Delving into the Lion’s den in Sarathchandra’s Sinhabahu



‘A myth expresses an underlying truth about mankind: that all productions of the mind may have some meaning’—Carl Gustav Jung [1875-1961] The mythical tale of the origin of the Sinhala race was probably passed down through oral tradition [‘storytelling’] and was recorded in Mahavamsa, the Great Chronicle, by Mahanama Maha Thera [6th Century AD], the Buddhist monk credited for initiating a continuous record of our history. The narrative was given dramatic expression by Professor Ediriweera Sarathchandra, our greatest playwright, through Sinhabahu; the play retaining its popular appeal even after half a century of its production.

The primordial tale of Sinhabahu carries with it a deeper psychological meaning that transcends its entertainment value. The wide array of emotions, patterns of relationships and individual behaviour, played out in the conscious arena, are drawn from the deepest level of the unconscious which harbours a universally-shared experience. The purpose of this review is to explore this stratum of the unconscious in the context of Sinhabahu, the play, guided by the psychological constructs proposed by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist.

According to Jung’s psychology, the psyche is said to have three strata: consciousness, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious; the latter incorporating the racial unconscious. His design of the mind is often compared to a group of islands—the part above the water is the conscious mind and the part just below, the personal unconscious. Deeper down, the islands are connected together by the racial unconscious, and they all sit on a sea bed of the collective unconscious which embodies the psychological heritage of humanity, and even its primate and animal ancestry.

Jung hypothesised that the collective unconscious is a reservoir of ‘predispositions and potentialities’ to act or react in certain ways which have universal meaning. He called them ‘archetypes’. These predispositions which are inherited collectively compel us to experience life in a manner conditioned by the past history of our race, culture or mankind as a whole. By endless repetition, such experiences have become engrained in our psychic constitution but with some modification during psychological evolution. Archetypes are symbolically represented as images and themes in everyday life.

If seen in the above context the original tale of the Sinhala race or its dramatic representation in Sinhabahu could be viewed as a parade of archetypal images and themes.

The Progenitors

The coming together of a princess and a Lion King marks the origin of the Sinhala race. Such a symbolic representation of the union of an attractive and amorous female and a strong, dignified and virile male brings to consciousness a common archetypal image lodged in our collective unconscious. One may not find a better formula for the propagation of a race. They have a son and a daughter as the product of their union. When stripped off its mythical facade, and recognising its symbolism, any discussion about the biological impossibility of a lion impregnating a human female does not arise!

The emotional bond between father [the Lion King] and son [Sinhabahu], the struggle for individuation by the latter, and the crisis generated by his departure, form the main thrust of the narrative and its dramatic presentation.

Emotional bond

Traditionally, a son in his formative years emerges from the nurturing lap of his mother, and forms a meaningful relationship with his father in identifying with him in preparation for life outside the family. A father on his part protects his son and provides for him, forming a bond which lays the foundation for the development of inner strength and masculinity in the offspring—archetypal patterns deeply enshrined in our collective [unconscious] psyche. But such a blueprint may be modified or disrupted due to personal circumstances both at a conscious and an unconscious level, as seen in the story of our origin.



An archetypal pattern is on display in adolescence in the form of separation-individuation, a concept postulated by Margaret Mahler, a psychiatrist of Hungarian origin. It is a process of change removing the young person from parental structure and forming his own unique identity. The newly acquired verbal/intellectual skill and physical prowess is put to action.


Young Sinhabahu [‘The Lion Fisted’] finds an opportune time – when his father is out hunting for food – to question his mother about the disparity in physique between himself and his father and the wisdom of being stuck in a cave; and conveys his desire to explore the outside world beyond the bounds of the forest.

One could argue that the physical difference between father and son is a metaphor for the attitudinal difference between the two, expressed in a somatic idiom. The cave is often considered to be the symbolic representation of the womb. Sinhabahu’s desire to break out of it marks the beginning of his archetypal quest for individuation. He wished to leave the forest, the domain under his father’s authority, and find his freedom and his own identity.

Sinhabahu departs, forcing open the rock that blocked the entrance to the cave, carrying his mother and sister on his shoulders, making a hazardous journey through the forest. The symbolic shouldering of responsibility by the eldest sibling in a family is strikingly archetypal.


The departure of his son, along with his wife and daughter, was too much for the Lion King to bear. He was overcome by intense grief on returning to an empty cave.

Grief is a universal emotion and a normal reaction to loss, but its intensity and quality depends upon how ‘meaningful’ the loss is to the individual and the capacity of the individual to deal with the loss. Sadness is not the only emotion in grief. Anger,

driven by a sense of betrayal can be destructive, with its ‘displacement’ onto people and property—a ‘primitive’ defence in dealing with intense emotion. The grief-stricken Lion King goes on a rampage destroying the border villages and attacking the peasants.

The border villagers complain to the viceroy of their region of the devastation caused by an enraged lion. The regional ruler, in response, offers a reward in gold to whoever is able to destroy the beast. Sinhabahu rose to the occasion, against his motherplea and slew his father with a bow and arrow. It would not be drawing a long bow [pardon the pun] to suggest that the slaying of the lion was symbolic; it was the soul, not the body, of the father that was destroyed by the departure of his son.

‘Patricide’, as has occurred here, could be seen in the context of the Freudian postulate of the oedipus complex which results in an unconscious resentment of the father by the son. But Jung, who objected to Freud’s undue emphasis on sex, would have recognised the symbolic meaning of the event in the context of individuation in adolescence. It means more than the literal murder of the father; it represents breaking free.

The killing of the father by the son is the most poignant moment in the narrative. The first two arrows were deflected while the Lion was seized with affection on seeing his son arrive at the cave.


But the king of the forest succumbed to the third arrow when love turned to anger. No doubt this spiritual dimension would have been introduced to the event by the Buddhist monks who recorded the legend to convey a message.


Sinhabahu emerges as the ‘hero’, which according to Jung is a personification of the archetypal theme of ‘deliverance’ embodied in the collective unconscious. Sinhabahu’s ‘heroic act’ of slaying the Lion King coincided with the death of his grandfather – the king of Vanga – who was without a heir, making Sinhabahu the obvious choice for the throne due to his heritage and proven ‘bravery’. He married his sister, Sinhaseevali, and ruled from his newly established capital, Sinhapura. ‘Deliverance’ acts as a precursor to adopting a position of ‘authority, control and responsibility’. Sinhabahu gained his identity and the identity of a race that followed after him –Sinha le’.

The passing away of his grandfather [and his father] which led to Sinhabahu’s ascent to the throne – marking the end of an era and the beginning of another – a human experience instilled in us by the repetitive process of the sun’s rise, its ascent and its disappearance at nightfall. ‘Early man did not differentiate between themselves and their environment – what happened without also happened within and vice versa’.

The marriage of Sinhabahu to Sinhaseevali is a case of sibling incest, taboo in contemporary society, condemned on moral, legal and medical grounds. If seen from an evolutionary perspective, incestual relationships of all forms did occur in primary unsophisticated cultures. Even today marriage between cousins is sanctioned in our culture. But what is relevant from the point of view of the current discussion is the possible symbolism of the union between two members of a royal family who are to be the mythical progenitors of a race. Perhaps ‘maintaining purity’ and ‘self preservation’ were the underlying unconscious motives of the myth maker very much echoed in the conscious undertakings of today’s match-maker!

According to legend the eldest son of Sinhabahu and Sinhaseevali was Vijaya. He was banished from the kingdom due to his delinquent behaviour and was forced to set sail with seven hundred of his followers; they landed in the Island of Lanka on the day of the passing away of the Buddha. After an initial liaison with a local aboriginal woman [Kuveni], Vijaya married the daughter of the contemporary Pandu king of Madura [in India] and established his own kingdom. After Vijaya’s death there was a succession of rulers–Panduvasdeva, Abhaya, Pandukabhaya, and Mutasiva—an era recorded with an admixture of fact and legend, and then, King Devanam Piyatissa, marking the end of proto-history. The rest is history!

‘When a myth is formed and expressed in words, consciousness, it is true has shaped it, but the spirit of the myth – the creative urge it represents, the feeling it expresses and evokes, and even in large part its subject-matter – come from the collective unconscious’*.

The story of our mythical origin is a microcosm of our journey from a ‘primitive’ cave to an organised society, from animal life to human life, and from nature to culture, forming on its way an imprint of our collective human experience in the deepest layer of our unconscious. A father’s emotional bond with his son, the son’s need to develop his own identity, the crisis created by the transition, the father’s grief at the ‘loss’ of his son, and the son finally taking control of his destiny, are all aspects of the common experience of life. A deeper appreciation of the symbolic meaning of our primordial legend makes any discussion of its authenticity, its biological absurdity, and its alleged chauvinistic undertones, pale into insignificance. What is significant is that as a race we are only human, except that on occasions we bring out the beast in us!

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References: Mahavamsa [Sinhala] [2003]; Ediriweera Sarathchandra: Sinhabahu; Siriweera W.I. History of Sri Lanka [2002]; Brown J. A. C. Freud and Post Freudians [1974]; *Fordham, Freida: An Introduction to Jung’s Psychology [1973]; Peter o’ Connor: Understanding Jung, Understanding Yourself [1988]

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