By W A Wijewardena –
It is indeed an honour as well as a privilege to be invited to deliver the inaugural Professor H.M.A. Herath Memorial Oration. This Oration was established by the Public Administration Alumni Association in honour of Professor Herath who was one of its leading livewires ever since it was formed in the early 1990s. He devoted his time, energy and resources without reservation to keep it alive and growing. He had the remarkable ability to address every student who attended the Annual Get-together of the Association by his or her first name though they would have passed out from the university many years ago. It contributed to create a sense of belongingness among members, a necessary factor to pull them towards the cause of the Association. In this sense, Professor Herath was both Patriarch and Matriarch of the Alumni Association.
I met Prof. Herath in 1992 at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura just after he had returned to Sri Lanka from Carlton University. This young academic, beaming with youthful spirit and a sense of humour, was introduced to me by his Guru Matha, Prof. Ramanie Samaratunga, now at Monash University but at that time a senior lecturer at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. I was instantly attracted to him not only because of his high academic credentials but also by the extreme degree of humbleness and modesty he displayed in his dealings with others. It paved the way for a long relationship between both of us. The initial good impression that I had formed about him was reinforced in me in each passing day. I was recruited to the Public Administration Alumni Association by Prof. Herath. He left me with no choice but to enrol myself as a life member. Since then, both of us worked together as a team to promote student welfare, academic standards and, above all, the subject discipline called public administration. Whenever there was an issue, Prof. Herath was there to play his role as a responsible team member to resolve it. Thus, there was an inseparable umbilical connection between Prof. Herath and the Alumni Association. Today, that umbilical cord has been severed creating an unfillable vacuum. It is the duty and the responsibility of all of us to fill that vacuum and take the Association to greater heights. That is the best accolade that we can afford to him.
Prof. Herath ’s life story is a source of inspiration to all of us. He had put it in print-form beating all odds that were working against him. Any other person in his circumstances would not have embarked on such a feat. He, having been disabled by a terminal illness, was struggling for life, while lying on stomach and depending on outside support. It was painful to move even a finger and, therefore, he was on strong pain killers. But it was not an impediment to this indefatigable Granda Homo who had experienced much worse debacles in life. Hence, he dictated his life story word by word to someone who was present at house whenever he was awake from drug-induced slumbers. The book titled Edaa Medaa Thura (Life from Early Days to Today) was being printed on schedule but he had to depart this world before he could lay his eyes on the final print. Hence, it had to be released posthumously. But by any measurement, it was the best gift Prof. Herath had left to posterity.
Prof. Herath had been born in the mid-1950s to a low-income farmer family that had lived in a remote village in Monaragala District in Sri Lanka. It was a large family of eight children and he was the seventh member of that family. There are a few remarkable qualities about his family. Despite personal differences among siblings, they all had tolerated each other and welcomed their presence in the family. When the call of responsibility demanded, they nourished each other even at personal costs to them. Parents who had not got an opportunity to receive formal education had only one goal in life. That was to provide a good education to their children, at least to the younger ones. In the words of Prof. Herath ’s mother, the objective has been to ‘awaken the eyes of the children’. An economist would translate this into a formal phrase that his mother wanted to help her children to attain social mobility through education. This type of family values in which even the erring members were tolerated and supported while placing education at the top of the family goals is a rare possibility in contemporary Sri Lankan family system. Prof. Herath who was nourished by this advanced value system could in his later life as an adult work with people of diverse opinions and beliefs without offending them or getting offended in return.
Prof. Herath’s childhood, albeit replete with innumerable hardship, suffering and frustration throughout, had been a university of practical learning for him. In the primary school he attended, the entire morning had been devoted to gardening. Students had as a team cultivated vegetables, corn and yams in the school garden. It not only helped them to gain experience in farming but also to earn some money for the school by selling the crops. This type of education exposing students to vocations available in the locality while cultivating entrepreneurship from an early age is to be contrasted from the certificate-based book education being provided to them today. It had paid ample dividends to Prof. Herath throughout his life. In the senior grades in the school, he had been a part-time farmer as well as an entrepreneur. To earn money for his education as well as for the family, he had cultivated paddy, vegetables, sugarcane and numerous cash crops not only on land owned by the family but also on lands leased from others or encroached from the state. The crops had been sold in the market and on most occasions, by carrying on shoulders before going to school.
The humble man within Prof. Herath tells us that he did not possess any extraordinary intellectual skills compared to many others. All his academic attainments, according to his admission, are the dividends he had been paid by his continuous hard-work. But his success at school, at university and at Carleton defies this humble statement. At the post-primary level when the history teacher accuses him of copying at the examination from the textbook because he had provided perfect answers, he corrects the teacher by presenting the answers verbally. His learning between farming and school classes cannot be accomplished unless he had been endowed with an extraordinary learning skill. He completes his Advanced Level examination through numerous hardships by moving from Monaragala to Hettimulla and then to Pinnawala. University education is being completed with flying colours while working in government services. The man with no previous exposure to English masters the language at Carleton within three months and completes both the Master’s degree and the Doctorate in that language. The man in the final stage of the terminal illness and lying on the stomach with no body movement taps to his memory and dictates his life story in the correct sequence without omitting any important incident or name. These can be accomplished only by a man of very high intellectual capacity.
Prof. Herath has served the University of Sri Jayewardenepura as a lecturer, Head of Department, Dean and on numerous occasions as the Acting Vice Chancellor. His contribution to making the degree course in Public Management recognised by employers, development of the Faculty Staff, improvement in logistics facilities and, above all, laying the foundation for making the Faculty of Management Studies and Commerce the most demanded management school in the country are marked indelibly in the annals of the University.
As Dean of the Faculty and when he had the orientation program for the fresh students, I was on most occasions a guest. It gave me an opportunity to observe how he made plans for the future of those students. I recall that he was emphasizing on the need for them to make use of the facilities available at USJ and develop themselves. If the students expected to have a bright future, they should wholly rely on themselves and not on others. He gave examples from his own experiences. Coming from a backward village in Monaragala District, he said that his biggest challenge was to improve skills in handling the English language. There was no shortcut, he advised the students. It is through hard work, devotion and perseverance that one could master the language. This was specifically challenging when the family or school background was not supportive. But everyone had the same brain capacity and it was up to students to try again and again until they succeed. He told me that he emphasized particularly on learning English because that was the passport for those students to explore unknown territories.
I also got the opportunity to participate in two international conferences in which Herath read papers. One was on e-Government initiative in Sri Lanka hosted by Monash University. The other was on universalizing socio-economic security in South Asia, jointly organized by the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, and the Institute of Human Development, New Delhi. The two papers he read at these conferences were breakthrough studies well appreciated by the scholars who were present. I was deeply moved by the honour he brought to the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, in particular, and Sri Lanka, in general. His scholarly contributions have not stopped at that. Recently, he has released four scholarly books including a revised edition of his doctoral thesis submitted to Carlton University. Two recent books had been on Development Administration and Power Sharing in Sri Lanka.
To honour this academic of a rare breed, I chose an apt title for my oration. From the long association which I had with him and from the books he has published, I can safely conclude that it is a topic close to his heart.
Part I – Religion, Culture And Fundamentalism
Homo sapiens, Man the Wise, is divided into exclusive groups on language, race, ethnicity, culture or class today. This was not the case when Homo sapiens emerged as winners of the two-legged animal world some 100,000 years ago. They acted on instinct, dictated by their genetic code, and made a living by hunting and gathering as groups. Reproduction took place whenever a suitable partner was found for mating, irrespective of whether it was from the same group or not. Some 70,000 years ago, they developed cognitive skills – skill to use the thought process for learning, problem-solving and grasping new ideas – and began to spread out to the rest of the globe from their ancestral seat in East Africa. Between 70,000 and 30,000 years since they began to come out of Africa, they developed the ability to communicate their thinking by using a unique sound system which is now called the language. It was the same sound system which every Homo sapiens used and there was no difference in the language. However, this began to change ‘century after century’ and what was spoken by the older ancestors of any human race differed significantly from what is spoken by its extant members. By the same token, the language to be spoken by their descendants in the future would be different from what they speak now. This is being called ‘drifting of the language’ . When Homo sapiens migrated to new territories, over thousands of years, the original language spoken by their ancestors drifted to new dialects and eventually into new languages. This has happened by joining with new genetic pools after one local population that has migrated to another locality and mated with the members of new populations living in that locality, creating what is known as a ‘gene flow’ . Languages become distinct from each other but at the same time are connected to each other. This happens by borrowing new sounds from other languages and naturalising them in a normal evolutionary process. Thus, according to linguists, the Sinhala language spoken by the majority of people living in Sri Lanka is made up of words borrowed from several other languages, including Pali, Sanskrit, Portuguese, Dutch, English, Tamil and, of course, the languages of the old inhabitants, namely, Rakshasas, Yakshas and Nagas. Today, these words have been fully Sinhalised and no one feels that they have come from alien languages.
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 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, gives credit to an almighty deity for creating human beings. They exist today, at the mercy of the same deity. After death, they would go back to the same deity. 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 death known as Samsara. This is similar to the world view presented by evolutionists that it is through an evolutionary process spanning over 3 billion years that Homo sapiens have emerged some 100,000 years ago after either annihilating the other types of Homos or simply by being smarter than they are. This evolution will continue to take place by transferring their genetic pool to subsequent Homo sapiens to be born but not in the same fixed way but through an evolutionary process. Here again, both Buddhists and Evolutionary theorists subscribe to the same world view. But after death, Buddhism presents that a human will continue to do his journey through Samsara unless he can put a stop to the process of birth and rebirth. 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. In the end, Homo sapiens will become a superhuman 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, Hawking thinks that the belief in an afterlife merely wishful thinking and after death, all species are reduced to dust.
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 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 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, 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, 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. This is an instance of readaptation 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 society.
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 for 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 cannot 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.
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, the 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 huge propaganda machinery that does not allow critical thinking or probing.
Several traits 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 an 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.
A good example for the extreme use of fundamentalism to establish a state that caters to one’s personal interests could be found in the actions of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in India. According to Sen, BJP had resurrected an old Hindutva Movement or Movement for establishing Indianness in India in the 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, the 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. 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 a 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 controversial citizenship legislation in which refugees of Islamic faith are to be prohibited from becoming citizens of India.
In a subsequent publication, Amartya Sen has argued that propagandists’ hard work leads to the development of 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 what has happened in India and many emerging countries including Sri Lanka.
The cultural nationalism has used 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.
 Harari, Yuval Noah, Sapiens, 2011, A Brief History of Humankind, London: Vintage Books, p 3
 Ibid, p 23.
 Dawkins, Richard, 2012, The Magic of Reality: How we know what is really true? London: Black Swan, p 63
 Ibid, p 64
 For details see: Koparahewa, Sandagomi and Arunachalam, Sarojini Devi, 2011, Tamil Words in Sinhala Language (in Sinhala) Colombo: Godage; Dhammaratana, Rev Hisselle, 1963, Sinhalaye Dravida Balapema, Nugegoda: Humanitarian Writers’ Forum; Goonawardhana, Gate Mudliyar W F, 1973, Sinhala Vaag Vidya Muladharma, Colombo: Gunasena.
 These three questions were the theme of a painting done by the French Artist Paul Gauguin in about 1897. (See: https://www.gauguin.org/where-do-we-come-from-what-are-we.jsp; accessed on 15.01.2020); Incidentally, this is the theme of the latest novel of Dan Brown, 2017, Origin, London: Bantam. See also: Hawking, Stephen, 2018, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, London: John Murray, p 25
 Harari, Noah Yuval, 2016, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, , London: Vintage.
 Hawking, Stephen, 2011, Available at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21128222-500-existence-where-did-we-come-from/ (Accessed on 16.1.2020)
 Hawking, Stephen, 2018, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, op cit p 38
 Brahmajala Sutta, Diga Nikaya (available at: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.01.0.bodh.html) (Accessed on 16.1.2020)
 Harari, Sapiens, op cit p 3
 Ibid, p 181
 Wickramasinghe, Martin, 2006, Buddhism and Culture, Rajagiriya: Sarasa, pp 74-6
 See for details: Frankopan, Peter, 2015, The Silk Roads, London: Bloomsbury.
 In this sense, to call the Dhamma taught by the Buddha ‘Buddhism’ is a misnomer since his teachings permit people to question, verify and accept it only if it passes the intellectual screening test of the individual. The correct English translation should be ‘Buddha Dhamma’ and not Buddhism. That was why in the old Vidyodaya University it was taught as Buddhist Culture and not as Buddhism.
 Wijewardena, W A, 2012, “Cultural Nationalism: Boon or Bane?” in Daily FT (Available at: http://www.ft.lk/article/71136/Rise-of-cultural–nationalism–Boon-or-bane) (Accessed on 16.1.2020)
 Amartya Sen has vividly described this in his The Argumentative Indian, 2005, London: Penguin Books
 Sen, Amartya, 2005, p 62-8
 Ibid, p 63
 For details, see: https://edition.cnn.com/2019/12/11/asia/india-citizenship-amendment-bill-intl-hnk/index.html (Accessed on 18.1.2020)
 Sen, Amartya, 2006, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, London: Allen Lane.
 https://www.thesundaily.my/local/understand-history-to-avoid-making-past-mistakes-mahathir-BA376344 (Accessed on 18.1.2020)
*To be continued…
Professor H.M.A. Herath Annual Memorial Oration – 31st January 2020 – Oration by Dr. W A Wijewardena -Organized by Department of Public Administration & Alumni Association of Public Administration, University of Sri Jayewardenepura