History, Historiography and the “Sinhala-Buddhists”: A reply to Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri
by Dr. Pradeep Jeganathan
Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri is right to point out in his recent essay, “History after the War: Challenges for Post War Reconciliation,” that “[t]here is an important factor that gives an extra advantage to the (sic) Sinhala-Buddhist historical consciousness. The historical narrative that is linked with the latter is generally compatible with the dominant paradigm of the modern historical scholarship in Sri Lanka.”
Yet, he is either unable or unwilling to make this “important factor” itself a topic for inquiry and in failing to do so, he inevitably then freezes this “Sinhala-Buddhist historical consciousness” within an ahistorical black hole. According to Dewasiri’s chronology, by the 6th Century AD, “for reasons that are not clear,” — there had crystallized the “dhammadipa” idea, that has been a constant since. This then, raises the inevitable question: If the problem itself has no historical contours, indeed if nothing changed in “Sinhala-Buddhist historical consciousness” for 1600 years, how would any kind of attempt “to build an alternative discourse of history” be anything “more than a naïve academic pursuit” that almost by definition cannot dislodge or even address the problem itself?
Surely, the already existing critical literature must be worked through first? On my reading, it is apparent that there are three key vamsa texts in questions which span a period of some 600 years –the early 4th Century Dipavamsa, the 5th century Mahavamsa (Mv; which is in some ways a re-working of the Dipavamsa) and the 10th or 11th Century Vamsatthappakasini, (VAP; which is a re-articulation and elaboration of the Mv.) Indeed, there is an argument made in different ways in these texts, with different intensities and emphases, that the violent conquest of Lanka and the defeat and banishment of the Yakkshas by the Buddha, on his first (mythical) visit to Lanka, is legitimate, so making legitimate violence against unconvertible unbelievers, very much in the mold of some manifestations of the faiths of Abraham (i.e., Judaism, Christianity and Islam).
Furthermore the VAP, and associated inscriptional claims that can be dated as simultaneous with that text, argues that claims upon the throne of Lanka that maintains that the legitimacy of rule over the island depends upon being a direct descendant of the Buddha through family lineage, on the one hand, and being the bodhisattva or in other words an heir to the lineage of the Buddha through the Sasana, on the other. Yet these are but particular arguments about faith and rule, the Sasana and kingship.
There is clear historical evidence that shows that the claims of the VAP of the Mahavihara were made against claims of Abhayagirivihara monks who argued for a different kind of Sasana, Dhamma and Vinaya – there was a multitude of sophisticated ways of being a Buddhist throughout the first millennia in the Sri Lankan city of Anuradhapura. What’s at stake there, are complicated interpretations of Buddhism that position the Buddha in relation to Siva, who we may understand as a Hindu God. The Mahavihara interpretation of Buddhism, which is both exclusivist and violent was not always ascendant, indeed at times the Abhayagirivihara interpretations were dominant. They have not been preserved so we cannot read them today, but I repeat there is plenty of evidence that they indeed existed and were important.
Dewasiri’s conflation of Sinhala and Buddhist here, into the now common and very modern concatenation Sinhala-Buddhist is even more surprising. In fact, central to Gunwardene’s argument in the booklet Dewasiri cites is his opposition to this view, as it is of course, in his early and classic paper, “The people of the Lion.” “Sinhala” referred to a set of inhabitants within the island, certainly not all of them, in the 10th Century. In fact, the dynastic claims of Sri Lanka’s medieval kings, from Sena the 1st to Parakramabahu the 1st contradict the idea that their lineage is that of the lion slayer, Sinhabahu; it is rather that of Sudodhana and Amithodana, father and uncle of the Buddha. In fact, Nissankamalla who ruled after Parakramabahu wasn’t Sinhala, but Kalinga, and he was very clear about it, given his fondness for inscriptions. But he was certainly a Buddhist, and in the Mahavihara sense of it. Magha, who is credited with finally destroying the civilization of the North Central Province, which was undergirded by the dense, inter-connected and most technically advanced irrigation system in the entire pre modern world was also Kalinga.
After what is called the decline of Polonnaruwa, and by the 13th Century there were indeed Tamil, Hindu kings who ruled in Jaffna. Yet in the middle of 15th century Sapumal adopted son of Parakramabahu the 6th, conquered the kingdom of Jaffna. He wasn’t Sinhala though, his origins are arguable but he may have been Tamil; he also built the great Temple at Nallur.
A century or so later, we find that Rajasinha the 1st, the great Lion of Sithawake, who fought the Portuguese to a standstill more than once, took to Saivism, and yet was king of a southern kingdom. Not every legitimate ruler of southern Lanka was a Buddhist in early modern times. Yet also it is not historically accurate to say that the Kings of Jaffna ruled the east, certainly even a cursory glance at Dutch records and the doings of Rajasinha the 2nd will tell you, that the Kings of the Kanda Uda Pas Rate, (the five countries on top of the mountains) were also the overlords of Batticoloa and Trincomalee.
The Nayakkara kings who inherited the throne of the Kanda Uda Pas Rate, or what is now called the Kandyan Kingdom didn’t consider themselves Sinhala either. They were Telugu but spoke Tamil. But ruled as Buddhists leading an important revival Sasana and enabling the return of the higher ordination from Thailand leading to the founding what still to this day is called the Siam (Thai) Maha Nikaya which includes the chapters of Malwatte and Asgiriya. But in those days the Buddhist nobility did not always even write in Sinhala; in fact, Ehelapola, a key Minister of Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, who would have indeed considered himself Sinhala and Buddhist signed the Kandyan Convention of 1815, in Tamil script, after he had helped depose his Tamil speaking King.
Indeed, as I have argued at length in previous work, the very idea that all of this island is rightfully Sinhala-Buddhist is a very recent idea. It is traceable to Geroge Turnor’s (and Edward Upham’s) colonial misunderstandings of the particular, parochial claims made by the Mahavamsa and the Vamsattappakasini, which they then universalized and associated with simultaneous readings of monumental remains in the North Central Province seen through this foggy lens; the acceptance of Turnour’s work as ‘true’ authorized its continuation throughout the nineteenth century. This is where what Dewasiri correctly identifies as the “dominant paradigm of the modern historical scholarship in Sri Lanka” comes from. He is quite mistaken though, in seeming to assume, that this just the “ideology of the Post-Colonial Sri Lanka state.”
On the contrary the very idea that Sri Lanka is made of discreet, competing communities of Sinhala, Tamil and Mohemedan is very much a colonial idea; first mooted in Colebrokke Camaron Reforms of 1833, which simultaneous with the misappropriation of Mahavamsa and the Vamsatthappaksini for a parochial European debate about the chronology of South Asian Kings. The idea that the Sinhala need a Sinhala representative and the that Tamils need a Tamil one, that the ‘Moors’ need a ‘Moor’ one is a colonial idea, a rupture in the human history of this island, that had seen settled, civilized human habitation for over 15, 000 years. This idea then, to repeat, was folded into the idea culled from a misreading of the Mahavamsa that history of this island is a series of battles between Sinhala Buddists and Tamil Hindus. There is no historicity to this, what so ever.
We really must abandon this idea, that we are in grip of a 6th century Sinhala-Buddhist historical consiousness; this is a recent, colonial construction.Treating products of colonial interventions as a timeless essence adds to our difficulties, not allowing for the necessary plurality of imaginings of Lanka’s history to emerge in present times.