The following is the continuation from last Wednesday of the keynote address by Susantha Goonatilake to the European Conference on "Cultural Imperialism" at the University of Trier Germany organised among others by the Center for European Studies, the Catholic Academy, University of Trier, European Commission, UNESCO etc. The present paper is a prepublication update of his original paper
With the end of the mercantile era associated with the plunder capitalism of Portugal and Spain the centre of gravity of global European power shifted to Holland and Britain. This also coincided with the shift of the capitalist mode from mercantilism to industrial capitalism. Now, new economic relationships of a more subtle kind operated. A new emerging global economy tied to industrial production in Europe, and to raw materials and markets in the rest of the world, required low-level skills in the colonized countries. So the emergence of Western-style school systems and partial colonization through the school syllabus. Direct religious oppression and the imposition of Catholicism of the Portuguese era now changed to the less brutal conversion systems of the Protestants and to a belief in the White Manís Burden. The Protestant-Catholic clash in Europe was also now replicated in Sri Lanka.
Let us now observe how these changes played themselves out in Sri Lanka.
At the time, Sri Lanka was subject not only to the turmoil created by colonial incursions but also to infighting among local royal factions. As part of these factional fights in the country, the local ruler attempted to play the Dutch who were now sniffing around the coast of the country to get a foothold in the country against the Portuguese. This resulted in the Dutch replacing the Portuguese by foul means, amply expressed by the Sinhalese saying "Giving up ginger (meaning the Portuguese) and getting chilies (meaning the Dutch) in return".
The Dutch occupied the coastal region of the country and quickly began to persecute the Catholics. The Catholics were forbidden to practice their religion. The Catholic priests fled to the area under the control of the Buddhist king who then would allow them to be smuggled back at night to their flock in the Dutch areas to practice their religion. When Catholicism had come via the Portuguese, the Muslims in turn had been previously persecuted and the Sinhalese king had resettled them elsewhere, deep in his kingdom, so that they could practice their religion freely.
The British gradually replaced the Dutch and in 1815 displaced the last Sinhalese ruler and became complete overlord of the country. The treaty with the Sinhalese that consummated this legally not only allowed the practice of Buddhism but also in keeping with the earlier royal traditions, promised to safeguard it. As a partial consequence, the coastal areas which had been hitherto under in turn the Portuguese and the Dutch (and now the British) saw an upsurge in Buddhist activities including building and repairing of temples and their attendant human institutions. Alarmed, the British introduced new restrictions and also brought in new attempts to convert.
Civilizing the Brown Sahib
However there was now a qualitative change in the colonizing cultural package. To the earlier religious package was added a new civilizational urge, the White Manís Burden. This is amply described by the notorious comments of the British reformer, McCauley (1835 AD). He said "A single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia".
He went on to describe his recipe for remaking the South Asian:
"We [the colonizers] must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions who we govern, a class of persons, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population" (Edwards, 1967 p. 125)
This was the general thrust of colonial cultural policy in South Asia. Its outcome in Sri Lanka is seen in this comment in 1843 by a Britisher.
"The Sinhalese are partial to Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Birmingham manufacturers .... the higher ranks indulge in the best wines, particularly Madeira and champagne which are liberally dispensed at their parties to European guests; and no people in the world set a higher value upon British medicines, stationary and perfumery; or relish with a keener zest, English hams, cheese butter, porter ale, cider, sherry, herrings, salmon, anchovies, pickles and confectionary" (Bennet, 1843 p 48).
What Bennett meant by "the Sinhalese" was not the whole country but only its ruling classes.
But just like in the Portuguese era there was a reverse flow of culture from the East to the West - as in the case of DíOrta - there were reverse flows in the British era. One of the most telling examples of this was in the case of British imperialismís major poet, Rudyard Kipling, and his most famous poem "If". Many key statements of his poem could have come from the classic summary of Buddhist thought, namely the Dhammapada (6th C BC). Perhaps unconsciously, but I believe more consciously, the essence of "If" has been directly lifted from the Dhammapada including virtually key passages.
But the region and Sri Lanka was not an isolated entity. Sri Lanka had always been interacting with its regional environment especially South Asia and Southeast Asia. Under European siege in its coastal regions, Sri Lankans had been trying to revive its culture. In the mid 18th-century, a remarkable monk and a remarkable king brought about a revival of the countryís region and culture (Bond, 1992; Malalgoda 1976). Ancient institutions and temples some dating back 2000 years were restituted and repaired. Classical learning specially in Pali and Sinhalese, which had declined over the previous one and half centuries was revived partly by bringing inputs from Siam to which Theravada country the Sinhalese had earlier transferred their classical learning. The impetus to the civilization that was brought by these efforts was continued in the 19th century during the British period. An intense period of linking Asian and Western centers of debate was now established whose reverberations we still see.
A key element in this formal reverse transfer was the establishment in Calcutta by William Jones of the Royal Asiatic Society in Calcutta modeled after the Royal Society of Britain. Branches of the Royal Asiatic Society were formed elsewhere in South Asia including in Colombo. This provided a venue for the Britishers at the time, as well as westernized locals, to learn about the past culture and civilizations of South Asia. Significant outcomes of the Society were important research on language, history and culture. William Jones especially made a seminal contribution in that he compared the languages of South Asia and those of Europe and virtually invented modern philology. The 19th century saw also translations of major Sanskrit and Pali Works, respectively the two classical languages of South Asia. For the first time there was discovery in the West of Buddhism and Hinduism relatively unadulterated by prejudice.
Consequently major South Asian thought was being translated into the West and studied in a relatively objective manner. The nearest parallel up to that time of such large-scale translation was the first millennium project of translating Buddhist texts into Chinese. It should be noted here that the thesis of Edward Said (author of "Orientalism") that there was deliberate distortion of Asia did not apply to the scholars who studied South Asia. 19th-century and early 20th-century European studies of South Asia were generally sympathetic to the subject matter.
An important cultural project in Sri Lanka that had global ramifications was the repercussions of the continuation of Buddhist resurgence in the 19th-century. After the formal British over lordship of the country with a treaty allowing the continuation of Buddhist practices as under the kings some leeway was allowed the local culture. Temples began to be rebuilt again along the coastal areas An important event was the founding of Parama Dhammacetiya, a key temple in 1853 in the outskirts of Colombo which became a centre for cultural discussion. The Buddhist resistance fed also by renewed links with Burma and Thailand soon resulted in a series of challenges to the Christians- this time to the English church who were attempting conversion. A series of debates between Christians and Buddhists resulted in the Christians getting trounced. The Buddhist monks who appeared in these debates were also well read in Western literature. An Englishman Cooper who reported on these debates noted "Some of the Buddhist priests were thoroughly versed in the works of modern scientists". When reported abroad these debates attracted attention.
One group that was so attracted was the Theosophists in New York. This groupís leaders, Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott started a correspondence with the monks who were involved in the debates. These groups, mystical in nature and hardly scientific, had a major influence on subsequent cultural events in the West. Madame Blavatsky has being hailed recently as the "grandmother of the New Age". she incorporated as one of her "Masters" a Sri Lankan monk (as well as Indian equivalents as other "Masters") in her influential book The Secret Doctrine (Johnson, 1994). The Theosophist connection with South Asia, Westerners trying to learn from Asia, had an important impact on both the self-esteem of South Asians and as well as on the independence movements. Gandhi was to say that "Top Congressmen were all Theosophists" (Cranston, 1993).
The nature of the relationship between the Theosophists and Sri Lankan monks is seen in the following quote from Olcott writing in 1879 to a Sinhalese monk.
"I pass among ignorant Western people as a thoroughly well informed man but in comparison with the learning possessed by my Brothers in the oriental priesthoods, I am as ignorant as the last of their neophytes... To you and as you must we turn, and say: Fathers, brothers, the Western world is dying ... come and help, rescue it. Come as missionaries, as teachers, as disputants, preachers... Persuade a good, pure, learned, eloquent Buddhists to come here and preach, you will sweep the country before you....". (Guruge 1984 pp. 338, 339).
Eventually Olcott and Blavatsky came to Sri Lanka and formally became Buddhists. They interacted with locals and helped in the Buddhist resurgence. However the locals incorporated the Theosophists only as long as the Theosophists agreed to Buddhist thought. But this was always not to be. Theosophists sometimes brought in heavy overlays of the mystical and the supernatural. They were rejected when they attempted to do so and at one stage were nearly thrown out of the Buddhist groups till a formal apology was made by Olcott. The so-called Buddhist Theosophical Society that they formed in Colombo was never a Theosophical society but remained above all a Buddhist society.
It was not only the Theosophists that were interacting with
the local monks. By the late 19th-century, around 40 Sinhalese scholar monks
had emerged with high learning, knowledge of foreign languages, and
extensive contacts around the world (Guruge 1984 p. lvii). These monks had
links to the West (US, UK, Germany, France, Denmark, Russia, Austria etc) as
well as Asia (Burma, Cambodia, China, Japan, India, Thailand). Several of
these monks became actively involved in the transfer of key Pali texts as
well as some Sanskrit ones to the West. The list of Western scholars that
corresponded with these monks or were guided by them, reads like a Whoís Who
of Western scholars of Asia. The relationships of these Western scholars to
the local monks is best summarized in the words of a prominent Danish Pali
scholar, Viggo Fausboell "We, Europeans, must, of course, stand in need of
such help [from these scholar monks] as we are so far from the living
fountains of Buddhism and so scantily furnished with materials" (quoted in
Guruge 1984 p. xv). Under such tutelage, it was unlikely that the
orientalism of the Edward Said kind could emerge in the case of Buddhist
studies or for that matter South Asian studies in general.
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