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Midweek Review

Stories and Histories, Sri Lankan pasts and the dilemmas of narrative representation



Prof. Gananath Obeysekera. (picture courtesy Colombo Telegraph)

Gananath Obeyesekere, Stories and Histories, Sri Lankan pasts and the dilemmas of narrative representation (Sarasavi Publishers, Nugegoda, 2019)

An introduction by Usvatte-aratchi

Professor (Emeritus, Princeton) Gananath Obeysekere, the pre-eminent anthropologist, has come out with that new book. It is fascinating. It is unlike anything that he had written earlier and quite unlike anything, I have read in anthropology, bearing in mind that I am no anthropologist. This is principally an exercise in hermeneutics, the interpretation of texts read comparatively. He made a case for this approach to anthropological research in the Preface to The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: ‘…there is no way one could become an ethnographer of a past that does not exist today. Much of the past is in fact enshrined in the texts of Cook’s last voyage and must therefore be imaginatively ‘re-ethnographised’. The texts must naturally be supplemented with whatever we can glean from texts collected by later Hawaiian scholars.’ This approach is different from semiotics which is the interpretation of symbols. You will recall an exercise in semiotics from Obeysekere’s longish essay written in 1970 with the title Religious Symbolism and Political Change in Sri Lanka. It is also very different from Clifford Geertz’ Interpretation of Cultures which is based on field work (in Indonesia). This book also differs from Obeysekere’a major work Pattini Cult that it is based on extensive field work, which was the main method in research in anthropology, beginning as early as Bronislaw Malinowski and perfected over years by Ruth Benedict, Evans-Prichard, Edmond Leach and our own Stanley Tambiah.

Obeysekere is blessed with many texts, some in print, others in manuscript on palm leaves. There is the Mahavansa continued after Mahanama by Dhammakitti and later by Sumangala. He gives much importance to kadaim pot (boundary books) and vitti pot (events books). Charles de Silva, an eminent Sinhala scholar in his introduction (1954) to Parakumba sirita wrote, ‘The entire mahavamsa itself can be considered a vitti pot of Sinhala kings’ (my translation). Rapiel Tennekone was of the opinion that the Mahavansa was based on pin pot (merit books) maintained by elite families and in temples, which records were read out to persons on death bed, to invite chariots to ride them to heaven. (As of now rich and powerful persons dare not read their pav pot which will open gates of hell to them, with a vehicle ready to take them there speedily, grace au yamarajjuruvo.) Then there are several Rajavaliya, one of which is identified as the Ur-text (authoritative text). Besides, we have pujavaliya, sadharmalamkaraya and saddharmaratnavali, all tika to suttas. Obeysekere in a few instances refers to two message poems (Mayura and Parevi). Conspicuously absent is Perakumba sirita, which itself has a rajavaliya. As he well shows us, there are many ‘stories and histories’. Those he uses to re-ethnographise a society on the move from the 11th century to the 16th. That abundance creates for an anthropologist ,‘dilemmas of narrative representation’. I will examine some of those dilemmas.

Make no mistake. This is an important contribution to anthropology and history. It firms up and expands the methods and techniques (methodology in American) used by anthropologists and in historiography, the writing of history. Obeysekere’s reading of texts teases out information (‘open up for critical inquiry corners of history that have remained closed’ or ‘open little known corners of history’) that was not available earlier and substitutes the complexity of situations that were taken as simple and straight forward (‘show the tentativeness of historical knowledge’). The most striking cases are those of the first Parakramabahu (Polonnaruva) and the Rajasingha 1 (Sithavaka).

He substantiates the claim that there are several histories, not a unique history. The demonstration of more than one history is most welcome in our midst where despite ample evidence to the contrary many people, even historians, hold on to the view that the Mahavamsa story is the one and only history of our country. We have seen already another version of the Mahavamsa story on television, maha sinhalaye vamsa kathava. Several movies have come out exhibiting their own versions of history. Those, it is almost certain would not be the last. We know that the story of Ramayana has numerous versions, some in India itself and others in Thailand (ramakiyen) and that treasure trove Java. Our own Vavuluva composed by Rapiel Tennekone has a version very different from that in the Kadamba ramayana. Obeysekere exploits these varied versions helped by stories from the period.

What has Obeyekere’s labours delivered to us? A great deal. I will cite only two, for lack of space and those may be idiosyncratic. The most significant to me is the flow of people during the centuries from the 11th to 16th from the land mass to the island, beginning with Cola and Magha invasions up to the times of Kotte kings, after which European adventurers and later governments were common in our land. After the Magha invasion, people from as far as East Kalinga came in, perhaps in waves. These immigrants included hetti (traders), andi (mendicants and sorcerers), karai (coastal fishermen, forebears of karava along the coast), fighting men ( malala and maravar (perhaps the origin of the word maravara) from Ramnad, adventurer merchants like Alakesvara, who eventually ruled in Raigama. This long steady stream of people from the land mass was not accompanied by a corresponding flow from the island. That asymmetry needs explanation. We saw that happened in America as the West was opening in the 19th century, when impoverished families in North-Western Europe, in large numbers, migrated there. (Thorstein Veblen’s, the great anthropologist and economist,was one such family.) Were living conditions in Lanka demonstrably higher than in the southern landmass and was this information carried by word of mouth to attract so many over so long a period? There does not seem to have been any concern with this feature in the documents that the author read. His readings show us the large commerce between elites as well as and ordinary people in the southern landmass and this society from during 12th to the 15th century. And those exchanges were with people of, what is now south India extending east to Kalinga, now known as Orissa (Oriya). People of the elite (pabhujana) in Lanka then seem to have spent time frequently in the company of equally prestigious families in Chola, Pandya and Kalinga reminding us of similar exchanges among royalty and aristocrats of England and Germany in more recent times. Several myths, including the Gajaba story, show processes of integrating them with the local populations. One hears them in the course of rituals both in the hill country and on the plains.

The second is about the events involving Dos Raja and Zheng He. This discussion shows Obeysekere’s method most clearly, when he uses several texts including Mahavamsa, several rajavaliyas, pujavaliya and others and then speculates. Who was dos raja? Obeysekere exploits the information in all the texts at his disposal including ‘non-ur’ rajavaliya and asserts ‘….it seems almost certain that Ariyacakkavattin was the ‘king’ who brought misfortune (dos) to the nation…’. Ariyacakkavattin was an adventurer from the Pandya desha, who took the tooth relic to his king in Pandya. Ariyacakkvattin is credited having killed Buvanekabahu I (of Yapahuva) and his brothers. What of Zheng He, the admiral from China? He is reported to have taken the king to China, which is commemorated in a small pillar inscription in Galle, written in Chinese, Tamil and Persian. In one of the Rajavali, there is an account of a sea journey between Sinhale and mahachina which is bizarre. Has mahachina anything to do with China and therefore were they talking about Zheng He? The inscription in Galle is material enough and the puzzle of Zheng He remains unsolved.

I shall pose two queries, that arose in my mind in the course of reading Obeysekere’s grand presentations. Each part of the Mahavamsa, written by a different person, living centuries apart, has its hero: Gamani Abhaya (duttha), Parakumba I and Parakumba VI. For Sumangala it is Rajasinha of Sithavaka. Mahavamsa as well as later histories are unanimous calling Gamani Abhaya (Gemunu aba) duttha (the wicked). How did he win this dreadful sobriquet? Gamani Abhaya, when a youth sent a gift to his father, which in effect called the father a coward. Bhikkhu who probably were aghast at this effront to the established order called Gamani Abhaya duttha. However, when compared to the horrible crimes by Parakramabahu I, Gothabhaya,

Kassapa, Leelavathi and Rajasinghe I (some well discussed in ‘Stories and Histories’). Gamani Abhaya, at worst, committed a youthful prank. Why continue with this gross injustice? The second is with regard to the names of kings: why did names common among kings of Anuradhapura disappear in Polonnaruva and further west and south? In Anuradhapura the Pali names of kings were Tissa (Kutakanna), Abhaya (Vattagamani abhaya) and Duttha Gamani Abhaya. From Polonnaruva kings were Bahu (Vijaybahu, Sinhala Vijayaba) until Rajasinghe I and Sinha, the lion comes on stage. Obeysekere thinks that bahu (strong arm) is resonating the old myth that Vijaya descended from a lion (das desa indra, vemi mama singha raja mrugendra). The Sinhala name of these bahu kings ends in ba e.g. Parakumba, Gajaba, Buvanekaba () and so on. You will recall that the Sinhala form of abhaya which was mahanama’s Pali version of aba in Anuradhapura (valagamba written in Pali as Vatta Gamani Abhaya). (In mayura sandesa ‘dina maha ba buvaneka ba raja pavara.’) What does ba in Sinhla and bahu in Pali signify? Remember the original names were in Sinhala and compilers of Mahavamsa put everything in sight into Pali. Sumangala dictionary has one equivalence abhaya and that is repeated in the Sinhala Sabdakosaya. Bahu in Sinhala is arm but it is necessary to inquire further whether bahu in Vijayabahu is not abhaya in another guise. Sotthisena is in Pali and the Sinhala equivalent must have been Sethsena: Sena the Benevolent (like Louis bien aime). We have often heard ‘sotthi te hotu sabbada’ and that is the relevant term. Perhaps, sotthiya in Sokari has the same significance.

One quibble about translations from Sinhala: dakum as relating to darshan. My understanding is that dakum is related to dakkhina (gift) as in ‘….esa bhagavato savaka sangho….pahuneyyo, dakkhineyyo’ (worthy of gifts). Both Sumangala and Sinhala Sabdakoshaya show that relationship. There are a few others but let them pass for the moment.

Book production

The responsibility of the author usually ends when he hands over the typescript to the publisher. Then begin the processes of producing the book, with the advice of the author. The design of the book and the cover of the book generally are the responsibility of the publisher. The critically important responsibility, from the point of view of the author, is proof reading. This is where most publishers in the country fail. Stories and Histories is no exception. Although none of the glitches stand between the meaning of the author and the understanding of reader, their presence on virtually every page is grossly annoying, especially in a book as good as this. I sorely missed an index. There is a gem of a page (323) in which Obeysekere laid down Sinhala kinship relations and I spent several hours to find it. This is a complex book and unless one reads it frivolously, it becomes necessary to go back and forth. How could one do that in a book of 450 pages that has no subject index? When a new edition comes out, we expect an index.

As valuable as this book is, it is not what you will take to the beach for the weekend. You need to read it with concentration, perhaps with a pencil in your hand to go back to something the author said on page 183, to connect it up with what he says on page 278. It is a valuable addition to the ethnography, to the history and historiography here and elsewhere and to methods and techniques (methodology) in anthropology. In this season of gift giving, this book will form a valuable addition to the basket. Do collect a copy for yourself.

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Midweek Review

Amidst political turmoil Dullas takes a courageous stand



By Shamindra Ferdinando

Media Minister Dullas Alahapperuma over the last weekend quite clearly criticised the government’s much-touted Rs 229 bn relief package.

Matara District lawmaker Alahapperuma is the first SLPP Cabinet Minister to do so.

The journalist-turned-politician didn’t mince his words when he declared that the financial package failed to address the grievances of the population at large, though it provided relief to the public sector, pensioners and Samurdhi beneficiaries. Alahapperuma received the media portfolio in August 2020. Previously, he held the power portfolio but was shifted before the finalisation of the Yugadanavi deal, now challenged in the Supreme Court.

The Minister was addressing a gathering at the Thihagoda Divisional Secretariat.

The lawmaker emphasised the failure on the part of the government to take the public into confidence and the responsibility of the Cabinet members and the officials to speak the truth.

Emphasising the pathetic response of politicians, ministers and members of Parliament in the face of unprecedented and daunting challenges, lawmaker Alahapperuma issued a dire warning. Unless those who had been elected by the people made a genuine effort by making much needed sacrifices, the public would simply dismiss politicians as a set of crazy men.

Pointing out that public servants were a fraction of the population, lawmaker Alahapperuma questioned the suitability of the financial package announced by his Cabinet colleague Basil Rajapaksa, in his capacity as the Finance Minister. MP Alahapperuma reminded that the vast majority of people struggling to make ends meet, wouldn’t receive any relief. Therefore, the whole purpose of the financial package announced at a time when the country was experiencing severe economic pressure didn’t address overall public concerns.

The Media Minister also referred to Power Minister Gamini Lokuge’s declaration that there wouldn’t be power cuts whereas the General Manager, CEB, quite clearly indicated the real situation. Referring to social media, Alahapperuma, who had held important portfolios in the cabinets of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa underscored the responsibility on their part to tell the truth as the media couldn’t be suppressed.

Alahappeuma’s criticism of the Rs 229 bn relief package indicated that it hadn’t been properly discussed at the Cabinet level. Had it been deliberated at Cabinet level, perhaps MP Alahapperuma and some other ministers would have expressed their concerns. Perhaps, the media should raise this issue at the next post-Cabinet media briefing, chaired by Minister Alahapperuma, in his capacity as the Cabinet Spokesperson.

In addition to Minister Alahapperuma, Ministers Dr. Ramesh Pathirana and Udaya Gammanpila function as co-Cabinet spokespersons, though the latter had missed quite a number of briefings over the past few months. Mohan Samaranayake attends the briefing, in his capacity as the Director General, Government Information Department.

This week’s post-Cabinet briefing is scheduled for today (19) in view of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa opening the new session of Parliament yesterday.

It would be pertinent to mention that lawmaker Alahapperuma questioned the worthiness of the Rs 229 bn package at Thihagoda, Matara, while Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, who is also the Chairman of the ruling SLPP presided over meetings in Galle, Matara and Hambantota, also on the same day to discuss ways and means of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) formulated by the United Nations.

At the Matara event, chaired by Prof. Peiris, Minister Alahapperuma and State Minister Kanchana Wijesekera, too, addressed the gathering. But, Alahapperuma took up the Rs 229 bn package at a separate event at Thihagoda. Since Ministers, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila declared war against the highly questionable Yugadanavi deal in Sept last year, Prof. Peiris repeatedly attacked those who criticised the government policies in the open. The former law professor is of the view that whatever the disagreements, such issues should be taken up at Cabinet, parliamentary group or the party leaders level. Obviously, with the gradual deterioration of the national economy, as a result of the Covid-19 epidemic, unbridled waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement, dissenting views are growing within the ruling coalition.

The SDG goals such as education, gainful employment, clean water, safe environment, access to healthcare and protection of women and children are discussed at a time the government is struggling to meet the basic requirements of the public.

Lawmaker Alahapperuma should use the post-Cabinet media briefing today to tell the truth. Take the public into confidence. The country is in such a desperate situation, the SLPP can no longer play politics with the issues at hand.

The forthright stand taken by Minister Alahapperuma against the backdrop of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa stripping Susil Premjayantha of his portfolios for being strongly critical of the SLPP’s agriculture policy, foreign currency crisis and runaway cost-of-living, should be applauded.

USD crisis

Three major groupings, namely the joint trade Chambers, Sri Lanka Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) recently warned the government of a rapidly deteriorating financial situation. The organisations contradicted the government’s claim of having the situation under control. All primarily blamed the growing foreign currency crisis for the current predicament.

In spite of some difficulties the Sri Lanka Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry, the apex pharmaceutical body responsible for the import of more than 80% of the medicines, contradicted the recent Health Ministry denial of medicine shortage. The Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry pointed out that the import of medicine is allowed only if the importer had foreign currency and certainly not taking into consideration the requirement. The powerful grouping warned soon there would be serious shortages as the foreign exchange crisis deepens.

Declaring that at the moment, medicines are the only commodity coming under price control, the Chamber urged the government: “There is no solution to this dilemma than removing the price control of medicines and implement a fair and equitable pricing mechanism which will link the price of medicines to the USD, inflation and direct costs such as raw material, fuel and freight charges, which will make the importing and marketing of medicines viable. As difficult as it may sound, the authorities will have to choose between having medicines at a cost and not having medicines at all.”

Overall, the joint trade Chambers, Sri Lanka Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) painted a bleak picture. The government owed an explanation as to why the Finance Ministry announced a Rs 229 bn relief package at a time the current dispensation was struggling to cope up with an extremely weak financial status.

The country hasn’t been in such a desperate situation even at the height of the war though the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) made determined efforts to cripple sea supply routes. Over 12 years after the successful conclusion of the war, the national economy is on the brink. Debilitated Sri Lanka has been compelled to continuously seek assistance from both China and India regardless of consequences. Having lived beyond our means over the past couple of decades, the country now finds itself bogged down in an economic quagmire. Recent deliberations with China and India as regards multiple financial assistance underscored the crisis the country is in.

The government should consult the Opposition regarding Sri Lanka’s response to the crisis. In fact, the government shouldn’t work on the issue at hand alone but initiate a dialogue with the Opposition. Those represented in Parliament should seek a consensus on a rescue operation regardless of whatever differences they have on other matters.

The proposed new Constitution, inclusive of electoral reforms, postponed Local Government polls and law reforms based on the controversial ‘One Country, One Law’ concept seemed irrelevant as the basic supplies are interrupted in the absence of sufficient foreign currency.

A new phase in foreign relations

Sri Lanka recently appealed for further Chinese and Indian assistance. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa requested China to help restructure debt repayments as part of the efforts to help Sri Lanka weather the deepening financial crisis.

The request was made during a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Presidential Secretariat on January 09, 2021. In spite of repeated assurances given by Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal that foreign financial obligations would be met, the Opposition and some financial experts are on record as having said the country is on the verge of default, according to analysts.

“The President pointed out that it would be a great relief to the country if attention could be paid to restructuring the debt repayments as a solution to the economic crisis that has arisen in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the President’s office said in the statement.

China is Sri Lanka’s fourth biggest lender, behind international financial markets, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Japan.

Sri Lanka has to repay about $4.5 billion in debt this year starting with a $500 million International Sovereign Bonds (ISB) which matured on Jan. 18 (yesterday). Central Bank announced that it was settled.

Although the Chinese Ambassador in Colombo Qi Zhenhong refrained from revealing China’s stand on Sri Lanka request when he met a selected group of journalists at Galle Face Hotel soon after Minister Wang departed, Beijing is very much likely to provide further assistance. Having invested in Sri Lanka in line with the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative and its flagship project Colombo Port City gaining momentum, China will surely throw its weight behind Sri Lanka.

In spite of Western and Indian objections over the years, China has sustained its high profile project in Sri Lanka. The latest development is in the China Harbour Engineering Company’s (CHEC) spearheading the construction role in the second phase of the East Container Terminal of the Colombo Port. Politically influential Access Engineering PLC has teamed up with China Harbour Engineering Company of China Communications Construction Company Limited (CCCC). According to the Colombo Port City website, CHEC Port City Colombo (Pvt) Ltd through China CHEC is part of CCCC. The Chinese enterprise that has been active here since 1998, executed the Southern Highway, Outer Circular Highway, Hambantota Port, Mattala International Airport, Colombo South Container Terminal et al.

An Indian High Commission press release based on a statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi on 15 January 2022 underscored the unfolding crisis. The press release dealt with a virtual meeting External Affairs Minister (EAM) Dr. S. Jaishankar had with Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa on January 15, 2022, consequent to Rajapaksa’s visit to New Delhi last month.

Let me reproduce verbatim the relevant sections of the Indian statement: *Dr. Jaishankar conveyed that India has always stood with Sri Lanka, and will continue to support Sri Lanka in all possible ways for overcoming the economic and other challenges posed by COVID-19 pandemic. As close friends and maritime neighbours, both India and Sri Lanka stand to gain from closer economic inter-linkages.

*Both Ministers positively noted that extension of US$ 400 million to Sri Lanka under the SAARC currency swap arrangement and deferral of A.C.U (Asian Clearing Union) settlement of USD 515.2 million by two months, would assist Sri Lanka.

*The two Ministers reviewed the progress in extending the Indian credit facility of USD 1 billion for importing food, essential items and medicine and USD 500 mn for importing fuel from India.

*Mr. Rajapaksa recalled India’s long standing cooperation with Sri Lanka and deeply appreciated the gestures of support. He welcomed Indian investments in Sri Lanka in a number of important spheres, including ports, infrastructure, energy, renewable energy, power and manufacturing and assured that a conducive environment will be provided to encourage such investments. In this context, both Ministers noted that the recent steps taken by the Government of Sri Lanka for jointly modernising the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm will boost confidence of investors, apart from enhancing Sri Lanka’s energy security.

*EAM brought up the issue of Indian fishermen detained in Sri Lanka. He urged the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure early release of the detained fishermen on humanitarian considerations.

* The two Ministers agreed to remain in close touch for guiding mutually beneficial bilateral economic cooperation towards long-term economic partnership for shared progress and prosperity.

Dependence on foreign powers

As FM Basil Rajapaksa promised, a ‘conducive environment’ has to be ensured for the speedy implementation of the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm project. The FM cannot be unaware of Ven. Wakamulle Uditha Thera, on behalf of the JVP, moved the Supreme Court against the Trincomalee project. In addition to that petition, prominent Buddhist monks Ven Elle Gunawansa Thera and Ven. Bengamuwe Nalaka Thera, too, have moved the Supreme Court against the Trincomalee deal. Whether we like it or not, Sri Lanka’s position on the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm as well as large scale poaching by Indian fishermen will be influenced by the growing dependence on India. The proposed agreement on USD 1 bn Indian credit facility to import food, essential items and medicine as well as USD 500 mn for importing fuel from India underscores Sri Lanka’s plight.

Shouldn’t the public be duly informed of the actual situation? In spite of repeated warnings over the impending crisis, the government took an arrogant stand. The SLPP ruled out an arrangement with relevant parties with the intervention of the IMF to restructure loans. Having presented a lacklustre Budget in Dec 2021 for 2022, the SLPP caused a debilitating setback by declaring Rs 229 bn relief package. As former minister D.E.W. Gunasekera recently pointed out in an interview with the Communist Party organ Aththa the entire amount required for the controversial relief package had to be printed at the expense of financial stability. The outspoken former General Secretary of the CP warned of dire consequences due to excessive money printing to finance such political projects. However, Gunasekera had no objection if that vast sum went to increase production in the country. Minister Alahapperuma’s Thihagoda statement is nothing but a clear evidence of growing concerns among those who fear the path the government is treading. Such criticism shouldn’t be ignored.

The bottom line is economically weaker Sri Lanka can be far easily influenced by foreign powers. The Yugadanavi deal with US energy firm promoted by the US Embassy in Colombo as well as the recently signed agreement on the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farms or the growing Chinese role here have to be considered against the backdrop of the confrontation between China and Quad alliance the (US, India, Japan and Australia).

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Midweek Review

Let ethics precede religion



Image courtesy Minds Journal (

By Susantha Hewa

Conditioning is persuading people to believe something by repeated exposure to it and preventing them, as much as possible, from being acquainted with any conflicting views. No matter what it is meant to serve, it is an unwelcome process, which goes against all norms of education and civilisation. However, religious conditioning, for centuries, has been viewed as innocuous because it has acquired a semblance of sanctity by being associated with religion. This is a pity because, conditioning, no matter where it happens, produces the adverse result of making the learners mechanically accept what is drilled. No matter how great a religion may be, we are not making full advantage of it, if we continue to use indoctrination as the primary method of teaching it. Specially, it targets children who have no escape from or defence against this apparently edifying imposition.

There may be some who feel that religion and conditioning are inseparable and the former would lose all its meaning without the latter. However, this view begs the question of what constitutes religiosity. Of course, programming of children will continue to be the best method, if its objective is to make them devoted to the teachings of the respective religion as they grow up, regardless of the possibility of such programming unwittingly driving some of them to fanaticism as history would bear witness, sadly. So long as we use conditioning as the primary method of teaching religion, it is unrealistic to expect a different outcome.

Since all the religions in the world intend to guide people to become better individuals, there should be a concerted effort to prevent the diversity of religion from being a serious cause of division in society. After all, the ultimate purpose of religion should be to help people rise above their narrow religious identities and become unbiased, sensible and intelligently ethical. If religion, instead, push people more towards clinging on to dogma drilled in childhood than making them cultivate qualities that make the world a happier place for all, the whole enterprise becomes meaningless and, worse, counterproductive. As such the hoary method of premature conditioning of children merits a rethink.

If we are ready to view religion as something not necessarily connected to or reliant on conditioning, it would allow us to look for an alternative method of instruction that will enable the forming of ethical people without making room for them to be segregated on the basis of their acquired faiths. In fact, religion would be doing its best for humans if it gradually helped everyone to shed their religious scales and look for similarities rather than differences in others, which all religions advocate. After all, religions should be a liberating influence; not one which restricts.

To own that our long accustomed method of teaching religion has room for improvement is not being derogatory of religion at all. Religion and its mode of instruction are not tied by a sacred knot. Changing the method which tends to create separation is not to change the content enshrined in any religion. On the contrary, it is the first step towards preventing religion from inadvertently being divisive and insular. Unfortunately, in a world which admires and advocate innovativeness and creativity in every imaginable field, we seem to be complacent about the routine and unproductive method of drilling young minds by way of teaching religion.

Let’s think of education, which is one of the best civilising agents in any society. Education, over the years, has slowly and steadily progressed in terms of teaching methods. We have come a long way from using rote learning, drilling and all sorts of intimidation and punishment; instead, today we encourage group learning rather than individual learning, comprehension rather than memorising, questioning rather than passive reception, discussion rather than lecturing or doling out notes. As for the teacher, today, he or she acts as a facilitator rather than an all-knowing dispenser of knowledge. In other words, we have shifted from the parochial teacher-centred education to a more productive learner-centred education. Why should religious instruction remain in a rut? After all, religious tutoring, of all things, need not have even the remotest associations of stagnancy. It’s time we found alternative methods of religious instruction without making the mistake of thinking that shifting to a more fruitful method of teaching religion amounts to being disrespectful of religion in any way. Such dormancy defies every notion of progress. One’s regard for religion had better not prevent one from seeing the shortcomings of the ineffective method of conditioning.

Even if we had the ideal situation of a single-religion world, indoctrination of the unformed minds is hardly the best method of imparting religion. It is far more productive to replace conditioning with discussion, where the participants can fine-tune and broaden their knowledge. It had better be aimed at expanding horizons rather than mugging up content. Of course, the prerequisite for such a dynamic method is the avoidance of premature conditioning and let children develop their general learning faculties through normal education till they can deal with religious content.

If those who are anxious that stopping the religious moulding of the young would make them immoral, then, surely, moral philosophers, educationists and other concerned scholars may help develop a common subject of “ethics” without any religious tones. It would be introduced to students at a suitable grade tailoring the content to suit their level of cognition. Such a method would be much better than drilling immature minds, even if the world had only one religion. The benefits of it would be manifold in the present multi-religious world where conditioning has significantly contributed towards religion based alienation. Wouldn’t an unconditioned mind be better equipped to understand religion or religions without being obsessed with one of them?

Conditioning, for one thing, flouts all the sound principles of education. For another, it denies children the right to select their religion when they are mature enough to do so; it’s not different to partnering babies to their future spouses at the discretion of the parents. In fact, tradition has denied all of us the right of choosing our religion. Had we been left to choose our religion at the right time, our choice may have been different. More importantly, such a refined form of freedom would prevent us from being fanatics who would be ready to die or kill for our preferred religion. Choosing your religion as a mature person would put you on a completely different relationship with it than when it gets foisted on you when you were a toddler who could not say, “No please, not now. Don’t I have a choice in this matter?”

The word “religion” usually evokes feelings of serenity, brotherhood and peace in many people. However, this is not the case with its plural form “religions”, which connotes disquiet, division and strife. Unfortunately, we hardly find societies with a single religion. As far as religions are confined to textbooks they have no rivalry, but they do when unformed minds are programmed by them for want of a better method. Turning a blind eye on this and continuing to exploit children’s helplessness will not ensure the ushering of a peaceful and enlightened society. Can we, of all things, expect a method, which violates a basic right of children to produce good results?

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Midweek Review

Liberal Arts Perspectives



University of Bologna: ‘Medieval universities had five faculties: arts, philosophy, law, medicine and theology. Of these, the faculty of arts had the largest number of students and theology dominatedthem all in authority as clerics often were the teachers and the officials of universities.’

by Usvatte-aratchi

Professor Liyanage Amarakeerthi’s address before the College of Psychiatry raised two questions in my mind: liberal arts education and the appreciation of a novel. I will write some notes on liberal arts education. I have not read the novel he analysed.

What is liberal about liberal arts education? To understand that you must ask the further question what was education liberated from? It was liberated from theology, from the Roman Catholic Church, from scholasticism, from Aristotle and from the dominance of Latin. People turned from the study of God to the study of humans and his environment, hence humanism and the humanities. Protagora’s line came back to life: ‘Man is the measure of all things ….’ Mathematics became ‘the language in which the book of nature was written’ rather an aid to astrology. Knowledge was freed from the supremacy of sacerdotum, the church. In France that dominance continued till the Revolution. That dominance was something that we now can only imagine. The Pope, claiming that he was either the Vicar of Christ or successor to St Peter, exercised enormous power over believers. He anointed kings, excommunicated them, kept repentant kings kneeling before his closed door in winter cold, contracted peace among feuding kings and chartered universities. On occasion, bishops exercised some of these powers. Henry VIII’s breach with the Pope, the dissolution of monasteries in England and the use of some of that wealth to set up Trinity College in Cambridge (and its eventual contribution to the advance of knowledge, especially in mathematics and physics from Newton to Hawkins) was a seminal to the spread of liberal arts education. The revolution in 1688 in England was, in part, a rejection of James II to attempts to re-establish the dominance of Catholicism, following his cousin in Paris. The first amendment to the constitution of US reads ‘Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of any religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’. The French Revolution threw out the privileges of not only kings and the aristocracy but also of the Catholic church. The thinkers of pre-revolutionary Paris Montesquieu, Diderot, D’Alembert, Voltaire, Quesnay, say (Say’s first name was Jean-Baptiste which Grenouille, which the protagonist in the novel Amarakirthi analysed, also bore) and many others contributed mightily to the outcome.

Knowledge was freed from scholasticism and Aristotle. Aritotle’s Organon was replaced with Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum. Latin was replaced with vernaculars after Martin Luther translated the Bible into German and after a committee of clerics similarly translated the Bible into English to form the Authorised Version. The content of that liberal arts education kept on growing and growing until sometime in the late 19th century, universities began to award the B.Sc. Degree, although Harvard College had appointed a professor of science as early as 1756. In 1700, in Paris there was the Academie des sciences. A few centuries after education was freed, as the guild system dissolved itself, apprentices were liberated to choose a craft of their choice and employment wherever they wished. So arose the individual as the centre from which society was composed.

The modern threat to liberal arts education comes from the all-powerful state, the Leviathan that saved men and women from the state of nature, which with full blown power threatens to gobble up everything in society. It is paradoxical but the true, that the state simultaneously espouses, nourishes and promotes liberal arts education. Most liberal arts colleges and universities are owned by and operated under governments. But the threat is real mostly in states which have totalitarian governments. In others, the governance and management of institutions are pretty much in the hands of the education institutions. There are two German terms that define the freedoms that educational institutions in non-totalitarian societies wish to enjoy: lernfreiheit (freedom to learn) and lehrenfreiheit (freedom to teach). Students are free to learn what they wish to where they wish to, and teachers are free to teach what they wish where they wish. There is a varied and vast literature on these themes and academics here are far more informed of these than I. I will cite two well-known instances of gross violation of these freedoms, one from the US and the other from India. In the early 1950s, there was the McCarthy witch hunt for communists in higher educational institutions which seriously interfered with their freedom of inquiry. In India a few years ago, a minister intervened to insist that a book written by a teacher in Delhi University be removed from the reading lists for MA students. However, there are many ways in which governments and large corporations interfere with the direction of research and teaching in universities. By funding research and teaching programmes, the funding institutions decide the directions in which universities move. My knowledge of academic institutions in China and Russia is very scant and I refrain commenting on them.

Liberalism grew to free people and people became free when governments intervened to end societies that were ‘nasty, brutish and short’. The neo-liberalist view belies this history. That process contained two streams. One fed the growth of personal freedom, now espoused in extreme forms by libertarians. The other was the main political programme of liberals, best illustrated by the activities of the Liberal Party in Britain in the 19th century and of the Labour Party in the 20th. The expansion of government in society including the regulation of markets was a part of that programme.

Failure to be fed by either of these streams causes starvation of one aspect of society and the emergence of malformations. At one extreme is the insurgence of Donald Trump in US and the pursuit of neo-liberal polices in Chile, both of which threaten democracy in the respective countries. At the other extreme is China which, it has been reported to have raised millions of people from poverty in about 30 years, giving them opportunities for a better life but denied people the freedom to choose. Again, at the expense of a democratic society.

Back to the campus. Medieval universities had five faculties: arts, philosophy, law, medicine and theology. Of these the faculty of arts had the largest number of students and theology dominated them all in authority as clerics often were the teachers and the officials of universities. (The president of Princeton University, until Woodrow Wilson in 1902, was always a clergyman, a presbyterian.) The statutes of Oxford referred to the arts faculty as the fons et origo ceteris– the source and origin of others. It was necessary to obtain B.A. and M.A. degrees to proceed to the higher faculties, except in the case of laws. Much of present-day conventions can be explained in those terms. In US, one cannot proceed to study law, medicine, management or philosophy unless one has completed an M.A/M.Sc. As the teaching content in science became comparable to those in arts, B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees came to be their equivalents.

Right up to the middle of the 19th century, even small colleges from medieval times could teach all the subjects that were necessary for the award of university degrees. That changed rapidly after a decade or two from then. Few colleges, if any, could teach the whole range of subjects undergraduates undertook to study. When Conant Bryant at Harvard in 1926, introduced the ‘smorgasbord’ of subjects for undergraduates, he announced to the world the expansion of knowledge that had begun about 1850. University faculties asserted themselves and appointed teachers in science to teach in labs, which were expensive to set up. Similarly, social sciences came to be taught in university faculties. The subject matter taught in these faculties became strange to those in others and the problems of ‘two cultures’ emerged and multiplied.

Given the large volume of material now taught in both schools and universities (colleges), it is necessary to think out where do we teach best all students a common curriculum to enable students in each stream talk to others. After all, a Samskrit scholar must be able to read a railway timetable and a theoretical physicist must not put on ear plugs when Bhimsen Joshi sings Meghamalhar. Two characters in C. P. Snow’s (of ‘Two Cultures’ fame) novels Walter Luke in The New Men, a physicist, and Roy Calvert, an orientalist, in The Light and the Dark) exemplify what Snow had in mind. My understanding of the situation is that it cannot be done productively in college or university. In societies like ours where a miniscule fraction of all school children enters universities, it is far more productive to introduce a larger number of students to the world of learning in school. In Britain it, was tried in several newer universities. Columbia had the Great Books course. In France the Baccalaureate examination (Bac) seems a successful attempt to do this.

In our schools now, students enter a stream at age 16. By 18 they are non-returners, either in arts or in science. Children in C schools have one stream to choose from. Students in 1AB schools have the luxury of choice. Students in C schools have a tougher time to enter the other stream.

I was in school a long time ago. It was possible then for a student to learn one or two languages to a good level of proficiency and literature in one of them, learn mathematics (including elementary calculus, coordinate geometry and series in algebra), one science subject (often botany in the absence of a lab and teachers to supervise experimental work) and the three social studies subjects. Of course, those conditions required good teachers. I imagine good schools in urban areas then had facilities for all this and more and now most schools have them. But even a small government central school in some hick town, when under a good principal provided that education. With two years preparatory work in the sixth form, the quality of which varied enormously among schools, a young man or woman entered university, where if he/she were diligent, he/she would come out not altogether a stranger in other faculties. My impression, no more, is that it all depended on teachers and systems matter much less.

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