SINHALA LANGUAGE:THE DEFINING ELEMENT OF THE NATIONAL CULTURE OF SRI LANKA
Posted on June 19th, 2019

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane 

All salient aspects of the Sinhala Buddhist culture, tangible and intangible, either grew or evolved within the borders of Sri Lanka. 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 solely 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.     

EARLIEST SINHALA LITERARY WORKS 

According to Prof. Senarat Paranavithana the earliest specimens of Sinhala metrical compositions may be dated to the first century BCE. Four of the early Brahmi inscriptions of Sri Lanka have been identified as poetical compositions. The Mahavamsa composed in Pali in the 5th century CE was based on ancient Sinhala Commentaries known as Sihala-Atthakatha-Mahawamsa. The Sigiri graffiti scribbled on the mirror wall are dated to 7th-8th centuries and are on fascinating secular themes- many of the verses of an amorous or romantic nature. Some of the oldest Sinhala literary works date from the 9th century CE. The Dhampiya-Atuva-Getapadaya is the oldest Sinhala prose work which dates back to the 9th century.

Sinhala literary work flourished during the Polonnaruwa and Dambadeniya period from 10th to 13th century CE which is considered as the golden age of Sinhala literature. Among prominent Sinhala prose of this time is the Amavatura written in the 13th century by Gurulugomi. Dharmapradipikava is another of his compilations. Gurulugomi’s works are characterized by the use of pure Sinhala (Elu) words and limiting Sanskrit and Pali loan words to the minimum. Other literary works of this period include the Buthsarana by Vidyachakravarti, the Pujavaliya and Saddharma-Ratnavaliya. The latter is renowned for the beauty of its style and the simplicity of its language. Other notable prose work is the Saddharmalankaraya by Jayabahu Dharmakirti in the 14th century, Thupavansaya, Elu-Attanagalu Vansaya and the Dambadeni Aasna.

SINHALA POETRY

The Sinhala people have excelled in poetry. The Pujavaliya of the 13trh century refers to twelve famous Sinhala poets who flourished during the reign of king Aggabodhi-I (568-601 CE). The Sinhala language is a poetical language. It lends itself easily to metre and rhyme due to its grammatical flexibility and rich vocabulary comprising of a large number of synonyms. Sinhala is a mellifluous language with a smooth sweet flow, with high vowel content and is comparable to French and Urdu, widely regarded to be the two most romantic languages in the world. One of the greatest literary monuments of the medieval period is the “Kavsilumina” a 13th century “Maha-Kavya” composed by King Parakrama Bahu-II (1234-1269). The oldest Sandesha poem of which we have any evidence is the “Mayura Sandeshaya” (Peacock’s message) dating back to the 13th century, if not earlier. The work no longer exists, though examples from it are cited in the classical Sinhala grammar “Sidath-Sangarawa” (13th century).

During the Kotte period (15th-16th centuries) Sinhala poetry was receiving greater attention especially by way of Hatan Kavi” or war poems and Sandeshas” or message poems.  This period marks the efflorescence of Sinhala poetry with secular “Sandesha” poems gaining much popularity. Among the popular Sandesha poems of this period are “Thisara Sandeshaya” (Swan’s message, dated 14th century), “Gira Sandeshaya” (Parrot’s message), “Hansa Sandeshaya” (Goose’s message), “Parevi Sandeshaya” (Dove’s message), “Kokila Sandeshaya” (Cuckoo’s message) and “Selalihini Sandeshaya” (Starling’s message) belong to the 15th century.

Jataka tales formed the thematic content of most Sinhala poetry of the medieval period. “Kavya-Sekharaya” written in mid 15th century by Sri Rahula Mahathera narrates the “Sattubhasta Jataka” and Guttilaya of Vetteve Thera (15th century) is based on the “Guttila Jataka”. Other Sandesha poems include the “Sevul Sandeshaya” (Cocks message), “Hema Kurulu Sandeshaya” (Oriole’s message) “Ketakirili Sandeshaya” (Hornbill’s message), “Nilakobo Sandeshaya” (Blue dove’s message) and “Diyasevul Sandeshaya” (Black swan’s message).

THREATS TO SINHALA LANGUAGE IN THE PAST

It is recorded that many Sinhala literary works of the Anuradhapura period were lost when South Indian Dravidian invaders destroyed places of Learning and Buddhist establishments in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. In the distant past, the Sinhala language faced serious threats from South Indian Tamil-speaking Dravidian invaders who caused untold damage to Sinhala writings. Vast libraries of ‘ola’ palm-leaf manuscripts   in the thousands were set fire to and destroyed by these foreign invaders in ancient capital Anuradhapura at various times since the 1st century BCE until the city was abandoned, and later in Polonnaruwa during the 11th to 13th century period when the greatest destruction was caused to thousands of ola manuscripts stored in ancient libraries, Buddhist temples and monasteries.

CATHOLIC PORTUGUESE ATROCITIES

This was followed in early 16th century by the Portuguese and later by Dutch invaders, with their gun powder and soldiers, who brought in a reign of terror to the country, killing and undermining Sinhala and Buddhist scholars,  causing widespread destruction to Sinhala and Buddhist places of learning and setting fire to ola manuscripts.  All Buddhist temples and places of learning in the maritime areas under the Catholic Portuguese control were demolished. Monasteries were razed and their priceless treasure looted. Libraries were set on fire. In 1588, the world renowned Buddhist educational institution

Wijayaba Pirivena at Totagamuwa and Padmawathi Pirivena of Keragala, which had carried on the traditions of ancient Taxila and Nalanda universities were destroyed and their incumbent killed. Weedagama Privena in Raigam Korala, Sunethradevi Pirivena of Pepiliyana Kotte were burnt and destroyed. The valuable books of the temple were destroyed. The great Poet monk Weedagama Maithree Thero who wrote Lowedasangarawa and Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula were living in that temple at the time of its demolition by Catholics.

Ratnapura Samandewalaya was destroyed. In 1575, the Portuguese set fire to the historic Kelani viharaya which was at the time the foremost Buddhist place of worship in the country. All lands that belonged to the viharaya were given away to the Catholic church. The Colombo fort was constructed with the stones of the destroyed and plundered Kelaniya temple. King Buwanekabahu’s five storied Royal palace and the seven storied palace called Kithsimewanpaya built by Dambadeniya king were demolished. The three-storied Dalada Maligawa of Kotte was pulled down to the ground. Buddhist religious edifices, which had taken generations to build, were completely destroyed by Catholics. Never were a glorious civilization and a noble culture more brutally destroyed. The work of centuries was undone in a few years. The Catholic Portuguese period (1505 – 1658) constitutes a long and poignant chronicle of oppression and injustice meted out to the Sinhala Buddhists. The Catholic Portuguese were the first colonial power to pave in this country the way to almost continuous religious tensions – the repercussions of which is felt to this day in Sri Lanka. The Dutch, who ousted the Portuguese in 1640, occupied the places under Portuguese control. They continued similar trade activities and started converting people to their form of Protestant Christianity. They too were instrumental in destroying Buddhist temples, monasteries and the royal palace at Hanguranketa.

VENERABLE VELIVITIYE SARANANKARA THERA

Before the arrival of the Portuguese, during the Kotte and Mahanuwara kingdoms under Sinhala kings, there was a great revival of Sinhala language and literature. The same patronage to Sinhala learning was not forthcoming from the Tamil speaking Nayakkar or Malabar kings of the Mahanuwara period. Bhikkhus who had contributed much to the advancement of Sinhala writings were not accorded necessary recognition. This state of affairs continued until the emergence of Venerable Velivitiye Saranankara Mahathera (1698-1778) a great Sinhala patriot and an outstanding scholar. His initiatives, patronage and contribution to the revival and strengthening of the Buddha Sasana, Sinhala language and Buddhist culture are immeasurable and unsurpassed by anyone during the colonial and the post colonial period of over five centuries. His impact was so strong, that in the second half of the 19th century, it was students and their successors who established outstanding places of learning such as Vidyodaya Pirivena at Maligakanda, Vidyalankara Pirivena at Peliyagoda, and Parama Dhamma Cetiya Pirivena at Ratmalana. 

 
BRITISH PLUNDER AND CRUELTY

The British finally in the early 19th century, capturing the entire country, did the most catastrophic and shattering damage to our Sinhala Buddhist cultural heritage and thereby to our language. They not only introduced their language as the medium of communication in all affairs of governance and economic activities, but took direct measures to undermine the Sinhala language and culture. English was forced upon our people as the language of administration, the language in which justice was meted out, the language in which government records were kept. The Sinhala language and ordinary Sinhala people, suffered immensely during the British period of occupation.  


To serve their self-interests they practiced the “divide and rule” policy by setting one community against the other. It is a well known fact that the British gave special privileges to the Tamil minority and those of the Christian faith. They were provided with better opportunities for education, employment and other government services. They soon became privileged communities. In terms of the density of schools per unit area, the Jaffna district had the highest density. In 1870 there were only two Buddhist schools left in the country – in Panadura and Dodanduwa, with an attendance of 246 children as against 805 Christian Schools with an attendance of 78,086 children. As far as the Sinhala community is concerned, for generations in the past, their traditional places of learning were the Buddhist temples where Buddhist monks were teachers of both religious and secular subjects. These centers and Buddhist monks were not accorded the same privileges/support accorded to Christian missionary schools and teachers.

As an act of revenge against the 1817-1818 rebellion against them, the British ordered their troops to destroy all property belonging to the Sinhala people. They destroyed houses by setting fire, destroyed home gardens and cattle. Thousands of acres of paddy land, irrigation works, reservoirs and water ways were destroyed to starve the population to death. Water that spilled into surrounding areas turned Wellassa into a large malaria mosquito breeding ground killing thousands of people. Almost all Sinhala nobles and bhikkhus linked to the rebellion were beheaded to terrorize the population.  During the Kandyan rebellion of 1818, every man over 14 years was ordered by the British to be killed and some sixty thousand Sinhala people were massacred. Large numbers of local leaders were annihilated by the British – Veera Keppetipola, Veera Puran Appu and Veera Gongalegoda Banda are the better known. These are the same hypocritical British who now talk of ‘Human Rights’!

After the rebellion was crushed the British embarked on a policy of appropriating millions of acres of land belonging to peasants in the Hill country regions and selling them to British capitalists to develop commercial plantations. Thousands upon thousands of Sinhala peasants were rendered landless and homeless by this inhuman act perpetrated in mid 19th century. To make matters worse for ordinary people, the British imposed a highly discriminatory direct tax system on our people which included
license fees on guns, dogs, carts, and shops. Labour was made compulsory on plantation roads, unless a special tax was paid. A mass movement against these oppressive taxes developed in 1848, centred in the Matale region which was soon suppressed by the British using brutal force.

Traditional agriculture was a way of life for the people. It had the influence of bringing about social cohesion, or a sense of togetherness among people. They worked jointly helping each other in their farm activities. It provided them with sufficient leisure time to be engaged in other productive and creative pursuits including cultural, literary and religious activities. This economic independence of the country was destroyed by the British by converting the long-standing self sufficient sustainable economy of our country to an outer-oriented, instable commercial economy dependent on fluctuating external world markets. Sri Lanka’s economy was transformed to become a cheap source of agricultural raw material for industries in Britain. The economy became so badly outer-oriented; a greater part of essential food requirements of the large mass of our people had to be imported from other countries. With the decline of traditional farming vast areas of former productive land were forced to be abandoned owing to neglect of irrigation facilities or acquired by the British for development of export agriculture – coffee, tea and rubber.

As far as the ordinary people were concerned, the loss of freedom and privileges that they enjoyed under their kings and traditional leadership had a strong negative psychological impact on people. This situation did not permit the emergence of leaders from rural areas where the large mass of the dominant community lived. Besides, royal patronage was the strongest form of motivation and support for those involved in creative cultural and literary pursuits in ancient times. These supports were no longer available to our people.  

POST INDEPENDENCE DILEMMA

When the British left Sri Lanka in 1948, they made sure that power remained in the hands of the English educated and English speaking few, who were toeing their line. To make matters worse, power -political, administrative, and economic was inherited by those belonging to the westernized Colombo sub-culture dominated by Christians. Most of the qualified professionals subscribed to this sub-culture. It is most unfortunate that we did not have political leaders of the caliber of the Mahatma Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu, Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Lal Bahadur Sasthri, S. Radhakrishna, Zakir Hussain, Krishna Menon, Subash Chandra Bose, Sardar Vallabhai Patel and Ambekar, to name a few. Indian-ness was the common characteristic in all of them although they were highly exposed to western culture. They were self-less leaders committed to work for the welfare of the common mass of people. They were inner oriented, true representatives of Indian culture, who were able to feel the pulse and listen to the heart beat of ordinary Indian people. They were proud of being Indian. They were strongly supported by a bureaucracy that was equally Indian.

During this time, most of the prominent local people involved actively in political and professional fields were products of a non-national education given by the British imperialists or the Missionary establishment who were not conversant with the history and the culture of their country. Some of them were token Buddhists who did not belong to the culture of the people. Among them were some who had returned from education in Britain, influenced by leftist ideals and were known as leftists” or Marxists” of the time. These “intellectuals” were also inheritors of the Colombo urban sub culture and were actively involved in translating the knowledge created by their masters in the west into the “vernacular”. 

Temperance movementENGLISH LANGUAGE AND WESTERN CULTURAL NORMS

During the British colonial era (1796-1948) and a good part of the post-independence period, the promotion of the English language and Western cultural norms was the order of the day as far as the political establishment of the country was concerned. The same was true in regard to most professionals at decision-making levels in the public and private sectors and big businesses. Their attitudes and actions either directly or indirectly had the effect of denigrating Sinhala language and Sinhala cultural norms and the simple Buddhist way of life to an inferior state.  The influence and authority of the village temple was reduced to a level of parasite owing to the willful neglect and undermining of these traditional institutions by the rulers. The study of history was dropped from school curriculum thereby preventing children from being exposed to their history and cultural heritage.

The urban English education system had much to do with this undesirable development. School educational services during this time were basically the monopoly of Catholic and Christian missions and English was the medium of instruction in these schools. European cultural norms were promoted vigorously by these schools. Under the circumstances, the social status and recognition were based on one’s exposure to western culture and especially one’s ability to communicate effectively in the English language and familiarity with and often the observance of western cultural norms. Opportunities for advancement in fields such as education and professions were almost exclusively the monopoly of people with such exposure.

Higher learning at this time was basically bifurcated; the rural masses and bhikkhus studied Sinhala and other oriental languages whereas in the urban areas English was the medium of instruction and communication. Opportunities for advancement were highly limited to the former. They were low-paid and distant from the government whereas the latter were better paid and enjoyed more benefits from government. It is simply a miracle that Sinhala language was able to survive this tragic situation for over four and a half centuries. It was the dedication of the Sinhala scholars, especially our Buddhist scholar Bhikkhus, and the inherent strength of the Sinhala language that may be cited as main reasons. Among the most prominent who contributed to that miracle were the Venerables Velivitiye Saranankara Mahathera, Hikkaduve Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera (early 20th century) who was the founder of the Vidyodaya Pirivena, Venerable Waskaduwe Sri Subhuti Nayaka Thera (early 20th century), Ven. Kahave Sri Ratanasara Nayaka Thera, Ven. Baddegama Sri Piyaratana Nayaka Thera, Ven. Velivitiye Sri Sorata Nayaka Thera and Ven. Panangala Sri Piyaratana Nayaka Thera

RISE OF A NEW COSMOPILITAN URBAN ELITE    

These people formed a class of their own with undue privileges which were not available to the large majority of those without similar exposure. It was a new elite that developed on the basis of its member’s knowledge of the English language and was associated with the Greater Colombo region. A wider more cosmopolitan outlook differentiated this urban elite from the more ‘old fashioned’ predominantly Buddhist, Sinhala speaking rural folk. What developed here was a form of sub-culture which was referred to by some Sinhalayas as Thuppahi culture” which accorded a highly step-motherly treatment to Sinhala language and culture. This had a strong negative impact of undermining and decimating the commonly spoken indigenous language of the nation to an inferior position. The step-motherly treatment of the Sinhala language by the  government and the urban elite running affairs of the economy, business and private sector activities, and the Catholic and Christian missionary education establishment, continued even after the country attained political independence in 1948.

There are many aspects of western culture which are commendable and helpful to enrich one’s life. But most of these outer-oriented urban elite which included the so called Sri Lankan political leaders, held to half-baked foreign values, superficialities and strange ways of living. They were barely conversant with the plight of the majority of people – the ordinary Sinhala people in particular. They were not representative of the large mass of people, but became the trusted servants of the British administration. Almost all of the qualified professionals belonged to or subscribed to this sub-culture. The British left no room for the leadership to emerge from the truly indigenous people.

The excessively poor living conditions of the large mass of rural folk led to migration of youth to Colombo and other big towns. Some were subjected to the influence of the extremes forms of undesirable urban culture that was gaining ground in urban areas. Alcohol abuse, crime and underworld activities of later years may be explained in terms of this urban migration.

BUDDHIST RESURGENCE OF LATE 19TH CENTURY

In late 19th century, a series of public debates took place in Panadura between Anglican Christian clergymen of Sri Lanka and Buddhist bhikkhus led by the fearless Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera, culminating in the defeat of the Christians. There were some fearless Bhikkhus who openly spoke out against British rule and the colonial mentality of our so-called leaders. The Buddhist revival that followed was aided by the Theosophists led by American Col. Henry Steele Olcott. When Olcott visited this island, the Sinhala Buddhists, although formed the majority in the country were a highly underprivileged group in their land of birth. To the 802 Christian schools that had come up there were only four Buddhist schools. Nor was Sinhala taught at a privileged school like Royal College even at the beginning of the 20th century. Olcott was instrumental in establishing Buddhist schools in Colombo and other important urban centres in the country. Among these national schools were Ananda College, Colombo established in 1886, Dharmaraja College Mahanuwara, Maliyadeva College Kurunegala, Mahinda College Galle and Meuse us College Colombo as a Private Girls’ school founded in 1895 by the Buddhist Theosophical Society managed by a Board of Trustees.

It was during the late19th century that one notices a surge in secular Sinhala literature. The Sinhala novel had its beginnings during this period. Piyadasa Sirisena, Sagara Palansuriya, Munidasa Kumaratunga, Hemapala Munidasa, W.A. Silva and J.H. Perera were prominent among the Sinhala scholars of this period.  

In late 19th and early 20th centuries, Anagarika Dharmapala(1864-1933) was a leading figure of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. He spearheaded a movement to revive Buddhism and Buddhist culture in Sri Lanka. He spoke of the superficiality of the lives of those of the Colombo sub culture who have joined up with the colonialists to run the country.  Then there was another outstanding patriot – Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy who urged our people to develop a sense of their own traditions and national culture. He challenged the intrusion on eastern values by the expansion of western society.

CHANGES STARTNG IN MID 20TH CENTURY

In the middle of the 20th century, Mr. W. W. Kannangara and a few others led a movement which made Sinhala the medium of instruction for all Sinhala children up to Grade V in all government schools. Subsequently, Sinhala and Tamil became the languages of government and higher education. In the 20th century, there were many Sinhala patriots who helped to enrich and save our language and culture. The late fifties and sixties in particular was a period when we saw the emergence of outstanding personalities and cultural pursuits. Among them, W. F. Gunewardena Martin Wickramasinghe, Senarath Paranawithana, Munidasa Kumaratungha, L.H. Mettananda, G. Malalasekera, Ediriweera Sarathchandra, Mahagama Sekera, Madawala S. Ratnayake, Gunadasa Amarasekera, K. Jayatilaka, Amaradeva, Premasiri Khemadasa, Chitrasena and Vajira, Solias Mendis, Lester James Pieris and a few others including their students.

Their literary works appealed to the hearts of a generation that was just beginning to shed the last vestiges of European socio-cultural domination in the island. The basis of their work which made them prominent was Sinhala language, Sinhala culture and Sinhala Buddhist values. Among outstanding Buddhist monks who assumed global status at the time were Venerables-Walpola Rahula, Ananda Maithriye, Narada, Piyadassi, and Madihe Pangnaseeha. One of the essential text books used in courses on Buddhism in most universities in the western world has been “What the Buddha Taught” by Venerable Walpola Rahula written initially in Sinhala.

With these developments after the mid 20th century, Sinhala language started to revive and books on diverse subjects were written by those competent in the language. New forms of poetry and drama were introduced and Sinhala songs and movies became popular forms of entertainment. Among positive trends during this period was the  official recognized of Sinhala as the national language, the establishment of a Cultural Affairs Ministry, the elevation of two Pirivena’s to University status, the take-over of Missionary schools by the government. It was the Sinhala Buddhist leadership, including leading Buddhist monks who were in the forefront in the initiative to take-over schools and making higher education accessible to all irrespective of religious affiliation. It is an accepted fact that this enabled rural youth to come to the forefront. Many were able to secure university education and excel in their professional fields.

Unlike India’s Shantiniketana or Vishva Bharati and its strong Indian cultural influence on up-coming leaders of that great nation, the first University of Ceylon at Colombo and subsequently at Peradeniya catered to and promoted the interests of the colonial masters and western culture until recent times. As far as the promotion of our national culture is concerned, it is questionable whether the several universities that we have today have made any significant contribution. They in fact should be in the forefront in this initiative. The majority of our university students are Sinhala Buddhists from provincial schools. There may be a diversity of reasons for their lack of initiative to be actively involved in activities that relate to the promotion of our national culture. Whether the undue interference of Marxist political elements on university students lives is a reason for this unfortunate state of affairs, is yet to be known.  

CATHOLIC ACTION

A significant development during the 1960’s was the emergence of the outspoken Mr. L.H. Mettananda and his Bauddha Jatika Balavagaya (BJB) which was instrumental in exposing the work of Catholic Action and its control over Sri Lanka’s mass media. The seeds for the current Buddhist Revival campaign were laid by Mr. Mettananda who played a singular role in writing the Buddhist Commission Report in 1956. This report had strong impact on political developments in the country at that time. The Press Commission Report of 1964, of Justice K.D. de Silva, makes glaring references to the work of Catholic Action in the media and its control of leading newspapers in the country. The BJB presented invaluable evidence to the Press Commission on Catholic Action. Catholic Action was behind the failed Catholic Army Officers Coup in 1962 to overthrow the legitimately elected government of Mrs.Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

PERIOD OF INSTABILITY

This period of healthy growth which began in 1956, was short lived and with the passage of about two decades, there emerged distinct signs of a downward trend in the importance accorded to the Sinhala language and national culture in general. During the last few decades, it was the Sinhala Buddhist community who underwent traumatic experiences and all fatalities, owing to the efforts of the local Marxists to counterbalance the imbalance created by the outer-oriented Colombo clan. The situation in the country was worsened by the youth uprising in the south and the north and the widespread violence and bloodshed. Leadership at all levels – political, professional and secular – deteriorated during the past few decades. This was also a time which saw extreme divisiveness, animosity and criminal activity among people supporting opposing political parties. This was a time when bribery and corruption was institutionalized, and crime and underworld activities became rampant.

DOWNWARD TREND WITH GLOBALIZATION

A distinctly downward trend had its beginnings in the late 1970s, and continued for about four decades. This was with the adoption of the so called policy of ‘open economy’ and unrestricted globalization which resulted in a drastic degeneration of local culture and values. What followed was the excessive outer orientation of the entire system with anything western being respected and accepted as necessary for the furtherance of so called development process” of the country and enrichment of lives of our people. The emphasis was on western systems of governance, development, education, language, social dynamics and organization English language became the means to get things done during this time.  A striking attitudinal change was observed in people caught in this trend who were largely the English educated urban folk, dominated by non Buddhists. Their life-style was becoming highly materialistic and superficial, competitive, self-centred and corrupt. With the expansion of urban areas and sub-urban neighborhoods, the impact of this sub-culture was spreading inland.

These trends were strengthened by the influx into the country of foreign NGO’s and international schools and expansion of tourism and related business activities, foreign travel for education and employment and also the arrival of foreign-funded Evangelical and Christian unethical conversion business practices in the country which paid little heed to local cultural norms and values.

UNDESIRABLE INFLUENCES

This attitude was further promoted by the importance accorded to western attire, western music and dancing, partying, foreign trips and watching televised cricket matches for long hours. Youth became more and more prone to popular western youth lifestyles characterized by partying, loud and sensuous music, disco and break dancing, and associated smoking, drinking, use of drugs and laxity in sexual behavior. They were inclined to dress like, speak like, act like, do things like and live like westerners being brainwashed by what they see on television and read in popular mass media. They were not conversant with the superficial nature of lives of most westerners. Unethical conversions to Christianity was rampant during this time and being Christian was considered fashionable in a society that was blindly following western norms and lifestyles. Catholic Action which remained dormant until 1977 raised its head again, and has been a key player in the moves to create religious and communal tension in our country by playing one community against the other -against the so – called ‘majoritarianism’ of the Sinhala Buddhists.

Foreign exposure through foreign employment, tourism and commercialized relationships with tourists, popular screening of adult movies, increased availability and use of illicit drugs and alcohol continue to have a very harmful impact on our youth in particular. There was a significant increase in the sex trade, casinos, gambling and other extreme forms of underworld activities often patronized by political leaders. Disharmony and abuse in families, family break-ups, divorces, abortions, alcoholism, drug addiction, and other forms of vice and family crime and disruption became commonplace. Among the many complex reasons for this trend is employment of women in the Middle East and in local garment factories, especially in urban and sub-urban areas, separation of spouses occasioned by such employment. All these global” changes have directly and indirectly affected negatively the traditional cultural norms and have resulted in undermining of Sinhala culture and Sinhala language.  

IMPACT OF MASS MEDIA

There was excessive publicity and importance accorded to these trends by the media, especially the electronic media.  Television was introduced during this time with little restriction if at all, on the nature and type of programs that were presented, and all English newspapers and media in general, was basically promoting the  thuppahi” Colombo sub-culture and life-styles. This led to excessive impacts of western culture and values and the blind adoption of foreign customs, behavior patterns and organizational systems by our people.

In general, what became the order of the day were  irresponsible, unethical and highly commercialized mass media programmes, television in particular, with undue emphasis on commercials and misleading and mind-polluting propaganda contrary to the cultural norms of the country. These became harmful especially to the innocent minds and psyches of children and youth. These so called modern trends were largely responsible for the drastic change of attitudes and thinking observed in most people, especially in urban neighborhoods even in recent decades. Promotion of western commercialized values had been the order of the day, especially for the English mass media. The administrative and editorial staff of the national news media continues to be  dominated by non Buddhists and people with little sense of nationalism or interest in its promotion.

The direct and indirect impacts of these ‘developments’ have been the sheer disregard for and undermining of our national cultural norms and values. It had led to significant change of attitudes and priorities of our people especially in urban areas. This brought about divisiveness and confusion among Sinhala Buddhists. This has seriously affected the significance of the Sinhala language as the traditional medium of communication among the people. Besides, it has begun to seriously affect the unity and long-established cohesiveness of the Sinhala Buddhist community. Western systems including western religious beliefs, norms, and traditions that have been thrust upon the Buddhist community have introduced divisiveness and disharmony among Sinhala Buddhists. This has been clearly manifest during the last few decades.

ATITUDINAL CHANGES WITH ENGLISH COMMUNICATION

During the past six decades, the language of government in our motherland has been English for all purposes, and not Sinhala or Tamil. Knowledge of English has been a big advantage and sometimes an essential requirement for better employment in both the public and private sectors. It was difficult to get ahead in society without a knowledge of English. In most urban settings in the country, teaching children to communicate in English has become quite fashionable even today. The western oriented education systems, media, television, tourist industry, foreign employment – all contribute to this peculiar change of attitude among our people in recent years. 

The most striking influence of all these developments and trends was the strong outer orientation of people, especially the youth. The heightened importance accorded to spoken English at the expense of Sinhala was clearly evident during this time, so much so, those who spoke English were considered by many as the more educated ones that should be emulated.

Also, there is the tendency among some people to give undue importance to those who could speak the English language.  They are considered to be smarter, refined and better calibre as opposed to those who could not speak English. It is common observation and experience generally in the urban settings that people who communicate in English draw more attention and respect and find it easy to get things done as compared to those communicating in Sinhala.  Such disregard and disrespect for the Sinhala language has the tendency to push other aspects of Sinhala culture to the background. Owing to the lack of a strong exposure to their own cultural values, learning English has made these misinformed and misguided people to move further away from their culture and values.

It is not the language per se but its cultural dimension that has become a serious problem in our country. There is a tendency among some of the English educated folk, to observe western mannerisms and attitudes and consider themselves to be more refined, more cultured and a step above the others. Often in superficial ways, they tend to observe peculiar mannerisms and deportment that are different to or contrary to our long established cultural norms. This unwarranted and ridiculous attitudinal changes that learning English or being able to speak the language has brought about not only tends to alienate this group of individuals but also has led to divisiveness among our youth. This trend has made some of our youth to shy away from their own language and culture. Speaking English or mixing English with Sinhala, or adding English words while speaking in Sinhala became the fashionable and accepted practices. This we commonly observe in some television programs to the dismay of many.  

There is no question that there are many positive aspects and much to be learnt from other cultures. However, unfortunately it is those superficial, worthless and undesirable aspects of other cultures that have been of appeal to some people. Often the immature, naïve, careless and slapdash individuals get trapped in these western superficialities. The youth of this period – 1980’s and 1990’s grew up at a time when there were extreme forms of political unrest and violence in the south and north. There was polarization of ethnic communities. The economic and social trends and developments at this time such as globalization without a human face, introduction of television characterized by highly commercialized and often crude programs, expansion of tourism industry without restrictions, and increase in overseas employment encouraged outer oriented attitudes and lifestyles of most youth and the disintegration of many families.

There is no dispute that on many counts, knowing English is highly advantageous, especially for our youth. A working knowledge of English has become a requirement in a number of fields, occupations and professions such as medicine and computing. It is very helpful in learning and improving many useful skills. It is a global language and over a billion people speak English to at least a basic level. Besides, it is one of six official languages of the United Nations.

Most youth of last two decades were not conversant with the history of their country. They do not know that our country is the oldest continually Buddhist country in the world. They do not know that history and culture of our people have been shaped and mounded by Buddhism since its introduction to the island over 2200 years ago. Being unaware of the richness of their cultural heritage, most youth have become indifferent to their culture. Our youth did not have proper role models to follow and genuine youth leaders to guide them. It is the greatest tragedy that befell our nation, because youth are our greatest resource and they determine the future of our country and its cultural heritage.

There is definitely no case for not learning English. But what is necessary to emphasize is that the Sinhala language needs equal emphasis as English. Undue emphasis on learning English will have the effect of undermining the Sinhala language faster. Equal importance should be accorded to the learning and use of Sinhala language.  Otherwise it will be a cultural genocide much like the effects of the propagation of western culture and evangelism in our country, in the name of globalization. The learning of Sinhala literature, Sinhala culture and history by our children is fundamental to bringing about an attitudinal change in our younger generation. This will make them develop a sense of pride in their outstanding cultural heritage. They will begin to be appreciative of the wholesome values of their glorious culture. And, this will help them to develop a lifestyle and livelihood that is beneficial to them and the society in general. 

GANGODAWILA SOMA THERA

Venerable Gangodawila Soma Thera who came to the limelight in the 1990’s, stands out as someone unique. He spearheaded the cause of reviving Buddhism and Sinhala culture, and restoring a sense of nationalism and pride among our people. He was a charismatic figure who earned island-wide popularity and reputation as a bold bhikkhu who campaigned for the Sinhala Buddhist cause at a time when many prominent luminaries of the Maha Sangha either kept silent or took up ambivalent positions.  At a time when the country was experiencing a burgeoning open market economy which was destructive of traditional values and increased terrorist activities by the racist Tamil LTTE, Venerable Soma was a forceful defender of the traditional way of life identified with the Sinhala Buddhists of the country.

One of his outstanding missions was to mould the younger generation to live according to the Dhamma. He guided the young and old to live according to Buddhist teachings. Thousands flocked to listen to his sermons, which were delivered effectively in simple Sinhala language. His mission was to mould the younger generation to live according to the Dhamma and soon they rallied round him in an organization called ‘Thurunu Saviya’. With the rapid change in cultural values and the escalating crime rate of the time, Soma Thera started various programmes to address the minds of the young.

Through his television and radio programs he highlighted how the practical side of Buddhist theories could help ordinary lives. Television stations clamoured to get him to discuss religious and social issues.  ‘Andurin Eliyata’ and ‘Nanapahana’ Sinhala television programmes soon became the most popular Sinhala television programmes that provide him with a sound platform to address an increasingly wide audience.

He had the extra power of enticing the audience, especially the young crowd. He was listened to by many and watched by many and read by many. Sinhala news media highlighted his campaigns. He strengthened the Jathika Sanga Sammelanaya headed by outstanding scholar monks. His untimely death had a strong impact on the mobilization and coming to the forefront of concerned Buddhists and prominent Bhikkhus of the country to confront the forces that were undermining the cultural ethos of the country and to bring about a change in the political culture of the country by restoring Buddhist norms and principles in running the affairs of the country. 

FEW ENCOURAGING DEVELOPMENTS

Our country is now witnessing the beginnings of a revivalist movement, especially with the eradication of Tamil LTTE terrorism and the dawn of an era of political stability where people across the country are enjoying long-awaited peace and freedom. What we see is a movement to revive cultural nationalism with a sound leadership given by a popularly elected Executive President, to save the country from disintegration, to halt the rapid erosion of social values, and to direct our society towards cultural rejuvenation based on traditional Buddhist values. We now have a leader who is not a product of the outer-oriented Colombo sub culture, but a true son of the soil. His concern is the welfare of the ordinary citizens, particularly the marginalized Sinhala Buddhists and the protection of our Buddhist culture and value system which are characterized by non-violence, tolerance and peaceful co-habitation with all communities who have made our country their home. 

Among the encouraging developments in the country during the last five years is the  introduction of the teaching of the History of Sri Lanka in schools which was stopped by the government in late 1970s. This has been made a compulsory subject for children right up to ‘O’ levels. Also evident is an increasing interest in development and promotion of Sinhala performing arts, especially traditional dances. The teaching and study of Sinhala Aesthetic studies has become generally popular school curriculum. Sinhala music and songs have received a boost owing to the influence of  television, radio and the increased production of CD’s, DVD’s and associated electronic devices, although the cultural pollution promoted by some of the Super Star” programmes and tele natya” have been subject to criticism.

The extreme degree of popularity attained by some Sinhala television programmes focused on discussions among reputed professionals on important national issues and Buddhist issues had a definite positive impact on reinforcing our traditional cultural norms, Sinhala language.  Another blessing in disguise during the last stages of military action against LTTE Tamil terrorists was the popularly watched on-site Sinhala television programmes highlighting the untold sacrifices and heroic deeds of our Sinhala youth in the war front. People were made to realize that these gallant Sinhala youth were engaged in activities that were focused on protecting not only our land and people but also, most importantly, the glorious national culture that forms the foundation of this great nation of ours. Among Sinhala songs during this period that attained the highest degree of popularity were those on our military personnel-  –

Muhudha debaa karanaa, Ahasa polova simbhinaa,

Ratata senehe pudhanaa, Leyin masin saduna…

Sabaa piyeki Daru dahaseki. Mulu ratema lay nayeki

Ape ekeki siya dahasaki , May dharu hata maw dahasaki

Yawwanaye may sagayaa, Apata noheki may karanaa

Ape ekeki may minihaa— May Minihaa…”

…Ratak Raajyayak Vatinaa –  May Minisaa

Api Venuven Api”,

uqyqo fonE lrkd

wyi fmdf,dj isUskd

rgg fifkfy mqokd

f,hskA uiska ieoqkd

An encouraging development well evident in our country in most recent times is the increased popularity of the use of meaningful Sinhala names for children and for government development programmes. Also, Sinhala publications by way of books, magazines and newspapers have increased in recent years.   

A somewhat awkward and somewhat silly development of recent years, especially with the popular use of the electronic media such as television and radio, is the tendency for people to struggle speaking formal written Sinhala instead of a readily understood form of Sinhala. This is often seen in television and radio interviews of ordinary people on common happenings. Both the interviewers and those interviewed resort unnecessarily to formal often grammatical Sinhala language thereby preventing people from expressing their views in a clear and direct manner. The spoken form of the Sinhala language is rich and most expressive and it is a pity why the spoken form is forgotten the moment one encounters a microphone.

There is much to be desired in the way Sinhala is used in most Sinhala television programmes.  The thematic content of some Sinhala television programmes are contrary to our cultural norms and values.  For some westernized Sinhala elements, both men and woman, it has become fashionable to mix English words while communicating in Sinhala and there appears to be undue importance attached to western and foreign attire among most youth appearing on television. Given the fact that most people are quite sensitive to what is promoted via television and that it has a strong impact on children and youth, it is important that this media is not permitted to resort to programmes that are contrary to our cultural norms.

FATE OF SINHALA LANGUAGE

Of some 7000 languages that exist in the world, about 2500 are expected to disappear from the face of the earth in a hundred years. This means 25 languages will disappear every year. Languages live when people use them in their daily lives. The preponderance of the Sinhala community continues to use their language at home, in schools, in public places such as temples and in communications with government and other establishments. Under these circumstances, in spite of emphasis on learning and use of the English language, Sinhala will continue to be used and the possibility of losing our language is remote.

The large majority of Sinhala people are Buddhists and the language of Buddhism in Sri Lanka is Sinhala. Buddhist culture and the Sinhala language are integral and inseparable components of our nation’s cultural heritage. The preservation and promotion of the Sinhala language is directly affected by the preservation and promotion of Sinhala Buddhist culture. Buddhist cultural activities, ceremonies and festivals are invariably conducted in Sinhala. Sinhala terminology characterizes all tangible items and aspects associated of Sinhala culture. Our Bhihhkus have been in the forefront in protecting and propagating the Sinhala language. All names and titles of our Bhikkus from ancient times have been exclusively Sinhala.  All Buddhist functions and activities in Buddhist temples are conducted in the Sinhala language. All Buddhist temples and establishments have Sinhala names.

In any event, the present President of our country has openly accorded the rightful prominent place to our national culture when he, for the first time in the history made his maiden speech at the United Nations General Assembly in the Sinhala language. His regime has given due prominence to the Sinhala language and the glorious visual cultural heritage of our nation in all important national functions.

There are no signs that Sinhala culture or its integral component the Sinhala language are in the process of decline and deterioration. No patriotic Sri Lankan will allow the defining element of their glorious cultural heritage to be sacrificed for the sake of accommodating foreign modes of the so called ‘modernization”, westernization’ and globalization” of our country. The Tamil language has not suffered as much as Sinhala language in its usage and development in recent times. It will continue to be studied in Tamilnadu and escape the challenges to which the Sinhala language is subject owing to the present day overemphasis on learning English and the negative cultural impacts of this development.

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane 

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

 

 


Copyright © 2019 LankaWeb.com. All Rights Reserved. Powered by Wordpress