By Basil Fernando –
This article is a follow up to “The Caste Based Culture Is Still The Key Obstacle For Development In Sri Lanka“.
The debate on how important caste consciousness is in Sri Lanka today and whether class consciousness has replaced caste consciousness requires that we briefly examine the the beginnings of capitalism in Sri Lanka, as well as the introduction of certain liberal approaches to the administration of the country during the Western colonial period, in particular, during the time of the British colonial administration.
Fortunately, there is a now available a vast body of literature about the emergence of a class of persons who took the opportunities opened up during the colonial period to acquire various amounts of wealth and become not only an influential economic group but also a prominent social class in Sri Lanka. Books such as ‘Nobodies to Somebodies: The Rise of the Colonial Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka’ by Kumari Jayawardena and ‘Sri Lankan Subordinates of the British: English Educated Ceylonese in Official Life 1865-1883’ by W.M.D.D. Andradi are two examples of the many other books and articles that document the emergence of this new class. There are now even YouTube presentations about this class of persons. These presentations have resulted in creating a rather lively debate about the background and development of the families who became members of that relatively rich economic class and influential social group. These families at a later time, i.e. particularly after Independence in 1948, also played a prominent role in political developments. Our interest here is on the wealth of information that is now available on these developments, which throw light on issues related to the development of a social consciousness, not only among those newly emergent political elites but in the country as a whole.
The argument that is often used to stress the importance of class over caste is that among those who became part of this newly rich and socially significant group, there was a significant group of persons who were earlier considered as belonging to the lower castes. For example, a small section of persons from the Karawa caste (fisher folk), due to opportunities that opened up for trade in liquor, were able to amass a substantial amount of wealth that enabled them to gain some sort of social prominence. They acted as if they had acquired the same class interest as the other groups that had found ways to make substantial sums of money.
However, before the British established their rule overall of Sri Lanka in 1815, for over 10 centuries, there had been a continuous period of caste based social organisation in Sri Lanka. The two basic principles on which that social organisation was based on was the prohibition against social mobility and uneven and disproportionate punishment. The entire social order and the social consciousness of the caste based society during this period were founded on these two draconian principles. The questions regarding to what degree the newly emergent ‘capitalist’ class abandoned these two principles and whether any new social consciousness emerged out of these principles, are the measures to assess whether caste consciousness was erased or weakened and whether to what extent it was replaced by class consciousness. A further question is: what kind of class consciousness did this newly formed power group bring to the country?
These issues are not merely of academic interest. Today, when the country is in the midst of its worst economic downturn in history, the question that is often asked in almost all debates, is how did Sri Lanka get into this enormous abyss that resulted in extreme wide scale poverty and disorder. What invariably comes up during such discussions is the link between the newly emergent ‘capitalist’ class in Sri Lanka and its responsibility for the present catastrophic situation. There is almost unanimous agreement that this capitalist class has played a very visible role in causing those conditions which have brought the country to the present impasse to develop. However, what needs to also be discussed is why this ‘new capitalist class’ was unable to play a dynamic role to transform the country into an economy that has vitality. These days, there are comparisons with countries in the neighbourhood in Asia and elsewhere which in 1948 were in many ways in relatively worse conditions than Sri Lanka was at the time of Independence, but which today are in a much better position from the point of view of both economic development and also in regard to the improvement of the people’s lives. At the time of Independence, Sri Lanka ranked quite high in its social index and was even considered by some as having the possibility of providing an example of a country that could become a model economically, as well as politically, from the point of view of achievements in terms of democracy, the rule of law, and the well-being of the people. The key questions that remain at large are as to whether ‘the new capitalist class’ was responsible for this failure and if so, why did they choose to go in that direction.
The above questions are related not merely to economic policies, but also about questions of social consciousness. Entrenched habits that affected social consciousness, which were a product of 10 continuous centuries of repeated social behaviour habits remained part of the baggage that was carried by this new class of people, as well as the people in the country as a whole. The new capitalist class was unable to provide a dynamic leadership to uplift the country by promoting capacities for entrepreneurship, which would have brought a new life into multiple forms of economic activities for which there was a great potential within the country.
In short, the new capitalist class did not have the imagination to fulfil the role of developing Sri Lanka into a modern economy, as well as a modern system of governance. It is in looking for an explanation for the failure of the emergence of such an imagination that we find the continuous influence of the previous social consciousness that persisted, which has its roots in the long centuries during which caste was the basis of all social and economic relationships.
The impact of caste based principles as a retarding factor on the development of the imagination of Sri Lankans
The prohibition against social mobility is an enormously effective retarding factor in the development of social consciousness. In fact, the maintenance of this caste principle requires that the majority of the population, who were classified as lesser human beings – the Sinhala common term was Kula-heena (less in caste) – had to adjust their minds so that they could accept the limitations that were imposed on them. Were they to resist those imposed restrictions, they would be subjected to the practices rooted in the other principle, which was uneven and disproportionate punishment. The two principles were tied together. The constant and continuous application of these two principles created the type of mind that subconsciously accepted submissions to all the limitations imposed on them. The oppressed and the oppressor alike were both trapped by the same social rules. No room or space was allowed to think outside these rules. In that context, to think within the box meant to think within the limitations imposed by the rules on which the caste system was maintained.
Although during the period of Western influence, particularly the British influence, some headway was made in undermining the principle of the prohibition against social mobility and also that of uneven and disproportionate punishment, the kind of colonial economic engagement of these foreign powers in Sri Lanka was not capable of transforming Sri Lanka into a dynamic modern capitalist State. This of course is to be expected. The colonial masters introduced a certain number of new economic enterprises and also accompanying administrative measures with the limited interest of ensuring their own advantage. The particular forms of economic enterprises that were developed, such as coffee and tea plantations, and the creation of facilities to obtain the benefits of these enterprises, such as roads, and other modes of transport and related matters, as well as the requisite mercantile activities were of a limited nature. These colonial practices and policies were related to feeding the needs of the industrial revolution in their own country.
Educational developments during the colonial period did have some limited impact on weakening the effect of the above mentioned two principles of the caste based society. The schools provided opportunities, though to a limited extent, which did not hitherto exist in Sri Lanka. Those who acquired some wealth were also able to go to Europe, particularly to England, to further their professional education and become doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants and other professionals and for those individuals who benefitted, and this did result in a certain limited weakening of what had been an absolute prohibition against social mobility.
The introduction of a legal system based mostly on the common law traditions of the United Kingdom and before that certain legal traditions which came to be known as the Roman Dutch law, in an abstract sense introduced certain universal principles based on the principle of equality before the law. This principle was completely unknown on the Island prior to the introduction of those principles of equality. While during a very early period, usually known as the ‘Anuradha Pura’ period, there was a certain universality of moral and ethical principles which was mostly based on Buddhist social principles, these were not the same as the laws that were introduced as a result of the Western influence. These earlier moral principles that had universal applications would have nurtured much more respect for human beings as human beings. However, the principles of universality during an earlier stage of history were not alien to Sri Lanka.
However, sometime in the 8th and 9th Centuries Anno Domini, the caste system was introduced and became the foundational framework for all social organisation in Sri Lanka. From then on, by a gradual process, any ideas about the universality of the principles of equality and fairness relating to human beings were suppressed. “Graded” humanity became the core principle and there was no room for any kind of recognition of the equality of human beings.
In modern times, through the study of the histories of many countries, there is a growing, greater awareness of how not only a person’s mind, but also how the social conditions could be created by the repeated practice of various forms of repression of the people. The histories of slave systems have revealed an enormous amount of details of how adept and robust human beings could be made submissive and forced to agree to do whatever menial task was assigned to them by a process of, on the one hand, the deprivation of food and on the other, by disproportionate and harsh punishments. There are many other forms of repression such as apartheid in South Africa, where a minority of persons imposed draconian punishments and limitations on a vast number of black people. These kinds of oppression have lasted for long periods of time. The feminist movements have revealed the manner in which women were oppressed by various ways in systems of patriarchy. The struggle for women’s equality is a marked feature of our time, but it still remains a formidable task to suppress the obstacles which are against such assertions of the equality of all persons. As a result, in many countries, women do not have basic rights and socially and economically are still treated as being inferior.
Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, in his brilliant work on these areas, has demonstrated that caste is a much worse form of oppression than even slavery. A slave owner had to buy his slaves and he would use them as a means of producing wealth for himself. In order to do this, he had to maintain the slave by providing him with adequate food and meet his or her basic needs so that the slave would be in a condition to work for the benefit of the master. If the slave died or was weak, part of the master’s wealth was lost. This was like a cattle owner losing his cattle. Even to that minimum extent, the slave owner considered it in his own interest to keep the slave alive and healthy. Besides this, there was also the principle that if the slave owner wanted, he could free the slave and thereby the slave would become a free person. In the case of caste, both these options are absent. Whether a person in the so called “lower” castes existed or died was not a matter of concern for the so called “upper” castes. No obligations were owed by the members of the “upper castes” to the members of the “lower” castes. The obligations between the master and servant, the employer and employee did not exist within these caste relationships. The caste relationship was one of absolute obedience and whether some form of remuneration would be paid or not depended entirely on the individual master and there was no set of obligations or rights agreed upon by the society.
These brief considerations of a vast subject about which there is a great amount of research material, are only to engage in a discussion of how the imagination gets retarded when for nearly 10 centuries people live within a severely restricted social environment. These draconian principles of neglect and suppression were the norm that created the social consciousness of a particular society.
Approach to competition
In a caste based society, competition was prohibited to the persons in the so called “lower” castes on the basis of the oppression due to the absolute prohibition against social mobility. Competition implies the right for a person to improve oneself. However, the caste principle was to ensure that a person remained within one’s fixed position and way of life, and also to ensure that the rigid immobility was transmitted to future generations. Making efforts to improve oneself would only be allowed within the assigned task for that particular caste group. For example, a person could be a mason, a carpenter, a scavenger, and he/she was allowed to improve what he/she was doing in that occupation. But, his/her efforts would never allow him/her to cross his/her caste boundary. The natural result was that there was not much of an incentive to compete or to improve oneself.
Another approach to controlling competition was to deny education to the so called “lesser” humans. This of course was the most effective way by which competitiveness can be controlled. It ensures the existence of a large mass of people who are capable only of one or other form of physical labour. The challenge that could potentially arise from a child from an economically worse off background posing a threat to those who are enjoying privileges did not arise in this way.
Two stories from Indian literature illustrate this aspect. One is the story of Shambuka. Shambuka was from a “low caste” origin. It was strictly forbidden for the lower castes to read the Hindu Shastras – the sacred books. They did not even have access to these books. However, in some way, Shambuka managed to find these books and secretly read and master them. One of the arts that he mastered was the art of the yogis. By the control of the breath, yogis were able to do amazing things such as hanging from a tree in the posture of bats and they would stay that way for long periods of time. There were yogis who had mastered that art and in particular areas, they used to engage in this practice. Shambuka who had also mastered this ability, was in the habit of practicing it.
It is said that during this time, a senior Brahmin lost one of his teenage sons. It is also said that he took the body of his dead son and walked to the house of the leader of the Brahmins, Rama. The senior Brahmin complained to Rama that some curse has befallen them in their midst and that that is how one of their children could die in that way. He said that there must be somebody who had entered into the arena that belongs to them and that that was the cause of his misfortune. He asked Rama to set out to find out who the intruder was and to destroy him. It is said that Rama went looking for this person in his special vehicle, bringing with him a mighty weapon given to him by the gods. Rama went on enquiring about all those who were engaged in such exercises as based on yogic practice and also asked for their genealogy. The way to determine who was Brahmin was through his genealogy. All the persons that Rama questioned were able to narrate a long history of their ancestors and Rama was satisfied of their credibility. Then, he came to Shambuka. When Shambuka was asked about his genealogy, he very humbly replied, “Sir, I don’t have such a genealogy. I am a person born to a low caste and I acquired these skills by my own efforts”. He expected that this would be appreciated. Instead, Rama took his mighty weapon and slew him immediately. And, it is then further said that the gods came down and praised Rama for his great deed.
The second story is about Ekalavya, the “low caste” archer. The following poem presents the basic facts of this story.
“Ekalavya the low-caste archer
Art of the arrow
Can’t be borrowed
From guru to guru
The law said in a narrow line
This be imparted
He was young
Of eternal laws ignorant
Dreamed day and night
To be a swift dispatcher of arrows
To heaven and to hell
Not for us my son
For Vedas has made us low caste
Archery is for the higher caste
Suffering for the lower caste
Mother told the boy
Besides gurus’ demand Dakshina
Only rich can give
Those who steal knowledge
They do not forgive
Mother told the boy
From afar the boy watched
Hiding often in trees
How the guru taught his boy
Secretly doing the same
Oh what a joy
Soon it was simple play
Every move he could display
An image of the guru
Of wood he made
Before playing prayed
Once when meditating
Heard a dog barking
Sent a small arrow
To where the noise was
Lightly closing the dog’s jaws
The guru and the trainee prince were passing
Marvelled at what they were seeing
Was some god in jest
Their hard learning belittling
Guru sadly wondered
Looking around saw a boy praying
Before an image so like his
The guru in a flash saw what was happening
“If I be your guru
My Dakshina now give”, he demanded
Money and gold I have none
Great sir, but even my life
I will give to learn from you
The art of the arrow
The unwise boy said
For generations learned in cunning
The guru smiled promising
“Your left thumb be the Dakshina
In exchange I will teach
The art of the arrow.”
Swiftly guru gave the knife
Swiftly the boy obeyed
The thumb he accepted,
And quickly he departed
Having protected his art
Old tale here ends
But may I add
If I was that lad
A different end
This tale would have had.
Though the stories are of Indian origin, the principles contained in those two stories are fundamental to maintaining the rigid hierarchy in a social organisation based on caste. Sri Lanka was such a society for more than 10 centuries. The deep impressions that were created in the psyche, in the mind, as well as in consciousness of the people, and which have been reinforced through such long social practices, have remained very firm. Removing these deep scars requires very conscious intellectual movements as well as consciousness raising education and the sharing of the various levels of awareness and discussions of options, together with developing social and political organisations, particularly at times of economic and political upheavals that are capable of uprooting and removing from the people’s consciousness, the backward thought patterns of everyone in the society.
Entrepreneurship, initiative and creativity
One of the disturbing revelations about Sri Lanka’s economic problems is the collapse of so many small and medium sized businesses, including those in the manufacturing industries, as well as service enterprises. While there may be many factors contributing to causing this, the absence of a culture which encourages initiative, creativity, and the spirit of enterprise also plays a significant role in affecting these businesses.
In regard to this phenomenon, once again, we return to the basic principle of the prohibition against social mobility and the role it plays in retarding the spirit of initiative, creativity and enterprise.
Entrepreneurship requires the inculcation of habits of management, the consideration of material factors and the responses of human beings as well as the re-arrangement of social relationships to enable the security needed for the practice of various types of trades and commerce and creativity, new inventions and also developing new models of organising exchanges and the like. These habits do not come about overnight. It takes a long period of time in a favourable environment to create new inventions and once a new invention comes into existence, the freedom of reflection and criticism is required in order to make further developments of those inventions or breakthroughs so as to create new inventions. Thus, the making of inventions is the product of ongoing criticism, reflections and conversations. When any new invention is closely studied, it would reveal a very long history over many decades or even over many centuries of development which are subjected to ever more complicated developments over time.
It is only in a highly interactive society that enjoys inter-related social relationships that can provide a suitable, favourable environment for the development of various enterprises, especially new enterprises. In such a favourable environment, there is both the encouragement of initiatives and an appreciation for creativity and originality. Such a society also provides opportunities for those who are willing to experiment, to think afresh and to try new things in order to improve economic and social capacities. An environment that provides encouragement and appreciation to persons provides them with psychological support that is an essential element for the development of various efforts which can give rise to the development of various enterprises, small or big. This in turn will also create opportunities for many other persons to earn their livelihoods and to overcome past patterns of poverty and deprivation that have prevailed in societies for a long time.
For the reasons set out above, caste based societies create an environment which contradicts the circumstances and prevents the development of the environment described in the previous paragraph. Caste based societies maintain negative attitudes in regard to taking up initiatives, have various ways of impeding creative efforts, as well as placing obstacles in the way of persons taking the initiative to develop various forms of enterprise. Every such attempt to do something new or different is considered as entering into forbidden territories. This sense of a forbidden territory creates not only physical boundaries, but also psychological confines.
People tell each other that they should not cross the boundaries assigned to them, or as it is more frequently expressed, they should know their place. There are a thousand ways of reminding people what their “place” is. A whole culture has developed that uses various kinds of linguistic expressions, gestures, as well as openly repressive methods that are used to “remind” people not to embark on new ventures and not to try to do things that may create conflicts which may result in violence.
Violence is a key aspect of that second draconian principle on which the caste based society is rooted. Any small differences or views, or even some simple expressions that are disliked by another person could easily end up in quarrels, physical violence, and even murder.
In such a caste based society, people subconsciously, or even unconsciously, develop certain perceptions or fears when interacting with others. In such a situation, a critical spirit of enquiry and exchanges of views cannot develop spontaneously. People even fear spontaneity. The reason for that fear is the concern about what kind of violent reactions might develop even when making a simple joke. Instead of a simple disagreement of views, things would often turn to the use of abusive language, or even worse, shouting insults and using other types of provocations that may easily end up in violence or create long term misunderstandings or even enmities.
In such a social environment, people do not trust each other. Distrust has become a very common social attitude and way of relating to others. Being over careful of what to say and what to do, purely because of the fear that it might lead to misunderstandings and possible violence, has become quite a normal way of life.
Naturally, in these circumstances, the freedoms of speech, association, and assembly are looked upon with suspicion. Being overcautious in expressing any view or organising any project has become part of the habitual way of thinking and acting. This results in the further suppression of creativity.
In such circumstances, creativity is easily suppressed and in place of rational and creative discourses, quarrelsome speech and provocative behaviour have become the norm and act as barriers to the enhancement of refined methods of social discourse.
The cumulative effect of all these factors is the retardation of a person’s intellect, of a person’s creative facilities and also the restraint of any enterprising spirit that a person may have. All these elements contribute to retarding the development of the economic and social potential of a society. Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan situation at present perfectly exemplifies this type of retarded mental development that has come down from past habits which were formed by caste based social relationships.