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Thursday
Mar012012

History, Historiography and the “Sinhala-Buddhists”: A Reply to Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri

Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri is right to point out in his recent essay, “History after the War: Challenges for Post War Reconciliation,” that “[t]here is an important factor that gives an extra advantage to the (sic) Sinhala-Buddhist historical consciousness. The historical narrative that is linked with the latter is generally compatible with the dominant paradigm of the modern historical scholarship in Sri Lanka.”

Yet, he is either unable or unwilling to make this “important factor” itself a topic for inquiry and in failing to do so, he inevitably then freezes this “Sinhala-Buddhist historical consciousness” within an ahistorical black hole. According to Dewasiri’s chronology, by the 6th Century AD, “for reasons that are not clear,” -- there had crystallized the “dhammadipa” idea, that has been a constant since. This then, raises the inevitable question: If the problem itself has no historical contours, indeed if nothing changed in “Sinhala-Buddhist historical consciousness” for 1600 years, how would any kind of attempt “to build an alternative discourse of history” be anything “more than a naïve academic pursuit” that almost by definition cannot dislodge or even address the problem itself?

Surely, the already existing critical literature must be worked through first? On my reading, it is apparent that there are three key vamsa texts in questions which span a period of some 600 years --the early 4th Century Dipavamsa, the 5th century Mahavamsa (Mv; which is in some ways a re-working of the Dipavamsa) and the 10th or 11th Century Vamsatthappakasini, (VAP; which is a re-articulation and elaboration of the Mv.) Indeed, there is an argument made in different ways in these texts, with different intensities and emphases, that the violent conquest of Lanka and the defeat and banishment of the Yakkshas by the Buddha, on his first (mythical) visit to Lanka, is legitimate, so making legitimate violence against unconvertible unbelievers, very much in the mold of some manifestations of the faiths of Abraham (i.e., Judaism, Christianity and Islam).

Furthermore the VAP, and associated inscriptional claims that can be dated as simultaneous with that text, argues that claims upon the throne of Lanka that maintains that the legitimacy of rule over the island depends upon being a direct descendant of the Buddha through family lineage, on the one hand, and being the bodhisattva or in other words an heir to the lineage of the Buddha through the Sasana, on the other. Yet these are but particular arguments about faith and rule, the Sasana and kingship.

There is clear historical evidence that shows that the claims of the VAP of the Mahavihara were made against claims of Abhayagirivihara monks who argued for a different kind of Sasana, Dhamma and Vinaya – there was a multitude of sophisticated ways of being a Buddhist throughout the first millennia in the Sri Lankan city of Anuradhapura. What’s at stake there, are complicated interpretations of Buddhism that position the Buddha in relation to Siva, who we may understand as a Hindu God. The Mahavihara interpretation of Buddhism, which is both exclusivist and violent was not always ascendant, indeed at times the Abhayagirivihara interpretations were dominant. They have not been preserved so we cannot read them today, but I repeat there is plenty of evidence that they indeed existed and were important.

Dewasiri’s conflation of Sinhala and Buddhist here, into the now common and very modern concatenation Sinhala-Buddhist is even more surprising. In fact, central to Gunwardene’s argument in the booklet Dewasiri cites is his opposition to this view, as it is of course, in his early and classic paper, “The people of the Lion.” “Sinhala” referred to a set of inhabitants within the island, certainly not all of them, in the 10th Century. In fact, the dynastic claims of Sri Lanka’s medieval kings, from Sena the 1st to Parakramabahu the 1st contradict the idea that their lineage is that of the lion slayer, Sinhabahu; it is rather that of Sudodhana and Amithodana, father and uncle of the Buddha. In fact, Nissankamalla who ruled after Parakramabahu wasn’t Sinhala, but Kalinga, and he was very clear about it, given his fondness for inscriptions. But he was certainly a Buddhist, and in the Mahavihara sense of it. Magha, who is credited with finally destroying the civilization of the North Central Province, which was undergirded by the dense, inter-connected and most technically advanced irrigation system in the entire pre modern world was also Kalinga.

After what is called the decline of Polonnaruwa, and by the 13th Century there were indeed Tamil, Hindu kings who ruled in Jaffna. Yet in the middle of 15th century Sapumal adopted son of Parakramabahu the 6th, conquered the kingdom of Jaffna. He wasn’t Sinhala though, his origins are arguable but he may have been Tamil; he also built the great Temple at Nallur.

A century or so later, we find that Rajasinha the 1st, the great Lion of Sithawake, who fought the Portuguese to a standstill more than once, took to Saivism, and yet was king of a southern kingdom. Not every legitimate ruler of southern Lanka was a Buddhist in early modern times. Yet also it is not historically accurate to say that the Kings of Jaffna ruled the east, certainly even a cursory glance at Dutch records and the doings of Rajasinha the 2nd will tell you, that the Kings of the Kanda Uda Pas Rate, (the five countries on top of the mountains) were also the overlords of Batticoloa and Trincomalee.

The Nayakkara kings who inherited the throne of the Kanda Uda Pas Rate, or what is now called the Kandyan Kingdom didn’t consider themselves Sinhala either. They were Telugu but spoke Tamil. But ruled as Buddhists leading an important revival Sasana and enabling the return of the higher ordination from Thailand leading to the founding what still to this day is called the Siam (Thai) Maha Nikaya which includes the chapters of Malwatte and Asgiriya. But in those days the Buddhist nobility did not always even write in Sinhala; in fact, Ehelapola, a key Minister of Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, who would have indeed considered himself Sinhala and Buddhist signed the Kandyan Convention of 1815, in Tamil script, after he had helped depose his Tamil speaking King.

Indeed, as I have argued at length in previous work, the very idea that all of this island is rightfully Sinhala-Buddhist is a very recent idea. It is traceable to Geroge Turnor’s (and Edward Upham’s) colonial misunderstandings of the particular, parochial claims made by the Mahavamsa and the Vamsattappakasini, which they then universalized and associated with simultaneous readings of monumental remains in the North Central Province seen through this foggy lens; the acceptance of Turnour's work as 'true' authorized its continuation throughout the nineteenth century. This is where what Dewasiri correctly identifies as the “dominant paradigm of the modern historical scholarship in Sri Lanka” comes from. He is quite mistaken though, in seeming to assume, that this just the “ideology of the Post-Colonial Sri Lanka state.”

On the contrary the very idea that Sri Lanka is made of discreet, competing communities of Sinhala, Tamil and Mohemedan is very much a colonial idea; first mooted in Colebrokke Camaron Reforms of 1833, which simultaneous with the misappropriation of Mahavamsa and the Vamsatthappaksini for a parochial European debate about the chronology of South Asian Kings. The idea that the Sinhala need a Sinhala representative and the that Tamils need a Tamil one, that the ‘Moors’ need a ‘Moor’ one is a colonial idea, a rupture in the human history of this island, that had seen settled, civilized human habitation for over 15, 000 years. This idea then, to repeat, was folded into the idea culled from a misreading of the Mahavamsa that history of this island is a series of battles between Sinhala Buddists and Tamil Hindus. There is no historicity to this, what so ever.

We really must abandon this idea, that we are in grip of a 6th century Sinhala-Buddhist historical consiousness; this is a recent, colonial construction.Treating products of colonial interventions as a timeless essence adds to our difficulties, not allowing for the necessary plurality of imaginings of Lanka’s history to emerge in present times.

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Reader Comments (7)

"we are in grip of a 6th century Sinhala-Buddhist historical consiousness; this is a recent, colonial construction.Treating products of colonial interventions as a timeless essence adds to our difficulties, not allowing for the necessary plurality of imaginings of Lanka’s history to emerge in present times."

Precise and accurate...
March 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGillian Sathanandan
thank you!
March 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPradeep Jeganathan
I think this is what precisly Nirmal points out. this ideology and collective consciouness of being Tamil or Sinhala are imagined constructions in Sri Lankan historigraphy.in his respond to Nirmal's article though he didn't agree that it is 'the very thing' that governs modern day politics and and soceity of Sri Lanka, Dr. Dayan Jayatilaka himself accepts such a collective conciousness exists and it is a constrain for working out for creating a more inclusive and jsut soceity in Sri Lanka. he himself is experiancing it at the embassy right now.

I can't agree with your idea that this should be abandon because idelogies are also reinforced and reconstrut thorugh historical changes. in that there is a continutiy in the sense what we take as point of referance . what happened in the past and how we interpret that play a key role in shaping collective conciousness of a community or a group. what I think the best is using this knowledge to have a better understanding and look for strategies to change our society.
March 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjanaki jayawardena
A good write up by Dr Jeganathan, to brings a different(counter?) point to Dr Dewasiri's recent essay.

almost the entire reply ( except for the last paragraph) is already highlighted by many scholars (RALH Gunawardane, Steve Kemper, Bradwell Smith and Kitsiri Malalgoda to name a few)

For me the key issue is how/why the narrative of the key Vamsas, ( Deepa, Maha and Cula) gravitated and structured around the Elara -Dutugamunu war and the way it get ethnicized.

can we claim that there was no ethnic conciousness and political power contest based in identity?

Mahāvaṃsa in chapter XXII narrates that Viharamaha Devi, Dutugamun's mother had Doladuka (the pernicious appetite of pregnancy) and Mahāvaṃsa says
''And there came on the virtuous queen these longings of a woman with child. (This) did she crave:
1. that while making a pillow for her head of a honeycomb one usabha long and resting on her left side in her beautiful bed, she should eat the honey that remained when she had given twelve thousand bhikkhus to eat of it; and
2. then she longed to drink (the water) that had served to cleanse the sword with which the head of the first warrior among king Elara’s warriors had been struck off, (and she longed to drink it) standing on this very head,
3. and moreover (she longed) to adorn herself with garlands of unfaded lotus-blossoms brought from the lotus marshes of Anuradhapura. Ver. 42-46

how could a Sangha write this and and get acceptance as a religious text? because at the end of every chapter of Mhv. it is said that the
'' Mahavamsa, compiled for the serene joy and emotion of the pious.'' ?
This is not '' traceable to Geroge Turnor’s (and Edward Upham’s) colonial misunderstandings of the particular, parochial claims made by the Mahavamsa and the Vamsattappakasini, which they then universalized and associated with simultaneous readings of monumental remains in the North Central Province seen through this foggy lens;'' as Dr PJ claims,

but an embedded ideology of the Vamsa literature

of course the ethnic hegemony and its historicisation got deepened and institutionalized during the English rule.
But to say the the Tamil vs Sinhala ethnic conciousness and its historicization is purely a colonial/postcolonial construct is a 'under reading' of the history of Lanka , at least the way the Sinhalas prefer to see.

As I has asked earlier ( at Dr NRD's article)
The question I am interested in is what would have happned to the Sinhala ethnonationalism , if there were no Chola/Chera/Paanadiya invasions? if there was no European colonization? if there was no Tamil separatist nationalism, in fact if there was no Prabhakaran's LTTE?

would the Sinhala polity be at the same level of the ethnonationlaism we witness today? or would it be a different one?
March 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSuren Raghavan
Dear Dr. Pradeep Jeganathan,
I found this article on Sri Lankan without Borders face book page and found it very interesting. With regard to history I have read many articles. The actual fact is, our history is highly controversial. Don’t you think that the Mahavamsa what we have today (discovered by the British) is not the actual version but is modified by someone?

I have read very interesting but highly controversial articles on Sri Lankan history in DBS Jeyaraj’s website recently written by one JL Devananda. The reader comments on his articles are even more interesting. The links to those articles are as follows:

http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/1886
http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/1922
http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/1954
http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/1956
http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/3031
March 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterL.U.L. Arulprakash
I agree, the many divisions in Sri Lanka, just as the Indian North/South Dravidian/Aryan divide, are all colonial manifestations. This is the 21st century time to demystify them once and for all.
March 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGillian Sathanandan
In my view, sinhala or sinhala buddhist consciousness is different from sinhala or sinhala buddhist ideology although in a given historical conjuncture there is a possibility that two may overlap. if people are not conscious of their sinhala buddhistness or their tamilness, identities cannot exist, or may exist as thing itself. ideologies are different and to develop ideology consciousness should be linked with something else, like state formation, state preservation etc. i think pradeep is correct that sinhala buddhist ideology is modern and a colonial/ modernist construct. if we try read history through the current conflict we do the same thing what nalin and others are doing, but may be for 'justifiable' reasons. but still what we engage in is not writing history but imposing, as marx said, 'forced abstractions'.
June 25, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersumanasiri liyanage

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