9 August, 2022


Cultural Roots Of Cruelty

By Basil Fernando

Basil Fernando

In my short article on the impact of the Kulinas, published in Colombo Telegraph on 26th March 2021, I have mentioned about the emergence of a powerful group of people called the Kulinas in the 11th Century and I have tried to trace their impact on the Sri Lanka’s culture and history.

A few questions have been raised relating to this article. It should be said that the article was a very short comment on a debate that has gone on for a long time, particularly during the last Century. One of the main exponents of this debate was Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and his work has given rise not only to much wider literature but also to huge movements for the liberation of those who at one time were called untouchables and who now call themselves Dalits. In the creative writings, the novel, “The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga has given a very vivid expression to the meaning of the impact of caste on the mind of creating a highly intimidated mindset amongst the so called working classes in India who were called the low caste. The low caste simply means people who engage in physical labour as contrasted to those who did not engage in physical labour.

It was not my position that caste was introduced to Sri Lanka in the 11th Century. Actually, an exact date as to when caste related ideas came to Sri Lanka has not been definitely stated by any historian so far. It can be speculated that the period could be around the 8th Century when a militant movement arose in India to reintroduce the caste system and succeeded in doing so. In the period prior to that, from around the time of Gautama Buddha, there was a period when the working folk, the people who work in physical labour reigned with dignity and played a very creative role in the Indian society. It was this transformation from a suppressed people to a more liberated people which the Emperor Ashoka had to recognize, which he did, and which led to a period of greater egalitarianism in India. It was that movement that was gradually undermined and finally completely suppressed in India by militant movements led by the dominant group not engaging in physical labour called the Brahmins and their immediate social allies such as the soldiers and the traders. The people who successfully overcame the suppression of the working folk was greatly influenced by the rise of Buddhism and Jainism.

Martin Wickramasinghe has noted the influence of these militant Brahmin movements in Sri Lanka. It was that which gradually led to Brahminism (which is also wrongly called Hinduism) becoming the majority religion in Sri Lanka around the 11th Century.

This is why I maintain that the Sri Lankan caste system is a product arising from two combined factors that is the rise of a group of persons with larger land holdings plus the Indian form of social organization. And this transformed the culture which existed within Sri Lanka till then.

How did this rule of the Kulinas contribute to creating of a culture of cruelty? Creating a culture of cruelty does not imply that before that period there were no elements of cruelty in the people of Sri Lanka or elsewhere. It only means that the social conditions can create either the possibilities of lessening the cruel elements that exist within humans struggling for survival or it could also do the opposite that is to increase the levels of cruelty that exist within a society. For example in the creation of slavery, the cruelty of the people who were engaged in that slave trade and also those who benefited from the labour of the slaves underwent enormous change for the worse in terms of their cruelties. In the same way as the suppression of the Jews, the Germans showed greater propensity for cruelty than anything that the world has seen before.

Thus, the attribution of the cruelty that develops within the people purely to a human condition which would anyway exist anywhere does not explain how under certain circumstances people could behave less cruelly and under what circumstances do people engage in much more obscene forms of cruelty.

It also does not explain the impact of cruel practices which could last for centuries and their impact on the minds and souls of the people. If there is more tolerant cultural circumstances and these last for long periods, this creates certain habits opposing the rise of more cruel aspects of human nature. On the other hand, if for long periods of time, cruelty is not only allowed but legitimized as a proper way to conduct human affairs, that creates different types of mental and internal attitudes not only among the perpetrators of such cruelty but also on the victims,

The people who become powerful with a greater control of lands are not struggling for survival. It is the oppressed creature that has to struggle for survival as against the onslaught on their lives and livelihoods by the more dominant social groups which want to control them and to utilize them for the benefit of these more powerful social groups.

If the cruelty is purely an act of survival, then it should be the oppressed creature who should demonstrating far greater levels of cruelty than those who live comfortable lives and are quite secure in their positions. However, what we see in the case of Sri Lanka as elsewhere is that the long periods of cruelty on the oppressed creatures make them more timid, more submissive and willing to adjust their lives to the cruelty of a superior group of people because for them survival and submission go together.

Therefore, the version that cruelty is a product of human nature itself needs to be looked at from a more complex point of view as those who are in much superior positions with greater material possibilities for security and whose lives are not threatened, exhibit more cruelty than the oppressed people.

That is exactly the point that is made in the novel “The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga. The author tells the Premier of China who is supposed to visit India to go and watch the manner in which the people who live in very poor conditions remain so loyal to their superiors and are mortally scared to disobey and to cheat them simply because of the nature of cruelty that the superior group is able to impose not only on the individual transgressor but to their entire families and clans.

The behavior the rest of the animals who exhibit cruelty in order to survive like the lion who may kill a deer, human behavior cannot be explained in that same simple manner. Human beings because of their consciousness are capable of deliberately trying to suppress the worst aspects of their nature and to build civilization. On the other hand, the same consciousness can also create tendencies to suppress others in order to benefit from other people’s labour and  to get them to work only for the benefit of a superior group. This is why the propensities of cruelty should be studied within a historical context and that purely taking a philosophical position that all human beings have a tendency to be cruel and that is the sole reason for the kind of cruelties we have seen in the recent histories does not lead to any explanation about why under certain conditions, people are capable of being fair and why under certain circumstances, people show that they are incapable of acting with fairness to others.

Building of a culture of fairness is a historical task. Some cultures are prevented from developing their own traditions of fairness due habits formed in the past. Habits and practices of Kukinas have had that negative impact on the Sri Lankan culture.

The habits of the Kulinas

The stories told by the Jewish survivors who were exposed to virtual genocide by the Germans during the period of racism, reveals the many ways by which the German soldiers subdued the Jewish population before the deportations to concentration camps took place. Some of the habits were that the Jews were forbidden to look at any soldier of whatever rank by looking at their faces. Eye contact was completely forbidden. Completely forbidden during this time meant that if a transgression took place, the result could be death.

When a German soldier passed by a Jew, be it a man or a woman, the latter had to look down in a way so as to demonstrate overt forms of respect and to make no gesture of any kind which will indicate a feeling of equality. That the officer was a superior person had to be demonstrated by the physical gestures of complete submission by the Jews.

When they entered into any place including a house, the soldiers had full access to the place and there was no necessity at all for them to obtain any kind of permission to enter and stay in any place. The Jew had to get up whenever they saw a soldier.

Whatever a soldier would ask had to be done by the Jews, whether the action was extremely humiliating or hurtful was not a matter of concern. The Jews did not have any right to ask for any kind of identification on the part of a German soldier.

If a soldier was displeased, they could kick or otherwise attack a Jew and if he or she by any chance retaliated, the possible consequence could be death.

A Jew was not allowed to talk or ask questions from a German soldier. They were to regard themselves as to too low to be in a position to ask any questions or to attempt to talk to a soldier. When things deteriorated further and the concentration camp stage started, there was no limit at all to what the soldiers could demand and what the Jews had to obey. They could be asked to go in one line which would lead directly to the gas chambers. If anyone resisted, they could be shot at any time.

This list could go on for very much longer. However, the essence was that the most extreme forms of punishment could be meted out on a Jew for which they simply had no right to protest or to disobey.

Looking into the Sri Lankan experience of the behaviour of the Kulinas, who according to historians acquired a prominent position from about the 11th Century Anno Domini (AD), it had many of the features similar to the above experiences suffered by the Jews. This meant that those who were not Kulinas had to show every possible form of docility, subservience and obedience to the Kulinas. Any kind of transgression was punishable not only by the death of the particular individual who makes the transgression, but also that of his/her family.

Various pictures that have been drawn at various times show various kinds of gestures through which the non Kulinas had to demonstrate their subservience and deference to the Kulinas. Even by way of dressing, the non Kulinas had to demonstrate their inferiority to their superiors; meaning those who belong to the Kulinas. These details need not be repeated because it is very much in the memory and knowledge of the people even up to date.

A commentator commenting on the recent habits of very important persons (VIPs) going in their limousines illustrates that these habits still live on. When these limousines pass, the security guards or the Police will chase the people who are on the roads to move them out, even using force for that purpose. This was similar to the way the people had to behave when the Kulinas moved in and out of a place in the period when the Kulina superiority remained unchallenged. The importance of this is that in order to understand as to why despite many forms of violent treatment, insults and other extremely insensitive acts, it is a usual remark these days that Sri Lankans do not react to these things in the way that people of many other societies will angrily react to. For example, there were many comments on social media about a lack of popular protest against the type of behaviour that a Police officer exhibited a few days ago when he began to get on top of the body of a fallen man and started kicking him. Despite the photograph of this going viral, there was no reaction at all to compare with, for example, the reaction that the Americans and people of other countries showed when George Floyd was trampled to death by a policeman in the United States.

What is demonstrated by this is that the practices engaged in by the Kulinas from about the 11th Century up to the 19th Century have left deep, internal impressions and footprints that still determine the behaviour of a larger section of people. The fact of changes being effected to education and even the inculcation of a certain degree of liberal values in education does not seem to have had any telling effect in changing the mentalities that had been created during those Centuries.

It is not possible to understand the mind and the psyche of the Sri Lankan people without understanding how for centuries the Kulinas terrorized the people of Sri Lanka.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 2

    It sounds remarkably like the Jaffna Tamils and their ‘low caste’ brethren who cannot enter the same kovil or drink from the same tap.

    • 5


      “It sounds remarkably like the Jaffna Tamils and their ‘low caste’ brethren who cannot enter the same kovil or drink from the same tap.”

      When you visit kovils in Jaffna next time around make sure you bathe or shower and dress in clean clothes, refrain from alcohol. Please report to the police if they don’t let you in even after adhering to all those disciplines.

      • 2

        Not being a high caste Tamil I am not allowed in. I doubt whether a Veddah would be allowed to pollute the same town let alone the kovil.

        • 2


          “Not being a high caste Tamil I am not allowed in.”

          Having familiarised with your typing over the past few months, I won’t be surprised even if your wife refused you entry into your familial home.

    • 4

      Basil Fernando says:
      “This is why I maintain that the Sri Lankan caste system is a product arising from two combined factors that is the rise of a group of persons with larger land holdings plus the Indian form of social organization”
      Would these persons by any chance be wearing yellow robes?
      A good analysis of Sinhala Buddhist social stratification, though many would deny that it exists, just as war crimes don’t exist.

  • 3

    There is no doubt that NGR has inherited the genes of the Kulinas that had been lying dormant for a long time. This is known as Atavism. It also appears that the genes while hibernating through several generations have mutated into a rather more virulent form.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.