24 July, 2019


The Caste Base Of Our Cultural Roots

By Basil Fernando

Basil Fernando

Reconciliation has not been treated as an attractive word in Sri Lanka. The government’s view is that forgetting is the best course available. It argues that reconciliation attempts could reopen the wounds and will do more harm than good. Officially therefore, the government policy is to encourage forgetting.

This policy does not come under serous criticism from the intellectuals and the opinion makers in Sri Lanka. A few have complained about this policy. However, their voices have not evoked much of a response from society.

The government’s policy of forgetting as well as the absence of a strong retaliation against it points out some serious problems. This article is about one such cause which to me, appears perhaps as one of the most important causes, not only giving rise to this preference for forgetting but also for many other serious problems that affect Sri Lanka. For example, the easy approach to murder. Within the last forty years or so after 1971 Sri Lanka has witnessed a continuous period of large scale killings. In many instances these killings have been done after arrest. This has never become a serious matter of concern and controversy. The leaders of all religions are quite silent about it despite the fact that one of the few most important precepts of any religion is the objection to murder. The family members of the victims are advised to forget and various religious devices such as meditation are used to help such persons to forget and to find peace of mind. Confronted with any kind of cruelty the religious exhortation is usually to forget and to achieve one’s own peace of mind.

These attitudes can be analysed from many points of view. One of the most common explanations is the influence of karmic theories. Learned persons in various religions may give various explanations about such karmic theories. However, in the popular mind people have their own understanding of these matters and during the time of crisis which affect them, they turn to their own internalized notions of these matters.

My intention is not to go into these religious explanations that favour forgetting rather than active engagement for reconciliation. I would rather draw attention to some cultural habits which have resulted from our social history of many centuries. What I refer to is the influence of caste-based notions that have generated psychological habits and attitudes which strongly persist despite of some advances in rational education. Many people would say that they are not as caste minded as their ancestors were in previous generations. And they are honest in saying so.

However, the caste influence that I am talking about is the deeper psychological and inner habits of the mind (or some may call it the soul) which persists despite of some achievements in the rational sphere. What we are talking about is habits formed over centuries. Exactly when the caste system became entrenched in Sri Lanka is hard to determine. However, it is generally agreed that by the beginning of the Polonawaru period the caste system was well entrenched in Sri Lanka. Whether during the Anuradhapura period caste was a serious factor is doubtful. In India original Buddhism came in radical opposition to Brahmanism. A central aspect of Brahmanism is the caste system which provided them with the rationalization for their own superior positions. In India there is a large body of contemporary writings which tries to illustrate the enormous contribution Buddhism made to undermine caste and to give space to those persons who were considered Sudras, who were the lowest on the caste ladder. However, in Sri Lanka this aspect is not talked about very much. Perhaps the same principle regarding forgetting is also being applied here because many controversies could arise if this issue is brought for open discussion.

What is important for the purpose of this article is that caste became the main form of social organisation in Sri Lanka at a certain historical period and this position continued for many centuries. What follows from this is that when any form of social organisation is entrenched for many centuries it enters into the psyche of the people who live under it. The psychological habits keep on having their rebirths in the same way other biological aspects of any species also have their rebirths.

Caste archetypes

The psychological habits implanted by the caste system are the notions of hierarchy based on the grading of human beings into fixed categories. Those considered the highest caste have one kind of identification or to use a modern term we could say an archetype. Those considered the lowest were the ones engaged in work of a physical nature. Even within the castes themselves there were deep divisions. For example while the Govigama caste is considered the highest caste the agricultural labourers who actually do most of the work relating to farming were considered as belonging to a lower category than those who owned the lands (it is remarkable that in relation to the JVP insurrection of 1971 58.5 percent of those who were detained were from the Govigama caste — Table 31, page 351 of Religion and Ideology Sri Lanka by F. Houtart). Thus, the label ‘Govigama’ did not apply equally to persons within this caste. The actual agricultural labourers were identified with the marginalised groups such as the Karavas, Salagamas, Wahampuras, Padus (Batgamas) Dhobys (laundrymen), Beravas (drummers) and Navandamas (smiths). This identification therefore was more or less the same as Sudras in India, the basis of classification being those who engage in physical labour.

From the point of view of the formation of psychological habits by way of many centuries of repetition of varying kinds of treatment to those who belong to different categories, what this means is that many forms of boundaries have been established to keep these categories well demarcated. Every form of treatment was relativised in terms of these categories. When one category addressed the persons belonging to other categories even the language used was distinctly different and this distinction is embedded in the grammatical structure itself. The other forms of association such as marriages, attendance at social gatherings including religious gatherings were all determined according to these gradations.

The central issue of caste is regarding the significance of individuals. Those who belong to the top category have the highest forms of recognition and those who belong to the lowest had no recognition except within their own group. For example, the killing of a Brahmin was considered the highest crime with tremendous consequences in this life and the next. The killing of a Sudra may not be a crime at all. This Indian notion was assimilated by Sri Lankan Buddhism which made the killing of a Buddhist monk in the category. The internationalization of this recognition structure is the deeper psychological impact that the caste has had and continues to have on Sri Lankans. Such psychological imprints go much deeper than mere rational or cognitive categories. What is merely in the intellect can be changed by the improvement of understanding achieved rationally. However, what is imprinted psychologically does not go away merely due to better rational education or achievements in the cognitive sphere.

It is these deep psychological imprints that get replayed in terms of reactions to what is considered good or bad, moral or immoral. For example, though modern legal systems may speak of everyone as equal before the law in the actual treatment of people still the old habits have a greater influence than modern classifications introduced by law. For example, a police or military officer will not usually dare to kill a person who is perceived as belonging to the top category. However, he may not think twice when the victim is a person who belongs to the lower category. The epidemic of killings that we have been experiencing in Sri Lanka since 1971 is shocking to anyone who looks at the world on the basis of modern legal definitions or charaterisations. How could thousands of persons be killed after securing their arrest? It is simply impossible to explain such a thing to anyone whose thinking is grounded on modern democratic and rule of law notions. However, for the generality of Sri Lankans this epidemic of killings has not caused any nightmares or problems of conscience or problems of morality.

Fraud done by people at the top does not seem to create outrage or strong reactions among the Sri Lankans. While there are very many who at a cognitive level resent what they see happening, such resentments do not accompany the emotional reactions against the self destruction caused by large scale fraud and corruption. A few centuries of psychological habits seem to predetermine the reactions of the people. Being accustomed to corruption and being able to live with it has gone to the very depth of the psyche. The same can be said of the wide spread lawlessness, the increase in crime, large scale abuse of children and women and every other kind of abomination including the destruction of the free speech and freedom of association.

What has been achieved cognitively through rational endeavors such as the establishment of a rule of law system within the country, the introduction of basic democracy with free elections, transparency achieved through parliamentary debates and the freedom of the press and the basic availability of humane treatment by law enforcement agencies and the courts is easily lost. However, that does not bother the psyche of the people. The psyche is quite at rest with the help of habits which have been implanted and reproduced in every generation. These many centuries old habits do not find the kind of crisis that the country’s public institutions suffer as being significant problems.

Thus, dealing with the abysmal situation that the county is in now, requires much more work in bringing to light the psychological roots of the Sri Lankan behaviour.

Until then the government’s policy of forgetfulness will not find a great resistance from the people. On the part of intellectuals and serious thinkers much more work is required to expose the caste base of our cultural roots.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    In the south the caste game will continue to be played as the Govigama is the most dominant caste. They will stick together as it is in their interests to do so. No one ones to be downgraded in the name of fairness.

    In the north Praba did a number on the dominant vellala domination of society. They are still smarting from the loss of privilege. They are now seen mostly in the diaspora now. Not getting too involved with LTTE activities, keeping their distance as they perceive the revolt to be low-caste based. They have no hope of regaining their strangle hold on Jaffna society. At least not as much as they used to able to.

  • 0

    Don’t forget the Central, the Radala has virtually self destructed but the Padu cast is very strong as they have an “educated” base and have aspirations to dominate.

  • 0

    How did Basil miss the Radala caste from the list?.

    One good thing to come out of them is the Swabasha education and Central Colleges in the Villages that broke down the caste system and gave our long suppressed lower caste folks a chance .

    The present casteless South have to be ever grateful to Bandarayakas for their foresight.

    With the Northern Provincial elections on the horizon , this is a timely topic , that Basil has brought up,which has great relevance to the Northern inhabitants.

    Although Prabakaran chased away the Vellalas, and got his non Vellalas under control, he wasn’t smart enough to mould them into the future to take the Vellala positions in politics as well as other spheres of influence.

    Now the Vellalas are back in force to fill the vaccuum and take charge of the Northern inhabitants.

    These local Vellalas never resided in the North.

    Now they are ganging up against the real Northeners who lived all their lives there, and served the LTTE well as loyal followers.

    The Colombo Vellalas current enemies are Daya Master, Mrs Tamil Chelvam and of course Kumaran Pathmanathan.

    The overseas Vellalas , who hold high positions and have high level connections with the Canadian abd British politicians are the backers of these “New Northerners”.

    The non Vellalas in Western Caipatals who are now classed as the LTTE Rump are not welcome to these Vellala clubs in London, Toronto , Melbourne and Sydney.

    Evidently the reasons, are that these non Vellalas are not educated, do not have professionl positions and do not speak English.

    In the light of these developments it is interesting to see how the Election camapaign pans out.

    Are the Northern inhabitants going to elect their own or are they going to get conned to bring the Vellalas back from Colombo to determine their fate to suit the Rudrakumarans in the West?.

  • 0

    This gets more interesting if more brought in inputs.

    Tamils will shun as they are the biggest culprits because of their prevelant Caste System that exists under their skin. On the one hand they demand reconcilliation on the other they stick to Caste.

    Western fools and NGOs are attempting to pour “kokatath thailaya” on reconcilliation as they have no clue or culture to stand on.

    Let everybody keep their hands off the Sri Lanka reconcilliation and let it settle on age old lines.

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