By Dr Upul
“As far as I am concerned, there is more than enough wisdom in Buddhism, even if I put the rebirth hypothesis on hold.” This was one of the personal comments received following my article “Is there an Antarabhava: Missing link in rebirth?” (The Island, 26 May) and was from a theoretical physicist with a special interest in quantum theory. Naturally, he is seeking a mechanistic explanation for the process of rebirth and before coming to this conclusion, he argued the case as follows:
“Assume that there is some mental structure which contains memory and life information in its structural features. We don’t know what it is made of. It is obviously not hard matter. Let us say it is some form of energy – e.g., electromagnetic energy – but it could be some unknown form of energy- some type of ‘dark energy’. That is, the mental structure which is assumed to persist after death of an individual is not a random structure (maximum entropy), but has features corresponding to information (information means decrease of entropy) about the person who ‘died’. Now, all things that physics has observed in the universe, be it black holes, matter, dark matter, stars, radiation, electromagnetic waves, gravitational energy, etc., all obey the second law of thermodynamics. Accordingly, order spontaneously changes into disorder: Hot bodies spontaneously cool, bringing everything to a common low temperature: Pure phases become mixed and ‘dirty’: Smooth flowing rivers develop eddies and turbulence: Even a rock inscription undergoes weathering and erosion: Information becomes disinformation, etc.”
“You can keep things ordered, or retain information safely by constantly renewing them, etc., but all this costs energy. A living being strives to maintain a persisting cellular and neural structure during its lifetime and the organism does this by using the energy supplied by the food to rebuild the cells and neurons that normal decay. But even this has a limit. Death occurs when the decay processes exceed the rapidity of the rebuilding processes (the balance between anabolic and catabolic processes is lost). After that, let us say this “persisting mental structure” escapes the body and becomes the “antarabhava” object but the information encoded in the “antarabhava” structure will begin to rapidly become disordered due to the 2nd law of thermodynamics. The longer it has to stay (e.g., years), the more decayed and disorganized it becomes. This also happens to a computer memory if the memory chips (magnetic records) are left alone, and not re-energized each time you start up your computer. As I see no source of energy to maintain this “antarabhava” structure, I expect it to decay as fast, or even faster than the more solid neural structures of the brain that would have decayed once the oxygen and ATP stop arriving into the brain.”
With my limited knowledge of physics, last acquired over six decades ago, I cannot argue with a retired professor of theoretical physics who now functions as a principal research scientist in the National Science Research Council of Canada. In any case, he is in very good company as even some learned members of the Sangha too cast doubts on the concept of rebirth. One of them is Ajahn Sumedho, former US Navy Medic who served in the Korean War, one of the senior Western representatives of the Thai forest tradition of Theravada Buddhism and was the Abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery, UK, from its consecration in 1984 until his retirement in 2010. In Ajahn Sumedho’s book ‘The Sound of Silence’ there is a chapter named, “Questions About Awareness and Rebirth” wherein he states:
“Rebirth,” like “reincarnation,” is a term that’s used generally referring to having gone through a series of different lives, and then there are various views about whether once you get reincarnated into human form where you can go, become a frog again or something like that. But the truth of the matter is, nobody really knows. The historical Buddha refers to previous lives in the scriptures and things like this, but for me these things are speculative.”
Unfortunately, I am not in touch with Ajahn Sumedho to get personal verification but, very fortunately, am in regular touch with Bhante Dhammika of Australia, who makes excellent contributions to this publication. Responding to my humble request for his comments on my article, he sent links to two posts on his blog which are well worth reading. However, most interesting was this reply of his, to a comment on the post on rebirth: “You will notice that very little on my blog is given to rebirth, pretty much because, like you, it is not a subject that particularly interests me.” This too confirms what I stated in my article that rebirth is of less importance to Buddhists by conviction than to Buddhists by birth, who tend to frown upon anyone even questioning the concept of rebirth.
These are some of the interesting comments on rebirth in Bhante Dhammika’s post (http://sdhammika.blogspot.com/2013/03/the-buddha-on-rebirth.html):
“The first Buddhists regarded life (jiva) as a process of consciousness moving through a succession of bodies, death being only a momentary event to this process. This phenomenon is sometimes called `moving from womb to womb’ (Sn.278) or more precisely, rebirth (punabbhava, D.II,15). Later Buddhist thinkers explained rebirth in complex and minute detail – death-proximate kamma (marana samma kamma), last though moment (cuti citta), relinking (patisandhi), the underlying stream of existence (bhavanga sota), etc. Interestingly, none of this is mentioned in the Sutta Pitaka, much of it is not even to be found in the Abhidhamma Pitaka. It is the product of speculation dating from the early centuries CE onward. This is not to say that such concepts are valueless, but it is important to distinguish between early, late and very late Dhamma concepts. Buddha mentions rebirth often enough but what does he say about the actual process of rebirth? The answer is `Not very much’.”
“Some Buddhist schools teach that after death, consciousness hovers in an in-between state (antarabhava) for a certain period before being reborn. Others, such as the Theravadins, assert that rebirth takes place within moments of consciousness disengaging from the body. The Buddha suggests that there is an interval between death and rebirth and spoke of the situation `when one has laid down the body (i.e., died) but has not yet been reborn’ (S.IV,400). On several other occasions He said that for one who has attained Nirvana there is `no here, no there, no in-between'(S.IV,73), presumably referring to this life, the next life, and the in-between state. When the consciousness is in transition between one life and the next it is referred to as gandhabba, and the Buddha said that this gandhabba has to be present for conception to take place (M.I,265)”
“In traditional Buddhist countries but particularly in Sri Lanka, young children occasionally come to public attention after claiming that they can remember their former life. Some of these claims have been carefully studied by Prof. Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia. His researches have been published by the university as Cases of the Reincarnation Type, Vol.I,1975; Vol.II,1978; Vol.III, 1980 and Vol.IV,1983. While not being easy to read, Stevenson’s research has a high degree of scientific credibility and objectivity. According to the Buddha, just before the attainment of enlightenment some individuals have an experience called the knowledge of former lives (pubbe nivasanussati, D.I,81). During this experience, vivid and detailed memories of one’s former lives flash through the mind.”
Bhante Dhammika’s comments on the last thought and rebirth are very interesting (http://sdhammika.blogspot.com/2013/04/last-thought-moment.html):
“While the Buddha understood the mind to be a ‘flow’ or ‘stream’ of mental events (vinnanasota), later Abhidhamma thinkers speculated that it was actually a string of individual thought moments (cittavithi) arising and passing away at great rapidity. Later still, the theory developed that the last thought moment (cuticitta) a person has before they die will determine their next life. This idea, a part of Theravada orthodoxy, seems to be an unjustified development of the Buddha’s teachings and at odds with his idea of kamma and the efficacy of morality. The Tipitaka records many occasions where the Buddha counselled people who were either dying or critically ill. If the last thought is really crucial to one’s destiny one would expect such occasions to be the most appropriate time for Him to mention it, and yet there is no record of Him ever having done so. Nor did He mention it anywhere else. Mahanama once confided to the Buddha his anxiety about dying at a time when his mind was distressed and confused, thinking it might result in him having a bad rebirth. The Buddha reassured him that because he had for a longtime developed faith, virtue, learning, renunciation and wisdom, he had nothing to fear if such a thing should happen (S.V,369).”
Perhaps, some of these responses justify this question I raised in concluding that article: “By denying the concept of Antarabhava, has Theravada Buddhism unnecessarily disregarded a vital link that may explain rebirth?”
My good friend Dr Upali Abeysiri, who nearly missed donning the sacred robes in his youth, continued the study of Dhamma in addition to becoming a very successful Plastic Surgeon, practicing in Sri Lanka and the UK. The publication of his book on Abhidhamma, simplifying the complex concepts, is delayed due to the pandemic. He has already translated Asvaghoa’s Buddhacharita, the epic poem detailing the life of Gautama Buddha composed in the early second century CE, which was published by the Buddhist Cultural Centre. He is an unwavering believer in rebirth and posed this question in support:
“Some of us also have natural abilities not inherited. I can write Sinhala poetry as soon as I want. No one in my family has written poetry. Words come to me very easily to rhyme. I translated Asvaghosa’s Buddhacharita into Sinhala poetry of over thousand stanzas. How did I get the ability? I only studied Sinhala to GCE O levels. Can you explain?”
He also referred to the recent case, shown in YouTube, of a six-year boy in a village named Naiwala who could talk fluently in English and Hindi, in addition to Sinhala, and remembered his past as a pilot in the Indian air force who crashed in a desert area. His parents are not well educated, father being a motor mechanic and the mother a housewife. Upali told me to apply Ockham’s razor and that I would come with rebirth. I checked on Ockham’s razor and found it to be a principle from philosophy enunciated by William of Ockham, a 14th century Franciscan Friar, which goes as follows: Suppose an event has two possible explanations, the explanation that requires the fewest assumptions is usually correct. Another way of saying it is that the more assumptions you have to make, the more unlikely the explanation is. It is said that Occam’s razor applies especially in the philosophy of science but is also true in everyday life.
He is quite correct that there are many things in life which defy explanation and rebirth may be one possible explanation. Talent: is it God given? Inherited? Result of experience in past lives? A lot to think about!
Upali Abeysiri too supports my contention that Theravada has lost out by disregarding the intermediate state, antarabhava, after death. He feels this was done to prevent misinterpreting antarbhavaya as Athma, soul. Some of his arguments are:
Virginia University team has, by analysis of incidents of genuine near-death experiences, has shown the mind can survive for a short period out of the body and non-functioning sensory organs, hearing, seeing etc. Theravada cannot explain this phenomenon but intermediate state of Yogavacara Abhdhamma (common to all sects of Mahayana) can explain this. The intermediate state may exist for at least seven days, maintained by clinging to existence and also nutrients obtained from smell and may even come back anytime to the original body, if the life faculty is maintained.
During the third Sangayana, the Theravadins tried to edit antarabhavaya out by maintaining there is no gap between last consciousness of present life and the first of next life. Kathavatthu book of Tripitaka was written for it and other topics. However, they did not edit the Tripitaka to erase traces of antarabhavaya but added commentaries to justify. These are some that remain:
1 Mahathanhakkhaya sutta in Majjima nikaya: Buddha says, ”Bhikkhus, three conditions are essential for a pregnancy. Union of mother (ovum) and father(sperm) and the presence of a gandhabba” The commentary gives the meaning gandabba as the death consciousness of a being who is to be reborn.
2 In the Karaniya matta sutta, ‘ bhuthava (borne) sambhavesiva (to be borne) are described as last two variety of beings to project metta. The commentary says those who have come into the egg or womb and those who are waiting to come out of the egg or womb are described thus.
3 Udana: Bahiya is told by Buddha ”Bahiya if you follow my instructions, you will not be existing in this life, next life or in between the two” (ubhaya mantharena). The commentary cannot explain it and says it is a figure of speech.
4 Abhidhamma of Tehravada explains five types of anagamins who die without attaining enlightenment are born in the fine material worlds called Suddhavasa. Here the first type is called those who attain enlightenment while in the intermediate state. Again, the commentary gives lame excuses by saying as soon as they are born attaining enlightenment.
Upali Abeysiri opines that dependent-origination (Patichcha Samuppadaya) too could be better explained with the incorporation of antarabhava and has a very plausible explanation regarding the type of cases investigated by Ian Stevenson and others:
“As to the rebirth stories, more than 80% occur following sudden deaths such as drowning or accidents. At such deaths, the last thought process does not end in 7 javana moments as in normal consciousness. The last two occur in rebirth. This is why they may still remember past life details. After six or seven years, these memories fade away as ours’ of infancy do. As their kamma was obstructed by sudden death due to another kamma, they are born as humans again, whatever the last thought was.
Whilst thanking all who made me extend my thought processes further, my search for the truth about rebirth continues!
Master gardener’s role in transforming Singapore into ‘garden city’
By B. Nimal Veerasingham
Soil from time immemorial has been regarded the womb of mother earth – creating, shaping, and nurturing life. Recognising the pivotal role soil plays in sustaining life through greenery, water, food, ecology, weather and organisms, human livelihood continues on its familiar path. Life, which originated from the earth, is recycled as ‘ashes to ashes – earth to earth’, while most earthly elements are present in the human genome. The cycle of life continues.
The most visible extensions of soil are arboreal and tropical, deciduous and dense canopies. Greenery became the pulse of human existence, incubating larger settlements and civilisations. There is nothing possibly more satisfying than witnessing mother nature in one’s own backyard, or, for that matter, every available public space.
In 1965, when the father of Singapore, the late Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), a Cambridge educated Lawyer, started off with a clean slate in a Singapore separated from Malaysia, which paved the way for an economic revolution, his inheritance was a forlorn nation. There was no reliable water source to even dream of greening the landscape. After all, redeeming masses from exploitation, crime, disorderliness while ushering in economic growth and hope was a more immediate requirement than providing secondary sustainable green space for the sake of livability and healthier environment. ‘Let’s put the house in order and fire the economic engine, and we will create an environment, both aesthetic and an internalised social asset for the citizenry to appreciate livability’, was the order in which the Southern tip of the Malay peninsula placed its priorities.
The founding father LKY envisioned a wholesome meritocratic outline, long term social and economic planning as opposed to populist policy, at times shaped by the evolving experiences elsewhere, to shape what others might have defined as daydream.
Green historians strolling through the landscape of Singapore might come across the obvious milestone, envisioned in 1967 and started with the very first official ‘Tree planting day’ in November 1971. LKY foresaw this attempt, to transform the country into First World standards, as per his memoir ‘From Third World to First’. But is there something that is not visible other than the obvious?
The majority, almost 70 percent of Singapore’s population is made up of those with Chinese ancestry. Confucianism is the backbone of Chinese thinking and lifestyle in many respects. It speaks strongly of the rhythm of nature’s ability to sustain life, both its biological and socio-cultural renditions. Its holistic organic continuum makes nature interdependent and interrelated to all aspects of harmonious human life. Landscaped, planned gardens or efforts to incorporate soil and greenery, are part of this grand equation, to bring nature closer to home. It is no secret that LKY strongly adopted practical realities including in early thinking, in his efforts to make Singapore a ‘garden city’, or the later attempt to place the ‘city in a garden’.
The art of harmonising nature with human lives by way of landscaped gardens by the Chinese Emperors has been observed well over 3,000 years ago, earliest recorded during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC). Many features were added to synchronise waterways, vegetation, rocks, galleries, etc., besides the earthen or wall backdrops to add an element of surprise to suddenly unfolding spectacular scenery far and near. Explorers like Marco Polo (1300 AC) and early Jesuit priests (1600 AC) wrote in detail about the Chinese gardens which later became the inspiration for landscaped gardens among European royalty.
The earlier garden concepts were mostly undertaken by rulers who not only created the same for relaxation and pleasure, but also to impress others. This is no different from the present-day home gardeners. The same is true in a sense, of Singapore’s ambitious economic agenda. They realised the need to impress investors, distinguishing themselves from other developing countries, while also softening the harshness of urbanisation for its population. An orderly, manicured and planned green abode without litter, graffiti, or crime, provides an ambiance of a desirable, well-organised destination for investors and visitors. ‘Clean & Green’ became the slogan where land was specifically set aside for tree planting, green buffers and park development; even overhead foot bridges, lamp posts and flyovers were camouflaged with creepers and climbers to transform the dreary concrete jungle into life.
LKY, at the beginning, turned towards schoolchildren to fight entrenched old habits, getting them involved in valuing greenery, thereby taking the message home to the grown-ups, to prevent walking over plants and grass, trampling flowerbeds and saplings and damaging with motor vehicles. Whether his interest in green ecology was inborn or born out of necessity is hard to gauge, but he poured over many models and of ecosystems around the world during his many overseas visits. He discovered that in Paris a drainage system was built below the pavements to sustain broad tree-lined boulevards, and the reason rolling meadows of New Zealand cannot be replicated in Singapore.
In fact, he brought two experts from New Zealand under the ‘Colombo Plan’ technical assistance programme to learn how rain water dripping from an equatorial forest as found in New Zealand, replace torrential rain that washes away the topsoil in Singapore, with its tree canopy. He frequently sent out expert teams all along the equator to find different vegetation that could thrive locally. He even trapped rainwater falling on the roadways, filtering the grime and oil to water the vegetation under the flyovers, in some cases even splitting the flyovers for sunlight to reach underneath. Hardheaded and pragmatic, he was not ideological or dogmatic, but willing to try many methods to get at what worked best. ‘A well-kept garden is a daily effort and would demonstrate to outsiders, the people’s ability to work hard, organize and to be systematic,’ he would say.
Fundamental to any dream of greening is water. There was no natural water source in Singapore. The entire water supply had to be imported from neighbouring Malaysia. Yet, imported water was cut down by more than 50 percent, and Singapore became a world leader in reclaimed water technology, setting up rainwater reservoirs and desalination.
Providing gracious natural amenities all across the city state was also a matter of equality, thought the planners, where a network of over 300 parks and four nature reserves were created spreading over the island almost the size of Colombo. Singapore was consistently ranked within top 10 of world’s greenest cities by leading global organisations, with further ambitious plans for cleaner energy models in transportation, public buildings and landfills by 2030.
The economic engine was in full swing in the late 1980s as the City State was ready to expand the green movement to provide greater space for leisure activities and to rejuvenate the population with parks and connecting green corridors, allocating more than half a billion Singapore dollars.
The annual tree planting week, which eventually expanded into the clean and green campaign, was aimed at providing a mental and physical stimuli for the population, in a tropical garden city setting. LKY mentioned the initiative as a crucial strategy for the wellbeing of Singapore, and never missed an annual tree planting event until his death at the age of 91. The campaign grew from 150,000 in 1974 to almost 1.4 million in 2014. The 162-year-old Singapore Botanical garden, being the crown green jewel, glares in its testimony as being the only tropical garden honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Being ranked high in UN Human Development index as well as having the second highest GDP per capita in the world with longest life expectancy and lowest infant mortality was no accident. As one of four Asian Tiger economies with limited land area (728 Sq KM), Singapore continuously evolves from labour intensive industries to high end technological incubators and brain intensive software industries with less labour. Their economic innovation exemplified in diversifying digital technological opportunities is key to staying ahead of others to ensure economic supremacy. As part of this evolution, Singapore has started exporting expertise of urban industrial parks and residential complexes through its subsidiaries of national agencies, notably to China and Indonesia.
For all its glory of using nature for the benefit of the population’s physical and mental well being and productivity, there are critics who associate the attempts with social engineering and the state’s heavy-handed interference in individual freedom. They weigh in with arguments of Confucian influence where the elders or the State knows best and decides for the rest. Some critics point out that the whole green revolution is a pretext to keep the population within the watchful perimeters of large housing estates (91 percent home ownership), where they are watched, controlled and given directions.
But to all critics, Singaporean planners’ response is that the City State simply follows what the democratically elected lawmakers have enacted as statutes; the rule of law prevails. Corruption of any sort is severely dealt with. Nepotism and ethnic favoritism are legally barred and diligently followed in all areas of civic administration, to the books.
As the interwoven tropical topography of the region was ideal for spices, empires vied for control for supremacy over the aromatic gold, which changed the economic prospects of the region forever. Though the forced takeovers provided trading infrastructures and routes, the economic base needed to be reinvented with times, towards the long-term betterment of its inhabitants.
Among its pioneer influence of relevance, four dominant trees could be highlighted for their stronghold in Singapore from the time it was founded as a British Trading Post by Stamford Raffles in the early 19th century. Nutmeg and rubber trees changed the industrial world in two different but intrinsic ways, with economic expansion and industrial dynamism. Raffles himself planted Nutmeg trees after claiming Singapore, the spice that revolutionized baking globally. Singapore Botanical Gardens became the leading exporter of Rubber seeds whereby Malaya supplied almost half of the entire world supply of rubber. Banyan and Rain (Samanea saman) trees, known for their vast reach and circumference, have no promising economic purpose, limited to providing shade.
What the model of Singapore foretells in terms of an economic miracle is that, as Lee Kuan Yew found out from his vast exposure and experience as the Chief Gardener of Singapore, the economic diversity and resilience of the likes of nutmeg and rubber trees have to be replicated and developed. But the characters of the Rain and Banyan tree in particular have to be avoided at all cost in order for the model to work, let alone succeed.
Like the parasitic Banyan tree eventually kills its host, corruption in any form would kill the very foundation of any economic model––borrowed, replicated or home-grown.
A tribute: Sumana Aloka Bandara
Top and bottom photos show Bandara with his theatre troupe
By Uditha Devapriya
Photographs of Bandara
by Manusha Lakshan
“That the man who wrote these plays wasn’t mentioned in the State Drama Advisory Board’s ‘Playwrights of the ‘60s baffles me even today.” (Sunil Mihindukula)
Sunil Mihindukula was referring to Sumana Aloka Bandara. When my friend Chathura Pradeep broke the news to me of Bandara’s passing away last Monday, I first wondered how many people, particularly young people, would have heard of his name. In the heady years of Sinhala theatre, in the early 1960s, Bandara lived and breathed theatre. If his works aren’t as remembered today as they ought to be, they were immensely popular then. His sole achievement, for those who have the foggiest notion of what he did, seems to have been introducing Malini Fonseka to the stage. Yet this isn’t all he did.
In much the same way Sarachchandra became a product of his era, Bandara epitomised the cultural zeitgeist of the times he lived in. He counted among his contemporaries G. D. L. Perera and Premaranjith Tilakaratne, as well as the formidable Sugathapala de Silva. Critics invariably refer to this generation as the children of 1956, but they were more correctly the pioneers who made 1956 possible: hailing from a subrural middle-class, educated in English, they lived and revelled in a bilingual twilight between West and East, studying Shakespeare, Becket, the kitchen sink realists, and kabuki with as much dexterity as they did traditional dramatic forms. I lamented the passing away of this era when Premaranjith Tilakaratne died four years ago. With Bandara’s demise, the circle seems dismally complete.
Sumana Aloka Bandara was born on October 31, 1940 in Diullegoda, near Nikaweratiya. He obtained his primary education at Diullegoda Rajaye Pasala and his secondary education at Vijayaba Maha Vidyalaya. At Vijayaba, he met Simon Nawagaththegama.
Apparently Simon had been quite a character: “he was almost always mulling over a book.” While the school hadn’t boasted of exceptional facilities, “it empowered us to explore our interests.” Against this backdrop, Bandara and Nawagaththegama ended up becoming great friends: “I sincerely believe that, to his dying day, I was the only childhood friend he kept in touch with.” Surprisingly for Nawagaththegama, however, “he never took part, neither was he called to participate, in the plays we were taken into.” Bandara remembered two plays in particular: Sarachchandra’s Pabavati and a radio drama called Alokaya.
“It was a heady time for playwrights. Pabavati, as you know, established Sarachchandra. The English critics began to notice him. I won’t say I was a big theatre fan but these things did not escape us. On the other hand, we were also exposed to the big screen.” Of the films he watched, he remembered “the Tamil ones the most, since they were frequently screened: M. G. Ramachandran and Anjali Devi were particular favourites.” No doubt these lit a fire in Bandara’s soul: “I wanted to go beyond my hometown, to Colombo if possible.”
In 1961 Bandara did just that. Working as a clerk at the Civil Aviation Department, he soon got to know people who had links to the theatre in the capital. “We watched as many films as we could, given that there was hardly anything else we could do in our free time, but more importantly we developed and nurtured an intense passion for drama.” Sooner or later these lovers of the theatre would get their shot at writing and producing their own plays, and the opportunity came, invariably, through their workplace.
“I was a member of the Government Clerical Services Union. We were tasked with the soliciting and procuring funds. One way we did that was by organising a drama festival. Through these festivals, I met a man called Dharmadasa Jayaweera. He mooted to us the idea of staging original plays. That’s how we formed our troupe. We called ourselves the S Thuna Kandayama (‘S. Thuna Group’), after the first initial of the names of the founders: S. Aloka Bandara, S. Dharmadasa Jayaweera, S. Karunatilake. By then Sugathapala (de Silva) had formed Ape Kattiya, and Premaranjith Tilakaratne 63 Kandayama.”
Somewhere in 1965, S. Thuna came up with Akal Wessa, their first production. The play, Bandara remembered, “contained three characters: a woman and her husband, plus a second man that woman falls for. The plot was based on a short story called ‘Trikonaya’ by Daya Ranatunga, from a collection of stories, Thuththiri Mal. Dharmadasa played the role of the man and I took up the character of the husband, but we had an issue with finding a girl to play the wife.” It seems they approached every thespian: “we went to Prema Ganegoda, Chandra Kaluarachchi, even Leoni Kothalawala. Being newcomers, we couldn’t make much of an impression. We had to fall back on a fresh face.”
Fortunately for Bandara, a friend of his from school working at the Treasury Department, by name Ekanayake, living in Wedamulla, a suburb in Kelaniya, was good friends with a family, one of whose daughters had taken part in several school based productions and won beauty contests. “He suggested her for the role and we went around inquiring whether she would like to take part. Her father was hell-bent against it. Eventually, through some miracle, she got permission, and came down to play the wife’s character to perfection.”
Despite its controversial subject matter, the play became a phenomenal success: “It ran on for more than 10 shows.” Sumitra Peries, talking to me about that period, remembered Akal Wessa as “revolving around an interesting theme and becoming popular among mainstream audiences.” Tissa Liyanasuriya, who, like Sumitra and her husband Lester, went to see every play he could, had gone to watch it with four friends, including Joe Abeywickrema. “Were it not for a problem that cropped up regarding the authorship of the text,” Liyanasuriya noted, “it would have become one of the most successful plays of its kind.”
Liyanasuriya remembered Akal Wessa for another reason: “the girl who played the wife’s role won Best Actress at the Drama Festival, and we selected her for our next film.” That girl was Malini Fonseka, and the film Punchi Baba. So much of an impression had she created in the minds of those who saw her that two other directors vied to take her in: G. D. L. Perera with Dahasak Sithuvili, and Lester James Peries with Akkara Paha. “Lester selected her as the protagonist’s sweetheart, and later cast her as his sister,” Sumitra recalled.
Akal Wessa was followed by three productions: Nidikumba (1967), Api Kawda (1969), and Kiri Kandulu (1972). With Nidikumba – which featured Nita Fernando, who had just entered the cinema – Bandara made yet another contribution to the theatre: while it was far from the first absurd Sinhala play, it was through that play that a Sinhala word for Absurd theatre was coined: “Vikara Rupa.” The term was Bandara’s.
Api Kawda was an exploration of rebirth against the backdrop of marriage life, while Kiri Kandulu delved into unemployment, uncertainty, and the transcendental love of a mother. By then, however, a new dramatic form had entered the stage, and as a result the era of Jayasena, Gunawardena, and Sarachchandra had to yield to that of Nawagaththegama, Hemasiri Liyanage, and Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, among others.
Amidst all this, Bandara recalled, “we faced the vagaries of life as they came to us: periods of intense poverty, joblessness, uncertainty. I took to writing novels and autobiographies. Sumana Mathaka and Patirikka, my memoirs, were published by Godage some time back. As for drama, well, I couldn’t return to it. Times had changed, I had a family to manage, and besides we were not in the 1960s, when it was possible to experiment in theatre and live a moderately comfortable life. We could no longer afford that life.”
If Bandara’s most enduring contribution to the theatre had been introducing Malini, this does not, and should not, belittle his other plays, and the lengths he went to stage them despite all obstacles. “It was a different time,” he smiled at me, bringing our conversation to an end. “A sonduru kalayak.” He may have been facetious there, but he was right. His death hence brings us a step closer to the end, not of that kaalaya, but of the memory of an entire yugaya. The Sinhala theatre, like the Sinhala cinema, has had many obituaries. This may be one among many; the latest, depressingly enough, of many more to come.
The writer can be reached at
That Serial Rape of Girl Child
by Dr D. Chandraratna
The writer was former Deputy Commissioner, Probation and Child Care (SLAS)
A/Professor Curtin University, Perth
Consultant, UNICEF, Social Care Project 2006
The United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child defines child prostitution as ‘the use of a child in sexual activities for remuneration or any other form of consideration.’ Therein a child is taken to mean anyone under the age of 18 years, The current episode of the serial rape of a girl child has caught the attention of many in the country and understandably so. We all are entitled to know more about it and in a sense it is genuinely everybody’s business for obvious reasons.
Official statistics at the National Child Protection Authority seem to suggest that child, related crimes are perpetually creeping up despite the many institutions, statutes and other state and non-state apparatuses brought in to stem the rise, alongside improved social conditions and law reform. We need to caution that rises in statistics could be due to better reporting and policing by state officials. On the contrary, there are child protection authorities that believe that those official figures, far from exaggerating, underestimate the real quantity of crime, leaving out many who do not get reported owing to a number of reasons. There is also scepticism in society that many schemes unveiled with fanfare as quick solutions to child crimes have not been implemented.
Why the sickening abhorrence
Leaving aside the emotional and affective arguments there are scientific reasons as to why this sordid episode is heart rending. First, working as a prostitute is dangerous and presents real risks to children. The body of a Sri Lankan child is often too small and malnourished to have intercourse with an adult man, and early sexual activity can be physically damaging for life. Young prostitution is also associated with poor health and substance use. Many child prostitutes are often already traumatised kids who have been abused. Pimps and traffickers manipulate children by using physical, emotional, and psychological abuse to keep them trapped in a life of prostitution. Venereal diseases run rampant. Children may also suffer from short–term and long–term psychological effects such as depression, low self-esteem, and feelings of hopelessness.
Secondly, technological advances, in particular the Internet, have facilitated the commercial sexual exploitation of children by providing a convenient worldwide marketing channel. Individuals can now use websites to advertise, schedule, and purchase sexual encounters with minors. Third, the overwhelming majority of clients are men, and at most time’s men of economic and social power who thrive on exploitation in their vocations. Fourth, child prostitution is clearly related to other forms of child sexual exploitation, such as trafficking and pornography; the precise links varying between different locations. Child prostitutes are filmed having perverse sex and that these images are stored, shared with others, and, in some cases, made commercially available. In the current episode the mobile phone has facilitated the despicable act of selling the services of this child.
Types of child prostitution
Child prostitution has a number of dimensions: trafficking, debt-bondage, prostitution supplementing family economies, ‘survival sex’, religiously sanctioned child prostitution and a few others. Debt bondage we already know from Bangkok and Phuket streets where intermediaries offer cash advances to parents to procure girls and boys under false pretences. The children are then sent to work in brothels, sometimes without their parents knowing the nature of the work they are involved in, working until they have paid back the debt. Finally, there are also other incredulous instances of religiously sanctioned child prostitution, such as the ‘devadasi’ cults of India, where girls are ritually married to a deity and are expected to have sex with intermediary priests or higher caste members of the community. These variants are operating in the newfound cults of major religions of the world and expose style sensational news hit the headlines from time to time.
Sri Lankan child prostitution:
A situational report
Let me explain the merits and demerits of our experience in the field and discuss serious flaws, which need to be improved if we are to contain the possible growth of these instances. This kind of gang raping little girls is becoming all too frequent in a hitherto conformist Sri Lankan society.
Sri Lankan child prostitution came to prominence in the time of the burgeoning tourist industry, alongside the height of the HIV infection. There have been claims that the demand for child prostitutes, in the developing world, rose as a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, because children are thought less likely to be infected and are therefore more favoured as sexual partners. There are also claims that some men believe that having sex with a virgin will cure them of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Literature says that similar claims were also made about syphilis in Victorian England.
Our research in the early 2000, conducted as part of UNICEF and the Ministry of Social Services, distinguished between situational and preferential abusers. Preferential abusers were habitual paedophiles that have an interest in either boys or girls only of a specific age. Situational abusers may well not have a particular sexual preference for underage prostitutes but will have sex only if circumstances yield an opening. The South Western coastal belt from Negombo to Tangalle was a haven for paedophiles arriving in the guise of genuine tourists. Evidence was plenty that these preferential paedophiles took residence in some tourist spots and were molesting beach boys, sometimes with parental consent. Parents and others who were benefitting from the sordid crime harassed our research staffs. The police were surprisingly quiet. In one encounter the mother who shouted, ‘my son will not be pregnant, so what does it matter to you’, chased the researcher out of a home. Such is the ignorance of the illiterate folk and the lure of good money.
Our Achievements on this front
The combined effort by the Ministry of Social services (which included Child Protection at the time) with UNICEF, operationalised a number of projects along the popular therapeutic remedies suggested by child experts. The themes we worked on were many. Very briefly (a) Training the cadre that prostituted children should be treated as victims, never as offenders, (2) Victim-sensitive interview techniques be used in all cases of child abuse, (3) Prostituted children be treated with respect and concern and should be encouraged to talk about their experiences, (4) A holistic approach when working with these children (5) Greater access to services; (6) Private court hearings rather than open courts; (7) Gender sensitive, and culturally appropriate services planned with victims; (8) Victims included in the process of identifying and developing solutions. (9) Professionals to make a concerted effort through information sharing and all stakeholders involved in developing, implementing, and/or overseeing strategies to prevent and address prostituted children and youth; (10) Stiffer penalties for all types of offenders.
We were weak on professionalism in the child protection services and to rectify that we drafted a Human Services Diploma (at graduate level) to cover the entire island. The entire judiciary was to be familiarised on the subject covering all 10 items noted above. The response that the judiciary extended to us including Supreme Court and High Court judges was admirable. The Judges participated with so much enthusiasm.
Sad to note that these programmes (costing over $100 Million) have been one off affairs and the courses themselves have been prostituted for money. Regret to note that this project, funded by, UNICEF came to nought for the unbending bureaucratic attitudes of general administrators who refused to accept any science that upsets their hard earned status and power. The $60 million spent to build Social Care Centres to transform casework practice are cattle sheds. Despicable is too soft an epithet to describe the reticence of bureaucrats. Given the length of this vast topic I will note, by way of a conclusion, a few issues that we must address to arrest further decay.
We are accelerating towards a moral abyss?
Firstly, like in many third world countries, the exploitation of children is still prevalent in domestic and commercial trades. Children who fall prey to sex crimes are generally the poorest in countries as Sri Lanka. This exploitation is rampant in Sri Lanka beyond reasonable bounds. Mark Suckerburg’s Facebook and Internet have catapulted societies, which were autocratic, but reasonably moral, into the moral ‘vacuum’ where pornography overwhelms online learning (trawling) as my friends from Colombo tell me. Hope they are wrong. When corruption has engulfed society, exploitation becomes the natural modus operandi. In COVID times we have seen how Asian societies made extortion of the dying without compunction. Lest you charge me for condescension let me state that capitalism in the West has an ethic still held tight both by fear of God, civility and stiffer penalties. Wonder whether readers saw how the Australian Prime Minister himself put down the plunder of toilet rolls at the beginning of the pandemic. Nothing untoward happened in trade and commerce ever since in Australia.
When I queried, the Chief monk, Rev Siri Sobitha, in our Perth Buddhist Temple, he wisely told me that Sri Lankans have given up the eternal truths (Dharma) as enunciated in the Angutthara Nikaya without any semblance of civility in our society. When a society, or an individual, discards ‘Hiri Oththappa’ there is unending decay. The simplest meaning, as our mothers have harped on us, is ‘Lajja Bhaya’. Are we on the doorstep of this Nadir?
Police – Protectors or Oppressors
What we observed then were police indifference and neglect. Abuse from the upholders of the law, manipulation of the poorest and most defenceless, and temptations to twist discretion into improper discrimination, improper bias, improper means and intransigence. In Sri Lanka uniformed patrolmen supplementing their meagre pay by small payments from myriads of drivers on the road is an open secret. Every instance of child prostitution had political or economic power links. Wonder whether police were voluntary molesters in this episode, too.
Bribery has become a way of life in highly bureaucratised countries as Sri Lanka. It is well known that bribery is necessary to oil the wheels of essential government services. Overzealous public officials have created unnecessary rules that invite corruption as part of acceptable practice. Corruption at all levels in the country is a chronic political illness. Corrupt police reflect a corrupt community where the government is corrupt and in similar measure the professions, businesses, industry and labour. And even the system of criminal justice is tainted.
The sentencing drama
A judge in sentencing, we believe, is guided by a single clear criterion, but it is by no means clear to the public. These crimes are like warfare against the community, touching new depths of consciousness. If criminals are brought to trial, the convictions must be commensurate with the public sentiments such that others will not commit such depredations. The punishments must deter would-be imitators. By the same token retribution has to be proportionate to the enormity of crime. The question of just deserts is important to the degree that punishments shall not exceed the guilt. This rape was vile, repulsive, demanding that it must be avenged, the perpetrators denounced but yet it must accord with the guilt and no more. As Bentham said ‘punishment itself is evil as crime and thus the judge should impose no more of it than the limit allowed’.
The court system is biased against the powerless child victims from poor environments. They are handicapped from the start for several reasons. The judgements given are seen as unfair. Unjustified prejudice, ignorance on the part of courts, poorly conducted police investigations, discrepancies due to the practices of individual judges, discriminatory practices of police, differential ability of defence counsel are insurmountable hurdles against the poor victims.
Finally in Sri Lanka it is difficult to quell public rumours about political interference at various stages in the proceedings. The case against the perpetrators of the Jaffna girl Vidya demonstrated the invisible hand of politics.
Let the citizenry be vigilant to stop this savagery.
Even four months after first jab antibodies generated by Covishield vaccine remain active – expert
Natural disasters affected 1,512,344 persons last year
New guidelines for weddings soon – Health Ministry
7-billion-rupee diamond heist; Madush splls the beans before being shot
The Burghers of Ceylon/Sri Lanka- Reminiscences and Anecdotes
Unfit, unprofessional, fat Sri Lankans
news3 days ago
J’pura University scientists: Sinopharm very effective against Delta variant
news6 days ago
The first virtual pre-school in Sri Lanka going cosmopolitan
Life style6 days ago
Sri Lanka’s Great Opportunity. Gotukola
Features6 days ago
WHO BURNT THE JAFFNA LIBRARY?
Life style6 days ago
Nelli – On the cusp of becoming the world’s next top superfood
Business4 days ago
Hayleys Fabric cuts carbon footprint by 15% with Sri Lanka’s largest solar roof
Sports6 days ago
Pressing the self destruction button
Sports5 days ago
Stunning Indian batting flattens Sri Lanka