VIOLENCE : MYTHS AND REALITY
@ By Kumudu Kumara, University of British Columbia / - 9 Jun 1990
Posted LL - Dec 2008
Myths play an important role in human life both personal and collective. On the collective side there are myths related to nations, races, castes, religions etc which serve to group human beings under these mostly primordial categories, providing members of those groups feelings of security and an ideological basis for unity against the 'others' outside these groups, which may be a foreign power in the case of a nation, or another race, ethnic group, caste etc.
In Sri Lanka, the Sinhala Buddhists have the myth of the Sinhalese of Aryan origins being the first settlers in the island. On the basis of this myth the Tamil community in the country has no equal status with the Sinhalese both in their historical claims to settlement in the island as well as in their origin of birth which is Dravida not Aryan.
The notion of a non-violent ancient Sinhala Buddhist society is in my view, is a similar myth which some people may try to use to cleanse the collective Sinhala Buddhist psyche of the large blood stains which it has been collecting in the post independence era. Let us examine the validity of this claim of a non-violent ancient Sinhala Buddhist society.
How did we so easily forget that the very notion of the origin of the Sinhala nation as illustrated by the myth of Aryan origin is full of violence from the very beginning. If we take the myth as depicting Sinhala consciousness, what does it reveal to us? The Sinhala nation is said to have originated from a man born in the union of a lion and a princess (defenders of the flag note, please). The son of this lion-human union not only killed the primal father, but espoused his siter. Pricnce Vijaya was the child born out of this marriage between brother and sister (Sinhabahu and Sinhaseevali), whose arrival in Sri Lanka was due to the fact he was banished from India for misconduct. What does the manner in which Vijaya conquered Sri Lanka from its original inhabitants Yaksa indicate? Didn't he slaughter the Yaksa leaders with the help of Kuweni who was later banished into the jungle with the two children born to her from Vijaya, because Vijaya wanted to marry a princess from India to give birth to the Sinhala nation! Beginning from this, our ancient chronicles have enough evidence of violent power struggles between kings, a classic example being the case of prince Kashyapa who slowly buried his father king alive in the mud embankment of Kalawewa to get his father's 'wealth'.
But it is apparent that what the chroniclers who are Buddhist monks tell us is only part of the story given their own involvement in these power struggles as part of the ruling triad consisting the king, the nobility and the monastic community. Moreover, for the same reason of being involved in power, the ancient history of Sri Lanka written by Buddhist monks do not reveal much of the state repression against the civilian population. However, despite these limitations these historical sources directly and indirectly reveal various forms of violence in ancient Sri Lankan society.
Violence can take various forms. Ancient (and post colonial to a lesser extent) Sri Lankan society was based on a caste hierarchy which served the elite of the society, the triadic ruling group of non-producers. There was compulsory services to the state which all able bodied men had to perform free of charge. Peasants cultivated land of the landlords, and paid rents, taxes etc and personal services to the state and the lords. The monastic community which was the largest single institution of private property (!) had slaves in its service (!!), in addition to the peasants and craftsmen. There have been kings who imposed unjust taxes on people "squeezing out the people as sugar cane in a sugar mill" according to the chronicler. Then instances are reported when kings had to interfere to prevent abuses of authority violations of their tenurial rights, harsh treatment and undue exactions which included seizure of land from the peasants, levying taxes higher than the customary rate, and demands for extra services during religious festivals, all committed by temple authorities or the Buddhist monks!!! (see, Plough and the Robe by Leslie Gunawardena, Professor of History, Peradeniya, and The History of Buddhism in Ceylon, by Valpola Rahula to read on how Buddhist monks got together with the kings and the nobility to exploit the poor peasants and slaves).
The system of punishment in ancient times included 'dasa wada' or the ten varieties of torture! During the Kandy period there is evidence of flogging people through the four streets as punishment for murder. "The king avenged those guilty of treason at will, exonerating them or punishing the entire family, (in Robert Knox's language) 'it may be kills them together, or gives them all away for slaves'". "'High crimes' were generally acknowledged to be subject to the somewhat arbitrary sanctions of public justice emanating directly or indirectly from the king (e.g., fine, imprisonment, flogging, mutilation, degradation, banishment, or death)". 'Mutilation appeared to have been founded on the principle of "an eye for an eye". Thus an arm was amputated for robbing the Treasury, the tongue pulled out for slander, and so on. Such penalties were rare in late Kandyan times, although the last king imposed such penalties on some alleged spies of the British'.
'A 'hakuru' caste girl who had been raped by a 'paduva' man was put to death ceremonially by one of her own kinsmen, giving expression to a collective feeling of moral indignation, and so restored the social euphoria'. 'By killing her, the family was saved from degradation to a lower caste'.
'A particular gruesome case is recorded of a 'mohottala' who placed a suspected robber in the stocks all night, having beaten him with red-hot tongs in the hope of eliciting a confession. ....the alleged robber was tortured by irons being thrust up his finger nails. He further said in his evidence that "a stick was thrust up my fundamental, and insects put on my naval and covered with a coconut shell so as to oblige them to endeavour to escape through the body." The adhikarama stated that this mode of torture by insects were considered very severe, but not illegal. The man's guilt had to be established at all costs'(All these examples on the Kandy period are from Sinhalese Social Organization by Ralph Pieris, who discusses the legal system in the Kandyan period in detail with documented evidence). Then what about the violence evident in all types of sorcery, hunium, bali-tovil etc. which according to anthropologists are connected to the notion of Sinhala Buddhist state. I don't have to describe all the violent imagery in huniyam, towil etc., which requests deities to 'grind' the enemy in a manner similar to grinding stone or 'miris gala'. (see, works on the subject by Gananath Obeysekera, and Bruce Kepferer, especially the latter's recent book on nationalism and violence in Sri Lanka and Australia).
Then consider violence within the family. The highly authoritarian structure of the average rural family in which children are disciplined with heavy arm tactics, crushing any independence. All the 'wewal kotu naran siyambala athu' which was used to discipline children, even in the school. 'Dimi gotu', 'kadi gul' and 'gas bendili' treatment given to errant children. What about wife beating which is quite common, especially among the poor.
Are all these things learnt by the Sri Lankans, Sinhala Buddhists from foreign devils? However unconvincing, for a moment let us say, yes. But then how come the Sinhala Buddhist mind which has a history of 2500 years so easily succumb to the influence of foreign devils?
Well, the point I want to make is this: There is no nation in the world which can claim to be non-violent. Not even Sinhala Buddhist society which is based on a non-violent religion. Violence in pre-capitalist societies are related to the nature of their existence in which extremely hierarchical societies based on private ownership of land evolved to facilitate surplus extraction not by increasing productivity through technological advancement but by sheer intensity of labour which had to be obtained by force. Social organisms such as family caste, kinship and religious institutions were instruments for facilitating this process. Otherwise how could one explain, Buddhist monastic community in ancient Sri Lanka being the single largest institution of private property. In Sri Lanka non-violent Buddhist religion underwent a transformation to become the religion of the landlords which justified the exploitation of the peasantry by the landlords through concepts such as Karma and pacified the peasantry to a certain extent.
Now, I can see all the self appointed protectors of the purity of Sinhala Buddhist nation coming forward to condemn me as a traitor and a Sri Lankan basher. However, to be self critical is the only path to move forward and promote the positive aspects of our society and cultures while learning from mistakes of the past and also from others. However much we may wish, our current problems cannot be hidden or wished away under a past glorified through myths. It just does not happen. The sooner we realise the better. Without clinging on to negative aspects of Sri Lankan Buddhism fashioned by landlord monastic community, the Sinhala Buddhists will have to learn from principles of equality, egalitarianism, compassion (karuna, metta, mudita, daya) etc., without spreading hatred and bigotry, putting Buddha into shame.
If we are anxious to see our country develop and make advances comparable to the rest of the humanity, bringing peace and prosperity to our land and higher standards of living to our people, it is high time that we give up living on myths and be realistic and rational, and modern in outlook.
It is imperative that we have to find a reasonable political solution to the ethnic problem in our country, which befits the civilised state of human development in which we live today. The only solution is to accept the right to self determination - that is the right to determine their own affairs economically, politically and culturally on the basis of democracy - of the ethnic communities and negotiate a political settlement which the present government is moving towards.
It is also necessary to understand the historical process of underdevelopment in certain areas and social groups in the south of the country, for the causes of which some of us tend to find a convenient scapegoat in the Tamil community.
The recent report of the Presidential Youth Commission highlight many economic and political issues which led to the frustration of an entire generation of youth in the country, leading them into the hands of power hungry 'megalomaniacs and psychopaths'. Within two decades, the flower of our youth has been sentenced twice to the guillotine. The Commission has made hundreds of recommendations most of which are accepted by the President. It is this Commission which led to the appointment of a permanent surrendering committee to enable misled youth to surrender, despite the war clamour of some whose kind are also seen amongst us in Soc.culture.sri-lanka.
Right now there is a proposal being considered by the government to set up a college system similar to that is found here in the West, in order to ease the backlog of university admissions in the country. However, some educationists like Prof. Osmund Jayaratne, the President of the Federation of University Teachers Association, consider this as a step towards strengthening the position of foreign educated elite in the country. I quote Dr. Jayaratne at length, as I think the issue is worth considering seriously: "Our fear is that the system may turn out to be over-ambitious and therefore impractical. Before setting up university colleges one must consider the sad plight of the existing universities.
"The civil war and ethnic conflict of the past few years has taken its toll of the university set up. A large number of highly qualified academic staff have left the country. The extremely poor salaries and lack of research funds, which was remedied to some extent only last year, also caused the brain drain."
"As a result of the combination of these factors a number of reputed faculties have an acute shortage of competent lecturers. The Jaffna Medical Faculty and the Peradeniya Engineering Faculty are on the verge of collapse. They can hardly manage to teach the existing number of students. In addition there is double intake of freshers this year making the total newcomers number around 12,000."
"Once the regional colleges or university colleges are set up there will be further drain of resources away from the national universities. How can the existing university set up which is acutely short-staffed and lacking in facilities cater to those regional colleges? The end result is sure to be an impoverishment of resources for both the universities and the colleges."
"Then there is the question of academic standards.... Even the national universities feel the lack of the adequate post-grad lecturers in many departments. So you can just imagine the quality of teachers the regional colleges are going to get."
Prof. Jayaratne raises many related questions. Can the students who come to national universities after two years in the college, with low standards of college education match up to the rigourous academic standards set by the conventional universities? Or will there have to be a lowering of standards all around? It appears from discussions with the UGC that the existing university set up may remain only until 1992. There is no guarantee that the national universities would exist after 1992. It is clear that from 1992 all- (repeat)-ALL Sri Lankan university students would first have to enter the regional colleges for their first two years of study. Thereafter a selected few could enter the national universities from the third academic year onwards.'
This is seen as a subtle attempt to deny the working class and middle class children the opportunity for a sound education at university level. The products of this half bake set up cannot hope to compete with the lucky few who can have a proper four year or three year degree from a British or American university.
"Gone would be the days when the national universities produced graduates, who can match up in education, commitment and stature to those returning from the greener pastures of London, Oxford, Sorbonne, Harvard and the like."
"From 1992 there would be the elite, the English speaking upper middle class and the new rich, whose foreign educated sons and daughters would rule the land. There would also be the locally educated sons and daughters of the middle class and working class "yakkos" to man the teaching , clerical and similar posts. THEY WOULD ALSO FORM THE VANGUARD OF THE NEXT REBELLION (The Island International 23rd May, 1990 page 5).
Reversal of '56 revolution? Whom are we to blame for these? The Foreigners? Tamils? or the JVP?.
The problems such as these which the Sri Lankan people are discussing are the problems of real national concern at his juncture. The topics discussed in Sri Lanka right now are modalities of devolution of power, educational reforms, press freedom, the underlying causes of youth unrest in the south, human rights and Jathika Chinthanaya etc. Doesn't this leave us at the soc.cul.SL a little bit behind the times when we haven't been able to advance beyond the level of discussing whether there has been any discrimination against Tamils in Sri Lanka?