Visakha Kumari Jayawardene. The Rise of the Labour Movement in
Ceylon. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1972. Pp. 382.
University of California, San Diego
“The naive-Marxist view of the proletariat infuses the book in another way. The proletarians are the good guys, the British and the conservative Ceylonese elite (the ruling class) the bad guys: a cops-and-robbers approach to history. This leads to a somewhat uncritical attitude toward sources: views of the “good” radicals are presented as if they were facts. Also, this attitude toward the proletariat leads the author to contradictory, almost ludicrous and morally dubious, situations. For example, she gives an excellent account of the riots between the Sinhalese and Muslims in 1915. She says that, in the villages, these riots had a communal and religious character, though rooted in the economic dominance of the Muslim merchants in rural Ceylon. In the city, however, the rioters “had hardly any religious motives”; the riots were economic, directed against unscrupulous merchants. It is hard for the author to concede that proletarians could be as bigoted and chauvinistic as other species of Homo sapiens.”
“This high level of political consciousness accounts for the fact that of the parliamentary democracies in Asia, Sri Lanka was the only country that consistently threw out governments through a popular vote so that no government has had more than two consecutive returns to power, and most governments have had only one term of office. However, while the peasants were politically articulate, they had no access to political power.’the classic paradox of the Marxist civil society was operative here in extremis. The only occasions where peasants could exercise their power was at an election; but then often, irrespective of the party in control, effective political power remained (as it still remains) in the same ruling elite. In other words, political consciousness is widely diffused but political participation and decision-making remains in a ruling elite. None of this would really matter if the opportunity structure were flexible; but jobs and other forms of privilege were dependent on access to the centers of political power from which these persons were debarred.”
“We know that loyalty of the Väddas to the king continued until the 1817-1818 rebellion against the British under their chief Kivulegedera Mohottala of Valapane. Eventually this resulted in the decimation of the Vädda communities by the British forces when they reestablished their control. The sad relics of this past is reflected in the loss of population and the general malaise of the Väddas driven to seek refuge in forests and caves and recorded by later ethnographers, unfortunately as being their normal condition. We are indebted to Paul E Pieris for a detailed discussion of the Vädda role in the rebellion, but little or no reference to their decimation during the British conquest of the Kandyan provinces is available in orthodox histories written by later colonial writers such as the Seligmanns in 1911 as well as Sri Lankan scholars………………A servant caste of the Malvatta monastery known as Malvatte Duraya (“servant belonging to the monastery”) was found skinning a buffalo and placing it near in his bellows (for later practical use). This apparently was a heinous act and was seen by a henaya or washerman who while returning from the palace during that night after cleansing that place informed the king about it. The king appraised of the details interrogated Malvatte Duraya in detail and then gave the following order: “For the offence of keeping the buffalo skin on the bellows and for skinning the buffalo body they (his extended family) were ordered to bury cattle henceforth” and they are to be degraded and known as “geri padda,” geri mas or beef being utterly reprehensible, and padda being a contemptuous term for that particular caste that would normally be addressed and referred to in more respectable terms. There is implicit knowledge underlying the reference here because it is the lowest of the low, the roḍiya or canḍāla who generally had to bury dead animals and this family is in effect de-casted in the most drastic fashion by being identified as someone akin to a canḍāla or actually de-casted as canḍāla.”
The keynote address delivered on sociology day in 2015 at the University of Peradeniya, and elsewhere published as In Praise of Foolishness (with Apologies to Erasmus).In this essay he reflects back on his own works.
“In the more popular paper I argue that right thorough history literary chronicles refer to the king in heroic terms but a different dialectic prevails in respect of the Tamil king: when Duṭugämunu is conscience stricken Elāra emerges as a noble figure; when Duṭugämunu’s conscience is ignored in some later texts Elāra is depicted as a villainous and cruel king, a despoiler of Buddhist monuments. My friend, an eminent scholar who has written at length on Buddhism responds to the gush¬ing and sentimental comments of sociologists by informing us of a ninth century Pali work which says that the Tamils “were wrecking Buddhist institutions and damaging Buddhist monuments which were very dear to the people.” This text adds that Duṭugämunu was so overjoyed in his victory that he could not sleep for a month whereupon a group of monks recited benedictory verses to put him to sleep. I could not resist sarcasm when I added: “Naturally the good king entered into a profound sleep, this time his joy, not his conscience, having been stilled.” I pointed out to my friend that these various versions have little to do with empirical history but with debate, those contentious dialogues that erupt in history. I will admit I employ irony and sarcasm as part of my argument when I confront the pseudo-patriotism of scholars who wrote about these debates but I added that my friend honestly believed that the second version is the true one and not the earlier version in the Mahāvaṃsa. Unhappily my friend cut off all relations with me and thereafter lambasted me in popular newspaper articles; and he continued to do so even after he shed his secular attire and became a monk. What then is the moral of my tale? A text can provoke anxiety, even anger, and my own venture into irony and double-talk had backfired. In the case of my monkish friend he was so fixated on his view of the righteous Duṭugämunu and the hated Tamil monarch that sarcasm or no he would not brook any recognition that he might be wrong. With such intransigence there was no point in continuing an argument.”
“This is certainly not the case: most middle-class people, as well as ordinary villagers whom I know have a strong Sinhalese – Buddhist identity, But they did not engage in violence against Tamils and were for the most part shocked by the brutality and suddenness of these events. It is true that some connived in acts of violence, but others gave Tamil refugees shelter in their homes at great personal risk. They were not without a profound ambivalence, but this was not a mass movement of the Sinhalese people against the Tamils. If this were so, one would have to give up any hope for the future not just of the Tamils, who could flee to the north and east of the island or to South India, but for the Buddhists entrapped in their own violence. What a fate for a nation subscribing to a religion of non-violence!”
This essay by Gananath obeyesekere that appeared in Sri Lanka in Change and Crisis(Ed.James Manor, 1984) is a close investigation into post 1977 political realities, the implications of which have much to do with present impasse that Sri Lankan society seems to be in.
Gananath obeyesekere, the greatest anthropologist produced by Sri Lanka was born at Meegama in Darga Town in Kalutara. His father D.D.Obeyesekere, as he once remarked a cosmopolitan figure at that time in his life, was a lecturer in the Institute of Indigenous Medicine in Sri lanka. And he was also an adherent of Anagarika Dharmapala. Gananath obeyesekere received his B.A. in English with a first class honours in 1955 at the University of Ceylon in Peradeniya. He recalled later about his higher education as to how he came to refuse the suggestion offered by his professor to join the English department, at that time the prestigious department in the university and also automatic scholarships to London and Oxford because of his sneaking anti-colonialism despite the fact that left-wing leaders of Sri Lanka went to London or Oxford, or Cambridge. He obtained his M.A and PhD in University of Washington. Gananath Obeyesekere is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University. Before his appointment to Princeton, Obeyesekere held teaching positions at the University of Ceylon, the University of Washington, the University of California, San Diego. His books include Land Tenure in Village Ceylon, Medusa’s Hair, The Cult of the Goddess Pattini, Buddhism Transformed (coauthor), the Work of Culture, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Myth-making in the Pacific, Imagining Karma, Cannibal Talk, Karma and Rebirth and The Awakened Ones. He was also engaged in collecting and publishing rare historical manuscripts in Sri Lanka, which challenge the orthodoxies dominant in history. Among his numerous academic awards is the Thomas Huxley medal, which is given by the Royal Anthropological Institute and is listed as “the highest honor at the disposal of the Institute”. Obeyesekere has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Suntory-Toyota Fellow (STICERD) at the London School of Economics. His book on Captain Cook won the Louis Gottschalk Prize in 1993, awarded by the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies.
Sri Lankan scholars and the Buddhist public generally believe that Portuguese influence after 1506 was characterized by a long period of Catholic proselytization and religious intolerance in the maritime regions of the island. What is little known is that by contrast, the kingdom of Kandy in the central region under the rule of King Vimaladhramasuriya and his successors (1591 – 1731) was characterized by religious tolerance and the welcoming of Europeans and other immigrants into the kingdom.
This lecture addresses the open cosmopolitanism of that period that provides an alternative vision of the past and for the future for Sri Lanka.
A Golden Jubilee Lecture
A Still-born Cosmopolitanism: Buddhists, Catholics and
other strange beings in the Kandyan Kingdom, 1591-1739