By Uditha Devapriya –
Walking along the sun-baked pavements of Polonnaruwa and studying the images of the Buddha and the monuments erected in his name last February, I couldn’t help but notice the motifs of South Indian temples that adorned them. With the collapse of Anuradhapura in the 11th century, Polonnaruwa took over as the capital of the Sinhala kings. Yet though the new kingdom arose because of succeeding waves of Chola invasion, it could not escape the cultural influences of those who ransacked the old capital.
The Chronicles refer to these invaders as heathens, infidels, believers in a false faith, no different to devils and demons. But after their conquest of the Sinhalese polity, they came to shape the very culture of the land they had invaded.
The art and architecture of the new kingdom soon came to reflect these realities. Though Buddhist in conception, image houses incorporated Dravidian motifs. The moonstone, which leads up to the Buddha images at the Vatadage, let go of the bull. The images themselves, which had epitomised serenity in Anuradhapura, took on a hardened complexion, a pivotal development in Buddhist sculpture. These developments spilt over elsewhere: thus after the 12th century, a Hindu devale was built at the Ridi Vihare in Kurunegala, at a time when the Siva devale had become a prominent, permanent fixture in Polonnaruwa.
It would be futile, of course, to think that cultural fusion of this sort was unheard of before Polonnaruwa, or for that matter Anuradhapura. The Brahmi inscriptions attest to a thriving and diverse polity, in which elites donated to monasteries and recorded where they came from, and what position they occupied, along numerous rocks and caves.
These are some of the most impressive inscriptions in the region, perhaps in the world, even if writers and social scientists don’t pay as much attention as they should to them. More than anything else, they show that in pre-modern society, one’s position was inscribed and determined by one’s caste and clan affiliations. If ethnicity figured in at all there, it was as a secondary concern that never really trumped those other considerations.
Nationalist commentators seem to elide these points. Given their grand narratives and totalising conceptions of history, this is only to be expected. Yet what is fascinating is that liberal and left scholars, in their debates with nationalist ideologues, fall back on the same criteria their opponents resort to. Almost nothing is mentioned about caste and class, the role of social structures rooted in kinship and clan affiliations, and the point that wherever and whenever there was conflict between race and caste, the latter prevailed, as it did when Narendrasinghe’s death raised the question of who would continue his line: a “Sinhalese” of low caste stock, or a “Telugu” of supposedly superior origins?
The biggest mistake we make when talking about history is grafting contemporary notions of ideology on the past. In doing so, we assume, not wholly unjustifiably, that what we think to be true today held true for all time. Thus, in the same breath in which Sinhala hardliners claim that the history of the country is the history of their collective, liberal scholars contend that the pre-colonial polity witnessed an intermingling of different ethnicities. In both cases, the notion of ethnicity looms large, probably more than is warranted. By contrast little to no attention is paid to intra-group dynamics, since nationalists and liberals focus on inter-group dynamics: the latter emphasising on differences, the former on affinities.
In his intriguing essay “The Peopling of Sri Lanka”, the late Senake Bandaranayake argued that a good first step to examining our past was to study history “stripped of its myths and distortions and free of communalistic bias on one side or the other.” A crucial element here was archaeological research, a point that seems to be lost on politicians and officials today, but one that needs to be emphasised again and again: put simply, if we don’t excavate and dig into our past as much as we should, we will continue to hold on to a history riddled with confrontation, rather than cooperation, between social groups.
If I seem to be dwelling on the past too much here, it is only to make a point. The point is this. Contemporary debates about ethno-religious nationalism are propelled by a view of history which does not hold much water. The opening lines of R. A. L. H. Gunawardana’s brilliant and, in my opinion, unparalleled essay “The People of the Lion” shows us that the myths we construct about our origins, about who we are and what we make of ourselves, tend to be coloured by surprisingly contemporary notions of race, religion, and ideology. To the extent that we call ourselves heirs to a tradition going back thousands of years based on those notions, we hence end up misreading our own origins.
Now the mistake social scientists critical of these claims make is that they focus more on Sinhala Buddhist nationalists than nationalists of other ethnic persuasions. This may be because Sinhala nationalists possess the loudest voice in the room. Yet Tamil ideologues also propel their narratives about the past. Polemics over whether Tamils were the “original inhabitants” of the country, a claim that the former Chief Minister of the Northern Province propounds with relentless abandon these days, for instance, may be borne out by literary evidence and origin myths, as with contemporary claims of a pristine Sinhalese past. But in the light of archaeological evidence, such assertions simply do not hold up.
The truth is that we don’t really know, and that we may not have all the answers. In saying that, we are more or less admitting that we don’t know much about each other. To me that is a more diplomatic way of addressing issues of identity than making claims about the superiority or predominance of one group over others.
All this ties in with an important point I made last year: that we need to re-evaluate and revisit nationalism itself, recognising its immensely progressive potential and discarding its regressive aspects. Yet such a strategy has been pre-empted, not by nationalist extremists – though they have to share much of the blame – but by social scientists. How so? Largely, through their insistence on approaching phenomena like nationalism, be it Sinhala or Tamil, from a vantage point of moral and intellectual superiority.
Let me explain. Anthropologists and sociologists have a habit of evaluating ethno-religious ideology through a contemporary lens. Many of them imply, not entirely wrongly, that such phenomena are remnants of the past and that they will eventually give way to the forces of modernity. Yet while paved with good intentions and sound reasoning, is hard not to discern an attitude of condescension within such claims.
To give one example, at the time of the Kandalama controversy, there were a number of liberal scholars who implied that Buddhist monks and villagers who took part in protests against the Hotel wanted to preserve archaic social relations, and that while the intrusion of multinational capital ought to be opposed, to the extent that it disrupted traditional social patterns, such intrusions would generate “desirable effects” and should be welcome. In the same vein, Sinhala nationalist ideologues who boycotted beverage companies and went as far as to campaigned to ban their products in local university canteens were criticised, while the impact of such companies and their activities in Sri Lanka was neglected.
What I’m suggesting here is that we need a shift in such attitudes. For two reasons: one, to get rid of the distrust with which nationalists of whatever persuasion view social scientists in the country today, and two, to tap into the progressive potential of nationalism by assessing the myths, legends, and claims of ethnic collectives on their terms. I propose that we revisit the pioneers of anthropology, especially Marx, Engels, and Malinowski, who taught us how to approach societies far removed from our frames of reference. From them we will have to learn to view these ideologies from the perspective of their proponents, in order to come to terms with such processes more sympathetically and objectively.
My plea for a paradigm shift in how we consider these issues should, of course, not absolve ideologues who propound exclusivist narratives. Far from it: social scientists emphasising the progressive potential of these phenomena should distinguish between what promotes cooperation and what promotes conflict between various collectives.
Unfortunately, we cannot do this if, while opposing nationalist propaganda, we cave into an ethnicised reading of history no different to that of the most ardent chauvinist. That is why a radical rereading of our past is required. A shift of focus to other lines of distinction, such as caste, can help us find out ways of emphasising the commonalities which bind us together. I believe such a strategy can, and will, help us set aside differences and bind us to each other. Yet this is a strategy social scientists have not fully understood. They should.
*The writer can be reached at email@example.com