By Siri Gamage –
Victor Ivan’s article titled Historical Context of the Culture of Intellectual Poverty (translation by K.A.N Perera) published in the Sunday Island (23.09.2017) raises several controversial issues in terms of scholarly enquiry, analysis, knowledge production and dissemination, interpretation as well as intellectual contributions by Sri Lankans to the repertoire of world knowledge. Ivan believes that ‘The interest in learning from other advanced cultures and civilizations has a greater role to play in the progress of a nation and its intellectual advancement’. While the concept of intellectual poverty is undefined and assumed to be a fact by the author, it is not very often that articles of this nature appear in the Sri Lankan media on the subject. He makes several points – some debatable and even controversial – that should receive serious attention of educationists, social scientists, philosophers, religious and literary scholars, popular writers and potential intellectuals.
Ivan’s key argument for intellectual poverty in the country is manifold: 1) Sri Lankan people, for ages, have been ‘restricting their knowledge exclusively to the religion that they believe in’. 2) In the case of Buddhists, very many understood it narrowly while for others it was the ‘culmination and crowning glory of all knowledge’. For a long period, Buddhism ‘remained only, or the main source of knowledge and inspiration’. 3) Sri Lankans were not aware of the great religious leaders and intellectuals or their great works in the pre-Christian era, e.g. Plato, Socrates, Confucius, Mahawira, Euclid, Archimedes. Not even their work was translated. Thus their thinking did not make an impact on Sri Lankans. 4) Sri Lankans were not even aware of the great changes that took place in Europe following renaissance or the great sages or intellectuals that emerged there until the British introduced the formal school system to the country. ‘As far as the search for knowledge is concerned, Sri Lanka remained in the dark until the doors to the world were open’ by the British this way. Though there was a proselytising element’ in the school system, it also included many mundane subjects thereby exposing the population to the world of new knowledge. However, ‘the country failed to reap the benefit of this new system’. 5) In this exclusively religious milieu spanning the whole history of the country until the British arrived, ‘mundane aspects did not find a significant place in their ideology’. Moreover, ‘ not a single treatise on non-religious character was written’. ‘There was no room for the emergence of any advance art, science or philosophy in this social milieu’. 6) ‘Local academics of the day were not mature people conversant with the new knowledge that was fast gaining ground spreading across the world’. Their lack of comparative knowledge in world civilisations, the reliance on Buddhism and ancient civilisation of Sri Lanka etc. led them to adopt a chauvinistic attitude to great revelations made by the Europeans. 7) It was the European civil servants rather than local intelligentsia who kindled an interest in us to study our own history, civilisation, religion and literature. Even the religious revival movement in the 19th century reflects the intellectual poverty. 8) Post 1956 language policy contributed to the intellectual poverty. Instead of bilingual academics the system of education produced monolingual scholars. 9) Though social science is a popular subject in universities, not a single book by Max Weber, celebrated authority on the subject, has been translated. Thus the students of social science are restricted to the pedagogic instructions of teachers. Undue prominence is given in the country to translate novels. 10) Present system of education from Grade 1 to the University is based on rote learning (memorising) the outcome of which is ‘the production of men, who can’t even think independently, let alone producing men of letters and thought’.
What is expressed here is a highly biased and pessimistic view of our intellectual history, international relations, higher education and knowledge construction. It is one that does not do due justice to various scholarly contributions that have been made to the field of knowledge by Sri Lankans over the centuries. There have been knowledge exchanges between Sri Lankan literati –though mainly religious- and those in India for centuries since the time of Buddha. Historians and others who studied the ancient period in Sri Lanka have uncovered cross border linkages between Sri Lanka, Asia and even Europe particularly during the Anuradhapura period when the country enjoyed a celebrated place in terms of art, culture, architecture, religion, agriculture, trade and commerce. Historians specialising the ancient period that roughly parallels the pre-Christian era that Ivan talks about have uncovered through research the frequent communications that existed between Anuradhapura civilisation and European civilisations, e.g. Sirima Kiribamune, Leslie Gunawardana, W.I. Siriweera. Had the Anuradhapura civilisation continued unabated, not only the history of the country but also its intellectual history would have been quite different with the potential to reach European capitals. It would have been the same if the island was not colonised by the European powers that thrived on their exploits from the colonised world in Asia, Africa and Latin America and establishing a centre-periphery relationship and dominance by way of imperialist ambitions. Though it is true that our historians and others did not focus enough on the ‘knowledge histories’ in their work, it is incorrect to assume that Sri Lankans were living in a dark age before the British introduced a formal school system (and for that matter a University to the country).
Even if Sri Lankan scholars did not have the benefit of new knowledge that emerged in Europe until the British arrival, they certainly had acquired sufficient knowledge about religions, philosophies, languages, art and culture that existed in India, Persia and elsewhere during the pre-British era. This is amply demonstrated by the comparative knowledge on Hinduism, Pali and Sanskrit, Indian mythology, literature and so on that Sri Lankans held and deliberated on. Being civilizational centres close to home, Sri Lankans have had easy access to knowledge sources there. During the pre-Christian era it must have been the last thing in the minds of European scholars to think about Lankadeepa due to the distance, poor transport and communication facilities! At least the erudite monks kept the mid night oil burning to compile Mahavansa and other work on the royal history and Buddhist Dhamma when the great European sages discovered new knowledge.
Ivan seems to assume that if we translated the great works of Europeans etc. our country would have produced intellectuals. This is an untenable proposition because even without such translations, Sri Lanka has had a diversity of sources to new knowledge from the East in the ancient past. Comparing European renaissance period with the intellectual context in Sri Lanka when the country was facing wars and conflicts leading even to the change of capitals for protection from invaders is not necessarily a reasonable exercise.
Nonetheless, it is important to raise questions about why Sri Lanka has not produced intellectuals of the calibre that Ivan talks about? Was it because there was no institutional support? Did the epistemological frameworks employed in the search for knowledge restrict us in further expanding and venturing out to new discoveries that could help the human kind? Were our ancestors so narrow minded to not look beyond the Buddhist paradigm of thought, philosophy and action? Did they focus only on spiritual comfort and individual liberation? Did the political system prevailing then subvert rather than encourage intellectual imagination and growth of citizens?
The point about narrow understanding of Buddhism by very many has some validity when considering the popular Buddhist practices based on such understandings. Buddhism as it is practiced today within Sri Lanka is not uniform. There are variations in practice as much as there are variations in Nikaya affiliations and segmentations. Some focus on meditation and philosophy while others focus on ritual and faith in the ability of Buddha to bring happiness, healthy life, wellbeing (even wealth and prosperity).
For intellectualism to emerge even within the Theravada Buddhist school of thought critical examination is necessary. For a long time, Sri Lankans understood Buddhism through translations by the Sangha who acquired knowledge of Pali language. Buddhist scholarship was measured on the basis of how well the doctrine in Pali language could be translated and communicated to a faith community. Intellectualism and creativity was noted in the manner this was accomplished by particular monks. This task was not a simple exercise as there are divergent commentaries and interpretations on Dhamma topics. Even today Dr. Gamini Abey who conducts talks in various parts of the country and through media provides a different interpretation of Buddhism (you can access his Dhamma discussions via Ytube and the Internet).
For intellectuals to emerge, there has to be places of rigorous intellectual activity. Typically, they are institutions where organised scholarly activity takes place, e.g. religious, educational, and professional. If there is intellectual poverty in these institutions spreading over the span of centuries, we need to critically examine why the institutions did not produce intellectuals of the calibre that Ivan talks about? If Sri Lankans restricted the pursuit of knowledge and intellectual activity to Buddhism, then the question is whether the works produced by Buddhist scholars display intellectual poverty or intellectual richness? My own view is that such works in fact display intellectual richness rather than poverty. Scholars of Buddhism have engaged with European and American intellectuals on substantive topics. Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala and Balangoda Ananda Maithriya are two examples. Among the philosophers and Buddhist scholars of modern time who engaged with the ideas of so-called European and other sages, K N Jayathilake, David Kalupahana, W.S. Karunarathne, Padmasiri de Silva, Gunapala Malalasekera, Ven. Walpola Rahula, and Ananda Guruge come to mind.
Engagement with New Knowledge after the British Arrival
Sri Lankan scholars have at least from the time of colonial occupation of the country and spread of foreign institutions, procedures, professions, education, religion, culture did engage with the ideas, ideologies, research, scholarly debates in the language of the coloniser. This is manifest more from the time the newspapers and printing came into being in the country and the establishment of university of Ceylon, in particular its Faculty of Oriental studies and departments teaching disciplines such as economics, sociology, philosophy, Western history, classics and English. Whether Sri Lankan scholars who distinguished themselves in their respective fields during the late colonial and post independent periods can be called intellectuals is another matter because it depends on one’s definition of who an intellectual is? Here one has to make a distinction between who is an intellectual, philosopher, scholar, critical or independent thinker, literati, or Pundit, as there can be close similarities and subtle differences in these terms. If we adopt the categorisation or definition used by Wimal Dissanayake, there have been several Sinhala cultural intellectuals in the country including Martin Wickramasinghe, Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Munidasa Kumarathunge, and Piyadasa Sirisena. I would consider E W Adikaram and even Edwin Ariyadasa as critical thinkers and public intellectuals of their time.
The cause of any intellectual poverty in Sri Lanka today is due to the academic dependency of our philosophers, social scientists, humanities scholars and educators resulting in an internal value system and professional bias toward treating foreign, particularly Western knowledge as superior in comparison to Eastern and/or Asian knowledge. This bias is based on the inculcation of the ‘modernist paradigm of thought’ during the British colonial period and its continuation through rote learning and teaching by translation rather than original thinking, reflection, comparison, and critical evaluation required of high calibre intellectuals. Breaking down knowledge into distinctive disciplines, a practice inherited from Western university system, has also resulted in the fragmentation of knowledge and even its parochialisation. This has resulted in developing mindsets that do not break disciplinary boundaries to look for Cross-disciplinary linkages in a holistic manner.
Thus one reason for intellectual poverty in the academia is the over reliance on European and American thought by social scientists and other scholars. Though some civil servants and later anthropologists, historians, archaeologists etc. have contributed to the knowledge production about our history, civilisation etc., the fact that knowledge was divided into disciplines and pursuit of knowledge was carried out within discipline based departments without looking into cross disciplinary linkages have not helped in the production of new knowledge or intellectuals. Knowledge in social sciences as provided in Sri Lanka is overwhelmingly European and American centred. It is also translated from English to Sinhala and Tamil. It promotes repetition and dictation rather than originality in thinking. Western Europe and North America provide the theoretical and methodological frameworks employed by our social scientists. Our academics and students try to fit data collected from the country to these frameworks almost as another faith community. There are a few critically thinking academics who think outside the box and tend to bring some fresh conceptualisations and arguments about the validity of such frameworks or who have innovated them to suit the social and economic context but they are only a handful. Great many are dependent on the translated knowledge and become prisoners of thought rather than intellectuals in its true meaning. One can argue then that instead of our academics not knowing European and American ideas in Social Sciences, the problem leading to intellectual poverty today is either they understand them narrowly out of context or they do not understand them at all.
Scientific methodology used in natural sciences is used unsuccessfully in the social sciences by way of positivist methodology that generates researchers to produce data within clearly demarcated boundaries of a defined problem at a micro level but do not add to generalisations that can be useful in macro thinking on global and regional issues. Empiricism –collection and analysis of data through surveys etc. is taken as an end in itself in such exercises. Important questions that have to be raised are not raised in such research either. Trivial pursuit of topics dictated by external funding agencies and the use of recommended methodologies has become the done thing. Furthermore, findings from such research raise questions on truth issues rather than provide solutions. Yet they are not addressed. Thus the argument goes at least from the perspective of Southern Theorists and Post colonial writers that rather than use positivist methodology we need to use more interpretive paradigms of thought in social sciences and other subjects. Even here, the biases I mentioned earlier seem to be present. Western thought by European and U.S. Disciplinary knowledge has become dominant whereas eastern thought is marginalised. Raewyn Connell in her book called Southern Theory (2007) has amply demonstrated how this academic domination and dependency operate and what the intellectuals from the global south can do to correct it?
The vocations that were supposed to unleash intellectual wisdom and discoveries have been turned into ‘a lifestyle’ by the practitioners thereby securing themselves a comfortable life, recognition, authority, identity and access to wealth, status and power. This applies to vocations in fields such as religion, politics, science (exemplified by medicine), law, bureaucracy, technology, business, security, and academia. When fields of activity that should theoretically deliver intellectuals to the world are turned into lifestyles that reinforce mediocrity rather than meritocracy with added influence of the political sphere, one can see why we as a country have not produced intellectuals of the calibre described by Ivan? True intellectuals commit and devote their lifetime to the pursuit of undiscovered knowledge and in some cases cultural products, e.g. novels, drama, theatre, music, art, foundational texts. Professionals who look for a comfortable lifestyle devote their life to the pursuit of material benefits through the professions, including in the academia, by using professional knowledge as a vehicle often disregarding professional ethics as well.
Academic Dependence and Captive Mind
The academic dependence I mention here has had another consequence. That is to consider European and American thought as superior and thus has more value compared to the local paradigms of thought and action. If there were indigenous intellectuals and for that matter even intellectual traditions, they were not examined, discussed, or legitimised in the social science practice within higher learning institutions. Indigenous knowledge was considered by the social scientists glued to (Western) disciplinary knowledge as the realm of non-scientific knowledge. This is an attitude promoted by Western European and American social scientists even today that employ positivist methodology rather than interpretive paradigms. Thus we can ask whether Sri Lanka has had intellectual traditions if not intellectuals? What happened to these traditions? How and why they are sidelined by the formal education system? Whether cultural intellectuals that Wimal Dissanayake describes in his book are in fact not intellectuals?
Among intellectuals in the global south, particularly in the decolonised world, there have been discussions about the academic dependency, global inequality in knowledge production and dissemination, captive mind, and the lack of indigenous theories and concepts to grasp socio economic, political and cultural realities. These discussions and discourses centre on decolonisation, Southern Theory, Subaltern theory, Plural or global sociologies, etc. There are also networks that try to establish links between for example African and Asian intellectuals. Thus more than talking about intellectual poverty in a small country like Sri Lanka, it would make more sense to examine intellectual poverty or richness in a larger geographical and epistemological space such as the global South or indeed Asia, Africa, Latin America. Intellectuals from these regions have already started this dialogue. Interestingly enough, Ivan has raised a pertinent question along these lines on his own.
For an intellectually thriving renaissance to occur, first we must get rid of the academic, philosophical and intellectual dependence on Western European and North American knowledge paradigms (including on so called social scientific method) and positivist methodology (that produce data to test Euro-American theories) forced upon us via powerful mechanisms such as academic training, established journals, book publishers, research programs, consultancies, sponsored conferences (not dissimilar to what happens in the pharmaceutical industry and other corporate entities). The corruption of mind taking place in the name of globalisation, neoliberalism, free trade, instrumental (international) education etc. has to be reversed in order to stand on our own feet and capitalise on the knowledge embodied in our intellectual and cultural traditions to look at contemporary problems and find solutions that have applications across national boundaries.
We may lack intellectuals of the calibre described by Ivan but we do not lack intellectual traditions that embody collective wisdom of our learned ancestors. The harsh truth is that we have not studied them sufficiently, give due recognition or further develop their ideas to come up with ground breaking discoveries, theories, epistemologies or methodologies. We have been too busy studying and applying Western European and North American epistemologies, theories and methodologies together with research findings instead of looking inward for self-discovery. Though we need to encourage transnational thought and reflection in academic, cultural and other pursuits, this does not mean that we restrict ourselves to a given type of knowledge disseminated by powerful nations for their own national interests by using unequal structure of knowledge production and dissemination processes built on the basis of imperialism, colonisation, profit seeking, proselytization, modernist education and now globalisation.
On the point of bilingual and monolingual intellectuals, the views expressed by Ranjani Obeyesekera can be useful (1984). She highlights the contributions made by bilingual intelligentsia. Learning multiple languages and using them to acquire world knowledge can certainly add to one’s intellectual and critical faculties. However, there is a vast difference between ‘absorbing world knowledge’ as we normally do and ‘critically examining’ them by using the comparative method, post colonial theory or Southern Theory in intellectual endeavours, with a focus on ‘whose interests are served’ by the knowledge we so acquire? In the end, intellectual poverty or richness is linked to academic and intellectual dependency on inherited external knowledge –whether we talk about Buddhism or Social Sciences and humanities in Sri Lanka. If we need to be transformative intellectuals, we need to be doing more than the translation and reproduction of knowledge imported from elsewhere in the institutions of teaching and learning that the nation has invested heavily.
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