Cultural survival in a dangerous age - Sri Lanka Guardian

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Cultural survival in a dangerous age

“If our language (Sinhala) is judged as a mere Darwinian species in linguistic competition with English, swift extermination will be the ineluctable result. This is not due to some intrinsic inferiority in our ‘bhasa’ but the result of the ‘global adaptation’ of the international language to the social dynamic of our day and age. The same observations apply, mutatis mutandis, so far as religion is concerned - it is blatantly evident that religions move forward with armies and imperial might.”
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by Leo Panthera

(March 30, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) There are no reliable historiographers to give us a faithful account of the turbulent history of Buddhism in the ancient land of Lanka. Since its epochal introduction by the Arahat Mahinda, this strange and lofty religion has had its ups and downs - its fabled triumphs punctuated by episodes of regress and desolation.

A fact that is plainly evident from even a casual perusal of the historical record is the coupling of the fluctuating fortunes of Buddhism with the overall health and prosperity of the Sinhala Nation. At times overrun by aggressors and debauched by cultural assaults that mocked and belittled their ancient faith, the Sinhalayas became a beaten race with no flair for the great things that were once their wont. In glorious contrast, periods of incandescent religiosity - in which Buddhist practice made its effulgence cross oceans to reach out to others - were marked by great achievements in the secular sphere. One has only to think of the Anuradhapura period of our history to note this remarkable synergy - mighty feats of hydraulic engineering and constructional virtuosity were underpinned by an ethos and a life-style that drew its primary strength from a deeply felt world-view rooted in Buddhism. Following a brief flurry and revivification of ancient greatness in the Polonnaruva period, the nation fell into dire straits with the sustained depredations of the Kalinga invader - a lapse into obscurity and mean internecine jousting that henceforth characterized the waning fortunes of the Sinhalayas. Buddhism declined calamitously to match the irresistible backsliding of events that followed the incapacity of the rulers to preserve the material and spiritual heritage that bonds a nation in greatness.

This very brief ‘apercu’ of history is given to place in context two novel threats that menace us in the inaugural years of twenty-first century. Agreed that we live in a new age of agonizing redefinition in which the very concept of nationhood is being challenged by Alien Gurus and the marginalised Sinhalayas are minor part-players in a confused drama enacted globally. Nonetheless, we - like the Platypus and the Latimeria Fish - are great survivors. Did we not beat off the psalm-singing Iberian invader festooned with iron fire-sticks? While others ran helter-skelter or seized the easy option of religio-spiritual surrender did not the Sinhalayas put up a valiant fight to safeguard their ancient religion and way of life? While paying homage to the natural ardour or mettle of the Island Race that played so decisive a part in rebuffing the assaults and overtures of the ‘culture exterminators’ that swarmed over our land like destructive locusts, it must be confessed that other factors intervened to mitigate their violence. Firstly, the inaccessibility of the hinterland and the primitive state of communications technology made it difficult for the Portuguese, the Dutch and the early Brits to make a clean sweep of things. While the conversion storm-troopers did a good job in areas where they called the shots, the villages remained indefatigably committed to the old ways.

They served as ‘centres of endemicity’ from which healing influences could spread when the heat was off. The fact that only 5% of our population has adopted the faith of the invader speaks volumes in this regard. (Be it noted that about 50% of the Tamils have found the God of the Chosen People congenial to their aspirations on the hereafter. Conversion to Buddhism is unknown - facts that are of great socio-political significance.)

There is a second - and more determinative - reason for our great escape from the humiliation of religio-cultural extinction. Despite the direly straitened circumstances of the time, there were valorous leaders who stood up for the religion and the culture of the Sinhalayas - individuals with a foreboding of the disasters to come if the old ways were abandoned. Vimaladharmasuriya and Kirti Sri Rajasingha are names that are readily conjured up when we reflect on the vicissitudes of recent history and our narrow escape from the black-hole of cultural extinction. There is no gainsaying the fact that throughout our tortured history it has been prescient leadership that has saved us when mired in seemingly inextricable difficulty. If the Sinhalayas recall the ‘affaire Duthugemunu’ with unusual warmth and sentimentality (that the non-Sinhalayas find cloyingly repellant) it is because it illustrates a paradigm - the paradigm of liberation at the eleventh hour through the swashbuckling intervention of the man of destiny. The New Diyasena that brings miraculous relief to the beleaguered Sinhala people.

This is the hour for the arrival of our Cargo Cult Man (a.k.a. ‘Diyasena’). We spoke of new and refurbished forces that give fresh meaning and urgency to the age-old challenge that we Sinhalayas face. Consider first that hydra-headed monster called ‘globalization’. On first glance, the ‘winds of change’ blowing across the oceans and reaching our fair isle are wholly salubrious - who can resist the allure of a technology-rich civilization? Alas, it is not an innocuous technology transfer that is the issue - it is the crushing acceptance of the culture, language and religious mores of the great ‘exporters’ of the new culture. Let us be more candid - as indigenes of this ancient island, we have a language and a religion that are authentically our own and that have evolved to meet conditions that are mightily at odds with what the ‘international community’ regards as normative. If our language (Sinhala) is judged as a mere Darwinian species in linguistic competition with English, swift extermination will be the ineluctable result. This is not due to some intrinsic inferiority in our ‘bhasa’ but the result of the ‘global adaptation’ of the international language to the social dynamic of our day and age. The same observations apply, mutatis mutandis, so far as religion is concerned - it is blatantly evident that religions move forward with armies and imperial might. It is no accident that the reigning theistic faiths are indissolubly linked to the global sweep of western imperialism and (the earlier) transcontinental dominance of Arab-inspired zelotry.

To the main point, now. Globalization is not simply an economic phenomenon - an unavoidable acquiescence to the changes imposed on us by the forces of modernization. It is the new threat to our age-old culture - the threat of language subordination and religious ‘deregulation’. Sinhala - our ancient language - will not die suddenly in the manner of the overthrow of a long-established republic. Rather, the extinction of our native language will closely parallel the demise of an endemic species when challenged by intruding exotics with greater Darwinian fitness. Such removal is seldom melodramatic - it is presaged by a steady loss of ‘habitat’ and the increasing marginalization of the ancient stock vis-a-vis the intruder. Do we not see this happening today with regard to Sinhala? Are not many voices raised - powerful and influential ones at that - on the need for the mastery of English? Has even a tiny voice been heard amidst this cacophony for the dire need to upgrade our Sinhala to meet the challenges of the New Age of Technology? Has the State given the lead in the publication of glossaries, encyclopaedias and major works of reference in the language of the land to bolster the programmes of advanced science education in Sri Lanka? None of all this - merely the incessant call for more and better English. Given this mournful constellation of events, what hope is there for Sinhala to survive as the lead-language of the masses of this country in the decades ahead? It will surely descend to the level of a Creole or patois spoken by the vulgar herd.

With regard to our ancient faith - Buddhism - the portents are no less ominous. While there is a constitutional provision for the protection of the religion of our ancestors there is also an alien and irresistible countercurrent that seeks blatantly to nullify this position of privilege. It is tangled up with the issue of ‘human rights’ that has the frightening imprimatur of that which is called the ‘International Community’. Briefly stated, the choice of religion is not merely an individual affair, it is a ‘human right’ that transcends safeguards that are considered sacrosanct on the basis of culture and prior creedal affiliation. This may sound an innocuous legalism - until its practical ramifications are explored. The right to choose is coupled with the right to sell - and it is this latter aspect that poses the greatest threat to Buddhism. What we in this country must fear most is the unstoppable reach of the global market - the warping of our own demand-system to match the flood of goods and services that the ‘International Community’ deems good for us. And, these are not merely artifacts - they are also ‘mentifacts’ or ‘cultural manufactures’ that the market forces on us to the great detriment of our native way of life. Riding high on this wave of globalization is the religion that has greatest market clout. Our patriotic readers need not be specially reminded of the threat to Buddhism of an ‘imported’ religion that is marketed with global corporate power as its chief sponsor.

To ‘buy’ a religion is a ‘human right’ that is inalienable -so argue the marketers. It is this dismal scenario that loyal Buddhists of this land find as a kind of ‘locked-in syndrome’ with no way of escape. Unlike in the days of yore, there are no places to hide and no protected bastions of endemicity - the religious market pursues you to the remotest corners of the land in a thousand guises. At this point we must introduce our historic defender (aka Diyasena) - we need a ‘paradigm smasher’ who will expose the perfidious guile of the globalization wallahs and give our ancient nation another chance to rise to greatness based on a fresh invigoration of our language and religion. Needless to say, the political ‘star-chart’ of this country is ruled by ‘malefics’ that will not easily go away. We pray for their departure.
- Sri Lanka Guardian

1 comment:

Charles.S.Perera said...

Lofty writing. Arguments lost in words,and a complex style.

Charles