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 “...one 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.)