“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.”
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. The concluding part continues here. Continue reading The Origins and Institutionalisation Of Political Violence (Part 2)- Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere
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
Speaker: Gananath Obeyesekere
Chair: Rajeev Bhargava
Venue: CSDS, Seminar Room
Several weeks ago I had the privilege of attending a conference organized by colleagues in the University of Delhi and presided by His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. The conference itself was on how children’s secular education could be transformed in order to bring in values of compassion and caring sorely lacking in contemporary models of education. In my introductory talk I dealt with the significance of Jataka tales in molding the conscience of ordinary Buddhists right through the ages while other colleagues actually dealt with successful models of education using the centrality of compassion in selected places in British Columbia, Bhutan, Mongolia and Vietnam; while yet others dealt with experimental studies of the brain and the positive effects of insight meditation. Right through the proceedings the Dalai Lama commented on the papers and fielded questions from the audience with his rich insight into Buddhist compassion and its relevance to our times. Continue reading Sovereignty, Port City & The Dalai Lama – Gananath Obeyesekere