Diversities and linkages in Sri Lanka

By V. Suryanarayan
"HISTORY," ERIC HOBSBAWM has pointed out, "is the raw material for nationalist or ethnic or fundamentalist ideologies as poppies are the raw material for heroin addiction’’. In many developing countries, the sense of national identity is built on the glories of the past, real or imagined. In his autobiography, as told to Cindy Adams, President Sukarno boasts about the greatness of the Malays and the spread of Malay culture by reeling out words with similar sounds: "Manila, Madagascar, Malaya, Madura, Maori, Himalaya’’. As is well known, Himalaya has nothing to do with the Malays. It is derived from the Sanskrit words Hima and Alaya, which mean the abode of snow.

The People of India Project, the ongoing research programme of the Anthropological Survey of India, attempts to provide the cultural profile of all communities in India, the impact of change, and linkages and diversities among them. One interesting conclusion needs specific mention. Communities, cutting across religions, share a many cultural traits. Thus the Hindus share a high percentage of traits with Muslims (97.7 per cent), Buddhists (91.9 per cent), Sikhs (88.99 per cent), and Jains (77.46 per cent). Other communities that share a high percentage of traits are Muslim-Sikh (89.95 per cent), Muslim-Buddhist (91.18 per cent) and Jain-Buddhist (81.34 per cent). As K. S. Singh, former Director-General of the Anthropological Survey of India, has remarked: "Diversities and linkages, freedom and tolerance go together".

The diversities in Sri Lanka are well known. According to the last census held in 1981, the Sinhalese formed 74.0 per cent of the population, the Sri Lankan Tamils 12.6 per cent, the Indian Tamils 5.5 per cent, Muslims 7.1 per cent and others 0.6 per cent. There is an overlapping of ethnicity and religious affiliation. Buddhists constitute 69.3 per cent (all Sinhalese), Hindus 15.5 per cent (all Tamils), Muslims 7.6 per cent and Christians 7.5 per cent (Sinhalese and Tamils). As far as language is concerned, Sinhalese speak Sinhala, Tamils and Muslims speak Tamil and all the elite is familiar with English.

Looking at the past through the prism of the present will lead to falsification of history. Despite the diversities, the people of the island, like their Indian counterparts, have come to share many common cultural attributes. But with the exacerbation of ethnic conflict, the chauvinists among the Tamils and the Sinhalese, two sides of the same coin, started projecting the two communities as two antagonistic entities, who were at war with one another for several centuries. Two illustrations are given below to substantiate the point that truth and objectivity are the first casualties in times of conflict.

Satchi Ponnambalam claims that the original inhabitants of the island were Tamils; Sinhalese were originally Tamils, who later on were converted to Buddhism and adopted the Sinhalese language and much of what the Sinhalese consider as their great monuments were actually produced by Tamil artisans. The Sinhala Commission provides an entirely opposite view. According to the Sinhala Commission, there is no evidence of a distinct Tamil community or a Tamil kingdom in the Jaffna peninsula before the 13th century. On the contrary, Sinhala chronicles and inscriptions indicate that there were large and extensive Sinhala settlements there from very early times.

The Sinhalese were the lawful rulers of and legal heirs to the Jaffna kingdom until 1815.

What is the reality? Prof. Stanley Tambiah, after years of painstaking research, has come to the conclusion that the Sinhalese and the Tamils share many parallel features of "traditional caste, kinship, popular religious cults, customs and so on. But they have come to be divided by their mythic charters and tendentious historical understandings of the past". The common belief in Sri Lanka is that Sinhalese are "fair Aryans" and the Tamils are "dark Dravidians". Prof. Tambiah has exploded this myth. Quoting Gananath Obeyesekere, Tambiah adds, "if it were possible to trace the present day Sinhalese population’s ancestry far enough, all lines would in major part lead back to South India". According to Obeyesekere, "Biologically speaking, those whom we call Sinhala are in fact racially inter-mixed with South Indian peoples and with aboriginal groups like the Vedda; and the Tamils, who live in the north and the east, are also similarly biologically mixed".

Dr. K. S. Singh has pointed out that in India there are several communities which can be classified as having more than one religion. It is interesting to note that Sinhalese religious practices also point to the same direction. The Hindu Bhakti cult has influenced Theravada Buddhism and there are images of Hindu Gods in Buddhist temples. The deity of Skanda (Muruga) in Kataragama, located near the Yala sanctuary in the northeast of the island, continues to be the "major institutional intersection of several religious faiths. Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims, all go to Kataragama, where the atmosphere is one of tolerance and goodwill". During my last visit to the temple two years ago, I found Buddhist pilgrims far outnumbering the Hindus. The Sinhalese carry the Kavadi with great devotion and fervour.

According to Buddhist chronicles, the founding father of the first Sinhala kingdom was Prince Vijaya, a Kshatriya from North India who came to the island with 700 followers in 544 BC. Vijaya aligned himself with an aboriginal princess named Kuveni, married her and with her assistance became the king of the country. Later he drove Kuveni away and married a princess from Madurai and made her the queen. His followers also married maidens of high birth from the Pandyan kingdom. In other words, even according to Buddhist texts, from the very beginning, the Sinhala nation was a product of assimilation between the Sinhalese and the Tamils.

Given the geographical contiguity, Sri Lanka had close cultural contacts with Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The narrow and shallow Palk Strait was not a barrier; it was a bridge through which religious leaders, merchants and ordinary people moved freely. Few Sri Lankan scholars want to subscribe to the objective truth that Buddhism was a virile religion in South India and the spread and efflorescence of Theravada Buddhism in the island had much to do with fruitful contacts with Buddhist centres of learning in Kanchipuram, Kaveripatinam and Madurai. Buddhaghosha of Magadha, "poet, philosopher and commentator" of Theravada Buddhism was patronised by Sanghapala, King of Kanchipuram. It is a matter of pride for the Tamils that one of the greatest epics of Theravada Buddhism is in Tamil language. Manimekalai, written in the second century AD, is one the finest jewels of Tamil Buddhist literature.

Kerala’s relations with Sri Lanka and interaction with the Sinhalese and Tamils remain a neglected area of historical research. According to Gananath Obeyesekere, when Hinduism began to dominate the religious scene in Kerala from the tenth century, a large number of Buddhists migrated to Sri Lanka.

Despite the cultural commonalities, the chauvinists among the Sinhalese and the Tamils propagate the falsehood of age old animosities between the two communities. It is my submission that the Sinhala-Tamil conflict is a product of post-independence politics, an offshoot of the nation building experiment, when the Sinhalese leaders tried to build the nation on the basis of Buddhist religion and Sinhala language to the exclusion of minority claims. The situation was aggravated when the chauvinist Sinhalese and Tamil leaders began to resort to the politics of ethnic mobilisation.

In his absorbing novel, "When Memory Dies", A. Sivanandan narrates a conversation between Uncle Para and Vijay. Uncle Para tells Vijay, "When memory dies a people die". Vijay asks Uncle Para, "But if we make false memories". Uncle Para responds, "That’s worse, that is murder".
(The writer is former Director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, Chennai)