MYTHS AND SCHOLARS - PART VII
(1999 July 28)
Ms. Coomaraswamy in her "paper" quotes S. Ponnambalam approvingly who has stated that some Mahawansa stories are "nothing but a tangled web of cleverly contrived fiction." It would have been helpful if these "scholars" identified what these cleverly contrived fiction are. If they are of the view 99% of the Mahavansa stories belong to that category then let them identify the remaining 1%. Certainly these "scholars" should not be allowed to get away with blanket statements like that simply because the Tamils do not have a record of history in this country before the thirteenth century. As Prof. K. Indrapala, the first professor of history at the University of Jaffna has said in his Ph. D. thesis submitted to the University of London until the thirteenth century the history of Sri Lanka is that of the Sinhala people.
It can be assumed that one of the stories that these "scholars" refer to is the Sinhabahu story or the Sinhabahu theory, which was discussed in Part VI of the present series. Another story could be the Vijaya story. Then as Ms. Coomaraswamy does in her "research paper", they very often refer to the "Arya Sinhala" concept attributed to Anagarika Dharmapala. Now before we discuss these stories and concepts mentioned by the "scholars" let us go into the history of the Mahavansaya itself.
The Tamil racists in general try to give the impression that the Mahavansaya is a book compiled by a Bhikku with a particular ideological twist several centuries after the events described therein. What they do not know is that Mahavansaya was edited by Rev. Mahanama based on a number of books that had been written prior to that. At the very beginning the editor states that his objective was to edit and translate in to Pali the Porana (old) Seehalatthakatha Mahavansaya which was in Sinhala prose. This particular work is not to be found but as the name indicates it is an Atthakatha (commentary) in Sinhala to another book, which again is not existing. As Mahavansaya is an Atthakatha a Teeka (sub commentary) has been written to it. The teeka written to the Mahavansaya is known as Vansatthappakasini. There are works on these teekas and other books in Sinhala though they may not be recognised as research papers by the "scholars".
This is something that we have to pay our attention before we proceed further. There are two academic traditions in this country at present. A Sinhala indigenous academic tradition that has been there from the Anuradhapura period and a western academic tradition, which was started only in the last century. The "scholars" are of the western tradition and make use of the concepts, the so-called theories that were created in the west. There are many westerners who write "research papers" on the Sinhala history and Sinhala culture without knowing Sinhala. Few of these people have met me also in order to find out my views on certain matters. Though I know very well that they do not consider me as one of them and that my views are not presented accurately I still meet them as it enables me to find out their suitability for the projects that they have undertaken. I always ask them whether they know any Sinhala. All of them have answered in the negative. Then I ask them whether Sri Lankan students would study Irish problem or the black American culture in America. The answer is an obvious no. They would not have heard of the studies made by the Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara and the other pirivenas in Sinhala history or culture. For their work they depend on the "contributions" made by few people like Drs. Ranaweera A. L. H. Gunawardane, Gananatha Obeysekera, Kumari Jayawardena. S. Thambiah and the rest. Their world and their impartial, unbiased, objective studies are confined to these authors and occasionally an interview with a person like me so as to give a "balanced" appearance to their work. Imagine a Sinhala student going to U.K., without knowing a word of English and having read some books and articles on Ireland in Sinhala, to study the Irish problem. No doubt many people would say that he or she is not suitable to undertake the study. Then how come that a student from a western country having no knowledge of Sinhala is considered to be suitable to study the Sinhala history and culture. That is nothing but cultural imperialism at work. Simply because they know English and are armed with few theories and concepts constructed in the west to study their societies they and their theses supervisors think that they are capable of studying our societies as well. The theses produced by these uneducated and ill-equipped students are then preferred to the work done in these fields by many learned Bhikkus and lay people who are brought up within the Sinhala academic tradition.
In general no recognition is given to the works in the indigenous academic tradition. It is taken for granted that only the western academic tradition is the objective tradition and the western theories and concepts are the only instruments that matter. I repeat a question that I have asked on a number of occasions. Is it possible to show objectively that there is an objective world independent of the mind? The Sinhala academic tradition is neglected, and is not given the rightful place not because it is inferior to the western tradition or because it is subjective and the western tradition is objective but simply due to the fact it is the western academic tradition that is hegemonic in the modern world as well as the so-called post modern world. The "research papers" in the Sinhala academic tradition are not recognised as such as they do not conform to the format of the "research papers" in the western tradition. This happens even in Buddhism. The works in English of those who try to present Buddhism as a rational, objective theory are recognised while the contributions made by learned Bhikkus and the others belonging to the Sinhala academic tradition are neglected. It is ironical that when the west is unsuccessfully struggling to shift from their modernist enlightened tradition to a so-called post modernism the Buddhists who have been more than post modernist for some two thousand years are meekly trying to acquire modernist "fashions" due to the influence of the western academic tradition. This is not to say that the Buddhists knew in the past, all the theories that are being created in the west today but we merely state that the Chinthanya (deeper than the episteme of Foucault and paradigm of Kuhn) of the Buddhists encompassed the Chinthanaya that the western tradition is trying to acquire in the guise of post modernism. This is the case with some Hindus as well and it is high time that those Buddhists and Hindus belonging to the western academic tradition learnt to respect the "Saddha" of the Buddhists and the "Bhakthi" of the Hindus rather than going after the outmoded "intellect" of the westerners. These fashionable intellectuals among the Buddhists and the Hindus are not much different from those ladies and gentlemen who imitate outdated London, Paris, New York fashions, the three cities that make up their cultural triangle.
Let us come back to Mahavansaya. Mahavansaya may not be a work in history in the sense of the western tradition. As I said earlier it is an Atthakatha in Pali to another book written in Sinhala. It may not conform to the criteria that are followed in writing monographs in history in the western tradition. It may have been written with the intention of recording the story of the Sinhala kings and may not be "objective". By the way can anybody name an objective work in history in the western tradition? For that matter can any body name an objective theory in western physics? What matters is that the Mahavansaya has been written with a sense of history. Do we have to posses only the western historical sense in order to be recognised, unless we are after degrees, fellowships etc., from the western universities. Why not look at the Mahavansaya from a different point of view and discuss its limitations within our tradition. The most interesting aspect is that the Sinhala people have had a sense of history long before many others came to posses any sense of history.
Without knowing the parent work to which Mahavansaya was a commentary it is somewhat difficult to find out the intention of the editor of the Mahavansaya. However it has to be borne in mind that a history does not always have to be a political or economical history. It could be a politico-cultural history without much attention being paid to the economic history. Now Mahavansaya is not the only work with an emphasis in history that was compiled by the Sinhala people. There is Deepavansaya, which preceded Mahavansaya, and of course the Seehalatthakatha Mahavansaya and its parent work. Then there are the Bodhivansaya, Thupavansaya, and Dhatavansaya, which describe the histories of the sacred Bo Tree, Maha Thupaya and the sacred Tooth relic respectively. The works like Poojavaliya, Nikaya Sangrahaya also have to be mentioned in this regard. The Sinhala people have had a sense of history so much so that there are works like Hatthavanagalle Viharavansaya that describe the life and history of the king Siri Sangabo and the history of the Aththangalu Viharaya are available in the indigenous academic tradition. Here we have to remember that in the Sinhala academic tradition history was not a separate subject taught and studied in a department of history separated from the other academic disciplines. Separation of subjects in to watertight compartments and mutually exclusive areas studied in separate university departments belongs to the modernist western academic tradition. In the eastern tradition that included the Sinhala academic tradition there was no such hard and fast separation. One might say that the approach was multi disciplinary even though that term does not correctly describes the attitude of the easterners. Multi disciplinary approach is being now used in the west and that could also be described as a post modernist technique though it is not recognised as such. In the Multi disciplinary approach breaking up the subject matter in to disciplines come first whereas in the eastern tradition it is the emphasis given in a particular work that would decide whether it is a work of history, literature or Philosophy. Thus the Visuddimagga that can be categorised as a work in Philosophy or Dhamma by the emphasis given, still contains historical facts.
The Mahavansaya was neither the first nor the last book written with an emphasis on history in the Sinhala academic tradition. The editor of the Mahavansaya obviously had the Deepavansaya, the Seehalatthakatha Mahavansaya and its parent work and probably other works when he embarked on his project. The earlier authors would have had the oral tradition to start with and one cannot rule out the possibility that they also had the benefit of some written records as the recent excavations in Anuradhapura by Dr. Shrian Deraniyagala have revealed writings belonging to the 7th century BC.
In any case it is clear that the Sinhala people by the third century AD or even before that had posed the question as to their origin and that a number of answers were available to them. One of the answers had been the Vijaya story. It is clear that there had been other stories as well but the Vijaya story together with the Sinhabahu theory had gained currency by the fourth century AD. For example Divyavadanaya, the Indian Buddhist work in Sanskrit written in the 3rd century AD, before the Deepavansaya, has a story about a trader by the name of Sinhala, the son of Sinha who himself was a trader, being instrumental in "colonising" the Sinhala Dweepa . The story in Divyavadanaya is similar to that in the Valahassa jathakaya. We shall compare these stories and discuss the alternative theories put forward by Mr. Munidasa Cumaratunga and the Hela Hawla School on the origin of the Sinhala people in the forthcoming articles.