A RESPONSE TO PROF. EKANAYAKE: Another perspective
Posted on June 16th, 2019

Sugath Smarasinghe

I wish to respond as follows to Prof. A.N.I. Ekanayake to his letter to the Editor titled: What people say and what they really mean” that appeared in ‘The Island’ of May 24, 2019.

Prof. E appears to have approached his subject from an existential perspective. I propose to address the issue he has raised, from a historical perspective.

Let me first deal with the problem he had raised about the Sinhalese. Who are the Sinhalese?

My son recently took a DNA test, for the fun of it, to trace his genealogy, he mocked! It took his ancestry to North western India, to modern Afghanistan and finally to Europe. It incidentally coincided with theory of, possible Indo-Aryan Migration from somewhere modern Southern Germany through modern Iran (then Persia), modern Afghanistan and through Hindu Kush into Northern India.

Some historians surmise that some of these Aryan tribes from North Western and N. Eastern India migrated in ancient times to different parts of this country. Hence I presume that such a tribe may have landed in the Southern coast and moved inland. My known ancestry comes from a village named Karagoda viyangoda in Kimburupitiya electorate and another village called Nakulugamuwa in Beliattha electorate.

It appears that those original Aryan tribes that migrated to this country mixed with the four tribes that lived here, Yakshas- the irrigation experts, Nagas- the sea farers, Rakshas-the arts and craft people and Devas. These people together, over the years had developed a unique civilization based on a unique hydro engineering system, agriculture, Art and architecture, a rich literature, health service, an education system and also an administration system together with international trade and foreign relationships etc. These people also evolved into a new identity adopting the lion symbol which probably one of the tribes brought in. They also developed a language to communicate called Sinhala, the lexicon of which is phonetic based that is considered quite advanced even in modern times and a scientific grammar that is easy to use.

Most older nations in the world are named by the language they use and their countries too are known by that name. Thus, the land of people who speak French is called France. So with China, Japan, Vietnam, Italy, Germany, Poland and England. Similarly in the ancient times land of the people whose language was Sinhala was known as Seehala Deepa, meaning, island of the Sinhalese. This language also was referred to as Deepa Bhaasa in some old texts, meaning the language of the island. The Madras University Dictionary refers to this country as Eelaam, in Tamil is explained as Seehalaam. Thus, Westerners called it Z/ceylan, Zeylao, Ceylon, Serendib etc. etc. It has been known in the world from time immemorial, at least for 2600 years by these names until it became by some quirk of fate, Sri Lanka in 1972! Is there a language called Sri Lankan?!

The Sinhalese also have a recorded history covering the 2600 years of existence on this earth according to a chronicle called the Mahvansa, dated 5th century A.D. which is used in other Buddhist Countries such as Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia as authentic history. In later times it helped to determine the times of Emperor Asoka Indian history.

According to this chronicle, the Sinhalese have fought many wars to fight invaders, throughout their long history, to keep possession of their country which was finally ceded to the British Colonial power owing to an unresolvable internal political crisis in 1815. The Sinhalese perhaps are the people who held against the Western invaders the longest in this region   Again it regained its sovereignty initially in 1948 and finally in 1972.

The last fight to keep possession of their land was fought for 30 years against a Terrorist group who tried to grab a portion of the country. After prolonged bitter fighting, they managed to vanquish the terrorists, to retain possession. They sacrificed many thousands of life and limb in this effort. The story of Hasalaka Gamini is just one instance of their fighting spirit among many others in their long history. 

Considering this glittering history, is it unfair if the present day Sinhala people legitimately claim that this country belongs to them, however repugnant and unpalatable it may be to some?

Prof. E mentions the ‘Sinhala Only’ question ushered in 1956, by Prime Minister S.W.R. D. Bandaranayake. Mr. Bandaranayake was asked by the people who voted for him to make Sinhala the language of Administration of this country, which ceased to be so after 1815 for a period of 156 years during the British Colonial rule. Before that, this country was administered in the Sinhala language, the language of the Sinhalese. Was it wrong for the Sinhala people to have demanded after Independence, to resume their language of administration as done over 2400 years in this country? Isn’t it a prescriptive right even according to the present Roman-Dutch law?

Now the question of Sinhala Buddhists. The Sinhalese became Buddhists 2300 years ago in the 3rd century B.C. Since then they acquired a sapling of the Bodhi tree under shade of which their teacher the Buddha attained Buddhahood. Many centuries later they had the privilege of receiving the Tooth Relic of the Buddha which became the symbol of kingship that became synonymous with Royal Power to govern the Sinhala people. In the last war with the Terrorists, they mounted attacks on both these institutions to destroy in vain, the ethos and the morale of the Sinhalese. Even today the political authorities pay their formal respects at the temple of the Tooth and their Chief monks at Kandy the last Capital of the Sinhalese. They also make it a point to pay homage at the Sri Maha Bodhi at Anuradhapura, their original political and religious capital. Most Sinhala Buddhist too do this visit time to time, to re-charge their ethos, morale and religious fervor. They are really stirred into great emotional pride when they hear the song Danno Budunge” that speaks of the glory of Anurdhapura. 

Really there were no Sinhala Buddhists in this country for over 1500 years until the western colonial powers landed here. For, all people here were Buddhists then other than perhaps the veddhas. The term came into usage only because a section of the Sinhalese converted to Christianity. Thus, there came into existence Sinhala Christians. The national leaders then addressed the Buddhists with that name to wake them up from a deep slumber after being reduced to politically powerlessness by the colonial administration and Christian Missionaries empowered by the colonials. Anagarika Dharmapala published a newspaper called ‘Sinhala Bauddhayaa’ and Piydasa Sirisena set up another called ‘Sinhala Jathiya’ in an effort to evoke the ethos of a down trodden community who was then rendered powerless after their rebellions of 1817/18 and 1848 which were ruthlessly crushed by the British Colonials. It was only in 1956, nearly 150 years afterwards that the Sinhala Buddhists again asserted their lost status.

Under the Colonial and Christian Missionary influence the Sinhala Buddhists had become a degenerate nation, weak Buddhists with lukewarm national pride. They had been enticed into consumption of liquor and beef which was looked down upon in earlier times.  The Eurocentric orientation given to the middle class under Missionary education resulted in creating an inferiority complex in themselves where they were trained to look down upon their own culture and values and their own political thinking. Situation has become so bad now that there are  ques to pick up their liquor quota on the day before Wesak and other Poya days!

Therefore the nationalist movement in early 20th century had to begin primarily as a temperance movement and debates with Christian Missionaries. They had to design a Buddhist flag and create English schools for Buddhists in an attempt to re-orient the degenerated Buddhists to retrieve their lost national and religious fervor. It has been quite a gigantic task because lot of damage had been done to the national psyche where a class of new intellectuals among the Sinhalese who are unable to see beyond new Eurocentric ideologies like Human Rights, equality, secular state, neo-liberal thinking etc. which have been designed by the West to ensure continuation of their intellectual domination over their former colonies.

Prof. Ekanayake has highlighted the ‘problem’ of article 9 of the Constitution giving the place of prominence to Buddhism. This is nothing but an extension of the condition imposed by the Buddhist leaders in the Kandyan Convention agreed to by the British Colonials.

Quite apart from that, how has the other religions in this country been disadvantaged owing to this ‘obnoxious’ provision or, have Buddhists gained any unfair advantage over the other religionists? No such claims had been made to the Supreme Courts that they have been disadvantaged owing to this provision. Despite this provision, the Sinhala Buddhists have suffered many disadvantages like the ancient Kuragala Buddhist monastery taken over by other religionists, land grab at Deeghavapi which had to be retrieved only after a court order, difficulties encountered by Buddhists at places like Mihindu Maha Viharaya and Nayaru in the Eastern province, damages caused to Buddha images at Mavanella recently etc. etc. where no prosecution by state have been instituted.

Sinhala Buddhists have also experienced right to worship, live and do business in the Northern Province and denied access to Muslim enclaves in different parts of the country whereas none of the other religionists have suffered any obstacles to settle down, do business, run religious and educational institutions in any part of the country. Thus, it would appear that article 9 in the Constitution has in effect given no advantage to the Buddhists, rather they have been subjected to bullying by other religionists and communities. Hence we need an interpretation of the real meaning of Buddhism being declared here as premus interpares”.

True, as pointed out by Prof. Ekanayake that Buddhists today are degenerate, corrupt, indisciplined, dishonest etc. etc. This is the effect of over 500 years of foreign domination and degradation they had suffered as a result as explained above. In addition to that, they have contend with social and new problems created  by the notion of Open Economy, competition, consumerism, information technology and other modern changes that have further confounded their attempt to recover their lost ethos. For instance, the notion of sallahuka wutthi” –simple livelihood mentioned in the Karaneeya Mettha Suttha, is almost impossible except in abject poverty forced by capitalist society. It is indeed a mind boggling challenge, to overcome overnight. It takes time. It is only 71 years since we formally retrieved some form of independence. It might take a long time for us to recover. However, for nation that is 2600 old 500 years is a short time. Given the time and intellectual independence the Sinhala Buddhists may recover their greatness. They need to be helped.

Incidentally some poitican as mentioned by prof. E, is reported to have touched a raw nerve of the Sinhalese saying that this country does not belong to the Sinhalese. It is worthwhile thinking what motivated this man to say that over and over, just at this juncture. What is the outcome he wants? And why?

Sugath Smarasinghe    

4 Responses to “A RESPONSE TO PROF. EKANAYAKE: Another perspective”

  1. DAYA HEWAPATHIRANE Says:

    THE SINHALA LANGUAGE: THE DEFINING ELEMENT OF OUR NATIONAL CULTURE

    All salient aspects of our national culture – tangible and intangible, either grew or evolved within the borders of our country. Sinhala language and literature evolved and developed in Sri Lanka. All other languages used in Sri Lanka originated in other countries and therefore belong to or are associated with other nations. From historic times, the primary distinguishing characteristic of the people of Sri Lanka has been their Sinhala language. Their collective identity as a distinct nation and community was established by their unique language that developed within the island.
    Language is the defining element of any advanced culture and it gives the strongest form of identity to a community and nation. Sinhala is one of the world’s oldest living languages and as a vibrant language Sinhala has a celebrated history of over 2300 years. The Sinhala language grew out of Indo-Aryan dialects and exists only in Sri Lanka and has its own distinguished literary tradition. The script used in writing Sinhala evolved from the ancient Brahmi script used in most Aryan languages, which was introduced to the island in the 3rd century BCE. In 1999, the Sinhala script won international recognition from a group of reputed international scholars as one of the world’s most creative alphabets. It has been named as one of the world’s 16 most creative alphabets among today’s functioning languages, and some of them among the oldest known to mankind.
    It is significant to note that the overwhelming majority of people of Sri Lanka are distinguished by their language – Sinhala. Sinhala language has not only been a means of communication for our people but also a strong unifying influence providing solidarity and strength to the Sinhala community as a unique cultural entity in the world. From historic times virtually all place names of the country are in the Sinhala language – in the North, South, East, West and Central regions. This unifying effect has prevailed from historic times, but was threatened to some degree with the arrival and impact of European colonial powers, especially with the wide-ranging socio-economic changes to which the country was subject during the British period of occupation, particularly since the early 19th century.
    SINHALA LANGUAGE AND BUDDHISM
    Sinhala language in both its oral and written, informal and formal forms developed as the language of Buddhism in our country. The primary activity of Buddhist vihares, then and now, has been ‘dharma-desanaa’, bana’ or sermons which were invariably conducted in Sinhala. From historic times, our Buddhist bhikkhus and our royalty were responsible for the development, preservation and promotion of the Sinhala language. Bhikkhus were in the forefront in the propagation of education in general, both religious and secular. The Mahavihara, Abayagiriya and Jetavanarama Buddhist fraternities and associated monasteries were outstanding places of learning equivalent to universities of today. They had international affiliations with international students. The medium of instruction and all scholarly activities in these institutions were conducted in the Sinhala language. Large libraries were a part and parcel of these institutions. Particularly in these institutions, scholar Bhikkus were involved in translation into Sinhala of Pali and Sanskrit literary works pertaining to Buddhism, on a large scale. The patronage received from Sinhala royalty played a dominant role in the propagation and preservation of Sinhala language. We had kings who were outstanding Sinhala scholars compiling Sinhala literary works of high quality, both in prose and verse.

  2. samurai Says:

    I advise Professor Ekanayake to access the article on the following web link, which further confirms what Daya Hewapathirana has stated.

    http://www.sinhalanet.net/sri-lankas-debt-to-buddhism-and-the-way-forward-in-strengthening-its-buddhist-identity

  3. Charles Says:

    To re build the Buddhist nation that dates back to 2300 years we have to rid ourselvers of UNP politically. Otherwise Sri Lanka will never be able to revive its Sinhala Buddhist Status ever again.

    UNP from begining destroyed Sinhala National Leaders. It was not D.S.Senanayake who would have been the first Prime Minister but Baron Jayatilleke. But the UNP then leaders saw to it that Baron Jayatilleka was in India when Independence was granted. In the absense of Baron Jayatilleke D.S.Senanayake became the Prime Minister. I think Baron Jayatilleke died while travelling from India to Sri Lanka.

    Destruction of Buddhist Sri Lanka ha been in the very formation of UNP. R.premadasa later contributed by reducing the percentage of the population fo qulify for representation in the Parliament from 12 to 5 per cent. And then Ranil Wickramasinghe and Mangala Samaraveera are doing their best to make Sri Lanka secular country without giving any importance to Sinhala as a Community or Buddhism as a Religion.

  4. Charles Says:

    With regard to Sugath Samarasinghe’s Afghanistan connection . It seems they have found scrolls made of wood bark in Bamian Caves in Afghanistan on which Buddhist Scriptures have been written and they say that it is possible those scrolls contain the very words of the Buddha.

    https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-06-16/bark-scrolls-bring-scholars-one-step-closer-ancient-words-buddha/11203272?pfmredir=sm&fbclid=IwAR1NaNlWQFIPYTlgTuSgJUqCR1vgzfyB5u1oMqtY03tUgxG2qU-QET68Yj8

    Charles

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