Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka and the Ramayana trail

I refer to the observations made by Nan on the above subject in your issue of the 25th instant, Firstly, I was appalled to read in her observation, if it was true, that the public who had attended the seminar as it hade been ‘open to the public’ had been asked to reveal their academic qualification before asking a question. The accepted norms at public meetings are, the person asking a question should identify himself/herself by name, ask a question relevant to the topic under discussion, and importantly be brief.

Her observations also said that the qualifications expected was a Ph.D. If that too is true, it would have been the height of absurdity at a symposium ‘open to the public’. Someone whom I met, quite by accident, said that her father had refused to attend a subsequent monthly meeting, for if he were to ask a question, he would be asked to first state his ‘academic qualifications’. Well, some persons, even if they have an earned D. Litt, may not want to say so at public meetings. There is something called modesty, restraint and decorum. In any case, public meetings are not places one would want to display or flaunt one’s academic qualifications.

Apart from that, I do not see the rationale of the RASSL to ask members of the public – who come to a lecture ‘open to the public’ to reveal their academic qualifications, before asking a question. It is a most unacceptable practice which, as far as I know, is not followed anywhere else in the world. Being on that subject, I see that among the speakers at the symposium, named by Nan, are two non-Ph.D holders.

A Ph.D (if it was a required qualification to ask a question) has not been a necessary qualification to present a paper, as seen in the names given by Nan. In fact it is only two such persons who had received some favorable comments from her. (I am only referring to her comments, as I was not present at the symposium) To my mind, what is required is the standing of the person and the quality of what he/she writes. I only hope that the RASSL will not pursue this unsavory practice, which will only bring the RASSL into disrepute and ridicule.

Coming to the topic under discussion, I suppose, the ‘Ramayana Trail’ is based on Valmiki’s heroic poem of 24,000 stanzas. The poem has been assigned various dates, such as between 6000-5000 BC, but the general consensus among scholars seem to be a date around 500-300 BC. It is said to have other versions in India itself, and in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia. In Sri Lanka, there had been the Janakiharana of Kumaradasa (6th century AD?), and also a sanne or commentary written to it sometime, of which only parts are said to be available. The original Janakiharana had been lost in Sri Lanka, but a version in Malayalam is said to have been found in South India.

Personally, to me, it is a literary composition, which contains the name Lanka, but there is no consensus of opinion among researchers as to where that Lanka is. Every country has its myths, traditions and other stories, like for instance, the visits of the Buddha to Lankadvipa, and the coming of Vijaya. But, the latter are traditions recorded in our chronicles, and some scholars have gone into great depth to analyze them.

That is historical research, and their researches contain their opinions, although they cannot be proved by irrefutable evidence. But, does that matter? Rama’s Sita is supposed to have been born from the earth at a ceremony connected with the cultivation of paddy. Would anyone want to find the truth of it, and for what purpose? Such mythological stories are found in every culture and civilization; sometimes they encapsulate some incident, story or event. They entertain and enrich a culture.

Rama-Ravana legend is not mentioned in our chronicles, of which the earliest extant is dated to the 4th century AD. But there are many places in the island associated with that legend, such as Nuvara Eliya (Sita Eliya), Knuckles range, Kurunegala, Rumassala, and even Sigiriya.

I have seen the Rama-Ravana story being enacted in Bali for international visitors: it’s entertainment. Our temples have mural paintings depicting the visits of the Buddha and the coming of Vijaya. I believe, they are based on the descriptions given in the Mahavamsa. There may be paintings depicting the Rama-Ravana legend, but I cannot recall any off-hand.

Should we go to great lengths to debunk the Rama-Ravana’s legendary connection with Lanka? Without any historicity to that legend, it would be just a futile act. However, are such attempts due to some fears that Hinduism will overcome Buddhism like in India, or the BJB will cordon off those places for exclusive use of the Indians? After all Buddhism originated in India, and although it did not believe in the powers of gods and other beings to influence human beings, now practically every Buddhist temple has separate annexes for Siva and Vishnu within a temple complex.

An alien culture can supersede a native culture only if the latter is not vibrant. Thus when Buddhism came to Lanka, the religious beliefs at that time would have been in a nascent and unorganized state, thus allowing Buddhism to take root as the state religion. But now the situation is quite different. The Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British, left only marginal vestiges of their presence, although the secular influence of the British is felt strongly, in areas where the native systems had been inadequate for present purposes. In religion, is there anything to compare with Vesak, Poson, or in culture the Sinhala Aluth Avurudda. They cannot be surpassed by any alien system.

Thus, according to my thinking, there could hardly be any threat to Buddhism or Sinhala culture, by visitors on a ‘Ramayana-Trail’ As I see it, the threat to Buddhism and our culture is from our own indisciplined bhikkhus, the marauding lay Buddhists, and the new evangelists, who make a livelihood from their unethical practices.

Hence, if the Tourist Board wants to make a quick buck out of mythology, why shouldn’t it? Surely, it can’t write histories out of non existing material. But they could embellish the myths! Today, various peraheras in the island, be it Kandy, Kataragama or Gangarama, are money spinners for the respective institutions. Only, Kandy can claim a historical tradition of millennia, even though interrupted. So why not have something like a Mardi Gras with airplane rides for dandumonara, martial music, terrible war scenes (subdued of course!) romance and chastity, and what not!

If any untoward consequences from such actions are perceived by the public, the Tourist Board should be made aware of them, so that they could provide adequate legislation to prevent any such unwanted happenings. It would be pointless waiting until such perceived calamities become fait accompli and then keep shifting the blame from one person to another.

Thus, it would also be the duty of the Tourist Board to have transparent discussions with the public, identify the perceived threats and have adequate enforceable rules and regulations to safeguard such perceived threats and thereby alleviate any fears among the public.

After all, it’s not like the attempt to sell Eppawala to the proxies of McMoran! Haris de Silva

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