Sunday, May 5, 2013

A historian who liked admiration too much

By Darshanie Ratnawalli

Leslie Gunawardana
Leslie (R A L H) Gunawardana, (not to be confused with Vivien’s husband, Leslie Goonewardena) was a historian specializing in the ancient period (500 BC to 1232 AD) of Sri Lankan history. He was a historical revisionist who aspired for admiration from a certain school and got it. His 1979 essay, “The People of the Lion” was reprinted in the Social Scientists’ Association (1984) and became a guiding star in an enterprise, which sought to deconstruct Nationalist ideologies (almost exclusively on the Sinhala side). This admiration had a potential dark side that could distract its recipient into byways that had dishonesty, suppression and shoddy research as landmarks. And so it came to pass. That Leslie Gunawardana had entered these byways in pursuit of a certain fan base and made these landmarks his pit stops was noticed by his peers.
“Many, though not all, of these post-modern scholars are immersed in the modern…their knowledge of the pre-British period is limited. That is where Leslie Gunawardana’s article has been of critical significance as an empirical foundation for the claims of the post-Orientalists and why it has gone through two reprints and been praised as a ‘master text’ that is marked by its ‘brilliance’ and ‘extraordinary comprehensiveness’... Such unqualified praise only serves to highlight the glaring deficiencies of empirical knowledge among the eulogists and marks an inability to discern the serious flaws in the middle segment of Gunawardana’s essay.”
- (Michael Roberts: 2003:8).

Among these serious flaws in ‘The People of the Lion’ (1979, 1984, 1990) was what could be termed Gunawardana’s Watergate or his Waterloo. He contested the conventional opinion that the term Sihala was used from the outset to refer to the generality of people in the island as well to its ruling elite. He claimed that ‘Sihala’ had extended its coverage from the ruling dynasty to the masses only by about the year 1200. From 1979 to 1992, as Leslie was collecting accolades and going from strength to strength his nemesis lay dormant among the pages of a 900 AD work called Dhampiya Atuva Gatapadaya.

Eerily, as if it had been waiting for a 1000 years to reply to someone like Leslie (perhaps it had), Dhampiya Atuva Gatapadaya gave chapter and verse of Sihala.
“How is (the term) “in the helu language” derived? That is derived on account of residents in the island being helu. How is it that (they) are (called) hela? Having killed a lion, King Sihabahu was called Sihala (as in the Pali phrase) “Sihala on account of having cut (or killed) a (or the) lion.” On account of being his progeny (ohu daru bavin), Prince Vida (Vijaya) was called Sihala. Others came to be called Sihala on account of being their retinue (evuhu pirivara bavin)”
In 1992, Dhampiya Atuva Gatapdaya found a modern outlet to confront Leslie Gunawardana: K.N. O Dharmadasa: 'The People of the Lion': Ethnic Identity, Ideology and Historical Revisionism in Contemporary Sri Lanka, Ethnic Studies Report, Vol. 10.

Let’s dissect one more error, to which Leslie had been led in pursuit of admiration. Pali is a basic requirement for any ancient period historian because it opens up doors to knowledge. Pali is also a Prakrit and a middle Indo Aryan dialect like Sinhalese Prakrit, the language of the prolific lithic Brahmi inscriptional record of Sri Lanka. A man who knows Pali is on a firm footing for deciphering these inscriptions.

To confront Leslie Gunawardana’s error, we have to go back to “The Sanskrit word ārya, first occurring in the ancient Indian text Rigveda some 3500 years ago (and related to the word airiya in the contemporary Iranian text Avesta)...”- (Indrapala: The Evolution: 108). In the Rigveda, Ārya is used for a people. “...the evidence in the Rigveda, acclaimed to be the oldest text in any Indo-European language, wherein we find that the people who composed and used the Rigvedic hymns were the Ārya.”- (ibid: 109). There are “references in the Rigveda to the ‘fair-skinned’ Āryans who fought with the ‘dark-skinned’ Dāsas”.-(ibid: 110).

These Āryans apparently did a great job of positioning their brand and built such brand equity that ‘Ārya’ became a byword throughout the Indian subcontinent, synonymous with all that was highest and the noblest. In this sense, almost a millennium after the Rigveda, the word entered the language of Buddhism, a non-racial supremacist religion and gave us the ‘ariya ashtangika margaya’. ‘Ariya’ in Pali is the diaeretic form of the Vedic ārya. See the entry for ‘Ariya’ in the Pali Text Society’s Pali-English dictionary, which gives the racial, social and ethical connotations of the word.

Now we come to the interesting part. The other Pali forms of ‘ariya’ are ‘ayya’ and ‘ayira’. ‘Ayya’ is the contracted (assimilation) form and means gentleman, sire, lord, master, a polite form of address like Sir, milord; amhākaŋ ayyo our worthy Sir. These Prakrit forms of Ārya travelled from the North to Sri Lanka and South India.
“... the most notable linguistic development in north India after the period of Vedic Sanskrit and other Old Indo-Aryan dialects is the emergence of the Prakrits or the Middle Indo-Aryan dialects...It was not Classical Sanskrit but these Prakrit languages that played an important part in the economic and cultural developments of the first millennium BCE... Pali, the most archaic literary Prakrit, became the language of the Buddhist canon, while another literary Prakrit generally known as Arddha-Magadhi became the language of the Jaina canon. It was the Prakrits of the long-distance traders and the Middle Indo-Aryan literary dialects of the Buddhist and Jaina monks that spread to the SISL region in the EIA (900-300 BCE) bringing new influences from the north.”
- (Indrapala: 116).

The Prakrit title deriving from Ārya was prominent in the 2nd century BC social formation of Lanka. ‘Ayya’, the Pali form is used in the Mahavamsa for some of the 2nd century BC nobility. “Now in Kalyani the ruler was named Tissa. His younger brother named Ayya-Uttika, who had roused the wrath (of Tissa) in that he was the guilty lover of the queen, fled thence…”- (Mhv, xxii. 13-22: trn. Geiger). The Sinhalese Prakrit lithic inscriptions are strewn with the title ‘aya’, the Sinhalese Prakrit form. Abi Savera, whom Paranavitana identifies with Vihara Maha Devi was the daughter of Maha Tisa and wife of Aya Tisa and entered the lithic record by dedicating caves in Kotadamuhela in Yala to the sangha.

This Ārya connection survives to date in ‘Ayya’ (elder brother) in Sinhala and interestingly also in Tamil. Which perhaps is not so interesting considering.

The Brahmi script was brought to the Tamil region by the Jainas and Buddhists in the post-Asokan period. The Jainas and Buddhists also fostered the Tamil language and authored some of the most remarkable literary works, above all the two epics - Silappatikaram andManimekalai. Even Tolkappiyam and many of the 18 didactic works, including the Tirukkural, are often assigned to Jaina authorship. There is a significant influence of Jain Ardhamagadhi - and not of Asokan Prakrit - in old Tamil, the language of Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions of Tamil Nadu. Also consider the number of Indo-Aryan loan words - mainly Prakrit loan words - derived from standard epigraphic Prakrit, in old Tamil. They are all nouns - names, religious and cultural terms. Some are derived from Jain Ardhamagadhi and interestingly also from Simhala-Prakrit. - (R. Champakalakshmi ).

Yet, Leslie Gunawardana was “… inclined to take the term ‘aya’, the occurrence of which is very widespread in the Brahmi inscriptions, as a ‘word of Tamil derivation which had the same meaning as Rajha and Gamani’”- (Indrapala: 152). How this inclination was born, whether from research laziness, a shaky foundation in Pali and other Prakrits or from an irresistible yen for admiration, we will never know. But what about Indrapala who quotes Leslie on this? His comment is; “The word ayya in Tamil and Sinhalese (as well in other Dravidian languages like Telugu), denoting ‘elder brother’, may well have originally meant ‘leader’ (the older brother as the leader of the younger siblings). It is also still used in Tamil and Telugu as an honorific form of address in the same way as ‘sir’ in English.” (ibid: 363: en12). This is one of the saddest examples of incompetence that I have seen in a couple of accredited historians.