By Ranga Kalansooriya –
It was almost midnight when we paused our discussion on the issue of ‘hereditary rights of Sinhala community of Buddhism’ at the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University in Yangoon two weeks ago. Along with a few Sri Lankan monks who are pursuing their higher studies in Myanmar, the discussion was on the mythical ownership claimed by the Sinhala community on Buddhism. The wealth of knowledge of the monks on pure Theravada Buddhism enriched the deliberations where they sighted the doctrine of The Buddha in the universality of ownership of his noble teachings.
One classic example was the dream of Siddhartha the day before his enlightenment. Four birds of different colours flew in from four different directions to him and turned into a single colour at his feet. Anyone from any sector of society who joined the Saasana would become a member of a common community – Sangha; not Sinhala Buddhist Sangha, as it is depicted in the present context. I started reading the well-researched book ‘Demala Bauddhaya’ [The Tamil Buddhist] by Senior Professor Sunil Ariyaratne where he elaborates on the influence of Buddhism among Tamils specifically in South India. The book argues that Buddhism is not a sole heritage of the Sinhalayas in Sri Lanka but the Dravidians [including Tamils] in South India, too, contributed to its well-being.
He, with proof, argues that Arahat Mahinda spent a considerable period of time in South India spreading the word of The Buddha before sailing to Sri Lanka. This was not a comfortable story for Sinhala nationalists. Prof Ariyaratna, of course, came under heavy criticism from those nationalistic quarters after publishing this book a decade ago – as they were not prepared for any academic or other argument that challenges their mythical belief on the ownership of Buddhism. His latest movie ‘Paththini’ is an extension of this book where he argues that the concept of Goddess Paththini has been derived from South India with a Buddhist background. For the common Sinhalaya, Paththini is a Sinhala Buddhist Goddess that makes her divine intervention to all important or risky stages of his/her life. Professor Gananath Obeyesekere’s book ‘The Cult of the Goddess Pattini’ published by the University of California in 1984 discusses the influence of Paththini on the Sri Lankan – especially the Sinhala – society at various levels.
The concept of Paththini derives from two Tamil historic poetries – Silappadikaram and Manimekhalya – written by two different renowned Tamil poets centuries ago. Prof Ariyaratna has amalgamated both these great stories in creating the movie Paththini, according to my reading.
The movie challenges the mythical misconceptions of the Sinhala Buddhists specifically on their authoritarian ownership of Buddhism as well as Goddess Paththini. Prof Ariyaratna discusses the influence of Buddhism in South India where Kannagi (who later became Paththini) and all her associates became followers of Buddhism at a later stage. I was happy to see long queues in front of movie theatres after a long time. Everyone has contributed their maximum to this great creation – especially Puja being the main actress has reached her pinnacle – or rather Prof. Ariyaratna has managed to bring her to the top of her career. But I am not convinced that Uddika Premaratne has matched her talents, though he has performed well in others. Dr. Rohana Weerasingha’s music direction has outsmarted all his other former creations. The sound engineering work would have been better though.
This movie reminded me of ‘Sarungale’ (The Kite) film, another direction of Prof. Ariyaratna in the late 70s when he was a lecturer at the Jaffna University. ‘Sarungale’ discussed harmony between the Sinhala and Tamil communities through a memorable love story that ended with racial riots. The anti-nationalistic sentiments of the Director were refreshed and re-transformed to the society through Paththini, as I see it.