Colombo Telegraph

Sri Lanka Has A 2600 Year-Old Culture?

By Sharmini Serasinghe

Sharmini Serasinghe

If what has become of Sri Lanka today is the legacy of a “2600-year old culture”, might we have been better off without any culture at all?

Ever so often we hear the famous cliché ‘dropped’ by our politicians- “………Sri Lanka’s 2600-year old culture……….” It is a sine qua non statement repeated ad nauseam at many a public and political forum (the most recent being CHOGM) to add ‘weight’ or to perhaps impress otherwise empty utterances. This is obviously done solely to awe the audience, especially a foreign one.

I recall, as an impressionable young girl, when Sri Lanka’s first Executive President J.R. Jayewardene made his State Visit to the USA during Ronald Reagan’s tenure as US President. In his televised address on the South Lawn of the White House, JRJ casting aside his noblesse oblige referred to the United States as “a country with only a 200-year old history, while Sri Lanka’s was over 2500 years old”!

This ‘casual’ or ‘calculated’ remark (with JRJ one never knew) has remained with me to date. To me even then, this ipse dixit remark reeked of an acute inferiority complex and I felt utterly embarrassed on his behalf.

For us Sri Lankans, we have heard this old-hat too often and, therefore it has no effect. But to an outsider hearing these words “Sri Lanka’s 2600-year old culture” and seeing for themselves how this “Buddhist culture” has shaped this country’s fortunes/misfortunes, it must be truly mindboggling!

Within such a context they must also see that the citizenry of this “Buddhist Country” are not all Sinhalese or Buddhists. There are Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, Hindus, Christians, Moslems and others, who also call this country their motherland. They too are a significant part of the rich cultural and historical fabric of this country. But yet, they are regarded and treated as the ‘other’, ‘occupants’ or ‘guests’ of this “Buddhist Country”.

Dubious claims 

According to dubious claims by those, perhaps, with an overactive imagination, this is a “Buddhist Country”, because it was chosen by the Buddha himself, over and above all others, to foster and perpetuate his wisdom through the Dhamma. There is no proof of this claim but yet, it is claimed!

To those outsiders who know and understand the Theravada teachings of the Buddha, it must indeed be strange to see how this “Buddhist Country” with a “2600-year old culture” actually practices those teachings. It must appear to them, that there is little understanding of the noble teachings of the Buddha!

They see Buddhist monks or Bhikkus– the living symbols of this so called “culture and history of 2600 years” not quite abiding by the rules of the Vinaya. The caste system, denounced by the Buddha himself, thrives amongst the prominent Buddhist clergy in this “Buddhist Country” through different Nikayas. They travel and live in luxury. They have also crowned themselves as guardians of this unique brand of Buddhism practiced only in Sri Lanka.

At this point, I recall a virtual life-changing incident for me as a child of a single-digit age. My grand-mother in Kandy held an alms-giving on a grand scale at our ancestral home. All the ‘bigwig’ Buddhist prelates from all the Nikayas arrived. Suddenly there irrupted a commotion; the bigwigs from the ‘bigwig’ Nikayas refused to partake of alms together with the prelates of the ‘lower’ Nikayas. The entire household was thrown into a quandary, but peace was restored when ‘special arrangements’ were made to accommodate the ‘lower Nikayas’ separately. This is how I learnt of the repugnant caste system in Sri Lanka- courtesy Buddhist monks!

Also in this “Buddhist Country” which holds such rich claims to the Buddha and his teachings, one would expect to notice tolerance and compassion reign supreme. Alas, one sees the exact opposite.

There can be found, saffron-clad persons masquerading as Buddhist monks, running amok with impunity causing chaos, spewing venom at the ‘other’. Then there are also political leaders of this “Buddhist country” using the human dignity of its citizenry, as door-mats to wipe their feet on.

Perhaps all this would not stand out like a sore thumb, if the trumpets of “Sri Lanka’s 2600-year old culture” were not blown so loud!

Symbols of Culture 

Of course if one were to go by some of the fantasy stories contained in the Mahavamsa, and if data relating to archeological findings are accurate, then we have an ancient culture of a great many historical symbols- massive feats of engineering and construction genius, artistically carved stone etc.

But can culture be measured only by these impressive material symbols? Alas in Sri Lanka it is so, and continues to be so. The term “culture” in the broader sense – in relation to the quality of life afforded equally to all the people of this land cannot be found. It may never be found!

Perhaps this wonderful country might have been better off, had it been blessed instead of a “2600-year old culture with “cultured” political leaders, endowed with wisdom and a selfless vision for the greater good of the land, and all its people. For, as things stand and as they are, what use have we for this “2600-year old culture”? What has it given us in tangible terms and in ways that matter to us the most?

Perhaps it is time, for the public faces of our country- our political leaders in particular- to stop trumpeting the highly questionable claim of “Sri Lanka’s 2600-year old culture”. But as things are and the way they stand, this is but a dream!

Alas, ours is today but a land sodden by blood and tears of its people, as hypocrisy reigns supreme!

*Sharmini Serasinghe was Director Communications of the former Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) under Secretary Generals Dr. John Gooneratne and Jayantha Dhanapala. She counts over thirty years in journalism in both the print and electronic media.

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