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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

Road to Nandikadal: Twists of Kamal and Ranil actions

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I am re-reading retired Major General Kamal Gunaratne’s book “Road to Nandikadal ” these days. This is his first hand experience of the battle against LTTE, and his journey in the Sri Lankan army from Thirunelveli in 1983 to Nandikadal in 2009, where the final battle took place. Thirteen years have passed since the defeat of the LTTE in 2009 under the political leadership of former president Mahinda Rajapakse and the then secretary of defence Gotabaya Rajapakse. As we all know, Gotabaya became the president of Sri Lanka in 2019, and resigned last July, due to public pressure, and is currently travelling from country to country without a set destination.

In his book, Kamal has written an interesting chapter titled “A final chance for peace” and detailed the peace process followed by the then government led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, as the prime minister. This is Kamal’s narrative about the memorandum of understanding (MOU), brokered by the Norwegian government and signed by the then prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in 2002. “According to the MoU, members of the LTTE political wing were allowed to enter government controlled areas to commence their political activities. The first group of such LTTE political wing members entered the government controlled area from Muhamalai, singing and cheering, as if they had won the war. They insulted and jeered at the soldiers manning the checkpoint with impunity whilst the poor soldiers, under strict instructions not to react, helplessly looked on. The Navy, which arrested a group of terrorists, was immediately instructed to release them. Upon release, the terrorists threatened the sailors and lifted their sarongs, baring their genitalia at the stunned sailors, who could do nothing but simply look down in shame. Such developments intensified the apprehension we held of things yet to come and prepared ourselves to face untold humiliation in the name of the Motherland”.

Kamal further writes, “At the time of drafting the MoU, experienced officers like myself, knew it was premature to enter into peace negotiations. On the one hand, LTTE could not be trusted to keep their word, as past experience had taught us bitterly, and on the other hand, negotiations should be ideally undertaken from a position of strength”. He continues, “The government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was very confident of the peace process and strongly believed there would never be a war again. They did not have any confidence in the Army, which spurred this belief and therefore pursued peace at any cost”.

Kamal’s criticism of the Wickremesinghe administration continues: “The step motherly treatment the Army received during this period was terrible. Strict instructions were given to cut costs and the ever obedient army reduced many of our facilities and benefits. The army even stopped the annual issue of face towels to soldiers, given as a benefit for decades. It felt like they wanted us to live like ‘Veddhas’ without a bit of comfort”

Now the same Ranil Wickremesinghe is the President and Commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and Kamal Gunaratne, who was highly critical of the Wickremesinghe administration, is the trusted Defence Secretary of the president. Is it a twist of fate or twist of faith!

LIONEL RAJAPAKSE

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Opinion

Need for best relations with China

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(This letter was sent in before the announcement of the government decision to allow the Chinese survey vessel to dock at Hambantota – Ed.)

I once met Pieter Keuneman sometime after he had lost the Colombo Central at the general election of 1977. We met at the SSC swimming pool, where he had retreated since his favourite haunt at the Otters was under repair. Without the cares of ministerial office and constituency worries he was in a jovial mood, and in the course of a chat in reference to a derogatory remark by one of our leaders about the prime minister of a neighbouring country, he said, “You know, Ananda, we can talk loosely about people in our country, but in international relations care is needed in commenting on other leaders”.

Pieter, the scion of an illustrious Dutch burgher family, the son of Supreme Court judge A. E Keuneman, after winning several prizes at Royal College, went to Cambridge in 1935. There he became a part of the Communist circle, which included the famous spies Anthony Blunt, later keeper of the Queen’s paintings Kim Philby, and Guy Burgess. Eric Hobsbawm, the renowned historian commenting on this circle, wrote of the very handsome Pieter Keuneman from Ceylon who was greatly envied, since he won the affections of the prettiest girl in the university, the Austrian Hedi Stadlen, whom he later married. Representing the Communist Party in parliament from 1947 to 1977, soft-spoken in the manner of an English academic, Pieter belonged to a galaxy of leaders, whose likes we sorely need now.

I was thinking of Pieter’s comments considering the current imbroglio that we have created with China. Our relations with China in the modern era began in 1953, when in the world recession we were unable to sell rubber, and short of foreign exchange to purchase rice for the nation. The Durdley Senanayake government turned to China, with which we had no diplomatic ties. He sent R G Senanayake, the trade minister, to Peking, where he signed the Rice for Rubber Pact, much to the chagrin of the United States, which withdrew economic aid from Ceylon for trading with a Communist nation at the height of the Cold War.

Diplomatic relations with China were established in 1956 by S W R D Bandaranaike, and relations have prospered under different Sri Lankan leaders and governments, without a hint of discord. In fact, in addition to the vast amount of aid given, China has been a source of strength to Sri Lanka during many crises. In 1974, when the rice ration was on the verge of breaking due to lack of supplies, it was China, to which we turned, and who assisted us when they themselves were short of stocks. In the battle against the LTTE, when armaments from other countries dried up, it was China that supported us with arms, armoured vehicles, trucks, ships and aircraft.

It was China and Pakistan that stood by our armed services in this dire crisis. More recently, amidst the furore, created by Western nations about human rights violations, China was at the forefront of nations that defended us. A few weeks ago, it was reported that the UK was ready with documents to present to the UN Security Council to press for war crimes trials against the Sri Lankan military, but the presence of China and Russia with veto powers prevented it from going ahead with its plan.

It is in this context that we have to view the present troubles that have engulfed us.President Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the short period he has been in office, has won the sympathy of people by the speed with which he has brought some degree of normalcy, to what was a fast-disintegrating political environment. On the economic front, his quiet negotiations and decisions are arousing hopes.

A shadow has been cast over these achievements by the refusal to let in the Chinese ship to Hambantota, a decision made on the spur of the moment after first agreeing to allow it entry. The manner in which it was done is a humiliation for China, one administered by a friend. We must remember that these things matter greatly in Asia.

These are matters that can be rectified among friends, if action is taken immediately, recognising that a mistake has been made. The President should send a high-level representative to assure the Chinese leadership that these are aberrations that a small country suffers due to the threats of big powers, to smoothen ruffled feelings, and normalize relations between two old friends. The American-Indian effort to disrupt a 70-year old friendship, will only lead to its further strengthening in the immediate future

ANANDA MEEGAMA

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A change of economic policies for Sri Lanka

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Millions of Sri Lankans are anxiously waiting to see what actions will be taken to make life bearable again.If we follow the example of successful countries we see them exploit their opportunities, and use the wealth created, not to import cars and go on luxury trips abroad, but to re-invest the money proceeds in further projects to bring in even more money. They proceed in this way until their citizens have good standard of living. Probably, the best example of that compounding of wealth is Singapore.

Singapore exploited its geographic advantages. It provided cruise ships with bunkering services and repair, later they provided airlines with refueling and expanded that to one night free stop- overs for passengers to buy luxury goods at their glamorous, tax-free shopping malls. The Japanese were making wonderful new gadgets: cameras, music players, portable radio cassette players, binoculars, all available in the malls and sold tax free!! Lee Kuan Yu forbade the ladies to wear denim jeans, and to wear dresses with hem lines coming down two inches below the knee! He even instructed the ladies to smile! No man could have long hair for fear of arrest. Littering was prohibited, so was chewing gum and smoking butts on the roads and pavements. The place was kept clean!

They used the proceeds arising from all this commercial activity to build housing blocks, develop new roads and other beneficial projects. (Individuals were not allowed to walk away with the profits, just to fritter them away.) Sentosa Island had installed a communications dish antenna connecting it with New York and the financial markets. This was an example of intelligent seizing of opportunities. I account for this intelligent development as due to the high educational and knowledge of Singapore’s progressive management. The result is a firm currency, holding its value.

Something similar has happened to Russia. Russia is rich. It is under progressive intelligent management. Stalin had developed the railway network across the full eleven time zones. But many areas remained to be connected. Putin found the finances to develop coal mines, develop oil and gas deposits and build railway bridges and tunnels for better access to markets and their demand for Russian products. Even as you read this, trains of 70 plus trucks, each with 70 tons of coal are grinding their way to China, day and night. Gas is flowing through an extensive network of pipelines, both east to China and west to friendly countries in Southern Europe. Mr. Putin and his men have succeeded in getting Russia fully functional. And the more Russians there are to spend money, so the more demand for goods and services: shops, etc., providing multiplying employment in Russia.

Mr. Putin wants to build a road and rail link south through Iran to India. A design plan is in the works. It is being discussed with Iran and India. Putin is displaying initiative for the benefit of Russia and its citizens. Putin cares for the citizens of Russia and is creating both wealth and jobs too. Architects are designing attractive living spaces and buildings which provide a better environment for Russians and contractors are building it. Education of Russian citizens is playing a big part in Mr. Putin’s thinking, too. Russia needs a talented workforce.

The result is that the currency, the Ruble is strong and does not devalue. It keeps its value.Belarus, Russia’s neighbour, can also be praised for outstanding development. The population in the big towns is cossetted with amenities and facilities which provides a luxurious way of life for townspeople especially those with industrial jobs. However, it must be admitted, the standard of life for the minority 30% population living in the countryside has yet to catch up. The administration is strict and everyone is law abiding. For example, you can leave your hand phone at your seat while you visit the toilet conveniences and it will remain undisturbed until you return.

Belarus, being a mostly agricultural country has a big tractor manufacturing plant, it has a fertiliser mining and producing plant, it has a commercial vehicle plant, DK MAZ which produces industrial trucks such as fire extinguishing trucks and also produces the most comfortable, bright, low step buses and so on, and of course, Belarus makes its own industrial vehicle tyres. The towns are prosperous and clean and Minsk, the capital is a beautifully laid out city. Town apartment blocks are multi-storied living spaces, but are so well designed and fitted as to provide pleasant living spaces for its people. These reduce urban sprawl across the wooded countryside.

What are Sri Lanka’s strengths? It is a small island thus making communications short and sweet. Its location in the Indian Ocean is a plus, its scenic beauty is a plus allowing a thriving tourist trade for people from colder climates, and its soil and climate allows almost anything to be grown. Therefore its agriculture is a great strength. Its long coastline can provide fish if the fisherised. It has deposits of graphite and phosphates which can be exploited to produce profits for further investment in development projects. It has its illiminite sands which are an extremely valuable asset but need to be controlled and exploitation expanded. It has a whole gem mining industry which need to be managed in way beneficial to the government. It has several government owned businesses which need to be overhauled and modernized to convert losses to profits. The rupee in 1948 was equal to the English pound, now it is around 450 rupees to the Pound. That gives a good description of Sri Lankan past governance.

Profits from projects need to be ploughed back into further projects to bring about a higher standard of living for all its inhabitants. Then the Lankan reputation of being a paradise island with happy people will be restored.

Priyantha Hettige

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