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Freedom to think and will to doubt



By Prof. Kirthi Tennakone

We imagine, dream and think all the time. Mentally pose questions and ponder doubtfully. Thinking is a fundamental human right, not stoppable by force, rules and regulations or law, but influenced by experience and education.

We also divulge our thoughts as opinions or remarks. This is freedom of expression, a cherished principle protected as a human right.

Democratic nations follow constitutionally incorporated enactments to safeguard freedom of expression, either by speech, writing or symbolic display. It is also the right most feared by offenders and the corrupt, and therefore frequently infringed or misinterpreted. Human advancement in all spheres of activity is a direct consequence of free thought and its expression.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaims: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Freedom of expression is vast but sometimes restrictive for reasons of decency, discrimination and intentional social disharmony. Objectionable expressions of thought happen. The prudent way to deal with such instances, when there is no harmful action, would be to allow social dialogue to dilute the issue. Rarely, judicial decisions need to be sought to impose punishments. Unfortunately, those who hide heinous crimes under the carpet often jump to propose legal action.

Some governments, while honoring freedom of thought and expression in their constitutions, also enlist things that are restricted or make amendments to that effect; their ambiguity leaves room for misinterpretation to suppress dissent.

An aspect of dissent is casting doubt in the absence of evidence and logic. We are accustomed to believing without questioning and taking things for granted. Concepts and stories in religion, tradition, culture or statements perpetuated by politicians are entertained and believed without argument. Many resort to political ideologies, either leftist or rightist, when both have no rationality. Established beliefs are rarely doubted and those who deviate are suppressed, ridiculed or punished.

Around seventy years ago, in my ancestral village, there lived a religiously inclined, inquisitive woman named Maie, who read a lot, although her schooling was not beyond the fifth standard. One day after a sermon in the temple, Maie questioned the priest saying, “How can there be a supreme comfort in nirvana without life and she prefers to be reborn?” Other listeners were furious or some laughed, telling she has not understood dharma. The priest called it blasphemy and advised her not repeat such utterances. The talk of the village for weeks was Maie’s question. However, unlike today, there were no calls for her arrest. I consider Maie a free thinker.

Buddhism does not forbid skepticism. Although there are different interpretations of the Kalama Sutra. Buddha clearly told Kalama’s that it is entirely proper to doubt and question religious teachings. Western thinkers later emphasised doubt as the path to the advancement of knowledge.

French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes said: “Doubt leads to wisdom and helps the acquisition of knowledge. And a real seeker of truth should, at least once in his life, doubt as far as possible all possible things.”

Francis Bacon said: “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts, but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties”

In his essay “The Will to Doubt”, the British philosopher and logician, Bertrand Russel says: “None of our beliefs are quite true; all have at least a penumbra of vagueness and error. The methods of increasing the degree of truth in our beliefs are well known; they consist in hearing all sides, trying to ascertain all the relevant facts, controlling our own bias by discussion with people who have opposite bias, and cultivating a readiness to disregard any hypothesis which has proved inadequate. In religion and politics, on the contrary, though there is as yet nothing approaching scientific knowledge, everybody considers it de rigueur to have dogmatic opinion, to be backed by inflicting starvation, prison and war, and to be carefully guarded from argumentative competition with any different opinion.”

Russell also commented that if people did not blindly resort to unfounded beliefs, nine-tenths of the evils in the world would be cured. Perhaps what he said is more relevant to Sri Lanka than any other nation in the world. Corruption, crime and sinister political manipulations are at their extremes and society remains largely indifferent. No critical mass exists to voice justice and demand fairness.

We are poor in novelties owing to the rarity of free thinking. A culture that adheres to ideas for which there is no evidence or logic would not be conducive to innovation. The ‘educated’ elite subscribe to superstition and occultism. If parents, teachers in schools and dons in universities are dogmatic and consider education only as an avenue to gain skills, can we expect creativity?

We pretend to be the greatest Buddhist nation. Might be by declaration, propaganda and blind ritualism, but probably the most indifferent when it comes to following the teachings of Buddha. Cruelties to fellow human beings and animals go unheard, but trivial incongruences in faith are lambasted as ‘blasphemy’. And so many preaching and giving alms. Are they to grasp ethics and follow them and humanitarianism or mere ritualistic affairs to be forgotten later?

All religions have served humanity unprecedently by inculcating ethical values in society. The politics of religion brought forth dogmatism, discouraging the will to doubt. Currently and historically, rulers have come forward as the saviors of religion to cover-up their deeds against the very principles of that religion!

The Greeks were the first to hint at free inquiry and because of their influence, the West advanced and overtaking the East. Communism, as it originated in the West, promised to eliminate religious and superstitious dogmatism through science, but its ideologically biased approach, suppressed freedom of expression. Socialist political parties in Sri Lanka, at the beginning, stood against religious superstition. Brewing nationalism in Sri Lanka after independence seems to have wrongly considered traditional dogmatic views as an integral part of our culture which needed to be enshrined and accepted. Rabindranath Tagore vehemently opposed similar trends in India after independence

Dogmatism hinders all human endeavors. It can be relieved only by encouraging freedom of thought and expression, respecting the will to doubt and dissent and realising that the purpose of education is not entirely to acquire information and skills. If one single reason can be identified as the cause of our incapacity, it is the dominance of irrationality in thought at all levels.

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Speculations about origin of placename, ‘Negombo’ (Meegamuwa)



By Chandre Dharmawardana,

A writer using the pseudonym GADS, replying to a previous article regarding Negombo, states (The Island 17 Sept. 2023), “It is also historically recorded that the name Negombo is the Portuguese corruption of its Tamil name Neerakolombu and the Sinhala name Meegamuwa which means and comes from old Tamil Naval terminology Meegamam Pattnam. Meegamam denotes a naval captain”.

Unfortunately, the author does not give the reference to this “historical record” or elaborate on the details available from any early sources, Portuguese and Dutch maps etc. Furthermore, he asserts that “Meegamam” denotes a naval captain. Here again, this is certainly not so in any of the Dravidian languages, or Indic languages. No such usage exists even in Arabic and other languages of the Hebrew family, as far as we can ascertain.

A “naval captain” in Arabic would be Kabtin Bahriun, while the Tamil usage would be Katarpatai Kaptain in modern usage. In old Tamil words like Nakutawere used [1]. However, “gama, gamuwa, gammam, kamam, etc., are all refer “village”.

I have collected what is known about the place name Negombo in the website listed at the end of this note [2]. I quote from it below:

The name Meegamuva is believed to refer to a village (gamuwa) which was reputed for its honey (mee). Thus, the Mahavamsa-based tradition has it that honey was procured from this region for Queen Vihara Maha Devi, (2 century BCE)[3], initially from a honeycomb found in a boat turned upside down. It could also refer to a forest of Mee trees, Madhuca Longifolia (Koenig). It is well known that placenames have been based on vegetation and prominent land marks; in our view, this is the most likely source of the name.

Another interesting legend is that the name is related to “Nihumbala, the nephew of the Yakka king Raavana. The Tamil form, Neerkozimpu may mean water, and ‘kozimpu’ is sometimes claimed to mean ‘village’, but such a meaning is not recognised in standard Tamil Lexicons. Also, the Tamil name originally applied only to the lagoon-like area and not to the whole of Meegamuwa. Given the ancient histoofthe village, kozimpu may have comefrom the sinhala kalapuva adorned with the Tamil “nir”.

Maya Oya flows north of Negombo and falls into the ocean near Kochchikade. This was an early center of the cinnamon trade, set up by the Moors in medieval times. The Portuguese ousted them in the 16th century and built a fort, and established a strong Catholic religious centre here. The Dutch ousted the Portuguese in the 1644 CE. The ruins of the fort, with its fine archway marked ‘1672’ can still be seen. In 1796 the British took over Negombo, by which time the cinnamon trade had declined. The town has remained strongly Roman catholic to this day.

Frivolous folk-lore etymology attriutes the name ‘Negambo’ to nikam biruva. That is, a dog ‘just barked’ is said to be the response given by a non-comprehending bystander to a colonial who asked ‘what is the name of this town? While GADS recognizes such frivolities for what they are, the claim that Meegamuwa or Neer-kozimpu comes from the Tamil words for “sea captain” can be very intriguing if anyone takes it seriously; one cannot find a source for substantiating such a claim in any reputed Tamil lexicon or Tamil literary source.

[1]Madras Tamil Lexicon.

[2] index.html

[3] Mahawamsa, XXII, verse 48.

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How to conserve electricity at home and workplace



Going through my old paper clippings, I came across the following news item which is more applicable today when the country is facing a severe energy crisis on how to conserve or restrict the use of electricity at Offices and other working places.

There are several ways of conserving electricity at home, offices and other workplaces. It is absolutely necessary to do so because electricity is harmful for our environment and the planet we live in.

Here is how

(a)  Unplug all electrical appliances in the kitchen when not in use, except the refrigerator. This includes coffee pots, sandwich toasters, blenders and ovens. These appliances use small amounts of electricity when they are left in standby mode.

(b)  When it comes to washing, soap them first and then open the tap halfway to wash them.

(c)   Use the washing machine once a week. Try washing some of your lighter clothes by hand and save jeans and other heavy clothing for the washing machine

(d)  When drying your clothes, do not use the dryer unless very necessary. Hang wet clothes on a line in the backyard which is an easy way of drying them and clothes dry so easily during the day in this intensely hot weather.

(e)  Change the traditional light bulbs for energy saving bulbs. The garden lights can be replaced with solar powered lights. In the kitchen, the refrigerator is out of direct sunlight and not next to the oven. Avoid putting hot dishes in the refrigerator as it will have to work harder to cool the dish, therefore wait for a while for the dish to cool and then put it in the refrigerator.

(f)    Unplug any phone or laptop chargers when they are not in use.

(g)  Unplug the computer when it is not in use. This is very important because it can get very badly damaged if it is plugged in during a thunderstorm. You may not even be at home during the storm, so it is advisable to unplug the computer when it is not being used. Do not leave the computer switched on for long hours.

(h)  Unplug the television set and gaming consoles too, as they can get damaged if they are on standby mode during a thunderstorm.

(i)    Keep DVD players, TVs and other audio and stereo equipment plugged into a multi-port which can be turned off with one switch. This saves electricity.

(j)    Turn off the lights, fans and air-conditioner when you leave the room. Remember that you do not need the lights switched on during the day.

(k)  Do not use electric appliances such as vacuum cleaners and use the broom instead.


Via e-mail

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Some lesser known historical facts



The Greek women in ancient Greece realised to their utter dismay that their husbands were always fighting wars overseas. One brave Greek woman, Lysistrata, organised a women’s front with the sole purpose of denying their husbands the marital pleasures unless they remained at home to fulfill their marital duties

Socrates, known for his wisdom, was invited by the King of Sparta, which had waged war against Greece, to be an honorary citizen of Sparta. He gracefully turned down the offer as he valued the democratic way of life in Athens. As he was always arguing with fellow Athenians neglecting household work his wife used abusive language on him in the presence of his companions. Socrates continued with his arguments when his wife in utter exasperation treated him with a plate full of dish water. Socrates merely said to his companions that after thunder comes the rain.

In the Olympic games held during the peaceful times the athletes ran the races naked. Women were not permitted to attend them. The penalty was death if a woman was discovered breaking the law. On one occasion a middle-aged woman was caught breaking the law. As she happened to be the mother of a celebrated athlete she was forgiven.

Julius Caesar was caught dressed as a woman in a women only club in Rome. He was not punished since he had gone there only to meet his lover who saved him. On another occasion he had to offer a bribe to the ship’s captain, a pirate, who threatened to throw him overboard into the Mediterranean Sea.

Isaac Newton was accused by Robert Hooke for plagiarizing when the former introduced the gravitational constant in his book Principia Mathematica. Hooke was the Secretary of the Royal Society of which Newton was the President. Hooke was the person who encouraged Robert Knox to write the book “Historical Relations…” Newton was accused by the German philosopher Leibniz of plagiarism as the latter had published the calculations of infinitesimal calculus before Newton. There was a rule in the Universities that dons should take holy orders. The king exempted Newton from this obligation. Newton’s denial of the divinity of Jesus and the trinity did not earn any punishment from the ecclesiastical authorities. The complementary part of calculus, integral calculus, had been discovered by Archimedes in the second century BC. After the conquest of Greece by Rome the intellectual supremacy and the culture of Greece saw a gradual decline. It was known that the burial place of Archimedes was a much-venerated place visited by Greeks. The Romans did not show such veneration and the burial place got neglected. However, when Cicero, a Roman intellectual, lawyer and writer became the governor of Athens in the second half of the first century BC, he visited the burial site and had the monument restored to its former state. He noticed the epitaph wherein the symbol of a sphere within a cylinder had been inscribed.

A century later Rome conquered England, killing the English queen Boudica. There stands the figure of this queen on a horse (close to the underground tube station Westminster) with words emblazoned on the flanks in poetic language indicating that while England was colonised by Rome, England had conquered half of the world.

Guy Fawkes was the man who made an attempt to set fire to the Parliament building. This incident is known as the “Gunpowder plot”. He failed in his attempt and was executed. This incident may be compared to the attempt by a JVP member who threw a hand grenade when a Cabinet meeting was taking place in the Parliament building with the President JRJ presiding. The culprit got away.

When a German prince from Hanover became George the First of England, he found life in England very dull as he could not speak English. So, he invited his old German friend Handel, the musician, to be his companion. It was during this time that Handel composed his famous “Water music” and many operas.

Dr. Leo Fernando

Talahena, Negombo

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