TO MY MIND…. Part 1
Posted on November 30th, 2022

KAMALIKA PIERIS

To my mind, said one writer, the most important question to be resolved is whether this Country is to be regarded as a Sinhala Buddhist State where all the other ethnic, religious groups are treated as guests, or as a multi- ethnic- multi-religious, secular country where all citizens have equal rights.

The above statement contains the following keywords‘ Sinhala, ‘Buddhist’, ‘state’, ‘secular’  ‘ethnic’,’ religion’ ‘multi- ethnic/multi-religious’ ‘citizens’ and  ‘rights’ .

SINHALA

The word Sinhala has an important place in Sri Lanka. It is the name of the island Sihaladvipa, the name of its people, Sinhala and the name of its unique language, Sinhala. There is nothing odd about this. It is the same in France, Germany, Japan, China, and Italy, to name a few countries.

SINHALADVIPA

Throughout its history, the island has had just one unique name, Sihaladvipa.  This name was modified by other countries, to suit their own language. China called it Shih- tsu-kuo, Land of lions, Arabs called it Serendib, Portugal called it Ceilao, Dutch called it Zeilan and the British called it Ceylon. These are all variants of Sinhala. They are not different names for Sri Lanka. The signature name of the island was always Sinhaladvipa.

Sri Lanka was also occasionally, called Ratnadeepa, and Tambrapanni (Taprobane,) .These are not names at all, they are descriptions used in place of the name. Ratnadeepa refers to the island’s gems Tambrapanni (Taprobane) to its copper appearance. The word Lanka frequently appears in the ancient texts with reference to the island. Lanka means Island.

In the 1970s, the name of the island was changed to ‘Sri Lanka’. Lanka means island. Sri’ is used in South Asia as an honorific. The name change was intended to eliminate the unique identity of the country and its proud history. ‘Even Ceylon is better than Sri Lanka’ said a critic. Sri Lanka should now revert to its original name. If Sinhaladvipa is too long it could be shortened to Sinhale.

SINHALA LANGUAGE

Sinhala language is one of Sri Lanka‘s contributions to world civilization. Linguists have a high regard for Sinhala. They say that Sinhala is a unique Indo-Aryan language, with special grammatical features.

 Sinhala is not the    primitive backward language that the westernized elite think it is. TheSinhala   language had been the national language of Sri Lanka for over one thousand years. In the time of the Sinhala kings, Sinhala language had been used for the full spectrum of activities, administration, religion, trade and commerce, science and technology. It   had a well developed literature, both prose and poetry. It is phonetic and musical. Buddhagosa called it a ‘manorama basa’.

The language   survived 450 years of foreign rule, because the population   remained deeply loyal to it. After 1815, the whole island was administered in English. But Sinhala did not disappear. It continued in local use.  It was used in conversation, where it was known as a ‘vernacular’. Literature in Sinhala continued, both prose and poetry. There were scholarly debates on Sinhala grammar such as the Saw sat dam vadaya of the 1880s. Sinhala kept pace with modern developments. When printing was introduced to Sri Lanka, Sinhala newspapers and pamphlets came out in print.

When the island got back its independence the public wanted to see Sinhala back in place. The 1956 government made Sinhala the sole official language. This is self determination. It must be recognized as such. It was also a historic decision and a badly needed one.  The place of Sinhala in modern Sri Lanka is secured thanks to 1956.   The emphasis on Swabhasha brought a hitherto submerged class onto center stage and upward mobility. That is also important.

The first purpose of ‘Sinhala only’, however, was to ensure that the internal administration of the island was done in Sinhala. During British rule, the domestic administration was in English. Public administration and law courts worked in English. Telegrams were sent in English.   The total number of persons in the Island who were able to read and write English in  1946, according  to the Census of Ceylon 1946  was 367,622, or 6.3% of the population (aged five years and over).

In 1956 Sinhala replaced English as the language of administration. There was now a direct link between citizen and government.  Subsequently, court proceedings were held in Sinhala. In Parliament too, more debates were conducted in Sinhala.  These were some of the permanent gains of 1956 . They must be applauded.

Sinhala modernized quickly. Official glossaries were prepared for various subjects and control was exerted over the language. The vocabulary expanded steadily. Sinhala had a  long list of root words, ready for use in the modern period. Today, the intelligentsia have no difficulty in explaining technical matters in fluent Sinhala .The daily Sinhala news on television  show how  well  speakers communicate scientific and commercial information in Sinhala.   A Sinhala term was easily   created for Rapid Antigen Test during the Covid pandemic.

 Primary education was conducted in Sinhala from the late 1940s without much opposition because of a notion that primary education was best done in the ‘mother tongue’. UNESCO supported mother tongue instruction in early childhood and primary education from 1953. In 1999 UNESCO declared 21 February as the International Mother Language Day .So ‘mother tongue’ seems to have come to stay.

Swabhasha education was extended to secondary schools without much fuss. Then it went into university, where Swabhasha came under fire. I was in the university at that time, and though the undergrads thought they could reject English, the administration and the staff did not. At no time was it intended to convert higher education to Sinhala. That is why there are no university level texts in Sinhala.

Instead University of Ceylon started an English course for Swabhasha undergraduates. They were to study full time for their demanding degree and also, simultaneously   acquire a sound knowledge of English. An impossible task. Students ignored the English and concentrated on their studies.

However, many acquired English competence in science subjects where only a limited use of English was needed, the terminology was controlled and the discussion grooved. In the humanities and social sciences, the use of English was very subtle.   A person new to English would have found it difficult to penetrate. Even those who knew English found the stuff difficult.

The emphasis on Swabhasha brought a hitherto submerged class onto center stage and onto upward mobility. This displaced the westernized elite and they resented it. The separatist movement has latched on to this resentment and is using it.

Today there is a calculated attack on Sinhala language under the guise of concern for higher education and research. The westernized elite have a deep resentment towards Sinhala language and use higher education to ventilate it. They want Sinhala abolished in higher education and replaced by English.   They do not   advocate a year’s immersion in English before the university course commences, which is the obvious solution. Students must come in knowing English. Those who don’t must be kept out.

 What this group secretly wishes and do not dare utter , is to see Sinhala eliminated permanently in Sri Lanka and English enthroned again.  But this will not be easy. The public remain deeply loyal to Sinhala for cultural reasons.  This loyalty has not been sufficiently recognized. It deserves more attention.

BUDDHISM.

Buddhism came to Sri Lanka in the time of Gautama   Buddha who lived in 6th  century BC in north India. There is evidence of this and scholars agree on the possibility. There was plenty of trade, travel and communication between the Ganges region of North India and Sri Lanka during this time .Sri Lanka could not have been ignorant of the Buddhist philosophy then gaining currency in north India. This would have been a hot topic at the time.  

Ven.  Mahinda did not bring Buddhism to Sri Lanka in 3rd century BC. It was already there. Ven. Mahinda    came to entrench the existing Buddhism, by establishing the Sinhala Sangha and starting monasteries. Ven. Mahinda brought the Upasampada and Sanghamitta brought a Bo sapling.

The visit of Ven. Mahinda would have had the standing of a high level diplomatic mission. King Devanampiyatissa would have been present at Anuradhapura to greet Ven. Mahinda. He was  the son of Emperor Dharmasoka of India.  King Devanampiyatissa would not have been running about chasing a deer in a forest.  The media should therefore stop announcing that Buddhism came to Sri Lanka with Mahinda in the 3rd century BC and stop repeating each Poson, the improbable, absurd story attached to it.

Sri Lanka soon became a recognized centre for all three major schools of Buddhism, Theravada, Mahayana and Tantra. The centre was Abhayagiri. The Buddhist commentaries in Sinhala were considered special and Buddhist scholars were sent from India and China to look at them. ( Buddhagosa, Fa Hsien)

Sri Lanka helped to strengthen Theravada Buddhism in Asia, starting with Cambodia and spreading to Burma, Thailand and Laos.  Sinhala bhikkunis went to China  to spread Mahayana and one bhikkhuni went to Tibet to help with Tantra. The preservation and dissemination of Buddhism by Sri Lanka is a major   contribution of Sri Lanka to world civilization. This must be emphasized. (Continued)

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