By Basil Fernando –
People who live through long periods of repression often develop psychological and cultural habits that lead them to pretend not to see or hear what is going on around them in their society. These psychological habits may help people survive through difficult times. However, even after the difficult times have passed, cultural habits remain entrenched and people pretend not to really notice things that are going wrong in their societies. Creating the impression that everything is all right may be a way of maintaining some sanity and keeping up the pretense of being happy.
Sri Lanka is a society that has gone through a long period under extreme forms of repression. Since the 8th century AD, there has been a long history of repression, sometimes by foreign powers and sometimes due to the social institutions that have developed within the Sri Lankan society itself. That repression has created a habit among Sri Lankans of pretending not to see grave acts of injustice against people, even people who are very close to them, and thereby maintaining a silence even about matters that deeply trouble them inside. This is not peculiar to a particular race; it is spread across Sri Lanka, irrespective of race, gender, and other distinctions.
When we trace this back in history, we find that an enormous transformation took place within Sri Lanka during the centuries immediately following the 8th century, due to the cultural invasions that accompanied the Indian invasions that took place during these times.
Early Sri Lankan society, from 3rd century BC until about 5th century AD, was deeply influenced by the Asokan ideas introduced to Sri Lanka with the arrival of Ven. Mahinda Thero, who came as the messenger of the most powerful ruler of the time, Asoka. There has been enormous research in India about the transformation of Asoka into a just king, and on the philosophical and political outlook of Asoka, who realized that for the management of a vast empire at a time when there were powerful movements clamoring for greater equality, as against the draconian caste system which had been established in India in the past, he had to introduce a different model of ruling wherein the respect for ethical standards had to receive the highest priority. Great movements that were powerful in his time were the movements of Jainism and Buddhism.
Buddhism, in particular, was widespread, because people, particularly those who had been suppressed under the Brahmanical caste system, had gathered around the philosophy taught by the Buddha, which was one of recognition of everybody as human beings, and which required everybody to live ethical lives and accept that social responsibility would be key in dealing with all matters.
The change of philosophy, away from caste-based social norms and towards equality-based social norms, that came about during that time unleashed enormous creativity in India and Asoka took trouble to spread his ideas about the manner in which countries and people should govern themselves into all neighbouring regions. It was as his messenger that Ven. Mahinda Thero arrived in Sri Lanka, and he laid the foundation of cultural norms into a society and a civilization that was in its early stages of development. Thus, Sri Lanka was one of the countries fortunate enough to be influenced by a great philosophical and ethical tradition; the early foundations of Sri Lankan culture was based on this powerful foundation.
It was this cultural foundation which was attacked, for the most part successfully, through the Indian invasions, which brought along new philosophical trends that had lead to the virtual wiping out of Buddhism in India. The thought processes were led by another significant Indian philosopher, Adi Sankara, who developed a philosophy known as the philosophy of ‘Maya’, the philosophy of illusion.
He considered that only God existed and that nothing else existed, including himself and everyone and everything else, and this created deep cultural habits of doubting ideas that advocated ethical living. Ethics, along with everything else, was illusion. This philosophy was couched in Vedic philosophical language and Brahmins, who had lost power due to the spread of Buddhism, soon gathered around this new philosophy of Adi Sankara. There have been studies about how this philosophy was spread in India from village to village, both by intellectual means, such as arguments, as well as by physical force, by destroying people who refused to change their views and become followers of this new philosophy of Maya.
The same process took place in all pats of Sri Lanka and Adi Sankara’s philosophy was absorbed into everything, including the manner in which the kings ruled Sri Lanka thereafter. Like in India, there were also campaigns that went from village to village by Brahmins who were brought from India; they played a role in reorganizing the whole of Sri Lanka society on the basis of caste.
By the Polonnaruwa period, the social organization in Sri Lanka was done according to caste. In modern times, we speak about organizing societies on constitutional principles; during this time, social organization was done on the principle of the caste system.
In short, it was these principles that created the kind of repression that has shaped the mindset and psychological and cultural habits of all Sri Lankans thereafter. What are the principles of the caste system?
A few basic and fundamental principles:
The first principle was that a man’s status was determined by birth, which means that those who were born to a caste considered the higher caste (which amongst the Sinhalese meant the ‘Govigama’ caste and among the Tamils meant the ‘Vellalas’) were the upper caste; everyone who did other work, particularly physical work, belonged to what was called ‘Kula Heena’, the lower castes. Each male had to do the job his parents did and therefore their status remained permanent, one that could not be changed. Therefore, the idea of social migration, the idea of having a different status through ones efforts or acquisition of wealth, was forbidden in this society.
The second most important principle was the principle of disproportionate punishment. Disproportionate punishment meant that those who were considered to have a lower status were punished with the gravest forms of punishment for even slightest digression by them from the kind of behavior that was expected of them. For example, a lower caste girl who had had a sexual relationship with an upper class man had to be killed by the people of the caste to which she belonged. There is research material now available about complaints received in the early part of British rule about women being killed by their own elders in their own caste, due to transgressions of these absolute principles of marriage within one’s caste.
On the other hand, disproportionate punishment also meant that what might today be considered a grave crime, like murder, if committed by an upper caste person, either led to no punishment or only led to some minor penalty, such as the payment of some compensation.
This was the law. This law was enforced by its own inner mechanism. This became engraved in the minds of all Sri Lankans. The fear of punishment for the transgression of caste laws is imbedded in the psyche of all Sri Lankan people; this habit was engraved through practices that were carried out for a period lasting at least one thousand two hundred years.
We know from the studies on the formation of habits that something that is repeated over and over for a long period of time enters into our very inner psyche; it’s almost like it is entered into the genes. Though it is different to gene transformation, it does involve deep change among individuals who, for a long period of time, have been influenced by deeply-held cultural ideas that are enforced by strong punishments.
Once people have been taught to accept that their repressed status is their normal or proper status, they develop a capacity or habit of ignoring what others what would normally call a violation of their dignity, because they do not understand the idea of dignity as involving being equal to others. They understand dignity as being relative to a particular status and the kind of humiliation that is imposed on them is regarded by them as being part of their natural heritage. This caste heritage became the cultural heritage of the Sri Lankan people in all communities.
From that developed this habit of not seeing or hearing things that trouble them. If they see something as being wrong, and if they react to it as a wrong, then they get into greater trouble and do not achieve any positive result. Thus, protest in this society is not appreciated, because protest leads to greater trouble and there is no possibility that the protest may lead to a better dialogue among people, better understanding of a problem or the curing of wrongs.
The essence of caste is that social intercourse is done under draconian limitations, and that those draconian limitations are accepted as natural and normal.
It is this heritage that ran through that whole period, including colonial times. Despite certain influences from the newly-introduced administrative and legal models, which created some limited modification in the overall psyche, they were unable to erase this in its entirety. They could not, because there was no internal attempt to erase it entirely. At the inner level, the old habits, old attitudes and old prejudices remained as they were.
Then we come to the modern period, particularly the last fifty years, during which, due to various insurgencies and antiterrorism laws, a heavy level of repression was unleashed on Sri Lankan society in all parts of the country, in the South as well as in the North and East. These old habits of ignoring what is happening just before their eyes were once again revived. Just to take one example: an enormous number of enforced disappearances took place in the country, and in the global statistics, Sri Lanka has acquired second place in terms of the practice of enforced disappearances. However, the numbers of people who are willing to talk about this problem, who are willing to say what they saw, what they heard, and what they know, about the manner in which these things took place, are only a handful. The amount of writings, amount of reflections, either creative or otherwise, is at the lowest possible level.
There is no discourse on the violence that has taken place around people. This is due to deeply-held cultural habits that have come down through many centuries, and it is this that remains the basic obstacle to the development of a discourse on reconciliation, despite so much of talk about reconciliation.
Reconciliation becomes possible only when people are capable of remorse. When the people, having seen wrong, are able to reflect on it and are able to speak out on it, when people begin to acknowledge wrongs that have happened in their society and their own actions. Until this happens there cannot be a genuine discussion on reconciliation. Remorse is not possible when people have learned to accept wrongs as a normal part of life. If people have gotten into the habit of accepting the torture and ill-treatment practiced by the police and other law enforcement agencies as something normal, then they simply do not protest against it; they do not consider it as a wrong that needs to be eradicated, and they do not regret that such a situation is existing in their country.
These days there are a lot of movements throughout the world of people looking into wrongs in different manner. For example, in China, there are people who lived through the cultural revolution, which was a terrible period in Chinese history; they are now speaking about how they, as young activists and idealists, went into the cultural revolution thinking that it was a progressive movement, but who were used in order to kill opponents and destroy property, and today they deeply express their own remorse about what they saw, what they heard, and, sometimes, what they did. There are individuals who claim that until, in their own minds, they could feel that they had done something to atone for the wrongs they have done, they could not find inner peace.
It is that level of remorse that makes people capable of transforming themselves into practitioners of better ethical habits than what they have been exposed to. It is that which helps people reject violence and adopt a method of social discourse that is less coercive. That is the foundation of anything that can be called a democracy.
Sri Lanka is finding itself unable to start on the path of democracy because of long-held psychological and cultural habits, which are a result of the practices of the caste system. It has created people who, for most part, pretend that they do not hear or see the wrongs taking place in their society.