Colombo Telegraph

The Rise Of Cultural Nationalism: Boon Or Bane?

By W.A Wijewardena –

Dr. W.A. Wijewardena

Professor Sudatta Ranasinghe Memorial Oration 2013 

Part I: Professor Sudatta Ranasinghe

I feel being honoured by the invitation by the PIM Alumni Association to deliver the Professor Sudatta Ranasinghe Memorial Oration 2013 which is the first in its series. I specifically consider it as a privilege that I have got to do the honours for my long-standing friend for more than four and a half decades.

Both Professor Ranasinghe and I entered the then Vidyodaya University in 1967 to follow a four year special degree programme in Public Administration, the second batch to be taken to the University under the degree’s new and expanded syllabus. Based on the performance of his A/L results, Professor Ranasinghe could have joined the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, to do an Arts Degree, the most preferred destination for higher education by students at that time. Yet, Professor Ranasinghe chose the course in Public Administration because of his curiosity of and love for the subject, though it was risk-taking on his part since there was no certainty of securing a job after completing the degree. That was because the degree was new – an experiment that has not been tested anywhere else in a university in Sri Lanka with examinations in each of the four years. Besides this, it was not known to employers including those in the public sector. Hence, the choice of the degree programme was like entering a dark hall without knowing whether one could ever find the way out.

I recall that Professor Ranasinghe as a student had a full life. While being keen on his studies, he was a student activist as well. If there were any social event at the University, he was there taking leadership. He was a regular singer at informal evening musical gatherings of students known as “peduru patiya”. With all these extra activities taking his time, he was able to complete the degree with honours, one among the very few students to pass at that level out of a batch of more than 100 students.

After completing the degree, he joined the Marga Institute as a researcher. He did research under the guidance of two prominent economists of the day, Dr Godfrey Gunathillake and Dr V Kaneshalingam. While being at Marga, he completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Applied Social Statistics at the Vidyodaya University and I was one of his fellow students there too. Then he joined PIM to do an MPA degree and after passing the examination, joined its academic staff too. He became the Coordinator of the MPA Programme and I recall my serving as a visiting lecturer at the Programme at his request. He then completed his PhD at PIM, joined the Open University as a Professor, served the Open University as its Dean, and was elevated to the position of Senior Professor there. At the time of his untimely demise, he was on Sabbatical Leave serving PIM as a visiting academic.

Professor Ranasinghe’s unexpected departure from us at such an early age was a shock to his friends, colleagues and students. Even while ailing from a terminal illness, his resolve to contribute to the academic world could not be suppressed. He published a collection of articles he had presented at international and national conferences under the title “Managing in a Developing Context: Sri Lankan Perspective” in 2011. I had the honour of writing the Foreword to this volume. Then, along with his colleague at PIM, Ajantha Dharmasiri, he edited an important volume on “HR Challenge: Dynamics of Value Creation and Competitiveness through People” at the instance of the Institute of Personnel Management, Sri Lanka. The volume contains research papers authored by both local and international specialists in the field. He completed the editing of the volume working day and night, according to his family members, just one week before his departure from this world. He could not see the volume coming out in print, but his Co-editor and IPM have done justice to him by dedicating it to the Memory of “the Late Professor Sudatta Wishwamithra Ranasinghe”. Thus, his memory will remain indelibly ingrained in the minds of those who had been associated with him during his long academic career as a researcher and a university don.

Part II: The Rise of Cultural Nationalism – Boon or Bane?

Impermanent Nature of phenomena

I have chosen a very apt and opportune topic “The Rise of Cultural Nationalism: Boon or Bane?” for this memorial oration. This topic is specifically relevant to Professor Ranasinghe since he and I have studied Sociology and Psychology as a part of our degree in Public Administration at the Vidyodaya University under a very eminent Guru on the subject, namely, the late Dr Dingi Karunathilake. In addition, both of us had to sit for two papers in Buddhist Culture as compulsory subjects, one at the first year and the other at the final year. This subject was taught to us by another eminent scholar on comparative religion, the late Professor Venerable Kotagama Vachiswara. The combination of the two subjects gave us a unique wisdom. That is, all phenomena in the world are impermanent, continuously evolving and the final outcome that has evolved, though it bears some resemblance to the original one, takes a completely different form. Similarly, culture too is not fixed, subject to change and if it does not change, it becomes extinct just like the giant dinosaurs that became extinct from the world. We will have to evaluate “cultural nationalism” with this wisdom in the background.

All ‘isms’ are extreme forms of emotional displays

Any ‘ism’ is an extreme form of human emotions. It does not accommodate counterviews and is not ready to change even when there is evidence contrary to the main thesis or theses it has propounded. It does not allow open verification through objective inquiry. What is taught as the main thesis of ‘ism’ has to be accepted without questioning. There is, therefore, a rigid, regimental type restriction placed on human intelligence under the reigns of ‘ism’[1]. Hence, once a person accepts an ism, he surrenders his intellectual curiosity, quest for knowledge, self-development through wisdom and ability to assess situations based on objectively and impartially gathered evidence. Instead, he will become a part of a huge propaganda machinery that does not allow critical thinking or probing.

The concept of nation is not natural but man-made

Nationalism comes from the concept of nation, the belief that one could identify a distinct group people sharing a common language and a value system. Though modern evolutionary science has shown us that Homo sapiens have evolved from a single gene which has spread throughout the globe some 65,000 years ago, once they have settled in distinctive places of the globe, they have developed distinctive languages to communicate with each other[2]. When people become too apart from each other, the language they speak too becomes distinct from each other through a process known as ‘language drifts’. It takes many centuries for this to happen and finally we have regional dialects or languages which can be understood only by those who have been raised in that language[3]. According to linguists, the language spoken mostly in the Indian Sub-continent has been derived from old Sanskrit, mother of both the Indo-European Languages and Indo-Aryan Languages, developed in some 6000 years ago in the area known as Hungary today. It spread to East – Iran, India and Central Asia – branching out into different languages and to the West generating most of the European languages today[4]. These groups of people who shared the same language, value and belief systems became nations which were identified distinct from each other at a particular point of time in history. If one goes back to the origin where there is a common Mother Language, there is no foundation for the nations.

The essential characteristics of nationalism

Nationalism is a conversion of nation to an ‘ism’ giving an emotional meaning. It has several characteristics. First, there is a belief that a particular nation has a distinctive beginning usually based on some mythological facts[5]. Despite the clash of this mythological origin with rational thinking,  a wide section in society continue to believe it as true and if anyone seeks to question its scientific foundation, it is considered as an offensive attack. Second, there is a belief that one’s nation is superior to all other nations with respect to belief and value systems. This superiority feeling makes them consider all other nations inferior to them. Third, there is a general suspicion, often validated by historical experience, that other nations are on to prey upon their nation and thereby destroy the same. Fourth, arising from the third, it is considered that there is a necessity to organise oneself to defend one’s nation from the invasions of other nations. Fifth, the defensive action that is taken at the beginning is converted to an offensive action that will lead to clashes between nations. Sixth, it is widely believed that a nation should revert back to its glorious past and therefore, resist any change that may take place within a particular nation. Seventh, in order to protect the nation, it is considered that it is necessary to regulate and control human behaviour including the expression of one’s creative mind in the form of art, literature, music and public media.

There is no single country today which does not uphold these values and from that point, all countries can be categorised as those practising nationalism to the core. As a result, one may find ‘German nationalism’, ‘Scottish nationalism’, ‘Spanish nationalism’, ‘Japanese nationalism’ etc in the developed world and ‘Indian nationalism’, ‘Sinhalese nationalism’, ‘Tamil nationalism’ etc in the developing world co-existing with each other.

A dynamic culture lives while an unchanging culture becomes extinct

Cultural nationalism is the embodiment of culture on to the nationalistic feelings of a nation. Culture is simply how a particular group of people, shared by a common language, behave – how they live, eat, reproduce, bring up offspring, engage in social intercourse etc. Since a nation is identified by a language and culture is also shared by common language, it is the language which is at the root of cultural nationalism. But like any phenomenon in nature, culture, language and nation are subject to change – evolving from one state to another state. The evolution takes place due to the interaction which a particular culture has with external forces through travel, trade or invasions. These interactions were limited in the past due to the limitations in travelling, exchange of ideas and physical distances which one nation had with other nations. As a result, a culture evolved rather slowly and a person living in a particular culture did not witness its evolution within his life time. Since the change was infinitesimal, there was no conflict with the changing culture. But since the beginning of the 20th century, due to the advancement in science and technology, including the information and communication technology, there has been a rapid change in the cultural patterns of nations giving way to new cultural behavioural practices that had been unimaginable a few decades ago. It has delivered a cultural shock and that cultural shock has made people confused, stressed, destitute and helpless. According to the Sri Lankan writer Martin Wickramasinghe, a culture can absorb any alien trait and be integrated with another culture “if it is elastic enough to adjust new element to its basic pattern”[6].

Living through a changing culture frees people from cultural shocks

This cultural shock may be experienced more by the old than the young. It could be illustrated by a simple example. Suppose we capture a person living in 1913, put him to sleep, awake him again in 2013 and release him back to a street in Colombo. He will be subject to the worst of the cultural shocks because everything he sees around him is like magic. From his point, Sri Lanka’s culture has been destroyed beyond redemption because what he cherished in 1913 as the best of the Sri Lankan culture has become extinct in 2013. For him, it is simply a backward regression. But a young person who has lived through that cultural evolution will not feel it in the same way because everything around is familiar to him. His shock will be to the extent that he is unable to absorb the new alien traits that come in his way. Thus, the current rise of cultural nationalism is due to a failure on the part of those in a particular cultural group to seamlessly absorb alien traits and get integrated to the new cultural pattern.

The rise of cultural nationalism in India

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has discussed the rise of cultural nationalism in India in the recent past in two books: the first his 2005 book titled The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity and the other his 2006 book titled Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny[7]. A notable feature which one could gauge from his analysis is that what he has found in Indian case has exact parallels in what Sri Lanka has experienced with respect to the cultural nationalism in the recent past.

BJP’s visible hand in inventing history

Sen has documented in The Argumentative Indian  how India’s Bharatiya Janatha Party or BJP resuscitated an old Hindutva Movement or Movement for establishing Indianness in India in mid 1970s by misrepresenting facts, fabricating established historical evidence, inventing history and using violence and force on moderate Hindus as well as other ethnic and religious groups[8]. While India is a country of diversity with many religious beliefs, languages and ethnic groups, Hindutva movement has tried to project India as a Hindu country. To reclaim this land exclusively for Hindus, it has rewritten Indian history as essentially a Hindu civilisation, an essential prerequisite for establishing a grand Hindu vision of India. This has, according to Sen, also helped Hindutva to marshal the support of Indian Diaspora which are bent on maintaining an Indian identity in their host countries in the midst of a perceived threat from the dominant cultures there; it is a solace to feel that Hindus reign at least in their old native land. According to Sen, this is what BJP did following its electoral victory in 1998 and 1999: “various arms of the government of India were mobilised in the task of arranging ‘appropriate’ rewritings of Indian history. Even though this adventure of inventing the past is no longer ‘official’ (because of the defeat of the BJP led coalition in the general elections in the spring of 2004), that highly charged episode is worth recollecting both because of what it tells us about the abuse of temporal power and also because of the light it throws on the intellectual underpinning of the Hindutva movement”[9]. Accordingly, fresh textbooks were written with focus on Hindu supremacy by deleting the objective analyses written by reputed academics earlier. The hastily completed work also contained numerous factual mistakes and serious omissions drawing severe criticism from academia, press and media. Yet the BJP government which was bent on establishing its own political agenda paid no heed to them, according to Sen. The worst was yet to come in the form of fabricating archaeological facts: The Indus valley civilisation that had existed in North West India and Pakistan much before the recorded history of Hinduism was also projected as a Hindu civilisation by renaming it ‘Indus-Saraswati civilisation’ focusing on a non-existing river called the Saraswati River mentioned in Vedic texts. To prove their point, the BJP led intellectuals in fact had invented new archaeological evidence, according to Sen, by producing a computerised distortion of a broken seal of the Indus Valley Civilisation, a fraud committed on Indians at home and abroad in the name of justifying the Hindutva movement.

Illogical social thought finally ends up in spurious public policy

In the Identity and Violence, Sen says that propagandists’ hard work lead to the development of a collective social thought, a thought which has no rational foundation but believed by many as the truth. The social thought then leads to collective political action, presenting a distorted view to an already emotionally worked up electorate and thereby easily securing electoral victories. Once the political power is secured, it is now easy to translate the illogical social thought to public policy which even at first glance is spurious but defended tooth and nail in the name of cultural nationalism.

Sinhala culture is rich with many borrowed elements                

This is what has happened in India and in many emerging countries including Sri Lanka in the recent past. But this has not been the historical heritage of what is today known as the ‘Sinhalese Culture’. For over 2500 years, it had been elastic to absorb the cultural patterns that had come from the rest of the world and evolve into new cultural traits. Wickramasinghe notes that this has been due to the absence of religious sanctions to secular behaviour of people in the country[10] unlike the Hindu culture where there are many taboos and sanctions placed on the behaviour of people. Sinhala language is rich with words borrowed from Ancient Rakshasa tribes[11], Tamil[12], Portuguese, Dutch, English, Malay and many other languages[13]. There are many Sinhala customs, including those practised in Buddhist temples, that have been borrowed from other cultures, notably, European and Indian cultures. This type of cross-fertilisation of Sinhala culture by other cultures has been a salutary development since it has allowed the Sinhala culture to survive and evolve over time. Wickramasinghe has noted this development as follows: “Every culture is made up of borrowed and a very few invented elements. Sinhala culture is no exception. It has changed and is changing. It has borrowed from India, China and the Pacific Islands, and is borrowing from the West”[14].

Is cultural nationalism a boom?

The cultural nationalism has used the political power to reverse the time machine through public policy. But, is it not a boon to a country? Yes, it is a boon, if one does it to win the future and not to go back to establish the past which is already gone by. It is a spurious act committed by a nation especially when the rest of the world has moved forward. As Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed had once advised the Sri Lanka’s business fraternity, one could gain from history immensely if history is learned to identify the past mistakes and thereby not to repeat the same.

A high need for achievement key to progress

The former Harvard University psychologist David C McClelland has thrown light on the cultural aspects of economic growth which modern nations can effectively put into practice for their own benefit. In a book he published in 1961 under the title The Achieving Society[15] and in numerous other writings since then, McClelland argued that there have been episodes of civilisations, rising and falling, in tandem with the presence or absence of a high achievement motive in people. This motive which McClelland called n-Ach, helps a society to achieve high economic growth on a sustainable basis. This is because high n-Ach leads to entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship leads to economic growth. Thus, if cultural practices, even cultural nationalism, can be used to build a high n-Ach, then, it is a sure way for a nation to build its production base and ensure continuous economic growth.

But what contributes to n-Ach? McClelland found that teaching self-reliance to young boys from an early age would help a society to build its n-Ach base fairly extensively. If mothers, instead of pampering their sons and daughters, allow their children to explore the world and learn for themselves, then, it helps to engrave a high n-Ach in them from an early childhood. This high n-Ach, together with an appropriate reward system in place, contributes to develop entrepreneurs who are infected with a fever to do things competitively with others in the best way possible. In ancient Greece, mothers and grandmothers told heroic stories to their children; those heroic stories made them feel like the heroes in the stories. The result: they themselves wanted to make similar achievements. McClelland found that Greece was able to build a great civilisation and maintain it for more than 1000 years because of the high n-Ach that had been inculcated in the young children from around the 9th century BCE. With this cultural pattern changing in the mid-2nd century CE, the great Greek civilisation and its associated economic growth too went into a complete oblivion.

Toleration and not antagonism key to motivation

So, an economic system can deliver its promise of economic prosperity only if the people who have to carry it forward have been sufficiently motivated and that motivation is a cultural practice to be inculcated by elders, especially mothers, in youngsters as a habit. But to motivate people, there are some prerequisites to be put in place. Humbleness and modesty in learning, appreciating and tolerating of habits and practices of others, peaceful coexistence instead of promoting violence and amicable resolution of conflicts are of paramount importance among them.

India and Sri Lanka: Time to follow the Buddha, Ashoka and Akbar

Surely, the cultural nationalism which teaches children of an exaggerated superiority cannot deliver these prerequisites. Once, one is inflicted with superiority complex, he cannot tolerate and appreciate others and therefore cannot learn from them too. Amartya Sen has put it very cogently in The Argumentative Indian as follows: “It was indeed a Buddhist emperor of India, Ashoka, who in the third century BCE, not only outlined the need for toleration and the richness of heterodoxy, but also laid down what are perhaps the oldest rules for conducting debates and disputations, with the opponents ‘duly honoured in every way on all occasions’[16]. That political principle figures a great deal in later discussions in India, but the most powerful defence of toleration and the need for the state to be equi-distant from different religions came from a Muslim Indian emperor, Akbar”[17]. Four hundred years before Ashoka, the Buddha himself advised the monks, according to the Brahmajaala Sutra in the Deegha Nikaya, that the monks should not get angry when some people talk ill of the Buddha. If they hear such abuses, the monks are required to explain to those abusers the true facts without losing their heads. Then, how should the monks behave when people talk well of the Buddha? Then, the monks should not get elated by such praises; they should with humility and modesty explain to them that the qualities which they have singled out for praising are valid, but there are many more such qualities possessed by the Buddha which those laymen have not been able to discern[18].

These principles that uphold toleration are equally valid to India as well as to Sri Lanka today where a high wave of cultural nationalism has swept across the sub-continent. In both countries, the goal of the propagators is to reverse the time machine and go back to the past. As long as the cultural nationalism aims at establishing the past, it closes the door for modernisation.

The cultural nationalism is, therefore, unlikely to deliver a boon to a society; instead, it is unavoidable that it would become a bane of the society.


  1. Dawkins, Richard, (2012), The Magic of Reality: How we know what’s really true?, Black Swan
  2. Dissanayake, J B (1976), Sinhala Jana Wahara, Lake House, Colombo.
  3. Gunawardena, W F (1973) Linguistics Principles of Sinhala (in Sinhala), Gunasena, Colombo.
  4. Hisselle Dharmarathana Thero, (2001) Tamil Influence on Sinhala (in Sinhala), Humanistic Writers’ Guild, Nugegoda.
  5. McClelland, David C, “The Achievement Motive in Economic Growth” in Seligson, Mitchell A and Passe-Smith, John T (eds), (1998), Development and Underdevelopment, Political Economy of Global Inequality, Lynne Rienner Publishers, London
  6. Sen, Amartya (2005), The Argumentative Indian, Penguin Books
  7. Sen, Amartya, (2006), Identity and Violence, Allen Lane.
  8. Sinhala Deegha Nikaya, (1996), Buddhist Cultural Centre, Dehiwala, pp 1-12
  9. Wickramasinghe, Martin, (2006), Aspects of Sinhalese Culture, Sarasa (Pvt) Limited, Rajagiriya.
  10. Wijewardena, W.A, (2012), “The Rise of Cultural Nationalism: Boon or Bane?” At
  11. Wijewardena, W.A, (2012a), “Globalisation according to Dr Gunadasa Amarasekara” Available at:
  12. Wijewardena, W.A, (2013) “War on Halal-labelled Products: The worst economic hitman now in town” Available at:

*W.A Wijewardena –Formerly Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka and presently Visiting Lecturer at PIM, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok and Naresuan University, Thailand. He can be reached at

[1] In this sense, to call the Dharma taught by the Buddha ‘Buddhism’ is a misnomer since his teachings permit people to question, verify and accept it only if it passes the intellectual screening test of the individual. The correct English translation should be ‘Buddha Dharma’ and not Buddhism. That was why in the old Vidyodaya University it was taught as Buddhist Culture and not as Buddhism.

[2] Evolutionary scientists working backward with the common gene shared by all species have pointed that the evolution of species into humans has taken place some 417 million years ago from a fish – the oldest ancestor of today’s Homo sapiens. See Richard Dawkins (2012) The Magic of Reality: How we know what’s really true? Black Swan, Chapter 2

[3] Dawkins, ibid, p 61-5


[5][5] An example is that Sinhalese believe that their nation originated from a lion mating with a human female according to a story in their chronicle, Mahavansa. Similarly, Mongolians believe that their nation originated from the mating of a male wolf and a female deer some 22 generations before Chinggis Khaan who ruled Mongolia in the 12th century (See, Secret History of the Mongols (2001) p 127). Richard Dawkins has documented several other mythologies relating to the origin of Norwegians in Europe and Red Indians in North America, See, Dawkins, 2012, The Magic of Reality, pp 34-7.

[6] Wickramasinghe, Martin, (2006), Aspects of Sinhalese Culture, Sarasa (Pvt) Limited, Rajagiriya, p 143

[7] Sen, Amartya (2005), The Argumentative Indian, Penguin Books and Sen, Amartya, (2006), Identity and Violence, Allen Lane.

[8] Sen, Amartya, (2005), p 62-8

[9] Ibid, p 63

[10] Wickramasinghe, op.cit. p 145.

[11] W F Gunawardena has documented about 2000 words which have come from ancient Rakshasa tribes and are currently in use in Sinhala language. See Gunawardena, W F (1973) Linguistics Principles of Sinhala (in Sinhala), Gunasena, Colombo.

[12] See, Hisselle Dharmarathana Thero, (2001) Tamil Influence on Sinhala (in Sinhala), Humanistic Writers’ Guild, Nugegoda.

[13] See, Dissanayake, J B (1976), Sinhala Jana Wahara, Lake House, Colombo.

[14] Wickramasinghe, op.cit, p 144.

[15] McClelland, David C, “The Achievement Motive in Economic Growth” in Seligson, Mitchell A and Passe-Smith, John T (eds), (1998), Development and Underdevelopment, Political Economy of Global Inequality, Lynne Rienner Publishers, London

[16] Sen, Amartya, (2005) The Argumentative Indian, p xii-xiii

[17] Ibid, p xiii

[18] Sinhala Deegha Nikaya, (1996), Buddhist Cultural Centre, Dehiwala, pp 1-12

Back to Home page