Response to Tisaranee Gunasekera Contra "Sinha Le, Anyone?"


by Vinod Moonesinghe

Back in the day when President Premadasa by-passed obvious contenders for the post of Research Director of the People’s Bank and awarded the sinecure to TisaraneeGunasekera, many people believed that she was of scholarly substance. It is unfortunate indeed that she writes articles of the nature of "Sinha-Le, Anyone" (The Island, 13 February 2016), because this tends to expose a lack of erudition behind her otherwise extremely good writing.

She starts off by saying that the Mahavamsa’s "story of a princess who runs away from her home and mates with a lion" beats hollow anything in "the Grimm’s Tales and the Arabian Nights". Of course it is a myth. The Mahavamsa was simply embellishing an already existing storyin the "Island Language"; which had been reported already in the Dipavamsa (the writing of which, some scholars aver, began in the 3rd century BC). It was an attempt to explain the name "Sinhala", and the Dipavamsa asserts that "he was named the Lion" – which may either be a direct copy of the original or an attempt to render the story more believable. The author of the Mahavamsa may have embellished the story, or may have been true to the original.

We know from the work of archaeologists, including SiranDeraniyagala and Robin Conningham, that writing was known in Sri Lanka at least as early as the 5th century BC. So there must have been a considerable body of written literature, of which only a few documents, including the Mahavamsa, Dipavamsa and the Tripitaka, have survived – the copies of the Mahwamsa which survived could be counted on the fingers of one hand – none of them in the vernacular. So we do not know what the original stories of the Sinhalese were. In their absence, we have no evidence that, as Tisaranee asserts, the Mahavamsa "takes considerable pains to make the point" that the Lion was an actual Lion and not a man, and that it was not part of the original story.

What we do know is that the Mahayanist tradition has similar origin-tales for the Sinhalese. The Chinese traveller-monk Fa Xian mentions the country of Sinhala, originally,"was occupied only by spirits and nagas", while the Karandavyuha Sutra mentions a "Prince Sinhala" who led 500 followers, repeating essentially the Vijaya-Kuveni legend. So it is more than likely that the Mahawamsa was drawing from the existing corpus of legends rather than creating a new one.

There were several clans with totemistic names among the ancient Sinhalese, such as Lambakanna (hare), Moriya (peacock), Tarachcha (hyena), Balibhojaka (crow) and Kulinga (fork-tailed shrike).Sihala (lion) was probably one such clan, which gained ascendancy over the others. It may well have been a hegemonic or oligarchic clan, from Sihapura (modern Sihor) in the Kathiawar peninsula of Gujarat, the only remaining domain of the Asiatic Lion (Pantheraleopersica), and indicated by its proximity to Broach (Bharukkachcha), mentioned in both the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa. The story of the princess and the lion might have been a clan origin legend.

However, it is when Tisaranee states that "Sinhala-Buddhism was born out of the Mahavamsa’s project of providing Lankan rulers with a religious justification for their violent power-projects" that she herself steps into the realm of fantasy. The Mahavamsa must be read in the context of its times. It was an ecclesiastical history of the Mahavihara. It extolled those rulers who contributed to its prosperity and condemned those who caused it ruin. At the time of Mahanama, the Royal Family were solidly behind the Mahayanist Abhayagiri and Jetavanaviharas. Archaeological evidence indicates that Sigiriya, to which Dhatusena’s son Kasyapa retreated, was a Mahayanist monastery complex.

Much of the Mahavamsa’s invective is against what is considered the heresy of Mahayana. It reminds us that the roots of the Abhayagiri in the Jainist school – Jainism gave Sinhala its term for "heresy", "thith" or "theertha". Significantly, it praises the justice of the rule of the Tamil King Elara– thus making him the prototype "good Soli king" of later folk lore – and says he ‘freed himself from the guilt of walking in the path ofevil..." However, it says, "he had not put aside false beliefs" (meaning he was probably a Jain), which was its justification for its promotion of his rivalDutthaGamaniAbhaya. Similarly, it does not speak badly of the "Seven Damilas" who overthrew VattagamaniAbhaya; it merely mentions that, on being asked whether Buddhism would prosper under the former or the latter, the Sangha took the King’s side. This clearly indicates that the justification for the support of a monarch was not whether he was a Sinhalese fighting Tamils, but whether or not he supported what the Mahavihara considered the "true faith". On the other hand, it is clearly antagonistic towards the "lawless" Samghamitta, "a bhikkhu from the Cola peoplewho was versed in the teachings concerning the exorcism of spirits, and so forth", who ingratiated himself with king Mahasena, who persecuted the Mahavihara. Hence, Tisaranee’s arguments about the Mahavamsa’s alleged nationalist project are without merit.

Her line of reasoning has an equally fantastical aim – to brand MahindaRajapaksa’s supporters as rabid racists. She claims (without any evidence, it should be noted) that these supporters have been trying to foist on the nation a "Sinha-Le" flag. Presumably, she means the Lion Flag which was originally designated as the National Flag by the UNP-led Government of DS Senanayake in 1948, without the two horizontal yellow and green stripes (which were added subsequently). This flag was designed on the basis of the Royal Standard of the Tamil king of Sinhalay, Sri WickramaRajasinghe, captured by the British at the Battle of Hanwella. This flag has been used for years: it is not a sudden innovation, and there is no law against its use. However, people were arrested for "desecrating the National Flag", apparently by waving this flag. On the other hand, public displays (notably last May and last November) of the Tiger flag of the Liberation Tigers of TamilEelam – a proscribed terrorist organisation which assassinated political leaders, including Tisaranee’s former boss President Premadasa – have been left severely alone.

It is this dichotomy which has fuelled unease among the Sinhalese, who feel increasingly marginalised in their own country. The "Sinha-Le" meme which Tisaranee rails about is indeed an ethnic identifier, and not a little chauvinist,extolling the alleged Lion-like qualities of the Sinhalese, while at the same time commemorating the blood of Sinhalese spilt during the Eelam conflict. However, it was just a meme until the Colombo 7 brigade took up cudgels against it. It then became immensely popular, out of all proportion to its original impact, precisely because the entire pro-regime intelligentsia were attacking the Princess-Lion story and the Mahavamsa.

If Tisaranee and the "Toiya" brigade had any real social sense, they should have realised that "Sinhalese-ness" is a cultural identity, not a racial one. There are entire castes of Sinhalese, who have different origin myths from the Mahawamsa story. For example, the Salagamas believe they are descended from Namboodiri Brahmins, whilst the Karavas claim Rajput Kshatriayas as their ancestors. Several castes, notably the Demalagattaras, actually claim descent from the alleged "racial enemy", the Tamils – their origin legends make them the progeny of the prisoners brought back from the Chola country by King Gajabahu. Salagamas and Karavas were at the forefront of the Sinhalese revival in the 19th century, and there are plenty of Salagamas, Karavas and Demalagattaras sporting the "Sinha-Le" meme. Does this mean they have abandoned their caste origin-legends and accepted the Lion story instead? Hardly. She also misses the point that Sinhala Nationalist ideology explicitly rejects the Lion legend, claiming that the Sinhalese are descended from the "SiuHela", the four tribes of Yaksha, Naga, Raksha and Deva, who inhabited this island originally.

What makes it all the more absurd is that hardly anybody believes that the Sinhalese are descended from a Lion. It is simply a convenient myth. When the British praise their own Leonine or Bulldog-like qualities, nobody thinks they consider themselves related to those animals. The Japanese don’t believe they are descended from the Goddess Ametarasu: it is a convenient myth. Christians don’t actually think (spoiler alert) that Father Christmas comes down chimneys with gifts, although he is a more popular Christmas motif than Jesus Christ. Santa Claus is really just a meme. The risk inherent in Tisaranee’s approach is that the devout Muslim painting "Power of Allah" on his trishaw stands equally in danger of being condemned for propagating ISIS "hate speech".

Tisaranee’s father, SenaGunasekera, was sacked from Lake House by Ranil’s father, EsmondWickremasinghe, for forming a journalists’ branch of the Ceylon Mercantile Union. A stalwart of the Lanka SamaSamaja Party, he stood by the party line of Parity of Status for Sinhala and Tamil Languages. The difference between father and daughter becomes clear on observing their different approaches to the ethnic problem. The LSSP opposed "Sinhala Only" from the standpoint of a united nation of Sinhala and Tamil speakers. It only agreed to "Sinhala Only Tamil Also" long after the Tamil people of the North and East overwhelmingly supported the Federal Party, which had abandoned Parity of Status for "The reasonable use of Tamil". However, nobody on the Left wanted to enthrone English, spoken at the time by only 5% of the population, nor did they pour scorn on the Mahavamsa or the sensibilities of the majority community.

Even if we accepted Tisaranee’s premise that the Rajapaksas are some kind of "Axis of Evil", would attacking the Mahavamsa be the way to go about opposing them? Did the anti-Nazis in Germany go about attacking the Siegfried Legend or condemning the ancient Indians for using the Swastika? Do people opposing the Christian Conservatives in America attack the Bible? Do anti-Zionists lay into the Torah? Is the way to combat Modi’s extremist Hindutva to slur the Ramayana or Mahabharata?The very fact that Tisaranee and company feel the need to attack the Mahavamsa and to offend the sensibilities of the Sinhalese speaks volumes about their true ideology and intentions. What is really sad is that Tisaraneenow stands shoulder to shoulder with the son and successor to her father’s ideological enemy, disavowing her own political past in favour of collaborating with neo-colonialism.

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