By H. L. D. Mahindapala –
The loud bravado with which Ms. Sharmini Serasinghe challenged the Sinhala Buddhists to give “a valid answer” to her question – a question which was aimed deliberately at denigrating the Sinhala-Buddhists – stands in stark contrast to the silence that prevails after the answer was given. (See Colombo Teleraph….) She asked pompously, assuming that she had delivered the final deadly blow that would nail the Sinhala-Buddhists once and for all : “Might I also ask, what in heaven’s name is so “supreme” about the Sinhalese people? What have we, the Sinhalese achieved, others have not, to entertain such “pride”? I challenge all those out there, who keep chanting, “I’m proud to call myself a Sinhala-Buddhist” to give me a valid answer to my questions, as so far, I have not.” She was, of course, hoping to be the heroine with this anti-Sinhala-Buddhist question. Instead she turned into a dumb “gemba” (a word picked from Prime Minister’s vocabulary) when the answer revealed that educating Ms. Serasinghe is a prime necessity to prevent her from making an ass of herself by asking stupid questions.
Her operative phrase is : “I challenge all those out there,….” The broad sweep of the question accompanied by her gassy bravado (“challenge all”! Pah!) exposed the inflated ego of a Mahadana Muththi rather than the informed insights of an original thinker with a profound knowledge of the subject. By the way, a good question reveals the quantum of knowledge possessed by the questioner. But blinded by her anti-Sinhala-Buddhist mania she has rushed into places where knowledgeable angels fear to tread. A knowledgeable and intelligent questioner will take all precautions not to be trapped by her own questions bouncing back to knock her down.
So when Ms. Serasinghe challenged the entire Sinhala-Buddhist community to provide her with an answer to satisfy her I just couldn’t resist accepting it, purely to educate her. Besides, it was a full toss and it was not difficult to send it over the boundary line. In reply I outlined, interspersed with some barbs, the monumental achievements of the Sinhalese which the other migrant settlers could not match, making the Sinhalese-Buddhist settlers the unique achievers. I felt that it was necessary to educate Ms. Serasinghe and through that process her anti-Sinhala-Buddhist claque waiting to clap any hack denigrating the Sinhala-Buddhists and downgrading their unique contributions/achievements that shine in the pages of history. After all, it is also the only known history that is “compiled for the serene joy and emotion of the pious”. Herodotus, the father of history, wrote his Histories “to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of our own and of the Asiatic peoples”.
Mahanama, the author of Mahavamsa, also had the same objective but he makes it quite clear that there is a greater purpose in his mission. The recurring message at the end of each chapter ( i.e, “compiled for the serene joy and emotion of the pious”) signifies that history has a meaning more than being a record of past. The teleological mission of history is defined as ending in 1. serene joy and 2. emotional piety. Both are Buddhistic goals. Just as much as the goal of individual Buddhists is to achieve serene joy and emotional piety – the closest one can get to nirvana — so the collective and teleological purpose of history too is to arrive at the ultimate goal in which the evolved individual is settled in serene joy and emotional piety, without conflicts, blood-letting, tensions etc. In secular terms, it means, that the contradictions that tear the individual and society apart are resolved in finding serene joy and emotional piety – two of the fundamental goals in Buddhism. Isn’t the ultimate aim of all utopian/idealistic politics to find serene joy, either by changing the environment, or the individual, or both? Isn’t, for instance, the Platonic man a disciplined individual filled with emotional piety, rising to the level of philosopher-kings without dissipating his energies in wild distractions and illusions like the worldly theatre, poetry etc? Isn’t the Marxist man in his communist utopia one who has found serene joy and emotional piety, though it is in the material world where his bourgeois heaven has been brought down to earth for him to go fishing in the evening or partying in the night etc., a la Engels model?
So history has a well-defined meaning, significance and purpose to the Sinhala-Buddhists. No doubt there is a seedy side to Sri Lankan history like that of any history in any civilisation. It is easy to pick on sex addicts like Queen Anula or parricides like Kasyapa. But in which history is there a Siri Sangabo who sacrificed his head to a citizen? Michael Roberts argued that the Sinhala rulers attempted to follow the Asokan model. The unique redeeming features outweigh the infirmities common to all societies. In this instance history should be judged with that of the other minorities because the questioner, Ms. Serasinghe, is challenging the Sinhala community prove that they have reason to take pride in their history unlike the others. The obvious comparison then is evaluate the achievements of the Sinhala-Buddhist history with that of the Tamils who, incidentally, claim to have arrived before the Sinhalese. Oddly enough, the Tamils who claim chunks of history and territory on their primordial antecedents have not even produced a record of their past to prove that they even had a sense of history. Quite late in the day, somewhere during the Dutch and British periods, the Tamils of the north had to be pushed by the colonial administrators to write accounts of their past and, subsequently, feeble attempts were made to draw dreary sketches of what they thought was their history. But those attempts were to please the Dutch and British governors. For instance, Mayilvakanam, the author of The Yalpana-Vaipava-Malai, admits that it was written “at the request of the illustrious Dutch Governor Maccara…” Jan Maccara was the governor of the Dutch possessions in 1736. Tamil histories were written to win the favour of the rulers. The Sinhala-Buddhists wrote their history for “serene joy and emotional piety”. They had a natural instinct for history in which their destiny was tied to the land. The pioneering Buddhist missionary, Mahinda, too defined the sacred relationship between the people and the land. Their role was to be trustees giving protection and shelter to all those who want to share the land in common with each other to achieve “serene joy and emotional piety” – the most desirable goals for individuals as well as communities.
This fundamental difference in the approaches to their respective histories – one sacred the other mercenary — alone indicates the value each community placed in evaluating their pasts, their heritage and relationship to the land. The sacred value of history to the Sinhalese is reflected in the Mahavamsa – a unique unbroken record of the past that served as a beacon to scholars of Asia. The Sinhalese were imbued with an innate historical sense that bonded them as makers of a great civilisation. Invariably great writings come out of great movements. The Mahavamsa came spontaneously from the heart and soul of the Sinhala-Buddhists. The Tamils, on the contrary, had to be told by the colonial governors to write their history.
This left a vacuum in the historiography of the Tamils. Scholars have been complaining consistently, moaning about the absence of a comprehensive and authoritative history of the Tamils. The Tamils themselves felt the need for a reliable Tamil history when history took centre stage when S. J. V. Chelvanayakam launched his separatist movement. The vacuum in Tamil history was filled by fabricated myths to elevate the Tamils as the makers and breakers of Sri Lankan history. Vadukoddai Resolution contains the kind of fictitious history and concocted geography manufactured by the Tamils to justify their claim for a separate state. It is partly the distortion of history for political purposes that increased the tensions between the two communities. The demonising of the Sinhala-Buddhists became a political necessity for the Jaffna leadership to survive and thrive in peninsular politics.
History was the first victim of the mono-ethnic extremism of the north. It was launched in the thirties by G. G. Ponnambalam, the Tamil leader who shot into the limelight by whipping up anti-Sinhala-Buddhist hysteria. This was his tactic to displace the traditional Jaffna “aristocracy” of the turbanned Mahadevas, Ramanathans and Arunachalams who were the ruling deities of Jaffna politics. Ponnambalam was the new comer in the thirties who rose to prominence by raising the communal cry of 50 – 50 which later escalated into federalism and finally to separatism. Besides, Jaffna was a closed society that never aligned itself with liberal, socialist or any other broad ideology other than narrow racism and casteism – two deadly combinations which morphed into ruthless fascism in the hands of Velupillai Prabhakaran. Jaffna Tamil politics was based essentially on beating their political rivals with the anti-Sinhala-Buddhist racist card. Ant-Sinhala-Buddhist card was the sure fire path to win elections. Blaming the Sinhala-Buddhists for everything was a winning slogan in any election. Ponnambalam began with it to beat his turbanned rivals and it has never ceased since then. His role will be elaborated in the next article.
The natural tendency of the Sinhala-Buddhists to take pride in their heritage is partly because they are blessed with historic treasures to call their own, partly as the prime trustees of the nation and partly as the inheritors of the greatest tradition in the island. Just as much as the sons and daughters have a duty and the right to take pride and protect the family heirloom handed down from generation to successive generation so has a nation a right / duty to take pride and protect its legacy handed down by their ancestors. This justifiable pride can be felt only by those belong to the glorious tradition and not to those who parade in public fora plastered with plastic cosmetics to give them a look of intelligence which they do not posses.
In my answer I pointed out that the pioneering Sinhalese were intrepid and creative settlers who transformed the pristine wilderness into a sustainable and glorious civilisation by any comparative standards. They contributed to the world heritage with a new language, new culture and a new civilisation which other migrants failed to create. Because the Sinhala-Buddhists were the founding fathers of the new civilisation they developed a binding historical and emotional affinity with the land on which they established their new culture. History and the Sinhala-Buddhists were inextricably intertwined because one does not exist without the other. “One of the greatest contributions of the Sinhalese people to the cultural development of South and South East Asia and to the world literature,” wrote Heinz Bechert, Professor of Indian and Buddhist Studies, University of Gottingen in Germany, “is the creation of a historic literature. It is well-known that on the Indian sub-continent before the invasion of the Islamic conquerors virtually no historic literature had developed …..Sri Lanka tells a quite different story. In the Dipavamsa and Mahavansa and in other Sinhalese texts, we are given an account of the political and cultural history of the island from earliest times until the present time.” – (p.69, Wilhelm Geiger, His Life and Works, by Goethe Institute, Colombo, 1995).
Naturally, the culture of the Sinhalese reflected their inalienable bonds with land. Their sense of history, arising from their creation of a new civilisation, inculcated into them a sense of spiritual relationship / ownership. History whether it is that of the English, French or American or any other belongs to those who create it and not to those who had done their worst to destroy it. If anything, Mahavamsa demonstrates amply the intimate relationship between the people and history and how they contributed to the evolution of each other, nurtured by their reinvigorating heritage. They believed that their history defined their destiny. To them history was something that brought “serene joy and emotion of the pious” – a recurring theme summed up precisely in the Mahavamsa. “The Sinhalese alone, or almost alone,” wrote Bishop R. S. Copleston, “among the Indian people (including the Tamils) as having had an interest in history. Their Chronicles are the oldest, I believe, and for centuries the only instance of histories in the Indian world….The Sinhalese chronicles are distinctly historical in form, not epical.” (pp.161 –172., Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society XII, No.43, 1892.) That exceptional and abiding “interest in history” is what distinguishes the Sinhalese from the rest. Obviously, their “interest in history” was in their DNA because they made it. History they made in creating a new culture and new civilisation in their new found land belonged to them and to no one else though others were always welcome to share it. So when the Sinhalese take pride in their history they do so because it was their creation. And like all creations in any civilisation it belongs to the makers.
I am glad I got this opportunity to write this with serene joy for the education of Ms. Serasinghe and her ilk. I hope to write with more emotional piety to enlighten her with the glorious history which she missed by leaving Vishaka Vidyalaya.
In this essay I’ve tried to answer her question more comprehensively. I hope she will come back at me with renewed vigour to rebut my arguments. Her reply will indicate to the readers her level of intelligence and her capacity to debate in public defending her position. If she can rebut my argument then I will certainly doff my cap off to her. But does she have the facts, guts, cuts and thrusts to prove that she is a Satya-wathie and not a Bunkum-wathie?
I await her reply eagerly.
To be continued.