16 May, 2022

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Stories That We Tell Ourselves

By M. S. Thambirajah

Dr. M. S. Thambirajah

The novel The Village in the Jungle (1913) by Leonard Woolf which begins with the enticing opening lines, “The village was called Baddegama, which means village in the jungle…”, he relates an incident in which Silindu and his family go on a pilgrimage to Kataragama, where “they listened to the tales and legends and believing all without hesitation or speculation….. they felt that this god was very near to their own lives”. Thereafter the author   relates a tale that was prevalent among the Sinhalese of the area. It is about the Hindu god Kandasamy (aka Murugan) by the Tamils and Kataragama deviyo by the Sinhalese. The story goes like this:

“But one day, as he (Kandasamy) sat among the bare rocks upon the top of the hill and looked down upon the winding river and the trees which cooled its banks, the wish came to him to go down and live in the plain beyond the river. Even in those days he was a Tamil god, so he called to a band of Tamils who were passing, and asked them to carry him down across the river. The Tamils answered, ‘Lord. we are poor men, and have travelled far on our way to collect salt in the lagoons by the seashore. If we stop now, the rains may come and destroy the salt, and our journey will have been for nothing. We will go on, therefore, and on our way back we will carry you down, and place you other side of the river as you desire’. The Tamils went on their way, and the god was angry at the slight put upon him. Shortly afterwards a band of Sinhalese came by: they also were on their way to collect salt in the lagoons. Then the god called to the Sinhalese, and asked them to carry him down across the river. The Sinhalese climbed the hill and carried the god down, and bore him across the river, and placed him upon its the banks under the shadow of the trees, where now stands his great temple. Then the god swore that he would no longer be served by the Tamils in his temple, and the he would only have Sinhalese to perform ceremonies; and that is why to this day, though the god is a Tamil god, and the temple a Hindu temple. The kapuralas (temple custodians) are all Buddhists and Sinhalese (pp. 105-06)”.

The story is a tale of social comparison of the two groups. Viewed in binary terms, one is virtuous and the other unscrupulous. The Sinhalese are portrayed as virtuous, generous, pious people. In contrast, the Tamils are depicted as selfish. self-seeking and have no time even for their god. The story conveys this message powerfully because even the god agrees with this description of the two social groups. Moreover, he goes on to reward the Sinhalese and punish the Tamils. No doubt, whoever who invented this story had in mind the vilification of the Tamils and praise for the Sinhalese.

The story also exemplifies the concept of stereotypes. In social psychology, a stereotype refers to a fixed, overgeneralized belief about the qualities and characteristics of a particular group or class of people. These are often exaggerated, negative rather than positive, and are resistant to change. Stereotypes often give rise to prejudice, because they lead people to make generalized assumptions about other people without finding out much information about them. Also, a person holding a stereotype will show a tendency to fit any subsequent information about the social group on to the already held stereotypic view. In the case of the above story please note that Silindu had never met a Tamil. But it is highly likely he would have adopted the view portrayed in the story.

Stereotyping is said to serve many psychological functions. Since the capacity of the human brain to process information by is limited we need to structure our social environment with the limited mental resources we have. Grouping people into compartments is a less effortful way than evaluating every individual separately. Thus, information is more easily identified, recalled, and reacted to. It is also a way of making quick social comparisons. But because social comparison in involved one’s own group is exalted and glorified and the other group denigrated and vilified. This serves to augment the positive traits of one’s own group as we saw in the Kandasamy story. Thus, you become generous by portraying the other group as miserly.

But, negative stereotypes can lead to negative attitudes and behaviours such as dislike and discrimination toward members of the other social group. History tells us that such negative attitudes may culminate in dangerous conflicts and intergroup violence.

Another use of stereotypes is that appraising other social groups as more negative helps to keep up this positive self-concept of ourselves. Like individuals, all social groups want to feel good and proud about themselves. No doubt this tale is intended to produce a ‘feel good factor’ for one’s own group, portraying itself as kind, pious and virtuous, But, it also vilifies the other group, the Tamils characterising them as selfish, self-seeking and materialistic.

This tendency to stereotype others is stronger among people who identify more with their own social group. For example, strong identification with one’s religion fosters negative stereotypes and prejudice against other religions. In addition, as in the case of the above fable, some stereotypes are culturally shared and passed on from one generation to the other. Often, they are maintained through children’s books and school textbooks. Slangs, racial slurs and demeaning language too play an important in their transmission. On account of all this, stereotype are stable and resistance to change.

There do not seem to be any systematic studies of stereotypes held by various social groups in Sri Lanka. But it would be fair to say that the stereotypic view held by present day Sinhalese is not far removed from that in the above story related by the author more than a century ago. One study (not accessible now) showed that Sinhalese respondents considered themselves to be kind, good and religious but lazy; Tamils were rated as self-centred, selfish and arrogant but also diligent and thrifty; Muslims were stereotyped as greedy traders, unreliable and opportunistic. In similar vein, it is likely that the stereotype of the hill country Tamils is likely to be one of uncultured ignorant coolies.

Stereotypes are usually measured by giving subjects a list of adjectives describing the group (such as intelligent, industrious, selfish, sly) and obtain ratings on how much they agreed the trait applied to the group under study. The first experiment on racial stereotypes was carried out by Katz and Braly in 1933. In this study one hundred American university students were given a list of nationalities and ethnic groups and a list of 84 personality traits. They were asked to pick out the traits which they thought were most characteristic of ten different social groups. There was considerable agreement in the traits selected. The main findings were that White Americans were seen by the subjects as industrious, progressive and ambitious while the African Americans were seen as lazy, ignorant and musical. Jews were viewed as greedy, shrewd and industrious. More importantly, participants were quite ready to rate ethnic groups with whom they had no personal contact.

Thirdly, and more importantly, stereotypes are deemed to justify the action against the outgroup and may provide an excuse for their oppression or persecution. For example, once a person or group people is stereotyped as terrorists they are dehumanised and objectified. Hence killing them is seen as the next logical step. It warrants no other justification. We witnessed this happen when fighting the JVP and LTTE. In these cases, no distinction was made between combatants and non-combatants. According to the stereotype of “tigers” every one of them deserved to die. This stereotype of the ‘terrorist’ was applied non-combatants such as Isaipriya and Manamperi resulting in their gruesome murders. Dr. Shafi Shihabdeen is another case in point. Thus, stereotypes have the capacity to dehumanise groups and rationalise oppression and persecution.

One the issue of rationalisation one other plausible interpretation of the parable of Kandasamy is that it seeks to justify the adoption of a Tamil god by the Sinhalese Buddhists. It is generally agreed that Lord Murugan (aka Kandan) is a Dravidian god. According to Tamil mythology Murugan is the god of the mountains. Valli belonged to the Vedda group. He saw while she was keeping watch over their millet field and fell in love with her and through a series of intrigues got her to agree to marry him. The Tamil god was usurped by the Sinhalese Buddhists and christened Kataragama deviyo. How this conversion occurred is unknown. While the worship Pattini deviyo, another Tamil goddess (Kannaki), has been extensively researched by Professor Gananath Obeyesekere, not such information is available in the case of Kataragama deviyo. A generous interpretation of the parable is that it was borne out of the desire to explain the fact that a Tamil god was usurped by the Sinhalese and made into a Sinhala god, and this required an explanation and someone came up with a tale which the gullible English government agent of the day wove into his novel. I prefer to believe in this interpretation of the tale.

This is not surprising if one takes a sociological view of spread of cultures. Cultures are not static. They are thought to spread through diffusion, a social process through which elements of culture spread from one society or social group to another through contact. Thus, the adoption of Kandasamy and Kannaki into Sinhalese culture should come as no surprise and indeed provides evidence for intermingling of the two cultures.

In passing it is interesting to note that the Sinhalese were not the only people to adopt Tamil gods. Brahmins too usurped the Dravidian gods. When Arayan culture spread down south of the Vindhya mountains the Dravidian deities and gods were appropriated by the Brahamins and turned into Aryan gods. Thus, Murugan became Skanda alias Karttikeya alias Subrahmanya, the six faced son of Shiva. This process of Aryanisation has been called Sanskritisation by Indian sociologists. Throughout history Dravidians have actively resisted the onslaught of Aryan culture, especially the doctrine of Brahminism and it continues to this date.

Can stereotypes be changed? As mentioned before stereotypes are generally impervious to change. But, in theory people can control their stereotypes and inhibit potentially negative outcomes, if they are motivated to do so. However, many people are neither aware of their stereotypes nor motivated to change them. Being aware of stereotypes and knowing how they (also accidentally) spread, are important first steps. Research shows that contact between social groups is the key to overcoming stereotypes. Contact with members of the other social group can disconfirm stereotypes and induce change by providing a more accurate and (most often) positive image. This is especially the case when there are common goals and institutional support. But contact sometimes is hard to establish, either due to physical distance or psychological barriers such as prejudice and enmity. But eventually, we need to put effort into changing negative stereotypes of other social groups. In doing so, we could prevent conflicts between groups and facilitate a peaceful living together. In short, whether we are talking about minority rights or intolerance of religious diversity the stories that we tell ourselves have a bearing on the insights we need to develop for peaceful coexistence.

But we also need to keep in mind that some of the most powerful bases of intergroup stereotyping are rooted in the social and economic structure of society itself.

P.S.

Anyone reading Village in the Jungle would attest Leonard Woolf was a perceptive observer of Sri Lankan society. He had been stationed in Jaffna and Hambanthota during his tenure as Assistant Government Agent. It is noteworthy that a century ago he advocated a federal solution to Sri Lanka similar to the cantons in Switzerland.

References:

Woolf. L. (1913/1981) The village in the jungle, London: Oxford university press.

Katz, D., & Braly, K. (1933). Racial stereotypes of one hundred college students. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 28, 280-290.

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Latest comments

  • 8
    5

    Leonard Woolf’s contribution has been cynically ignored by various advocated of federalism.
    I think that Comrade Shan was prominent among the few who acknowledged LW’s vision.

    • 0
      2

      SJ
      ‘It is noteworthy that a century ago he advocated a federal solution to Sri Lanka similar to the cantons in Switzerland.”
      If he were alive today he would strongly promote a separate Homeland for all Tamil speaking people, without doubt. In view of the EXISTING distribution of Tamil speaking people across the island a federal structure would trap minorities within majority in small pockets. Take for instance the existing provincial system where +50% of Tamil speaking people live within Sinhala majority provinces. It is unrealistic to assume that IF the demand for self determination arises from purported discrimination by the Sinhalese in a unitary structure a federal structure will solve that problem. Most certainly it will worsen the situation. A central authority is a better guarantee for the protection of minorities than isolated pockets where majority wields political power.
      If I were a Tamil I would strongly oppose a federal structure with land and police powers to Sinhala majority provinces where +50% of Tamil speaking people distributed.

      Soma

  • 11
    5

    Dear MST
    I thoroughly enjoyed your above narrative. It was quite a story telling and expounding the the notion stereotypes
    Yes it’s also generally true that Tamils are somewhat selfish while the Sinhalese are generous people and hospitable people. I have experienced their kindness , living among them
    Thank you for telling us that there is more to life than cheap politics and economics

    • 11
      2

      I agree with you Ratnam- Tamils are much more selfish than the Sinhalese. This is one of the reasons that Tamils are in this plight today. But Sinhalese are more communal than the Tamils. That is why they are without gas, milk, and other essentials. If they were not, today our Lanka will be flowing with Milk and Honey.
      I don’t understand Why MURUGA asked the people to carry him across. HIS PEACOCK WOULD HAVE DONE THE JOB SMOOTHLY AND EFFICIENTLY.

      • 2
        0

        Kanapathy
        I don’t understand Why MURUGA asked the people to carry him across. HIS PEACOCK WOULD HAVE DONE THE JOB SMOOTHLY AND EFFICIENTLY.”
        Even today gods use peacocks, bulls, snakes for travel while Kapuwas run around in BMWs, Porches, Monteros etc.
        ,-
        Soma

    • 8
      0

      Thank you Dr MST.

      Ratnam Nadarajah
      “Tamils are somewhat selfish while the Sinhalese are generous people and hospitable people”
      They are so generous starting from 1920 http://white-flags.org/

      • 6
        1

        Anpu,
        There are many – even on CT – who choose not see beyond their nose!

        • 8
          7

          “There are many – even on CT – who choose not see beyond their nose!”
          What is so special about ones on CT?
          *
          It is hard for Tamils to accept, but at a personal level the Sinhalese I knew were far more caring and kind than Tamils even to strangers.
          (The Muslim’s hospitality surpasses both.)
          It has nothing to do with race. Jaffna has been a rather competitive society, subject to some of the worst kind of caste prejudices. Hospitality and warmth are thus restricted to familiar circles.
          Compare greetings when people meet for instance. To the Sinhalese “Ayubowan” with a smile is second nature (but for a bus conductor).
          Tamils? The terms are contrived and used economically.

      • 5
        8

        Tamils are such a kind lot that many even endorsed the LTTE’s murders.

      • 3
        1

        Ratnam Nadarajah,

        They are so generous (of course not all – there are many peace loving decent Sinhalese ) and you can find how generous they are from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sri_Lankan_Tamilshttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1958_anti-Tamil_pogrom

      • 1
        3

        Anpu
        Despite intense, unrelenting propaganda of discrimination, violence, loot, rape, murder or even genocide not a SINGLE TAMIL FAMILY who lived among the Sinhalese in the South during or after the war has relocated the residence to Jaffna.

        Soma

  • 6
    3

    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.

    For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2

    • 8
      1

      Eagle Eye

      Thanks.
      Would you like learn?

      Let’s start at the very beginning
      A very good place to start
      When you read you begin with A-be-see
      …..
      Sound of Music

      • 6
        0

        NV, I don’t think Eagle dumbo will get your sarcasm. He is too stupid.

    • 6
      0

      Eagle stupid Eye, how do you manage to write so many great comments one after the other?

      • 3
        0

        And to not get deterred even with millions of his posts censored by the moderators!! :)

      • 0
        2

        He has learned the art from Native Veddah.

        Soma

  • 5
    2

    A very good article that explains everything happened and how some stereotypes influenced Sri Lankan people.

    • 6
      0

      Ajith, then the question is how much a stereotype Lankan can be free of it, when forming an opinion on international matter ???

  • 5
    0

    I profoundly thank Dr.Thambirajah for defining stereotype, a term which I used frequently in my comments. (more so after Ukraine invasion). He not only explained but gave ample examples which CT readers can relate to. Bias can be seen as the overarching definition of stereotype and prejudice. The difference being bias is a personal preference, like or dislike, especially when the tendency interferes with the ability to be impartial,unprejudiced or OBJECTIVE. Whereas stereotype is a preconceived idea that attributes certain characteristics (in general ) to all the members of class or set.

  • 4
    1

    I agree with you Ratnam- Tamils are much more selfish than the Sinhalese. This is one of the reasons that Tamils are in this plight today. But Sinhalese are more communal than the Tamils. That is why they are without gas, milk, and other essentials. If they were not, today our Lanka will be flowing with Milk and Honey.
    I don’t understand Why MURUGA asked the people to carry him across. HIS PEACOCK WOULD HAVE DONE THE JOB SMOOTHLY AND EFFICIENTLY.

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