggle and martyrs like Subhash Chandra Bose, Bagat Singh and Balagengadhara
Tilak (Prabhakaran 1994). In Ilattamil areas, there are of course no British colonisers
now, but there are according to the LTTE, Sinhala colonisers who are homologised to the
British by the LTTE.
The LTTE is not a religious movement with political aspirations but a political
movement with religious aspirations as expressed in word and picture by the Office of
Great Heroes of the projected state called Tamililam.
Sacrilisation of Politics by the LTTE
Tamil politicians have used religious-Zionistic-terms to describe the commitment to the
creation of a Tamil nation. This use of religious terms is, of course, not uncommon in a
global perspective. Politicians have often talked about "sacrifices" to be made
for the nation. These religious terms should then not be squeezed too much; they are part
of a political rhetoric. In the case of the LTTE, however, we find a whole set of
technical religious terms, a kind of repertoire that has been created after systematic
search by members of the Office of Great Heroes of the LTTE. There is actually a special
office in a house in Yalppanam dedicated to the task of producing hero symbolism and
concepts. These are part of building up an ideological resistance and mobilisation -
alongside the building up of a military resistance.
The LTTE provides a vision of cutantiram, "independence", of a
projected state known as Tamililam, and that cutantiram is a "holy" aim,
the Zion of the LTTE. That vision is the very centre of the LTTE as a political movement
with religious aspirations. This word was part of the ideology of the Tamil movement under
Celvanayakam, who, standing in the JewishChristian tradition, was not averse to using
Zionistic terms. Celvanayakam himself was called by some admirers 'the Moses of the Tamils', Celvanayakam (S.J.V.
Chelvanayagam} lived in Ilam (Lanka) between 1898 and 1977 and led the Tami! movement from
The LTTE has further produced by an elaborate symbolism of death and resurrection, a
sacrificial commitment to the nation; there is a demand for "faith", a mysticism
of blood and sacrifice, a cult of heroes and martyrs, and an intimate communion of
brotherhood such as we find in mystery cults. There is also the establishment of a series
of "statesponsored" calendrical rituals, all related to martyrdom. The LTTE
has divided the year into the veneration of martyrs on five fixed different recurrent
There are two elaborate rituals in the life of a martyrtobe, his initiation
combined with an oath, and his "plantation". A LTTE martyr never dies. His body
is planted as seed to be reborn. "The LTTE does not bury its dead; it plants
them", to quote an LTTE leader. This "plantation" is a secret death ritual
similar to a mystery cult. Then there are the numberless commemoration rituals on the
occasion of a martyr's death.
So the life of the martyr and of civilians is marked along the road of life and annual
cycle. There is an LTTE ritual year related in totality to the concept of martyrdom. Life
in Yalppanam in space and time is a celebration of martyrs. They are said to be the
cornerstones of Tamilllam.
We know all these phenomena from martial organisations in world history along the
political scale from right to left. The LTTE deviates to a degree from these
organisations. The cult of the martyrs has become a main way of rationalising killing and
getting killed in a situation of state formation and state fortifying.
The LTTE recognises about 9,000 "martyrs" that died from 1982 onwards. More
than 400 of them are young women. What motivates the fighters to become
"martyrs", what rationalises both to kill and get killed, is their concept of
martyrdom. Very few Westerners know about this concept, which has developed mainly in the
1980s as a set of values that rationalises armed and unarmed struggle, and personal and
collective suffering in a specific historical situation of ethnic conflict and a specific
process of the state formation and state fortification of Tamililam. In this specific
situation specific religious idioms available in Tamil culture are used. We shall give
some of these idioms that are key concepts of the LTTE's political movement with religious
Some may object, last but not least members of the LTTE, to the statement that
the LTTE concept of martyrdom has any religious connotation.
Religious people usually make a sharp distinction between a religion and an ideology.
They say that their own religion stipulates an ultimate aim whilst others' ideologies only
stipulate aims that are relative to, subordinated to or even contradictory to this
ultimate aim. An ideology cannot stipulate an ultimate aim, and if it does so, it is
allegedly mistaken about the nature of this aim.
Sometimes religious people talk about primary and secondary ultimate aims, which,
however, is only a tolerant way of saying that there is only one primary ultimate aim.
These distinctions between religion and ideology rest on a religiousnormative basis and
are therefore not relevant as a descriptive statement about LTTE concepts.
Another religious distinction is that one's own religion is revealed but that other's
ideology is man made. Some make a religious distinction between religion and
quasireligion. They say that nationalism is a quasireligion because it does not
satisfy the needs of homo religiosus. Some say that religions stipulate an
otherworldly aim and ideologies a mundane aim. All these distinctions are religious
distinctions and therefore useless for describing and defining religious phenomena.
'`Religion" and "ideology", both try to rationalise stipulated aims and
eliminate experiences of contingency about these aims by relating the particular to the
universal. There is, however, nothing like a traditional religion to eliminate the
experience of contingency about projected aims to be achieved. Therefore, what we
conventionally call "ideologies" like "nationalism",
"humanism" or "Marxism" sometimes express themselves in religious
terms in an extreme situation of facing annihilation. They want to achieve what religion
achieves without necessarily being called a religion. They sacrilise their own ends. The
LTTE sacrilises its aim, cutantiram, by declaring it to be a punita ilatciyam,
The decisive difference between a new political movement with religious aspirations and
an established religion is of course, that the former has no tradition yet. It is
difficult to rationalise aims and eliminate experiences of contingency by reference to a
newcomer that has still to fight for recognition, i. e. that has no tradition. Sacrilisers
of politics are usually aware of this weakness and therefore emphasise imagined or real
roots in the past. They lean towards religion because religion has what they lack,
tradition. It is part of our concept of religion itself that it appeals to a long
tradition going back to a founder or original revelation that rationalises its norms. Even
so called "new religions" are anxious to emphasise real or imagined real
traditional roots. They usually play down that they are new on the religious stage.
A new political movement may make itself appear as a follower of an old tradition
introducing language purism, revving factual or mythical incidents in the past, etc. That
may become part of its climbing towards the status of a religion. Traditionalism is then a
characteristic part of a political movement with intensive contingency problems.
Traditionalism in the LTTE cult of martyrs is clearly visible and very intensive. This
traditionalism makes the LTTE a revivalist movement. It revives old elements, really old
or only fictitiously old, to which it associates its holy aim. The whole concept of cutantiram
revives the image of an ideal heroic past that was free from Sinhala colonisers and
The selfunderstanding of the LTTE, however, does not regard itself as even a
"civil" or "secular religion". It thus deviates radically from, for
example, Italian Fascism that saw itself as a religion and that polarised against
traditional religion. The LTTE presents itself as a secular movement, but not like the FP
or the TULF did, which defined themselves as the protector of all religions.
"Secular" means being "beyond religions, areligious, not nonreligious,
in a LTTE context. Its leaders deny that LTTE concepts of martyrdom are religious.
The LTTE leaders' apprehension of what a religion is, is naturally modelled by Saivism,
Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam. That gives them many arguments to point to
differences between their own concepts and the concepts of these religions. The most
obvious difference is the existence of prayer and the religious behaviour, mental concepts
and attitudes that are connected with prayer. All the religions surrounding the LTTE are
religions of prayer and of revelation. The LTTE emphasises not submission in prayer and
truth by revelation, but selfassertion and determination in armed struggle combined with
rational thinking, empirical studies and pragmatism.
The rejection by the LTTE not to have religious aspirations we interpret as a
politicalnormative statement about the religious policy of the LTTE, and not as a
descriptive statement about the nature of its concepts.
There is the insight of the LTTE that if it were to appear as a religion on the
religious scene, it would create dissent within the movement. Most of its members are
ardent Caivas or Christians who do not imply that they have to change religion in order to
achieve cutantiram. They reach it as Caivas and as Christians. The LTTE is not
involved in polemics with representatives of traditional religion. The LTTE does not claim
that traditional religions should be eliminated. The LTTE thus rejects the attribute of
being a religion because its selfunderstanding about a religion is too narrow, and
because of fundamentally political reasons. The LTTE does not want to create an internal
conflict with representatives of other religions by advocating a new religion.
So, the selfunderstanding of the LTTE is that it is beyond religion, not for and not
against religion, even though we, as outsiders, can see that LTTE concepts are de facto
heavily influenced by Hindu and Christian terms (see below). The LTTE leaders are not
historians of religions and are therefore unaware of this influence. Confronted with this
influence by a historian of religion, they play it down.
A way for the LTTE to demonstrate to the world that it is beyond religion is to
construct and organise an alternative set of rituals combined with concepts that deviate
from present religious rituals in Yalppanam. This alternative set of rituals is then
defended against allegations that it is religious. The LTTE has used this way of creating
an alternative set of rituals "beyond" religion. They are evaluated by the LTTE
not only as religiousneutral concepts, but also as traditional concepts (that the LTTE
revives). The revivalism of the LTTE is, as we can expect, traditionalistic. What else can
any revivalism be?
All revivalism has the same problem, that it is traditionalistic only, and not
traditional. It appears rightly as new to the surrounding and therefore has great
contingency problems This remark is, however, not the same as to state that religious
revivalism is not religious; the statement only identifies a problem concerning the
chances of survival of a revival movement. In order to survive, it must enforce
traditionalism to a maximum. That is what the LTTE did by creating a special office for
the propagation of heroic martyrdom.
The selfunderstanding of the LTTE is no reason for us as outsiders to accept
this selfunderstanding as a true description of its concepts. Religious people are very
often mistaken about the historical origins of their own religious concepts. So is the
We cannot accept that the LTTE is no religion just because it says that it is no
religion. What we say is this: LTTE concepts of martyrdom have mobilised many ways of
eliminating the experience of contingency about its stipulated sacred aim and its methods
to reach it. The LTTE has sacrilised politics to an extent that clearly deviates from
normal political rhetoric. It has taken the form and function of a religious cult of
martyrs. Again, the martyrs are the cornerstones of Tamililam, as one LTTE leader wrote in
1989. We shall also see that the LTTE in its formation of a religiously interested
political movement is heavily dependent on the language of traditional religions.
The most important step towards a religion was to stipulate an ultimate aim for
which many young men and women have given their lives. All members of the LTTE swear to
give their lives for this aim, that is cutantiram. Whether an aim is ultimate may
be questioned religiously and morally by religious or moral outsiders, but what finally
counts for the insider is what the insider stipulates. About 9,000 "insiders"
have de facto demonstrated that this stipulated aim to reach cutantiram was
ultimate to them.
Where there is an ultimate aim, there is religion. The point to identify here,
in order to classify the LTTE as a political movement with religious aspirations, is not
what this aim contains, but that it is ultimate. The student of comparative religion
throughout world history will discover many stipulated ultimate aims, i.e. he will find
many religions, and at the same time he will find that the common denominator is not the
contents of these aims, but the fact that they are stipulated as ultimate.
Stipulating ultimate aims contradicts the norms of tolerance in a
democraticpluralistic society because there can be only one ultimate aim. A person or
group with one ultimate aim will be contradicted and it creates conflict. Traditional
religions in a modern pluralistic society, under the pressure of having to live together
in state and society, have usually modified their concept of ultimacy by introducing
distinctions between "theory and praxis" or "private and public life"
or "long and short range perspective". In theory, in private life, and in a long
range perspective only, the aim is ultimate. In praxis, however, there is
"dialogue" and "understanding". In public life there is a liberal
legislation. In a short perspective all realise that "we have to live together".
It is, however, not possible for a religious person to say that he has no ultimate aim at
all, or that his religion's ultimate aim has become relative to all other religions in the
state, society and the world. There is no religion when there is no ultimate aim, be it in
theory, in private life or in a long range perspective only.
The LTTE society and state is, as we can expect, no democratic pluralistic society and
state; the LTTE society and state faces daily extinction, and in order to prevent this, it
has mobilised all available military strength and made all possible ideological efforts to
organise resistance. As Veluppillai Pirapakaran made clear to EROS in 1990, he cannot
afford dissidents. Dissidents are traitors, and traitors are executed in public. There is
no theory distinguished from praxis, there is no private political life distinguished from
public life and there is no long range perspective distinguished from a short time
perspective. The ultimate aim has to be established here and there, and now. The LTTE thus
follows the pattern of many resistance movements in the world. The stipulating of an
ultimate aim and implementing it beyond the distinctions `'theory and praxis* and
"public and private life* and "short and long range perspective" is linked
with the development of an organisational form of society that is totalitarian.
The methods to reach the holy aim are not ultimate, but relative. Cutantiram can
be reached by negotiation and by armed struggle.The LTTE is not selective and exclusive
about methods, and that is the point; it does not exclude armed struggle from the
beginning like the Gandhians. Nonviolence is not a holy principle, is not Truth itself
as Gandhi would say, but a strategy in the politicisation of the masses.
The LTTE has also practised nonviolent, but militant Gandhian methods, as fasting to
death, like in the case of the fighter TiLpan and the lady Pupati, who fasted to death in
1987 and 1988, respectively, opposing IPKF occupation. They are commemorated yearly on
26th September and 19th April, respectively, on their death day. The public and normative
interpretation of their fasting to death was, of course, that their act was Gandhian. This
also implied that they did not commit suicide, but that they were ``killed" by the
aggressor, in this case by the IPKF.
The LTTE also accepted negotiations with the IPKF in August 1987 (for a few days), with
the Sri Lankan Government between 1989-1990 and in 1994 from October to April 1995.
On the choice of methods, there is a famous saying by Veluppillai Pirapakaran when he
was confronted with the Indian military super power that urged him to surrender. He said,
severely pushed by the IPKE, on 4th August 1987 at Cutumalai Amman Kovil, Yalppanam:
"poritta vativankal maralam. anal ematu poratta ilatciyam marapovatillai"
The methods of war may change. But the aim of our war will not change.
Even today, many fighters in the LTTE know this famous quotation in Tamil by heart. If
anything can explain the LTTE victories in the battlefield, it is this
"Kautiliyan" principle of assimilation of different methods of strategies.
To understand the LTTE correctly is to understand this principle correctly. It means
that the LTTE could also start negotiations with the new Prime Minister (or President)
after the elections in August 1994, with Chandrika Kumaranatunga, because negotiations
might be more conducive to the realisation of the holy aim than warfare. It also implies
that a suspending for the time being of the holy aim and the acceptance of a federal
setup may be conducive for the realisation of the holy aim, that is never given up. The
introduction of the distinction between a short and long time perspective does not imply
the giving up of the long time perspective. That is understood by every religious person
who patiently awaits the Glory. The crucial moment comes, of course, when the LTTE in
negotiations, like the IRA, is requested to give up its holy aim permanently.
This introducing of a long time perspective is a development in the 1990s within the
leadership of the LTTE depending mainly on the pressure from the civil population in
Yalppanam, the exile Ilattamil community and foreign advisers to the LTTE. There is also
an insight that Tamililam will never be recognised by the international community. There
has been a long internal debate within the LTTE about its relations with the outside world
and especially with India. There are the fundamentalists who became marginalised at the
end of 1994, and the pragmatists who in 1995 went for the long time perspective of
establishing Tamililam in negotiations with the Sri Lankan Government. Failing, the
fundamentalists would take over again the pragmatists failed in 1995.
This flexible strategy by Veluppillai Pirapakaran reveals something important about the
LTTE, to focus on the aim only and then chose any method to reach this aim. For Gandhi,
however, nonviolence was not only a method; it was Truth itself, a holy principle that
could not be replaced by violence. The practice of nonviolence as a method was at the
same time a manifestation of the ultimate aim called Truth. Gandhi's point was exactly
this, to let the method itself anticipate the ultimate aim. The method itself already
expressed Truth and was at the same time on the way to Truth. So even if the LTTE uses the
Gandhian method of fasting to death, it is still not based on Gandhian thinking because
nonviolence in an LTTE context is relative to achieving the holy aim and can therefore
be substituted by violence at any moment.
The holy aim
Tamilllam does not yet exist, but it already has a national flag, the tiger flag; it
has not yet formalised a national anthem, but there is one tiger song that contains in its
first line the most frequent slogan of the Tigers printed on posters and in almost all
publications of the Tigers. It expresses "the holy aim". That is the
"identity" of the LTTE, its ultimate concern for its ultimate aim:
Pulikalin takam, Tamili1attayakam!
The task (or thirst) of the Tigers (is to achieve) Motherland Tamililam
Having reached cutantiram, the Tamils have reached liberation from the
colonisation of the Sinhalese, according to LTTE concepts. This is a negative way of
formulating something positive, like the vanishing of pain that can give a very positive
experience called "relief". Another negated term with a positive connotation is,
of course, "independence", but what exactly is the positive value that is
created having reached this stage? What is the relief in the mind of the LTTE? What will a
free Tamililam be like? On this score, we do not get much concrete information in terms of
political science. It is like asking Jews what Zion is like. One will get answers dressed
in mythological terms. It is the same with the LTTE. It says that tarumam will
When attempts were made at different times to form a Jewish nationstate as a
theocracy, the martyrs who died for the preservation of this nation usually referred to
two values that constitute Israel. They are eusebeia and nomos that both refer to
what we normally call spiritual values. What corresponds to these terms in the mind of
Veluppillai Pirapakaran? He used one term that is pregnant with meaning and is ambiguous
as it can be used both as a secular and a religious term. He said that on the side of
fighting Tamils against the Sinhalese is tarumam (Sanskrit dharma). We could
translate that in a secular way here by `'(social) justice". In a future Tamililam tarumam
will prevail, he says. As a secular term it refers to a special relation of equality
to Jayawardhanapura and to a relation of equality within Tamililam between age, sex and
From supporters of reaching cutantiram we often hear that they do not want peace
alone; they want "peace with justice". This phrase gets its strength, of course,
from a deeply felt experience of injustice that had been meted out to the Tamils. In this
context, one should pay attention to the women fighters of the LTTE, who have developed a
detailed programme of social reform for women. Their concept of cutantiram is
indeed not vague and mythical (see Schalk 1994). The ultimate value, the punita
ilactiyam, "holy aim", as the LTTE says, is cutantiram, "independence
(from Sinhala colonialism)", that will lead to the creation of tarumam, but
achieving this ultimate aim is very costly.
Therefore, being constantly balanced against and questioned by other aims, for example,
by a Unitarian Constitution, Federalism, a Provincial Council system, devolution of powers
of different degrees, submission to, cooperation and reconciliation with the enemy for
peace, the punita ilactiyam is experienced as being contingent, even within
the ranks of the LTTE. The LTTE thinkers have therefore constantly to fight this
experience of contingency, and they do it with reference to tradition. The created
selfimage of the LTTE is that it is a continuation of traditional martial values in
Tamil culture. "Martial" and its implications is made part of an essential
definition of Tamil culture, and the LTTE is said to be the latest,contemporary and maybe
even "highest", expression of that tradition. What allegedly has been and what
is, should always be.
Some scholars have unfortunately taken this selfimage of the LTTE as a description of
the historical roots of the LTTE. Not that the LTTE consciously has put up an intellectual
trap for them - the LTTE ideologists usually believe what they say - but these scholars
have not been able to distinguish between the self consciousness of a movement about its
history and its real history. These scholars have then become (un)intentional supporters
of the image building of the LTTE as traditional.
Another way to eliminate the experience of contingency is to homologise its own
struggle to three very prestigious other historical struggles in this case of the LTTE to
1. the freedom struggle of the Indians against British colonialism, especially the
struggle of the Indian National Army led by Subhas Chandra Bose and his sacrificial
2. the struggle on Kuruksetra involving the saintly pantheon of the Mahabharata or
3. the "eternal" struggle between the Aryan and Dravidian "races".
These are the three ideal models for the struggle of freedom fighters within the LTTE.
Veluppillai Pirapakaran frequently uses images from 1 and 2; Kittu, his administrator in
Yalppanam till 1987, was strongly influenced by 3.
Instead of a prestigious struggle, a prestigious person may function as the focal point
through which the experience of contingency can be reduced. This prestigious person, the
ideal fighter, is in the eyes of members of the LTTE Veluppillai Pirapakaran.
When we said above that the LTTE is a political movement with religious aspirations, we
had in mind the fact that the LTTE, like any religion, struggles daily to eliminate the
experience of contingency; in the case of the LTTE, it has to counteract the experience of
contingency about the projected aim cutantiram and the methods to reach it. The
dimensions and proportions this ideological fight has taken are impressive with regard to
quantity. Being daily confronted with the threat of elimination by Government forces and
by dissolution from within, the LTTE has built up an ideological massive fortress to
defend its ultimate aim. This fortress is the concept of martyrdom.