By 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.