Sinhala-Buddhist Culture & Reconciliation

By Upali Cooray

Upali Cooray

Since the end of the war against terrorism in Sri Lanka the people’s expectations of a peaceful country to live in was achieved to a great extent in 2009, but unfortunately no government so far has been able to douse the flickering embers of nationalism and ethnocentrism though six years have passed since.

With the present government’s attempts in implementing the UNHRC resolution it co-sponsored with the US in which the ultimate goal is said to be reconciliation among all communities living within the country, there has arisen a tendency even among the so called educated individuals who boldly rundown and despise the cultures which they see as the cause and the curse of ethnocentrism in this country. With the relatively improved media freedom gained after the government change in 2015, there is open disparaging battles we see among those leaned towards this culture or the other.

I was watching in dismay the other day, how one of the participants on a TV talk show analysing the well known story, the origin of the Sinhalese; the story of “Sinhabahu”.

As the narrative goes briefly, a Lion King cohabitated with a royal princess having imprisoned her in a cave in the jungle and had two children by that relationship. Then the grown up son, Sinhabahu rescues the mother and the sister by killing his Lion father and cohabitates with his sister. King Vijaya, who is the progeny born out of the Lion killer prince Sinha Bahu’s relationship with his sister, Sinha Seewalee, is said to be the first Sinhalese who arrived with his entourage in Sri Lanka. A son born by the cohabitation of a brother and sister. That is how the story goes. Vijaya is supposed to have been banished from India with his followers on grave crimes and aggression against people in India

MaithripalaAccording to this talk show participant, the Lion king a beast living with a human female is “against the law”(Neethi virodee). He did not say whether it is the current law or the law in the era they lived which is applicable!. Secondly, he claimed it is incest when sister and brother cohabitates. Therefore the Sinhalese should be ashamed of their origins. Rationally correct. This be will be commented on later in this piece.

Also, some of the critics claim that many Jataka stories ( Buddhist Birth Stories) are fantasies and myth originated to misguided people.

There have been a spate of such opinions expressed by well known present day Sri Lankan journalists and columnists and others who are stakeholders in justifying the objective they are campaigning for in respect of the ethnic reconciliation in Sri Lanka. One can see that these are disparaging battles rather than expression of opinion by experienced and matured men and women.

The “Mahavamsa” or the Great Chronicle is said to be the main cause for “Sinhala Buddhist mentality” of the majority community which is supposed to have conditioned the Sinhala mind about their culture.

Mahavamsa which is not a part of Buddhist scriptures such as the Tripitaka. It is a poetic narration of Sri Lanka’s history by the Sri Lankan Buddhist monk Mahanama who lived in Maha Vihara Anuradhapura in late fifth or early sixth century. Naturally a Buddhist priest is inclined to give buddhism a prominent position though it is a chronicle on history of Sri Lanka he was compiling. Therefore It is not unusual for the chronicler to creatively include substantial fictional and mythical features but what is important here is many of the socio-political historical facts written in Mahavamsa have been established correct by other supporting evidence such as Epigraphs, and other historical data discovered locally and in India. The edicts of Asoka are the oldest, best preserved most accurately dated epigraphic records of India. The mystery of these epigraphs was unveiled by James Prinsep in 1837 who deciphered the asokan Brahmi scripts of epigraphs and identified King “Piyadassi”of the edicts with king Asoka on the testimony of Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa, in which the title Piyadassi was given to Asoka. There are many more such instances where Mahavamsa has been used to authenticate historical data discovered in India as well as Sri Lanka. Therefore just rubbishing the chronicle as a whole is harebrained.

The Historical facts in Mahavamsa are being distorted by present day analysts to suit their motives such as facts on King Dutugemunu who went to war with Chola conqueror Elara in 205 -161 BC. Nowhere in Mahavamsa it is mentioned that the Sinhalese were intolerant on tamils living locally. The wars of Sinhala kings were always to chase away the conquerors from south India such as Chola and Pandya who were Dravidians. Some ruins remaining in Polonnaruwa depicting dominant Hinduism are the signs of south Indian Invasions. Kalinga Magha was a ruthless Dravidian conqeror ruler who was no second to modern day Prabhakaran. He is identified as the founder of the Jaffna Kingdom and was the first king in the Arya Chakravarthi dynasty 1215 -1236 AD. The moving of Lanka’s Royal kingdom from Anurdhapura to Polonnaruwa was caused by incessant invasions from South India. Ultimately the kingdom was moved to Dambadeniya futher south 1220-1354 AD on account of this threat.

On the other hand King Nissanka Malla who reigned from Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka prior to Magha in and around 1187 AD was from Kalinga Dynasty in India but was renowned as a pious king who declared that whoever who becomes the king of Lanka should be a Buddhist and embraced Buddhism. He was sensitive to people’s difficulties and reduced taxes and gave away the gold collected in the royal treasury. It appears that this Kalinga King from India won the hearts of the locals and this also shows that the locals were ready to accept the rule of even a Dravidian king as long as he knew how to win them over with righteous rule. The practice of having kings from India through protocal was common during the Kandyan Kingdom in the 16th and 17th century.

What needs to be emphasized here is that Sri Lanka and the Sinhalese have been conquered incessantly all along and the locals have battled with these foreign conqerors from South India and Europe all along it’s history. However they were tolerant enough to have South Indians as Kings who were not conquerors but took over the throne through convention.

The history has no evidence to show that the Sinhalese were an intolerant society. They fought battles with conquerors mostly from Dravidian South India but there are no historical evidence to show interior disharmony among communities such as Tamils of Sri lanka. Therefore the claimed “Mahavamsa Sinhala Buddhist Mentality” appears to be a Trojan horse by some forces to undermine the major civilisation in Sri lanka of which it’s majority of people are proud of.

Numerous arguments are being put forwarded by a segment of writers and other media campaigners to prove that Sinhalese were not the early settlers of this country and others such as Tamils were present in Sri Lanka prior to the arrival of Vijaya 543-505 BC. The oldest evidence about the Sinhalese is not Mahavamsa but inscriptional data numbering over 1200 found in rock caves such as Mihintale, Ritigala, Sithul Pawwa, Dambulla and many other places. Most of these have now been copied by the Archeological Dept. These inscriptions prove that a language related to Sinhala in its primary formation in the era around 300 BC. The letters have close similarities to the ancient most inscription found in North India and the languages spoken in North India. This group of languages which includes Sinhala language also, belongs to the category of Indo-Aryan Languages, the bedrock of which is Sanskrit. On the other hand the Tamil language falls into the different Dravidian group of Languages. Of course the Sinhala language had acquired much from the Tamil language over the centuries

The vituperative attacks on “Sinhala Buddhist culture” has become manifold on account of many web sites hitherto blocked in Sri Lanka getting the freedom to access the Sri Lankan readership. The newfound opportunity is being used extensively and adversely to castigate Sinhala Buddhist culture. That is “media freedom” ? Well and good. This trend has gone into the extent of vilifying the annual Kandy Perahera (Pageant) where the Buddha tooth relic is carried in a casket by a majestically decorated Elephant. Whether myth or not, this pageant is a unique reflection of Sinhala Buddhist culture with it dancers, drumming and other related exhibitions of our culture.

On the other hand the counter campaign by the pro-Sinhala Buddhist writers are also making the same mistakes the other side is doing by vilifying the cultures of the Tamils and the Muslims.

Hinduism is the driving force of the Tamil culture in Sri Lanka. and the thoughts and beliefs of such a society are crafted by that religion. The rigid caste system in Jaffna still deprives the lower cast mortals of social privileges they are entitled to, under a free and democratic society though it has become relatively better in recent times. Sri Lanka’s national problem distinctly did not originate over religion. The origin of the conflict during the post-war period was based on socio economic reasons and not over religion. There was a necessity to correct an imbalance of socio economic factors between the Tamils and the majority Sinhalese. Some of these adjustments such as the language policy and education policy had an adverse impact especially on the Vellala caste Tamil community who as the highest tamil Hindu caste in Sri Lanka was a privileged lot under the Colonial system and the loss of their privileges such as special consideration in government employment was detrimental to them. Therefore Sinhala only language policy and other adjustments to balance above said socio economic imbalance was converted by them to a political struggle over discrimination and a consequent call for federalism which eventually transformed to demand for Tamil Eelam. It has to be admitted that some of these adjustments by governments were short sighted violations of democratic principles.

If one looks at Velupillai Prabhakaran’s life story, he was born to a Kariyar cast (Fishermen) family in Valvettithurai in Jaffna. His father being a government servant they were a middle class family. Valvettithurai was a smuggling center between India and Sri Lanka. His cast is generally identified with the fishing community and considered low cast. His education was only up to 5th standard. Therefore he had little or no hope in this strictly caste based social ladder and his first struggle was to get recognition in his own Tamil society with terror. Starting from the Killing of Alfred Duraiappah in 1975 The LTTE under Prabhakaran’s command had killed northern Tamil academics, professionals, politicians and priests and rival groups, including TULF Leader Amirthalingam numbering over two hundred. Prabhakaran’s ultimate goal was to create a casteless serfdom as his Elam but he knew international and Tamil diaspora support will not be forthcoming if this fact comes to highlight. The ideal cover was terrorism against the Sinhalese, based on claims of discrimination. The vellala dominated politicians of Jaffna fed the LTTE with their doctrine of Tamil supremacy to the Tigers till it bit the hand which fed them. So, one could see Hinduism based Tamil culture played a major role in the conflict against the Sinhalese.

However these draw backs in the Tamil Hindu culture reforms have to be effected by the enlightened Tamils themselves from within that socety if reconciliation is to be achieved. It is not the mandate of the Sinhalese to do so.

Looking for myths in the Sinhala Buddhist Culture or analysing “Mahavamsa mentality” could be challenged conveniently as no religion or no culture is free from phenomena of mythical believes and superiority complex. In such an event the concept of a creator itself is vulnerable as a myth. Religious fables.practices, beliefs which are exclusive to certain major religions of the world can be denigrated by those bent on doing so. The canons of Major religions are full of such mythical stories. One should understand that Buddhism is an offshoot of Hinduism in an era practices such as animal sacrifice was the norm. Rigid caste differentiation, Sathi Pooja were considered part of Hindu life. Lord Buddha’s passive revolt against this extremities of Hindu religion was the cause for the origin of Buddhism. Buddha is considered as an avtar of Vishnu by the Hindu’s. However the strong influence of the Hidu culture remained in Buddhism despite Buddha’s preachings and the Buddhism practiced in Sri Lanka is not devoid of such practices. As much as Sinhalese make vows at Kataragama for god Skanda Kumara they make vows at The Sri Maha Bodhi at Anuradhapura to sight one example.

In looking for a most suitable definition of culture among numerous definitions, I found the following appeared to serve my purpose.

“Culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experiences.beliefs,values,attitudes, meanings, hierarchies,religion,notions of time, roles, spatial relations,concepts of universe and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual group striving”. (ENR (2003). Culture shock challenges firms looking abroad. Vol. 250, No. 23. New York: McGraw Hill.)

Nowhere does a culture consists of rational thinking or rational behaviour as essential. Therefore the Talk show participant who questioned the rationality of the origin of the Sinhalese should understand that cultures cannot be rationally analysed to look for what belongs to it or not or the veracity of what is believed by the group that belongs to it. Some anthropologists have argued that there are no proper ways in being human and the “Right way” is almost always “our way”; that “our way” in one society almost never corresponds to “our way” in any other society. Proper attitude of an informed human being could only be that of tolerance.

The phenomena of Bodu Bala Sena, Sinhala Ravaya and Ravana Balaya or “Sinha -LE” are warped recent intolerant formations based not on Sinhala Buddhist culture which is tolerant as argued above, but are instruments used to justify claims that there is religious and cultural intolerance in this country. Whoever who is behind these small cliques of Buddhist priests and some laymen are neither representing Sinhala Buddhist people nor Sinhala Buddhist culture. I tend to believe that there is a hidden hand with an agenda in these activities to see that the international image of this country as racial and religious intolerant and hence need to be hounded till whatever the ulterior motives that are achieved. How these cliques are funded and their foreign jaunts have to be probed thoroughly. Whether Buddhist, Christian or Hindu, extremism should be wiped out incessantly. The uncertainty of the political will to do so is another pitfall in such an attempt. Sinhalese have tolerated Hinduism, Christianity and Islam over the centuries.The subcultures of Catholicism in and around Negombo, Islamic sub-culture in and around Bentota,Akurana and Pothuvil have had harmonious relationships with Sinhala Buddhists in most of the times in our history. In fact these subcultures have absorbed and adopted certain aspects of Sinhala Buddhist culture as well. Buddhism practiced in Sri Lanka has borrowed immensly from Hindism. Majority of Sri Lankan Tamils live among the Sinhalese and not in Jaffana which some want to make the Capital of Elam.

In the circumstances reconciliation if ever to be achieved what all parties should keep in mind is that there should not be any other motives than tolerance of cultures of each other on which basis problems have to be settled within the communities than external interference.

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