Robert Perinbanayagam, Courtesy of the Sunday Times, 29 August 2010
Sri Lanka was to produce many scholars who achieved fame in the international scene. In anthropology it was to produce a truly world-famous scholar in Gananath Obeyesekere, who turns eighty.
Having obtained a first-class degree in English and won all the prizes that come with it, Obeysekere took to studying anthropology. As a student in Peradeniya he had developed an interest in studying the folk poetry of the Sinhalese which led to an interest in the study of their folk religion. Rejecting a career as a lecturer in English and no doubt claiming the chair of Lyn Ludowyke which would have been his eventually, he opted to study anthropology; and rejecting the university scholarship that would have taken him to the U.K., he won a Fulbright grant and went to America to study anthropology at the University of Washington in Seattle.
The rest is a rich chapter in the intellectual history of Sri Lanka. It is not possible to discuss the many path-finding books he has produced since his doctorate but one can trace some lines in his lifework that are significant. One of the major strands in his work has been combining psychoanalysis with ethnography.
Freudianism was largely confined to the couch but for a few social historians like Erich Fromm and the Freudian Marxists like Herbert Marcuse. Before Obeysekere there were a few Freudian anthropologists too. Obeysekere’s work situating psychoanalysis in an exotic Asian field in Sri Lanka became without doubt the richest contribution to the field.
Combining truly exceptional ethnography in its ability to marshal details of the everyday life of the rural Sinhalese people with psychoanalytic theory, he was able to produce works that became masterpieces.
“Medusa’s Hair” was a closely observed study of female ecstatics which was to become an oft-cited work in the field. This was followed by a truly monumental work on the Pattini cult. Pattini is a deity of Southern Indian origins worshipped in Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka by the Tamil Hindus and the presumptively Buddhist Sinhalese in elaborate seasonal rituals.
This volume – the result of 20 years of field work – combined standard anthropological field-data, the poetry and drama associated with the rituals of Pattini, the social history of Sri Lanka and South and South-Western India as well as the psychological significance of the rituals to ordinary people. It was in many ways an archaeology of certain sections of Sri Lankan society, an archaeology of material that was lying above-ground for everyone to see! I don’t think that there is any work in the social sciences that matches the range and depth of this work or the insights it produced on the sociology and social history of certain sections of Sri Lanka. In all these works, in many ways challenging orthodoxies though some of them were, one can see Obeysekere’s deep love for the ordinary Sinhala people.
The Freudian approach to his anthropology – its theoretical foundations – was finally laid out in his work called The Work of Culture. Again, it would not be an exaggeration to say that this, too, was a path-finding work that sought to situate Freudian theory in a cultural framework and challenge the notions of a historical and universal unconscious defined by relations in a nuclear family but one to which other elements of the culture made its contribution too. The unconscious, it turns out, is subject to the work of culture. Culture works, he showed, to transform symbols and the symbols that human agents live by are not free-floating and universal meaning-systems but are rooted in the broad culture of a society.
In his more recent work he has become more politicized and in two meticulously researched works – The Apotheosis of Captain Cook and Cannibal Talk – he threw a gauntlet at two enduring fictions of the European conception of the “natives”: One, that the natives were so impressed with the Europeans invaders that they gave them supernatural status, treating them like gods; and two, that the natives were somehow morally inferior because they practised cannibalism. In the first of these works he demolished the claim made both by travellers to the south islands and certain anthropologists that the natives of these islands considered Captain Cook as a god by fitting him and his murderous activities into their myths. In the latter work on cannibalism he once again demolished another claim: The people of certain cultures were in the habit of killing and eating their fellow beings.
In a fine-grained analysis Obeysekere showed the utter improbability of this claim. The evidence for the claim of a widespread presence of cannibalism came from traveller’s tales and missionary notes and Obeysekere argues that this was merely a discourse created to justify the claim to political and cultural domination of the natives by interested parties.
They were ideologies of conquest rather than empirical descriptions, serviceable in the management and consolidation of emerging spiritual and temporal empires. It was just talk, useful to many and not a description of observed facts. In between these significant works Obeysekere also produced a comparative study of the ideas of karma and re-birth and I understand he is working now on two more books – one on the psychology and sociology of illusions and fantasies and another on the Veddhas. He was to ask, “Where have all the Veddhas gone?” Where indeed? Perhaps to become Sinhalese and Tamils?
The dominant characteristic of his intellectual life has been to fearlessly challenge established orthodoxies and accepted beliefs both as pertaining to Sri Lanka’s history, politics and culture as well as in the wider-world of the social sciences. In his fearlessness and commitment to principle, he can be compared to no less a figure than Jean-Paul Sartre.
Unafraid to storm the hornet’s nest of local politically-inspired beliefs as well as anthropological shibboleths in the international arena, he marched forward creating controversies and facing criticism and envious attacks by lesser minds. He stands as a true giant among scholars, both nationally and internationally, a scholar of great depth, range and a graceful writer to boot . who brought fame to our island home.
No doubt Oliver Goldsmith’s lines about the village schoolmaster were meant to be ironic: “And still the wonder grew that one small head could carry all he knew.” There is no irony in my conclusion: And still the wonder grew, that the one small, bushy head of Gananath Obeysekere could carry all he knew which he shared with us.
Robert Perinbanayagam, “Sid” to his friends at Ramanathan Hall, Peradeniya is Professor of Sociology, Hunter College of the City University of New York.