Attacks on the Mahawamsa.
Posted on August 4th, 2019

Chandre Dharmawardana,

This is a very good analysis by Susantha Goonatilleke.

We should agree that Sri Lanka, even more than India, has a strong historical memory, and the Mahawamsa falls in line with the Gilgamesh, the Old Testament, and the writings of Herodotus. The Indian Epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata contain far more myth than history.

However, it is not clear if the modern Sri Lankans have any sort of historical memory or interest in it.

In fact, the modern public seems to be carried away by the nonsensical beliefs of there having been a hela civilization where they had flying machines, aerodromes and Ravana flying about in his private “dandumonaras”. The ignorance and uncritical mindset of our public is difficult to comprehend given that it is more literate than most south Asian countries.

The Mahawamsa content is mythical in referring to the early period because it was written in the 5th Century, and so, the material pertaining to the pre-5th-century era, and especially to times BC, the arrival of Vijaya, etc., would have been a great challenge for a writer 10 centuries later. Even in the 21st century, we are still not sure how John F Kennedy was killed!

And yet, except for the time periods of the early kings, much of the rest of the chronology is amazingly accurate and used by Indian historians to date their chronologies. What Ven. Mahanama had done is/was amazing, because he lived in an age when libraries, books, and records, or tools like the internet that we take for granted did not exist. Knowledge was mainly memorized and “recited”  knowledge.

In addition, Mahawamsa was probably an example of an early historical novel of epic proportions, where Dutugamunu was the hero, and there are clearly many sub-stories brought into the story from other sources and MADE part of the story to embellish the character of Dutugamunu. Thus the story that Elara had a bell to indicate injustice, and that a cow rang the bell to indicate that her calf had been killed by the king’s son or relative, etc., are also found in Indian texts and attributed to (other) an Indian Monarch or Rishi-rulers.

Lanka in the 5th century and Anuradhapura were famous international places and had the same status as Benares, Rome, or London. Benares was probably chosen by the Buddha as the preferred site for his first sermon because it was the crossroads junction of the Silk route (Est-West and North-South linking to the southern seaports like Mahatheetha (Mannar)). So Buddhism launched at the main carrefour of the Silk route was meant to go forth to the wide world.

Mannara and Anuradhapura  together on the Malwathu-Oya [a name now Tamilized to “Aruvi Aru” on our maps, see under Aruvi Aru in my compilation of place names:] connected with the silk road and the east-west sea route, and the Mahawamsa was a “top seller” text of the era, with the bookmaking its way to the East and West along the silk route. It was the first Pali Epic poem; monks and scholars learned the text in verse by heart and took it to other cultures. They adapted it into their own languages.

Instead of giving due credit to this great achievement of the Ancient Lankans, the text has been vilified, mainly by the political Tamil nationalists and even by Sihala writers who follow the lead of the Mahawamsa bashers and left intellectuals (Read Leslie Goonawardena’s “People of the Lion”).

In the 1930s, when the historicity of the Mahawamsa was attacked by Ponnambalam and others, Geiger himself came forward to write in support of the historicity of the Mahawamsa and its value as an independent source of Indo-Asian history. I think the article appeared in the RAS journal circa 1933. In the early  1960s, I saw a Sinhala adaptation of the article that my father had, published in a local tabloid.  He had worked with Baron Jayatilleke in the 1930s, and so much material  was known to an earlier generation which  had a better assessment of the Mahawamsa’s  place in

the context of world literature and world history.

Dr. Jane Russell in her truly valuable book on “Communal Politics under the Donoughmore commission, 1931-1948 mentions how Tamil politicians since the 1900s felt very badly that they lacked a similar Epic text as the Mahawamsa, and the historical disadvantage they suffered because of the Mahavamsa in their claim that the Dravidians were the rightful first settlers of the Land. Thus,  nationalist Tamils began an onslaught on the Mahawamsa, and the so-called  “Mahawamsa Mentality”.

Already in the 1930s, G. G. Ponnambalam and others attacked the Mahawamsa in a two-pronged way (i) they began to claim that the Mahawansa is a stupid document riddled with nonsense, and they would focus on the Sinhabahu and Lion story and the impossibility of the bestiality mentioned in the story. (ii) On the other hand, they also tried to claim that the Mahawamsa is actually a document adapted from a Tamil Ur-text where Vijaya was Tamilized to “Vijayan”, Kashyapa was “Kasi-Appan” etc., whereby a Tamilized historical narrative was brought in. This was linked to the claim that the North was a land of Tamil Buddhism but now masquerading as a part of Sinhala Buddhism. So history has become completely politicized.

In fact, a whole new version of Ceylon History was published by Tambimuttu in the early 1940s, and this greatly affected young S. J. V. Chelvanayagam who became a champion of the idea of Lanka as an ancient Tamil kingdom.

The first Sinhala-Tamil riot happened in August 1939 when G. G. Ponnambalam attacked the Sinhalese, as well as the Mahawamsa at a meeting in Nawalapitiya. He allegedly declared that the Sinhalese are a “mongrel”  race arising from Tamils who had bastard children with low caste women, and declared that the Mahawamsa was a fabrication.  He assumed that the audience was mainly Tamils from Nawalapitiya. When the audience rioted and attacked him, he realized that they were mostly Sinhalese. The riots spread like wildfire to other cities and even to Colombo when the British Raj clamped hard and stopped it in 24 hours, unlike the communal riots under SWRD or JRJ, when law and order were not restored and the mobs were allowed to do whatever they wanted.

The fact that G.G. Ponnambalam was one of the first instigators of racism and communalism, the fact that the first riots happened in 1939 etc., are suppressed in today’s narrative.  The narrative of the Eelamists and the narrative of the English speaking anti-Sinhala-language lobby have been that all the problems of Sri Lanka arose from the 1956 SWRD revolution. Bandaranaike’s mishandling of the language issue in an opportunistic way certainly contributed, but the root causes already existed, and the problems would have arisen  in the 1940s, if not for the intervention of World War II and the adroit and eminently practical-minded politics of D. S. Senanayake, as seen in the way he crushed Ponnambalam in the face of the Soulbury Commission, and then saved Ponnambalam from political oblivion, and also reconciling with the Tamil lobby by giving him a place in the cabinet. This also marginalized the fringe represented by SJV Chelvanayagam. SWRD reversed the situation and gave SJV a chance to become mainstream.

There is no translation of Jane Russell’s book into Sinhala, and the book is virtually never mentioned today as it is an irritant for the pro-Eelamist TNA-Ranil led political program and constitution-making a la Jayampathi. The book is out of print.

The current narrative attributes all evils to the “Mahawamsa mindset” of the “Sinhala Buddhists”. But the “Sinhala Buddhist” scholars have not made any attempt to correct this lopsided narrative. Actually, a Tamil writer, Sebastian Rasalingam had written more effectively than Sinhala- speaking writers! The narrative is as racist as claiming that all blacks are criminals or that all Muslims are jihadists. Instead, the self-anointed  “liberal-minded” Lankans and their leaders, as well as the “left intellectuals”  have embraced the aforesaid narrative.

The Leftist leaders suppressed the teaching of history in schools, and then, in more recent times,  Chandrika Bandaranaike and her lieutenant Mangala Samaraweera basically worked hard against the “Mahawamsa mentality”, creating the “Sudu-Nelum” program, etc. Chandrika appointed like-minded people to  Sri Lanka’s TV and Sinhala BBC etc. During Chandrika’s watch, the power brokers followed this ideology, and the same narrative is still alive and well today.  Strangely, the Jathika Hela Urumaya which fielded strongly nationalist monks to the Parliament, now personified by Champika Ranawaka, seems to have no problem in being part of the anti-Mahawamsa narrative, while Ven. Ratana plays an ambiguous role as he probably wants his perks of office through the UNP national list.

The externally funded NGOs of today, like those of Jehan Perera and Pakiyasoothy S, or the International Centre for Ethnic studies under its current leadership are pushing the same program forward,  probably with strong outside funding.

Since funding is crucial to everything, a future government must insist that all NGO funding must be channeled through the central bank so that there is financial transparency as to who is paid what. 
Of course, even that may not be sufficient, as one of the political

monks (See Shamindra Ferdinando; Secret ‘payments’ and financial scams)

  The western funding is now being outstripped by pro-Sharia funding from the Middle East.  Shamindra Ferdinando’s account does not as yet include a discussion of this pro-Sharia funding.

Chandre Dharmawardana,

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