Sinhabahu the Paradigmatic myth of the Sri Lankan Oedipus
Posted on December 23rd, 2010

Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge

 The mythological Story of Sinhabahu describes the origin of Sinhala nation. According to the mythology, the Princess Suppadevi of Vanga Kingdom was kidnapped by a ferocious lion and took her to the wilderness. While living with the lion she became pregnant and had twins. The newly born son was named Sinhabahu and daughter was named Sinha Seevali. The lion kept them in a cave and used to cover the entrance with a mighty rock.

  When Sinhabahu was sixteen years of age, he removed the megalith and escaped with his mother and the sister. They went to the Lala kingdom evading the lion. When the lion found that the family had escaped it became furious and attacked villages seeking Princess Suppadevi and two children. The desperate villagers pleaded the King to rescue them from the fierce lion.    The king of the Lala kingdom requested Sinhabhu to stop the menace caused by the lion. Young Sinhabahu went in search of the lion and killed him with a deadly arrow. The people praised Sinhabahu for rescuing them from the evil beast. He was rewarded as a hero. Prince Sinhabahu built a city called Sinhapura and married his sister Sinha Seevali. They had a son named Vijaya.  According to Mahawansa Prince Vijaya was the first recorded King of Sri Lanka from 543 BC to 505 BC.

 The Sinhabahu mythology has a cultural significance and it describes the social taboos such as patricide and incest.  Although its difficult to determine the authenticity of this fable, there are many speculations about the lion. The lion or the beast was the father of Prince Sinhabahu who kidnapped his mother from her clan. The lion could have been a metaphor for a strong man with a monstrous strength or a man with a Lion face (consider that fact that in Hansen’s disease lion-like appearance or leonine facies is evident)

 Prof Gananath Obeyesekere postulates that Sinhabahu myth is the paradigmatic myth of the Sri Lankan Oedipus. In his outstanding publication, The Work of Culture Symbolic Transformation in Psychoanalysis and Anthropology Prof Obesekara states that the Sinhabahu myth is striking for the absence of reference to remorse or any ethical qualms for father killing.

 There are many mythological stories like Sinhabahu that could be found in the ancient cultures.   Dr Wijaya Dissanayaka “”…” Consultant Psychiatrist and the eminent lecturer was on the view that most of these stories narrate the killing of the beast or the dragon by the hero, which truly depicts the oedipal conflict.

 The ancient English poem Beowulf and Sinhabahu has some similarities. The Beowulf – the oldest surviving epic poem in the English language that was written in 700 AD evolved through many retellings before it was written down. Beowulf narrates an epic story of a prince who kills a terrible monster known as Grendel and frees the people. From Sinhabahu to Beowulf and to the modern day Star Wars (the clash between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader) symbolize the conflict between farther and son. All these stories have one thing in common. The son is challenging the father’s authority projecting his   primal hate towards the father and eventually commenting a patricide.

 Sigmund Freud was fascinated by the greatest works of world literature such as Oedipus Rex, the King, Hamlet, and the Brothers Karamazov that dramatically describe the unconscious motives of patricide. Oedipus Rex, written by the Hellenic poet Sophocles describes the patricide and incest motif. In the psychoanalytic perspective, it was transitional dynamic of the “ego” overcoming the “superego.

 In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) Freud wrote that it is impossible to get “away from the assumption that man’s sense of guilt springs from the Oedipus complex and was acquired at the killing of the father by the brothers banded together.

 Freud never had a chance to read the Sinhabahu legend, but Carl Jung might have read it when he came to Sri Lanka. However, there were no any psychoanalytical writings based on Sinhabahu by Jung.

 Sigmund Freud expressed   that parricide was the great crime at the base of all social evolution. In Totem and Taboo (1913), Freud’s cultural speculation on the Primal Father -the dominant male (The Lion in the Sinhabahu’s instance) Freud suggested that eventually the displaced sons of the primal father banded together and killed their oppressive patriarch.  Freud was on the view that in primitive societies, the head of the family gave free reign to the instinctual manifestations of his aggression at the expense of all others.  Freud luridly wrote about the patricide and its unconscious motive. He made an emphasis on the term “Vatermord”  or murder of the father by the son.  Freud further states that the hero commits the deed unintentionally.

 Dr. Vamlk Volkan Professor of Psychiatry of the University of Virginia luminously writes on the killing of the totem animal or the patricide thus.

 Long ago primitive people lived in small tribes led by despotic leaders. With his unlimited power, the leader or father considered all the women of the tribe his exclusive property. If the young men of the tribe, or sons, expressed jealousy, they were killed, castrated or excommunicated. Their fate unbearable, the young men joined forces, killed the father and ate him. But the father’s influence would not disappear. In death, he became more powerful. Haunted by the ghost of their father, the sons replaced him with a horrible and strong animal, a totem. It absorbed the sons’ ambivalence””‚the simultaneous hate and love  they were experiencing for their dead father. Since the ghost of their father lived in the totem, however, the sons were still not free of his influence and their hate for him, as well as their love for him, continued.  Totemism is thus both a religious and a social system” (  Hence, the totem animal was used to maintain two useful prohibitions””‚one against killing the totem animal (patricide) and the other against having sexual relations with women of the same totem or clan (incest).

(Totem and Taboo in Romania: A Psychopolitical Diagnosis –   Dr. Vamlk Volkan)

 In Totem and Taboo Freud, profoundly analyzed the incest in the ancient human societies and intricately discussed the emotional ambivalence associated with totem objects. He saw a similarity between the obsessional rituals associated with totem clanship and their taboos. According to the Sinhabahu legend, the Prince Sinhabahu violated two social taboos. He killed the Lion (totem animal / father) and had a sexual relation with Sinha Seewali “”…” his sister the woman of the same totem that could be described as incest.  

 Freud hypothesized that the existence of a primitive horde whose father is omnipotent; the murder of the father by the group of brothers, leading to the growth of the totemic clan, and the conditions for this possibility of thought. The legend Sinhabahu gave the totemism, -system of belief in which the Sinhala Nation got a mystical relationship with a spirit being -the Lion and it became the eternal symbol of the Sinhala Nation.

3 Responses to “Sinhabahu the Paradigmatic myth of the Sri Lankan Oedipus”

  1. Fran Diaz Says:

    I am glad that Dr Jayatunge calls the story ‘mythology’ as scientifically speaking cross species cannot bring forth off spring, i.e. a human woman’s ovum cannot be fertilized by the sperm of a lion or any mammal of another species.

  2. Lorenzo Says:

    Even the incest story is a fabricated one. Incest was not practiced in Belgal or Orissa at that time so it is not likely to have happened. We are not talking about Adam and Eve where incest happened many a time within their family.

  3. Fran Diaz Says:

    Also, it is possible that this so called Lion in the myth was really a humanoid like creature with unruly hair all over its body making it appear like a Beast … who knows !

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