By Darshanie Ratnawalli –
“May you live in interesting times”- An obscure Chinese curse.
What makes certain social sciences scholars of Sri Lanka interesting is a strange fallibility in acquiring the basic text book information on subjects they write about. Even a cursory trawl through academic writings falling under Sri Lankan studies will flush out scholars, some of them quite high profile, who have left for posterity, evidence of this fallibility. Ranjini Obeyesekere, a medievalist scholar in Sinhalese literature wrote (A Survey of The Sinhala Literary tradition[i], 1979); “It can be claimed that the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka in the third century, B.C., resulted in the creation of the Sinhala language, literature, and nation.” What causes such sentences to be written is the erroneous belief that in the third century BC, missionary monks from the Mauryan Court arriving in Lanka in shiploads, brought with them a language which they taught to the inhabitants in order to enable them to use the new language to dedicate caves to the newly established monastic Buddhist Order; and that it was this new missionary language, which eventually spread to the masses and evolved into the present Sinhala language. What could have helped Ranjini Obeyesekere to avoid such an error is the information that by the time Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka, the Sinhala language had already undergone several centuries of ‘creation’ within the shores of Lanka and the ‘creators’ were the pre-Buddhist teeth, palettes and the tongues of the island population. The easiest way to acquire this information would have been through a tete-a-tete with a friendly linguist or a competent ancient period historian. A more hard-working way would have been to plod through texts.
Around 1960, specialist in the making, Saddhamangala Karunaratne made a certain remark in his Ph.D. dissertation[ii] approved by the University of Cambridge that may have caused R. Obeyesekere to imagine a fusion between the language of the Buddhist missionaries and the language of the 3rd century BC Lankans out of which(according to her conceptualization) emerged the Sinhala language. The remark was; “The earliest inscriptions of Ceylon are short records containing stereotyped phrases of the Buddhist monks. The language of these records may well reflect, for some time at least, the language of the Buddhist missionaries, and not the original Sinhalese.”
This remark is not exactly on the ball because it was made on insufficient data. In 1960, the number of published early Brahmi inscriptions were fewer and Inscriptions of Ceylon, Vol.1 (IC 1)[iii], the seminal work in which almost 95% of the available Early Brahmi inscriptions were published (1276 inscriptions from 269 ancient sites distributed in 16 of the 22 districts of 1970 Ceylon) and the information in them properly codified for easy analysis was still 10 years in the future. IC 1 cleanly bisected SL historiography into two phases; before IC 1 and after IC 1. Post IC 1 it was possible for scholars to spot the errors in pre IC 1 publications.
Here’s a curious history. After Cambridge, Saddhamangala Karunaratne attained many career heights finally culminating in Archaeological Commissioner of Sri Lanka. Yet, his thesis was not published until 24 years later, after he had become retired Archaeological Commissioner. When it was finally published as a special volume(VII) of Epigraphia Zeylanica in 1984 it was not updated at all but was published “substantially in the same form as it was originally presented to the University of Cambridge”-(See Preface, pp.viii). One of the people given credit in the preface for valuable guidance in the thesis work was K. R Norman, “M.A., of Downing College Cambridge”. In the post IC 1 phase, K. R Norman said;
“…and we can probably assume that the language of the Sinhalese whom Mahinda met did not differ greatly from that of the earliest inscriptions. Karunaratne thought (pp. 82-83) that the language of these early inscriptions might well reflect, for some time at least, the language of the Buddhist missionaries, and not the original Sinhalese. It is true that, as all the early inscriptions are donative, commemorating gifts to the Sangha or to individual bhikkus, the possibility of influence by the language of the Buddhist missionaries upon the local vernacular cannot be denied. The language of the inscriptions in Ceylon has the following distinctive features: [a]the nom. Sg. of -a stems is in –e
[b] the only sibilant is śa (‘sha’- parenthesis mine)
[c] historic ja is everywhere replaced by jha
[d] the distribution of ra and la follows the pattern of Sanskrit.
[e] the gen. sg. of –a stems is in aśa or –aha
[f] there is sporadic loss of aspiration, eg. Tera (for thera), saga (sa(m)gha), kota (kotha), gapati (ghapati<gahapati), bada (badha)
[g] jhita occurs for dhita
It could be suggested that the first two characteristics showed the influence of Maghadhi, on the assumption that the missionaries spoke Maghadhi or included Magadhi-speakers among their number, or even brought texts in Magadhi with them, but it is clear that the other characteristics of Sinhalese Prakrit do not support this suggestion. An examination of the Asokan inscriptions shows that the Sinhalese inscriptions are written in a Prakrikt which does not agree with any of the extant Asokan dialects, but which seems to have deviated much more from the norm of Sanskrit than any of them. If this dialect was influenced by that of any of the missionaries then they must have spoken a Prakrit which differs from any other known to us. It seems more likely that Sinhalese Prakrit developed in the way it did because it was introduced long before Mahinda, perhaps in the fifth century B.C., and thereafter had little contact with the Prakrits of North India.”- (p32-33, “The Role of Pali in Early Sinhalese Buddhism[iv]”. Full text here.)
The ancestor of Sinhalese was a middle Indo Aryan language or a Prakrit, which arrived in Lanka several centuries earlier than 3rd century BC. When first arrived, it was probably a language that facilitated long distance commercial and other transactions. Soon, it was internalized by the inhabitants and transformed by them into a language of love, hate, humour and everyday living. As a result the language underwent important linguistic changes and became distinct. We can say this, “since we have inscriptions in old Sinhala dating from the early second or late third centuries B.C., and by that time the language had already undergone important changes that made it distinct from any of the Indo-Aryan languages of North India”- (James W.Gair:1996[v], full text here). Thus, by the time Buddhism was introduced to Lanka, independently of that event, there had emerged, out of the shadowy Prakrit or Prakrits of the 5th century BC, what we now call, “old Sinhala” of 3rd century BC, which was then used exclusively by a pan island people movement, including even those obviously belonging to different linguistic groups, to record in writing, their patronage of the new religious order, simultaneously also highlighting themselves, their parentages, lineages, genealogies, titles, occupations and groupings. So that, in most inscriptions, over and above the background music of the Buddhistic stereo-typed content, we hear the populace.
@ http://ratnawalli.blogspot.com/ and firstname.lastname@example.org
[i] Obeyesekere, Ranjini 1979 “A Survey of the Sinhala Literary Tradition,” in Tissa Fernando and Robert N. Kearney (eds.) Modern Sri Lanka: A Society in Transition, Maxwell School, Syracuse University, pp. 265-85.
[ii] Karunaratne, W.S (Wijesinghe Saddhamangala): “Unpublished Brahmi Inscriptions of Ceylon”
[iii] Inscriptions of Ceylon-Volume 1, edited by S. Pranavitana, which gives the texts and translations together with (in most cases) photographic plates of their mechanical estampages, of 1276 Early Brahmi inscriptions (41 are inscribed on rocks; the rest in caves) from 269 ancient sites distributed in 16 of the 22 districts into which Lanka was divided at the time of publication(1970).
[v] “Sinhala, an Indo-Aryan Isolate”: James W. Gair in “Studies in South Asian Linguistics. Sinhala and Other South Asian Languages”. The PDF I have uploaded has two more good articles; “How Dravidianized was Sinhala Phonology? Some Conclusions and Cautions” and “Some Aspects of the Jaffna Tamil Verbal System”