Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Sinhalese Buddhism, an oozing primordial evil or squeaky modern?

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

“The comparative religious tolerance of Lankan kings, their willingness to perform to the sacral expectations of many moral communities, can be dazzling to modern eyes. But it ought not to blind us to the presence of quite other boundaries, often irrelevant or submerged, but summoned to the surface when the relationship between kingship, samgha and people was placed in jeopardy…” Curiously enough the converse of this statement from Alan Strathern: 2007 is also true. These boundaries and their manifestations can blind a certain type of modern eye to the comparative religious tolerance of Lankan pre-modern States, their willingness to cater to the sacral expectations of many moral communities, their cosmopolitan proclivities, their hunger for foreign groups (Vanniyars, South Indian military, commercial, artisan and aristocratic groups, Brahmins, Malays, Kaffirs, Yons, assorted Westerners, etc.) and their readiness to incorporate them en-mass, without homogenizing pressure.

We have then two types of modern blindness exemplified by two modern schools of thought. One, post-orientalism seeks to fill the pre-modern Lankan landscape with fun-zombies metaphorically carrying a surf board (a pre-modern, Lankan version) in one hand and a joint (the pre-modern Lankan version) in the other; who just wanted to chill without worrying about brand identities and boundaries, who, if asked about religious and ethnic consciousness would have answered “huh?”. The other school of thought casts the majority ethno-religious consciousness of Lanka as a persistent, primordial evil, which oozes across the millennia to make the present political, social and cultural landscape inimical to the minorities. Both schools exemplify a debased scholastic tradition, the defining feature of which is the preference of its disciples for naval gazing over serious research.

Post-orientalists credit the colonial British with filling the pre-modern Lankan zombies with brand-defining animus. Post-orientalists themselves are credited with laudable motivations (political correctness, anti chauvinistic zeal) for coming up with this vision. But ultimately, ignorance fails to impress, no matter how many laudable aims it is coupled with. To illustrate the special nature of this ignorance, let me give an example; to show how supremely unimportant religious boundaries were in pre-modern Lanka, post orientalists point to how Anglican missionaries of the early 19th century used Buddhist temples to preach. Then later in the century (they say), religious boundaries sprang up and this innocent past was no more. If post orientalists had been genuine knowledge seekers and willing to delve a little further back, at least into the Portuguese period, they would have found perspective.

There is evidence of equanimity to other religions; “…comments of the Franciscan chronicler Paulo da Trindade, also writing towards the end of Senarat’s reign (1604-35). The Buddhist monks, ‘though they are pagan, they are friendly towards our religious, since they consider them as men of the same profession, especially since, also like us, they go out each day and in great silence beg for alms from door to door.’”- (Strathern 2007). But this evidence co-exists with evidence of strong brand preserving drives, which came to life in critical moments to ensure that vital boundaries were not crossed; “The fate of Dharmapala is a morality tale on what happens to princes…Even the rumour of his conversion in 1551 and his failure to protect the Temple of the Tooth led many of his subjects to defect to Mayadunne. Observing the general flight from Kotte, the viceroy himself reported, “it was said that all this was due to the fact that the pagoda was going to be turned into a church and that the king was becoming a Christian”. A few months after his baptism in 1557, there was a popular riot in Kotte, orchestrated by Buddhist monks, in which his palace was pelted with stones.”- (Strathern: ‘The Conversion of Rulers in Portuguese-Era Sri Lanka’). Then there was Jayavira, the King of Kandy who ‘dallied with the Portuguese in the 1540s’ and was ‘actually baptized in 1546’ but ‘wanted it hushed up “lest his people should kill him”’. “For when news of it did leak out, rioting followed. In order to pacify his subjects he had to spread the story that it had all been a ploy to deceive the Portuguese.”- (ibid)

The defining flaw in post orientalist arguments has been to see pre-modern Lanka as a dazzling Eden covered with culture incorporative, religiously open landmarks without a boundary in sight to announce the ethno religious serpent. But there were boundaries, not all around, high security, electrocuting ones, but placed strategically around certain select spaces; the ‘king space’ for instance. “ ‘Native’ clearly did not then mean of pure indigenous blood, for kings routinely married brides – or were themselves imported- from abroad.”- (Strathern: 2007). Nevertheless “…some sort of symbolic indigenization is generally required of sovereigns or consorts. In Sri Lanka, one way this was expressed was through the transformative ritual of the consecration ceremony in which the Buddhist commitments of kingship were lent heavy emphasis.”- (Ibid).

On the other hand, the defining flaw in the ‘Sinhala Buddhism -an oozing primordial evil’ school is to fester and ooze and turn sour within mental prisons of their own making and not see the dazzling (albeit complex) pre-modern Lankan landscape. They will try to make out that ethnic superiority of the Sinhalese and a fundamentalist Buddhist bhoomiputhrahood were two major pillars of the pre-modern Lankan state, not knowing (or caring) that South Indian lineages were brought over and settled in parts of pre-modern Lanka and functioned as an order/caste, above the Sinhalese Govigama caste. “…though the Vanniyas and Korale Atto now belong to the Govigama caste, a distinction is still observed on occasions of marriage and other social events, the Vanniyas seeking a superior status.”- (D.G.B de Silva: 1996: “Nuvarakalaviye Samaja Sambandhata: 1815-1900”).

Some people are born to be chartered accountants and some are born to be scholars. The former may have difficulty in reconciling to distinctions, gradations and standard defying behavior. The latter are supposed to welcome those and have fun with interpreting them. Post-orientalist and the oozing primordial evil schools mark an interesting cross-pollination between chartered accountancy and scholarship. That’s why they have each settled on two opposite reckoning standards for pre-modern Lanka; an irreligious acultural big easy and a fundamentalist Buddhist bhoomiputhrahood.

1 comment:

  1. I think the two schools of thoughts kind of collided and the institutionalized Buddhist instincts which have made it some what "squeaky modern" emerged when the Sri Lankan history was partially) rewritten as Mahawansha and once people began citing it having driven by the patriotic and nationalistic impulses whilst turning a blind eye towards the unique eloquence of Buddhism to constructively cohabit with other religions... I mean it obviously cohabited in India where there were staunch followers of many heathen and theist religions.