By Siri Gamage –
When we examine the way our children and young people grow up today, the influence of several key institutions is enormous. The traditional role played by the temple is challenged by the forces of modernisation including the secular school, university and even the shopping centre. One could say that the temples have adapted in various ways to such forces and in some cases struggling. Religion itself has undergone change due to colonisation, modernisation and now globalisation. The concept of Protestant Buddhism emerged from the work of anthropologists in Sri Lanka who investigate this phenomenon (e.g. Obeyesekere, Malalgoda, Seneviratne). National schools co-exist with fee-paying private tuition classes that supplement knowledge imparted in the schools. After several decades of neoliberal, free-market economy and the relaxation of education and emigration policies including the introduction of international schools and foreign university campuses/programs, the situation has become more complicated and competitive. In this short article, I offer some observations and insights about these institutions and their influence.
Buddhist temples play a critical role in social organisation. The relationship between Monks and laity in various urban and rural areas is a significant one. People go to monks for advice and spiritual support when facing problems (there are similar happenings in relation to other religions also). In particular concepts like Dana, Pin, Karunava, karma, play a critical role. Children attend Dharma schools on weekends. Men and Women observe Sil on Poya days. Monks depend on danaya offered by the lay people in the area. They in turn conduct various Poojas, including Bodhi Pooja, on a regular basis. Some monks maintain close relationships with those in authority e.g. politicians, police, administration/government.
The way local life is organised very much depends on the activities of the temple. Through such activities, Buddhist values and concepts are promoted. While many children and young people growing up today do not have close associations with the temples, those who do tend to be shaped by the influence of Dhamma and Sila(discipline) as well as Buddhist values of compassion, Sraddha, etc. Those without such close association, tend to absorb ideas, concepts, values and aspirations as defined by other social institutions-particularly those associated with urban life and internet space.
Some temples emphasise rituals and chanting whereas others emphasise Buddhist philosophy and practice focused on liberation of and from mind. Temples also differ on the basis of their clientele. whether rural or urban, middle class, upper class or working class, Poor or rich. Some temples have developed a significant dayaka community due to the active leadership of the head monk. Others continue as traditional institutions with not much innovation. Some temples have international links with monks with lineage residing in developed Western countries and elsewhere. Others do not have such benefits.
Women are particularly attracted to monthly meditation programs on full moon days e.g. Gatambe temple. During such programs, they learn about various parts of Dhamma from the learned monks. In the Dharma Desana(preechings) some monks tackle contemporary issues facing men, women, and children. Others simply repeat a section of Dhamma as found in Pali texts.
Temple represents a space of purity-at least ideally. People who are busy in their daily lives visit temples for spiritual comfort.
The influence of school on a child’s personality, way of thinking and behaviour cannot be underestimated. Government authorities, communities and families generally encourage children to attend school –though many drop out due to economic and other difficulties. The teachers-many of whom have gone through teacher training Colleges or Universities – impart disciplinary knowledge in various subjects. Teaching is mainly teacher and exam oriented but at least in urban schools modern methods of teaching may be available – particularly in international schools.
Modern, urban and newer ideas enter the minds of children-especially through such teaching. For example, the value of learning English language and IT. Some teachers inspire children to explore their environment, literary figures, philosophies, world affairs, science and technology, history, art etc. Others simply do their job as a routine activity with no such inspiration provided to children under their care. In my primary school, I was motivated to learn arithmetic and other subjects like Sinhala literature. My father helped me to do some sums as he was a trader and knew how to add and subtract. In the town school where I studied from grade 8 onwards, the teacher who taught Sinhala literature was an inspirational teacher. He took us through various Sinhala poems and poets from a critical perspective. He, a trained teacher, was dedicated to teaching. For example, he stayed in the school and taught extra classes in the afternoon (He was single at the time). In the high school, graduate teachers inspired me to study well and systematically prepare for examinations.
Knowledge I gained by reading newspapers, listening to radio and participating in discussions with fellow villagers who came to my father’s shop was helpful in writing answers to questions given by the teachers and answering questions in the classroom. The mix of students in my classes from the town and villages also made a difference. Parents of some classmates had shops in the town or worked in the hospital. They thus had urban influence more than me.
Through the study of subjects, I leaned new knowledge about Buddhist civilisation, government, history etc. It has a broader appeal compared to the narrowly focused topics that was the concern of villagers. I do not mean they did not have critical understandings about the local and national history, colonial period, police, courts, politicians, businessmen etc. But their day to day issues were more immediate than world affairs.
Friendships I formed were also useful to navigate life until I entered the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya in 1968. I believe this is still the case with current generation of students.
But the role school plays in contemporary life has come under critical scrutiny. Key question is whether it is making the children innovators and critical thinkers or make them conform to the tradition, hierarchy and social order as unthinking individuals? If so how far the teaching style/philosophy, curriculum, text books, facilities contribute to such a situation? Is the internet providing an alternative learning resource to the school? Are the students ahead of time compared to teachers whose raining must have been in the past? Are schools and teaching rooted in local culture, tradition, and ways of knowing and doing or are they simply institutions that reproduce a curriculum designed by experts in Colombo?
From the time when the University College(1920s) and later University of Ceylon (early 1950s) were established, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) embarked on a systematic colonial government sponsored project to educate the Ceylonese in European knowledge through various disciplines including in natural and social sciences, and humanities. There were professional colleges for disciplines like law, medicine and a few other fields as stand-alone teaching institutions. During the College days, it was affiliated with University of London. However, the establishment of University of Ceylon redefined and re-directed higher education landscape in the country from an earlier focus on India to Britain. During the pre-colonial period, scholars wanting to pursue higher studies primarily went to Indian institutions of higher learning.
Initially those who went to University of Ceylon until the 70s were a select few who came from well-to-do backgrounds (plus a few on scholarships from not so well-to-do backgrounds). Once graduated their employment was secured in the civil service or other professional realms. University education was thus considered as an elitist privilege then. With the introduction of changes to the entry criteria and establishment of more universities across the country, so-called mass education aligned closely with the concept of free education expanded. Campuses were flooded with students from rural, semi-urban and urban backgrounds. Students had the opportunity of learning in their mother languages while a knowledge of English was also available as a second language for academic purposes. This however did not provide students with the skill or capacity to confidently converse in English. The distinctive lifestyle differences between those few who came from well-to-do families in Colombo, Kandy and elsewhere vs those who were from vernacular speaking backgrounds continued in various forms. The former followed courses in English medium. Some from the same background had the challenge to learn in Sinhala or Tamil in time to come.
Without going into too much detail, what I want to emphasise is the role that universities play in contemporary Sri Lanka in shaping the minds of young people in a certain way. That is to highlight the importance of Eurocentric or Western knowledge over the local or indigenous knowledge embodied in various disciplines. This happens through natural and social sciences as well as humanities to some extent (excluding in departments of languages, civilisations). Even disciplines such as history, sociology, anthropology, tend to emphasise and even depend on Eurocentric knowledge to a far greater extent.
While this core issue of academic dependency and captive mind continues, students who spend a few years in such higher education institutions tend to develop a collegiate mentality that continues after graduation into the working life. Emotional attachments developed during the university days to the places of higher learning, their social life, and the environment (social and physical) can be seen pouring through many poems and other creations that university alumni share in various websites and social media outlets e.g. Peradeniya University friends (PUFs), Peradeniya Pass out set eka.
Time spent in the university, especially in a place like Peradeniya makes a lasting impact on the attitudes and behaviour as well as worldview of the graduates. It has become a binding thread among former graduates as in the case of many premier schools in the country. In countries like Australia for example, there are hundreds of old boys and girls associations as well as university alumni associations that brings former students together for social events and sharing information. Going through some of the university alumni activities in social media what I have observed is the over emphasis on the EMOTIONAL dimension over the CRITICAL. What I mean by this is that very rarely I see a posting critical of the Eurocentric knowledge received during the university education days. Instead a feeling/attitude of empowerment appear to be present-however much it is misplaced. I am not sure if this is a common feeling among those students who were not successful in gaining full employment after graduation also? Nonetheless, it is important to be critical about the knowledge received and its adequacy for today’s world by those who are passing out from universities. Without such critical evaluation, colonially inherited paradigms of thought and action continue via translated knowledge (theories, concepts, methods, procedures).
As a politically independent country attempting to emerge from the shackles of colonialism and imperialism plus various dependencies, we need emerging generations of graduates to be critical thinkers and doers rather than those who are dependent on an alien way of thinking and acting or those rely on book knowledge only. We need them to be not only scientists but also intellectuals who are rooted in Southern thinking – a trend in social sciences where critical sociologists emphasise the need for those in the global south to utilise perspectives and methods from their own scholarly and cultural traditions.
If in the era of colonisation, the tea factory was a symbol of expanding agricultural and commercial landscape. In the present era of globalisation shopping centre has become a symbol. In some upmarket fancy shops a distinctive customer service concept is visible. In them, one finds imported consumer goods even though the price is somewhat higher compared to local shops. Shopping centres have also become meeting places, marketing spaces for various products through various shows with music and other decorations attractive to the young mind. Included are education shows.
Shopping centres are proving an alternative to traditional shops and even replacing them. Like the schools and private tuition classes, they are venues that the young people pick modern and fashionable ideas. Internet is the other source. In Kandy for example, Kentucky Fried Chicken(KFC) and Pizza shop are full of people. Local shops such as Devon also compete well but they face a severe competition. The latter has market differentiation in that it provides Sri Lankan, Indian and Chinese meals in addition to western meals. In the KFC, you can have fried chicken.
Modernism and urbanism were concepts and processes associated with European colonisation. One can say that commerce was a key imperative that underpinned colonialism. With the colonisation, we could witness how the products and services (such as education and health) were imported from European countries and later America to the former colonies. In the case of Ceylon, and in particular Colombo, various British agency houses and shops mushroomed in order to distribute imported goods and services. Martin Wickramasinghe in his Upanda Sita describes details pertaining to his interactions and observations in this regard.
Modernity is a topic largely neglected by Sri Lankan intellectuals. There are a few scholars like Nira Wickramasinghe and Kumari Jayawardena who have delved deeper into the way modernity and modern bourgeoisie emerged and functioned in Ceylon (e.g. No bodies to Somebodies by Kumari Jayawardena; Sri Lanka in the Modern Age by Wickramasinghe). Emergence of Eurocentric university and school education was a part of this expanding project of colonial modernity that even today a very few comprehends due to the emotional – rather than rational -nature of our attitudes about university life that I explained earlier. It is now necessary to critically reflect on the way European modernity influenced the thinking, attitudes and behaviour of colonised people? A good source for such an exercise is the writings by Gajendra Bhambra who has a website with extensive resources (https://gkbhambra.net/).
The neoliberal, market-led economic principles have created economic animals (plus those in power who promote the same) who will break any rule to prosper in a competitive environment for personal gain. Irrespective of the competing social institutions and processes that aim to construct future citizens in a certain direction with certain qualities, there is a question as to the ability of traditional institutions such as the temple to place boundaries around global forces such as modernity and westernisation (marketed today as internationalisation and/or globalisation). It is also important to remember the fact that irrespective of the location of individual or family in the power and status hierarchies, we need to look after each other for a harmonious society. Instead of individualism and self-interest, we need to develop altruistic values and norms as was the case during my childhood in the 50s. Mutual inter dependence is paramount rather than competition.
A society is judged by the way it looks after the weak and vulnerable. But it is regrettable to see that in Sri Lanka-though claimed to be a Buddhist society – the weak and vulnerable are perceived to be dispensable. When the children or wives go overseas to study and work or work as domestic workers, those left behind suffer due to family fragmentation, isolation, lack of support etc. While the agencies have focused on sending more and more women overseas, I don’t think there are any measures developed to look after those left behind?
What does all this say about the way we are moving as a country? Are there more deeper questions that we have to ask here? Is this a sign of open economy that we wanted since 1977? Will this competition for a piece of the market by local and global players kill creativity, entreprenurship and enthusiasm or encourage them? These are questions that we can spend more time discussing but I wish to end merely by posing such questions for future reflection not only by the University students, academics, monks, and teachers but also philosophically-minded citizens.
A fundamental re-think is necessary about the forces that promote individualism, competition, modernity, globalisation etc. vs those that promote mutual interdependence, altruism, collective responsibility, and so on. A social philosophy has to emerge from the imaginations of true intellectuals who can think long term. Business as usual should not be the way forward.