By Sajeeva Samaranayake –
It is spiritual energy that brings all kinds of polarities (right and wrong, male and female, earth and sky, humans and animals etc) together. Perhaps, some of us know that this quality is in short supply in our society. Spirituality is the essence of all religions. However both narrow religion and popular religion can operate to subvert spirituality. This is the common experience of all cultures and societies.
Every generation is mandated with the task of re-creating its own spiritual domain as source energy to answer its own unique problems. The mere repetition of ancient verbal formulas – unaccompanied by the requisite personal commitment will simply not do. However spiritual values cannot take root and grow without an enabling and supportive social environment. An open and convivial atmosphere is needed for communication to take place across social and cultural boundaries. This is quite different to the familiar languages of Buddhists preaching to fellow Buddhists, Christians sermonizing to fellow Christians and Muslims praying all by themselves. In particular there is a need for environments that are not polluted by politics of any kind.
Today the social domain is all but extinguished by politics of patronage – a subjective and emotional throwback to our feudal era. Human rights have failed to get even a foothold in this society due to the all pervading legitimacy of patronage. Social values are either dying or dead. There is a need to re-learn our own social values. However a look back at the past provides a broad perspective on our current predicament and helps in the identification of root causes.
Destruction of social systems
Today, most Sri Lankans in general and Sinhala Buddhists in particular, prefer to ignore the impact of two watersheds in Ceylon History that destroyed their social and cultural values. Although these two calamities are separated by over 600 years in time they represent the beginnings of a definite erasure of a collective social consciousness united by a common worldview. They are:
1.The Kalinga Magha invasion of 1215 that wrote finis to the irrigation civilisation in Rajarata; and
2.The idealistic but top down Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms of 1833 that removed the last remaining structures of both the ancient Sinhala and Tamil social systems.
On the positive side the most significant social and cultural revivals of the past three centuries were the restoration of the monastic order by Ven Welivita Sri Saranankara and King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe in 1753 and the Buddhist and Hindu revivals towards the end of the 19th century. None of these created a new society but asserted a common cultural identity within the hierarchical ranking of an old feudal society. In many ways these reforms stopped short of being futuristic and they derived inspiration from the past without offering real hope for the future. The three architects of the Buddhist revival – Ven Hikkaduwe Sumangala, Colonel Olcott and Anagarika Dharmapala each had their own visions of Buddhism. They achieved much in education but perhaps the time was not right to forge a new social foundation in a spirit of social equality. These three giants eventually parted ways. In characteristic fashion we focus on their coming together and the work they did without really examining why they could not agree between themselves. I have not studied the work of Arumuga Navalar in depth but it is possible that Hindu society was also at a decidedly pre-modern and feudal stage of evolution in the late 19th century.
Among the new influences that came to shape the colonial and post colonial Sri Lankan mind was the westernized study of our own history. Dominated by English speaking historians who were strong on categories and cold abstract analysis but weak in feelings and emotions and drawing connections between ideas and people across space and time we inherited a disjointed, simplistic and dualistic narrative of who we were and what we did in history. The real foundations and organizing principles of our ancient society remained a closed book.
The signal contribution of western style historical scholarship was to trap our historical sources within the dualistic worldview of Newton and Descartes which affirmed identity, division and separation.
Descartes was a giant of the Age of Reason; the Enlightenment of the 18th century that released the arts and sciences from the all embracing stranglehold of Christian religion so that they could develop to their fullest extent within a secular and open field of exploration and inquiry. This freedom that was based on separation of the church and state and individual freedom had a justification and rationale within the evolutionary process of Europe.
This shift from subjective faith and religion to objective science and human rights; from feudalism to republican ideals of democracy was a natural and home grown process in Western Europe and America. This movement was perhaps achieved partially in Sri Lanka in the liberal phase of representative democracy for 40 years from 1931 to 1971. But the next 40 years represented a complete reversal of objective principles to return government to a personalized, subjective and feudal realm.
It is very clear that the British and our own leaders over-estimated the efficacy of western norms within a country like Sri Lanka. India remains a rare example of an Asian country that was able to inherit and maintain a functional democratic system of government. When we probe Indian history we see the prior regeneration of Indian society that took place due to the famous Bengali Renaissance in the 19th century due to the sterling work of Ram Mohan Roy and Rabindranath Tagore. And in Gandhi they found a leader who could take their essential spiritual and social values into politics.
Just as there was fire beneath the ashes of a broken India before the British took over at the turn of the 19th century there is a quiet determination that a new beginning is within our grasp once more. That determination is based on the undisputed necessity of a unifying worldview to replace the Cartesian model of separation. Those free entities that developed to their full potential must now revert back to a harmonious whole to end the cycle of violence that engulfs this planet and all its creatures.
The Axial Tradition
While the late colonial leaders over-estimated the power of western norms they under-estimated the pan Indian cultural unity that enveloped the sub continent and central Asia, the Indian ocean and South East Asia up to the beginning of Muslim invasions in the 8th century CE. This was in turn a part of a broader and deeper axial tradition that took root in China, India, the Middle East and Greece from the 7th to the 3rd centuries BC with the wonderful coincidence of great sages, munis, prophets and philosophers arising to embody a common core of human wisdom and compassion. Those Eastern Traditions, in particular, that grew around Taoism, Buddhism and Jainism rejected fixed verbal categories and affirmed the ultimate powerlessness of all thoughts and words.
It is to the gradual disappearance of this monumental worldview that we must attribute the loss of our collective memory as Lankans. In this way western style historical scholarship underpinned by Cartesian dualism laid the intellectual foundations for a society where brother would not recognize brother; and war became the natural outcome.
We were unable to access our past except through spectacles borrowed from the West. As a result we were debarred from learning our true identity and prevented from learning from our own past. The human rights discourse was likewise distorted with the implicit adoption of Cartesian fixed categories (like children, women, disabled etc) isolated from their contexts. The root of all identity politics in this island (both ethnic politics and human rights politics) lies within this limited worldview which replaced the more balanced, harmonious and functional philosophy of the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva periods as located within the axial tradition.
In a single sentence our world has become a narrow place with each community fitting neatly into its own box. And so there is a Buddhist box, a Hindu box, a Muslim box and a Christian box. This is a laughable and ridiculous situation. We cannot truly understand Hinduism and Buddhism as Indian religions in isolation from each other. Likewise the Abrahamic Religions Christianity and Islam throw light upon each other. Both Indian and Abrahamic Religions owe their origins to the axial tradition of mankind – an inner urge and compulsion towards light and freedom.
It is our central convictions that are in disorder – and the world reflects this back to us. Our loss – due to the double whammy of Kalinga Magha and Colebrooke/Cameron was a worldview and this is what we must re-claim today by rising to the occasion. As E.F. Schumacher (author of Small is Beautiful) said:
If the mind cannot bring to the world a tool box of powerful ideas, the world must appear to it as a chaos, a mass of unrelated phenomena, of meaningless events. Such a man is like a person in a strange land without any signs of civilization, without maps or signposts or indicators of any kind. Nothing has any meaning to him; nothing can hold his vital interest; he has no means of making anything intelligible to himself.