Understanding Zealotry

By Michael Roberts

(March 12, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) The first part of this article was written when I was a Senior Visiting Fellow at the International Centre for Asian Studies, University of Leiden, Netherlands from September to December 1995; and was published in one of their Newsletters under the heading “Understanding Zealotry & Questions for Post-Orientalism.” The emphasis then was informed by my interest in the embodied emotions that have spurred assaults during pogroms and riots. This section, now designated Part I under the sub-title “From 1991-95,” has been modified in minor ways for this publication, while citations and footnotes have been added. Its arguments have then been elaborated in a second part that also reflects upon my journeys in the interim. In thus underlining the temporal ‘progression’ of my thinking, this article underlines the continuities in position within the shifting context of academic production, while yet marking new developments in my experiential understandings. A bibliography has also been added. Obviously, this list has been cast in 2006.

Because my quests included an interest in revealing photographs, it is appropriate that I should preface the article with some horrifying finds. This display is in keeping with my supposition that encounters with awful violence serve as a form of consciousness-raising. It is possible for people to shut out textual representations that detail the crimes of their kinfolk/ethnic group/nationality. This sleight-of-mind is more difficult when faced with powerful images because the latter resist enclosure in hidden recesses of the mind. So I think. And hope.


The Negro. A Menace to American Civilization, a book by R. W. Schufeldt (printed in Boston by Richard Badger, 1907) is an indication of the racist ideology upon which the American South had been established in the early modern period. Note that in this book these racist ideas are retailed by a trained professional man; and that he had no hesitation in reproducing photographs of White vengeance through acts of lynching. Moreover, it reveals that profound prejudices and ideas of White supremacy lived on even after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. So, fifty years after the military defeat of the LTTE, in 2060, someone – it cannot be me of course – may have to ruminate on the question whether the virulent chauvinism displayed in recent years by some Sri Lankan Tamils as well as Sri Lankan Sinhalese still persists.

From 1991-95

In late 1991 while engaged in a critical view of the instrumentalist readings of nationalist violence in South Asia, I penned an essay on the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983 in Sri Lanka. This article has since appeared under a rather melodramatic title, “The Agony and Ecstasy of a Pogrom: Southern Lanka, July 1983,” in a collection of my essays: viz, Exploring Confrontation. Sri Lanka: Politics, Culture and History (Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers 1994) as well as a journal produced by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Colombo to mark the 20th anniversary of this terrible event.[1]

The essay was written in a particular mood. It adopts a personalised literary mode of expression and seeks to depict the interface of human violence. It also challenges the bourgeois and middle class tendency to foist the agency for violence primarily on state functionaries or persons of a lumpen kind.[2] My conviction is that many ‘ordinary people’ have participated in major “riots” in Sri Lanka and India; and that quite normal people, myself included, are capable of killing an ethnic Other in specific circumstances.

The essay “Agony” brought me to a threshold: to endeavour to understand zealots and their fervent extremism and to pursue the ethnography of ethnic and religious violence in selected contexts. To this end from 1991 I began collecting secondary material on lynching and race riots in early twentieth century USA, pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and communal violence in India since the 1970s (see illustrative Plates). Such violence is often inspired or accompanied by various states of embodied emotion. Such emotion is not always directed towards an opposing Other. It can inspire violence on oneself — as suggested by the self-mutilation and suicides in southern India when M. G. Ramachandran died in December 1987; and the handful of suicides in the same region sparked off by Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. Significantly, several of these suicidal projects chose the mode of self-immolation (see Roberts 1996a where this strand of passion is then linked to Sivakumaran and thence to the LTTE).[3]

In brief, then, my project also engages the anthropology of emotion.[4] And through such researches I hope to explore the limits of liberal humanism, the dominant value of academic circles, whenever this persuasion engages nationalist chauvinism. But that is a utopian goal that will take a decade at least to crystallise. My substantive interest at the moment is in (1) the ideology of Sinhala nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries[5] and (2) the Sinhala pogrom against the Mohammedan Moors in 1915 which was one of its violent expressions (see Roberts 1981 and two of the chapters in Exploring Confrontation).

The work of Sinhala ideologies in both the British and post-colonial eras is thick with references to their ancient past. Tamil ideologues today have taken up these cudgels. History writing has become part of contemporary legitimations and verbal battles. Several scholars have begun to challenge this use and misuse of history, seeking thereby to undermine the intellectual ground of chauvinism. Some (e.g. R.A.L.H. Gunawardana 1990) have presented a variant of a modernisation thesis which highlights the transformations wrought under the British and the influence of racialist thought about the Aryan origins of the Sinhalese inspired by the work of Max Muller.

A band of scholars (e.g. Spencer, Walters,[6] Nissan & Stirrat, Scott, Ismail and Jeganathan) has taken up what can be identified in shorthand as a “post-Orientalist position” (see Rogers 1994 for a convenient summary).[7] They have pointed up the effect on the Sinhalese of the institutionalised practices of the British Raj and a new intellectual framework is rooted in the West. They have especially marked the influence of Orientalist readings of the Sinhala past by such people as Turner, Geiger, Tennent and Rhys-Davids. In a word, the argument is that the Sinhalese and their past were subject to processes of reification, objectification and essentialization. In this view, Sinhala nationalists and empiricist historians have lapped this up and participated in the construction of such images — which, in the process, have set up the Sinhala-Tamil conflict as an age-old affair. Such understandings, say the post-Orientalists, are quite wrong. “Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is a young creature” and the problems between Tamils and Sinhalese today “are of recent origin” (Spencer 1990b: 248; Pfaffenberger 1994: 4).

The post-Orientalist interventions are quite salutary. In particular they warn us against reading the present back to the past and challenge us to work out a more sophisticated understanding of change. Though I share their antipathy to chauvinism, nevertheless I believe their approaches contain shortcomings, drawbacks that are both ethnographic and analytical. It is this engagement with post-Orientalism that I have begun to take up amidst my other projects.

Sinhala Ideology in the Vamsa Texts

For those unfamiliar with the ethnographic context it can be noted that in Sri Lanka in the 5th-6th centuries CE some monk-literati produced historical chronicles which are generally described as vamsa texts. These were in Pali, but were based on Sinhala oral lore and a previous text, the Sihala-attakatamahāvamsa, now lost; and in turn gave rise to commentarial literature in Sinhala in subsequent centuries. These textual expressions included variant versions of the segments dealing with Sinhala culture heroes which had entered the oral and iconic traditions as well as the textual. Most significantly, in this mythology the Sinhalese are presented as a chosen people destined to preserve Buddhism in its pristine form. The island, therefore, is a Sihaladīpa that is a Dhammadīpa.

The implications of the Sinhala ideology inscribed within the early vamsa literature were sharpened when: (1) between the 6th and 12th centuries CE a process involving the strengthening of the practices we now identify as Hinduism absorbed and/or severely weakened Buddhist practices and institutions in southern India; (2) and Sinhala dynasts became embroiled in alliances and wars in southern India from the 8th century onwards. The culmination of the latter process was the subjugation of the northern part of Lanka by the Cola Empire in the 10th and 11th centuries. While the Rajarata civilisation centred on the northern half of the island of Lanka was soon liberated from the rule of these Tamil-speaking Indian forces, it was again subject to the invasion of Māgha of Kãlinga in the early 13th century and to subsequent invasions by Pandyan feudatories. The centres of Sinhala civilisation around the dynastic state gradually shifted to the south western parts of the island; while Māgha’s rule provided the foundation for the predominance of Tamil (and Tamilicized) peoples in the north within what became known as the Kingdom of Yālppānam (Kingdom of Jaffna).

Such developments resulted in the amplified reconstitution of the Sinhala ideology when the Mahāvamsa was brought up to date in the thirteenth century.[8] The invaders are presented as “blood-sucking demons” and “Kerala devils;” as purveyors of wickedness and “false views” (i.e. Saivite Hinduism). There are explicit references to “the Sinhalas” who opposed the various aliens on behalf of “that fair lady, the island of Lanka.”[9]

What we are seeing here, of course, is a state ideology. Bhikkhus were part of the cosmic centre around the Sinhala monarch. Whatever the de facto limits of the rump Sinhala state in the centuries that followed, this cosmological theory held to a view of the state patterned on the mandala design — the “galactic polity” described by Tambiah (1977). The centre (capital) stood for the whole. Each Sinhala kingdom stood for the whole island, referred to at this stage as Trisimhala, Siri Laka or various equivalents.[10]

The fuller implications of these perspectives demand careful and theoretically sophisticated historical research.[11] I do not have the linguistic skills to engage in such exercises. I can only raise questions and hypotheses. The state ideology cannot be viewed only through the prism of political events. There must be attentiveness to the cultural and literary processes, including the movement to simplify and de-Sanskritize the Sinhala language which Vidāgama Thera and others initiated in the fifteenth century. Likewise, attention has to be paid to the expressions of Sinhala sentiment — if at all — in ritual dramas, oral stories and iconic representations. These modalities and the literate texts influenced each other. One of the weaknesses of Gunawardana’s seminal essay is its total immersion in the written sources of history (Roberts 1993: 142-43). In his work, the oral does not count.[12]

The evidence of opposition to Others from India in these varied sources must, of course, be set alongside the considerable evidence of enriching cultural exchanges between southern India and Sri Lanka during this period; and the incorporation of immigrants as individuals and communities within the Sinhala order. Sinhala society and the Sinhala state were, as Tambiah has revealed, “inclusive,” “incorporative,” “open-ended” and “pluralistic” (Tambiah 1992: 139, 145-47, 153-70. Also Roberts 2004: 64, 114-15, 146).

Post-Orientalist writings have latched on to the evidence of such heterogeneity and cultural exchange to limit the significance that one should attach to the Sinhala:Tamil opposition in pre-British times. Unfortunately, Tambiah too leans in this direction (1992: 139). A few scholars would even seem to deny the pertinence of the categories or the opposition.[13] That is my complaint.

The post-Orientalist literature on medieval Sri Lanka does not consider the possible pertinence of a segmentary structure of affiliation that permitted the critical significance of caste identities among the Sinhalese during the everyday round of existence without negating the force of Sinhalaness at critical sites/moments (Roberts 2004: 17, 30-33, 136, 161). Therefore, the Sinhalization of Tamil immigrants in southern Lanka did not dissolve the pertinence of the categories Sinhala and Tamil within the geo-political context of the island — and thus in the theology of state purveyed by the re-working (written, oral, performative, iconic) of the vamsa traditions. The problem lies with those post-Orientalists who have interpreted this material in terms of the exclusivist modalities of an either/or epistemology. They, too, have read the twentieth century into the past.

The post-Orientalist work on Sri Lanka is also vitiated by an undemonstrated assumption that in the Sinhala kingdoms of the ‘medieval’ period there was a massive gap between the mythology/ideology of the ruling classes and the ordinary folk — in a context where ‘the masses’ have to be centred among the cultivating ranks of the Govigama caste which made up perhaps half the Sinhala population. But even more critically the debate has been influenced by the twentieth century conflict to the point that its historical investigations are restricted to a survey of Sinhala-Tamil relations. The influence of Portuguese and Dutch colonialism on Sinhala consciousness has been kept out of the picture.[14] This is where Sri Lanka differs radically from the Indian sub-continent.

Colonial Influences

In overviews of the Indian land mass and its history, to say “pre-colonial” is equivalent to saying “pre-British.” For Sri Lanka that cannot be done. Such a difference becomes critical because the new intellectual frameworks highlighted by post-Orientalist critics are those introduced under British auspices.

From the 1530s the Portuguese engaged in war with interior Sinhala states, usually on behalf of the vassal rulers of Kotte. Once the emperor of Kotte was dead, they sought to rule in their own name and embarked on a conquest of the lowlands in the 1590s. Whilst contending with a succession of rebellions they also attempted but failed to conquer the highland Kingdom of Senkadagala (Kandy).[15]

For this reason they receive much sharper diatribes in the Sinhala historical traditions than the Dutch and the British. It is therefore of some significance that the anti-Portuguese and anti-Christian polemics within the hatana (war) poems in Sinhala produced in the 17th century were also tinged with a more generalised hostility to threats foreign in ways that embraced the Tamils and Hindus (see C.R. de Silva 1983: 15-17).[16]

The Dutch of the VOC were less inclined to indulge in military dominance than the Portuguese. They were also ready to use accept the ‘fiction’ that they were “the guardians of the coast” on behalf of the king (Arasaratnam 1958: 111-12). That is, they accepted the rhetoric and gained the trade goods. To them, commodity was value. To the Sinhalese in Kandy, rhetoric was value. In intercourse at this level, words were seen as constitutive acts. From the Sinhala point of view, then, the Dutch words and their tribute-bearing embassies to the city of Kandy confirmed their king as a cakravarti and their kingdom as Sīhala.[17]

Displacing the Dutch in 1796, the British entered the scene at one moment in their imperial upsurge. They suffered a severe military setback at the hands of the Kandyan Sinhalese in 1803. Encouraged by this event and memories of previous Kandyan wars against invaders, as well as cosmological notions, a Kandyan courtier told the British authorities in 1811 that “One thing is certain, no foreign foe, be it British, Dutch, French, or Kaffir; will conquer Lanka. Through the protection of the four gods, the Guardians of its Religion and the Merits of the king, for five thousand years no foe will continue to reside here” (quoted in Malalgoda 1970: 433).[18]

This confidence was misplaced. The British gained control of Kandy in 1815. But the British authorities had then had to suppress a massive rebellion in 1817-18. It was partly out of my interest in this event that I began to explore Sinhala consciousness while at Peradeniya University in the years 1971-72 (see Roberts 1972 and 1979). That was part of a wider interest in nationalism on a global scale arising from my involvement in teaching a subject devoted to the theme at Peradeniya University. The subsequent outbreak of Sinhala-Tamil hostilities has renewed my engagements in this domain. The form and character of Sinhala consciousness in the period 1200 to 1815 provide a critical baseline for any evaluation of the work of Orientalist frames of thought. Thus far, that baseline is poorly developed in the writings of post-Orientalists. This is the arena which I began to enter in 1995/96 in working on an ongoing monograph which I have tentatively entitled: “The Sinhala and the Other: Parangi, Tuppahi, Demala as Para.”[19]

In doing so let me stress that I write as a tuppahi – a term that has multiple and overlapping meanings, but can best be translated as “mongrel.”[20] This act of self-identification, needless to say, is moulded by the contemporary circumstances of nationalisms in conflict within Sri Lanka and the excesses that such forces have encouraged on all sides of the many different fences. It is informed by that moment in American history when the disadvantaged Blacks began to call themselves “nigger” and to confront the superordinate Whites with their very own weapon of disparagement as part of Black armoury.


Arasaratnam, S. 1958 “Dutch sovereignty in Ceylon: a historical survey of its problems,” Ceylon

Journal of Historical and Social Studies 1: 105-21.

Bandaranayake, Senake 1986 The rock and wall paintings of Sri Lanka, Colombo: Lake House


Cūlavamsa 1953 The Cūlavamsa, trans. by W. Geiger, Colombo, Ceylon Government Information Department.

De Silva, C. R. 1983 “The historiography of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka: a survey of the Sinhala

Writing,” Samskrti 17:13-22.

De Silva, K. M. 1986 Managing ethnic tensions in multi-ethnic societies. Sri Lanka, 1880-1985,

Lanham, New York: University Press of America.

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Report 6: 63-74.

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Ceylon Branch, 68: 27-66.

Dharmadasa, K. N. O. 1992 Language, religion and ethnic assertiveness. The growth of Sinhalese nationalism in Sri Lanka, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Duncan, James S. 1990 The city as text: the politics of landscape interpretation in the Kandyan Kingdom, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
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Holt, John C. 1996 The religious works of Kīrti Srī, New York, Oxford University Press.

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Jeganathan, & Qadri Ismail (eds) 1995 Unmaking the nation, Colombo: Social Scientists’

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Kanapathypillai, V. 1990 “July 1983: The survivor’s experience,” in Veena Das (ed.) Mirrors of

violence. Communities, riots and survivors in South Asia, New Delhi: Oxford University Press,

pp. 321-44.

Kemper, Steven 1991 The presence of the past. Chronicles, politics, and culture in Sinhala life, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

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of Anthropology 15: 405-36.

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Society and History 12: 434-41.

Nissan, Elizabeth and R. L. Stirrat 1990 “Generation of communal identities,” in J. Spencer

(ed.) Sri Lanka. History and the roots of conflict, London: Routledge, pp. 19-44.

Pfaffenberger, Bryan 1994 “Introduction: the Sri Lankan Tamils,” in C. Manogaran and B.

Pfaffenberger (eds.) The Sri Lankan Tamils, Colorado: Westview Press, pp. 1-27.

Pūjāvaliya 1997 Colombo: Buddhist Cultural Centre.

Rajasingham-Senanayake, Darini 1999 “Democracy and the problem of representation: the making of bi-polar ethnic identity in post-colonial ethnic identity in post-colonial Sri Lanka,” in J Pfaff-Czarnecka et al (eds.) Ethnic futures. The state and identity politics in Asia, New Delhi: Sage Publications, pp. 99-134.

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of 1817-18 and latter day nationalisms in Ceylon,” Ceylon Studies Seminar, 1970/71 Series,

no. 10, 5 October 1972.

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Marga Publications, pp. 214-42.

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Directions and patterns in the 1915 communal riots,” Sri Lanka Journal of the Social Sciences

4: 83-126.

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Roberts, Michael 1994 Exploring confrontation. Sri Lanka: politics, culture and history, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Roberts, Michael 1996a “Filial devotion and the Tiger cult of suicide,” Contributions to Indian Sociology 30: 245-72.

Roberts, Michael 1996b “Teaching lessons, removing evil: strands of moral Puritanism in Sinhala nationalist practice,” special issue, South Asia 19: 205-20.

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zealot, Anagarika Dharmapala,” Social Analysis 44: 113-39.

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[1] See Roberts 2003 and the other articles in this issue of Nēthra as well as Kanapathypillai 1990 and Thornton & Niththiyananthan 1984.

[2] I have occasionally been faced with this interpretation in the drawing rooms of middle class houses in Sri Lanka. See Wickremeratne 2006: 115 for a reference to “mindless mobs” and the sins of omission in KM de Silva 1986: 37-41. also see KM de Silva 1988

[3] See National Geographic 1979, p. 138 for a picture of Sivakumaran’s statue after it had been knocked down by army personnel as one step in an ongoing symbolic struggle. Sivakumaran’s act was prior to the inception of the LTTE. In the 1990s he was accorded the status of māvīrar (great hero) and incorporated into the LTTE pantheon. Also see Roberts 2005 and n.d.

[4] See Lutz & White 1996, Daniel 1996 and Roberts 1998/99. This is an intricate and complex topic. I cannot say that I have even scratched the surface. However, my studies of the diaries kept by Anagarika Dharmapala provide some insights into the imperatives that drove this vehement Sinhala Buddhist extremist (Roberts 1997 and 2000).

[5] This path has eventually led to Roberts 1996b, 1997, 2000, 2001a & b, 2002a as well as 2003b.

[6] Jon Walters entered this listing in 1995 because of a comment on his part in a review of KNO Dharmadasa’s book in Anthropological Linguistics, 1994, vol. 33, 2, pp. 330-32. Moreover, in an early exchange of ideas with me (letter dated 26 Sept. 1995) he stressed that: “even the utter repetition of ancient thoughts or practices can become a highly original act in changing historical circumstances; the past change as it becomes part of the present (it is both constituted by the present, i.e. conceived and described in the light of the present) and it is constitutive of the present (i. e. productive of current socio-historical circumstances).” Unlike the others in this list he has engaged in detailed empirical research into the pre-modern era (e.g. Walters 2000).

[7] Further elaboration can be found in Rogers 1994 and 2004, Rajasingham-Senanayake 1999, Roberts 2001a and Strathern 2006b. See the Bibliography for the works by the authors that I have named.

[8] See Cūlavamsa 1953, Pūjāvaliya 1997 and Kemper 1996. For new insights, see Walters 2000.

[9] Cūlavamsa 1953, II: 11. For elaboration of the terminology see Roberts 2004: 52-60.

[10] The term used depended on whether it was Elu Sinhala, Pali, Palicized Sinhala and Sanskritic Sinhala that was being deployed; and also varied according to the metrical demands of poetry. It is my speculation that the innovative addition of the prefix Tri, or Three in an honorific sense, to the ancient place name was a parallelism informed by the idea of the “Triple Gem” or Three Refuges (tunsarana) associated with the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha – a concept capable of being vested with miraculous power.

[11] Walters (2000), Holt (1991, 1996 and 2005) and Strathern (2006b and n.d.) have begun to show the way on this front.

[12] Note my early criticisms of Gunawardana’s work (1993). For a fuller illustration of the significance of oral and visual modes of cultural transmission, see Roberts 2002b & 2004: chap. 2 as well as WA de Silva 1915/16, Sarachchandra 1966, Bandaranayake 1986 and one of the Dambulla wall paintings in Deraniyagala 1942: 115. For further collaboration from Portuguese sources see Strathern 2006b.

[13] For instance, Nissan & Stirrat 1990, Pfaffenberger 1994 and, subsequently, Rajasingham-Senanayake 1999. In contrast, Spencer does stress that it would be “absurd” to claim that “the categories ‘Sinhala’ and ‘Tamil’ are somehow colonial inventions” (1990a: 4).

[14] Alan Strathern has also underlined this contention recently (2006b).

[15] This paragraph has benefited from an intervention by Strathern. See his forthcoming book (n. d.) for fresh material that augments the earlier work by Abeyasinghe and CR de Silva.

[16] My book (2004) can be regarded as a detailed elaboration of the insight provided briefly in CR de Silva’s brief comments. Also see Strathern 2006a and 2006 b.

[17] The term Sīhala had (has) two meanings in the references pertaining to the period extending from the 17th to early 19th centuries: one to the territories directly administered by the kings of Sitāvaka or Kandy; and the other to the whole island as overlorded by the kings of Sitāvaka and/or Kandy In this latter usage it drew on the antecedents associated with the label and other equivalents such as Sīhaladīpa, Trisinhala, Siri Laka, Lakdiva, Hela and Tunsinhalaya.

[18] For a detailed filling out of the ideology prevailing in the last decades of Kandyan rule, see Duncan 1990 and Roberts 2004: chaps. 6 and 8.

[19] The first part of this project now bears the title Sinhala consciousness in the Kandyan period, 1590s-1815, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications.

[20]See Roberts et al 1989 and Roberts 1994: chap. 14 5for further clarification. For its deployment in the war poems of the late middle period, see Roberts 2004: 126-29, 136 and Strathern 2006b.