TISAHAMY AND THE SINHALA CULTURE
(98 June 10)
The day after the funeral of Tisahamy Aththo, the chieftain of the Veddah tribe, the Sandeshaya programme of the BBC interviewed me. The first question was "who is Tisahamy?". That was sufficient for me to grasp the theme of the interview. The BBC nor its half an hour daily broadcast in Sinhala, the Sandeshaya, has been sympathetic to the Sinhala Buddhists or the Sinhala culture. I told the interviewer in no uncertain terms what he was up to and went onto answer his questions. His subsequent questions which were in the so called impartial tradition of the BBC and the Sandeshaya justified my assumption that they were only trying to discredit the Sinhala Buddhists. One is reminded of works such as Buddhism Betrayed by Thambiah.
The Sandeshaya was greatly disturbed over the "pansukula" given or the Buddhist rites performed at the funeral of Tisahamy aththo. They considered that as another occasion on which the Sinhala Buddhists tried to establish their hegemony over the others who lived in the country. If somebody other than an organisation established in the west or sponsored by the west suggested this to me I would have given some thought to this proposition even though there was not much merit in it. But when it comes from the Sandeshaya of the BBC, which has helped the western culture to establish its hegemony over the others through their subtle propaganda one does not have to ponder to see through their hypocrisy or sour grape attitude. If the west had been successful in their attempts to convert most of the people into Christianity, before and after the so called independence, in this part of the world and if Tisahamy Aththo was buried according to the Christian rites the BBC would not have noticed any hegemony on the part of the western Christian culture.
Tisahamy Aththo was probably the last chieftain of the Veddah tribe. His son Vanniya Aththo who succeeded him as the Chieftain of the tribe most probably will end up as a Sinhalaya. (There are some people according to whom Tisahamy Aththo was not genuine and was a descendent of a Sinhala family, but we will ignore such opinion as it is not relevant to our discussion.) Does that mean the establishment of Sinhala Buddhist hegemony over the Veddah tribe? No, not at all. It only indicates that the Veddah tribe is following the Sinhala people in being westernised.
There are many who refer to the Veddah tribe as the indigenous people or the aborigines of the country. In fact sometime ago representatives from their tribe were taken to a conference in Geneva which claimed to be interested in some aspects of the so called indigenous people. The terms like indigenous people, aborigines were created by the west in order to classify the people who were living in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand and few other places before the Europeans landed and colonised those countries after nearly exterminating the native people. The Europeans deprived these people of their land rights, their way of life, and their economies were changed drastically leaving those who managed to survive at the mercy of the conqueror.
Can we say the same regarding the Veddah tribe and the Sinhala people? The history of the country reveals that the Veddah tribe and the Sinhala people have been living harmoniously for more than two thousand years. In fact it can be said that the Veddah tribe to a certain extent acted as the protector of the jungle areas. It is to the credit of the Sinhala people that at no time in the history they had tried to "civilise" the Veddah tribe. The Sinhala people unlike the Europeans respected the Veddah culture and never thought of imposing their "superior" culture on the Veddah tribe. The Sinhala people were civilised enough not to "civilise" the Veddah tribe by force or by extending privileges to a selected few. They did not try to convert the Veddah population into Buddhism, through dubious means.
If the Sinhala people were interested in establishing their cultural hegemony over the Veddah tribe they would not have waited for more than two thousand years to do so as the BBC contemplates. They could have easily accomplished it during the reign of a powerful king long time ago. But they were not interested in such "achievements". However this does not imply that there were no interactions between the Sinhala people and the Veddah tribe. They would have borrowed from each other and assimilated certain features into their respective cultures. Some Buddhistic ideas and rites would have got mixed with certain traits in the Veddah culture and vice versa.
Going back to the concept of indigenous people it is clear that such a concept has no validity as far as Sri Lanka is concerned. The Sinhala people are not just the descendants of Vijaya and the seven hundred who came with him. Various scholars such as Ven. Baddegama Vimalavansa Thero have shown that the Yaksha, Naga tribes who were living in this country at the time of arrival of Vijaya used the Hela basa, being the common language of those people. These tribes after a few centuries of struggles against the tribes who migrated from the Northern parts of ancient Dambadiva finally mixed with them to form the Sinhala nation most probably during the time of king Pandukabhaya. Thus the Sinhala people did not come from Dambadiva and colonised Sri Lanka but they have a heritage going back to thousands of years before the arrival of Vijaya.
The Veddah tribe may have similarly lived in this country for thousands of years with the other tribes such as Yaksha and Naga, the ancestral tribes of the Sinhala people. Even if one goes by the Mahawansa story regarding the legendary origin of the Veddah tribe according to which the ancestors of the Veddah tribe are the children of Kuveni, one has to admit that these children were descendants of Vijaya as well, making them not older than the Sinhala people. All these lead us to believe that the Veddah tribe consists of people who have lived in this country with the Sinhala people and their ancestral tribes, but did not or refused to evolve culturally the way the Sinhala people have evolved.
It is true that the Veddah tribe has now begun to imitate the Sinhala people. This is however a recent phenomenon. They will increasingly adopt Sinhala life styles and together with the Sinhala people will become westernised. They are becoming more and more Sinhalised not because of any Sinhala Buddhist hegemony. They are being Sinhalised in the process of being westernised due to western cultural colonialism. As far as Veddah tribe is concerned Sinhalisation is only a pre condition for weternisation.
There are some people who in agreement with the Sandeshaya programme, articulate the view that even Buddhism came to Sri Lanka from India and that as a result the Sinhala people have lost their true identity. It is true that Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka by Arhanth Mahinda about two thousand three hundred years ago. However there is a difference between the manner in which Buddhism and Christianity were introduced to this country. Christianity came with the western conquerors and was associated with cultural colonialism. The missionaries were not interested in assimilating Christianity into the existing culture of the country. Buddhism, on the other hand, was not preached as part of any cultural colonialism and Arhanth Mahinda was very much interested to see that the cultural heritage was not lost as a result of the introduction. The Bodhi Vandana or worshipping the sacred Bo tree is a classic example of how Buddhistic values were assimilated into the culture of the Sinhala people.
The Sinhala people did not lose their pantheon of gods either after becoming Buddhists. These gods became Buddhist gods or Samyak Drushthi Devatas. There was no contradiction in these adaptations as far as the ordinary Sinhala Buddhists were concerned and they were quite happy with the assimilation. The Sinhala Buddhists until recently performed Devolmadu and Gammadu rites on a regular basis.
However this culture is now being eroded gradually under the influence of western cultural colonialism. The scientific Buddhism is part of that cultural colonialism. Buddhism certainly does not belong to the western scientific tradition and it is futile to show that Buddhism is scientific. Also there are people who want the Buddhists to adopt the view that proper Buddhism is only the doctrine. These people are in the process of dissociating Buddhism from the associated Buddhist culture.
Those Buddhists who dissociate the Buddhist culture from Buddhism, following these people, will end up as "intellectual Buddhists" in the western culture. Either consciously or unconsciously they are being influenced by western cultural colonialism.
The Sinhala Buddhists have not forced their culture on the others who have lived in this country. A good example is the Muslim community who have been in Sri Lanka for about five centuries. They have not only retained their identity but have been protected by the Sinhala kings when the need arose. However this has not excluded cultural interactions on a "natural" basis between the Sinhala people and the Muslim community to which nobody should object.
Cultural colonialism is a phenomenon which belongs to the western culture. It is the west, in the recent history, who have forced their culture on the others. It is also evident that the west utilises education and mass media very effectively in the process.