By R S Perinbanayagam –
The sciences as well as the social sciences – not to speak of literary studies – advance by challenging and often replacing existing theories. Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Heisenberg in physics, Mead, James and Dewey in social psychology and perhaps one can add the Cambridge literary theorists Leavis and his cohorts to this list too. In sociology Parsons and Merton and their followers did this, only to be challenged by a new generation of scholars. In anthropology the burden fell on Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, and Evan-Prichard, et al.
Gananath Obeyesekere has been doing his bit in this in recent anthropology with exemplary results causing controversies and approbations and indeed changing the face of anthropology in certain areas such as the relations between Europeans and indigenous people. Now he comes to do the same for Sri Lankan historiography in this challenging work. Sri Lankan historiography will never be the same again.
“History is more or less bunk” once opined the industrialist Henry Ford no doubt wanting people to disregard the past and focus on the future. However, people keep writing histories and talking histories and using histories for one political purpose or another. Sri Lanka is no exception. People keep writing histories and our everyday politics is drenched with historical allusions. Yet one can ask “What is history?” or; What is passed of as history?” Indisputably what is passed of as history are narratives or stories assembled by an author who uses selected events from the past, to the extent that they are available in one form or another, to create a narrative –or a story—about what is presumed to be the past of a country or a nation, or even an individual for that matter.
Insofar as the narratives that are passed off as history are based on selections made by an author, they are likely to be idiosyncratic ones and can be either reflections of reality and can also be deflections of reality. Kenneth Burke, the prominent linguistic philosopher put the conundrum this way:
Men seek for vocabularies that will be serviceable reflections of reality. To this end, they must function as a deflection of reality. With such conditions in mind, how might one best proceed to select a vocabulary (a perspective, a systematically interrelated terminology) that might lay claim to be central for the discussion of human affairs and human relationships, and for the placement of cultural forms? (1973:27).
In other words, all narratives, insofar as they are narratives undertaken by one agent or another, are both selective of reality, and as a consequence, deflections of reality. For example, it is possible, in writing the history of the United States, to underplay the role slavery played in its economic wellbeing in the early years—as in fact it has been done – or to slight the massacres and dispossession of the native Americans thereby deflecting reality.
Stories and Histories
In this work – a companion piece to his In Search of the Hunter Obeyesekere examines, not so much the ‘history’ of Sri Lanka of which there are many works, but how these works select the material they use as evidence and what they leave out. In so far as this is the case, what these historians produce are artfully constructed narratives or stories that deflect reality. In so far as such deflections are discovered, others can come to correct them but there is no guarantee that they will not be deflections too. This is the inherent pathos in creating narratives: they can be challenged and repudiated by others on the one hand or can be also be enriched by later writers.
Obeyesekere, in this work as well as his other work on the Vaddas does both: he challenges some of the extant versions of history as well as enriches it substantially. He describes his aim in this work as follows:
In this work entitled Stories and Histories: Sri Lankan pasts and the dilemmas of narrative representation I emphasize, as in my other writings, I the tentativeness of historical knowledge. History in my thinking, as with some of my professional colleagues, is something in the making and it was Max Weber who with great insight mentioned the tentativeness of historical knowledge and hence its vulnerability.
Obeyesekere then goes on to claim rightly that some purported historical writings are really myths or stories concocted for give political purposes. He writes:
For example, in Sri Lanka, as elsewhere, combatants in ethnic and civil wars have reiterated the idea of “homelands” and scholars and historians on opposed sides of the divide step into the breach and justify the idea of homelands through skewed historical and archeological research. The most unconscionable histories were written during the Nazi regime, but they too had the guise of empirical historiography. There is nothing to prevent scholars becoming card-carrying members of violent movements or fanatic nationalists employing modern methods of historical and ethnographic writing to justify their respective political stances.
These considerations lead him to argue:
I am critical of the way modern historians have dealt with Sri Lanka’s pasts, I will selectively deal with earlier periods of our history to elucidate some of the problems that beset us in our study of Sri Lankan classical texts such as the Mahāvaṃsas that provide us with a continuous history from the very founding of the nation to the reign of the last king of Kandy.
In Stories and Histories Obeyesekere continues with his radical reconstruction of the early history of Sri Lanka by relying on certain folk records. These records are Bandaravaliya—the genealogical records of certain families—vittipots –records of given contemporary events and kadaimpots – notes on the boundaries of the provinces. These documents are clearly a rich source of reliable data. Obeyesekere presents his material in segments that he entitles as numbered “books”.I too will write my comments with his scheme. It is however not possible to present the extremely detailed material that one can find in these chapters and I will select certain significant elements. Will this constitute my deflections of reality? I hope not.
Book I – Topographies of Sri Lanka: Boundary Books: Kadaim pot
After some introductory comments about the importance of these folk documents for reconstructing the early history of the island Obeyesekere selects two for further commentary:
They are the Lankādv paye Kaḍaim ota (“The boundary book of the land [or Island] of Sri Lanka”) and Tri Sinhale Kaḍaim Pota (“The boundary book of the Three [divisions of d fifteen. The districts are contained within the three larger political divisions of the country, namely Maya-rata, Ruhunu-rata and Pihiti-rata, the last identified with the ancient Raja-rata, “the country of the kings” with its capital in Anuradhapura and later in Polonnaruwa. Studying these documents he unearths a great deal of detail about the peopling of the land its ethnic composition as well the governance of the relevant kingdom and its relationship to India. These works are ostensibly about boundaries but it really about how the boundaries of given provinces were constituted and about the people who lived in them.It turns out it was a mixed population with a dominant Sinhala one with an admixture of migrants from the Chola an Pandya provinces of what is now called Tamil Nadu, from the Chera provinces now called Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and even Vaddas.
Book 2 – Composition of the Event Books: -Vitti pots: Immigration Myths and the story of the Mallalas
In this book Obeyesekere deals with a variety of issues by getting his material from vitti potts which are records of events that occurred in given territories. He takes data from these texts and brings them into conversation with other documents such as the more official ones and draws various conclusions. In some cases there seem to some congruence between these texts and in others there is not. Nevertheless, these documents provide interesting dialectically related material from which powerful conclusions can be drawn. When the Bodhi tree was to the island by Mahinda and Sanghamita,they were accompanied by a group called the “Mallalas”. “Since that time, Obeyesekere observes “they have lived in Sri Lanka”. Who were these Mallalas?I t is in answering this question that Obeyesekere exposes the main thesis of his work: the tentativeness of conclusions about historical events and the conundrums involved in resolving them. Who then were the Mallalas and where have they gone? Obeyesekere writes:
The “Tamilness” of the Mallalas is never explicity stated even in the prose texts and indeed cannot be stated. The reasons are clear enough because the Mallalas, according to their myth of origins came with the Bodhi tree and therefore must come from the area of the Bodhimandala, what we would now know as Buddhagaya in the state of Bihar. Yet it is also clear from the prose text that the Mallalas fought with the Maravas or Maravaras who were in Ramnad way down in the South of India, but they are Buddhists which of course fits in nicely with their historical claims. Nevertheless, the ambiguity of the Malalas – are they Tamils or are they not – remain and intrinsic to the Malala personae. Thus, when they land in Sri Lanka, they are confronted with the Vädda chief who asks them in the verse text, “O Damilas [Tamils], what is the language you speak?” Which is an oxymoron because if one in a Damila one must speak Tamil! To make sense of this statement, the term Damila is used by the Vädda chief as a generic term for South Indian speakers and hence it would make sense for them to figure out the actual language spoken by the Damila-Malalas which ofh of course could be a Kerala language. Kerala in Sinhala ideation is often known as Mallala!
If that is one example of the conundrum that Obeyesekere erxmines. Here is another: Who are the Tamils why are mentioned often in these folk stories? Here is Obeyesekere’ s discussion:
Demala is on the one hand an exclusionary sign which is also another way of indicating their alien-ness; but when the demalas come to the aid of the Sinhala king as in the Ayothipattalama prose episode the Tamils are the good guys. This means that although the term demala has pejorative connotations it occasionally can have positive meaning. In these cases, it seems that the demala sign hangs on the Sinhala head! This is expectable because, historically speaking, many Sinhalas were erstwhile demalas. For the most part the exclusionary demala sign is also apparent in our historical chronicles, both Pali and Sinhala.That is, when invaders from South India are mentioned in derogatory fashion they are most often mentioned as demala or damila. But we will show in our discussion of these chronicles that when South Indians are referred to by their place of origin, especially Pandu (Pandya) or Soli (Chola) or even Kalinga there is much more ambiguity. Sometimes these Pandyans and Cholas are also demala but at other times they can be referred to without the demala sign attached to them. Thus, one of the famous Sinhala chiefs in the Kotte period was Vidiye Bandara whose mother married a man from Soli or Chola. In which case this man could be considered a demala from Jaffna although never referred to as such; and many good Sri Lankan kings had the term Pandu or Soli attached to them.
Clearly then the peopling of Sri Lanka was accomplished by agents from many parts of the sub-continent though the contribution from the Tamil country and the Kerala country was very significant as well.
This process of assimilation of various groups into the a Sinhala polity was also, Obeyesekere shows, dramatized in various rituals.Here is one:
These symbolic processes of inclusion and exclusion abound in the Sinhala Buddhist ritual traditions. In present day Western and Southern provinces there are many ritual dramas that symbolically encapsulate a historical process whereby aliens of various professions are, in the first phase of the drama, ritually excluded and then later included in the Buddhism of the Sinhala people. Like the Malala/Malla chiefs they are “naturalized” as Sinhala Buddhists in these ritual enactments. I shall briefly present a synoptic account of these kinds of ritual dramas often performed in large scale exorcistic rituals (tovil) for demonic afflictions or during communal thanksgiving ritual complexes (gammaḍuva) in honor of the gods. Here is the general scenario. In the ritual arena, there are two performers who play the role of the guardian gods or devas of the pantheon such as Vishnu and the Goddess Pattini. They hold a tape or a stick that represents a barrier. On the other side of the barrier are actors dressed as aliens, sometimes as Brahmins, or as alien deities or demons or merchants. The barrier is viewed as a kaḍavata or city gates at the entrance to a city, but in this case the entrance to Sri Lanka. The alien being tries to cross the barrier but is prevented by the guardian gods. The outsider speaks something like Tamil, really a kind of gibberish; in other instances, the alien speaks unintelligible Sinhala with a pronounced Tamil accent. The newcomer does not know Sinhala-Buddhist customs and insults the deities at the barrier by some horrendous action such as saluting them with his arse. The prim deities at the barrier are firm. Gradually the outsider begins to speak proper Sinhala and the proper ways of addressing the devas. In one common enactment the guardian deities at the barrier asks the outsider to bring a sannasa or letter of authority from the Buddha. But to begin with even this is not done properly. The outsider might place the sannasa on his foot and thrust it at the devas or perform similar outrageous actions. After much enjoyable horseplay of this sort, the outsider recognizes the superiority of the guardian gods and the Buddha. He pays homage to the guardian deities in the proper manner and with decorum gives them the letter of authority. The gods open the barrier and the outsider enters Sri Lanka, symbolically “naturalized,” as it were, as a-Buddhist.
Rituals are actually dramas that represent a chosen version of reality and one can see this only in various Sri Lankan ones but in many other traditions as well. Conversely, theatrical plays are often used to represent a chosen version of reality—such as Shakespeare’s historical plays and can be considered rituals. His Henry V for example then is ritual of patriotism.
Book 3 – Small Kingdome of Sri Lanka: Sitavaka and Kotte
In this chapter once Obeyesekere again brings in to the conversation the various folk documents with other official accounts about events in Sitavaka and Kotte kingdoms. We are now in the period in the history of the island in which parts of which were under Portuguese control and the Portuguese themselves have provided texts for Obeyesekere’ s meticulous analysis. He is able compare different documents and provide a richly detailed account of the dynastic alliances of the various rulers of these kingdoms and significance of caste categories for royal marriages.
Book 4 – Brahmins in the Sinhala Varna Scheme:The Coming of the Brahmins in the Dambadeniya Period
In this section Obeyesekere, once again inter-relating a variety of texts to each other, examines the coming of the Brahmins to the island, They, it turns out were more or less indispensable in managing certain rituals in the various courts as well as in managing various temples that were scattered in the kingdom. The populace waws mainly Buddhist, of course, but worshiping the Buddha-associated Hindu god Vishnu and the Kataragama god Skanda or Kandasamy was also part of the religious life of the people—playing no doubt a version of Pascal’s wager! So, there were devales that needed anointed priests and they came. They were welcomed by the king as well as the people.
Obeyesekere further observes; Anothe aspect of the coming of the Brahmins is the problem of fitting them into the local absorbed caste system.In any case they were eventually,it appears, absorbed into the goigama sector, Obesyesekere fimds abundant evidence of their presence and functionality in the various texts with a number of villages identified with the “Bamunaga” – the Sinhala version of Brahmins– prefix is not clear how many of these Brahmins came but there is no doubt they did have both a presence and an influence in the kingdom.
Book 5 – Colonization Myths: Trade Economic Models and the Political Order
This chapter entitled deals with a number of issues. Obeyesekere demonstrates the intricate economic relations that Sri Lanka had with various counties and the important part its ports played it assisting these relations. He cites a work by Kenneth McPherson as follows:
“In the early centuries of the present era the most active South Asian ports were located in southern India and Sri Lanka: a host of small ports along the Malabar and Coromandel coasts as well as the great Sri Lankan port of Mantai which flourished until it was abandoned in the eleventh century after devastating wars between Sri Lanka and South Indian invaders.” The economic transactions the no doubt by accompanied the use of these ports followed by social influences contributed to the emergence of a more of a more cosmopolitan culture in the island rather than insular one. Greek coins were often used as the currency in many transactions as gold imported from various parts of the world.
In the sphere of religion and culture too Obeyesekere makes an important point:
“The Chola (Sinhala Soli) conquest of the Island has oft-times been unfairly castigated as contributing to the decline of Anuradhapura. It was certainly the case that the Cholas moved their capital to Polonnaruva, but this did not result in the abandonment of Anuradhapura and its great hydraulic networks. The Chola rulers were familiar with these systems of irrigation in their own home territories and surely knew the importance of maintaining them. As Nilakanta Sastri rightly mentions the Chola administration of Sri Lanka, especially the northern Rajarata, was not an oppressive one, no more than it was in South India itself. As far as Buddhism was concerned it is likely that the Cholas did not interfere with the dominant religion because that again was not part of Chola policy here or elsewhere. It is likely that plunder of the wealth of monasteries, especially the treasures sequestered in stupas were the target of Chola soldiers and mercernaries but in no way comparable to the plunder of the monastic wealth by the Sinhala rulers in the generation of the descendants of Vijayabahu I. It was the latter who finally pushed the Cholas back to their own country and liberated the nationMoreover, the Cholas, although Shaivites, also patronized Buddhist places of worship….
Buddhism and Rajaraja I as well as his son Rajendra, admittedly through the sponsorship of the ruler of Sri Vijaya, had two great Buddhist monasteries constructed in the Tamil country. Thus, some inscriptions from the Trincomalee district that a Buddhist vihara known as Velgam-vehera in Sinhala “was renamed Rājarājaperumpaḷḷi after of the greatest of Chola monarchs, Rājarāja I. ”323 We will demonstrate later that even after the liberation of the Island by Vijayabahu I, Chola relations with Sri Lanka were cordial.
Book 6 – The Significance of the Interregnum in Sinhala Histories: Rajavaliya and other related texts
In this chapter Obeyesekere examines what he calls Various documents called rajavalias and relates them to others such pujavalias and the Mahavamsa.He notes both the conjunctions among them as well; the contradictions and propose spome way of resolving themThis chapter in fact deals with that period in Sri Lankan history in which the Portuguese had taken control of the Kotte kingdom and were engaged in converting people to Catholicism. They did succeed and created a whole new ethnic group to a great extent and even many members of the royalty were successfully converted. The Portuguese, Obeyesekere, observes were not racist as such and many of their men married local lasses and their descendants became a new ethnic group.The Portuguese occupation Obeyesekere observes resulted another profound social change, Here it is in his words:
To be fair by the Portuguese one must note that they were not explicitly racist unlike the British and they married Sinhala women of different castes and degrees of nobility. Portuguese and Catholics welcomed many of the so-called inferior castes, especially the Karava (karā), the Salagama (hāli) and the Durāva (durā), all of whom in later times populated much of the low country coastal region and became leading entrepreneurs and pioneers of industry, intellectuals, political leaders and civil servants from the 19th century onwards. Some of them, especially the Salagama, became Buddhists but all of them, as the Rājāvaliya points out, upset the traditional order and in doing so, they challenged the hegemony and numerical dominance of the Goyigama, something that the Rājāvaliyas do not point out! Surely those castes mentioned earlier must thank the Portuguese Catholics for their current status, and this applies to those among the aforementioned castes who became Buddhists and indeed out-Buddhicized the traditional and often lax Goyigama Buddhists who took their Buddhism for granted. We must also reckon that it is these new Buddhists that brought about the rejuvenation of the Sangha in the 19th century with the two new fraternities from Burma, the Ramanna and Amarapura. Like their Karava, Salagama and Durava supporters these newer fraternities challenged the caste-exclusiveness of the dominant Siyan Nikaya. To put it differently: if the “cruel Portuguese” were not here, neither would there be the newer castes with their rich array of elites and the newer fraternities with their rich array of monks! In the context of our modernity we should admit that Buddhists owe much to the much hated Christian pratikāl!
An interesting point that Obeyesekere makes about the relations between Sinhala Buddhism and Tamil Buddhism should be noted here:
During the reign of Vijayabahu I the traditional enemies were the Cholas but the Chola hegemony of about seventy years was over in his reign and the brutal invasion of Sri Lanka was by Magha of Kalinga and not the Cholas or Pandyas. The latter, and especially the Cholas, were now friends of Parakramabahu II. The king adds that he dismissed corrupt monks who had flourished during the “interregnum” (the period of Magha) and then “sent many gifts to the Coḷa country and caused to be brought over to Tambapaṇṇi many respected Coḷa bhikkhus who had moral discipline and were versed in the three Piṭakas and so established harmony between the two Orders.”
This chapter is intricately detailed one and deals with many issues—dynastic alliances, territorial boundaries relations between the local religion and the alien one and so on and I have only highlighted one of them here.It is once again a tour de force, of textual analysis and insightful interpretation.
Book 7 – Mahavamsa Histories and Narrative Fiction
In this chapter Obeyesekere delves into the Mahavamsa and relates it to various other documents. In undertaking this exercise he is able on the one hand to support some the Mahavamsa’s version of events challenge some others and important details to the narrative of the island’s story. He examines dynastic alliances marital connections and kin relations among the ruling families. Obeyesekere further examines in detail how knowledge of Kautilya’s Arthasastra was studied by some kings and this began to influence the way the rulers ran both the country as well their relations with fellow rulers.
Book 8 – Problematics of History: Buddhist Ideals and practical reality: The Parricide as Hero: The case of Rajasinghe I
In this chapter Obeyesekere engages with the account in the Mahavamsa about Rajasinghe and challenges that version.
This work by Gananath Obyeyesekere is truly a masterly exercise in the hermeneutics of important Sri Lankan texts, some of them widely known and others rather obscure. Not however just a hermeneutic exercises but exemplary critical hermeneutics. He examines the various texts at his disposal with meticulous attention to details, pointing out their strengths and weaknesses, their plausibility, and contradictions, and then drawing his own interpretations and conclusions. In the course of doing this he also challenges popularly held stories about events from the island’s past and eviscerates stereotypes about the Sinhalese people and the Tamils and Muslims and the relations they had with each other.
All in all, a very creative and insightful work of great importance to the people, scholars and lay people living to day. History is not bunk, after all and even if they are at times deflections of reality someone else can correct them and create a new one.
Needless to say in this commentary I have highlighted only what I considered certain salient features of Obeyesekere’s very complex and detailed work.
*Robert Sidharthan Perinbanayagam, Professor of Sociology (Emeritus), Hunter College of the City University of New York