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.

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