24 September, 2018

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Cultural Knowledge, Practice & Prescriptions: Are We losing Them?

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

Culture is what defines us. We are embodiments of our culture. Our way of life is defined by cultural prescriptions, values, norms and customs that have been internalised during our years of growing, learning, working and living. Culture is a framework of knowledge, wisdom, ritual and accumulated prescriptions for this worldly (and other worldly) issues that human kind face universally and in specific localities. Irrespective of the changes that we face due to external influences, generally fundamentals of culture remain intact. For example, among the Australian Aborigines (the indigenous people) after 200 plus years of invasion, colonisation and displacement, main elements of their culture remain to this day. They express these through art, storytelling, dance, poems, rituals etc. Cultural fundamentals are held intact primarily by the elders and passed down to the younger generations against many odds. Indigenous peoples around the world struggle with endurance to preserve their cultural heritage. Contacts with other cultures, especially those that are dominant due to the power of modern dissemination methods, can alter aspects of one’s own culture in substantial ways. In this context, cultural conversions or inversions also take place leading some people to change their whole identity over time-manifestly or latently.

Cultural knowledge and associated practices continue in some form and shape against many odds in the face of colonisation, modernisation and now globalisation in countries like ours. They correspond to indigenous modes of treatment for varied illnesses, farming and agriculture, fishing, architecture, governance, education and learning, trade, travel, interaction with and preservation of environment, universe, religion, literature, art, dance, music, and the broader region surrounding us. In some fields, the cultural knowledge and cultural practice have passed down from the older generation to the younger generation on trust, hence it was a family affair. However, due to exigencies of life – continuity of such family and kin based transfer of cultural knowledge and practice was disrupted leaving a significant gap and a loss to the society. Our libraries and archives house some of the written cultural knowledge pertaining to various fields. For example, Peradeniya University library houses an ola leaf collection. However, it is the slow rate of their use and absorption by the emerging generations for everyday living that is under a cloud.

How far can the cultural knowledge and practice continue in the face of external influences being felt in society in the name of neocolonialism, neoliberalism, modernisation and globalisation today? Is it worth preserving and using cultural knowledge and associated practices (and public rituals) when we are supposed to be governed by reason, science, logic and technology? (remember the idea of scientific cabinet?) Do our formal education systems (in schools and universities contribute to the preservation, use and transfer of cultural knowledge and practice or do they in fact contribute to the demise of such knowledge and practice? Are traditional educational methods sufficient to maintain these in current contexts? Do our government policies promote or hinder cultural knowledge transmission and adoption for everyday use? Is it necessary to look at science and technology as competing paradigms of thought and action compared to our traditional cultural knowledge and practice or as complementary sources of wisdom? It is not possible to answer all these questions in a short article.  For the time being, it is sufficient to raise these questions for further discussion and reflection.

Increasingly, with the expansion of neoliberal, free market economic policies and projects, both in the developed and developing countries people are realising the adverse effects of such policies and projects on their lives and the impact they can have on children and grandchildren. Furthermore, they are beginning to realise the devastating effects these policies and projects have on our continuing cultural knowledge, practice and scripts. While a few have become billionaires and another few have materially progressed, a large mass of people is falling behind in trying to find an income to meet their daily needs. Against heavy advertising and marketing of what we need (and what we don’t need) by conglomerates of multinational business houses to our living rooms, and while our incomes are being eaten away by these consumer goods and services, the stability we experienced in life and community living in our own way is being taken away step by step making us highly vulnerable-materially and otherwise. Corporate world has opened up spaces for emerging young professionals together with its facilitator- the State- but this world is about competition, consumption and production of surplus for the owners of multinational corporations more than anything else.

Pressures to replace our cultural knowledge, prescriptions and practices with those imported from elsewhere are increasing in the name of fancy labels, promoters, and incentives. Career oriented professionals are playing key roles in such promotions in their own fields in collaboration with their foreign counterparts until later in life when they realise the careers they led did not provide the satisfaction of life on an enduring basis. 

Westerners and Easterners engulfed by the magic world of globalisation, mobility and competition are living this conundrum as to whether their traditional cultural prescriptions are the right path or the consumerist culture bestowed on us can lead us to a promised land in terms of ultimate happiness, serenity and fulfilment. 

Intercultural contact is an important element in contemporary life. I am not suggesting that we become cultural exclusives or adopt a nativist attitude in our dealings with other cultures. We need to be open to other knowledge and knowledge practices, learn their prescriptions and even apply where they are suitable. But we need to realise that all knowledge is cultural and specific to the historical, geographical, economic and social context-not necessarily universally applicable without modification. Modern science claims to be universal but recent critics have pointed out that it is not so at least in terms certain aspects. If we take the example of Buddhism, we can see how it is adapted to suit different country and cultural contexts in various parts of the world over millennia. One danger in such adaptation is that many tend to translate foreign knowledge to one’s own language and audiences without critical analysis and interpretation. This happens in the teaching of social science disciplines in universities also.

It is important to adopt a critical and comparative approach to our cultural knowledge, practices and prescriptions because uncritical use of these can lead to myth building, blind faith and imitation. However, even to do so, such knowledge, practice and scripts have to exist in the first place – not only in the minds of academics and researchers but also in the society as a living phenomenon. 

Language is the vehicle of transmitting cultural knowledge and associated practices plus prescriptions. In formerly colonised countries, there is a tendency to understand one’s own culture through the language of the coloniser rather than one’s own language because of the importance placed on the former as international languages. There are positives and negatives of such a trend. The way culture is constructed in an alien and dominant language can lead to certain biases and distortions compared to the way the same is constructed and described in indigenous language/s. Ability of those who do not speak or write in the indigenous languages to comprehend the core meanings of a given culture and its embodiments can be limited.  On the other hand, over time indigenous constructions of cultures can have various biases and distortions. Debates about the complexities of translating knowledge available in one language to another is familiar to many of us especially if we look at the manner knowledge of Buddhism was translated from Pali to Sinhala. However, we don’t seem to adopt a critical attitude when translating Western disciplinary knowledge to our languages in our learning institutions. Instead, very often translations alone are acceptable as true and higher knowledge and streamed into the educational processes.

My worry is that in the face of a higher value placed on anything and everything foreign in formerly colonised, now neo-colonial and neoliberal countries such as Sri Lanka, we seem to be moving fast to denigrate and delete our cultural knowledge, practice, and prescriptions with both hands and embrace the consumerist culture, practices and prescriptions plus western disciplines without question. I wonder if this trend is being sufficiently researched by our social scientists?  Are there any educational and policy making bodies taking enough interest in such matters? Opening of two growth corridors along the Colombo-Galle highway and Colombo-Kandy highway may have detrimental effects on the sources of our cultural knowledge, practice and scripts. Dismemberment of our cultural heritage and knowledge etc. and replacement of these with imported cultural knowledge, practice and scripts can make us no bodies not only in our own land but also in the wider world. It can make our identity bereft of any epistemological, philosophical or aesthetic foundations to rely on. Such a situation can lead to the emergence of fake truths and practices as well as those who promote the same –young and old – for a penny.

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Latest comments

  • 6
    1

    ” Opening of two growth corridors along the Colombo-Galle highway and Colombo-Kandy highway may have detrimental effects on the sources of our cultural knowledge, practice and scripts.” This is rather rich, coming from Dr. Gamage, who prefers to live in Australia rather than with us, the recipients of all this “cultural knowledge”
    ” Such a situation can lead to the emergence of fake truths and practices as well as those who promote the same –young and old – for a penny.”
    It is wrong to assume that cultural practices are “right” simply because they are indigenous. I could point out among many others the exaggerated belief in the powers of the Tooth Relic to bring rain. It has been disproved many times, but people keep repeating it. Another is the periodic emergence of herbal “cures” for diabetes /cancer / strokes etc , and the use of “Feng-Shui”, a totally fake practice which gets wide media publicity. We could very well do without such cultural baggage.
    Admittedly, there is much of value in our culture, such as respect for elders. But we could do without the exaggerated respect for politicians and clergy. What about betel-chewing? As far as literature goes, do any of the vaunted ola-leaf manuscripts contain anything like Kautilya’s writings ? Or even as interesting as the Kama Sutra?
    I know I am going to get howls of protest from the provoked patriots.

    • 1
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      This is typical. Preachings of the left over rabble of colonialism who still grieve the end to their blood sucking of our people. Destroying the strong Sinhala -Buddhist culture was an essential part of their needs. So they don’t like its revival because it maked neocolonialism a tough job.

      Indigenous cultures may not be right always, but they are far more humane, ethical and desirable to the current value system- based on greedy Jewish militarist capitalism – that is destroying the family and village unit as foundations of society. Our forefathers developed herbal medicines to cure diseases, unlike the Jewish multinational pharmaceutical companies who produce addictive chemicals to hook people on, treating symptoms only. We had a barter economy, far more logical and civilised than the Jewish money based evil system.

      As to the rain producing powers of the Tooth Relic, go to Getambe junction at ‘Diya Kepeema’ festival following the day perahera on the last day of the paegent, and you will see the results.

      You dishonest colonial rabble pricks, old or not, will always regret the end of your blood sucking days and the revival of our culture. But the game is on. Suck on it codger!

      • 3
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        Hi Mr. social reader aka Saimon,
        Why don’t you stick to one name, and drop all the anti-Jewish rhetoric? How are things at the asylum dear?
        “indigenous cultures may not be right always, but they are far more humane, ethical and desirable to the current value system-“
        Yes, blah blah and blah. It is SO very ethical to administer capital punishment by tying the culprit between two trees or getting an elephant to step on his head. In public too. How much more humane and ethical can you get? I don’t know what caste you are, but I don’t think you would have found it very desirable when your wife and daughter were forced to go topless. Personally, I think it would depend on their desirability, if you know what I mean.
        Thank the evil colonials for fixing that problem.

        • 1
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          How can an oldcodger like you find anyone or anything ‘desirable’ any more?

          Does it even raise by 5 degree? May be ‘Pansi Lakas’ are different.
          But won’t believe until we see it!

  • 0
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    Doc you are back again. Though you have used the NEO word freely, trust me Lanka has not moved an inch from so called old culture/values. Any facts are quoted from scripts written thousands of years ago , any debate are still conducted based on these facts, The common man,s mentality, the politicians and religious heads run day to day business based on these facts.Even today if you visit these forums it is clearly evident in the discussions. So relax, nothing to worry .The so called social media, globalization and western culture has not had much of influence in majority of our citizen.The way things are being run since independence it self is a very clear evidence.We are all aware of the impact of translation from Pali to Sinhala. Why worry about the western translation.The history and geography is now rewritten . Long Live Lankawe.

  • 2
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    Addendum : Doc by the way the country is dire need of a remedy to improve the gray and white matter ratio of the brain. If you can go through those scripts and recommend, it will be of great help to the nation.

  • 2
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    Dr. Gamage
    This article is food for thought.
    Culture is always dynamic, never static. So what you would identify as “Sri Lankan” culture, is actually time and geography-specific. What we do have are sub-cultures with some over-arching similarities- a ven diagram is probably the best illustrator of the composite culture of Sri Lanka.
    The main difference between western -especially American- culture and Sri Lankan (and in general asian) culture is the emphasis on the individual. Asian cultures tend to emphasize the need of the collective over the individual, while western cultures value the individual more. For example, in Sri Lanka, the family one comes from or one’s ethnicity or religion seems more predictive of one’s career and social advancement than one’s own merit. In contrast in the US, it’s not very surprising to see the son of a university professor to become a truck driver! Such an occurrence would astound a Sri Lankan!
    The other truism if that what ever the cultural phenomenon, one should not judge it from only one perspective. Just like genetic mutations, the judgement whether it is “good” or “bad” (useful or not), depends on the context. Imagine a giraffe having to survive on eating grass from a lawn!
    As times change, the culture should also change. The key is to decide what aspects of culture to let go and what to retain. Western cultures have realized their folly in many of the cultural changes they perpetrated in the 50s and 60s – the hey day of their economies where the middle classes grew exponentially. For example, the replaced re-usable material (like glass, paper) with plastics. Now they are reverting to use reusable and biodegradable material, after realizing the damage that plastic waste can cause to humans and the environment. Unfortunately in Sri Lanka, we seem to be going backwards, having only introduced plastics in the late seventies, people are reluctant to give it up.

  • 0
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    Very good article. We know Sri lanka has Tamils, muslims and christians. Now they have over powered us with Western neo-colonal invasion with human rights and social values. PResent Sri lankan govts more colonial very much like portugeuse who destroyed the buddhist culture than the British who favoured and protected the buddhist culture. Remember Rhys Davis like people who studied buddhism and became a bhikku. that is why Sri lanka needs one more political struggle as JVP and LTTE Failed.

  • 0
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    The present Political culture we talk is completely foreign to us. Asia had Rajjandu system. Read and see fron India, China and many other Asian co8untries including Sri lanka. In thsoe countries tghe King had been used to walk during the night alone and look for peasants who are unhappy. there are stories that the emperor was thinking saying WHAT DID I DO in order to happen that. The reason was there was a famine in one region of china. Now every thing the doctrine, plan, strategy everything comes from new york, washington, london, and paris also tries to do. I do not know where EU HQs are.

  • 0
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    Siri Gamage:
    Cultural Knowledge, Practice & Prescriptions evolve over time and were considered virtually indestructible.
    In spite of nearly 500 years of colonial rule, Hinduism has survived in India, Buddhism in Lanka and in Myanmar.
    Religion was invented to exploit the believers. The Indian sub-continent is no exception. Brigades of ‘defenders’ emerged= yet again to exploit the new landscape. And although the damage they are causing is visible, they are able to mask this through the media and the new found ‘democracy’. In this world, corruption/nepotism/impunity are taken for granted. Religious leaders demand and get private jets, Benz. Are these changes temporary?

    There are signs of realisation that the original religious teachings as was, have merit.

  • 7
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    Dr. Gamage

    You make a passing acknowledgement that traditional culture can be ‘biased’ while modern western culture can have some positive attributes. It is not good enough. Your article as a whole is still based on an outdated binary view of the world. It is a truism nowadays that such a dichotomous view is based on stereotypical, essentialist notions of ‘East’ and ‘West,’ and therefore fails to take into account the complexity and contradictions in various societies. For instance, modern western culture is not entirely lacking in spiritual values because of its purported enslavement to materialism. Similarly traditional eastern culture is not devoid of greed and exploitation because of its purported emphasis on spirituality. In fact it is being increasingly acknowledged that genuine Buddhism is practiced more in the West today than in the countries of its origin where unfortunately it is turning more and more into an authoritarian political ideology, brutally oppressing minorities and dissidents. Echoes of Burma? Sri Lanka? So the world is culturally more complex, fluid and dynamic than we’d like to imagine. The idea of a spiritual, altruistic ‘East’ is mostly a creation of westerners’ romantic quest for escape from a hectic lifestyle dominated by technology. So both ‘East’ and ‘West’ have problems. The problem with traditional culture therefore is not one of simple ‘bias.’ It is much more deep-rooted than that. If we take our own Sinhala traditional culture, just like any other traditional culture, it was/is fundamentally hierarchical – based on caste, class, gender and sexual inequalities. Ours was never a harmonious society though it always professed to be Buddhist. Instead it was a conflict-ridden system of domination based on patriarchy and feudal caste/class divisions.
    (Contd.)

  • 8
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    (Contd.)

    It is well known that the JVP uprising in 1971 had an important caste dimension to it. Many have observed that the continuing brutality in the name of ‘ragging’ in our universities is due to deep-seated resentment, hatred (even self-hatred) and other such psychological aberrations implanted in the minds of children growing up in a patriarchal and sexually oppressive society. Violence against women, children, minorities, the disabled, the poor, and people with different sexual orientations and gender identities is also a part of our ‘culture.’ So everything is not peachy on the eastern front. We cannot go on uncritically glorifying our traditions and values as the best in the world – like no other – ignoring the dark side of our culture. Then we’d be only helping the dominant groups in their continued discrimination, exploitation and oppression of vulnerable members of our society in the name of protecting Sinhala-Buddhist culture and heritage. Do we really want to be the cultural and
    thought police for these socially conservative, politically entrenched forces? No doubt globalization and the increasing exposure to western culture and technology bring many new challenges and social tensions. But if you look more closely, more objectively without any preconceived definition of what culture is or ought to be, maybe you’ll also find some salutary, positive developments. These cross-cultural encounters, fusions and exchanges create new social spaces where the marginalized in our society can have a voice for the first time in their lives. Maybe the two growth corridors along the Colombo-Galle highway and Colombo-Kandy highway you’re referring to will also lead to more such spaces and voices.

    • 5
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      Go, Ajay! You said a true mouthful.

    • 4
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      Well argued articulation Ajay. I can see your ;point.

      But culture is associated with power. Power has two dimensions: 1)Domination, 2) Subordination(and one could say representation too).

      When generations grow up without indigenous cultural roots and they succumb to foreign consumer and pop culture(circulated by dominant forces), and many embrace various vices including use of drugs, drinking,crime etc.we have to worry. I agree that the story is not binary and there are some middle spaces created as a result of current global arrangements. But the destruction of indigenous cultures by insidious forces from the powerful countries cannot be ignored.

      A nation cannot sustain without a strong culture and identity. Both are under attack from multiple directions and points-some of which are internal.

    • 1
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      Ajay what you say is food for thought.Could you contact me through my blog so that we can jointly articulate to the public on this matter.

      ps.I have only one last copy of “open words are for love letting”.though it did not win the gratien prize in 2012 ,everyone said that it should have.In 2013 “edge”won it,but the demand for the hard copies is for love letting.I want you only to have it.

    • 0
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      This is BS. Where do they protect Sinhala buddhist culture. . Killing Cattle, Pigs and Chicken. women and men dancing at the beach while boozing, drugs and having sex. women and modern fashin that show their body and body shape, Casinos, Liquor shops, Brothels and desire to legalize Brothels. LAck of disciplines and constant protests. Peoples greed and always thinking about one self and Mentality of I comes first always, corrupt culture, Women are treated like Sluts. IS that the Sinhala buddhist culture.

      • 2
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        Jimbo the dumb,
        ” women and modern fashin that show their body and body shape, “
        So you’ve never been to Sigiriya? Didn’t see the nice topless ladies there? Are the ladies tourists then?

        • 1
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          you are right.It was queen victoria who changed our culture.Ina way she did a good turn,otherwise we would have been plagued by aids like thailand.

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