Sri Lanka Anthropology: challenge to truth and sovereignty
Posted on June 16th, 2011

Susantha Goonatilake

The Sri Lanka anthropology enterprise associated with the likes of Obeyasekara, Tambiah, Kapferer and Seneviratna not only distorted Sri Lanka but distorted it in a particular way to undermine our attempt to regain Sri Lanka’s intellectual feet which had been cut off by the Portuguese. Such anthropology writing targeted to a Western audience, that was oblivious about local reality has gone further than simple distortion. It has at times demanded foreign intervention in the country. The colonial missionary position was back.

We have to approach this Uncle Tom, house nigger (in the language of Afro American intellectuals) style of anthropology distortions by the likes of Obeyasekara, Tambiah, Kapferer and Seneviratna in the historical light of the devastation of local centres of learning by the Portuguese and subsequent events. In the 16th century, the Portuguese barbarians under direct instructions of the Pope destroyed all the major centres of learning in the country. But fortunately many of our documents and practices existed in south-east Asia to which region these had been transported by the Sinhalese from circa the 10th century to the 15th century. After that major cultural genocide by the Portuguese, we began to attempt lifting ourselves against colonial odds. Key landmarks were the restoration of Buddhist learning and practice brought back from south-east Asia – as from Siam and Myanmar and the establishment of the new Nikayas.

Even though these events had started, even up to the early 19th century, there were no temples allowed around Colombo. After the 1830s key events began to occur. Later more than 40 scholar monks established intellectual links around the world. These links were far more intellectually interesting and valid than the anthropology witch doctor mumbo-jumbo of recent years. Valane Sri Siddhartha established in 1841, the Parama Dhamma Cetiya at Ratmalana which became the Centre of the Buddhist revival.  Of those who studied there, Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala established in 1873, the Vidyodaya Pirivena; Ven. Ratmalane Sri Dhammaloka established in 1875, the Vidyalankara Pirivena.
(Seneviratna would denigrate and distort Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara).

The Panadura Vaadaya was a culmination of a series of challenges to Christians. At Panadura, the Christians were trounced, and there were reports in the outside world leading to contacts with Olcott who had read these debates.

In the 19th and 20th centuries much of the Buddhist intellectual achievements and discussions were done by locals. And they had an impact in the external world. One should just read Guruge’s over 1000 page compilation of correspondence to swiftly realise that the direction in the transactions between the West and us in Buddhism was from us to the world. Our anthropologists have not read or had the capacity to digest these obvious facts. Obeyasekara perversely put this direction upside down to mislead the world. Obeyasekara deliberately distorted history and downgraded the importance of the central work by local Buddhists by putting as origins of current Buddhist ideas Olcott and Blavatsky.Olcott and Blavatsky actually came as acolytes of monks not as their teachers.

The likes of Obeyasekara, Tambiah and Seneviratna cover the periods of our attempt to regain our intellectual strength and in their colonial interpretations falsify and denigrate the process. Obeyasekara invents a Protestant Buddhism giving primacy to Olcott and Blavatsky, Tambiah lies about the more recent period and Seneviratna misleads us on the role of Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Pirivena. Reading through their writings one finds gross ignorance of what really happened in Sri Lanka. And they have been tied to institutes like the ICES (ICES is associated with the Sinhala as cannibals link). ICES, if you remember, also pushed for foreign control of Sri Lanka with its director Mani deported for antinational activity. In their falsifications, the colonial anthropologists discounted the attempts of over 150 years to get back the heritage lost by Portuguese barbarities while the colonial anthropologists prepared for a new foreign domination which some of them literally signed into. Their role paralleled the missionaries of colonial times.

The major writings of Obeyasekara that distorts Sri Lanka is his depiction of the Buddhist transformations in the 19th and 20th centuries as that of Protestant Buddhism brought in by “Protestants” Olcott and Blavatsky. This theme has been accepted as true by many and has led to a chain of citations in the international literature legitimizing its validity (thus Bond 1988, Brow1996, Holt 1991, Kapferer 1988, Kapferer 1991, Malalgoda 1976, Mcgowan, 1992, Prothero, 1996, Roberts 1994, Spencer 1990, Stirrat 1992 )^^[i] <#_edn1>. But Olcott and Blavatsky came to Sri Lanka to learn from us on bended intellectual knees.Olcott writing in 1879 to Venerable Piyaratana Tissa said:

“I pass among ignorant Western people as a thoroughly well informed man, but in comparison with the learning possessed by my Brothers in the oriental priesthoods, I am as ignorant as the last of their neophytes … To you as you must we turn, and say,: Fathers, brothers, the Western world is dying … come and help, rescue it. Come as missionaries, as teachers, as disputants, preachers … Persuade good, pure, learned, eloquent Buddhists to come here and preach, you will sweep the country before …” (Quoted in Guruge, ed. 1984, pp. 338-9).

These are the actual words of a Protestant who according to Obeyasekara transformed the content of our thinking. The reality was just the oppositeto Obeyasekara’s fiction. (Watch this space on the recolonisation attempt by anthropologists. To be contd.).

*References: Susantha Goonatilake: *

/A 16^th Century Clash of Civilizations: the Portuguese Presence in Sri Lanka/ (Yapa, Colombo 2010);

/Anthropologizing Sri Lanka: A Civilizational Misadventure/ (Indiana University Press, 2001);

/Recolonisation: Foreign funded NGOs in Sri Lanka /(Sage 2006)/;/

*”White Sahibs, Brown Sahibs: Tracking Dharmapala”/Journal of the
Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka/ New Series pp 53-136 LIV *2008

*”Locating South Asian Anthropology within the Shift to *Asia” in N.
K. Das, V. R. Rao (ed) /Identity, Cultural Pluralism and State,/
Macmillan India Publication, New Delhi 2009

*”Border Crossings in Anthropology and Buddhist Philosophy” in
*/Philosophy and Anthropology:  Border Crossing and
Transformations/Ananta Kumar Giri and John Clammer (eds) (forthcoming)

*”The Construction of the Panadura /Vaadaya/ as Buddhist
Fundamentalism”,/Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka/
New Series Vol. XLIX 2004 pp 87-118 Special Number on the Panadura
/Vaadaya/*

“‘Buddhist Protestantism’: The Reverse Flow of Ideas from Sri Lanka to the West” /Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka/ New Series Vol. XLV 2002 pp 35-71

“Cultural Imperialism: A Short History, Future and a Post Script from the Present” in /Cultural Imperialism: essays on the political economy of cultural domination/ / edited by Bernd Hamm and Russell Smandych.
Peterborough, Broadview Press, 2005. pp 33-52

2 Responses to “Sri Lanka Anthropology: challenge to truth and sovereignty”

  1. geoff Says:

    If it is Sudarshana Seneviratna, I’m totally disappointed in him. We need a professional with love for the work, the country and history to hold the high position especially at a time when the enemies of the nation are ganging up to create a rubbish history of their own.

  2. AnuD Says:

    Some Sri Lankan Intellectuals criticize Olcott and Blavatsky, I did not understand. Now, I can follows what could be happening.

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