By W A Wijewardena –
The ominous rise of fundamentalism
With another General Election around the corner, an ominous development looming over voters is a sudden upsurge in religious and cultural fundamentalist ideas in the country. Fundamentalists close their brains to contrary views, elevate their own to a high pedestal unilaterally and disparage all others. It brings in ethnic, religious and social disharmony. Almost all political parties appear to have embraced these ideas as a strategy to win voters to their camps. This is a dangerous sign because in the long run, Sri Lanka will lose its drive for liberty and consequently hamper its social progress. Hence, it is of utmost importance that these fundamentalist ideas are properly managed to free the country from an imminent catastrophe.
The language is changing all the time
Humans today, though called men of wisdom, are divided into narrow and exclusive groups on the basis of language, ethnicity or religion. This is a departure from their origin some 100,000 years ago when they acted on instinct, dictated by their genetic code. After they developed cognitive skills – skill to use the thought process for learning, problem-solving and grasping new ideas, they began to spread out to the rest of the globe from their ancestral seat in East Africa. They had developed a common sound system which we call the language to communicate with each other. However, according to the Oxford University based evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins who wrote The Magic of Reality in 2012, this began to change ‘century after century’ in a process called ‘the drifting of the language’. Accordingly, languages became distinct from each other but at the same time connected to each other. This happens by borrowing new sounds from other languages and naturalising them in a normal evolutionary process.
Sinhala is a living language enriched by many other languages
Thus, according to linguists, the Sinhala language spoken by the majority of people living in Sri Lanka is made up of words borrowed from a number of other languages, including Pali, Sanskrit, Portuguese, Dutch, English, Tamil and, of course the languages of the old inhabitants, namely, Rakshasas, Yakshasas and Nagas. Today, these words have been fully Sinhalised and no one feels that they have come from alien languages.
Three basic questions faced by humans
One offshoot of the cognitive revolution which humans went through was the raising of three basic questions for which they did not have answers. The first was relating to before the birth: where did we humans come from? The second is about after the birth and the present: What are we humans? The third is after death: where will we humans go from here? Since humans could not perceive answers to these three questions, an attempt was made to give the answers by using religion. Of the four main religions that dominate the world today, three, namely, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, give credit to an almighty deity for creating the human beings. They exist today, at the mercy of the same deity. After the death, they would go back to the same deity.
The Buddha’s approach differs from the approach of other religious Masters
The fourth religion – Buddhism – has a different contextual explanation. While not accepting the creationist theory, it attributes the birth of humans to a long journey through a sea of births and deaths known as Samsara. This is similar to, but not identical with, the world view presented by evolutionists. According to them, through an evolutionary process spanning over 3 billion years, Homo sapiens has emerged some 100,000 years ago after either annihilating the other types of Homos or simply by being smarter. This evolution will continue by transferring their genetic pool, now in a changed form, to subsequent Homo sapiens. Here again, both Buddhists and evolutionary theorists subscribe to the same world view. But after death, Buddhism presents that a human will continue his journey through Samsara unless he is able to halt the process of birth and rebirth.
The views of evolutionists and physicists
Evolutionary theorists posit that after the death of the present gene carrier, an evolved form of his gene will be passed onto each subsequent generation. At the end, Homo sapiens will become a super human unparalleled in human history. Physicists, on the other hand, believe that all species are the product of primordial quantum fluctuations generated by non-smooth expansion of the universe in which stars becoming an integral element. Taking a contrarian view, the Cambridge University based theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking thinks that the belief in an afterlife is mere wishful thinking and after death, all species are reduced to dust.
Different religious practitioners should not be each other’s throats
Religion has therefore been created to answer the ‘from-where, what and where-to’ questions relating to humans. The answers provided to these questions by the three main religions, namely, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, are similar in nature. Hence, there cannot be any war – mental or physical – among the practitioners of these three religions. Buddhism, on the other hand, differs in its approach from other religions and is more similar to what the evolutionary scientists have posited. This difference need not be a cause for any battle between the practitioners of Buddha’s Dhamma and those who believe in other faiths. This is because the Dhamma preached by the Buddha, according to Brahmajala Sutta in the Diga Nikaya, requires its adherents to have an intellectual and tolerant approach to resolving issues even with those who speak of ills or virtues of the Buddha.
Human culture is continuously changing
Human culture began to take its root some 70,000 years ago when Homo sapiens developed the cognitive skills. Culture is the common way a group of humans behave: how they should eat, sleep, play, love, mate, reproduce, entertain and interact. It is not fixed or unchanging. Instead, a culture is continuously changing and in a state of ‘constant flux’. In this flux, every culture borrows practices from other superior cultures and adapt them to their own cultures.
As the Sri Lankan writer Martin Wickramasinghe has noted in his Buddhism and Culture, the Buddhist Sinhalese have borrowed exorcising practices from South Indian Hindus. However, instead of sacrificing live animals for bribing evil spirits to leave the bodies of their patients, the Sinhalese exorcists made it a symbolic sacrifice only. Thus, those exorcists, instead of decapitating the fowl to be sacrificed by way of inducement to leave the patient, prick the comb of the fowl and offers only a drop of blood to the evil spirit. Similarly, when they bribe Hindu Gods for boons, they offer them only metal figures of animals and not the carcasses of slaughtered animals as is being done by Hindus.
The re-adaptation of cultural practices
This is an instance of re-adaptation of a cultural practice borrowed from another culture. Interaction with other humans through trade, commerce or physical movement allows cultures to adapt, change and evolve. In the olden times, the Silk Road that connected China with Europe via land and maritime routes was the cause of change in cultures that prevailed among the people who lived along the routes.
Though cultures change constantly through adaptation and personification, cultural conflicts can arise within the culture, known as intra-cultural conflicts, and among different cultures called inter-cultural conflicts. The first is due to the failure of the members of a society to go through changing cultural traits. The second is due to the failure of recognising and appreciating cultural differences among different types of human groups. Both have as their root the intolerance of other cultural practices guided by a forceful superiority complex being harboured among members of a society.
Those who are sleeping all the time do not notice the change in culture
To demonstrate intra-cultural conflicts, a hypothetical thought experiment can be devised. Suppose a person is captured in the year 1900, put to sleep by administering a sleep-inducing drug, wakened up in 2020 and released in a modern town. How would that person who had slept 120 years continuously feel about what he sees? Everything would be abnormal to him when compared with what he had at the time of going to sleep. He has the inability to tolerate the new cultural practices he observes and may conclude that the culture has completely been destroyed. But a person who lives in the current period may not feel so because he has personally gone through the changes in the cultural traits due to adaptation of superior cultural practices. A similar hypothetical experiment could be devised to demonstrate inter-cultural conflicts too.
Advocates of ‘Isms’ do not welcome contrary views
Cultural or religious fundamentalism therefore means becoming intolerant of cultural or religious practices of others and viewing one’s own culture or religion as superior to all other cultures or religions. Any ‘ism’ is an extreme form of human emotions. It does not accommodate counterviews and is not ready to change even when there is evidence contrary to the main thesis or theses it has propounded. It does not allow open verification through objective inquiry. What is taught as the main thesis of ‘ism’ has to be accepted without questioning. There is, therefore, a rigid, regimental type restriction placed on human intelligence under the reigns of ‘ism’. Hence, once a person accepts an ism, he surrenders his intellectual curiosity, quest for knowledge, self-development through wisdom and ability to assess situations based on objectively and impartially gathered evidence. Instead, he will become a part of a huge propaganda machinery that does not allow critical thinking or probing.
Fundamentalists want to dictate terms to others
There are several traits that can be identified as peculiar to fundamentalist thinking. First, cultures and religions are built on some mythological facts. Though these mythological facts come to conflict with modern rational thinking, fundamentalists refuse to shed those views. Anyone criticising those accepted myths is considered a traitor. Second, there is a common belief that one’s own religion or culture is superior to all other religions and cultures. Hence, a priori measures are taken to prevent other religions or cultures from getting mixed up with one’s own religion or culture. Third, there is a general fear that all other religions and cultures are onto subsuming and destroying one’s own religion or culture. Fourth, arising from the third, it is generally believed that there is a necessity to fight for protecting one’s religion or culture. Fifth, the defensive action initiated originally is transformed into an offensive action in which destroying other religions or cultures is considered a merit earning activity. Sixth, the past is considered as glorious and therefore there is insistence that society should go back to old religions and cultural practices. Seventh, in order to protect one’s own religion or culture, it is considered necessary to regulate and control human behaviour including the expression of one’s creative mind in the form of art, literature, music or public media. These have become the core-values of fundamentalist thinking throughout the globe.
Hindutva movement in India
A good example for the extreme use of fundamentalism to establish a state that cater to one’s personal interests could be found in the actions of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in India. According to Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen who published The Argumentative Indian in 2005, BJP had resurrected an old Hindutva movement or Movement for establishing Indianness in India in mid 1970s by misrepresenting facts, fabricating established historical evidence, inventing history and using violence and force on moderate Hindus as well as other ethnic and religious groups. While India is a country of diversity with many religious beliefs, languages and ethnic groups, Hindutva movement has tried to project India as a Hindu country. To reclaim this land exclusively for Hindus, it has rewritten Indian history as essentially a Hindu civilisation, an essential prerequisite for establishing a grand Hindu vision of India. This has, according to Sen, also helped Hindutva to marshal the support of Indian diaspora which are bent on maintaining an Indian identity in their host countries in the midst of a perceived threat from the dominant cultures there; it is a solace to feel that Hindus reign at least in their old native land.
Creating fake archaeological artefacts and writing textbooks to support Hindutva movement
According to Sen, this is what BJP did after its electoral victory in 1998 and 1999: “various arms of the government of India were mobilised in the task of arranging ‘appropriate’ rewritings of Indian history. Even though this adventure of inventing the past is no longer ‘official’ (because of the defeat of the BJP led coalition in the general elections in the spring of 2004), that highly charged episode is worth recollecting both because of what it tells us about the abuse of temporal power and also because of the light it throws on the intellectual underpinning of the Hindutva movement.” Accordingly, fresh textbooks were written with focus on Hindu supremacy by deleting the objective analyses written by reputed academics earlier. The hastily completed work also contained numerous factual mistakes and serious omissions drawing severe criticism from academia, press and media. Yet the BJP government which was bent on establishing its own political agenda paid no heed to them, according to Sen. The worst was yet to come in the form of fabricating archaeological facts: The Indus valley civilisation that had existed in North West India and Pakistan much before the recorded history of Hinduism was also projected as a Hindu civilisation by renaming it ‘Indus-Saraswati civilisation’ focusing on a non-existing river called the Saraswati River mentioned in Vedic texts. To prove their point, the BJP led intellectuals in fact had invented new archaeological evidence, according to Sen, by producing a computerised distortion of a broken seal of the Indus Valley Civilisation, a fraud committed on Indians at home and abroad in the name of justifying the Hindutva movement. The BJP government today has taken it further forward by introducing a controversial citizenship legislation in which refugees of Islamic faith are to be prohibited from becoming citizens of India.
Converting false ideas to public policy through political victories
In a subsequent publication in 2006 titled Identity and Violence, Amartya Sen has argued that propagandists’ hard work lead to the development of a collective social thought, a thought which has no rational foundation but believed by many as the truth. The social thought then leads to collective political action, presenting a distorted view to an already emotionally worked up electorate and thereby easily securing electoral victories. Once the political power is secured, it is now easy to translate the illogical social thought to public policy which even at first glance is spurious but defended tooth and nail in the name of cultural nationalism.
This is exactly what is happening in Sri Lanka today and all voters should be cautious about it.
Danger of worshipping history instead of learning lessons from it
The cultural nationalism has used the political power to reverse the time machine through public policy. But, is it not a boon to a country? Yes, it is a boon, if one does it to win the future and not to go back to establish the past which is already gone by. It is a spurious act committed by a nation especially when the rest of the world has moved forward. As Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed had recently advised, one could gain from history immensely if history is learned to identify the past mistakes and thereby not to repeat the same.
In the next article, we will examine human liberty and how it contributes to social progress.
(To be continued ..)
*The writer, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org