By Laksiri Fernando –
Paththini is the symbol of feminine chastity in Sinhala culture, among other values (fertility, health etc.), and Kannagi is the same in the Tamil culture. Therefore Sunil Airyaratna’s new film ‘Paththini’ may convey a message or a sentiment of reconciliation emphasising the meeting points or commonalities. I use the term ‘may’ because I still have not seen the movie. There are many more commonalities and meeting points between the Sinhalese and the Tamils and the emphasis of them may go a long way in forging reconciliation in the country. Films or other forms of Art might be best suited for this purpose.
My concern however is about the review by Ranga Kalansooriya about the ‘Paththini’ film. It was published with a neutral title “Conveying the message of reconciliation through films” in Daily Mirror (3 June 2016) but when it came to the Colombo Telegraph on the same day it was titled provocatively as “Paththini Breaks Sinhala-Buddhist Monopoly.” Here the claim is not about the film but about the real Paththini herself. For my (provocative) title, ‘Paththini or the Buddha,’ I would go for both.
I am not sure whether justice to the Tamils or the Muslims could be done by castigating the Sinhalese or the Buddhists, let alone building reconciliation between all of them. It is my submission that Kalansooriya’s review unfortunately falls into this category of castigation while I admit that there are instances where one needs to strongly criticise extremism and nationalist bigotry of all sides when they occur and are expressed. But it should not be done in general terms, except in dealing with a particular theme, and it should not be done particularly when a film intends to be for reconciliation is reviewed. This is strange to me and my ethos for reconciliation.
There is no question that Buddhism like all other religions are universal doctrines but unfortunately there had been times (not all times) where different religions had come into conflict (still do) for mainly extra-religious reasons. These reasons are mainly political in the past as well as at present.
I have no objection to accept a notion of ‘Sinhala Buddhism’ or an identity of ‘Sinhala Buddhists’ preferably in a soft sense. I don’t need to castigate them to be reasonable to the Tamils or the Muslims. I was myself born in an ‘Anglican’ family although being a so-called Sinhalese. For various historical reasons many religions are even today identified with ethnic/national communities or past empires/kingdoms. Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy, and Armenian Christianity are some examples. Don’t we call Tibetan Buddhism what is preached by Dalai Lama? Don’t we identify some special features of Thai Buddhism?
After referring to a discussion that he participated in Yangon, Kalansooriya states “The wealth of knowledge of the monks on pure [sic] Theravada Buddhism enriched the deliberations where they sighted the doctrine of The Buddha in the universality of ownership of his noble teachings.” He contrasts this proposition with what he calls the ‘mythical misconceptions of the Sinhala Buddhists specifically on their authoritarian ownership of Buddhism.’
Of course the ‘universality of ownership’ of Buddhism or any other religion is admirable. This is something even Aung San Suu Kyi has emphasised in her ‘Freedom from Fear.’ If this universality can be established, for example, not only between ‘English’ Anglicans and Irish Catholics or Sunnis and Shias, but also between Theravada and Mahayana advocates, the world could be a better place for peace and reconciliation although there is no overt conflict between the latter two groups.
‘Justice’ or ‘Revenge’
On the other hand, if one needs to neutralize the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist monopoly,’ the best way might be to refer to the Buddha Dhamma or Buddhist philosophy and not so much to Paththini. Because Paththini can be controversial as a symbol of reconciliation compared to the Buddha. Even in doing so, there are some historical facts, or at least perceived ones, that cannot be ignored. Apart from Paththini as a symbol of chaste, she is also considered as the symbol of ‘revenge’ which some may call ‘justice.’ It was not by accident that the Joint Opposition went to the Seenigama Devale to crack coconuts to bring curse to the Yahapalana government. It was previously a Paththini Devale!
This revenge aspect is abundantly there even in the original Kannagi story of ‘Silapathikaram.’ I have never been impressed by it for various reasons, the duality of ethics for men and women being one. As the story goes, “Outside the palace, Kannagi tore her breast, cursed the city where her husband had been wrongfully executed, and invoked the gods to burn it. Fire broke out in Madurai.” I am quoting from J. Pandian (‘Caste, Nationalism and Ethnicity: An Interpretation of Tamil Cultural History and Social Order,’ p. 52). It was in Chera kingdom (modern Kerala) that Kannagi became destined as a goddess. It is a good story for a film anyway, with dramatic emotions.
It is said that the king Gajabahu I (113-135 CE) from Lanka participated at the consecration of the temple to Kannagi by the king Senguttuvan. This was a period of amity and interbreeding of different faiths. It was since this time that the Paththini cult became popular in Sri Lanka which shows considerable interaction between Hinduism, Buddhism or even Jainism both in South India and Sri Lanka which was a positive history to emulate. However, to draw lessons for reconciliation the best might be to go back to the Buddha himself than to Paththini.
There are some other historical matters, perceived or actual, relevant in examining Kalansooriya’s review. Before I migrated abroad in 1984, I had come across the notion of ‘Sinhala Baudhaya’ (Sinhala Buddhist) as an identity but not so much of ‘Sinhala Baudhagama’ (Sinhala Buddhism) as an ‘ism’ or a denomination. Of course the identity was mixed up with religion, which is very common in many other countries. I first came across the latter notion or the term sharply in my interactions with the Cambodians, originally in late 1980s and later during my research on Cambodia in early 1990s. I was surprised and when said there is nothing called ‘Sinhala Buddhism,’ they said ‘no, that is what came to Cambodia.’ Of course they were actually meaning Theravada Buddhism that came from Lanka but why did they say ‘Sinhala Buddhism’ with an ethnic adjective, I wondered.
I was also intrigued to hear that during the Lon Nol period (1970-1975) the communists were derogatorily called ‘Thimil’ to mean the ‘enemies of Buddhism.’ As the word was similar to ‘Thamil’ I once asked Professor David Chandler, an expert on Cambodia, whether it is possible that the word derives from the Buddhists’ perception of Tamils as enemies of Buddhism. His answer was in the affirmative.
It should be noted that this perception was created during certain periods of Sri Lankan history and not always. How did it go to Cambodia then? Later I also came across more authoritative sources regarding the exportation of ‘Sinhala Buddhism’ to Burma, Thailand and Cambodia beginning from the twelfth century. George Coedes (‘The Making of Southeast Asia,’ 1962), a reputed French historian on Southeast Asia, among others, used the term probably for some historical reasons. He said:
“In 1190 Burma received a new contribution from the world of Indian culture – Sinhalese Buddhism, which was introduced by a Mon monk. This new stimulus within a society already profoundly impregnated with Buddhism had the happiest results” (p. 121-22).
It is important to note that Coedes considered, through his studies, the ‘Sinhalese Buddhism’ to be a part of the broader Indian culture, of course with variations. It is not only once that he used the term ‘Sinhalese Buddhism.’ He used it various times interchangeably with what he sometimes called ‘the reformed type of Buddhism from Ceylon.’ What was this ‘reformed type’ that he talked about? In his own words, “This reformed Buddhism was introduced by the Mon monk Chapata, who had been to Ceylon to be ordained anew according to the rites of the Mahavihara sect, regarded from that time on as the only valid ones. The Sinhalese doctrine at first led to a schism in Burmese Buddhism, but it gradually ousted all others. Its orthodoxy was not, however, finally established until the end of the fifteenth century.” (p. 115, with my emphasis).
There is no doubt that there was some rigidity or dogmatism in this ‘reformed Buddhism,’ perhaps conditioned by the circumstances, which Coedes also remarked. I refrain from elaborating on the matter.
Resurrecting Buddhist Cosmopolitanism
It may be true that with the emergence of ‘Sinhala Buddhism’ during king Parakrambahu I (1153-86), plurality and ‘cosmopolitan’ approaches of Buddhism became subdued if not disappeared. This is history I believe. But this has happened under powerful threats from the Chola empire (i.e. Raja Raja and Rajendra) for its survival. In contrast, there were no such threats from Pandyan kingdom however. This is also history I believe. This dynamic has to be understood even today in dealing with ‘Sinhala Buddhism’ or more correctly strong ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ identity. The mere castigation will not work.
On the positive side of history, the Buddhist cosmopolitanism became resurrected after Polonnaruwa (or soon even during the same period), and culminated during the Kotte period or under Parakramabahu VI. I am rushing my thoughts to keep this article at a reasonable length. Then there were strong ebbs during the colonial period due to the overbearing nature of the Christian proselytization, yet there was no resurrection of ‘Sinhala Buddhism’ as such, in my opinion, other than the positioning of a strong ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ identity. The Buddhist Sangha or the existing Nikayas even today are quite plural although not very philosophical or ‘cosmopolitan’ like the ‘golden’ days, if we discount the rabble rousers in robes.
It is this cosmopolitan aspect of Buddhism that needs to be resurrected and promoted in addition to its philosophical foundations which are, in my opinion, useful for reconciliation, peace and even as effective tools for conflict resolution. In the promotion of cosmopolitanism (in Buddhism), the practice of Paththini culture among the Sinhalese may be important but not the castigation of ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ identity or ‘Sinhala Buddhism’ whether the latter actually exists or not. The mere castigation of ‘Sinhala monopoly of Buddhism’ or ‘Mahavamsa mentality’ or the ridiculing of the ‘legend of Sinhabahu’ might not work. I conclude this piece with a certain remorse because compared to many others, Ranga Kalansooriya’s aberration is quite mild. However, it was a pointer to clarify certain matters as discussed.