By Darshanie Ratnawalli –
Its fans as well as critics agree that the Social Scientists’ Association (SSA) of Sri Lanka was on a mission. According to Michael Roberts (2004[i], p7), this mission was born out of the carnage of 1983 July, which apparently “came as a rude shock to local Leftists and liberals. As the ethnic conflict took a turn for the worse, a number of liberals and Marxist radicals linked hands to develop arguments against the ideological constructs that were part of the heightened conflict”. As part of this enterprise, which according to Roberts was “as brave as necessary” Leslie Gunawardana’s 1979 essay “People of the Lion[ii]” was midwifed (it originated as a paper read at an SSA seminar[iii]) and reprinted (1984) by the SSA who also turned publisher to its sequel, his 1995 “Historiography in a time of Ethnic Conflict[iv]”.
Perhaps the best articulation of this “brave and necessary” enterprise was by S.J Tambiah (1992[v]) who called for a “new breed of imaginative, and liberated non-sectarian historians who will deconstruct the histories which legitimate the present conflict”. Despite the noble language, it was an exhortation to a certain ideological movement (classified as “good”) to hijack the history writing in Sri Lanka. This was already being done albeit inexpertly (see here) and dishonestly (see here) by Leslie Gunawardana, perhaps the best known ancient period historian at that time.
In my view, the most incisive comment to be directed against Gunawardana came from Michael Roberts[vi] (full text). Even though K.N.O Dharmadasa’s place as the most systematic critic of Gunawardana is unassailable, and Roberts’ comment was merely an aside by a non-specialist informed by K.N.O, it had nevertheless the refreshing ring of a child asking why the emperor was naked. Roberts stated that Gunawardana’s argument “does not address the issue how it was that a mass of people who employed a common language in literary and oral discourse, a language which was identified as Sinhala, and who lived in a land called Sinhala, were not seen as Sinhala; and did not see themselves as Sinhala.” This comment refers to 5th century AD as Roberts had made clear 3 paragraphs earlier. “The Pali commentaries written by the Indian scholar-visitor, Buddhagosa, in the early fifth century A.D., not only refer to Sihaladvipa, but also speak of the Buddhist doctrines being kept in the Sihala bhasa (Sinhala language) for “the benefit of the inhabitants of the island” (Dharmadasa 1991).”
Gunawardana never answered Roberts. But we can reconstruct an answer based on his two essays. Leslie would have had no problem in agreeing that “there was a mass of people who employed a common language in literary and oral discourse living in an island called Sinhala”, he says as much in his “People of the Lion”, p47[vii] (full text); “The term Sihaḷadipa or ‘Sinhala Island’ occurs in the Samantapasadika, the commentary on the Vinaya section of the Canon, written by Buddhaghosa in the fifth century AD. The text states that the earlier commentaries used by Buddhaghosa had been written in the language of Sihaḷadipa”.
“Michael” Leslie would have said, “your question is wrong because you are the wrong sort of reader. My “People of the Lion” is intended for an audience who’d never dream of questioning my source proficiency even though they may have questions about my conclusions (To most of them, even that would seem like sacrilege). After all I am a legitimate scholar and a credentialed historian, and it would never occur to my target reader (who are wide eyed, credulous and idealistic, cf. Jeganathan and Ismail; “Brilliant Essay”, David Scott; “Master text”) to double check my sources. My intended reader Michael was never meant to find out that Buddhaghosa referred not only to Sihaladipa but also to Sihala Bhasa in a way that conflated the island (Sihaladipa), islanders (dipavasin) and the language (Sihala Bhasa) in a very suggestive way.
In fact Michael, you, yourself would never have found this out if not for K.N.O:1992[viii], p40 (Full text); “The available evidence would appear to suggest that the earliest references to “the Sinhala language” is in early 5th century. Buddhaghosa the famous Indian scholar who translated the Sinhala commentaries to Pali refers to the Sihaladipa as well as the Sihalabhasa. Referring to the Buddhist commentaries he says that they were “brought to Sihaladipa by Maha Mahinda (who was) endowed with self-mastery, and were made to remain in the Sihala Bhasa for the benefit of the inhabitants of the island.”
Michael, I was writing for a readership who would never wonder about the discrepancy between my Buddhaghosa comment and Dharmadasa’s Buddhaghosa comment. Those trusting souls would never bother to compare our sources. If they had, they might have realized the limitations of my familiarity with Buddhaghosa. I source (fn 8[ix]) the reference to Sihaladipa and the original commentaries being in the language of Sihaladipa to Samanthapasadika. Dharmadasa in contrast references (Endnote 23, p57) the prologues of Sumangalavilasini, Papancasudani and Saratthappakasini[x]. A reader cast in a different mold from my fan-base would have twigged at once that I and Dharmadasa were using two different statements.
Michael how many of my readership could have guessed that except for that single quotation from Samanthapasadika taken from pages 2 and 136 of N.A. Jayawickrama’s book, “The Inception of Discipline and the Vinayanidana”, the whole body of Buddhaghosa commentaries was a closed book to me? I had no clue Michael of the statement repeated at the beginning of Buddhaghosa’s commentaries that they were based upon the commentaries which were brought to Sihaladipa by Maha Mahinda and put into Sihalabhasa for the benefit of the Dipavasin. “Sīhaladīpam pana ābhatā’ tha vasinā Mahā-Mahindena thapitā Sīhalabhāsāya dīpavāsīnam atthāya”. (K. R Norman: 1978[xi], p32, full text).Try to understand Michael, I had a brief and a deadline. Is it reasonable to expect that my mind would be unfettered enough for a thorough research of the available literature?
So I was hurriedly flipping through “The Inception…” by Jayawickrama and I came across the famous statement by Buddhaghosa explaining why he was writing in Pali; “Because that commentary has been composed in the language of Sihaladipa and the monks outside the island cannot understand the meaning of it, I shall now begin this commentary in conformity with the style of the Canonical texts (i.e. in Pali)”- (Norman: 1978, p47). That was the statement I found Michael, and used. I was aware of no other statement. Now Michael I can see you getting ready to pounce. If I had been acquainted with it, this statement alone should have prevented me from writing in my 1995 sequel, page 14 “It will have been evident from the preceding discussion that, according to the periodization of the evolution of the Sinhala language which came to gain general acceptance among scholars, the appearance of the Sinhala language as a clearly distinguishable linguistic form was dated in the eighth or the ninth century.”
Now there are two answers I can make to that Michael. The most obvious one; do not confuse facts with ideological propaganda. Good propaganda Michael, necessary. ‘83’ had just happened and do you think some esoteric Pali text in the 5th century mattered? The second answer I can make to you is; how was I to know what the language of Sihaladipa was? I was only familiar with one particular Buddhaghosa comment. Now you may ask, if I had at least read Jayawickrama’s book from cover to cover, could I have come across evidence that would have saved me from my 1995 faux pas?
Yes Mike if destiny had favoured me, the book would have flipped open at page 20 and revealed to me Jayawickrama’s statement (based on Buddhaghosa’s statement in Sumangalavilasini; “apanetvāna tato ‘haṃ Sīhaḷabhāsam manoramaṃ bhāsaṃ tantitnayānucchavikaṃ āropento vigatadosaṃ”) that Buddhaghosa pays tribute to Sihala Bhasa, which is a delightful language free from all faults. Now the translation of this comment is contested between Jayawickrama and K.R Norman (Norman:78, p47-48). Buddhaghosa is either saying; “I am translating from Sihala bhasa, which is a delightful language free from all faults” or “I am translating from Sihala bhasa into a delightful language free from all faults”. But either way I would have seen the light. But it didn’t happen Michael. The book did not flip open on its own accord. And I did not have the time to flip.”
@ http://ratnawalli.blogspot.com/ and email@example.com
[i] Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan period, 1590s to 1815, Michael Roberts, 2004
[ii] Gunawardana, R A L H 1979 ‘“The People of the Lion”: the Sinhala identity and ideology in history and historiography’, The Sri Lankan Journal of the Humanities 5: p (1-36)
[iii] See, p138 in Dharmadasa K.N. O 1996 ‘The Roots of Sinhala Ethnic Identity in Sri Lanka: The Debate on The ‘People of The Lion’ Continued ’, Ethnic Studies Report, Vol. XIV (2), p (137 -170)- (Full text here)
[iv] Gunawardana R A L H 1995 ‘Historiography in a Time of Ethnic Conflict, Construction of the Past in Contemporary Sri Lanka’, Social Scientists’ Association, Colombo, 1995.
[v] Tambiah, S J (1992) ‘Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics and Violence in Sri Lanka’, p140
[vii] Gunawardana, R A L H 1990 ‘“The People of the Lion”: the Sinhala identity and ideology in history and historiography’, in J Spencer (ed.), Sri Lanka. History and the Roots of Conflict, London: Routledge, pp 45-86. (Full Text)
[ix] Footnote 8 in Gunawardana, R A L H 1990 reads; “Samantapāsādikā, the Bāhiranidāna section, edited and translated by N.A. Jayawickrama as The Inception of Discipline and the Vinayanidāna, London, 1962, pp. 2, 136”.
[x] Sumangalavilasini, Papancasudani and Saratthappakasini are the Buddhaghosa commentaries to the Digha Nikaya, Majjhima Nikaya and Samyutta Nikaya respectively