“Seventeen kilometres out of Abidjan, in a village on the great auto-route to Yamoussoukro, there was a schoolteacher’s house which from time to time blazed with mysterious fires. A reader had written to the paper that weekend with the suggestion that there was probably some escape of natural gas in the neighbourhood. But this letter headed ‘A Scientific Solution’ was placed at the bottom of the right hand page. The main story, the reportage, was that the mystery of the fires at kilometre 17 had been solved. It had been solved by a preacher of the Celestial Christian sect. Even before they had been called in on the case –and while the teacher was spending a fortune on fetish-makers and Muslim magicians-the Celestial Christians had “discovered” through some divine communication that the Evil spirit was at the bottom of the business…” The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro (Ivory Coast) – V.S. Naipaul
“Mobutu embodies these African contradictions and, by the grandeur of his kingship appears to ennoble them. He is, for all his stylishness, the great African Nihilist, though his way is not the way of blood. He is the man ‘young and palpitating with wisdom and dynamism’-this is from a University of Zaire publication-who during the dark days of secessions and rebellions,’ thought through to the heart of the problem’ and arrived at his special illumination: the need for ‘authenticity’…African needs are great. And Mobutism is so wrapped up in the glory of Mobutu’s kingship-the new palaces , the presidential park at Mont Ngaliema, the presidential domain at Nsele, the State visits abroad, intensively photographed, the miracle of the peace Mobutu has brought … so good are the words of the king who proclaims himself a friend of the poor…” A New King for the Congo – V.S. Naipaul
Sathyagaraya, approximately the “truth hub,” is a popular talk show on ITN, the local TV channel. Presented by the regarded writer and social commentator Upul Shantha Sannasgala, the show is in the form of a longish interview with prominent personalities in the country. Invariably the interviewee is a person in public focus at the time.
Among those interviewed in recent times is Sarath Fonseka, the former Army Commander and unsuccessful presidential candidate in 2010; Lalith Kotalawela, one-time high-profile businessman whose spectacular collapse resulted in the ruin of thousands of those who had invested in his failed businesses; and more recently Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena, an astrologer referred to in some quarters as the “Royal Astrologer”.
It is argued by some that this method, question and answer, the dialectic, is the best method of arriving at knowledge, the truth. The matters covered in the interviews being public issues, there need not be one truth; the interviewer, interviewee and the audience at the end may find their own answers. While certain propositions may appear as solid facts, the conclusions drawn there from may vary, depending on the view point of each person.
It is a fact that a few years back Kotalawela’s business empire disintegrated unexpectedly. But was that collapse engineered cunningly or was it due to bad business decisions or was it caused by a change in the general economic environment? Here and in many other aspects of that saga, opinions may defer widely.
The title “Royal Astrologer” will seem an absurdity in these more egalitarian times. Our democratic sensitivities ought to recoil at the suggestion of “royalty”, a claim to superiority over the rest based on a mere hereditary factor. It is now over 200 years since we last had a king, a man of foreign origin, brutal towards a people who obeyed only from ignorance. History has shown that under a king the rest of society is reduced to a mere accessory, there only to glorify the king. Thousands may fight a war but the honour of victory is his alone. There could be a good harvest but that is because of the King’s blessings, the hard work of the farmers has nothing to do with it.
From the interview of Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena/Sannasgala, we learn that apart from astrological readings, the Mahinda Rajapaksa establishment had been a hectic hub of the occult. The State houses used by him had been converted into places where all kinds of occult practices were indulged to invoke the blessings of the supernatural. The eerie cast even had a kind of faith healer, whose services were made available to various important persons as a sign of favour by the President. He was usually referred to as a “doctor” in those circles, an obvious act of deceit to reassure the unwary.
At the Sathyagaraya, Abeygunawardena the professional astrologer had a difficult brief to argue. Does he earn his livelihood by fair means or is it just mumbo-jumbo thriving on the ignorance and superstition of the believer? Where ignorance is bliss has the occult become a science? Abeygunawardena was at pains to assure us that he was a man of stature towards whom the “Rajapaksas” were invariably respectful, addressing him in the “thuma” form, a formality dispensed with many others. “Rajapaksas were a special people,” but Abeygunawardena claims he had not visited the Temple Trees since Rajapaksa’s re-election in 2010 (whether they met anywhere else is not known).
President Rajapaksa perhaps saw talents, not easily evident to us, in Abeygunawardena when appointing him to various Government-controlled boards dispensing with large amounts of public money. Sannasgala questioned him on the contradiction between the occult and the Buddhist strictures on such practices. His answer was that a very large number of people in this country are inclined towards occult practices. It is the numbers that legitimise it, obtain State patronage for its propagation and even establish academies to study the “science”!
Abeygunawardena was confronted with a letter said to have been written by him to President Maithripala Sirisena after his victory. In that letter Abeygunawardena had stated that he was unhappy with the corruption in the Rajapaksa circle and would have supported the cause of President Sirisena if only it was requested. The king is dead, long live the king!
Astrology assumes a particular view of man and the universe. The most important asset of a human being, his autonomy, ability to think his own thoughts and fashion his own life are diminished and instead it is taken that these are determined by stars and planets. People are moving about zombie-like just carrying out a predetermined destiny.
But there is a flexibility built into the scheme, which only people like Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena can divine and also control. His appearance, benign insignificance, belies his power. People such as he can also by various ways and means either mitigate or exaggerate the effects of the planets. On 8 January 11 million voters were not using their vote on a principle of governance or issue of democracy. They had no such autonomy. Of the two contestants whoever had the stronger horoscope was going to be the winner!
The two quotations cited at the top are from the Nobel Prize winning author V.S. Naipaul on visiting the Congo and later the Ivory Coast. They were written more than 30 years ago. Both essays reflect certain attitudes and perhaps more importantly a way of thinking prevalent in the African mind and enthusiastically endorsed by the ruling elite there. Both these countries are large, and resource rich. But even today their story is dismal. In the Congo, the Mobutu regime ended in civil wars and more than 70% of the population of that country still lives below the poverty line while its per Capita (PPP) income is only about $ 700. Ivory Coast is only slightly better, with about 42% living below the poverty line and a per Capita just above $ 2,000. While the falsity of Mobutism is clear, Congo is yet to find the “truth”.
There are obvious weaknesses in the dialectic method. If the main protagonists, the questioner and the questioned (as well as the audience) have no knowledge to come to the correct conclusions, no amount of questioning will elicit the truth. One faith maybe challenged by another, one way of looking at things may confront another way of looking at things, but yet the hub will remain bare, another failed attempt at something beyond… out of its reach…