Coming to terms with our common history – I
Posted on March 11th, 2015

By Rohana R. Wasala

What is history? According to the online dictionary.com, history is a continuous, systematic narrative of past events as relating to a particular people, country, period, person, etc., usually written as a chronological account; chronicle”; according to the same source, historiography is the narrative presentation of history based on a critical examination, evaluation, and selection of material from primary and secondary sources and subject to scholarly criteria”. Unique among peoples, particularly in the South Asian region, the Sinhalese have a continuous recorded history in the form of chronicles that date from the fourth century CE and rock inscriptions across the length and breadth the island that began six or seven centuries earlier than these chronicles. Among the chronicles the Mahavansa (the Great Chronicle) is special. It was composed in the Pali language, the language Buddhism, in the 5th century CE, i.e. some 1500 years ago. It describes mainly the advent of the Sinhalese and the later arrival of Buddhism in the island with a background look at Buddhism in India, while celebrating the meritorious deeds of the Sinhala Buddhist kings done for the advancement of the Buddhist establishment; it is also a history of kings of the island from the arrival of Vijaya to the end of the reign of king Mahasena; from thence, the Mahavansa continues its narrative, in the form of the Culavansa (the Minor Chronicle) up to 1815. It will be clear to any an unbiased reader that these chronicles satisfy, in some measure, the basic criteria of history and historiography implicit in the dictionary definitions of the terms given at the beginning of this paragraph. They are not mythology.

The traditional history of the island as recorded for the most part by Buddhist bhikkhus deserves a balanced examination in our attempts to bring about mutual understanding between communities in resolving ethnic tensions kept simmering by power hungry politicians. It should be defended against contemptuous, offhand dismissal as unadulterated fiction. We can’t afford to ignore history as just another academic subject unrelated to present day realities simply because it has been turned into a problem by divisive politics. My feeling is that an unbiased review of our island’s history will go a long way towards establishing mutual understanding among the different communities that form the Sri Lankan nation.

For many decades now we have been bamboozled into believing that to be a Sinhalese nationalist is to be a racist. Many Sinhalese feel self-conscious about publicly broaching the subject of history because of the belief in some quarters that available historical narratives of past events in this country could clash with attempts to deal with the ‘ethnic problem’. Some of us avoid even referring to it lest we be accused of being guilty of a so-called ‘mahavansa mindset’. But should we give in to sinister forces that are determined to obliterate our recorded history of this our island home and the time honoured symbols of our ancient culture  in the interest of political correctness or out of a unilateral concern with social harmony? This is a pertinent question to think about in view of over three quarters of a century of politically motivated Mahavansa bashing and the accidental tampering with or deliberate destruction of archaeological sites, vandalizing processes that, unfortunately, still persist largely due to the ignorance and indifference of the powers that be.

With the promulgation of the 1972 republican constitution, ‘Ceylon’ was officially named ‘Sri Lanka’. Those who resent this name change may be ignorant of, or probably want to obscure, the fact that the name ‘Ceylon’ ultimately derived from ‘Sinhale’ (the land of the Sinhalese). There is an obvious difference between the two names Sri Lanka and Ceylon. The difference strikes local ears and foreign ears differently. It is like the difference between ‘Misr’ and ‘Egypt’. The nationals of each country have always been calling their country respectively ‘Lanka’ and ‘Misr’ (Sinhalese have regularly referred to Egypt as ‘misaraya’, particularly in earlier times). To the majority Sinhala speakers, this country has always been known as Lanka (Lankawa) and to the minority Tamil speakers as Ilankei, its Tamil pronunciation. Before 1972 ‘Sri Lanka’ used to be adopted generally in formal contexts, and that hasn’t changed even after 1972; ‘Sri Lanka’ is still just ‘Lankawa’ among common Sinhala speakers; the Anglicized class and the minority of English speakers used the term ‘Ceylon’ to refer to their motherland. If the nationalists wanted to erase the colonial memory associated with ‘Ceylon’ by replacing it with its original form ‘Sinhale’, it would have been inappropriate for obvious reasons. They chose the classical literary name ‘Sri Lanka’ instead. Just as the British call their group of countries ‘Great’ Britain, Lankans call their island ‘Sri’ Lanka, the epithet ‘Sri’  meaning splendid, gorgeous, resplendent. Human beings are usually grandiloquent in referring to themselves. It is a matter of identity and self-esteem. Nationally, there was no name change: Lanka remained Lanka, while internationally, Ceylon became Sri Lanka. Yet, the official restoration of the racially neutral traditional name of the country was a welcome move whether or not its originators thought of that aspect of its resonance.

In a situation where we are being targeted by powerful foreign nations in collusion with certain disgruntled elements  in pursuance of their own selfish ends (which, to further confound the problems, clash among themselves) with no concern whatsoever for our welfare (i.e. that of all Sri Lankans), won’t it be self-defeating to recklessly maul about among ourselves because of our conflicting perceptions of certain important matters? This is what some of our politicians are doing. These divisive perceptions  relate in the main to politics of the so-called ethnic issue; disagreements about how best to govern the country usually take a back seat while we are being compelled to get embroiled in a struggle to beat off attacks on our sovereignty and territorial integrity which emanate from outside. To be successful in this struggle it is necessary for all Sri Lankans to remain united. But unity is undermined when the existing misconceptions and misunderstandings are reinforced by biased attitudes towards the realities that confront us, and towards the historical legacies (including the problematic ones) that we cannot avoid interacting with.

‘Reconciliation’ will remain  an unrealisable goal for ever unless we are all equally committed to its realization. But the greater responsibility for whatever emerges as a result of collective efforts in meeting national obligations must be borne by our politicians, because they are our leaders. Let’s hope that all our politicians will become national politicians, and not communal ones. A final resolution of the (mostly artificial) crisis cannot be achieved fully unless politicians are statesmanlike enough to give up their communalistic modes of thinking which they are now exploiting under one pretext or another.

Scholars tell us, based on currently available evidence, that the Sinhalese have the distinction of being the first people  in this part of the world, i.e. South Asia, to have maintained historical records like the Chronicles e.g. Dipavansa (The Island Chronicle), Mahavansa (The Great Chronicle), Culavansa (The Minor Chronicle), Sasanavansa (The Chronicle of the Buddhist Dispensation), etc. The vansa (or chronicle) tradition can be traced as far back as the fourth century CE in Sri Lanka. It took another eight hundred years for the first such book to appear in the  sub-continent of India. Writes Professor K.M. de Silva in his ‘A History of Sri Lanka’ (2005):

On the history of the island up to the end of the first millennium and indeed for three centuries of the second, there is a wealth of historical data, not available for other parts of south Asia for most of the period under study…

Nowadays, the Vijaya legend is not treated with anything like serious attention by anyone of average intelligence and knowledge, except by those who enjoy criticising the imaginary ‘racist mindset’ of the Sinhalese. But the Sinhalese people generally know the Vijaya story for what it is, that it is only an exciting myth; at the same time, there may be a negligible few who literally believe it. Even if it is the case that some credulous Sinhalese literally believe, solely on the authority of this story, that the founder of their race was Vijaya who was the son of Sinhabahu himself sired by a lion that his mother had eloped with, and that thus they are descended from a lion,  what harm is there? Stories of mythical origins are common among human cultures, and they do serve a useful purpose for humanity. We should be intelligent enough not to throw overboard the Mahavansa as trash for including, among provable facts, colourful delineations of events that had come down to the author through oral tradition, which most probably had some nuclear historical authenticity.

The following paragraph about the significance of such myths and legends is from The Footprint of the Buddha” by the late Professor of English E.F.C. Ludowyk (1956):

The myths and legends which accompany every stage of a people’s history need not be accepted as anything but the mode in which a people has attempted to satisfy its unconscious needs. Not only the poet who has given the legend artistic form, but all those who have handed down the tradition of some mythical event, like the descent of the founder of the race from the sun-god, receive gratification for the deepest unknown longings through their fantasies. And if for man there exists something that is supernatural, then he may be able to raise himself from his insignificance through participation in this supernatural. The garb in which these fantasies appear says more perhaps of the cultural and social circumstances of a people than its recorded history. To discard legend, and myth, and fairy tale would just as much rob one of one’s most valuable sources of information about a people as to reject its art and literature as unimportant.

To be continued

10 Responses to “Coming to terms with our common history – I”

  1. SA Kumar Says:

    the fact that the name ‘Ceylon’ ultimately derived from ‘Sinhale’ (the land of the Sinhalese)- no Derived from Sea & London .
    Sri is common to Sinhala & Tamil for place (like THIRU for person) & Lanka(Lankawa / Ilankai) is derived from Hela in Sinhala /Eelam in Tamil.

    Now United Provincial of Sri Lanka (UPSL) !!!

  2. Christie Says:

    Namaste: India is officially Bharat for the local use and is India for international use. India is the land of Hindians the same as Ceylon, Seylan, Selan for the Middle Easterners, Celiao for Portugese Xylan for the Chinese. The Sinhala or its variations are the root word for Ceylon. Unfortunately Indian imperialists managed to fool us to adopt Sri Lanka another Bandaranayakes job while India kept its Western name for international use and Bharat for local use. The island never allowed Indians to set up their own country except for a short period of time during its history of more than forty thousand years. All Indians in the island are Indian colonial parasites who arrived after the British. Jai Hind.

  3. Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha Says:

    “Sri Lanka’ is a Sanskrit word given to that land by the Hindus.
    Selan which the Singhalese called that land was anglicized to “Ceylon” by the British
    Thambapani was the name Prince Vijaya (Singha) gave to that land upon arrival

    take your pick.

  4. SA Kumar Says:

    The island was renamed Sri Lanka, meaning “resplendent island” in Sanskrit,

  5. Lorenzo Says:

    The correct name is SINHELA or HELA (ELAM) in short.

    This Sri Lanka name is misleading. It makes this country a part of Endia.

  6. Senevirath Says:

    just ignore this bull shit story of vijaya who was an invader
    yakkhas and nagas mixed with Aryans developed this country they became one nation as Sinhalese in pandukabhayas time . so this country should be named as sinhale because it belongs to Sinhalese

    but there is nobody with guts to do that not even to scrap 13a

  7. SA Kumar Says:

    just ignore this bull shit story of vijaya who was an invader- anything not suit our imagination is BS ?
    One can bury the truth but cannot kill !!

  8. SA Kumar Says:

    Aryans – is invader ???

  9. Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha Says:

    Senevirath “just ignore this bull shit story of vijaya who was an invader”

    Cannot do that since Sri Lanka or Thambapani as he called it or Selan has a WRITTEN HISTORY, A documented history that is supported by evidence in the ancient history of modern day Bengal, by the development of the Singhalese language and the chronological heritage of “Thambapani”

    To dismiss Prince Vijaya Singha by the Singhalese is akin to dismissing Christopher Columbus. that is a breach in our history. it is a frontal attack upon the Singhalese people and I do not believe you meant it that way.

    IF WE ARE TO FORGET OUR WRITTEN HISTORY WHICH OUTSIDE OF CHINA IS UNIQUE IN AMONG THE ANCIENT NATIONS OF THE WORLD THEN WHAT DO WE HAVE AS A SINGHALESE PEOPLE? MYTHS SUCH AS THE RAMAYANA?

  10. Senevirath Says:

    we can learn a lot by reading ”’variga pooranika —- ravi sailaasha vansha kathava — learn about budhdhas visits and ”rahath meheni ,, ratnavali .They in this country before this vijaya .

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