Gilgamesh factor in regime change
Posted on March 7th, 2017

By Rohana R. Wasala

(A sequel to ‘Jousting with the JO: Let the real opposition do its duty to the country’/March 3, 2017)

In two articles written to The Island roughly within a year, namely, ‘A long view of constitution making’ with the subtitle ‘The things people first wrote down’ (The Island/January 24, 2016) and ‘First trounce the Joint Opposition’/Sunday Island/February 19, 2017), Kumar David (KD) argues that it is cogently necessary to seize the opportunity supposedly provided by the January 8 (2015) regime change to crush alleged ‘Sinhala extremist racism’.  The following paragraph is from his earlier (January 24, 2016) article:

‘My bottom line, which I have often echoed in this column after the 8 January defeat of the Mafia presidency, is that a watershed HAS been crossed and the terrain IS more favourable to defeat racism. The balance of forces on the streets and in the chambers at this moment is such that chauvinism CAN be defeated. Mahinda-Gota, by fair means or foul, finished off secessionist Tamil nationalism. Conditions and the balance of forces for finishing off Sinhala extremist racism are now favourable. Let’s do it! Sinha-Le can and must be smashed NOW; delay is a dagger not only at RW/MS’s throat but at ours as well.’ (Capitalized emphasis is KD’s)

I think I must explain the title of my essay before I comment on this key paragraph. It was suggested by the mention, in KD’s article titled ‘A long view of constitution making’, of the name of an ancient Akkadian language narrative poem: ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’, which is considered the earliest story in world literature that has come down to us. The name of the epic occurs only once in the essay and that is in the antepenultimate paragraph (i.e. the third paragraph from the end). But what caught my attention even before I read a word of KD’s article was the picture that illustrated it. The picture was captioned: ‘The great king Gilgamesh: Seeker after truth’. Students of literature are familiar with the tale of Gilgamesh. Naturally, I thought that the reference to the ancient Sumerian king had to have some connection with what KD wanted to say in his article. It at once occurred to me that the UNP’s specific strategy of choosing a particular kind of individual as its presidential candidate on two occasions, that is to say, in the 2010 and 2015 elections, in order to defeat the then ‘invincible’  Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) who was at the zenith of his power and popularity at the time, was probably modeled on an identical ploy devised  for a similar purpose in the course of events described in The epic of Gilgamesh. It looked very likely that KD had something to do with the UNP’s choice of presidential candidate, for wasn’t he the father of the ‘Single Issue Common Candidate’ (SICC) strategy after all? So I expected KD to invoke this analogy in his article. But I was mistaken. Instead, I found that his reference to the Gilgamesh epic was not occasioned by the discovery of such a similarity between the ancient Gilgamesh story and the SICC brainchild. It turned out to be an incidental detail inserted as an example of ‘The things people wrote down’ in the very distant past, with a dismissively casual mention of the genuinely proud written history of the country of the Sinhalese.

In the epic narrative mentioned above, Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk was tall and magnificently built. He was a brave warrior and protected other warriors who served him. He opened mountain passes and dug wells for the benefit of his subjects. But he was very arrogant in his power. He did not leave the young men in the kingdom in peace. No young woman he saw was safe from his lustful attention. People, in their distress over their protector becoming their persecutor, supplicated to the gods for protection from him. The gods, listening to their prayers created a wild man of the same physical strength and got him to encounter Gilgamesh in a trial of strength. The gods’ plan was to cure Gilgamesh of his hubris. This is similar to the UNP’s choice of someone from MR’s own camp with at least some of his attributes and attitudes to contest him at the presidential elections. But KD seems to ignore this obvious analogy for a strategy he himself helped devise. He invokes world literary history apparently for a different purpose. (Incidentally, in the Sumerian legend, the gods create an antagonist to Gilgamesh, named Enkidu, in the form of a wild man covered with hair like an animal. When they meet and grapple with each other, Gilgamesh overpowers him. After contest, the two of them become the closest, mutually most devoted, friends and do various exploits together. The ruler mends his ways and eventually becomes a spiritual seeker;  the people have their problem solved. The trick works. But then, those were gods who played the trick!)

The different purpose, in my opinion, is to do with his assumption that the so-called traditionalism of the Sinhalese ‘extremists’ (i.e. their alleged preoccupation with ‘history’) is an obstacle to solving the Tamil problem. A major aim of writing the article appears to be to criticize this facet of alleged Sinhalese racism as suggested by his echoing Marx at the very beginning, where he writes: ‘… a degree men do make their destiny, though not under conditions of their choosing but under “circumstances existing and transmitted from the past which hang like a nightmare on the brains of the living”’. But his mind seems to work at a more mundane level in his dealing with the problem. One could feel tempted to accuse him of extremist racism himself, notwithstanding the substantial reputation of his revolutionary Marxist past.

As a discrete advocate of a federal solution to the so-called ‘ethnic problem’, KD is obliged to undermine the unitary state concept, which is well founded in terms of the country’s long tradition of historical record keeping (literary and epigraphic) that reflects the connection between the island and the Sinhalese, and in terms of the predominant Buddhist culture that is inextricably bound with both the land and the specific race. The Sinhalese who compose 75% of the Sri Lankan population (2012 Census) are heirs to a written history of over 2600 years, a religion as ancient, together with their historical island home of unmeasured antiquity. The various names of the island including the English/European name ‘Ceylon’ ultimately derive from the name ‘Sihala’ or ‘Sinha-le’, meaning ‘the land of the Sinhalese’.

The ancient Sumer (c. 4500-c. 2000 BCE) the first known urban civilization, which was in southern Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) was conquered by a Semitic speaking people. The non-Semitic Sumerians gradually disappeared; so did their language and culture. Sumerians’ hero king Bilgamesh came to be called Gilgamesh in the Semitic language known as Akkadian. It is in that language that The Epic of Gilgamesh was composed somewhere in the period 1300 – 1000 BCE. This fate did not befall the Sinhalese, their language, their land, or their Buddhist culture. They should not be blamed for not behaving as if it did. Apparently, KD wants to obscure the historic achievements of the Sinhalese in the domain of history writing by juxtaposing them with examples of historical documentation considered more impressive as judged from a Eurocentric viewpoint. His incidental mention of local examples of similar writing is only a backhanded compliment: he adds parenthetically: ‘(The Culavamsa and Mahavamsa were composed in Pali in the middle of the first millennium AD)’. Such belittling of Sri Lankan history he considers essential for ‘crushing extremist Sinhala racism’.

It is likely that KD has only heard these two names, but not read the books. The order they are mentioned here is wrong. The Mahavamsa (The Great Chronicle) was composed in the 5th century CE and the first part of its sequel the Culavamsa (The Minor Chronicle) in the 13th century CE. These are excellent literary works in addition to being historical records. The Mahavamsa is not the earliest history of the island and Buddhism either. It was preceded by The Dipavamsa (The Island Chronicle) written somewhere around 3-4th century CE. The author of the Mahavamsa, the learned Bhikkhu Mahanama, shows evidence at the beginning of the book that he was familiar with the earlier work. These works were composed in Pali. Bhikkhu Mahanama was uncle of king Dhatusena, the builder of the great reservoir named Kalawewa, and father of king Kasyapa of Sigiriya fame. One must read these books to understand the amazing literary sophistication and intellectual refinement that the authors had attained so early in our history.

In the same article KD fears that the following four items (which he dubs ‘diehard constitutional blots’) will perforce be built into the new constitution (marginally rephrased here by me without distortion):

  1. Secularism will be rejected, and Buddhism will remain as state religion.
  2. The state will continue to be identified as unitary.
  3. Sinhala only with ‘reasonable squealing in Tamil’ will remain the formal norm.
  4. Devolution will be evaded, and federalism eschewed.

This according to him is because the vast majority of the 75% Sinhalese majority of the country ‘will be moved to spill blood (rather) than countenance change’ in those four areas. (How ungrateful to make such baseless allegations against an innocent people!) KD implies that the retention of the Buddhism clause in the constitution will make Sri Lanka comparable to Saudi Arabia or Israel. ‘Secularism’ is a term that apparently few Sri Lankans understand. Many interpret it as ‘anti-religious’, and reject it as something immoral/unethical. But the word actually means keeping religion out of politics, while guaranteeing every citizen their right to religious belief and worship. The preeminence given to Buddhism in Sri Lanka makes it a de facto secular state, because Buddhism is 100% about mind culture and truly ethical living, but zero percent about religion (in the common sense). KD calls the Thai monarchy antediluvian! But he admits ‘that the Saudi, Israeli and Thai examples are wrong analogies for what is possible in Lanka now.’ What he proposes is for RW and MS (the present PM and PREZ respectively) to agree to a solution that is acceptable to the Tamils, but not acceptable to the Sinhalese majority, without being held back by the fear of a backlash.

We may guess  why he condemns Sri Lanka and Thailand in such derogatory terms: Most of the population in the two countries profess Theravada Buddhism and Buddhism is given a special status in their constitutions. He seems to consider Buddhism to be singularly incompatible with democracy, equal rights of citizens, etc. (Maybe he regards Buddhism as rigidly theocratic.) The smaller of the two countries is Sri Lanka with a population of approximately 20.5 million (2012), of which 70% are Buddhists, while the larger Thailand has a population of about 66 million (2015) with a Buddhist percentage of 93.2% (2010). It is a highly industrialized country, though, with economic, political and social problems inherent to such societies. In Thailand, Buddhism is part and parcel of the people’s national identity and culture. There is no doubt that the near religious homogeneity that is found there contributes much to the political and social stability of the country, though there seems to be a growing threat to that stability from non-Buddhist religious fundamentalists of late. The state is defined as a constitutional monarchy, that traditionally alternates between parliamentary democracy and rule by military junta. The current regime is of the latter type. The monarch is the non-partisan head of state with authority to intervene in guiding political decision making by elected leaders. The monarch is highly revered by the people. The late king, Cambridge and Massachusetts educated,  Bhumibol Atulyadej who died aged 88 on October 13, 2016 had been very popular, and was held almost divine (as his name Atulyadej – Atuladeva – Peerless God literally means) by ordinary Thais. The reigning king his son and successor Maha Vajiralongkorn is said to be not so highly revered as his father had been. Under existing circumstances, he may be enjoying reduced authority, but not long after being installed in office as king on the death of his father last year (2016), Vajiralongkorn refused to enact the new constitution drafted by the National Council for Peace and Order under the ruling junta led by Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha, Prime Minister, until amendments were made to some of its provisions. Should the Thai monarchy be degraded as antediluvian because Theravada Buddhism occupies an important, influential position in that country, where it is mandatory for the monarch as head of state to be a Buddhist?

We know that though the current Sri Lankan constitution gives Buddhism a preeminent place, Buddhism cannot be called a state religion nor the Sri Lankan state non-secular. Even the more predominantly Buddhist Thailand has no state religion. Giving Buddhism a prominent place where Buddhists are in the majority does mean depriving  minorities of their right to profess their own religions in freedom. Buddhism as a religion (though not a religion in the usual theistic sense) provides a sound ethical basis that is perfectly compatible with the proper functioning of a democratic system of government.

KD, before rambling on with a seeming digression on ‘the things people first wrote down’, spells out what he regards as the need of the hour (i.e., overcoming Sinhalese extremist racism):

‘What Lanka needs today to go all the way with this task is leadership; leadership which shy RW and confused MS are reluctant to offer and the JVP, unable to untangle itself from its racist past, cannot rise to….’

KD’s diagnosis of the problem is wrong; his remedy is even more so. Ranil Wickremasinghe is not shy; but it is true that Maithripala Sirisena is confused. To provide the leadership that KD concludes the country needs they must agree to act on the false assumption that the problem is due to Sinhalese chauvinism, extremism etc. I don’t think the JVP has ever been racist, though Tamil racists and their sympathizers tried to make it out to an anti-Tamil outfit to justify their own racism. Even KD talks about Tamil ‘nationalism’ but Sinhalese ‘racism’. The problem is Sinhalese nationalism is always inclusive (it considers minorities as belonging to the country) whereas Tamil nationalism is exclusive (it stands only for Tamil interests).

The purpose of  his rambling digression into the domain of the history of writing may be inferred from his concluding words: ‘ We squat in Lanka in a corner of the world ignorant of how far back the story goes and how vast the world is. That men do not learn much from history is the saddest lesson history teaches. But suppose we could take a longer, bigger, view would we care so much what people in other corners of this little Isle speak, worship (or not worship) or how they arrange their affairs? Narrowness of mind and xenophobia of nations are born of ignorance of history and unawareness of how big and broad the human story is.’ But we know that the Sinhalese are no more narrow minded, xenophobic, or ignorant of history than other races. In fact, from time immemorial, they have been the opposite. Cosmopolitanism is in their genes. Though an insular people, they had a wide global outreach  that extended to furthest points in east Asia, Africa and Europe even in BCE times (as recorded history proves) through trade and diplomacy.  (March 7, 2017)

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