by Michael Roberts

This review article was drafted in 1991 and should therefore be assessed in the light of the literature available then. In those days it took at least two years for an article to be refereed and published. The essay  discussesthe following three books: Jonathan Spencer, A Sinhala Village in a Time of Trouble.  Politics and Change in Rural Sri Lanka, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990, 285pp; Jonathan Spencer (ed.), Sri Lanka.  History and the Roots of Conflict, London: Routledge, 1990, 253pp; Manning Nash, The Cauldron of Ethnicity in the Modern World, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989, 142pp. It was origianally printed in Ethnic and Racial Studies, 1993, 16: 133-161.

( June 9, 2015, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) The ongoing ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka has aroused interest in both the reasons for the breakdown of its polity and the roots of Tamil and Sinhala identities. The resurgence of nationalism in Eastern Europe will encourage studies in the broader implications of the Sri Lankan data for social science theory. As a result of the excesses of the Nazi upsurge, Western scholars have tended to regard nationalism as retrograde and potentially patho­logical (e.g. Kedourie 1960) or reprehensibly atavistic.  In South Asia, in contrast, ever since the decolonization process got under way, nationalism has been viewed positively—as long as its goals were framed in terms of the existing (colonial) political boundaries. The recent upsurge of violence has encouraged Asian scholars to question this perspective.  Such questioning is sometimes embodied in the term ‘chauvinism’ (e.g. Coomaraswamy 1987: 74-81). This term is not a novel addition to the Asian English lexicon. It was used in British Ceylon in the 1920s and 1930s to describe those who pressed for Tamil and Sinhalese sectional interests: these spokesmen were reviled as “communalists”, “chauvinists” and “tribalists” by both the moderates and radicals who espoused a Ceylonese nationalism.[1] Spencer’s study of A Sinhala Village enables one to come to grips with the forces of Sinhalese sectional nationalism in recent decades; while the essays in History and the Roots of Conflict (hereafter Roots) broaden the ethnographic sweep and explicitly engage the manner in which historiographical constructions shape identity and political claim.  Nash’s book reminds one of the needs to move beyond such specificities to seek some ’empirical generalizations’ relating to ethnicity in the twentieth-century world of nation-states.

However, the broader implications attached to the Sinhalese case material are already ingrained within Spencer’s village study.  His theoretical framework is derived from Ernest Gellner and his vocabu­lary draws on Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm.  ‘Print capital­ism’ and ‘the invention of tradition’ are writ large in his analysis.  Likewise, the article by Nissan and Stirrat in Roots seems to imply that it is not possible for ethnic consciousness to operate in significant ways in the dynastic states of the pre-capitalist era. Their essay is partly inspired by Gunawardana’s 1979 essay on ‘The People of the Lion’, now revised and reprinted in Roots. The latter essay is heralded as the flagbearer for a revisionist historiography.  In this self perception, then, Roots becomes part of a laudable effort to show how so many scholars have tended to read the identities of the twentieth century into the past.

My essay questions selective aspects of the work of Spencer, Nissan and Stirrat, and Gunawardana.  In keeping with their approach, it works through temporally specific ethnographic detail.  It argues that there was a Sinhala consciousness in the past, in the era of dynastic monarchies. On Gunawardana’s own evidence this dates from the eleventh-twelfth centuries, but could arguably (in opposition to Guna­wardana) be pushed back to the fifth-sixth centuries. In deploying this detail it delineates some of the forces and mechan­isms which contributed to the reproduction of this consciousness (with­out, however, exhausting the subject). It lays special emphasis on the role of oral traditions and the interplay between the oral and the written traditions in reproducing Sinhala consciousness; and on the imprint of conflict between the Sinhalese (under their dynasts) and a series of Indian invaders from the ninth to thirteenth centuries, and the conflict with successive European powers from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. It was this consciousness which informed the efforts of those Kandyan Sinhalese who participated in a massive rebellion against the British occupation in 1817-18 (P E Pieris 1950; Vimalananda 1970; Roberts 1972; Powell 1973).

In line with my previous writings on the subject (1979a), this, Sinhala identity is labeled a “patriotism” and treated as conceptually distinct from latter-day “nationalism.” A discontinuity is thereby marked. Sin­hala patriotism nevertheless provided some foundations for the sub­sequent development. A continuity can also be marked. As such, my essay raises the general issue of continuity and change in the Sri Lankan situation. It does not, however, grapple with that hard knot: how do we theorize continuity and change?

Through its case material, then, this article questions the weightage given to print capitalism by Benedict Anderson. The emphasis on the distinction between the educated and uneducated, and the concomitant appraisal of the educated through literacy, are a peculiar disease of modernism. This disease permeates Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism (1983) as well. This book is a reworking of an old thesis. As far back as 1953, Karl Deutsch, for instance, argued that nationalism is “associated with the mass mobilization of pre-commercial, pre-industrial peasant peoples” (p. 164). To be sure, Gellner does not fully share Deutsch’s cybernetic rationality. But, like Deutsch, he cleaves to a Eurocentric paradigm, not only in its lineaments, but also in the manner in which he denies the non-European people the capacity to generate their own history without the effect of the industrial capitalist intervention of the West (cf. Eric Wolf’s critique, 1982). In Deutsch’s work it is even anticipated that ‘the age of nationalism’ will spawn the end of diversity, moving people beyond the nation to “a more thoroughgoing world-wide unity” (1953, p 165). The emphasis is on a future global homogeneity of culture, just as nationalism is construed as homogeneous in content and pattern.

Thus, both Gellner and Deutsch have been accused of sociological universal­ism and sociological determinism (cf. Yapp 1979: 10ff; Chatterjee 1986: 4-6; 19, 21-2; Kapferer 1988: 3). This deterministic structural functionalism can also be discerned in Spencer’s analysis.

Spencer’s Tenna, Spencer’s place

Rural politics at the village level in the 1980s provide Jonathan Spencer with one of his domains of inquiry. He deploys his experience of the political culture in the village of Tenna as the basis for a movement beyond the locality, a movement that involves a survey of the inter­action between politics, religion and socioeconomic change on the one hand and an exploration of Sinhala nationalism on the other. The latter is explicitly linked to the triumph of populism under Bandara­naike at the general elections of 1956 (1990: 243).

Tenna lies in the intermediate climatic belt between the wet and dry zones. It was a relative backwater in British times (1815-1948) and depended largely on swidden agriculture (chena). By 1981, however, swidden had disappeared.  The villagers derived their income from a wide variety of sources.  On these grounds Spencer captures the sce­nario in one emphatic phrase: “the fragmentation of common experience” (p. 97), a vision that is supported by the fact that recent im­migrants outnumber the old villagers.

With the locality thus contextualized, two themes are pressed in A Sinhala Village: firstly, the articulation between the contemporary Buddhist rituals at Tenna and the sharp political animosities between the local United National Party [UNP] and Sri Lanka Freedom Party [SLFP] factions; and, secondly, this synchronic focus fits neatly with a more diachronic theme which outlines the transformation of Tenna from a localized community to a more fragmented order which has nevertheless become part of the homogenizing Sinhala Buddhist cul­ture of a nation-state. The second theme is an ethnographic illustration of Gellner’s thesis (1983) on the development of nationalism, which contrasts the social organization of ‘agro-literate polities’ with that of nations in the industrial era.  In his view, the former are marked by ‘laterally separate petty communities’ of agricultural producers who sustain little traditions and are subject to the overlordship of the ‘stratified, horizontally segregated layers’ making up various elements of the ruling class, a class which maintains a clear distinction from the peasant producers and which sustains a high culture (the great tradition) which may extend beyond the borders of their polity to other ruling classes. With ‘modernization’, one saw ‘the replacement of diversified, locality-tied low cultures by standardized, formalized and codified, literacy-carried high cultures.’ One of the critical facets in the development of nationalism was the universalization of a specific high culture so that it pervaded the mass of the people within a polity and sought to fuse polity and culture (Gellner 1983).

Thus framed, in detailing the specifics of the electoral and other struggles at Tenna, Spencer adopts the indigenous view that ‘Politics are not a good thing’ (1990: 73, a villager’s words). The series of contemporary Buddhist rituals at Tenna “were an attempt to represent Tenna to itself … as an unified community of Sinhala Buddhists” (p. 68). There was an intentionality in this activity and the rituals were ‘the symbolic making of a community from [its] socially heterogeneous elements’ (pp. 69, 128). Though the villagers believed they were pursu­ing tradition, to Spencer some of the religious rituals were no more than “a ragbag of ‘traditional’ elements” (p. 69). He concludes that this so-called “tradition” was not the oral culture of the villages in the past, but “the print culture of the schoolroom and the newspaper,” while “the rituals themselves were novel assemblages of local initiative and borrowed ideas” (p. 69).

Spencer’s second theme dovetails neatly with this picture. Both archival and oral sources are deployed to argue that Tenna in the past had been an isolated body of swidden agriculturalists, who worshipped a local deity named Mangara, smoked cannabis, hunted animals and whose contact with state authority was mediated by a feudal landlord.  One old man said: “We knew nothing of the dharma then” (p. 158). This statement captures the general retrospective sentiment that in times past they were not properly Buddhist, not true Sinhalese (pp. 158-59; 163).

This state of affairs was transformed as Tenna was brought within the aegis of the market economy and the state.  The critical agencies of transformation reached Tenna in the period 1935-45: a road, a school, a Buddhist temple.[2] The arrival of more and more in-migrants and the growth of cash crop vegetables complemented the effects of these changes and put an end to swidden agriculture.

Though he does not use this vocabulary, there is a THEN:NOW contrast in Spencer’s study.  THEN covers the period 1820s-1920s and serves as his baseline. The history of Tenna, in these terms, is a case of an isolated community being absorbed, and actively absorbing itself, in the new Sinhala Buddhist nation. It becomes possible for the activists in Tenna to re-imagine the village in the image of the nation (pp. 68-69; 240-41). The story of Tenna, and the details of ritual practice, all this goes to show “that Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is a young creature” (p. 248).

These nationalist inventions and images also counteract the social disorganization produced by economic change and the bitter rivalries of electoral politics. The latter, the penetration of party rivalries into the village scene, was not solely an erogenous thrust. This was Robin­son’s argument (1975) in her study of village politics in Kotmale. Spencer provides an explicit corrective by revealing that the search for resources prompted villagers themselves to seek party affiliation (pp. 9-12; 159; 208-31).

This correction makes good sense as an island-wide generalization. What does not make sense is Spencer’s interpretation of the conscious­ness of Sinhala Buddhists over time, from the 1820s to the 1980s. His historical reconstruction in effect follows the standard interpretation of the growth of the nation-state and its nationalism in Europe in early modern times.  For both Tenna and Sinhala Lanka this thesis is quite misleading.

Since Spencer lays so much emphasis on the effect of the village temple, the village school and print culture in generating the new nationalism of the mid-twentieth century, it follows that their absence in the past becomes critical.  Concomitantly, this involves a stress on the isolation of Tenna in the past.  Here, through Spencer, one has a vivid example of the manner in which the facilities of the motorized present facilitate a misconstruction of the past. Then, in the past, the nearest temple “was a difficult journey of at least eight miles,” Spencer says (p. 157). Eight miles! Whether uphill or downhill, to villagers in the past, this would have been taken in their stride. In days when many people walked the seventy odd miles from Colombo to Kandy, when plantation labourers walked from Mannar to the hill country,[3] when… when … examples could be multiplied, to weight this eight-mile distance in the manner Spencerian is absurd.

Viewed in this light, Tenna lies within reach of the Saman dēvala at Ratnapura, the principal shrine to Skanda at Kataragama and, above all, the holy site of Adam’s Peak. It would have been remark­able if some inhabitants of Tenna THEN had not visited these places at some point in their life.  Obeyesekere has illustrated the manner in which the “obligatory pilgrimage” enlarges the compass of a local community and unifies it with the “larger community of Sinhala Bud­dhists.” In this view the pilgrimage functions as a mechanism which generates a sense of group consciousness. This is made possible because the pilgrims from discrete villages who assemble at regional centres of ritual worship (e.g. Ratnapura, Devinuwara, Mahiyangana) share a common language and “the common subscription to Buddh­ism,” that is, Buddhism in its syncretist Sinhala Buddhist praxis (Obeyesekere 1979: 290-91).

In Obeyesekere’s presentation this is not merely a contemporary phenomenon, but something which has operated for many centuries past (and, indeed, documentary sources and the Sigiriya graffiti attest to the practice of pilgrimage and travel from the late Anuradhapura period, if not earlier).  At the regional centres of ritual worship, the pilgrims “temporarily renounce the worship of their local parochial deities [and] worship the guardian god of [the central] shrine and the Buddha present in [that centre’s] relics.”[4] The difference in the implications of pilgrimages in medieval Europe provides an illuminat­ing contrast. There the pilgrimages cut across regions, languages and tongues and linked the Christians of Christendom. Once Buddhism disappeared from India by the tenth-eleventh centuries, the Buddhists of Lanka were linked as Sinhala Buddhists (though this did not prevent them from incorporating and domesticating Hindu gods and Hindu practices into their religion). There were intermittent links with Burma and Siam, but these did not fracture the sense of Sinhala Buddhistness or the conviction that they were a chosen people (see below: 141-45).

The local deity at Tenna is Mangara. Spencer provides us with no information on the villagers’ conceptions of Mangara’s place in the hierarchy of Sinhala Buddhist gods. Informed by Winslow’s (1984a) and Obeyesekere’s (1963; 1966) work in this field, I believe that such an explicit link existed THEN and exists NOW, though the linkage may not be quite the same now as it was then. The point is that Mangara receives his power by virtue of a higher god’s warrant (varam). What is more, Mangara’s presence is not confined to the locality of Tenna. Mangara is one of the several deities who constitute the Bandāra cult, a cult that is widely diffused in the former Kingdom of Kandy (Obeyesekere 1979b: 205-23). He is also an integral part of the yaktovil (healing exorcisms) practised in the Southern Province, while his principal shrine is near Negombo (Kapferer 1983 and personal communication from Kapferer).

Tenna in bygone days, therefore, was integrated with the wider Buddhist world of the Sinhalese.  This integration would have been specifically evident in the Tenna people’s efforts to cope with suffering, in their theories of causation and their analysis of physical disorders. This is where the interconnections ofayurveda (indigenous medicine), astrology and tovil would come into play (Kapferer 1983: chs 3, 4 and 6). Behind all this would be an emphasis on karma(the moral law of cause and effect which shapes one’s destiny). Since Spencer does not provide us with any data on this point, since he does not ask the octogenarians whether their peers in the past sought to accumulate merit (pin) so as to assist their karma,[5] we have no means of assessing whether the Tenna people of yesteryear were Buddhist or not. Spencer underestimates Old Tenna’s links with the extra-local order on a number of other fronts.  Here one needs to recall Opler’s and Dumont’s warnings to anthropologists about the manner in which they constitute their village’s boundedness (Opler 1956; Dumont and Pocock 1957).

Spencer is guilty of doing this for Tenna THEN, but not in his picture of Tenna NOW. The diachronic contrast in his book, therefore, is a product of his Gellnerian paradigm. For instance, it is likely that Tenna’s inhabitants were brought into direct contact with the Kandyan state in the era before 1815 by their obligations of rājakāriya,[6] whether through their feudal overlord or otherwise. Again, Spencer’s oral history reveals that the villagers guarding theirchena plots at night THEN used to keep themselves awake by shouting riddles across the fields (pp. 4; 112). This is part of the Sinhala tradition of tēravili (folk poems with riddles). Such riddles are replete with nature motifs drawn from local fauna and flora. The issue that demands specialist opinion is whether the tēraviliintertwine with the rich repository of Sinhala folklore (jana katā) and the geographical infor­mation inscribed into the kadaim pot and vitti pot which were drawn up from about the sixteenth century onwards.[7] It should be noted that the folk etymology of village place names connects specific villages to royal figures, mythical or factual, in a significant proportion of cases.[8]

The oral culture of Tenna, in other words, was entwined with that of the wider Sinhala Buddhist order. There was an articulation, in the past, between the oral culture, the literary culture of palm-leaf manuscripts and the visual imagery of painting, icon and architectural form. While the force of print capitalism in modern times must be given weight, those scholars who neglect the force of these other media in days gone by are attaching blinkers to themselves. Just as selected messages from the Mahāvamsa and other erudite Pali and/or Sinhala works entered the ballads, lullabies and folklore of oral communication in Sinhala, some jana katā from the oral discourse flowed into written collections such as the Alakēsvara Yuddhaya and Rājāvaliya (Suraweera 1965; 1976).[9] Both Anderson (1983) and Gellner (1983) fatally underestimate the force of oral and visual com­munication and their capacity to sustain group solidarities.

On this issue Spencer is their acolyte. It is significant that Spencer’s extended commentary on Sinhala nationalism in recent times should include a quotation from James Joyce and be guided strongly by Ernest Gellner. “Look here, Cranly … I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can … [through] silence, exile, and cunning,” said Daedalus, the personification of Joyce, in 1915.[10] Gellner (1983), as I infer, is in recoil from the Nazi Holocaust. It may not be too far­-fetched to suggest that Spencer himself is in recoil from the traumas of the Sinhala pogrom against the Tamils in July 1983, also referred to locally as “the holocaust’”(Manor 1984 and Piyadasa 1984).

The punchline in Spencer’s argument is provided by his approving paraphrase of Gellner: “Nationalism involves a process of cultural transformation in which local differences come up against the ideal of national similarity” (1990: 250). This line of argument is sup­plemented by Hobsbawm’s instrumental thesis on the invention of tradition and a mix of ideas drawn from Nairn (1981), Kedourie (1960) and Anderson (1983). None of these authors, however, has satisfactorily answered the question how specific nationalist sentiments evoke the passions. Kapferer (1988) has confronted this issue through Sinhala and Australian data, but Spencer bypasses his interpretation by affirming that there is “no need… to invoke sophisticated argu­ments about ‘hierarchy’ and ‘ontology’” (pp. 252-53).

Instead, according to Spencer, we can rely on Gellner’s formulation (quoted above) and we “merely need to see what it is that has been smashed and what it is that is being pieced back together.  Lying among the wreckage we can see the comfortable familiarities of place and family… the two governing figures in the language of the nation” (p. 253 citing Hobsbawm 1972: 392). In brief, in A Sinhala Village the outlines of modernization theory are blended with the familiar model of the growth of nation-ness in Western Europe. The former, modernization theory and its functionalism, is invoked in new Ander­sonian language. The market, electoral politics and print culture are the agencies of change.  These forces generate diversity and dislo­cation,[11] reflexivity and homogenization. Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is an intentional effort to patch together some unity and to reassemble that which has been smashed.

In Spencer’s Tenna, therefore, we have a combination of moderniz­ation theory with a modified version of Redfield’s (1955) view of the village community in the past (stripped of its romantic pastoral ideal by an emphasis on the prevalence of disease and death in the past, but reaffirming its particularized communitarian-ness in the model pressed by Gellner for agro-literate societies). Structural functionalism is thereby regenerated by two currents. In the result, the overt political intent of the Tenna villagers’ religious activities (patching together unity) is overestimated, while the historical continuities are undervalued because Spencer is so comprehensively wrong in the baseline picture which he constructs.

Sinhala consciousness in pre-British times

To comprehend fully Spencer’s misdirections and to prepare the ground for a discussion of Roots, it is necessary for me to extend Spencer’s baseline into the centuries past and outline Sri Lanka’s history in ways which clarify the development of Sinhala consciousness in those regions (they varied) which constituted the Sinhala heartland.  No claim is made here that these Sinhala sentiments were ‘nationalist’ in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century sense.

Contrary to popular views, there is no definitive evidence that the categoriesSīhala (Sinhala) and Damila (Tamil) were of great relevance in the centuries B.C. The so-called “Sinhala hero”, Dutugämunu (161-37 B.C.), was a chieftain who appears to have conquered other chieftain­cies and ruled the island from Anuradhapura (Gunawardana 1978; 1990: 46). These early Anuradhapura dynasties developed irrigation technology to a point where they could support many non-producers, notably Buddhist monks, and nurture a blossoming civilization (known in historiography as the Rajarata civilization) in the northern and south-eastern parts of the island.

While the island was referred to as Tambapanni, Chinese and Indian sources from the second and fourth centuries A.D. indicate that it was also known asSaimhala or Sīhala. The Dīpavamsa, a Pali chronicle compiled in Sri Lanka in the fourth century, also refers to Sihaladīpa and begins to develop a myth to account for this name (Liyanagamage 1968: 24; Gunawardena 1990: 47-59; Mendis n.d., pp. 49-61). The Pali commentaries written by the Indian scholar-­visitor, Buddhagosa, in the early fifth century A.D., not only refer to Sīhaladvīpa,but also speak of the Buddhist doctrines being kept in the Sīhala bhāsa (Sinhala language) for “the benefit of the inhabitants of the island” (Dharmadasa 1991).

The fullest elaboration of the Sinhala mythology is in the epic poem and Pali chronicle known as the Mahāvamsa, compiled in the fifth or sixth century A.D. This mythology and the refashioning of Dutugämunu as a Sinhala culture hero are employed in support of a thesis to the effect that Lankā or Sihaladipa was preordained by the Buddha to be a land where the Buddhist Dhamma would be reserved in its pristine purity. The people of Sinhala, the Sinhala, therefore, are rendered into a chosen people and their king is invested with a sacred role, on a par with the four guardian deities: together they must maintain this ethical objective.[12]

Both the Dīpavamsa and Mahāvamsa are believed to have been partly based on an earlier work in Old Sinhala, the Sīhala Attakatā Mahāvamsa, now lost.  In any event a number of exegetical works in both Pali and Old Sinhala developed around these two famous scrip­tural texts in subsequent centuries (Paranavitana 1959: 393-95; C R de Silva 1987: 65-66). The latter are no longer extant, but the “large number of verses of folk poetry [in secular vein] inscribed on the gallery wall at Sigiriya by visitors of the [eighth to tenth] centuries testify to a high standard of poetical work in Sinhalese”, that is, Old Sinhala (C R de Silva 1987: 66). These poets were from all parts of the island and included soldiers, artisans and women (Paranavitana 1956, I, pp. cciiff and R Obeyesekere 1979: 267-68).

Influenced by the evidence of the Pali chronicles, until recently most historians assumed that a Sinhala consciousness was pervasive among the island peoples from at least the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., with many incautiously extending this to the centuries B.C. as well. Leslie Gunawardana questions this assumption (1990, passim). He argues that the label “Sinhala” applied only to the dynasty and its aristocratic supporters and that the service castes (and the aboriginal Veddas) were not encompassed by this term. He also infers that the label was extended from the dynasty to the kingdom. It was not until later, about the twelfth century, that it was extended further to identify the people as a whole.

Gunawardana’s argument is by no means accepted by all scholars in the field and K N O Dharmadasa (1991) has recently challenged it in detail.[13] It is constructed on an explicit, yet weakly demonstrated, assumption that there was a gap between the aristocratic ruling class and the popular mass.  It does not address the issue how it was that a mass of people who employed a common language in literary and oral discourse, a language which was identified as Sinhala, and who lived in a land called Sinhala, were not seen as Sinhala; and did not see themselves as Sinhala.

For our purposes here [reviewing the books listed], however, the critical point is that Gunawardana notes that “the term Sinhala had come to acquire a wider connotation” by the year 1200 or so and ‘denoted the Sinhala-speaking population who were the preponderant element among the residents in the island’ (1990: 64; 78). By this time, indeed by the tenth century, a militant Hindu revival in southern India had led to the virtual extinction of Buddhism on the subcontinent. This stimulated a tendency towards the convergence of the Buddhist and the Sinhala identities’ (Gunawardana 1990: 62), though one should be cautious about concluding that all Sinhalese (Sinhalas) were necessarily Bud­dhist.

The solidarities among the Sinhalese would also have been promoted by the series of invasions by South Indian kingdoms from the ninth century onwards. Eventually, between 993 and 1017, the Cōla Empire secured control of the whole island. The Sinhala forces, however, liberated the island by 1070.  The new dynasty established itself at the Cōla capital of Polonnaruwa rather than Anuradhapura.  However, the Polonnaruwa kingdom went into sharp decline from the early thir­teenth century. One factor behind this decline appears to have been an invasion by a south Indian dynasty, Magha of Kalinga. As the Sinhala order withdrew towards the southwestern regions of the island, Magha’s forces—the “Kerala devils” (yakku) in one account appear to have coalesced with elements among the local population (Tamil speakers? and Sinhala speakers?) to constitute a principality in the north.

In the descriptions of some of the south Indian invaders from the ninth century onwards, it is significant that subsequent accounts in the Cūlavamsa describe the Tamils and Magha’s forces as “devils” or “bloodsucking demons”, and dwell on their wickedness and “false faith” (i.e. Hinduism).[14]  What is so striking about the ideological reconstruc­tions of these alien interventions in the Cūlavamsa, Pūjāvaliya and other Pali/Sinhala texts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is the we: they opposition on which the accounts are built. There are explicit references to the “Sīhala army,” “Sīhala warriors” and “the Sīhalas” who opposed the various aliens and who were victimized as a result. Their resistance was on behalf of Lanka—“this superb island of Lanka” and “that fair lady, the island of Lanka” in the words put in the mouth of hero kings by one of the authors of the Cūlavamsa.[15]

Between the thirteenth and late fifteenth centuries there was inter­mittent warfare between the Tamil kingdom in the north and the successive Sinhala kingdoms located in the south-west.  Both sides seized each other’s capitals on the odd occasion. However, it appears that the Sinhala monarchs thought of themselves as rulers of the whole island.[16] The Dhammadīpa and Sīhaladīpaconcepts of the Pali chronicles, it would seem, lived on.

Following Tambiah, it could be suggested that the Sinhala monarchy at this point of time was “a galactic polity” (1976: 102-31). The solidarities of this state were not based on the exclusive, either: or principles of Western epistemology and the modern nation-state. The group sentiments were hierarchically incorporative.  There was room for heterogeneity and syncretism, but they were valued on a hierarchical scale.[17]

This enabled the Sinhala monarchy to incorporate (rather than absorb in the manner of “a melting pot”) immigrant bodies of people as service castes; and to accept Brahmins and Tamils as ministers and kings during the centuries thirteen to eighteen.[18] The act of conse­cration[19] rendered all kings, including foreigner-kings, ideally speaking, into divine guardians of the Dhamma and kings of the Sinhala people.

The unstable political conditions in the period extending from the­ thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries did not prevent the efflorescence of Sinhala literature, both in prose and verse. Among these works were translations or adaptations from the jātaka stories,[20] such as the Pansiya-Jātakapota (early thirteenth century), the Saddharmālankāra (late fourteenth century) and the Guttila Kāvya (fifteenth century?).[21]  It would be a fatal mistake to conclude that the erudite Sinhala and Pali literature of ancient times was inaccessible to the mass of the people.  The Pūjāvaliya (written in 1266) served as “the model for Sinhalese writers during periods of literary revival”; and such a work as theSaddhamāratnāvaliya (also from the thirteenth century) is “writ­ten in easy prose” and “draw(s) heavily from the then current folklore and similes and parable intelligible to the unerudite readers.”[22]  This accessibility was furthered by the movement to simplify the literary language that was pressed in the fifteenth century by the scholar monks, Vättävē Thera and Vīdāgama Thera.[23]

For many centuries there have been abbreviated and simplified versions of thejātakas known as sähali (plural form). There have also been panegyrics about kings and great men, and religious ballads about gods and dēvatävas (godlings). Many of the latter are part of rites and propitiatory incantations with instrumental objectives. Like the folklore (jana katā) some of these incantations incorporate and adapt extracts from the Vijaya myth and the history of Lanka.[24]

The political implications of such activity cannot be assessed by confining one’s researches to the contents of these works examined in their context. One has to speculate on the interplay between events, literary text, oral communication and the imagery of icons, paintings and buildings. James Duncan (1990) has imaginatively illustrated how the latter can be utilized for the Kingdom of Kandy (1590s-1815). Obeyesekere has attempted to use folk tradition from the twentieth century to understand the historical evidence relating to two fifth-century kings associated with Sigiriya; while his work on the Pattini cult provides glimpses of the force of oral tradition—for although the Pattini myths may have been written down on palm-leaf manuscripts, they were also “sung in collective rituals” (1987: 22-36; 1989). The collections by Nevill (1954, 1955) and Barnett (1916), as well as Kapferer’s explorations of Sinhala myth (1983; 1988), indicate the rich imagery and the sedimentation of history in the oral traditions of the island peoples.

Techniques of metrical composition, such as vrttagandhi (Godakum­bura 1976: 17), enabled both the literati and interested villagers to memorize these oral traditions. These skills have to be experienced to be comprehended. Scholars who have been exposed to the popular creativity in improvising versions of theRāmāyana and the Mahabhār­ata in India would confirm the force of these capacities in the world around India.[25]

The possibility of a Sinhala collective identity being nurtured and reproduced through these media was rendered all the easier by two ‘facts’: first, that most (all?) Sinhalese shared the “common salvation idiom” of Buddhism, (Obeyesekere 1979a: 290); and second, that, to assess the situation retrospectively from the twentieth century, dia­lectical differences between Sinhala speakers in different regions appear to be minimal in comparison with those in England, France, Italy and Germany.[26] This is a difference of considerable import. The evolving nation-states of Europe had to overcome this barrier in recent centuries and develop a national tongue through the hegemony of a specific dialect (Parisienne.  London, Tuscan) or a Hochsprache.

The intrusions of the imperial Western powers from the sixteenth century onwards provided further grist for the patriotic mill. The Portuguese used the sword quite freely in attacking Buddhists and Muslims; and in carving out a territory for themselves in the northern and southwestern lowlands. For this reason they are described in the Culavamsa (1953, II, p 231) as “Parangi, heretical evil-doers, cruel and brutal”. Ever since the sixteenth century, moreover, they have been credited (by the Sinhalese) with having introduced the scrofulous disease of yaws, a disease also identified as parangi in Sinhala (Roberts et.al. 1989, p 5). This was a powerful, compounded disparagement.

The Portuguese were resisted initially by the Kingdom of Sītāvaka (1521-1592). From the 1590s the mantle of resistance was taken up by the Kingdom of Kandy after Sītāvaka withered away.  In the result the Portuguese were engaged in more or less continuous warfare from the 1560s to 1656.  It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the hatana (war) poems of the seventeenth century were permeated by ‘a strong, anti-Portuguese and anti-Christian tinge’ (C R de Silva 1983: 15-17). From this sort of evidence, de Silva concludes that “the Sinhala Buddhist identity was used to mobilise the whole ethnic group against external threats” (1984: 4). What is especially significant is that the anti-Western sentiments in the hatana poems worked within a more embracing ideology which was anti-foreign—and therefore treated the Tamils and Hindus as enemies,[27]that is, to interpolate, as parasaturan (low and alien enemies).

The Kingdom of Kandy sustained its independence, in opposition to the Portuguese, Dutch and British in succession, until 1815. Remarkably, as in the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, the rulers of this more or less landlocked state thought of themselves as rulers of Trisimhala or Sihale, despite its manifest contradiction by geopolitical facts. They constructed a fiction whereby the Dutch were considered ‘the guardians of the coast’ acting on their behalf—a fiction that the Dutch were happy to sustain.[28] In pressing such a claim they were adhering to the cakravarti model of kingship, an ideal of being Emperor of the Four Quarters which Sinhala kings before them, including the two kings of Sitawaka, had espoused (C R de Silva 1977: 7, 42 and Goonewardena 1977). In brief, to the rulers of Kandy, “the Sinhalese, wherever they lived, were the king’s people.”[29]

In overview, therefore, we can follow K M de Silva in noting that the series of conflicts with the Western powers gave the Sinhala ideology of the Pali chronicles “a cutting edge which it may not have otherwise developed” (1979: 134). The experience of successful resistance to foreign invasions of their territory also provided the Kandyan court with a faith in their invincibility. “One thing is certain, no foreign foe, be it English, Dutch, French or Kaffir, will conquer Lanka.  Through the protection of the four gods, the Guardians of its Religion and the Merits of the king, for five thousand years no foe will continue to reside here,” affirmed a letter from the court to the British in 1811.[30] Within four years, however, the British secured control over the Kandyan territories by a combination of diplomatic and military means, the event being ratified by a number of Kandyan chieftains on 2 March 1815. The Kandyans had second thoughts, however, a powerful rebellion erupted in 1817-18.

It was this rebellion that provided the point of departure for my explorations of the character of Sinhala consciousness in essays where I revised my initial inclination (1972: 21) to a describe the ideology of the Kandyan as a “traditional patriotism with a built-in national consciousness,”[31] I explicitly adopted an interpretation of nationalism that gave weight to the corpus of political thought surrounding the theory of popular sovereignty and the idea of self-determination which was developed in Western Europe in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries.  In these terms I concluded that the sentiments of the Kandyan people shout not be described as a ‘nationalism’ and fell back on the concept of ‘patriotism’ to describe their collective identity[32] (and thus that of the Sinhalese in the twelfth to eighteenth centuries).

In adopting this conceptual distinction, in effect 1 accepted the posi­tion that the ideological content of the Sinhala liberation movements in late British times was qualitatively different from that in 1817-18 and in pre-British times. In thus arguing that there was a significant discontinuity in the content and context of Sinhala nationalism in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, my position made it clear that the latter-day nationalism had a solid foundation of patriotism, as well as a historical consciousness nurtured by the Mahāvamsa, and other works, on which to build its contemporary expressions.[33]

In reiterating this argument here I would add several caveats. It is not claimed that the Sinhala consciousness as an unchanging, singular object throughout the sixth to eighteenth centuries. The position is not that of a primordialist or a perennialist (Anthony D Smith 1988, pp. 11-13). Secondly, the transformation wrought in the nineteenth century was not merely that of ideological content. The wider context was altered radically by the emerging world system of imperial and/or nation­-states, while the class structure within Sri Lanka was also transformed by the emergence of a species of colonial capitalism (Roberts 1979b and Roberts et.al 1989).

The summary in this section, it should be evident, is a construction in the year 1991 tailored to answer Spencer and Gunawardana. It is also directed specifically against the essay by Nissan and Stirrat in Roots. It therefore assists the review that follows. Its location here, prior to this review, is deliberate. Though not quite as full, or as carefully hedged, elements of this argument were contained in my essay in Collective Identities (1979a, pp. 29-39; see also Roberts 1978). The decision by Nissan and Stirrat, as well as by Spencer,[34] to ignore the specificities of this argument must be deemed deliberate.

History and the roots of conflict

Instead, in a critical essay within these covers, Nissan and Stirrat have fastened on some overzealous statements by Bechert, Obeyesekere and K M de Silva[35]to sustain their contention that the previous historiography has read the ideologies prevailing in the twentieth century into events and settings in the past which cannot contain them. Their specific criticisms are well taken. That such scholars should blunder in this manner points to the significant contribution that Nissan and Stirrat in particular, and Roots in general, make by pinpointing the danger of imposing the present upon the past. But, along the way, Nissan and Stirrat indulge in some banality and throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is on their essay that 1 shall concentrate here.

But first to Roots as a whole: its intention is “to expose the inad­equacy of explaining [contemporary] conflicts like those in Sri Lanka as the inevitable working out of immanent—‘primordial’—cultural forces” (p. 3).  It argues that both the contemporary Tamil and Sinhala versions of past history are rationalizations which share common fea­tures, not least a reading of the past in terms of the present (pp. 3-5; 21). The various essays display “a broad account of the cultural politics of the ethnic crisis,” which in turn reveal ‘the making or remaking of modern ethnic identities’ (p 4) in modern times (1830s-1990s).

Roots provides several detailed dissections of ways of seeing (Whi­taker, Daniel), of intellectual constructions (Rogers, Hellmann­-Rajanayagam, Gunawardana, Brow, Woost, Kemper, Tennekoon and Daniel) and political rituals (Brow) which are a considerable contri­bution to the ethnography of Sri Lanka. The essays by Rogers, Brow and Kemper are especially coherent in content and argument.  Tenne­koon supplies an invaluable analysis of nationalist discourse in the Sinhala newspapers during the 1980s in a manner which displays how her premature death was such a loss to academia.

Gunawardana’s “The People of the Lion” is as impressive as wide­-ranging. Among other things, it (i) reveals how the linguistic theory of the Aryan group of languages pressed by Max Muller et.al was fused with the racialist theories of the day, both in Europe and Sri Lanka, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards and promoted Sin­hala nationalism (pp. 70-78); (ii) outlines the processes of state forma­tion from the second century B.C. to the second century A.D. and (iii) suggests that ‘the beginnings of the Sinhala consciousness arose as part of the ideology of the period of state formation’ (p. 48). It is on the latter basis that Gunawardana goes on to argue that the label “Sinhala” was a clan emblem of the ruling dynasty in Anuradhapura which was eventually extended to the kingdom (thus to Lanka as a whole) and thence to the people of the kingdom (pp. 48-65).

The latter step was not taken until the eleventh-twelfth centuries.  It is only then ‘that the Sinhala grouping could have been considered to be identical with the linguistic grouping’ (pp. 78; 64). I shall leave it to specialists to debate this controversial interpretation of the late Anuradhapura period. What is germane to our interests is Gunaward­ana’s admission that there was a “Sinhala consciousness” in existence by the twelfth century, sentiments which “persisted’ during the thir­teenth to eighteenth centuries, ‘particularly among certain sections of the literati” (p. 67).

This position effectively undermines the thesis presented by Nissan and Stirrat within the same covers, a thesis which suggests that one cannot speak of group identities in dynastic states in South Asia.  This contradiction, however, does not appear in sharp silhouette because Gunawardana qualifies his position and strains the evidence to argue that there was a considerable “cultural cosmopolitanism [which] would have contributed to the weakening of the Sinhala consciousness,” while “the feudal ethos’” would have had the same effect (p. 69).

Section II (pp 65-69) is the weakest segment of Gunawardana’s essay and is marked by unconvincing efforts to reduce the significance of C R de Silva’s data on the strength of Sinhala consciousness in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the inconvenient fact that a revolt against a northern (Tamil) usurper in the 1470s is referred to in Sinhala literature as a Sinhalaperaliya (the rebellion of the Sin­hala).[36] Gunawardana contends that there was a considerable infusion of immigrant Indian peoples and Hindu cultural practices into the Sinhala-majority areas (points I wholly endorse) and that individuals serving in the armies who combated foreign threats were motivated by the desire for reward rather than patriotic sentiments. This reasoning is implicitly mono-causal. It does not allow for the mixture of motives which energize patriots, whether instrumental personal or collective patriotic motives, or compounds thereof.

The most original and thought-provoking essay in Roots is Valentine Daniel’s post-face: “Sacred Places, Violent Spaces.” Daniel develops a distinction between myth and history, that is, the mythic and the historical, as a difference between a being in the world that is ontic and a way of seeing the world that is epistemic (pp. 227 ff). This theoretical excursus, alas rather brief, is then provided with flesh and blood through rich data which displays the value of skilled anthropo­logical explorations on the ground.  In the process Daniel brings to light an influential species of contemporary historian: the Sinhala-speaking tour guide who caters to the hordes of indigenous tourists surveying the ruined cities of the Rajarata civilization. In passing Daniel notes that Spencer is correct when “he argues against the view that ideas about identity are primordial givens… But when thought sinks below the threshold of reflection, and ideas rise above the possibility of argument, then narrative history, as well as myth as narrative, become onticized bringing them in line with their essence” (pp. 231-32). The latter sentence can be read as a criticism of Spencer’s position which is as cryptic as sharply significant. It is also in opposition to the stance taken by Nissan and Stirrat.

Where Daniel is imaginative, Nissan and Stirrat are mechanical and error-prone, even as their broad thesis provides some insights. Their essay is a critique of both nationalist polemics and scholarly literature for their “unwarranted… imposition of the dominant political identi­ties of the present day on to the past'; and the frequency with which ‘kingdoms and nation-states are conflated in both popular and academic literature on the subject” (p. 19). This is a valid point. It is associated with the thesis that “different state forms depend upon, and in turn generate, different kinds of identity” (p. 22). This contention has relevance, but is driven to extreme, deterministic lengths in this essay—to the point where one can suggest an overdetermination of the political level. Its validity is further weakened by fundamental ethnographic errors.

On this foundation Nissan and Stirrat emphasize two major disconti­nuities in the history of the Sinhala Buddhist order: that produced in British times and that generated by the securing of independence in 1948. In this view, prior to the colonial experience which culminated in the British conquest of the whole island, what one found in Sri Lanka were dynastic states of the type described by Stein, Gellner, Anderson and Tambiah.  Overlordship here was in a ritual idiom and ­the categories “Tamil” and “Sinhala” “did not bear the nationalist conno­tations they now bear” (p. 26). This negative emphasis, quite pertinent in itself, is couched in such a way that readers are left with the further impression that the Sinhala and Tamil identities had no political sig­nificance whatsoever (and this is where Spencer parts company with Nissan and Stirrat for he is categorical in stating that it is “absurd” to claim that these categories are “colonial inventions” – p. 4).

One problem here is that Nissan and Stirrat steadfastly shut out of consideration the possibility that there can be collective identities other than those we conceptualize today as “nationalist” (a possibility which I argued in 1979a). Their contention that the dynastic states and pre-modern orders throughout the world were absolutely incompatible with the collective sentiments fostered by the “we: they’”(us: them) distinctions cannot be sustained against the ethnographic record for Sri Lanka (see above, 141-47) and the thesis assembled by Anthony D Smith inThe Ethnic Origins of Nations (1988).  Their effort to sustain their position for Sri Lanka, by arguing that one cannot “cite chapter and verse from ancient chronicles or inscriptions” because that is what latter-day nationalists do (p. 40), is nothing short of banal. On this ground, most historical and anthropological soundings of the world-view of those studied would be ruled out. Consciousness and identities, be they nationalist or otherwise, are always in use in some implicit or explicit sense.

The second discontinuity which Nissan and Stirrat postulate, that between the Sinhala and Tamil identities after 1948 and those in the British period, has no foundation at all. This misreading is made possible by a selective understanding of the Sinhala-Tamil conflict and by a compound of ethnographic errors.

They use John Rogers’ excellent material (1987) to argue that “during the colonial period violent clashes erupted between groups defining themselves in terms of religious affiliation but not between groups defining themselves as Sinhala and Tamil” (p. 19, emphasis added; see also p. 31). For the Sinhala:Tamil equation (but not else­where), this is mostly correct,[37] but the emphasis on violence con­veniently sweeps under the carpet the sharp competition for govern­ment jobs between Sinhalese, Tamils and Burghers from the late nineteenth century onwards, the jostling for political advantage from the 1910s as the British devolved power, and the animosities directed against the Indian Tamil plantation labourers and merchants in the Kandyan districts from the mid-nineteenth century. Much of this has been widely documented and is a standard part of Sri Lanka’s histori­ography.[38] Yet Nissan and Stirrat manage to convince themselves that “the developing Tamil and Sinhala identities were not in direct compe­tition; they were primarily directed against, and mediated by, the British” (p. 32). This is a gross error.

Equally remarkable is the manner in which they overweight the transformation in the form of the state in 1948 to the point that they lose sight of the considerable continuity in the content of Sinhala nationalist ideology from the 1880s to the 1950s,[39] a continuity that was all the stronger because of the series of generational and organizational overlaps between the personnel who espoused such sentiments (Roberts 1989b).  This too has been widely documented.

The expressions of hostility to foreign threats by Sinhala nationalists were not confined to barbs against the British, the kocci (Malayalam speakers) and the Coast Moors (hambaya). Every now and then the Tamils were brought within the ambit of the dangerous paradēsakkāra (low and vile aliens). In the Sinhala Jātiya of 1 June 1913 a poem referred rhetorically to the waves of ja (Malays), marakkala (Moors), kocci (Malayalis), hetti (Chettiyars) and parademala (low and vile Tamils) who had caused pain to the Sinhala people and predicted that the Sinhalese would be ruined (the idiom used referring to soil in their mouths) if these fellows were allowed to stay in “this our land.”[40] This was not an isolated expression; and was often part of didactic and polemical writings that castigated the Sinhalese themselves for their shortcomings, shortcomings which enabled such foreigners to prosper.[41]

In seeing violent disturbances in British Ceylon as essentially religious conflicts, Nissan and Stirrat as well as Spencer in effect pigeon-hole the trauma

Show more