By R S Perinbanayagam –
The use of the idea of incest in narratives of one kind or another for what may be termed its thematic and logical implications is quite common in the texts of many societies, if not indeed of all societies. The Sinhalese use of it in the chronicles is truly a continuation of the uses made of it in other legends and myths as one instrument for the solution of certain narrative problems.
In his famous discussion of the structural approach to myth, Levi-Strauss deconstructed the Oedipus myth and observed, “The myth has to do with the inability for a culture which holds the belief that mankind is autochthonous . . . to find a satisfactory transition between this theory and the knowledge that human beings are actually born from the union of man and woman.” (1967:212) Having stated this problem, Levi-Strauss notes that this is obviously a problem that cannot be solved. Every human being is born out of a union of two others and each of those two was born out of the union of an earlier two and so on into an infinite regression. In a succinct explanation of Levi-Strauss’ position on the incest taboo and its occurrence in myths, Edmund Leach wrote:
Incest and exogamy are, therefore, the opposite sides of the same penny, and the incest taboo (a rule about sexual behavior) is the cornerstone of society – a structure of social and political relations. This moral principle implies that in the imaginary initial situation, the First Man should have had a wife who was not his sister. But in that case any story about a First Man or a First Woman must contain a logical contradiction. For if they were brother and sister then we are all outcomes of primeval incest, but if they were separate creations only one of them can be the first human being and the other must be in some sense other than human. Thus the biblical Eve, is of one flesh with Adam and their relations are incestuous, but he non-biblical Lilith is a demon” (1970: 57).
In the Buddhist texts, too, one can see a similar use of marriage, copulation and birthing. Besides the miraculous birth of the Buddha, there are other instances too. Here, I quote from the rendition of the origin of the Sakiya clan given in the Mahavatsu:
It appears that one of the ancestors of the Sakyas married a second time and this wife bore a son and she, demanded in the usual fashion, that he should inherit the kingdom and that the elder children should be banished. The elder children, both sons and daughters, were banished and lived with their retinue in the forest for a while. In time, the ministers who were banished with the royal children thought, “These youths are grown up. If they were with their father, he would make marriage alliances, but here it is our task.” So they took counsel with the princess, who said, “We find no daughters of Kshatriyas who are like ourselves (in birth) nor Kshatriya princess for our sister, and through union with those of unlike birth the sons who are born will be impure on the mother’s or father’s side. Let us consort with our sisters.” They set the eldest sister in the place of the mother and consorted with the rest. They “increased with sons and daughters” says the commentary by Buddhagosa from which the above is taken, and reported in Thomas (1956: 6-10).
The story, however, does not end there. The elder sister contracted leprosy and her brothers decided to isolate her. While in this state, she is apprehended by another leprous, but royal, personage, who cures her illness as he cures his own and marries her. The union creates further progeny.
It creates something more, yet: it creates a set of brothers and sisters who are cross cousins of the incestuously created Sakyas. When the princess of the leprous couple grows up, their mother tells them, “Children, the Sakyas who dwell in Kapilavatsu are your maternal uncles. Your uncle’s daughters have the same style of hair and dress as you. When they come to the bathing place, go there and let each take the one that pleases him. They went there, and when the girls had bathed and were drying their hair, they each took one and making known their names, came away.” The Sakya raja on hearing of it thought “Let it be; to be sure they are our kinsfolk, and kept silent. This is the origin of the Sakyas and Koliyas, and thus the family of the Sakyas and Koliyas making intermarriages came down unbroken to the line of the Buddha” (Thomas, 1956: 10) That is, they marry their cross-cousins and Buddha is descended from one of these unions and here it functions as a variation on the theme of incest, which it would have been in cultures which did not differentiate between cross-cousins and parallel cousins.
Why is it important for the Buddha to have Kshatriya status? To begin with, the Buddha is being touted here as of being of the correct royal lineage, making his renunciation all the more striking, indeed dramatically significant. In addition, however, this text indicates, inter-alia , the imperatives of state formation and political legitimation through the management of descent, creating a set of clans, the Sakyas and Koliyas, who can exchange brides and grooms, thereby maintaining the purity of the Kshatriya status. The story establishes legitimacy for the king who was Sidhartha Gotama’s father as well as the principles by which states and status are formed and successfully maintained. Further, the text simultaneously establishes the Buddhist narrative of birth, being and death; indeed this narrative of the Buddha’s ancestry is an allegory of the great chain of causation. It is succinctly captured in the following discourse by the Buddha from the Jajjhima-nikaya:
Let the beginning be, Udayin, let the end be. I will teach you the Doctrine: when that exists, this exists, with the arising of that, this arises; when that does not exist, this does not exist; with the cessation of that this ceases.” (Quoted in Thomas, 1956, 199).
The Buddha is of unimpeachable kshatriya ancestry, and he is born miraculously too.
The Rigveda’s answer to the problem of origins is also expressed in terms of incest, in this case between father and daughter. The father is identified as sky and the daughter as dawn, but they copulate in any case, and the father spills the seeds on the ground:
As his phallus was stretched out in eagerness for the act of a man, the manly one pulled back. He drew back again from the maiden, his daughter, that tireless phallus which had been thrust in. As they were in the midst of the act of union, when the father was satisfying his desire for the young girl, the two of them left a little of outflowing seed shed upon the back of the earth in the womb of the earth in the womb of good deeds (in O’Flaherty, 1975: 26)
The Sinhalese mythographers however were not interested in solving the “riddle of man” so much as in creating a “new people” or a “chosen people” with little or no continuity to earlier ones. Faced once again with the riddle of creating a new people without reproductive origins in two people who have ancestors as well, these writers use an animal and an incestuous union: the lion begets a son and a daughter, albeit on a royal princess. In this way all human ancestors on the paternal line are severed and discounted and a new beginning made, and insofar as we are dealing with a patriarchal and patrilineal society, this solves one problem. Having the lion around, however, would not be feasible and further one would be forced to deal with his kin. He is, therefore, slaughtered by the son himself, symbolically severing another ancestral connection and establishing a new line through the son himself. The problem that it seeks to solve is not the origin of “people” but the origin of a people. It does not have to create a creator so much as to create a context in which a break with certain other people could be promulgated. This is achieved by invoking the lion as the father. The other people were mere humans begot by other mundane humans, but the Sinhala people begin their new destiny with this radical rupture. To begin with, a lion is of an ambiguous moral value within Indian cultural contexts: the lion is reputed to be courageous, arrogant and powerful, of noble bearing and carnivorous and skilled in the hunt, the very embodiment of ksatriyadharma; it is, however, also a wild beast without decorum and discipline. The Sinhala myth of origin, therefore, provides for a noble but wild progenitor in the lion and a royal princess as the genetrix. He brings the valor and she the grace.
The princess marries the lion, leaves civilization behind and enters the wilderness from whence she returns with her cub-children who are not patrilineally connected to the civilization she left behind. She returns with the seeds of a new people and a new civilization. The Greek myths too, Levi-Strauss notes, contain the theme of the killing of the monsters. Cadmos kills the dragon and Oedipus kills the Sphinx. (1967: 211) The slaying of the “monster” – lion, dragon or sphinx in any case cannot but have one significance: it is the end of something and since all ends are also beginnings, it is also the beginning of something.
Once the ancestral connections have been cut, the next problem presents itself: to make a new people without making connections to others – ancestors and consanguine – connections, if they existed, that would make it impossible to claim new beginnings. The slain lion fortunately begot a man and a woman, Sinhabahu and Sinhasivali, two with no human ancestors and no kin on the paternal side. What could be better than for these two, siblings though they were, to be united and bring forth a whole new people destined for the maintenance and propagation of Buddhism? Incest then is also a way of creating a new beginning.
In any case, these myths of origin – the Hebrew one, the Greek one and the Sinhalese one – are not really facing a contradiction , as Levi-Strauss(1967)argued and seeking to resolve it so much as seeking to solve a narrative problem. In constructing narratives, whether they are fictional stories about individuals, about a whole people or even humanity itself, the initial problem to solve is the problem of the origins of the individual in question or the people in question. In solving this problem, certain immutable principles must be kept in mind:
a) In terms of narrative logic, there must be a genuine and irreproachable beginning. The beginning must be constructed in such a way that there is nothing of significance before it. In the biblical story of the origins of a people, this condition is well met: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” That is to say, there was nothing before that act of creation because heaven and earth is all we have now. Further, it is said “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the deep.” Not only was there nothing, but once something was created, it had no form, and God proceeds to give it form. The Lankan chronicles had good examples to follow in the use of these narrative principles.
b) In constructing these, beginning an essential and inescapable distinction must be established between different categories. In the biblical story, there are the following:
God – Human
Man – Woman
Good – Evil
Knowledge – Ignorance
Power – Weakness
Super-ordination – Sub-ordination
c) Development from these categories must be accomplished so that they combine syntactically to create new structures and lead the narrative forward. In the biblical narrative, Eve, rejecting her sub-ordinal role, leads Adam to knowledge and power, and the rest is history, or at least story.
The story of Vijaya’s birth and ancestry follows a similar logical structure. In fact, rarely does one find a myth of origin that contains all the features of a classic myth, as this one does: an unusual copulation between beast and woman, a parricide and an incest, a beginning in civilization and royalty, a sojourn in the wilderness and a return to civilization. These features obviously cannot be considered descriptions of events that actually happened nor can they be considered accidental or arbitrary introductions in an otherwise factual account. Rather, they seem to embody an order and a theme.
The myth then asserts a unique origin of the Sinhala people by separating them from all others by the use of a number of narrative devices. In doing this, the myth-makers were establishing or creating not just a people, but a community whose destiny was to inhabit the island of Lanka and become the practitioners and repositories of pure Buddhism. There were others in India were no doubt Buddhists, but here in Lanka was to come into being a whole new people whose task it is to propagate the religion. A new religion, both challenging and separating itself from Hinduism, as well as connected to it in many ways, it is represented as a new beginning in as decisive a way as was possible to make it. Buddhism created a rupture in its theories of reality, causation, and life in this world from those of Hinduism It was a rupture in its theories of the individual, society and state. It was also connected to Hinduism in that all these theories were advanced in reaction to Hindu theories or were more sophisticated and coherent developments of Hindu views. They were connected and separate at the same time, just as the children of the Vanga princess were connected to the Vanga people as well as separated from them. The monster father, the lion makes a difference, a discontinuity, a rupture.
Vijaya’s birth itself establishes a new order for the new people. But the work of the text toward creating a new people is not quite done. It gives Vijaya a bad character:
“Vijaya was of evil conduct and his followers were even like himself and many intolerable deeds were done by him (M: 53)
The result of these deeds was banishment. The king Sinhabahu, the son of the Lion, exiles him and his followers, including their wives and children: he crosses the water, separating himself from his ancestors, his ancestral land and his former self. But the boat carrying the women gets separated from the one carrying the men, thereby making the men arrive in Lanka without women. The biological separation of the Vijaya figure from patrilineal ancestors by means of bestiality and incest is compounded now by a social and cultural rupture: Vijaya is evil and he leaves the kingdom, loses his women, crosses the sea and arrives in Lanka to found a new people and a new kingdom.
The mythic construction of a new state has been adroitly completed by the composers of the Mahavamsa as a purely textual reality. In view of recent discussions, both by the learned cognoscenti with a penchant for historical reconstruction with a chauvinistic bent and scurrilous journalistic propagandists and political opportunists it must be mentioned in passing that there was no real lion copulating with a princess in the jungles of Bengal and blood of the lion flowing in anybody’s blood. The recent invocation of the blood of the lion however is another myth being concocted to advance ethno-chauvinist cause—not exactly a very pleasant or even a Buddhistic metaphor to describe a community.
O’Flaherty, Wendy Donniger. 1976. The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Thomas, Edward, J. 1956  The Life of the Buddha as legend and history. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.
Leach, Edmund. 1970. Claude Levi-Strauss. New York: Viking Press.
Levi-Strauss,Claude. 1967.“The Structural Study of Myth”. In Structural Anthropology. New York: Anchor Books