Collective guilt?

GOTHA 5By Prof. Susirith Mendis

One of my good and sincere friends, now a self-exiled expatriate, growing an amazingly beautiful and typical ‘English Garden’ in, I believe, Great Yarmouth, UK, had made the following comment rhetorically to a post I put on Facebook of an article by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleke titled “Most Tamil Moderates, Liberals and Progressives are Tamils First, and Moderates, Liberals and Progressives Later”:

“Are the Sinhalese any different? Minorities in any community are more conscious of their minority status, in SL the majority community suffer from a minority mentally, they keep frightening each other by comparing their numbers with Tamil population of Tamil Nadu.”

Yes, Sinhalese do have a ‘minority mindset’. They are a singularly miniscule minority of about 15 million people in a world population of 7.309 billion people as of today – and counting. The net world population increase this year up to now is over 24 million; more than Sri Lanka’s total population. There are only this 15 million people who speak Sinhala in the world. And they have kept it alive for 2.5 millennia. Sanskrit, Pali, Greek and Latin are no longer spoken languages. Neither is Arameic, the language of Eashoa (Jesus) nor Magadhi Prakrit the supposed language spoken by the Buddha (though a derivative, Magahi, is still spoken by about 18 million people in parts of Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal).Even Magahi, a language not recognized by the Indian Constitution has more speakers than Sinhala.

The culture of the Sinhalese is unique and has been preserved under great odds through regular invasions from Southern India for over a millennium and 450 years of Western colonialism. Ethno-linguistically and archeo-anthropologically, the Sinhala language is living a fragile existence. Many languages spoken by such a small population and cultures lived and practiced, have perished and gone into oblivion.

Sinhala is not that easy to eradicate. We have a written language and a unique script too; and millions of books and documents. But, here is something from Wikipedia:

“….……Languages with a small, geographically isolated population of speakers can also die when their speakers are wiped out by genocide, disease, or natural disaster.”

Even if it is not easily possible since World War II to wipe out millions of people (60 million during 1939-1945) -a million might still be possible as was done in Iraq (estimates: 0.5-1.0 million) – a culture and a language spoken by only 15 million on this planet may not be that impossible to gradually extinguish – even if it is seemingly unimaginable at present. There were unsubstantiated reports some time ago, at the height of the ethnic war, that attempts were being made to remove all documents in Sinhala from the Library of Congress, the de-facto National Library of the USA; the largest library in the world with a repository of books and documents in 450 languages. This may sound like ludicrous ‘conspiracy theory’, but awareness and vigilance may be a worthwhile precautionary measure.

Why are some Sinhalese, particularly, the sensitive, well-minded and moderate amongst them, and more particularly, the influential, anglicised, INGO-funded Sinhala Buddhists – or to be more correct, Buddhist Sinhalese (BS), trying to bend backwards to beaccommodative of even some intransigent positions held and extreme sentiments and demands made by Sri Lanka’s minorities?

We have acknowledged that Sri Lanka has a populace with multi-ethnic and multi-religious backgrounds and history. There is debate among the ‘cognizant’ whether we are a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society or a predominantly Sinhala Buddhist society with minorities.And they (the minorities) have, by and large, lived in harmony for centuries and continue to do so today. Buddhists and Buddhism, the predominant people and religion (pardon me for calling it that, as most Buddhists are ‘believers’ and ‘worshippers’) are accommodating and peace-loving; wanting only to live their lives in peace and contemplation. Except and exceptionally, when aroused-remember the ‘buffalo’ metaphor in Lester James Peiris’ film on Leonard Woolf’s ‘Village in the Jungle’? Here is an extract from the book:

“The spirit of the jungle is in the village, and in the people who live in it. They are simple, sullen, silent men. In their faces you can see plainly the fear and hardship of their lives. They are very near to the animals which live in the jungle around them. They look at you with the melancholy and patient stupidity of the buffalo in their eyes, or the cunning of the jackal. And there is in them the blind anger of the jungle, the ferocity of the leopard, and the sudden fury of the bear.”


(from DCRA Gunatilleke, The First Annual Leonard Woolf Memorial Lecture, Colombo, 2007; “Leonard Woolf’s Divide Mind: The Case of The Village in the Jungle”.)


So, though the BS brought up from childhood on the concepts of ‘ahimsa’ and ‘upekka’ occasionally and exceptionally go berserk, they aregenerally peaceful and very accommodating of other cultures and religions on this resplendent isle. The ‘melancholy buffalo’ unexpectedly does express ‘the blind anger, ferocity and fury of the leopard and the bear’ under provocation.(Please note that I do not agree with Leonard Woolf’s anthropomorphism, but state it to make a point.) But the BS have been extremely calm and disciplined since 1983 even when provocations thereafter have been often extreme.


The problem is that this general tolerance at all other times is taken a bit too far. The masochistic self-flagellation that some indulge in is worth a separate in-depth study. This general attitude of the Colombo-centric, western-educated, intelligent and moderate BS – especially seen in many of the self-exiled, alienated, and deracinated variety – got me thinking. Why?


This same friend of mine, once before, used the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ – asking his Sinhala brethren not to indulge in it vis-à-vis the Tamils and the Muslims. He used it in a loose and arbitrary manner without realizing its implications in international law.Why did he ‘go berserk’ with such extreme and untruthful sentiments against his own kind? He is a BS himself. He said this, I presume, from a deep sense of guilt and shame of the unforgiveable acts of his fellow Sinhalese in 1958, 1977 and 1983.


Therein, I think, lies a problem; a problem, i.e., a subliminal psychological conflict, inherent in deep-thinking, well-meaning, moderate Buddhists Sinhalese who are attempting to extirpate the ‘collective guilt’ of the Sinhalese of the ‘Black July’ Pogrom of 1983. This, in a minor scale, is the ‘collective guilt’ (Kollektivschuld) described by Carl Jung in 1945 in reference to the Germans and the holocaust:


Living as we do in the middle of Europe, we Swiss feel comfortably far removed from the foul vapours that arise from the morass of German guilt. But all this changes the moment we set foot, as Europeans, on another continent or come into contact with an Oriental people. What are we to say to an Indian who asks us: ‘You are anxious to bring us your Christian culture, are you not? May I ask if Auschwitz and Buchenwald are examples of European civilization? The world sees Europe as the continent on whose soil the shameful concentration camps grew… .


If the German intends to live on good terms with Europe, he must be conscious that in the eyes of Europeans he is a guilty man. As a German, he has betrayed European civilization and all its values; he has brought shame and disgrace on his European family, so that one must blush to hear oneself called a European… .


If a German is prepared to acknowledge his moral inferiority… before the whole world, without attempting to minimize it or explain it away with flimsy arguments, then he will stand a reasonable chance, after a time, of being taken for a more or less decent man, and will thus be absolved of his collective guilt… .


(‘After the Catastrophe’ by Carl Jung – 1945)


The feeling of ‘collective guilt’ described by a German Journalist is very illuminating and is given below:


“The journalist Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, who lived in Berlin during the war, gives us some insight into what happened to them in the diary she kept from 1938-1945. Initially, at least, they were not helping the Nazis. Her entry for Nov 10, 1938, the day after the infamous ‘Kristalnacht’, gives moving testament to that fact. At half past nine in the morning Andreas-Friedrich took a bus to her office.


“The bus conductor looks at me,” she writes,”as if he had something important to say, but then just shakes his head, and looks away guiltily. My fellow passengers don’t look up at all. Everyone’s expression seems somehow to be asking forgiveness. The Kurfürstendamm is a sea of broken glass. At the corner of Fasanenstraße people are gathering – a mute mass looking in dismay at the synagogue, whose dome is hidden in a cloud of smoke.


‘A damn shame!’ a man beside me whispers … [W]e all feel that we are brothers as we sit here in the bus ready to die of shame. Brothers in shame; comrades in humiliation” (Berlin Underground 1938-1945; Paragon House, 1989).”


(from an article by MG Piety published in Counterpunch “When Courage Fails: On Collective Guilt”)


I think that it is time that, like the Germans have done, we accept our grave historical blunders and our sense of ‘collective guilt’, exorcise it from our minds, resolve determinedly that we will never let it happen again and put it firmly behind us. I think it is timeas a nation, when we are facing dangerous times, when surreptitious attempts are being made by vested interests to undermine the integrity and sovereignty of our country, that we wake up from this ignorantly blissful slumber. I think it is time for us to wake up to the reality of international geopolitics with its rapidly shifting axis of world power. It is not the time for fatuous sentimentality and naïve political romanticism. It is certainly not the time for cheap political shenanigans for temporary short-term electoral gain. As a nation, as a people, it is timefor us to come to grips with international realpolitik and its serious implications for our future.

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