“Ethnicisation” of History Writing in South Asia/Sri Lanka - Part 4

A Few Comments on J.L. Devananda’s Response

by Bandu de Silva

Previous Parts: Part One | Part Two | Part Three

2.13 Colonial period of History – British and the Mahavamsa

(February 23, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) There seems to be some shadow boxing here. Unnamed colonial ‘Oriental’ scholars are under attack for ‘uncritical acceptance of the local chronicles’. “The view that Sinhalese were the ‘proper inhabitants’ of the island in ancient times and that Tamils were invaders came to dominate colonial historical writing. In addition, since the Sinhalese language was more of Indo-Aryan in nature...” (this is admitted), it is claimed that “...the British declared that the Sinhalese were Aryans from North India and the Tamils were Dravidians from South India”. It is on this concept that “...in the 19th century AD, the Sinhalese started to believe the myth that they are Aryans from North India and the proper inhabitants of Sri Lanka where as the Tamils are Dravidians and outsiders”.

Mr. Devananda does not place the blame for this on the colonialist alone. He says it was “eagerly welcomed by most Sinhalese scholars who found the Aryan theory flattering”. The combined result of the forces at work, according to him, was “...the mischievous oversimplification of Sri Lankan History that the Sinhalese are Indo-Aryans who came from North India in the 6th century BC and the Dravidian Tamils are later migrants who came as invaders, traders and mercenaries to snatch a part of the promised land of the Sinhalese away”. Additionally, the nonexistence of Tamil Buddhists during the colonial period, led the 19th century European Pali ‘scholars’ (some doubts it looks like!) that ancient kings of Ceylon were none other than Sinhalese, is taken to support this Sri Lankan Tamil perception. Most of the Sinhalese are then accused of being unable to think/believe that there were Tamil Buddhists. “If there were Buddhist remains in any part of Sri Lanka, by default it belonged to Sinhalese (only) and if there were Hindu remains it belonged to Tamils (only)...”. That could also be the reason for the perception among Sri Lankan Tamil scholars that all Hindus were Tamils/Dravidian and any Brahmin was Tamil.

The foremost among the British historians of the mid 19th century was Emerson Tennent, who was also at one time the Colonial Secretary in the island, and a great admirer of Tamil females in personal life. Mr. Tennent was acknowledged as a great historian by Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan. He is not mentioned by name by Mr. Devananda. One may rush to explain that positive assessment by Ramanathan as due to his [archaic] thinking compared to present day outlooks, but it could not be attributed to lack of intelligence. Now, Tennent was one of the worst critics of the Malabars who came to the island in the first millennium of the island’s history.

The danger of Mr. Devananda’s broad criticism of Colonial literature is the attempt to discredit off-hand all observations, including ones that appear to be detrimental to the Tamil people, as being motivated by a Colonial Aryan supremacist view. This sweeping general dismissive disregards the many instances where Colonial officers have made very important observations and a valuable contribution to advancing our understanding of the people, their habits and mannerism during the early colonial phase of the Islands history.

Mr. Devananda then follows up by quoting R.A.H.L. Gunawardana as saying that Max Muller’s theories injected a ‘racialist’ content into Sinhala nationalist thinking. But as I shall detail later, quoting historian Dr. S. Gopal, son of Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, how Max Muller’s theories introduced into Indian thinking earlier “of the depth and vitality of Indian culture and these were the well-springs of Indian national consciousness which even Jawaharlal Nehru followed in the 1940s”. (Gopal, UNESCO, pp. 87-91).

To be continued....

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