23 June, 2024


The Loss Of Our Collective Memory

By Sajeeva Samaranayake

Sajeeva Samaranayake

[This is a sequel to the essay Is this also  a Buddhist response? published last week. Readers are invited to read that as an introduction to this]

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.

Westernized history

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.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    “….today the social domain is all but extinguished by politcs and patronage-a subjective thowback to our feudal era…”

    The author of this sequel has given a message about the importance for a secular world view in Lankan society having considered the two calamities that the island was subjected to over 600 years ago and the later Colebrooke Commission Reforms of 1931,and the importance for us re-learnig social values in order to unify us as a people who live this island.

    In this regard he has mentioned the work and importance of Ramohan Roy and Rabindranath Tagore in India and that of Kirthisri Rajasinghe, Velvita Saranankara Thero,Anagarika Dharmapala,Colonel Ollcott and Arumuga Navalar in Lanka as regards their influence with respect to the revival of Hindu and Buddhist faith, both of which have India as source.

    The author has also referred to the impact of Western imperialist, values thought and influence and it’s effects on eastern traditions and has pointed out that India had been able to subsume and survive the said impact despite the consequences Muslim invasion and rule.Which is why India today is considered a democratic nation with a free media despite it’s warts when compared to Lanka which has reverted back to ethnic or identity politics with media censorship and an authoritarian government.It has become a semi feudalistic misfit amongst modern nations of the world despite having managed elections.

    In was Swami Vivekananda who following his travels in the West during the late 19th century and realising the importance of secular values observed, that the uncared lower classes of India,the peasant,the shoe maker, road sweeper, the weaver and the coolie who break their backs and work silently work even without getting an adequate income to live a proper life are the backbone of all nations: that if they stop work those who live off their toil would starve and panic would ensue if they strike for three days.He contends that they are the real heroes not only in India but also in the rest of the world.

    This observation applies to Lanka as well.

    Thoughtful people have realised over many years that it is the Phartisees ans Saducees who invent all sorts of engines of tyranny. There are plenty of them around in our litte island and also every country of the world.

    It is high time they are exposed.That can be achieved only by spreading knowledge and education amongst the masses and to let them think for themselves to see the light.That should be the modern revolutionary ideal of all thoughtful people in our country to work towards the gaining of a collective identity as Lankans cutting across all langduage,and religious divides.It is up to us Lankans of our generation who are mandated with task of re-creating our society’s spiritual domain as a source of energy to resolve it’s problems.

  • 0

    Thank you Uthungan. Great reference to Swami Vivekananda.

    EF Schumacher in his classic has a chapter on “The Greatest Resource – Education”. He sounds the following WARNING NOTE highly relevant to this country.

    “The way in which we experience and interpret the world obviously depends very much indeed on the kind of ideas that fill our minds. If they are mainly small, weak, superficial, and incoherent, life will appear insipid, uninteresting, petty and chaotic. It is difficult to bear the resultant feeling of emptiness, and the vacuum of our minds may only too easily be filled by some big, fantastic notion – political or otherwise – which suddenly seems to illuminate everything and to give meaning and purpose to our existence. It needs no emphasis that herein lies one of the great dangers of our time.”

    Apart from killing the physical body – perhaps the greatest harm is to kill the spirit of a human being and kill his capacity to think rationally and clearly.

  • 0

    I concede your point about the harm caused to the human by killing his capacity to think rationally.
    Rational thought is based on knowledge.It is that which is in the “me” “mind” or “I” whatever you may call it.
    It is nothing else than the totality of the inherited knowledge passed on from generation to generation through education and experience.
    But if it is distorted then every act based on that distortion affects human spirituality too.Then ego rises and all the other problems manifest.

  • 0

    It is welcome that the author has brought up the subject of sprituality. Without sprituality man is like or worst than a beast. I would like to provide some insight into the Islamic viewpoint on the subject as given by our scholars.

    There are two different concepts of spirituality: God-oriented spirituality which is based on the concept of God Almighty, and
    man-oriented spirituality, which is based on man’s soul itself being
    the treasure-house of spirituality. As for the former concept
    spirituality results in God-realisation while in the latter, spirituality results from self-realisation.

    The concept of spirituality in Islam is based on the principle of
    God-realisation. God is the treasure house of all virtues. And when
    man’s contact with God is established, in the world of his feelings,
    at the psychological level, an unseen, inner revolution is brought
    about which is called spirituality.

    This finds expression in the Quran in these words:

    ‘Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth. The
    metaphor of His light is that of a niche in which there is
    a lamp, the lamp inside a glass, the glass like a brilliant
    star, lit by a blessed tree, an olive, neither of the east
    nor of the west, whose oil would well-nigh glow forth
    even though fire did not touch it. Light upon light!
    Allah guides to His light whom He wills. And Allah sets
    forth parables to men, and Allah has knowledge of all
    things.’ (24:35)

    This is a compound simile. ‘Light’ here means the guidance of
    Almighty, ‘niche’ means the human heart and ‘lamp’ denotes the
    capability to receive divine inspiration. Glass and oil elaborate
    upon this receptivity. ‘Glass’ shows that this receptivity has been lodged in the human heart, protected from outside influences, and clear oil indicates that this receptivity is very strong and is eagerly waiting to receive inspiration.

    This verse makes it clear that, on the one hand, is God, the
    source of inspiration, and on the other, is the consciousness of
    spirituality (God-consciousness) with which man is born. In this
    way when these two things come together, Islamic spirituality
    comes into existence.

    • 0

      Dear Muslim

      The distinction between God realization and self realization – their nature and similarities and differences is a very important topic. I feel that it has led to a lot of misunderstanding and prejudice.

      One source of confusion is scholarly interpretation without any practical insights. If a Buddhist can fast for a single day with his Muslim friends during the holy month of Ramadan and if a Muslim can meditate with his Buddhist friends they will be well on the way to a shared and enriching experience.

      The other and most painful source of distortion is the way monotheism has been abused by imperialism; and sri lanka has suffered much through western imperialism. I dont think we have still made enough sense of this traumatic encounter. at the same time we have not learnt enough about the way the muslims blended into the cultural landscape here from the 8th century??

      thanks for joining this discussion

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