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Of language, religion and nationalism

Published : Jun 17, 2005 00:00 IST




Interview with Professor K.N.O. Dharmadasa, Editor-in-Chief, Sinhala Encyclopaedia.

The Vesak Commemoration Lecture, organised every year on the occasion of Buddha Purnima, has earned a reputation for its scholarly content, since it is delivered by specialists from Sri Lanka. This year's lecture on May 25 in Chennai was delivered by Professor K.N.O. Dharmadasa, Editor-in-Chief of the Sinhala Encyclopaedia and a former Professor of Sinhala, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. A linguist with a deep interest in social anthropology, Dharmadasa has been fascinated by the phenomenon of cultural contacts, particularly in language and religion, between India and Sri Lanka. He is a specialist on Sinhala nationalism and Buddhist revivalism in the island. He has done several studies on the language, culture and history of Veddas, a small aboriginal tribe of Sri Lanka.

Dharmadasa, 66, did his Ph.D. on "The Rise of Sinhalese Language Nationalism: A Study in the Sociology of Change" at the University of Monash, Australia. This study was later published by the University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, United States, with the title, Language, Religion and Ethnic Assertiveness: the Growth of Sinhalese Nationalism in Sri Lanka. He has presented a number of papers and written monographs on the cultural, religious and political history of Sri Lanka. A Fulbright Fellow, Dharmadasa is a Sinhala lyric writer too.

In his lecture, Dharmadasa said: "As a Buddhist, I am moved by the very fact that I am spending this Vesak in Jambudvipa, the land of my revered Master, Buddha Sakyamuni... To borrow a term from linguistics, the deep structure of Sri Lankan culture is Indian."

In his welcome address, Sumith Nakandala, Sri Lanka's Deputy High Commissioner in southern India, said the aim of the lectures was to rediscover the common heritage of pluralism between India and Sri Lanka; the latest lecture was to investigate the syncretism of religions in Sri Lanka and India.

Excerpts from an interview Prof. Dharmadasa gave T.S. Subramanian:

You are the Editor-in-Chief of the Sinhala Encyclopaedia. How do you go about executing a massive project like it?

This work was started by my teacher, Prof. D.E. Hettiaratchchi, in 1956. He was the Professor of Sinhala in our university. He was the first Editor-in-Chief. We publish volumes according to the Sinhala alphabet, starting from `a', `aa'... We have already published 10 volumes. Ten more are to come. My teacher died sometime back. I have now been appointed to take over the project because I was the Professor of Sinhala at the university. I succeeded him.

We are not working as fast as we should. We plan to finish the project in the next 10 years. It covers a range of subjects. However, being a Sinhala encyclopaedia, we thought it should concentrate more on topics that are important to the Sri Lankan culture.

Can you give some examples?

We have stupas. We have Bodh viharas. The Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Bodh vihara is a kind of enclosure where the Bodhi tree's branches are allowed to grow. Every (Buddhist) temple had a Bodh vihara in those days. We have only a few now. It is a peculiar architectural form, which is not found in other religions: the tree being worshipped, you have the enclosure and people go round the tree. This (topic) is not important for the Europeans. It is important for our culture and religion. These are covered in the Sinhala encyclopaedia.

Have you covered Anuradhapura in detail?

Not really. Anuradhapura was our first capital. It was the capital for 15 or 16 centuries. It was the longest standing capital in our country. Later, the capital was shifted to some other place... Even in world history, there was no city that was the capital for 1,500 or 1,600 years. That is fascinating. Anuradhapura will figure prominently in our encyclopaedia because a lot of monuments, stupas, archaeological sites and cultural sites are there.

What role did Sinhala nationalism play in provoking the Tamil ethnic crisis? Do you think that the Official Language Act of 1956, which declared Sinhala the sole official language, and the standardisation policy, which stipulated that Tamil students should score more marks than their Sinhalese counterparts, led to the Tamil backlash?

When we got our independence in 1948, we continued with the set-up from the British days. The first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, D.S. Senanayake, was a person who did not want to hurry up things. He thought there must be a gradual transformation from [what obtained during] the colonial status to [what should prevail during] the independent status - the nationalist polity. In 1948 itself, he expressed the view, `We have to do things hemin, hemin [`slowly, slowly' in Sinhala]. So he said, "If you want to make Sinhala the official language, we would do it step by step." Some nationalists wanted to put pressure on him to give Buddhism the priority status.

The foremost status.

Yes, the foremost status. Senanayake was a good Buddhist, a man with village roots, a down-to-earth person. His greatest contribution was in agriculture. He opened up the jungle areas near Anuradhapura and Pollannuruwa for agriculture and repaired the irrigation tanks that had fallen into disrepair. He opened up a lot of land for landless farmers. He said, "I am also a Buddhist. But I don't want Buddhism to use the government as a refuge." In Buddhism, you have three refuges - Buddhism, Dhamma, the doctrine, and Sangha, the order of monks. We say, `Buddham saranang katchami, dhammam saranang katchami, sangham saranang katchami.' D.S. Senanayake said, "I don't want people to say, `Government saranang katchami.' I am a Buddhist. Please leave the government alone. If you want to improve Buddhism or its fortunes, Buddhism should look after it, not the government."

So some people were not happy with him. In a way, under the colonial set-up, Buddhism had suffered a great deal. The control of education was very much influenced by the Church. That is why when Sri Lanka got its independence, people wanted this to change. But Senanayake said, "If you want to do things quickly, there will be a lot of problems." That is why when the country was going through a period of transformation from colonialism to independence, some people who wanted quick results were not happy with Senanayake's policy of gradualism. He died of a heart attack in 1952. He was called the father of the nation. With his death, the kind of opinion that he represented suffered a setback. Militant forces got a chance to assert themselves. That is where [S.W.R.D.] Bandaranaike's fault lay.

Bandaranaike was actually a lieutenant of Senanayake. Before Senanayake died, Bandaranaike had left the party [the United National Party] and formed his own party [Sri Lanka Freedom Party], which upheld these quick changes and wanted Sinhala to be made the official language and Buddhism to have the priority status. It catered to that section of the people. They were in a majority.

Even today, if somebody wants to come to power, it is very important to cater to the Sinhala-Buddhist opinion. Maybe a majority of people's opinion is formed by politicians themselves. It is difficult to say whether a majority of people approve the kind of nationalism fostered by political interests. Anyway, during voting time, these things influence their thinking.

After the introduction of the Official Language Act, the number of Tamils and Sinhalese who can talk and write in English has sharply declined. Will it not affect Sri Lanka in this age of computerisation?

As a university teacher, I myself have seen this happening. When I entered the university in 1959, the medium of education was English. We studied Sinhala. But geography, history, mathematics etc. were taught in English. Even students who came from village schools had an opportunity to study English because government schools, called the central schools, provided good English medium education. We had South Indians teaching us English. Academically, it was useful because our universities' standards were comparable to others anywhere in the world. The University of Ceylon was highly recognised in Europe.

Unfortunately, after the switch-over to the swabhasha [policy] - Tamil people studying in Tamil medium and the Sinhalese studying in the Sinhala medium - the study of English was totally neglected. This was very short-sighted on the part of the people who managed the educational policy at that time. They could have, while using the swabhasha medium for general education, maintained English as well on the same level.

I did my degree in the Sinhala language. But I could maintain my bilingualism. So there was no problem. There were so many others, Tamil and Sinhalese people, who did the same: maintained proficiency in Sinhala or Tamil, and in English too. Unfortunately, after the switch-over, those who managed the educational policy, neglected the English medium. Generations of people arose in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s who were monolingual. This is the worst part. We could have been at least bilingual in Sinhala and Tamil. That also never happened. The whole national problem is the tragic result of monolingualism, and [also] the fall in the standards of university education. Our younger colleagues who tried to go to European universities to do their post-graduate studies had to come back because they could not cope with the medium being taught there...

There is very good news now - some universities are thinking of changing the medium of instruction to English. But again, I have my doubts. They are trying to turn the clock back and forget swabhasha altogether. This is also foolish. They should not forget Sinhala or Tamil.

There is a fear in many quarters that again a foolish, short-sighted step will be taken to ignore the swabhasha and go back to English alone, and not take care of Sinhala and Tamil. I hope this will not happen. If that happens, you will have no identity. You [in India] have not forgotten English but you have an identity... I hope a balance will be struck between the two extremes.

You have published a book called Language, Religion and Ethnic Assertiveness: the Growth of Sinhalese Nationalism in Sri Lanka. What are its highlights? What are your conclusions about Sinhala nationalism?

When the British conquered the independent kingdom of Kandy in 1815 [they did not actually conquer it; it was handed over to them by a group of Ministers who were not happy with the King], there was a convention between the parties which handed over the kingdom and the British who took it over. That convention had a number of clauses whereby the British undertook to maintain certain aspirations and conditions put down by the people who handed over the kingdom to them. This was because it was not a military conquest but a cession.

Some of the clauses pertained to ethnicity and education. They dealt with ethnicity because the last King of Kandy was a Nayakkar from Madurai. The last four kings of Kandy were Nayakkars. The people who ceded the kingdom were not happy with the South Indian Nayakkar King. They said they wanted the rights of the South Indian or Nayakkar dynasty or the foreign rule of the country to end thereby. That was the ethnic part. Being Sinhalese, they did not want the country to be ruled by a South Indian.

But this handing over had a long history behind it. Before the Nayakkar kings started ruling the country, there was a long line of Sinhalese rulers [150 of them] right from 5th century B.C. People thought that this historical continuity had come to a standstill because of these successions by foreigners. The Sinhalese were always conscious of their historical heritage, partly because of the high degree of literacy especially among the elite and the Bhikkus [monks], who were the custodians of learning. Monasteries were educational centres where people studied their language and literature, and also other languages such as Pali and Sanskrit.

The elite knew the history of the land. We have a chronicle called Mahavamsa. It is a unique document in this part of the world because the history of a country is continuously maintained in it. It is in four parts. So the people are conscious of their historical heritage, especially the monks. That is why the monks are at the forefront of assertive activities. Even during the days of the Sinhalese kings, monks had played an important role in maintaining the literary tradition and religious rights [of the people]. Whenever kings transgressed their duties, monks intervened to correct things. And the kings were always supportive of the established religion.

During the Kandyan period, this was what had exactly happened. Some of the monks who, as religious teachers, had links with the aristocracy, insisted on the inclusion of these clauses into the convention. Clause 5 is important. By this clause, the British undertook to maintain the rituals and places of worship of the Buddhist religion. The then Governor - Robert Brownrigg - gave this undertaking in 1815. He was actually pulled up by the London authorities for doing this because at that time the Christian missionaries were active. They were keen to convert the heathen countries to true religion! Brownrigg said he had no choice because the Buddhist monks were insistent. All this is in the correspondence between Brownrigg and the Whitehall. That is why I have used the word "religion" in the title of my book.

I used the word "language" also because the Sinhala language became the rallying point for the nationalist cause in the mid-19th century itself. There is a landmark publication by James D' Alwis. He was a staunch Christian. He had studied in English medium. Later in life, he became an ardent lover of the Sinhala language and literature. For when he became an interpreter in the courts, he had to study the Sinhala language and literature. Although he was a Christian, he had to go to the Buddhist monks to study the Sinhala language and literature. He studied Pali and Sanskrit too. When he went into the field of classical Sinhala literature, he found how rich it was.

His 1853 publication was a translation of the Sinhala grammar book into English and he wrote it to facilitate the Europeans to study Sinhala. He wrote a 253-page introduction to this book. In the introduction, he said the Sinhala language should not be neglected. In his translation, he provides a glowing description of the classical Sinhala literature. He told the Europeans: "Although this country is small and you have conquered it, it has a rich cultural heritage." So in the 19th century itself, there were some persons among the English-educated Sinhalese elite who thought highly of the Sinhala language.

After James D' Alwis, there was a gradual rise of assertive Buddhism in the last two or three decades of the 19th century because the missionaries kept asserting themselves. The first British missionaries, who went to the countryside, had written their memoirs. They said the monks were cooperative and tolerant... But the hitch came when the monks told the missionaries that if the latter set up churches, the missionaries should allow the monks to address the people. This was the attitude of the Buddhist monks when the missionaries came. But the missionaries were not prepared to be that tolerant. So the monks started asserting themselves. A little by little, they became antagonistic. Then a great transformation came with the advent of Col. Olcott.

Actually, during the confrontational stage, there were public debates between the Christians and the Buddhists. There were five great debates in different parts of the country where the Christian missionaries were confronted by the Buddhist monks. Actually, the challenge was thrown by the Christians. They told the Buddhists: "Your religion is a false religion and our religion is superior to yours. That is why we want to convert people." The Buddhists replied that their Sakya Muni was a great rationalist and that he taught pragmatic religion.

There was a great debate at Panadura, just outside Colombo. There was a Buddhist monk called Gunananda. His statue is there at the site at Panadura, where the debate took place. Gunananda confronted the Christian missionaries in a three-day debate. About 10,000 people had gathered. At the end of the debate, the people were convinced that Gunananda had won the debate.

An Englishman called John Capper wrote a report on the debate and the themes it touched upon, and published it in a newspaper in England. This newspaper reached New York and Col. Olcott, who was a critic of the Christians, read it and was thrilled.

Was it the Col. Olcott who founded the Theosophical Society?

Yes. From New York, Col. Olcott wrote a letter to Gunananda, wanting to meet him. He came to Galle in 1870. By then, Gunananda had already started the Buddhist revival [movement]. Olcott introduced people in Sri Lanka to European methods of organising movements, [and taught them] how to set up societies and schools, and publish newspapers against the Christians. That is how the Buddhists got a shot in the arm. Col. Olcott later came to Adyar in Chennai and set up the Society's headquarters there.

Have you mentioned all this in your book?

The first chapter is on James D' Alwis, and the second on Buddhist revival. I have then talked about the newspapers and periodicals which came up after this period. From 1860 to 1900, there were hundreds of Sinhala newspapers and periodicals. After that, it became thousands. The Sinhala press was so vibrant. A collection was made by a Buddhist monk called Rev. Panyasekare, who was one of the teachers in a new university. He wrote a 10-volume book on the Sinhala periodicals. He talks about the history of Sinhala journalism and covers the period from 1862 to 1904.

The reason for this vibrancy was that literacy was always high in Sri Lanka. In this part of Asia, it is one of the most literate societies. Even during the pre-colonial times, because of the temple education, a good part of the people in the villages were literate. After the British rule began, missionaries set up their schools. Government schools and Hindu schools came up. The Hindu movement came up. Arumuga Navalar [the Tamil scholar from Jaffna, Sri Lanka] started schools.

So, in all parts of Sri Lanka, education was highly valued. That was how this big periodical, journalistic literature came up in Sri Lanka. This is again related to nationalistic thinking. I have talked about all this in my book.

Opinion leaders came up, who sent their message across, especially through the press. I am talking about an individual called Munidasa Cumaratunga, who was an ardent nationalist. According to him, the key factor in a nation's identity was language. For the Sinhala people, their foremost identity was their basha, he said. He was a purist. You had similar people in Tamil Nadu who wanted to get rid of the Sanskrit words from Tamil.

Yes, pure Tamil movement.

You can call this pure Sinhala movement. Munidasa Cumaratunga said: "Get rid of Sanskrit, Pali, Tamil and English words from Sinhala and you have a pure Sinhala. If you have a pure language, your national identity will be strong... " He started the pure Sinhala movement in 1939. It was a powerful movement but it never became dominant. It had an impact because a lot of school teachers were influenced by him. It had an influence in stabilising the grammar and orthography of Sinhala. He died in 1944. He was 57.

Your Vesak commemoration lecture was on `Religions in Contact: Syncretism of Beliefs, Deities and Rituals in Sri Lanka and Southern India'. What is syncretism?

A lot of Buddhists [in Sri Lanka] worship deities. If you look at this phenomenon from the Buddhist point of view, this is not in keeping with what the Buddha taught. He said, "You have to work out your salvation through meditation and striving and along the eight-fold noble path." A Buddhist should earn his salvation by leading a pious life. Buddhism does not believe in a creator or a redeemer. But in popular religion, deity worship is a very important fact in Sri Lanka. Almost all people have faith in deity. I am interested in how this came about in Sri Lanka. May be this is a residue of pre-Buddhist beliefs.

Some of the deities we worship are South Indian deities. For instance, Ayyanar worship is confined to a locality in Sri Lanka, not all over. There is Pitiye worship, which is confined to the central highland. It is blatantly South Indian but Sinhala Buddhists have great faith in Pitiye. There is Devol worship on the southern coast. Buddhism is a religion for earning salvation and attainment of nirvana.

But you worship deities for passing examinations, harvesting a crop and profitable business because for solving your day-to-day, mundane problems, Buddhism cannot help you. We have a Buddhist Vishnu. This is syncretism. You have two religions coming together and mixing up. This has happened in Christianity. The Christianity you find in Europe is not the one you find in Asia.

Pathini [goddess symbolising fidelity] worship is strong among the Sinhalese. Pathini is a Buddhist deity and you have a shrine for her in Kandy. We consider her a Buddhist like Vishnu and Skanda. We have Buddhisised Hindu gods and deities.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 17, 2005.)



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