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The role of myth: A reassessment



By Uditha Devapriya

A chance encounter in Galle took me to the Sudharmaramaya in Bope, near Poddala. My friend and I were accompanied, or more aptly guided, by an official from the Galle Heritage Foundation, an institution that is doing a lot to raise awareness of cultural and religious sites in the district. What transpired during the visit is for another article, but the conversation that ensued between the three of us, in my friend’s van, provoked me to reflect on an area I have been researching and studying for some time now: the role and function of myths. To this end, our guide from the GHF spoke of the Jataka Stories.

“Cultural practices vary from period to period. Take the Vessantara Kavi. It is often sung at Sinhalese funerals. But you do not see this practice in far-off villages. This custom became a practice in the cities and suburbs. It was a result of the colonial encounter, specifically the Portuguese Period. The missionaries who came here brought with them their evangelical zeal, and this had an indelible impact on Buddhist priests and preachers. Such customs and practices took a life of their own long after these missionaries left.”

In his seminal essay on Dutugemunu’s conscience, Gananath Obeyesekere remembers the Vessantara Kavi being sung in “the villages of my childhood.” This practice, he recalls, has now been replaced by gambling sessions, or as I would put it more innocuously, by fun and games, including perfectly harmless pursuits like carrom and daang.

Despite hailing from a staunchly traditional Sinhala and Buddhist urban middle-class myself, I can’t recall a single funeral at which the Vessantara Kavi were sung. It would seem that, for my generation, this practice has died out, and with it the rationale for its popularity.

What does the death of these practices mean for our culture, indeed our society? Myths have long been the subject of contentious debate. While some would contend that they reinforce values like tolerance and obedience, others would counter that they form the basis of exclusivist narratives, which have contributed much to the fragmentation and I would say downfall of this country. The Mahavamsa is the most frequently cited example for that, but as Bruce Kapferer has contended in Legends of People, Myths of State, they include even the most syncretic rituals of the south, including the suniyama.

I disagree with some of Kapferer’s conclusions, but understand, and even somewhat agree with, his premise. I would contend that it is the politicisation of these practices which has resulted in them acquiring a less than savoury character. This is true especially of rituals like the suniyama.

Yet I would also argue that in their original form, the myths buttressing these rituals were emblematic of a profoundly tolerant culture: a culture which might have been “Buddhist” or “Sinhalese” but more importantly was also deeply syncretic. I would extend that argument and, at the risk of oversimplification, note that these myths, and the customs and practices they undergirded, served to reinforce values one normally would not associate with religious rituals today, values like pluralism and inclusivity.

The central argument in Kapferer’s book is that these rituals undergird a violent streak in Sinhala and Buddhist culture. Sarath Amunugama, in his recent study of the Kohomba Kankariya, points out that Kandyan rituals, of which the Kankariya is the primus inter pares, deploy a “more measured, non-aggressive, and processional style.

” I would contend that this has been so because, unlike in the southern coastline, which confronted and in many ways suffered from as well as absorbed Western influences after the 16th century, the colonial encounter did not take place in the Kandyan regions until the early 19th century. Whatever violent streak one attributes to southern Sinhala society vis-à-vis these rituals must account for the region’s longstanding confrontations with Western colonialism.

This argument does not end here. I would add that the “violent streak” we so frequently see today in these rituals is superficial and facile. It is part of these ceremonies, but it does not form the only part, still less a crucial one. Sinhala culture is fundamentally syncretic. It has the ability to absorb any influence. It is the near extinction of this syncretic aspect that has led to that violent streak Kapferer wrote about. Obeyesekere calls this “the displacement of the Buddhist conscience”, a notion I fully agree with.

But then the question can validly be asked: what caused the displacement of the Buddhist conscience in the first place? Obeyesekere’s argument differs from Kapferer’s, though I think both can be reconciled with one another. While Kapferer discerns a link between the rituals and myths of Sinhala society and their deployment by chauvinists and racists, Obeyesekere attributes it all to modern society’s tendency to belittle those rituals and myths. He outlines two historical factors: “firstly, the development of a radical form of Buddhism geared to an emerging bourgeoisie, and secondly, the development of an intellectual Buddhism that saw the rational theosophy without a saviour or a cult.”

In contrast to other religious revivals, Obeyesekere writes, the Buddhist Revival of the 19th century did not result in the demystification of myths and rituals in Sinhala society. It led instead to a rejection of them. Here we discern faint echoes of the distinctions drawn by countless scholars of the Buddhist Revival, including George Bond, H. L. Seneviratne, and Obeyesekere himself, between an intellectualist and an emotionalist strand in Sinhala and Buddhist society.

Unlike other scholars, however, Obeyesekere argues that this rejection of myths and customs, including Buddhist folktales, had negative consequences: while earlier they had fulfilled the role of relaying to simple villagers the tenets and ethics of Buddhism, now they were being rejected as nikan kathandara, or mere stories.

My own experiences growing up, in a thoroughly traditional Sinhala Buddhist middle-class family, threw these contradictions into sharp relief, though I must hasten to add that my mother, who as a child refused to go to daham pasal and even now questions superstition, did not inculcate in me the sort of devotion to religion that my cousins and nephews are endowed with today. The more urbanised sections of my family tended to regard Buddhist folktales as part of a literary pantheon, existing apart from, and not fully within, Buddhist theology.

They studied these parables at Sunday schools and passed exams, but that was it. The more rural sections, by contrast, absorbed and imbibed them. I may be oversimplifying a little here, but it is those ruralised sections that were more amenable to political radicalism, and that became more accommodating of other communities.

These reflections, random and cursory as they are, nevertheless trouble me. What are we to make of them? Perhaps I should return to where I began. Nearing the Sudharmaramaya, the Galle Heritage Foundation official contended that myths have multiple meanings, and they are ultimately what we make of them. Perhaps it is this, rather than the supposedly violent stream undergirding them, that explains how these myths have been deployed by the most bigoted interests today. It would be a mistake to claim, as some scholars do, that from their inception they underlay if not projected a chauvinist attitude, because they did not. I believe Professor Obeyesekere should have the final word here.

“The generation of my nephews and nieces studying in Sri Lanka’s modern schools, where Buddhism is taught as a school subject, is largely unaware of the tradition of stories that nurtured the Buddhist conscience and the forms of life in which they were embedded. And where they may know, they do not understand.”

I am admittedly a sceptic, an atheist or more correctly an agnostic. One of my students, from Rakvana, once dared to take me to his village and prove the existence of gods. The sceptic in me immediately chortled, but I wonder now: has contemporary society confronted myths, or has it copped out and rejected them, as Obeyesekere suggests? I think it has rejected them, and in doing so, it has displaced that culture of tolerance which underlay our society.

It is as Martin Wickramasinghe argued: the masks of the south, like the folktales of Sinhala society, served as “correctives to and criticisms of the ways of our living and thinking.” Perhaps it is time we stopped rejecting these customs, and time we re-examined them, so that we might unearth the Buddhist conscience, and ultimately find our redemption.The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at

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Brown lives matter, too



By Basab Dasgupta

The most disruptive and divisive series of events that I have seen during my life in the US was what happened after George Floyd’s death while in police custody in Minnesota in 2020.Widespread protests and violence, destruction of businesses, surge of Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, attack on police officers, call to defund the police which in turn led to an increase in criminal activities in big cities, burning of American flags all continued for months. It turned the clock back decades as far as the racial harmony between blacks and whites was concerned.

I must confess that I failed to be too sympathetic towards this movement. I strongly felt that the need for law enforcement is one of our top-most priorities and statistically speaking, there would be more black arrests because crimes are rampant in pre-dominantly black neighbourhoods. I thought that the police officer Derek Chauvin was doing his job in his effort to subdue George Floyd a known criminal with a long rap sheet. Yes, he might have used excessive force but that may have been explained by the situation. Even black conservative commentators like Candace Owens were critical of all the anti-establishment activities.

As part of my dislike for the BLM movement, I was intensely against all woke activism including football player Colin Köpenick’s refusal to stand during national anthems, Hollywood’s encouragement to make more racially inclusive movies featuring more black actors, Joe Biden’s choice for Vice President and Supreme Court judge nominee, combination of BLM with LGBTQ+ movements under the rainbow flag and the entire mantra of “diversity and inclusivity”.

My views changed almost overnight a few days ago when I heard the news of a 23-year-old graduate student, Jaahnavi Kandula of Indian origin, being run over by a police car in Seattle while crossing the street. The accident happened on 23 January 2023, but the video from the bodycam of a police officer was just released. The car was being driven by Kevin Dave who was on an emergency call and driving at 74 mph in a zone with 25 mph speed limit.

There was a photograph of the girl so cute, so innocent, so full of optimism for a bright future; she was going to graduate in December. Tears came to my eyes thinking of my own daughter at that age and the heartbreak of the girl’s parents.

It was shocking and horrific, but such tragic accidents do happen every day in America, and I could shrug it off as another act of God that I would never understand. However, the worst part was the comment of one of the police officers. It was reported that a police officer Daniel Auderer, who happens to be the vice president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, laughed at the incident and made comments like “It’s a regular person”, “there is not much value to her life”, “just write a check for $11000” during a call to Mike Solan, the president of the guild. This was all caught on the body cam video.

I could not believe what I was reading and went to YouTube to see if the video had been posted. Sure enough, I found multiple clips, each containing the comments and laughter. It was not some mumbling and giggling; comments were loud and clear.

The chilling part was the laughter. It was evil, it was as if Satan himself was laughing. It was sickening. Equally shocking was what happened after the incident was brought to the attention of superiors. Daniel reportedly confessed to making those comments but explained away his reaction by claiming that he was laughing not at the dead girl but at how the lawyers would now jump into action arguing about “value of life”. Nothing happened to the officers, not even a suspension for a few days.

The decision was that there was no need to hold Kevin guilty or initiate a criminal investigation. Despite a suspicion that Kevin was under the influence of drugs, Daniel vindicated him by lying on his behalf that he was travelling at 50 mph, a manageable speed for a trained driver, and he was not impaired the so-called “blue wall of silence”.

Daniel was obviously stupid to minimize the value of this girl’s life. I am sure that he did not know that the current President of India is a woman in a country which also elected a woman prime minister in the largest democratic country almost 60 years ago. He does not know that some of the most important positions in the world today are held by Indian women, such as the Assistant Director General of WHO and chief economist of IMF. He probably did not know how to distinguish a woman of Indian origin from other women of colour.

He could not have any appreciation for a young woman coming here for higher studies leaving her family behind so that she could get a good job and help her family live a better life.

As I started to digest the whole episode, it gradually dawned on me. This police officer may not be an isolated example. Many of the other 600,000+ policemen probably share a similar background and attitude. Daniel is a bully, a racist, an uneducated person and brazen enough to openly make such statements because he is used to making such comments.

This is perhaps not surprising. Who wants to be a policeman? Clearly, he must be physically fit and strong. He cannot be well-educated because then he would have chosen a different profession. Who else would want to risk his life every day? He must be a bully because his job is to track down criminals. He is a racist because he has seen in his job that there are more people of colour who are arrested for suspicion of a crime. He probably grew up in an equally uneducated and unsophisticated family environment. We probably only get people like him to join the force.

The policemen in this country supposedly go through regular sensitivity training on race-related issues and how to be objective. Clearly expense for such training is being wasted in Seattle.

I immediately thought of the BLM movement. Suddenly, I understood the rage and frustration of all the African American people joining the movement. I can now believe that the black folks are indeed stopped in much larg-er proportion than their white counterparts for minor offenses. I now believe that police have a very low assessment of their lives. I now believe in stories of police abuse and brutality.

I do not know how the Indian government or the Indian American community will react to this incident. I read headlines like “Biden Administration has promised swift action” and numerous comments expressing outrage and disgust below every YouTube post. Some are demanding “accountability”, but what does it mean? Should the police officer be fired? Should he be tried in a court of law like Derek? Should the police union be dismantled? Indians are peaceful people; they are not going to protest at the State capitol or burn police cars. I suspect that nothing will happen to Kevin or Daniel and the incident will gradually be forgotten.

What can I do? Should I join the BLM movement and encourage its leaders to generalize the name “BLM” to include Brown lives matter? I am sure that Mexicans will join in that effort. Should I say, “Enough with America” and go back to India? Should I organize a protest in front of a local police station? (The Statesman/ANN)

Today I just write to release my anger and to see if “a pen is mightier than a sword”.

(The writer, a physicist who worked in industry and academia, is a Bengali settled in America.)

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Politicos junketing while ordinaries are sinking in COL mire



There was a pall of silence over who accompanied our President to the Big Apple for the Big Meeting of the United Nations. Hence our curiosity was roused, minds scratched around for news. Cassandra WhatsApped a good friend of hers now living in California and asked her whether she knew who accompanied our Prez.

We thought in these hard times only the very essential and relevant to the occasion VIPs would be taken along: a lean contingent would be Prez Wckremesinghe’s orders. Cassandra hurried to her computer and googled. Plenty on President Ranil Wickremasinghe’s address to the UN General Assembly on 21 Sept., which was on the theme, “Rebuilding trust and reigniting solidarity and its relevance to Sri Lanka’s recent challenges.” Reading many articles Cass gathered that Prez RW had dealt with the country’s economic and other travails; global geopolitical landscape; climate action taken and to be taken; carbon reduction et al in his address at UNGA.

It was stated in one article that the Prez was accompanied by Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Sabry, Secretary to the President E M S B Ekanayake, Foreign Secretary Aruni Wijewardena and other senior officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. So, she rested her mind that no extraneous hangers-on had accompanied the Prez.

   Then came a newspaper write up that MPs Rohitha Abeygunewardena and Mahindananda Aluthgamage were in the contingent – stalwarts of the SLPP.  What use were they in the context of the topics on which the Prez made his UN address? Were they experts on any issues that would have been discussed at side meetings? Experts on economics, geopolitical matters, climate change, balance of world power? NO! It seemed to be a pure (or rather impure) peace-making gesture and to keep quiet two demanders for Cabinet positions.

Sops to Cerberus in the way of a plane ride to and from, and a stay in one of the more expensive hotels in the Big Apple? Can you believe that the MPs and two die-hard Pohottu MPs and previous ministers want a joy ride and will do anything to get one?  Also, that we poor Sri Lankans, suffering such slings and arrows of bad fortune in a bankrupt country with soaring prices to be paid for even the water we drink, food we so niggardly eat and electricity we so sparingly use have paid for these two to junket? We have to fork out taxes, even those with nothing to show as assets. And where does a huge amount of this collected money go? To pay for pleasure junkets for those we feel have no right to go to the UN General Assembly.

When Mahinda Rajapaksa was the President, he would take a huge group of persons who in the majority were completely redundant and of no use at all to these UN General Assembly annual gatherings. A worker in the UN in New York commented that most of those who went along dispersed soon after they had landed, in a fleet of cars hired for the visit, making a vehicle-hiring Sri Lankan in the US rich. Most of them were not even present when the Sri Lankan president made his address.

At least, they could have helped to reduce the mass of empty seats in the UN Assembly hall. Thus, it was surmised that he was repaying his catchers for being loyal to him – at our expense. No dissent, whether loud or soft, then. No one dared question why or wherefores. No one wanted to be taken on a white van ride; or worse, taken on the final journey. Cassandra must add here that a couple of brave women journos did speak up.

And to think there was a replay of this junketing in 2023, though reduced, under a Prez who understands well the plight the country is in and the need to save every rupee of government money.  However, junketing was offered at the country’s expense. And by order of Prez RW. The two mentioned are very rich politicians.

Being suspicious

Cassandra experienced a happening that showed her how wary people are now, and untrusting. It is a natural outcome of the type of person the Sri Lankan is thought to be in these much-changed times. Do you remember when even in Middle East airports the Sri Lankan passport was treated with utter disdain and suspicion? Cass recalls that en route to Britain she had her passport and other Sri Lankan travellers’ passports confiscated on entry to the airport in Dubai and handed back only when the plane was re-boarding. She squirmed with embarrassment and resentment, but realised it was all because Sri Lankans had behaved shamefully dishonest and thus all Sri Lankans were branded untrustworthy.

Cass bought some tickets to enjoy a singing and dancing of Julius Caesar. The thousands she gave the young girl were found to be short. Saying she would get the balance from her driver, she instinctively took the tickets and was about to step out when she noticed the consternation of the box office girl. Suspicion, she realised, that she would not return. Cass apologised, placed the tickets on the counter, went out to get the Rs 500 needed and then, retrieving her tickets, commented it was so sad that the young one could not trust this old dame. She assured her it was no fault of hers; she was doing her duty, but people nowadays had killed the trust that was a given in years gone by. Even an absolutely honest and honourable person, grey-haired maybe and dignified, is treated with suspicion. What a sad state of affairs! But we ourselves are to blame since cheating and dishonesty are strong features of the present-day islanders of the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.

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Use heart, know heart



By Dr Mohan Jayatilake Consultant Cardiologist

Every year on the 29th of September, World Heart day is observed to raise awareness about cardiovascular disease (CVD), which is heart diseases and strokes. As heart diseases are a leading cause of death in the world people must be educated about them and the timely prevention to achieve this goal. World Heart day commenced in 1999 through the joint efforts of World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Heart Federation (WHF).

The theme of the World Heart Day 2023 is “Use Heart, Know Heart” emphasizing the importance of healthcare worldwide. This year’s campaign focuses on the essential step of knowing your heart first. The World Heart Federation has created this day to raise awareness about cardiovascular diseases.

The key message of World Heart Day this year aims to encourage people to look after themselves, others and nature as well. Putting a coordinated effort to improve ones’ own lifestyle and diet and motivating others to do the same can lead to a reduced number of CVD cases.

Heart diseases and strokes are the worlds’ leading cause of death claiming 17.9 million lives every year. According to WHO statistics 82% of deaths coming in from low and middle income countries are due to lack of resources.

Since a healthy heart is the gateway to a healthy life it is important to ensure the health of your heart. With the growing number of heart patients worldwide it has become a cause of concern since of late.The day is observed by organising events worldwide to make people aware about the warning signs of heart disease so that people can take steps accordingly to avoid this disease.

Together with members of WHF spread the news that at least 80% of premature deaths from heart disease and strokes could be avoided if main risk factors such as heavy smoking, unhealthy diet, reduced physical activity (sedentary lifestyle), stressful lifestyle, psychological issues, hypertension, diabetic and heavy alcoholism are controlled. Being obese and overweight, BMI (Body Mass Index) more than 25, is found to be one of the main risk factors that may harm your heart. Air pollution also can lead to coronary artery disease and stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer as short term and long term effects.

Fortunately now we have almost come out of COVID 19 pandemic which caused more vulnerable patients having severe cardiovascular events.

Events of the World Heart Day 2023

There are numerous events at the national and international level promoted by WHF. They disseminate information and hold discussions of various heart ailments at different platforms. Some of them like posters, podcasts and forums are quite popular. The day is marked by providing free fitness check-ups, fundraises, walks, runs, concerts and sporting events. All such events encourage people to stay active and be aware of their health.

Global leaders recognise the urgency to give priority to prevention and control of heart diseases and other non-communicable diseases (NCD).Which include cancer, diabetic, and chronic lung diseases.

How to contribute to observance of the event on World Heart Day

By undergoing heart health check at a center near you.

By managing your weight and keeping BMI index under control with less than 25.

By trying to stay active through different physical activities

By attending seminars to learn about different life saving activities like CPR

By attending fitness lectures and lessons of healthy living

According to this year theme also, use your heart for the betterment of others’ heart, by taking following steps to reduce the burden of heart disease. Stop smoking – Cigarette smokers are 2 to 4 times more prone to get heart diseases and strokes than non-smokers. Passive smoking inside the house will also harm your own heart and your family health, causing cardiovascular disease.

Avoid alcohol – Stressful conditions in life can lead to use of alcohol and smoking. Meditation, yoga, music or involvement with any other aesthetic will help to minimize stress and to move away from alcohol.

Healthy diet at home

Limit saturated fats and trans fats

Limit salt and sugar intake

Consume plenty of fruits and vegetables

Unhealthy diet is one of the main causes of obesity, diabetic and cardiovascular diseases. Rapid urbanisation, changing lifestyle and easy access of fast food have made the dietary pattern unhealthy.

Animal products mainly beef, pork and poultry with skin, mutton, lard, butter, cheese carry lot of saturated fats. Avoid having trans fats which are in baked, processed and fried food items, certain margarines and spreads. Take lean meats, poultry without skin, low fat dairy products, fish and nuts with vegetable oil in moderation.

Regular Exercise

Adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderately intensive physical activity or at least 75 minutes of high intensive physical activity per week. Families should limit the amount of time spent in front of TV or continuous reading to less than 2 hours a day in a seated position. Exercises should be a regular part of life.

Lose weight

World is now facing visible epidemic of obesity. It affects your cardiovascular health and also affect your wellbeing.To lose weight, do regular exercises, have healthy diet, cut down starch and sugar and alcohol. Have plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Manage stress

Psychological health can affect your cardio vascular health. Regular exercise and practice relaxation, reading, being with friends and family, adequate sleep, various hobbies maintain the positive attitude towards stress free life.

Know your numbers

Visit your doctor or health care professional, check your blood pressure regularly and take steps to control it and take regular medication.Know your cholesterol- high cholesterol is another factor for cardiovascular disease. Check regularly and control with dietary measures and medication. Know your blood sugar- Diabetic is another major factor for cardiovascular disease. Diet control, medication and professional advice required to control it.

Know your warning signs

To know the symptoms of CVD will help your survival because earlier the treatment better the chances of survival. Chest pain of tightening or burning in nature with pain radiating down the upper limbs or to the neck and jaw or back, associated with sweating and nausea are your warning signs.

Sudden weakness of limbs, slurring of speech, deviation of mouth, double vision could be due to a stroke. Knowing these symptoms and seeking urgent medical attention allow you to get treatment early to prevent life threatening complications.

Take your medicine regularly and correctly

If you are already diagnosed with heart disease or with stroke, taking your medication regularly will reduce another similar episode in future.

Breast feeding and lifelong health

Breast feeding is the best form of nutrition for newborn and infants according to WHO. Increasing public awareness is important. Infants who are breastfed tend to have lower cholesterol and blood pressure as well as lower rates of obesity.

Both undernourished and over nourished early in life can increase the risk of developing cardio vascular diseases. Maternal obesity during pregnancy has been associated with obesity in children which also increase the cardiovascular disease risk.

As always our emphasis will be on improving heart health across all nations in adult male and female as well as children. By adopting lifestyle changes, people all over the world can have longer and better lives through the prevention and control of heart disease and stroke. This was highlighted on this most important day to persuade people on maintain a healthy lifestyle.

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