Indian Martyr Declared Saint by Vatican For Anti-Caste Activism

Pope Francis declared Devasahayam, also known as Lazarus, a saint on May 16, thus making him the first Indian layman to be canonized.

Devasahayam was born into an upper-caste Hindu family in 1712 in the south Indian town of Kanyakumari. He was baptized in 1745 in Travancore (modern-day Kerela), fought against caste discrimination, and advocated for social equality.

John Dayal, former president of the All India Catholic Union and current Secretary-General of the All India Christian Council, explains, “The Christian community in India is largely Dalit and Adivasi [Indigenous people]. The political ecology of the Christian church in India weighs heavily in their favor.”

Devasahayam, born Nilakandan Pillai, was a treasurer in the royal palace of King Marathanda Varmawhen he met a Dutch Naval commander who introduced him to Catholicism. The officer shared the story of Job from the Old Testament, which touched Pillai on a personal level as he, much like Job, was struggling at the time with a string of family tragedies. The story moved Devasahayam to convert to Christianity and take the name Lazarus which in Tamil translates to Devasahayam or “God has helped.”

Aside from his fight against casteism, his conversion alone was seen as an act of treason against the kingdom, which led to his imprisonment in 1749. He spent the remainder of his life there, where he was ultimately shot and killed in 1752.

Devasahayem was chosen for sainthood by the Vatican after a woman claimed her unborn child, who had been declared “medically dead,” started moving again after praying to Devasahatem in 2013.

Fifty thousand people from around the world attended the canonization mass. According to the most recent census data, Christians make up just over 2% of the Indian population.

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