2 December, 2021

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Stories & Histories: Sri Lankan Past – A Review Of Two Books By Gananath Obeyesekere

By Premakumara de Silva

Prof. Premakumara de Silva

There are a number of books on my shelves to be read and understood, and most of them deal with Sri Lankan past. However, due to administrative and teaching commitments at my university, I hardly found time to look at them until now. Currently, I am spending a fair amount of time to read and write thanks to my long overdue sabbatical leave. Naturally, once any serious scholar publishes work in the related field one would be tempted to read and comment on such work. Even after two years of publication, I would like to write a brief review on two books written by Professor Gananath Obeyesekere, truly a gifted scholar, who still has not abandoned his scholarly life even at the age of 91. His writings have always been well received by the readers especially by the Sri Lankan Studies reading public. The two books are, ‘The Buddha in Sri Lanka: Histories and Stories (2018 and reprint Special Sri Lanka edition 2019, Routledge) and ‘Stories and Histories: Sri Lankan Pasts and the Dilemmas of Narrative Representation’ (2019, Sarasavi Publishers). The common feature of these two books is that they deal with multi-faceted aspects of Sri Lankan narrative pasts, more precisely our past linked with Buddhism. The essays comprised in the two volumes are based on a firm ethnographical and historical foundation and analyses that have been adopted by Obeyesekere throughout his long-illustrated career as an anthropologist. In general, the first volume is a collection of his previous publications with a solidly grounded introduction titled ‘Tellers of Stories, Writers of Histories: Essays on the Buddhist Past’. It was well supported by a prologue by T.N.Madan who is one of the prominent Sociologists in South Asia.

The second book is based on his original archival (historical texts) and ethnographical (popular folk traditions) research conducted during the past several years, particularly on cultural and social formations of pre-colonial Kandyan regions. As a result of that, he managed to publish two other volumes about our past namely The Doomed King (2017) as well as, The Many Faces of the Kandyan Kingdom, 1591-1765: Lessons for our Time (2020). Voluminous writing of our past with a lens of critical re-reading is not an easy task. Obeyesekere has taken that daunting task seriously and, in my view, has done justice to the reader by inviting them to investigate our past in an unconventional or unorthodox manner.

In one of the prefaces he writes, “History in my thinking, as with some of my professional colleagues, is something in the making…..the tentativeness of historical knowledge and hence its vulnerability”. His scholarly craft combines attentiveness to the historical and contemporary dimensions of the tradition. With those combinations he tends to critically investigate the country’s important historical process where the foreign visitors are “naturalized” as Sri Lankan Buddhists; and only then can they be “citizens” and permitted to work for the king. This was portrayed as the legitimate right of citizenship particularly incorporation of South Indian people into Sri Lanka and their subsequent Sinhalization and Buddhicization. Similarly, right through our history, even when Väddas practiced agriculture, they were depicted as a different ethnic group, that is, as hunters. Väddas in general were not Buddhists either but they practiced the rituals of the ancestral cult of nä yakku. Eventually they do become Sinhalese? and Buddhists and Hindus, if they were living inTamil-speaking areas. Through this work, he quite convincingly shows that the role of the analyst is to excavate the past and hold up to critical reflection in the hybrid nature, not just of Väddas and Sinhalas, or Tamil and Sinhala or Muslims but of our human condition in general. His general argument would be that Vaddas gradually became Sinhala-Buddhist when the vast area of the Western, Sabaragamuva, Uva and Kandyan regions were converted into rice cultivation after the fifteenth century consequent to the emergence of Buddhist states in those areas. Likewise, this process continued by absorbing other ‘immigrant communities’ such Brahamins, Malalas, Hetti, Marikkars, Mukkuvas and more groups like them perhaps already incorporated mainly into a high segment of the goyigama caste and in general to the Sinhala Buddhist polity. However, Obeyesekere did not deal with an important facet of similar and different processes of the incorporation of Sinhala people in the Tamil areas of the North and East, where erstwhile Sinhala communities have been Tamilized during the period before the fall of the Kandyan kingdom in 1815, the period in which he concentrated this study. In my view, the receptivity and accommodative nature of our culture and society began swiftly disappearing with the advent of European colonialism. As Obeyesekere correctly pointed out, in the colonial and post-colonial periods the issues of ethnicity and cultural identity took on new dimensions particularly European identity politics based on notions of nationalism which is a dominating and troublesome factor in our present life.

Unfortunately, in the current political situation in Sri Lanka where identities are frozen and sometimes obsessively affirmed, it is our scholarly duty to point out the historically contingent bases on which such fixed conceptions are grounded. He deliberately refrains from employing terms like “ethnicity” “nation”, “nation state” or even “state” to describe the situation in pre-colonial Sri Lanka. For example: Sinhalas had no term that could be translated as “nation;” they had a term that belonged to the same polythetic class as nation, namely sasana. In the doctrinal tradition sasana refers to the universal Buddhist community that transcends ethnic and other boundaries. In order to deconstruct such affirmative identities with historically and ethnographically driven information, he has categorized his work as “restorative” research. This work offers a restorative interpretation of Buddhist culture and society in contrast to the perspective involving deconstruction.

The book on the Buddha in Sri Lanka deals with more recent changes with a range of themes connected with Buddhism, including oral traditions and stories, the religious pantheon, philosophy, emotions, reform movements, questions of identity and culture, and issues of modernity. This book is not about doctrinal Buddhism but about the Buddhism in practice in society in the history -of Sri Lanka. This collection is presented in three parts, the first and second parts contain each of four chapters and two in the last part and he used the term ‘the work of culture’, a major theoretical standpoint he has developed since 1980’s, to formulate many of the chapters presented in this work. All the chapters assembled here deal with revised versions of his articles published over more than half a century from late 1950s to the present. As many other works of the Author, particularly of this nature, have done, the two volumes certainly guide the reader to see how one can reimagine their own past more critically and passionately. Hence, Obeyesekere demands us that we should not actively forget or ignore the hybrid nature of our stories and histories and identity formations when reading about our past in the present.

*Premakumara de Silva, Chair Professor of Sociology, University of Colombo.

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  • 3
    1

    ‘Eventually they do become Sinhalese? and Buddhists and Hindus, if they were living inTamil-speaking areas’.
    What do you gather from this? I gather, ‘they were living inTamil-speaking areas’.
    Who were these ‘they’? Väddas.
    Here is a statement that affirms that Tamils have a history in the country.

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      Nathan,
      If you read the Mahavamsa, it says that Mahasen destroyed 3 Hindu temples in the 2nd Century. Isn’t that good enough to prove a Tamil presence? Quite apart from being a demonstration of the famous Sinhala Buddhist tolerance.

  • 0
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  • 1
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    Sri Lanka is blessed with a large number of scholars. However, when it comes to history writings, their lack of critical thinking and courage to confront ambiguity in our history is prominent.
    As an example; the world renowned Sri Lankan Archaeologist late Professor Siran Deraniyagala didn’t have the courage to name ‘Homosapien (Wise-man in Latin) Balangodensis’ as ‘Homosapien Sinhalensis’!
    ‘Balangoda-man’ has proved that Sri Lanka was an advanced agricultural civilization of Sinhalese myriad years before the unknown Vijaya Hora landed in ancient Sinhaladvipa.

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    Professor Premakumara de Silva
    .
    1) Referring to the contents of Professor Gananath Obeyesekere’s books, you say, “Similarly, right through our history, even when Väddas practiced agriculture, they were depicted as a different ethnic group, that is, as hunters.”
    Excuse me, Sirs, the depiction of Sri Lankan Veddas as a different ethnic group called hunters proves their link to ancient Sinhalese Yakkhas. Although the time periods vary, hunters, gatherers or forest-men were common in ancient forests all over the world. Eg: Ethiopia, Mexico, Kenya.
    .
    2) You say, “Väddas in general were not Buddhists either but they practiced the rituals of the ancestral cult of nä yakku. Eventually they do become Sinhalese? and Buddhists and Hindus, if they were living in Tamil-speaking areas.”
    I do not agree with this. Veddas practice the ancient ritual of remembering the spirits of dead relatives a.k.a. ‘Nae Yakku’ in its original form.
    Similarly, Sinhalese Buddhists practice the ancient Buddhist ritual of remembering the spirits of dead relatives in a sophisticated manner. Eg: Mathaka bana (offering of prayers for the dead spirit), Mala batha (offering of food for the dead spirit), Mathaka wasthra (offering a cloth in the name of the dead spirit), etc.
    As you observe, Buddhism is the base of remembering ‘Nae Yakku’ as well as ‘Mala-batha, Mathaka-bana and Mathaka-wasthra’ which serves as the link.
    Continued……..

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      3) You say “His (Professor Gananath Obeyesekere’s) general argument would be that Vaddas gradually became Sinhala-Buddhist when the vast area of the Western, Sabaragamuva, Uva and Kandyan regions were converted into rice cultivation after the fifteenth century consequent to the emergence of Buddhist states in those areas.”
      This is utterly wrong. Naturally grown paddy (rice) were in abundance throughout Buddhist Sri Lanka including Western, Sabaragamuwa, Uva and Kandyan regions from the time immemorial. Ploughing started only after European invasions. Portuguese writers have mentioned that the Sinhalese men were not seen working as naturally grown food was in abundance.

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      Champa,
      “As you observe, Buddhism is the base of remembering ‘Nae Yakku’ as well as ‘Mala-batha, Mathaka-bana and Mathaka-wasthra’ “
      Isn’t it the other way around? Which came first, Veddahs or Buddhism?

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        old codger
        A good question. My comment was limited to the quoted section of the article.
        There are different types of Veddas in Sri Lanka whose practices vary. In addition there were Nittevos (Pygmies/Kurumitto).
        Some scholars are of the view that Vedda is actually the Sanskrit word written as “Væda” which means ‘Archer’. When our ancient Sinhalese Kings and ancestors fought with foreign invaders, archers had played a prominent role in winning battles.
        As for your question who came first; Vedda or Buddhism, the word Buddha has been first mentioned in King Rawana’s Veda.
        In my opinion, Buddhism and folk religion a.k.a. folk animism or spirituality were practised in parallel.
        How old is Sri Lanka’s civilization? According to former Director General/Archaeology late Dr. Siran Deraniyagala, there have been settlements in Sri Lanka 130,000 years ago with a possibility to go even beyond, 300,000 to 500,000 years Before Present. As to why he decided to continue the ambiguity without coming to a conclusion is still a puzzle to me.

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