By Basil Fernando –
This short essay is an attempt to explore how people who have for many centuries lived through a uniquely feudal form of subjugation, find it difficult to become free men and women and conduct their lives in modern circumstances.
This particular problem is not unique to what is known as the caste based societies but also has similar experiences in other historical circumstances like slavery, many forms of serfdom and many other societal contexts within which the freedom of the individual was not recognized.
Under modern circumstances, in almost all societies, there is an external show of people behaving towards each other as free persons. However, when we scratch beneath the surface, what we soon discover is that that sense of being free people does not go beyond the surface level expression. Beneath, there are still those mentalities, psychologies, living habits, distrust and similar negative social characteristics which prevent them from socially interacting as free persons.
The clearest expression of not being free is the various levels of incapacities within people to resist what they know to be wrong or evil or even harmful to their own selves. Thus, this incapacity to resist injustices is the lasting internalized legacy that continues to influence people who are living today under completely different circumstances. Centuries of slave like habits live on irrespective of certain external changes in the social environment within which they live. Despite exposure to many new situations, say for example like being introduced into political systems that are based on democratic norms or legal systems based on the rule of law, the mentalities that are imbedded in these formerly oppressed people prevent them from fully participating in the new institution within which their new life is circumscribed, resulting in them being very often neglected or manipulated in so many ways that they almost end up as losers.
The purpose of this short essay is to study this issue in terms of the history of Sri Lanka from the 8th Century Anno Domini to the middle of the 19th Century and then contrast that situation with how modern Sri Lankans live under different sets of political, social and legal frameworks. How far has the about 10 centuries of bondage, subjugation, intimidation, fear, loss of personality, loss of self confidence and individuality survived under the present externally changed circumstances?
Even internationally reputed, well known scholars like the late Dr. Walpola Rahula said in one of his last televised speeches, which is available on YouTube, that Sri Lankan people are not free people but that they are slaves. Similar sentiments are expressed almost all the time in the political discourse. Often, people blame themselves as being slaves rather than free men and women capable of entering into relationships on the basis of equality and who can function dynamically under different social circumstances.
8th Century AD to the end of the 19th Century
By the 8th Century AD, enormously negative social changes took place in Sri Lanka which among other things brought into Sri Lanka the system that is known as the caste system. By the 10th Century, historians tell us that there emerges in Sri Lanka, a group known as the Kulinas, which really meant a group of powerful persons who were large scale land owners and who thereby had also acquired a considerable social power. This change was accompanied by even more change in the thought patterns of the people in terms of their religious ideas and related social relationships. In 8th Century AD, the same movement which had crushed and completely wiped out Buddhism in India also began to make its influence felt in Sri Lanka. Enormous social change took place due to these two factors. One factor related to changes in land holding where a powerful set of landlords emerged with social power and that also resulted in the creation of large scale levels of landless people who held less land or not at all. Together with that came this ideological difference in the basic religious ideas within Sri Lanka. Up to the Anuradhapura period, the country’s main civilization was built on the original forms of Buddhism which were introduced through the interventions of Emperor Asoka and which got quite rooted due also to the patronage given by the emerging kings of that time.
However, that civilization was nearly uprooted by the 8th Century. Different religious ideas took far deeper root within Sri Lanka. These new ideas were recognized by the earlier generation of Buddhists who were confronted with these new ideas as Sankara ideas. Sankara meant alien ideas. They were not the inherent thought patterns of the original Anuradhapura civilization in Sri Lanka but new alien ideas which had come with the radical Brahmin movements from India.
All these factors combine to introduce into Sri Lanka a caste system. Very little local research work has been done into the tremendous social change that was caused by the introduction of this caste based social organization to the entire people of Sri Lanka.
However, we know that basic patterns of behaviour that were established are no different to what was also introduced to Nepal where this system still lasts in a much more vigourous form externally, even up to date. The original system came from India. It is the same system that was introduced into Sri Lanka.
However, in Sri Lanka, in latter times, a narrative has developed to say that the kind of caste system that was introduced to Sri Lanka was different to that of India. This narrative was developed more as an apology rather than a statement of fact.
These narratives of attempting to contrast the Sri Lankan caste narrative from places like India and Nepal often are not based on any ground level studies on the period in which caste was the dominant social organization in Sri Lanka. Some are based on some sociologists trying to phrase that which existed in Sri Lanka as a form of division of labour and not a systematic gradation of the people where the fundamental principle of equality was completely denied. Even a very casual look at the caste habits that prevailed from about the 8th Century to the 19th Century in Sri Lanka shows that it has very little to do with the ideas of the division of labour. What was the need to forbid those who were called Kulahinas, to forbid wearing a dress covering their upper part of the bodies from the point of view of the division of labour? What was the need to forbid that they were forbidden to sleep on beds? What was the need to limit personal relationships like marriages within the caste framework if the purpose was the division of labour? All these and many other draconian habits of dividing people on the basis of superiority and inferiority was the structural framework of the Sri Lankan society during this period.
Another attempt to play down the viciousness of the caste system which existed in Sri Lanka was to say that because Sri Lanka was a Buddhist country, caste was tempered by Buddhism. In fact, this period from around the 8th Century was a period during which there was a most fundamental attack on Buddhism and replacement Indian religious ideas that came into Sri Lanka favoured the very opposite of the ideas of Buddhism. Studies into the caste system of India in relation to Buddhism have revealed that the period of Buddhism marked perhaps the most fundamental social revolution that ever occurred in Indian history. As against the caste divisions, the Buddhist ideas of equality took firm root during this period. The protection extended against the destruction of life was on the one hand a fundamental attack on the caste privileges where even the murder of the so called low caste was not considered a matter of serious importance at all. Further than that, the protection extended to animals helped preserve the cattle that were needed by the farmers for their farming. While the Brahmins as the priestly caste used these cattle for all kinds of sacrifices to their god, Jainism and Buddhism opposed the killing of any living being and that helped the farmers to preserve their cattle for purposes of farming and thus contributed to the well-being of the people. Thus, the Buddhism of the time and the practices of harming life became a complete contrast. However, the movement that wiped out Buddhism from India reintroduced the notions of inequality and the grading of people, and the notions of protection granted to life suffered due to the new notions which considered human and other forms of life as being of no importance.
A hidden history
The history of Sri Lanka from around the 8th Century to the 19th Century, particularly in terms of social history, still remains a very hidden history. While some foreign writers such as Robert Knox and Joao Ribeiro have left some valuable details about the kind of repressive society that prevailed during this very dark time, very little local writings exist to demonstrate the nature of social controls that existed within this period of about 10 centuries in Sri Lanka.
The notion of a free individual disappeared during these 10 centuries. Those who are called Kulinas considered themselves as a group with special privileges and particularly with special powers of exercising punishments on the rest of the population. They themselves were not free individuals.
As for the Kulahinas, their individuality was suppressed by draconian forms of violence which were repeated over the centuries. Such repetition created the kind of psychologies and mentalities where the sense of subjugation was internalized. These internalized habits removed the possibility of them functioning as free individuals
A historical paradox – Loss of sovereignty and the beginning of individual freedoms
It is a historical paradox that the loss of sovereignty of Sri Lanka to the British Crown in 1815 which meant the loss of territorial independence of the country also marked in an incipient way the beginning of the idea of the free individual in Sri Lanka. The loss of political sovereignty to the king meant also the loss of the overall social control system that existed within the country. This delegitimization and gradual displacement of that old draconian social control system was the beginning of the basic freedom of individuals in modern Sri Lanka. People gained the right to be employed outside their caste boundaries. The Kulinas lost the capacity to impose punishments on those who were subjected to them and people gained free movement from place to place. Those mark the beginning of a new society although the progress of that change was very slow and often subjected to reversal.
However, the influence of modern modes of individual freedoms still remains to have not taken root in Sri Lanka. Therefore, a new pedagogy is needed to wipe out these past habits and create free men and women.