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Valorising mythology to invalidate known history

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By ROHANA R. WASALA

Feisal Mansoor (‘Muslims and ban on cattle slaughter’/The Island/October 9, 2020) opens his piece with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, obviously taken from the web: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” However, there is some doubt about the authenticity of that alleged Gandhi quote, because it is not traceable to his writings or his speeches according to quote-researchers; besides, he was usually better known for his great concern for the weak members of human society than for animals. But even if someone just imagined it, there’s no harm done, for the expression of concern for animal welfare attributed to Gandhi, can be easily supported by what we know about him as a champion of non-violence. But the problem here is this: Whether genuine or fake, the Gandhi quote has little or no relevance to the truth that FM’s arbitrary opinions about Sri Lanka’s ‘ancient culture’ misrepresent or conceal, in favour of something else. He seems to completely ignore the millennia long recorded history of the island, which is almost entirely coterminous with its established Buddhist religious culture and is inseparable from it. (Incidentally, the spirit of secularism and democracy that it encourages in governance is a distinctive feature of the country’s majority Buddhist culture; but this is something difficult for most believers of other religions and Sri Lanka-baiters to understand or appreciate.) The greatness of our culture is that it is absolutely tolerant and accommodating towards minority cultures, subject to the implicit legitimate condition that they don’t try to make undue inroads into its space or to subvert it in other ways. To me it looks like FM’s statements are meant to distort, rubbish, and obviate, if possible, Sri Lanka’s ancient Sinhala Buddhist cultural heritage. Is the Gandhi quote meant to imply that our nation has no claim to greatness, and that our treatment of animals falls short of required moral standards observed in civilized countries?

Having said that, it must be stated with emphasis that it is perfectly alright for FM to try to share his personal convictions with others. That is his right as a free citizen. I am enjoying here the same right to articulate my reaction as a Sri Lankan to his views about the ancient history and culture of our beloved Motherland.

First of all, let’s be clear about this: At the very inauguration (i.e., in official terms) of the Buddha Sasana in the island of Lanka, Buddhist missionary Arhant Mahinda Thera admonished the monarch of the land king Devanampiya Tissa in 236 BCE (2256 years ago) thus as recorded in the Mahavamsa (Chapter XIV):

“O great king, the beasts that roam the forest and the birds that fly the skies have the same right to this land as you. The land belongs to the people and to all other living things, and you are not its owner but only its guardian.”

Isn’t this considerably before today’s animal rights protectors, animal ‘status’ guarantors, animal welfare standard maintainers, and various other ‘a fair deal for animals’ worriers, represented in organizations that annually celebrate the World Wildlife Day (March 3), World Animal Day (October 4), etc., at some cost, started talking about the subject?

Compassionate treatment of all sentient beings is an ideal that people brought up in our culture, take for granted. Of course, there are instances where the ideal is observed in the breach. That is human nature. A whole society should not be judged on the basis of the behaviour of a few individuals, who could themselves be victims of circumstances.

FM’s first paragraph is an attempted fusion of the Ravana myth and his religious beliefs, to the exclusion of the historically factual Buddhist element. That Ravana flew his ‘dandu monara yanaya’ (wooden peacock aircraft) and abducted Seetha from what is now called India, is a story. Not even children take that as proven history, but it is a wonderful story, wherever or whenever it originated. Talking monkeys, animal fortune tellers, and other human personality attributed birds and beasts are common in literature in all cultures. The stories that compose our Jataka Potha are shared property in various North Indian literary traditions. The Sanskrit ‘Panchatantra’ from India, interweaves five skeins of moral traditions into a single text composed of stories in which so many animals feature, invested with human qualities. We have a number of talking, philosophising, admonishing birds in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

FM writes: “As Creation is the supreme force in the universe, the beneficence of life and its comprehension through love, is to facilitate as many expressions of life as possible.” That belief is not shared by the predominant religious culture of our country, but is not targetadly criticised or attacked so as to hurt others’ religious beliefs or sentiments. There is evidence that our ancestors ‘worshipped’ the sun as the source of all life, especially plant life, hence important for agriculture. If they deified the sun, it was very meaningful. That ancient religious tradition survives today in the secular Surya Mangalyaya or the Sinhala Aluth Avurudda, held in the month of Bak (Felix/Lucky) in the Sinhala calendar. The ignorant insensitive British colonial authorities arbitrarily renamed it Sinhala Hindu New Year for their own purposes. Tamils and Sinhalese can and do live peaceably together, while observing their separate culturally distinctive festivals. Whether our ancestors called themselves Aryans because they were sun worshippers is highly improbable. Aryans were a white skinned race.The Sinhalese are not. It is not impossible that the Swastika – a sign that symbolizes the Sun was later appropriated by those white people, including Adolf Hitler. The legendary Vijaya of the Mahavamsa could have descended from such a tribe, but that origin story is not accepted today. Newly available archaeological evidence provides proof that our ancestors were a civilised a people (with their pure dark skin) even during the time of the Buddha, and that there were lay Buddhists and Buddhist monks before the arrival of Arahat Mahinda; whose coming appears to have been the result of an official diplomatic mission; he and his retinue were, most probably, royal emissaries from Emperor Asoka’s court as much as Buddhist missionaries. (Read between the lines, the Mahavamsa passages support this impression.)

FM’s reference to Aldous Huxley needs a comment. In the Maha Parinibbana Sutta, the Buddha tells the monks: ‘Atta dipa viharatha’ – ‘Be islands unto yourselves’, meaning you are your own saviour, that is, ‘Realise Nibbanic Bliss, put an end to samsaric suffering, through your own effort’ (which is not beyond you, if you are diligent enough). Writer and brilliant intellectual Aldous Huxley might have independently arrived at this island metaphor to describe his own illusion of self, elusive self-identity. The contemplative W.B. Yeats, himself no mean intellectual, expressed it as ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’ It is also possible that both of them came across this idea in Buddhist literature.

Apparently, FM mistakes this profound idea for selfish self-absorption. In his confusion, he imports the phrase ‘enlightened self-interest’ that Adam Smith (considered the ‘father of modern economics’) coined to express his idea that by pursuing one’s own economic benefit one ultimately contributes to the good of others as well, without probably intending to do so. (But it can be thought that he tried to elaborate it as a morally acceptable concept, rather than as a coldly amoral economic one.) However, that is something very different from the Buddhist idea of working for the benefit and wellbeing of others without expecting a reward, generosity or altruism.

 

FM has written:

“As such, enlightened self-interest is the only personal inquiry we can make, with the all- important caveat that in our self-discovery we may not interfere with anything else’s self-discovery.”

He may be seen as giving idiosyncratic twists to the terms ‘enlightened self-interest’ and ‘self-discovery’, which are actually technical terms in their respective characteristic contexts. FM also makes a confusing verbal medley out of words like ahimsa, Dhamma, and Mahasammata. These are words charged with meaning and emotion for Buddhists. ‘Mahasammata’ (the Great Elect/the Universally Chosen One/The People’s Choice) occurs in Chapter II of the Mahavamsa as the earliest genealogical ancestor of the Buddha (and humankind, probably) who lived countless aeons ago. For Sinhalese Buddhists ‘Mahasammata’ is not a historical figure; he is the legendary first king on earth. In the Agganna Sutta (On Knowledge of Beginnings) the Buddha mentions Mahasammata as the first ruler who was appointed, based on his handsome appearance and moral strength, by common consent, to rule over the group of rice growers that was the loosely formed human society then. He was tasked to prevent stealing, to punish the miscreants by banishing, etc. Mahasammata was given a share of the rice crop as payment for his service. Actually, the Agganna Sutta can be interpreted as a scientific account of an alternately expanding and contracting universe, and a gradually evolving earth; and much later anatomically modern humans and organized human societies emerging on earth. There is no talk of a creator or creation, which FM takes for granted. Dharma is what the Buddha preached. Ahimsa is the ideal of nonviolence that is common to most Indian religions, including principally, Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.

Next, FM quotes two passages from the book ‘Portuguese Encounters with Sri Lanka and the Maldives’ edited by C.R. de Silva, Ashgate, 2009, to assert “that there was no slaughter of cattle in Lanka prior to colonisation”. It is ridiculous in this trivial context to quote from an eminent historian like the professor mentioned. These encounters took place in the 16th to 17th centuries. The book is a scholarly collection of writings taken from Portuguese histories and archives in translation combined with those from local sources. Publishers say: “These documents contribute to the growing understanding that different groups of European colonizers – missionaries, traders and soldiers – had conflicting motivations and objectives. Scholars have also begun to emphasize that the colonized were not mere victims but had their own agendas and that they occasionally successfully manipulated colonial powers.” (I took this extract from Google.com- RRW)

So, the book shows that the natives of these countries matched those invading European interlopers bent on ‘temporal and spiritual conquest’ in their cunning and countervailing skills. They were not half-civilized savages. By the way, I don’t think FM found himself nodding in agreement when reading sentences like the following written by an ignorant Portuguese scribe:

“… In this country there are many false beliefs sown by the devil, and to eradicate them there is a need for much time and trouble…..” (This must be a reference to local Buddhist and Hindu religious beliefs of the time; but the colonizers were too uneducated and uncultured to understand that Buddhism and Hinduism are not ‘religions’ in their sense of the term, and that religion in the colonizers’ sense was, as it still is, a facile superstition to Buddhists. – RRW)

“They (some native people who didn’t kill even the meanest of creatures) do not eat bread, however hungry or needy they might be. Their food is made up of the leaves of a certain creeper (betel leaves) that climbs other trees like ivy. These leaves are smeared with the same kind of lime that they use for whitewashing their houses…”

“There is another class of people that eats fowl and wild boar and deer, but does not eat the flesh of cows, since they believe their souls enter into cows after death; they will never kill a cow and eat its flesh…”

It looks like FM has missed this book: ‘A 16th Century Clash of Civilizations: The Portuguese Presence in Sri Lanka’ by Susantha Goonatilake, 2010. It gives a clear assessment of the effects of the Portuguese colonial presence in our country, which was actually ahead of those European invaders in terms of human civilization. The Portuguese went to Sri Lanka in compliance with a papal bull.

FM makes extremely fallacious claims like the following about his fictitious ‘Lanka of Mahasammata’:

“A vocational caste system handed down secrets to successive generations, in a system where one’s knowledge was one’s wealth, with the Divine as the Supreme Master of one’s craft, one performs one’s duty with an aim to perfection in union of mind and spirit so each attempt brought one closer to the Ultimate Prize.” (Divine as the Supreme Master of one’s craft, Ultimate Prize, What are these?)

“In a land ruled by the Unseen King, in both metaphor and practise, the King embodies Mahasammata and sets the standard for the people”. (There was no Mahasammata in our country’s history. I explained the ‘Mahasammata’ concept above. Who is this Unseen King, FM? Surely a figment of your imagination?)

“The people know that if they live in dhamma, Dhamma would protect them, and the land would be safe”. (This is a misinterpretation of the piece of wisdom which runs in Pali: ‘dhammo have rakkati dhammacarim’ ‘The Dhamma protects the one who lives by the Dhamma’. There’s no protective magic or divine intervention here. But don’t take it literally. You may be sure you live according to the Dhamma. But be mindful enough not to stand in front of an oncoming train.)

The rest of FM’s article makes even less sense. From this point onwards, I fail to find anything in FM’s article worth talking about. The next to nothing he has to say about the subject proposed in his title is: ” I believe that as a Sri Lankan Muslim, it is incumbent on me to respect the mores of my compatriots and to live in a way that will lead to greater social cohesion, amity and unity of purpose…” That is a harmless thought, but I for one do not believe that pre-colonial Sri Lanka was paradise on earth. Besides, that sentiment runs in the face of what FM has been trying to prove to the very end.

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Opinion

Covid-19 – a cause for grave world concern;

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Some thoughts and reminiscences

By Dr. V.J.M. de Silva

There is no doubt about the gravity and world concern about this serious disease. Every newspaper devotes a lot of space to it. Intellectuals and world leaders talk about it. Unlike in past pandemics, it has spread even to Arctica and Antarctica – almost every country in the world is affected – (even Greenland, though no deaths have been reported). It is, however, not as bad as previous pandemics, like the Bubonic Plague of the 14th century, when nearly 50% of Europe was wiped out.

All information given herein is from the Internet and is up-to-date. In passing, I would like to mention that I am now 91-years-old and all this information was collected throughout the last several years. The world today is at a ‘standstill’ due to control measures taken. Nonetheless, I would like to present some facts which I think would give readers some food for thought. India, our nearest neighbour, has a population of 1,360,000,000 (1 trillion, 360 million – a little over 13 million). This is six times the population of Sri Lanka. From these statistics, we should have about 1 million cases and 20,000 deaths (not 9,000 cases and 19 deaths). The Maldive Islands, also a neighbouring country, with a population of 1,300,000, however, has 11,600 Covid cases and 37 deaths. The island of Villivaru has been turned into the ‘world’s first Coronavirus resort’ with 2,500 beds, where patients enjoy a luxurious stay and free medical care! (Wikipedia).

I will give a few facts for the sake of comparison with Sri Lanka. From this it appears that India has a mortality of 15%, the USA 3% , Thailand 8%

From this table, Sri Lanka seems to be the safest country in the world to live in today. Obviously, Sri Lankans seem to have some sort of immunity. Various explanations have been given for this immunity. The most plausible is that our children have all been given BCG immunization.

We have undergone, and are still undergoing severe hardships due to the measures that the health authorities have, understandably, taken. The problem is, the symptoms of the disease caused by the Covid-19 virus, is so common, that it is not easily recognized, unless the specific diagnostic test is done. The cases of the disease in India and the Maldive Islands have increased. As of the end of October, the cases in India have risen to about 790,000 with 119,700 deaths – 677,000 have recovered. The population in India is about six times that of Sri Lanka. Going by these statistics, Sri Lanka should have about 20,000 deaths, not nineteen as is the case.

Globally, there are about 44,000,000 cases and 1,165,000 deaths. The USA has the highest number of cases – about 6,000,000 cases with 240,000 deaths. The worst affected country seems to be Thailand, which has a death rate of 8% (i.e if 100 people get the disease, 8 will die ).

This immunity may be something similar to Yellow Fever. Although we have the insect vector, Aedes aegypti, which spreads yellow fever, no one in Sri Lanka has ever had yellow fever, though it is a menace in North and South America, and Africa. This mosquito also spreads Dengue. This is also a reminder of the Yellow Fever epidemics in 1900. The Americans, who were interested in completing the work on the Panama Canal (about 50 miles long and 100 ft. wide), connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, spent a lot on men and material. The Isthmus of Panama, separates North and South America. Several scientists sacrificed their lives doing research on the diseases preventing its construction. It has been called the greatest achievement of the 20th century.

In conclusion, I would like to quote the words of Max Theiler in his speech at the Nobel Prize banquet. “I like to feel that in honouring me, you are honouring all workers in the laboratory, field and jungle, who have contributed so much, often under conditions of hardship and danger, to the understanding of this disease. I would also like to feel that you are honouring those who have given their lives in gaining knowledge which was of inestimable value. They were truly martyrs of science, who died that others might live.”

Generous and gracious words, indeed. Would there be scientists like that today! Alas, they are no more!, That generation has passed away. If I may mention their names – the team was led by Dr Walter Reed, well known for his work on infectious diseases. Others were James Carroll, Jesse James Lazier, Adrian Stokes, W.A.Young, Hideyo Nagushi (a Japanese American) and a nurse, Clara Maass. They were all ‘martyrs’ for science.

 

 

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Opinion

Mike Pompeo’s Predatory Diplomacy!

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Are we now in the Predatory Era of diplomacy?

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has given us much food for thought on this. He has described China as a predator in relations with Sri Lanka. At the Joint Media briefing, with Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, Pompeo said about relations with Sri Lanka that “US is a partner, China is a predator”.

 “We see from bad deals, violations of sovereignty and lawlessness on land and sea that the Chinese Communist Party is a predator, and the United States comes in a different way, we come as a friend, and as a partner,” Pompeo told a televised news conference in the capital, Colombo.

A predator is an animal that naturally preys on others. It is also a person or group that exploits others, such as sexual predators.

The predator is very much part of the socio-political trend in the US today, and Pompeo was obviously clutching this feeling. Coming here, representing President Donald Trump, who is in a largely dirty and unmasked electoral fight for the presidency, Pompeo could not have forgotten that more than a dozen US women came forward to accuse his boss, President Trump, of having groped them (an much worse, too) with headlines across the media labelling him as “Predator in Chief”.

The word predator is now widely acknowledged in the US to have racist overtones, and in the last election cycle, Hillary Clinton half-apologized for using it. She caught a break, too, as the predator label drifted away and stuck to her opponent, Trump, instead.

Way back in 1996, Hillary Clinton, in a speech supporting her husband’s 1994 anticrime bill, famously referred to a certain type of young person as a “superpredator” — a word coined by the political scientist John J. DiIulio Jr., who predicted that the nation’s inner cities would produce a generation of “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters” – the superpredators. 

It is up to the Chinese to take this non-diplomatic use of predator to describe the Chinese Communist Party, and therefore, China itself. Let’s look at the wholly racist trend in US politics and governance that has shown the predatory moves of its police and its supporters, such as President Trump.

Do we have to think a lot to recall how that non-white American, George Floyd, died after being arrested in Minneapolis, and held down by police officers, one of whom had his knee on Mr Floyd’s neck. He pleaded that he couldn’t breathe.

Protests broke out in cities across the US, and there were demonstrations in other parts of the world. ‘Black Lives Matter’ became a political organization with new power and meaning. The government of President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have not had any success in having a good democratic response to the anger of the people about such racist violence. 

Can we forget, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician, who was shot eight times when officers raided her apartment, in Louisville, Kentucky. They were executing a search warrant as part of a drugs raid, but no drugs were found.

It has now been officially found that no policeman has been charged for this brutal shooting – but there is a charge against one police officer for  bullets striking a neighbour’s apartment!  Predatory delight.

Mike Pompeo must know very well that Breonna Taylor became a rallying cry at protests in the US, along with George Floyd, and the many other non-white, Black American persons who have been killed by these Police and State Predators. He was certainly not thinking of how Black people are much more likely to be stopped and searched, and even rapidly handcuffed by police than white people in the US. Who are the predators, if not the Police? The State Predators of the US!

Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena had already made his formal statement at this Joint Briefing, where Mike Pompeo came to his predatory trend in non-diplomacy. There was no opportunity for Minister Gunawardena to make any response, or is that so? Can a foreign guest, whoever he or she may be, insult a Sri Lanka friendly country in such a manner, with the least regard to proper diplomacy? Is the US in a special higher plane of international relations with Sri Lanka, than the other world power today?

Minister Gunawardena, in his diplomatic silence, may have been reminded of his father, the late Philip Gunawardena, whose move to politics here came after his studies in the US, where he became a socialist, moving with the leftist political groups there, who were in a rising movement against the capitalist powers of White supremacy.

He may have also remembered the Rubber-Rice Pact signed in 1952 when the UNP was in office, and saw the establishing of close relations with the People’s Republic of China, at a time when the US was in sway in global power.

Once he gets back to Washington, and sees Donald Trump reeling in the electoral fight with Joe Biden/Kamala Harris, he had better think more of the realities of predatory action in the US, and give thought to the possibility of the US being a ‘superpredator” in the world! 

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Opinion

A bouquet to President and his team

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It was great to see Valaichchenai producing paper once again. Thanks to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his team, including Minister Wimal Weerawamsa, officials of the Paper Mill and the armed forces that contributed to reviving the factory.

Two years ago, I spent a few nights at Bay Vista in Arugam Bay, I made a detour to see what was left of the Valaichchenai Paper Mill, one of my favourite haunts during previous visits to the area. The gates were shut, held firmly by trees and shrubs. I alighted from my car, walked up to the gates, and looked at that factory which had gone to rack and ruin. That saddened me beyond measure.

We were lost in the jungle, near Tantirimale, recently when motoring to the Sandamal Eliya temple to donate a wheelchair. I had known the areas previously, but could not find the way in an illuk (spear grass) jungle at Mahawilachchiya. That was where I had led the Agrarian Services personnel on a national mission to make the country self-sufficient in paddy, but new roads had come up. Finally, when we reached Sandamal Eliya, I inquired from Ven Sangarakkita about the illuk grass. He said it was a nuisance and nobody knew what to do with it.

On our way back, I happened to recall that originally the Valaichchenai Paper Mill machinery was intended to make paper from illuk, which is a stronger product than straw, and did provide both the long and short fibre needed for paper making. The Valaichchenai mill devoured all the illuk within a few years. All was thought to be lost, but thanks to the ingenuity of our engineers and scientists, another raw material was found. They discovered that straw could be used as a substitute. It was then that I came on the scene, going behind the straw lorries for miles on end on my way to the East. The straw provided only the short fibre, and we had to import paper pulp to mix with the straw. Even then we produced paper. The production came to a standstill due to LTTE terrorism.

The irony is that we, who found how to make paper out of straw, stopped producing paper, while China and India went ahead with paper making.

I have, in my papers, suggested that a few small paper mills be imported from China or India, set them up in Padaviya, Tissa and Mahawilachchiya, and turn our straw into paper. The cost of the paper machines and installing can be recouped in one year from the savings from the curtailment of paper imports. Actually, we need not import any paper, from the end of 2021, if the government imports three small scale mills, costing less than a fifth of the cost of paper imports a year.

An article I wrote about illuk was published in The Isalnd on 29 Sept. 2020, under the caption “Illuk can reduce poverty and save foreign exchange”.

The Divisional Secretary, at Kotmale, once set up a small industry to make paper out of waste paper. It was a great success. It is sad to note that Sri Lanka is, perhaps, the only country in the entire world that wastes its waste paper, not making paper out of it. Go about anywhere in Colombo and one can see people collecting waste paper and waste cardboard. We do not process it to paper. Instead we export some 30 tons of waste paper a month to India, and the ridiculous part of it is that we buy paper and board from India. Truly we need to have our heads examined.

I remember that a few youth on my Youth Self Employment Programme, in Bangladesh, were collecting waste paper to make paper and they earned a decent income.

Installing a small scale paper mill, at Sandamal Eliya, can be done in three months, working at the speed I did once in 1971 in establishing the Mechanized Boatyard at Matara. Then my team found how to make crayons with experiments done at the science lab of Rahula College, Matara. Sumanapala Dahanayake the Member of Parliament, at Deniyaya, in his capacity of the President of the Morawak Korale Coop Union, established the handmade crayon factory, working day and night, in two weeks, and that Coop Crayon Factory provided all the crayons we needed. Harry Guneratne, the Import Controller, cancelled the import of all crayons, and Coop Crayon flourished until President Jayewardene’s government closed the factory, in 1978. That was the “development” that the UNP brought to our country!

I can only hope this note will reach the President.

GARVIN KARUNARATNE
Ph D Michigan State University
Former Government Agent, Matara

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