Thursday, July 26, 2012

Pre-Colonial Sinhala Buddhist Consciousness - Fact or Fiction?

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Is religious rivalry in Sri Lanka a modern thing begotten and sustained by another modern thing; the Sinhala Buddhist consciousness? Or is it an old thing, which owes its genesis to something deeper and older? The latter of course. The former is a 1980s 90s delusion of a particular Ism; Post-orientalism. This school of thought, which traces the genesis of Sinhala Buddhist consciousness to the colonial encounter, has been thoroughly licked. Usually in journalese, one can only say smugly ‘that theory is now totally debunked’. Space issues and complexity usually forbid anything else. But in this case, the debunking has been so data rich that one itches to demonstrate.

The reason rivalry and anti-Other discourse get spotlighted so much in discussions on Sinhala Buddhist consciousness is because they are strong and conclusive evidence of a ‘We-ness’ standing out in a sea of ‘Otherness’. The Buddhistness of the pre-colonial Sinhalese, the post-orientalists have claimed, failed to develop into a distinct brand. A brand’s characteristic pre-occupation with maintaining a distinct identity that sets it apart from other brands, they say, was conspicuously absent. The pre-colonial Buddhism of the Sinhalese, insist the post-orientalists, did not maintain sharply defined boundaries (policed by strict brand custodians with false-belief detectors), between itself and say Saivism.

There indeed was an unusual degree of tolerance. Buddhism has borrowed from and incorporated other belief systems and Hindu deities. Siva and Visnu and an extensive Company of minor gods share venerated space within Buddhist temples. At times, due to Hindu influences, even the way Buddhism was practiced by the Sinhalese was changed in essence, not just in trimmings and trappings. Hindu ritual occupied pride of place in medieval royal courts, Brahmin ‘purohitas’ galore and kings dispensed multi-religious patronage.

The defining failing of post-orientalism is in interpreting all this to be proof of an absence of a Sinhala Buddhist consciousness. To them, the proof of a consciousness lies in sharp Othering and unremitting rivalry. Such a love-fest as the above could only have existed because there was no Sinhala Buddhist consciousness, no such brand as ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ to sustain rivalry.

Post-orientalists have been informed by numerous scholars that if only they’d bother to look, Sinhala Buddhism “often appears to be at once conservative and mutable, defensive and tolerant”-(Alan Strathern:2007) and that “sometimes new religious forms were attacked outright and sometimes they retained an integrity that would tug Sinhalese religiosity in new directions”- (Strathern:2007); that far from being evidence of no consciousness, these are the defining features of this particular consciousness; that far from indicating absence of a brand, these comprise important brand attributes. Post-orientalists have not been able to take this on board because multi-layered reasoning is not their thing.

Into this sea of fuzzy logic, other scholars have sailed with plenty of evidence of rivalry and sharp Othering. ‘They want rivalry? We will give them rivalry’ is the spirit that conclusively broke the back of post orientalism. Rivalry that has its wellspring in one major colonial encounter (with the Colas) in the late Anuradhapura period (latter half of the first millennium) and flows like a river across the centuries (carrying Saivism as its main flotsam) until it comes to the second major colonial encounter (with the western powers) and gets its second cargo of flotsam (Christianity) not as an original burden but strangely fused with the first burden.

Michael Roberts: 2004 informs us “ should recall that anti-Saivite expressions had entered a range of Sinhala texts intermittently from the late Anuradhapura period onwards (See Sahassavattuppakarana, Saddharmakaraya and Rasavahini …Also Culavamsa…This list is not exhaustive.)” It was Charles Hallisey: 1988 (we are told by Strathern: 2006) who first highlighted the role of anti-Saivite and anti-Brahmanical discourse way back into the first millennium.

Roberts: 2004; “In the folksy poetry of the Budugunalankaraya the god Siva is even presented as “he … who wears a leather garment around his loins, he who holds the maid Uma over half his body, … [and] who burnt Kama’s body to ash.” In depicting the polluted and libidinous character of Saivism, such expressions were designed to render the religion repulsive to Buddhist listeners and readers”. Strathern: 2007 talks more about pre- colonial Sinhala Buddhist boundary erection against its ideological Other;
“Hierarchs wrote denunciations of the insidious influence of bhakti or ridiculed the behavior of Saivite ascetics, notably in the fifteenth-century texts Saddharmalamkaraya, Saddharmaratnavaliya, and Budugunalamkaraya.

The latter, written c. 1470, reveals a world of religious competition between opposing Saivites, Vaisnavas, devotees of Agni, Buddhists and Jains. The great educational centres- the pirivenas –that flourished in Parakramabahu VI’s reign would have prepared their students for inter-religious debate through the comparative study of Brahmanic texts. (We know also that the Brahmajala Sutta, which discusses a wide range of metaphysical positions as a list of 62 false beliefs, was taught at the Karagala monastery of the vanavasi sect in Parakramabahu VI’s time,…) … We can say then that Sinhala Buddhists could have recourse to something like a conception of heresy, if by that we mean a conception of false and even dangerous doctrines that require vigorous denunciation. The suggestion that it was not until the Christian challenges of the nineteenth century that that Buddhism was configured as a ‘religion’ (or ‘a deployable ideological entity’) can therefore mask a long and vibrant history of theological opposition.”
In a sense, it’s on ground primed by R.F. Young and G.S.B. Senanayaka in 1998 that Roberts and Strathern are playing. It was their work ‘The Carpenter-Heretic. A Collection of Buddhist Stories about Christianity from 18th Century Sri Lanka’ ’that irrevocably undermined the assertion, that the kind of Sinhala Buddhist consciousness required to sustain religious rivalry did not arrive until the modern era. These texts of heresy were inscribed in palm leaf in 1762 and emerged from a background of non-textualized lay Buddhism. They inspired Young and Senanayake to come up with their fascinating theory (what I’d like to call the ‘fused flotsam in the river of rivalry theory’). The theology of these texts fuses and merges Christianity and Saivism together, or assimilates Christianity to long-standing tropes defaming and demonizing Saivism. It’s common in these stories for the same characters to crop up in different contexts under different names without losing their identities. One such character is Isvara or Siva who is presented as the fount of all evil. But Isvara also appears as Ispittu or the Holy Spirit. The Christian God and the Saivite god were thus merged. (Roberts: 2004 and Strathern: 2006). In other words, Christianity did not dig this particular trench in this particular ground, merely stepped into a trench already dug.

Even without all this, there were clues that could have alerted the post-orientalists to the possible unsoundness of their theory on sacred space and false belief as modern concepts. Both concepts; mithyadrushti (false belief) as well as Lanka as a sacred space for Buddhism (dhammadeepa) possess wide and ancient currency in Lankan communiqu├ęs. There is that striking and famous passage in Pujavaliya, written in the 13th century in a spirit of resurgence and hope after Kalinga Magha’s ravages and which neatly crossed the written- oral divide by being a galloping good read in simple Sinhala (Personal experience. Read it and Saddharmaratnavaliya at 15. A good many of the stories have a delicious earthy sexuality) and passing easily into the repertoire of the illiterati via memorizing during customary read aloud or chanting at religious ceremonies. Here’s the passage;
“This island of Lanka belongs to the Buddha himself. It is like unto a treasury filled with the triple Gem (Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha). Therefore the residence of false believers in this island will never be permanent as that of the demons (yakkhas) of bygone days was not permanent. Even though a non-Buddhist king may some time rule this island by force, his lineage will never be established in this country. This is a special power of the Buddha. Therefore, this island of Lanka is befitting only for the kings of right belief, and their lineal heritage will certainly be established and flourish.”
- (Translated in Walpola Rahula: 1974.)

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The ‘Demonic Projection’ of 1983 - a giant exorcism

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

The duo Nissan and Stirrat and the solo Bruce Kapferer were the anthropologists who discovered a unique and distinctive dynamic in the way the Sinhalese disposed of their Enemy Other. This, they said, was directed by the compulsions embedded within the Sinhalese cultural DNA. These cultural compulsions, said they, led the Sinhalese to see the Enemy Other as demons and caused them to automatically go into demon subjugation mode, which in turn produced some interesting styles of violence, manifested most memorably in July, 1983.

In 1987, Nissan and Stirrat showcased “strong parallels between representations of the (Tamil) terrorist and representations of the demonic” in the world of the Sinhalese. This demonization, they reasoned was what caused the special “styles of violence” in which the Tamil victims were “cut into pieces” or “doused in petrol and set on fire”. July 1983, said they, was not only about teaching the Tamils a lesson, but also “forcing them to submit to a superior power” just like the demons must submit to the Buddha and his teachings.

Academic hoaxes
Parallel to N and S, between 1985 and 1988, another adventurer ventured into the demon hunting psyche of the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka. This was Bruce Kapferer. He was believed by his peers to possess extensive knowledge of sorcery myths and rituals of the Sinhalese and to have used such knowledge to expound on how the Sinhalese do to their demonized enemies what they do to their demons. Supposedly clued in by a wealth of esoteric knowledge, Kapferer described how the violent acts of July 1983 “manifest the violence of [the process of] cosmic regeneration” encoded within “the practices of sorcery ritual”, how the passionate acts of assailants can be “likened to a giant exorcism”. He declared: “Acting with the force of their own cosmic incorporation, the Sinhalese rioters fragment their demonic victims, as the Tamils threatened to fragment them, and by so doing resubordinate and reincorporate the Tamil demon in hierarchy.”

After one year spent living in southern Sri Lanka researching and despite being assisted by a local research assistant, now dead but whose expertise in the relevant fields is generally well thought of, Bruce Kapferer ended up believing that Sinhalese folk exorcism ritual involved fragmenting and disintegrating of demons. This was one of the most audacious academic hoaxes of the 1980s and 90s. Its success is due partly to the obfuscating fogs that surrounded Sri Lanka at that time and partly to the nature of Kapferer’s target audience; an exclusive constituency of his peers, mostly nonresident, non Sri Lankan and all beautifully non-cognoscenti. To most of them, the sorcery rituals of the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka and the puberty rites of the tribes of the north Amazon would be fully interchangeable if shorn of the costumes and stage trappings.

“In the cultural world of the Sinhalese, the disintegration of demonic beings and naraka minissu is a conventional form of punishment, a just act.” proclaimed Dr Michael Roberts (Roberts 2004:125), a staunch, non cognoscenti Kapferer follower. Most of these, subconsciously primed on the Christian exorcism traditions, where demons are forces of fragmentation and disintegration, found it only too plausible that the Sinhalese too should seek to fragment and disintegrate their demons. What they would have found implausible is the premise that Kapferer, a colleague, would try to pull the academic wool over their eyes. That Kapferer was assisted in his research by Chandra Vitharana, a repository of local expertise, in their opinion, would also have militated against such an idea.

Little did they know when they enthusiastically hitched their wagons to Kapferer’s caravan, that in the sorcery traditions of Sri Lanka, no demon is ever fragmented. Because the demons are mandated by the Buddha himself, to afflict human beings, subject to the condition that when called forth and propitiated with offerings, they should accept the offerings, cure the afflicted and leave. It is this warrant, which gives the Sinhalese exorcism ritual its distinctiveness. The Warrant prescribes an exorcism mechanism of placating, negotiating and dialogue with the demons instead of a Kapferersque ritual involving fragmenting, disintegrating, burning up, torturing or manhandling of the demons.

Buddhist tradition
In common with the Christian exorcism tradition, the sorcery myths of the Sinhalese too, declare that no demon can withstand the power of the Lord Buddha. They cannot stay in a place where the Buddha’s power is in the ascendancy. Invoking His name makes the demons to burn all over. To subjugate the demons entering the world and afflicting humans, the Buddha visited their habitat, ‘Sakwala Gala’ and made it burning hot. Then the demons were intimidated and appealed, “Lord, we are wretched creatures. Spare us. Have mercy”. The Buddha was compassionate and granted The Warrant, which said in effect, “Go forth and afflict but...”

Yet, in the Sinhalese exorcism ritual, this original subjugation scene never finds expression. It starts, stays with and ends with The Warrant, because unlike the Christian exorcism ritual where the priest is a proxy for a Higher Power, the ‘kattadiya’ is merely an executor of the human part of the bargain laid down in The Warrant. The Warrant has two inbuilt limitations, one is that the demons are expected to hold up their end of the deal; cure and leave, if the humans hold up theirs; propitiate with ritual and offering. Demons, also, are forbidden ever to ask for human sacrifices.

Kapferer’s thesis that the assailants of 1983 and 1989 both JVP and State, saw the victims targeted for literal fragmentation, i.e. mutilation and dismemberment, as demons of some sort, metaphorically speaking, is untenable. If those Sinhalese assailants had indeed seen their victims as demons due to some deep-seated cultural conditioning, their physical response to them would not have been cutting, chopping, hacking, stabbing or dismembering. The Sinhalese cultural response to demons flows from the concept of The Warrant and involves recognizing and fulfilling to the extent that is practicable, a basic need of the demon, which has been legitimized by The Warrant. Fragmenting or disintegrating the demon is never an option. The folk Buddhist tradition does not confer even on the Buddha, the will to fragment a demon. All this Kapferer could have learnt by saving his research grant and reading among others, ‘The Folk Drama of Ceylon’ by Sarachchandra, in the comfort of his Australian home.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Communal claims on a common land

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

However it may be defined elsewhere in the world, power sharing in Sri Lanka is about drawing up constitutional title deeds to enshrine communal claims on a common territory. Consequent to this local twist, there are many barriers to power sharing in Sri Lanka. One major barrier is the wide, nonexclusive dissemination of knowledge. Knowledge diffusion is mainly via Sri Lankan dialogues. The following dialogue had the following catalyst;
“The Kokila Sandesaya narrates the longest of the journeys from the southernmost point on the island, Devinuwara (Dondra) to its northernmost city, Yapa Patuna (Jaffna). It names seventy-two places along the journey. Some of the Sinhala place-names on the northern leg of the journey are no longer identifiable, because these areas are now home to a mainly Tamil population.”-
(Pieris, Anoma (2010) 'Avian Geographies: An Inquiry into Nationalist Consciousness in Medieval Lanka', South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 33: 3, 336 — 362)

‘I have mailed you that article by Anoma Pieris’.
‘She is the granddaughter of G. C. Mendis isn’t she?’
‘Yes. She is at Uni of Melbourne. Thought the bit about the northern leg of the journey might interest you’.

‘That the 15th century Kokila Sandesaya should list Sinhala place names on its northern leg? Hardly a revelation. Take a look at that 17th century Dutch map; Kaart van Jaffanapatnam en onderhoorige landen en eilanden (Map of Jaffanapatnam countries and islands and dependencies). The manuscript is in the Nationaal Archief, Netherlands, but you can get a fairly large view at Certain browsers let you translate the web page into English. Get it full screen and start spotting the Sinhala place names.

The first name to hit you is Welligamo. As one of the four main divisions of Jaffanapatnam, it’s written larger. No big news there. Everyone knows about Valikamam and Weligama, but everyone may not know the transition happened post 17th century. The real revelations are the smaller print locations; Cottiewatte, Watane, Vimangamo, Walandale, Lilagamo, Tangode, Tambale, Batecotte, Anecotte, Naloer(Nal oya), Oergavature, Nagamoene, Tambegamo, Coylacandy (Kohila Kanda), Mepale, Pollopalle, Alipalle, Malwattoe, Anungay, Walewitakepoelo, etc. etc. These are just the ones that stand out without ambiguity to my naked eye on the computer screen. There are more names that are clear like Kenalavil, Ambellipattoe, Inkelampitty, etc. but with my limited linguistics, I can’t exactly slot them. Yet more names that I can almost identify, but my Times New Roman adapted eye won’t grant 100% certainty. I’d love to go over the original manuscript with a magnifying glass. Better still, I’d love to have someone with an eye for handwritten script and etymological expertise subject the manuscript to a magnifying glass.

And yet, in essence all this is old news. H. W. Codrington for one would have yawned. (The place-names in the peninsula indicate that it was held by Sinhala inhabitants at no very remote date, …- Chapter VI, Short history of Ceylon, 1926). I imagine he yawned from The Great Beyond in 1965, when the PhD student K. Indrapala highlighted “the toponymic evidence involving over a thousand place names of distinctly Sinhalese origin ‘in Tamil garb’” presented by the Jaffna peninsula. But then most people are not Codrington. For one thing, primary evidence such as the Kokila Sandesaya and the 17th century map impacts like a bullet between the eyes, while pronouncements by an expert, however respected, merely wait politely by your head for admittance. You can either take it or dismiss it as personal whim or idiosyncrasy of the expert. D. B. S Jeyaraj for example, responding to someone’s web comment about place name evidence went, “oh place names? But that PhD thesis has been superseded now by the Indrapala 2005”. It’s nothing of the kind. 2005 Indrapala merely maintains an undignified and deafening silence about the whole place names motif.

I am pretty sure that even scholars specialized on 17th century Lanka would find Sinhalese place names in 17th century Jaffna a trifle odd. On a purely academic, bloodless level, they may know of the distinctly Sinhalese origin place names in Tamil garb thingy, but in their minds the ‘garbing date’ would be long, long ago; the mid 13th century or the 14th century at the latest. There is this surgical deadline drawn in the time stream of Lanka. By 14th century latest, all Sinhalese place names in Jaffna should be decently covered in Tamil garb, all surviving Sinhalese populations should neatly die by assimilation. A clean amputation followed by cauterization. A definite closure to the Sinhalese chapter of the peninsular.’

‘Why don’t you write an article about these things?’

‘But the people know these things! And I wrote an article, I said; “While a Chechen may have much to celebrate in his historically entrenched, uniform and consistent association with Chechnya, I hold that he is also poorer because he is deprived of the experience of being part of a region with diverse and multi-cultural associations, such as our Northern Province. He will never know the experience of living in a land whose identity exists in layers, where the earlier layer still peeks through the current layer as enticingly as a camisole does through a sheer blouse.”

‘Hmm..I don’t remember this.’
‘You aren’t supposed to forget!’
‘But, do the Colombo intellectual elite know?’

‘Shall we take a specific example, as not to offend any genuinely intelligent intellectual elite? My example is an intellect like a train. A train may be fast or slow but it is not truly mobile. It has to run on a fixed rail. It has to pass promising pathways without turning into them. Supposing that such an intellect comes across the devolution diamond in the course of its reading? In those books, the diamond would be presented in an ideal setting; an Ethnic Other, a Territory, a historically entrenched and exclusively predominant Association. Supposing that just like a train, this intellect is also relentless, maybe to compensate for its limited mobility? It cares little what kind of setting actually exists over here for this diamond. If it’s not here, it must be imagined into being. Mind over matter. Power of suggestion. And that’s what Dayan Jayatilleke was doing in 13/06/2010 Lakbima, when he conjured for the masses, a Lanka that had Ethnic Other areas since 2nd century B.C. with concessions being made even then to the cultural otherness of ‘those’ areas; Dutugemunu appointing a ethnic other Yuvaraj after the war to administer ‘those’ areas.’