Exploring Leslie Gunawardana’s Erroneous Pathways with KNO Dharmadasa — Part One

Darshanie Ratnawalli, courtesy of  The Nation (print edition here) on Sunday,15th February 2015 here the title was “Revisiting the sins of – Leslie Gunawardana with KNO Dharmadasa (Part 1)”

kno Pic by Chandana Wijesinha

Professor KNO Dharmadasa, the present Editor in Chief of the Sinhala Encyclopedia goes down in history as mounting, to date, the only direct, authoritative academic challenge to Professor Leslie Gunawardana, an ancient period historian of Sri Lanka who became a darling of certain social anthropological circuits through his “The People of the Lion: The Sinhala Identity and Ideology in History and Historiography”– (1979) and “Historiography In a Time of Ethnic Conflict, Construction of the Past in Contemporary Sri Lanka”– (1995). Professor KNO opened up to Darshanie Ratnawalli about this debate and its repercussions.       

DR– I am sure there are many subjects I could talk to you about. But my main interest is in your debate with Professor Leslie Gunawardana. I think it was one of the high points of interest in Sri Lankan studies in the 1990s. What struck me about the whole exchange was how little you were challenging him on linguistic grounds. I felt that even though Professor Gunawardana was making many linguistic gaffes, you missed them because you were concentrating too much on historical narrative and interpretation.

KNO– For example?

DR– For example, on p11 of his 1995 work “Historiography in a Time of Ethnic Conflict”, which was sort of a response to your 1992 paper, Prof. G is discussing the Vallipuram inscription. He says;  “The identification (by Paranavitana in 1939 in Epigraphia Zeylanica, Vol. IV, pp.229-237, my parenthesis) of the language of the inscription as Sinhala runs counter to opinions which have remained dominant in the field of historical linguistics for more than half a century”

KNO– This is bullshit. It’s no such thing. Actually it goes fully with the dominant view.

DRBut this is one of the gaffes you did not tackle?

KNO– So tell me the others

DR- The reason he says the identification of the Vallipuram inscription language as Sinhala is wrong is because (pg14) “…the appearance of the Sinhala language as a clearly distinguishable linguistic form was dated in the eighth or the ninth century. It has also come to be accepted that the language of the early Brahmi inscriptions in the island should be classified as Prakrit

Prof G seems to have been under the impression that ‘Sinhala’ and ‘Prakrit’ were two separate, mutually exclusive terms. He seems to have believed that if a language is classified as a ‘Prakrit’, it disqualifies it from being identified as ‘Sinhala’. He seems not to have known that Sinhala like all Indo Aryan languages had a Prakritic (or a Middle Indo Aryan) phase followed by a New Indo Aryan phase and that in both phases the language was known as Sinhala.

KNO– Exactly. It’s not Prakrit. It’s Sinhala Prakrit. When you look at the Sinhala there, it’s not the Prakrit found in India. It’s a completely modified or evolved Prakrit.

DR– So I was wondering did Professor Gunawardana know when he wrote that paper that the language we call Sinhala today was called Sinhala even during its Middle Indo Aryan (Prakritic) phase?

KNO– Well I think he knew. He should have known.

DR– He should have known if for nothing else because of your 1992 paper. You had clearly stated there; “The available evidence would appear to suggest that the earliest references to “the Sinhala language” is in early 5th century. Buddhaghosa the famous Indian scholar who translated the Sinhala commentaries to Pali refers to the Sihaladipa as well as the Sihalabhasa. Referring to the Buddhist commentaries he says that they were “brought to Sihaladipa by Maha Mahinda (who was) endowed with self-mastery, and were made to remain in the Sihala Bhasa for the benefit of the inhabitants of the island.”

KNO– Yes he fully well knew that. But he wrote to impress certain people.

DR-   In the early 5th century AD the language the vising scholar monk Buddhaghosa was referring to as “Sihala bhasa” was a Prakrit/Middle Indo Aryan language?

KNONo actually it had evolved a great deal from Prakrit. There were traces of Prakrit there but it had become very much an individual language of its own.

DR– No what I mean is Prakrit is a very broad classification. By 5th century AD Sinhala…

KNO- …was not a Prakrit.

DR– No I mean taking its broadest meaning, any Middle Indo Aryan language can be called a Prakrit. Sinhala in the 5th century AD was still a Middle Indo Aryan language or a Prakrit.

KNO– But in the process of becoming a New Indo Aryan language. By 8th century Sinhala had become a New Indo Aryan language.

DR– But Prof. G insisted that it was wrong to call the language of 5th century AD “Sinhala”. In his 1995 paper (pg12) he says; “Geiger and Jayatilaka (1935:xxiv – xxix) characterized the period from the third or fourth century to the eighth century AD as one of transition from the Prakritic genre to Sinhala. It is important to note that the two scholars carefully refrained from calling the language of this period Sinhala: instead they chose the term “Proto-Sinhalese.”” So it was a dilemma for Prof. Gunawardana right? On one side Buddhaghosa was calling it Sinhala. On the other Geiger and Jayatilaka were calling it Proto Sinhala. That seems to have created a conflict in his mind. He was wondering who to accept.

KNO– You mean Professor Gunawardana?

DR– Yes. Maybe that was the reason…

KNO– Yes. If you give him the benefit of the doubt! But he fully well knew… Buddhaghosa was not a modern linguist. In his mind, this is the “Dipa bhasa”, the language of the island and it is Sinhala for him. Because this is not the language he knew in India.

DR– So to give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe Professor Gunawardana decided to blank out Buddhaghosa and go with Geiger and Jayatilaka?

KNO– Ah yes.

DR– But it’s not really a dilemma right? You don’t have to choose between Buddhaghosa and Geiger and Jayatilaka because they are both right. You don’t confuse natural names of a language used by its speech community with the academic, artificial terms used by linguists.

KNO– That’s right. As you say it was an artificial term.

DR– So members of its speech community never called it proto-Sinhala?

KNO– Neither did strangers, people from outside

DR– People of those days didn’t know anything about proto-Sinhala and such things…


DRSo don’t you think this was a huge opportunity you [Professor Dharmadasa] missed: of educating the general public, the academic community and Professor Gunawardana of the basics of your specialty, which was linguistics?

KNO– Yes I agree. Perhaps I should have gone more into details.

kno box 4

DR– Was linguistics an esoteric and obscure subject in those days? Not accessible even to ancient period historians like Professor Gunawardana?

KNO– Well this is historical linguistics not structural linguistics. I have a feeling that this knowledge was available to Leslie. He was not a fool. The kind of education given at the Peradeniya University at that time, which was a great institute of learning…There were great historical linguists like Prof. Hettiaratchi, Prof. P.E Fernando. Some of them were Leslie’s teachers. Prof. P.E. Fernando would have taught him epigraphy.

DR– I am asking because this knowledge is broadly available today. It’s obvious even to people like me that you should not confuse the artificial academic names linguists use to denote the different phases of a language with the natural name of that language.

KNO– Exactly

DR– To us modern Sinhalese, the language Buddhaghosa called ‘Sihala Bhasa’ would have sounded largely unintelligible?

KNO– Ah yes. For example, you won’t understand even the Sigiri Graffiti now no, most of it.

DR– So that’s why modern linguists call it Proto Sinhala. But that doesn’t make it a lesser Sinhala. It was as much a Sinhala as today.

KNO– Yes

DR– On the other side, to the speech community of the 5th century AD modern Sinhala would sound like gobble-de-gook?

KNO– (Laughing). Oh yes.

DR– If they had heard modern Sinhala, they wouldn’t call it Sinhala?

KNO– Yes. They would have called it some other language.

DR– But that does not make modern Sinhala a lesser Sinhala?

KNO– No. That’s evolution.

leslie G smiling

DR– As a result of your challenging Prof. Leslie Gunawardana, was there any blackballing of you in certain academic circles, like in the USA?

KNO– Maybe. Because he was kind of a hero in certain circles and I think they were hearing something which they wanted to hear. My response actually came about ten years after his original article…

DR– Of 1979?

KNO– Yes. All this time nobody challenged him. That was really strange.

DR– Yes. For example, I heard from Dr. Michael Roberts that Prof. Sirima Kiribamune had told him that even though she had spotted various things in Prof. Gunawardana’s argument, she refrained from challenging him because of their friendship…

KNO– Yes. He was her student and they were in the same department and friends.

DR– Is that kind of thing good for the scholarly tradition?

KNO– No that was wrong. Strange thing with Leslie Gunawardana was that he took this very badly. For the first time in his life somebody was challenging him.

DR– I heard through the grapevine that you were not even talking to each other?

KNO– That isn’t true. We were talking but he did a lot of things damaging to me.

DR– You mean institutionally?

KNO– Yes. Before he became Vice Chancellor I was the Dean of Arts. Prof. Madduma Bandara was the VC. During the Chandrika Bandaranaike regime the Vice Chancellorship fell vacant. Then there was an election in the council. I was a member as Dean. Madduma Bandara got 12 votes and Leslie only 9, if I remember right. But I think Chandrika liked him personally.

DR– Same ideological persuasion?

KNO– She made him a minister later. They were friends I think. She appointed him VC overlooking Madduma Bandara. A VC has a lot of clout over a Dean. There were many things he tried to do. My wife was the head of the English Language Teaching Unit. She was there for ten years. She was a good administrator and very popular. He tried to remove her. But in the Council there was a lot of opposition from the other Deans and he couldn’t do that. That is the kind of lengths he went to. But strangely all this time he was very nice to me personally, smiled with me and that kind of relationship we carried on.

(to be continued)
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SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY …. A brief section added on 4th March 2015 at the suggestion of the Thuppahi Editor.

1)     R.A.L.H (Leslie) Gunawardana: “The People of the Lion”. The Sinhala Identity and Ideology in History and Historiography”, Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities, Vol. 1& 2, 1979, pp1-36 …. This article was (2) was republished as “The People of the Lion”: Sinhala Consciousness in History and Historiography” in Ethnicity and Social Change (Colombo, Social Scientists’ Association, 1984 … and then expanded and presented with the same title in “Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of Conflict”, Jonathan Spencer (ed), New York, Routledge, 1990

4)     K.N.O Dharmadasa: “The People of the Lion”: Ethnic Identity, Ideology and Historical Revisionism in Contemporary Sri Lanka”, Ethnic Studies Report, Vol. X, No1, Jan 1992. (Pp 37-59)

5)     R. A.L.H (Leslie) Gunawardana: “Historiography in a Time of Ethnic Conflict: Construction of the Past in Contemporary Sri Lanka”, 1995, published by Social Scientists’ Association, Colombo.

6)     K.N. O Dharmadasa: “The Roots of Sinhala Ethnic Identity in Sri Lanka: The Debate on the ‘People of the Lion’ Continued”, Ethnic Studies Report, Vol XIV, No. 2, 1996

7)     K. N.O Dharmadasa: “Language, religion and Ethnic Assertiveness: The Growth of Sinhalese Nationalism in Sri Lanka”, 1992, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press


Filed under accountability, cultural transmission, evolution of languages(s), heritage, historical interpretation, Indian traditions, life stories, politIcal discourse, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, world events & processes

3 responses to “Exploring Leslie Gunawardana’s Erroneous Pathways with KNO Dharmadasa — Part One

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