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Living with forged sense of uniqueness

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Dr. Sarath Gamini de Silva’s article “Early education towards racial harmony” appearing in The Island of 3rd February (Midweek Review) contains commendable ideas towards eschewing socially acquired and divisive identities of race and religion. It begins describing how a baby, who is born with no ‘identities’ attached to her, gradually gets ‘labelled’ by family members, according to the ‘identification process’ of their culture. Thus, as the child grows, up, she gradually begins to define herself on the basis of the ‘stickers’ stamped on her.

Many have worked towards promoting ethnic harmony but few have attempted to look at the issue in more fundamental ways. Decades ago, Dr. E.W. Adikram, a free thinker and promoter of nonviolence, rejected ‘ethnicity’ offhand as a social construct.

In his article, “Isn’t the Nationalist a Mental Patient?” Adikaram argues how a child acquires a sense of racial identity through an unshakable process of conditioning. He says:

As that child, who is common to the entire human race grows up, he will be given a name and will be deemed to belong to a particular race or nationality. That child who… cannot discern fact from non-fact … accepts unthinkingly and unknowingly the nationality that has been thrust upon him. Having accepted it, he gradually comes to believe that he belongs to that particular nationality.

What he underlines is the subjection of a child to a tagging process whereby she is given a sense of belonging in a community of people who have been subjected to the same process as children. This is a multifaceted conditioning programme in which the child’s first language becomes the principal apparatus through which she constructs her identity, the ‘building blocks’ of which are as varied as family environment, customs, habits, beliefs, education, value systems and many other social and cultural factors, including religion. However, since all these formative experiences are laced through her first language, it becomes the principal marker of her identity. Thus a child born to Sinhala-speaking parents and subsequently adopted by Tamil-speaking ‘parents’ would identify herself as a Tamil, her first language being Tamil. Thus her intuitive identity or, ‘gut-feeling’ identity of herself, would be Tamil. Accordingly, as a grown-up, she may vigorously fight for Tamil rights!

Now, how can society label her? Is she Tamil or Sinhalese? Does she have a ‘real’ ethnic identity and if so what is it? If she ever gets to know that her biological parents were Sinhala speaking, what factors would influence her to decide whether she should:

 

  • continue to fight for Tamil rights
  • stop fighting but remain with her Tamil speaking parents
  • go back to her biological parents (Sinhala speaking)
  • go back to her biological parents and join a group fighting for Sinhala rights
  • begin to work towards ethnic harmony while living with either of the two families

The above are some of the likely options. In fact, we can only speculate but her final decision would be made through a complex process involving a subconscious process of sifting diverse factors such as her emotions, age, her level of intelligence, education, pressure from peers, the strength of her family bonds, etc. One thing we can be sure of is that the unexpected ‘discovery’ would enable her to become much more contemplative and complex with respect to her hitherto fixed notions of ‘ethnic identity.’ No matter whatever decision she may take, the ‘finding’ would jolt her to question her entrenched perceptions of ethnicity at a deeply personal level. Her situation will demonstrate the wobbly nature of what we take to be our ethnic identity. Who can give a conclusive answer to what she should do – which family should she live with?

Those who would advise her to join the Sinhala-speaking family may argue that she has ‘Sinhala blood’ and consequently, she is Sinhala. In opposition, those who would recommend the other option would contend that she is Tamil in every imaginable way – to herself and to the whole world, except for the “four parents” who were privy to the secret. Of course a DNA test would establish her link with her biological parents. However, shorn of the social context, wouldn’t the biological proof be the least important for her to make up her mind regarding who she should live with after the unsettling event? Undeniably, her future relations with either family would significantly depend on her shifting emotional undercurrents combined with multiple sociocultural and even economic factors relevant in the context- surely, not the DNA factor taken in isolation.

It is true that various well-intentioned groups try to promote peace in multicultural societies. While it would be worthwhile to push for campaigns directed towards ‘ethnic harmony,’ we may take a moment to ask ourselves whether our ‘ethnic identity’ is something intrinsic in a physical sense. Is it situated in any part of our body, or, alternatively, is it the inevitable result of our being socially programmed? Would the child in the above example have ever felt at any point in her life that she wouldn’t belong to the family in which she grew up? By the way, how many of us have asked ourselves whether the two people who we have known in all our life as mother and father are our biological parents? How far would the establishment of this biological link through a DNA test change your relations with them, one way or the other? Consider this hypothetical situation. If two babies born around the same time were swapped without the knowledge of their mothers speaking two different languages, would the babies subsequently develop an instinctive dislike for their ‘parents,’ which could be traced to their genetic discrepancy?

Is it worth living this elusive ‘reality’ at the price of recurrent conflicts sometimes leading to mutual destruction, while trying to move heaven and earth in an attempt to ‘solve’ what are smugly labelled as ‘ethnic conflicts?’ May it not be possible for us to see that this fluid notion of ‘ethnicity,’ has constantly proved to be a needless blinker and not something that would foster our collective happiness? Isn’t the genetic factor the weakest ‘rationale’ in the entire game of perpetuating the notion of ‘ethnic difference?’ Isn’t it time we brought the concept of ‘ethnicity’ under the pressure of rational discussion, if we really wish to rid the world of at least one of its societal blights.

Diversity may be beautiful, but not all are lucky enough to appreciate it. Just think of animals. Hare and deer, being at the bottom of the food pyramid, would not obviously have the peace of mind to enjoy the diversity of nature to the degree a lion or a tiger would. When it comes to cultural diversity, you may enjoy it cosily seated in an air-conditioned theatre watching culture appearing in its more urbane forms like music and dancing- but not when it bares its fangs insidiously moulded by indoctrination. Culture may not always have a smiley face, but many of us would be shy of admitting it.

The following assertion made by the American anthropologist, Donald Symons, throws light on how ‘culture’ may give an aura of legitimacy to blatant acts of cruelty:

If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade….the only question would be how severely that person should be punished… but where millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, suddenly it becomes ‘culture’ and magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible…

The labelling process, which may pass as a completely normal and innocuous practice within the framework of culture, may entail equally appalling consequences.

 

Susantha Hewa



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Opinion

A drive of great memories

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Pic.  – THE CAR: “We bought this car in London mid-1974. A few days later, four of us set out to drive for nearly six months to Sri Lanka.  This photo was provided by the present owner, whom I tracked down in 2019.”

Some errors had crept into this letter (published yesterday) in the process of being typeset. This is the correct version.

 

Sanjeewa Jayaweera’s recent recollections (The Island 25/2) of advantages of coming from Ceylon/SL – or rather ‘benefits’ accruing from Mrs B’s permitting Pakistan to use Ceylon/SL airspace in 1971 -– when he was living in Pakistan, remind me of similar experiences in 1974.

 Four of us drove overland (well, only one of us could drive then) in a Beetle from London to Sri Lanka, taking nearly six months.  At the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, neither side checked our heavily laden car. 

 We had got used to cooking for ourselves in many countries, and camping up to Turkey, so always carried basic food stuffs. In Pakistan, however, many things were rationed and towards the end of our stay we needed to stock up. 

 Just before leaving Lahore to head for India we went in search of rice and sugar (rationed).  One chap we happened to ask, got into the car (with four already in it) and said he would get us what we needed. He insisted on giving it free –– “You are my brothers!” Very strange – it was only later that we discovered the reason for this.  

 He jumped out near a shop and disappeared, presumably to queue somewhere. Returning with about 8 lbs of rice and 3 lbs of sugar, he absolutely refused to accept any money.  Instead, he insisted that we visit the Shalimar Gardens and wouldn’t let us pay there either.  We took a photograph with him which we promised to send him.  He was an Assistant Store-keeper at Pakistan Oxygen. 

 However, things were slightly different at the border. The Pakistan side wouldn’t let S, our Ugandan-Asian friend, cross.  No Hindu from any part of the world was allowed to cross into India.  Fortunately, our group was pretty mixed (with a Sri Lankan Buddhist, Sri Lankan Muslim and an Anglo-Asian atheist! – though fortunately, that wasn’t on the passport).  S’s “companion” insisted she’d become a Muslim by marriage, and signed a declaration form to that effect.  Problem solved! But a moment of anxiety at Indian customs when a cursory search was made of the car.  Officials were offended by the fact that we’d brought rice with us –– “We have rice in India!”

 Manel Fonseka

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Opinion

Muir Woods in San Francisco and deforestation in SL

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Pic:Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith at a recent media briefing on protecting the Muthurajawela wetlands from a multi-use development project.

“Any fool can destroy trees. They can run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed – chased and hunted down as long as fun or dollar could be got out of their hides. branching horns, or magnificent bole back backbones. Few that fell trees plant them, nor would planting avail much toward getting back anything like the novel primeval forests. It took more than 3000 years to make some of the trees in the woods –  trees that are standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing …. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries since Christ’s time – and long before that – God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease avalanches, tempests, and floods; but he cannot save them from fools – only Uncle Sam can do that.

John Muir, letter to William Kent , 1909

Muir Woods is a forest reservation in San Francisco – California named after John Muir as John of the mountains or father of the national parks. He was a Scottish American April 1838 to December 24th 1924.

William Kent was a member of the US House of Representatives representing California 

The Island of (2/3/2021 ) has several articles on deforestation being carried out for agriculture and commercial projects such as commercial cultivation of Aloe Vera or building of hotels. The government’s initial popularity is gradually on the decline and permitting deforestation is one reason. I wrote to The Island on 11 January this year, pointing out that it was not necessary to clear forests to increase agriculture output. Increasing productivity by modern methods is the way out.

Muir Woods is a National monument, which protects the only large, intact stand of ancient redwoods in San Francisco Bay area which, I and my wife were fortunate to visit, thanks to my daughter and son-in-law. All elements of old-growth forests are there: mature redwoods, young seedlings, standing snags, logs and a diverse community of animals and understory plants. The magnificent red – barked trees, California coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens). A few hundred years ago over two million acres of redwood grew in California. Today, 150,000 acres of old growth redwoods remain, only about half of which are protected in national and state parks.

Redwood creek applies a spectrum of watery habitats fish need their life cycle. If you spot a fish in Redwood Creek, it’s a coho salmon or steelhead trout. Both are anadromous; born in fresh water homes, as juveniles they migrate to the ocean, and then return to their freshwater homes as adults to spawn. Spawning fish can be seen in the creek between mid December and March, and young fish populate quiet pools during summer months.

On the contrary, in Sri Lanka, deforestation is occurring at an alarming rate and the forest cover is likely to disappear completely in a few decades. In 1990, the total forest cover was 2990 ha and in the year 2020 it decreased to 1946 ha. The forest cover has been reduced by 1044 ha.

A tree called Sri Lanka legume was discovered in 1868. Eventually it was declared extinct 2012.

It was discovered in 2019 that only one Sri Lankan legume tree, eight meters high, was found in the north of Colombo  near Gampaha  

 This rare species tree that was in danger of felling was put on an orange cloth by Buddhist priests. That courageous forest officer Devanee Jayatillake also rose to the occasion again objecting to the removal of the legume tee. There were arguments that that there are similar trees planted in Gampaha Botanical gardens and also that the tree could be translocated safely. Ultimately sanity prevailed and the expressway will be diverted to save the tree. One should realise the tree would have survived thousand years or more, no one knows, but it’s certain that the tree is one of oldest trees. America’s redwood trees it is said, had taken more than 3000 years to make.

His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith expressed his displeasure at the government’s failure to protect the Muthurajawela wetland.

He said in a statement that the Minister of Environment Mahinda Amaraweera, State Minister for Wildlife Wimalaweera Dissanayake and the Chairman of the Central Environmental Authority Siripala Amarasinghe had promised not to carry out any project or destructive activities in Muthurajawela during the discussion held at the Archbishop’s residence on January 21st.

However, it has been officially announced that Muthurajawela and the surrounding villages will be taken over by the Urban Development Authority. Therefore, the Cardinal has requested the government to remove the signs stating that the area is already owned by a private company and rename it as a Wildlife Conservation Zone in Muthurajawela National Park. The Cardinal has now court intervention on this matter.

The Diyawanna wetland close to which I live is being developed. It is not Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte which is said to be the administrative capital. it’s the reclaimed wetlands of Battaramulla. The land on which Sethsiripaya stands was a marsh.

 

 Upali Cooray 

 

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Opinion

Where are the Maha Nayakes?

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Coincidentally, February 26th was Navam Full Moon day, when after 20 years of attaining enlightenment, the Buddha preached the “Vinaya Pitakaya” or the code of conduct for Buddhist monks. It is sad that that the majority of them hardly heed the principles laid down there.

I was anyway, contemplating writing a piece on the conduct of Malcom Cardinal Ranjith on national issues when Dr Upul Wijayawardhana beat me to it with an excellent piece in today’s (26.02.21) The Island!

The Cardinal has been very discreetly and without undue emotions addressing the national issues at stake with substance and authority, and the appropriate actions the government should take. By contrast our Buddhist priests often deviate on political riffraff, praising the political leadership or criticizing it, rather than confining themselves to the matters at stake! Often their utterances over electronic media are disdainful, full of emotion and very unbecoming of monkhood! They are unaware that the moment one becomes emotional, one loses self-control and make a mess of things! They should take a ‘leaf from the ‘Cardinal’s Bible’, as it were!

There is no argument that priests, Buddhist or otherwise should take evidence-based stands on national issues and endeavour to move the political authority in the right direction. They should not go to praise the President or other politicians unduly, but confine themselves to facts of the matter as the Cardinal always does.

What is most disdainful is the manner in which Buddhist monks conduct themselves in protest rallies, often shouting slogans, forcefully breaking through security defenses, and even climbing windows! Very often the leaders of mass demonstrations, especially of universities, are priests. Of course, they do so, knowing that the police will handle them gently, with dignity and respect!

It is noteworthy that other religious leaders hardly participate in protest demonstrations. Even if they do so it is done in a peaceful manner. Our Buddhist priests should follow suit.

The question is where the leading monks who should discipline the juniors are. Many of them are, sadly, the culprits themselves! Have they at least read the “Vinayapitakaya”? Moreover, I am not aware of any instances of Mahanayakas endeavouring to discipline monks. Should they not at least ensure their conduct is on the key principles of “Vinaya Pitakaya”? It is time the Mahanayakas and other leading Buddhist monks addressed this vital issue of discipline of monks as matter of highest priority.

 

Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha

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