By Charles Sarvan –
Of course, when I say “Sinhala psychosis”, I don’t mean all Sinhalese: it’s merely an imprecise, but convenient, shorthand. Several Sinhalese individuals and groups, recognizing the Sinhala psychosis, its irrationality, hatred and what they lead to, stand up against it, at great cost to themselves and their families. They do so on grounds of principle and ethics; on the conviction that all human beings are essentially equal and, therefore, entitled to equal treatment. Their stance compels respect. As for the other term, ‘psychosis’, it can be defined as a mental condition in which contact with reality, the real state of affairs, is lost.
The Bodu Bala Sena, or Buddhist Strength Force, sounds the alarm of imminent and mortal peril to the Sinhalese “race” and Buddhism. (On “race”, see note at the end.) “The house is on fire!” “The enemy is battering down the gates!” “The ship is sinking!” What constitutes the menace at present turns out, primarily, to be the Muslims – they make up only about 8% of the population. Since what obtains in Sri Lanka is the majoritarian system of government (as distinct from real democracy), Sinhalese Buddhists are firmly and totally in power. Therefore, the panic is absurd in the extreme: it’s not a fear but a phobia. Yet the notion of grave and imminent danger to “race” and religion is given credence, taken seriously. (As Voltaire said, those who are led to believe absurdity can also be led to commit atrocity.) The elephant trumpets to fellow elephants that he is about to be run over by two or three small foxes. Imagine a political party in Pakistan whose political platform is the cry that Islam is about to be overwhelmed by another religion. Do the leaders of the Bodu Bala Sena really believe their own cry, or is it an excuse to appoint themselves the defenders of “race” and religion and, on those grounds, stake a claim to power? Or are religion and “race” being used to dismantle, and take over, Muslim commercial ventures? (See, attitudes towards the Jews during Nazi times, a very small minority accused of wielding too much influence and power.)
It would be easy to dismiss the Bodu Bala Sena as belonging to the lunatic fringe, but history has shown that those ridiculed, underestimated and dismissed have gone on, if not to seize power, then to significantly influence events. An attempt must be made to rationally understand the irrational. As several writers, both indigenous and foreign, have noted, in Sri Lanka an overwhelming majority has a minority complex – and with the sense of insecurity and fear the latter breeds.
The life instinct is fundamental to the species, and goes to explain why the fear of not surviving is such a strong, basic and primitive (“primitive” not in a negative sense) emotion. The drive to survive leads to the fear of diminution or elimination. In turn, fear can take possession, making us react irrationally; be willing to be cruel and destructive. Scientists have studied how the introduction of fear can change, radically and negatively, behavior patterns in animals and humans. Politicians have realized, and made use of the fact that fear is a very potent force, stampeding us to atavism. Instill survival-fear, and the human herd will lash out, violently and cruelly. In politics, sadly, fear energizes and mobilizes far more effectively than appeals to compassion and unselfishness. Fear is a much more effective weapon than love; far more powerful than the appeal to reason or to concepts of justice, decency and equality. Insecurity and fear make a group seek power, domination, control and, through them, safety and survival. Frustration with the present state of affairs can also be a factor, leading to the hunt for (group self-exculpating) scapegoats. Further, attacking scapegoats diverts attention from real causes and failure.
In my opinion, the Bodu Bala Sena excites and exacerbates a psychosis lying latent in the collective rather than creating it. Since significance often lies not in the major and the dramatic but in the casual, the humorous, the seemingly trivial, I cite an instance. Many, many years ago, my mother wrote from Dehiwela where she lived to a friend of mine, warmly thanking him for his care and visits, even though I, the original connecting-link, had emigrated, and was no longer there. In turn, my friend wrote to me in London saying that he was going to frame mother’s letter so that if, one day, the Tamil Tigers were to come to his house, he could win their indulgence by showing it to them. The point is that my friend (now deceased) did not live, say, in Wellawatte which has a large Tamil concentration but in a small village in Balapitiya where few had ever inter-acted with a Tamil. My friend’s joke pointed to the phobia that then prevailed: the Tamil Tigers (who perhaps numbered 20,000 at their height) were going to take over the whole island. (That both my friend’s sons were in the army, and their lives endangered, may help towards understanding.)
Phobia, as distinct from fear, though unfounded and irrational, is very real to those infected (one would say, “possessed”) by it. Indeed, a phobia, being generalized and vague, rather than factual and logical, can become more real than fear grounded in reality. This is the danger of the Bodu Bala Sena and why to dismiss them with disregard as not deserving of attention is a mistake.
How this psychosis took root over the years; came to exist and flourish, is a complex phenomenon that historians and sociologists have attempted to explain. But their findings have not reached the popular mind and imagination (partly because most of the discourse has been in English). Group self-understanding, rationality and sanity will extirpate phobia, and dispel present obsessions. Real issues and problems will, hopefully, then come to preoccupy the people.
Note. I place the word “race” within marks because it has long been established that there is no scientific basis for race. Studies of the human genome leave no doubt that the genetic endowment of humanity is a single continuum. Race is a fiction. We are all cut from the same genetic cloth. For example, there is no known Jewish gene: Richard Lewontin, ‘Is there a Jewish Gene?’, NYRB, 6-19 December, 2012. As for the Aryan race, even during the period of the Buddha, in the sixth century BCE, the term Aryan ceased to have any racial connotation. It was simply a descriptive term meaning ‘noble’: Gananath Obeyesekere , quoted by S. J. Thambiah in ‘Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy’, London, 1986. The dynasty of Tamil kings who ruled the Tamil kingdom of Jaffna in the 13th and 14th centuries boasted the name Ariya–cakkaravarti (Aryan universal monarchs) and their capital was called Cinkainakar (Lion City). See also the 1882 publication of the Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, reprinted by Asian Educational Services, India, 1996, under the title Ibn Batuta in the Maldives and Ceylon: “All the Kings of Jaffna seem to have been called Ariya or Ariyan – an old title in India” (note at the end of page 37)
Read the Sinhala translation here. Translated by Yahapalanaya Lanka