Perinbanayagam Peiris Gunatilleke
In coming across one of my old essays on the Vijaya myth reproduced and questioned within my website Thuppahi recently, I circulated it (ITEM TWO below) once again by email – perhaps too hastily. Both responses to this email and the original commentary signal sharp reactions. Besides they involve eminent Sri Lankan scholars in the person of Professor Robert S. Perinbanayagam of Hunter College in New York and Professor Gerald H. Peiris of Peradeniya University, besides enabling me to bring in the incisive intervention of Godfrey Gunatilleka and to hark back to a ‘line’ from the economist VK Wickremasinghe (son of the noted author Martin Wickremasinghe).
Drip-Ledge Cave Vessagiri, Anuradhapura… The drip ledge of this cave dwelling is inscribed with some characters in the Brahmi script. The language of the inscription is Prakrit. It records the endowment of this dwelling, by a lay chieftain, to the monastery. Brahmi is a Dravidian (South India) syllabic script that is the ancestor of the modern alphabets of Southeast Asia. [Google note for what it is worth!]
For readers to comprehend the engagements I must provide a brief history of these ‘outpourings’ in chronological order before reproducing Lanka without Vijaya below together with two email responses from Gerald Peiris and Richard Simon.
1a. As the new millennium dawned in early 2000 I penned two polemical essays in the Sri Lankan circuit. One entitled “Lanka without Vijaya. Towards the new millennium”, the Lanka Monthly Digest, volume 6:6, Jan. 2000, p. 2. Both targeted the interpretation of the Dutugämunu versus Elāra conflict of the second century BC as well as the Eelamist claims to the North and Eastern Provinces as a “traditional homeland.” Both also challenged the conventional reading of the Vijaya story. Deliberately cast in the empirical mould, both articles went overboard, lacking caveats and leaning towards the extreme. They were polemical pieces seeking return fire. The Island version drew one such response, a lengthy, serialized article by VK Wickramasinghe (2000) that had a caption that highlighted its opposition to my preference for “a confederated consociation of nationalities.”
1b. When the LMD version was revived in Thuppahi in February 2010, it drew a number of comments, most notably from a friend from Peradeniya days in Robert Perinbanayagam, a sociologist of considerable repute, but also from one “Mary’ and others.
1c. When I circulated it to a clutch of friends and interested parties in my email “Collectives” just last week, it drew two short responses from another Peradeniya pal, Gerald Peiris as well as Richard Simon, the author of a tour de force on Ceylon Tea which is about to appear in print.
1d. In addressing ancient fables, of course, all of us are indulging in surmise. These comments in their turn involve specific ideological and/or theoretical leanings. When my LMD article argued that the Vijaya tale had no basis in fact, but was a fable serving as a “legitimizing tool,” I was deploying a commonplace academic theory of an instrumentalist kind.
1e. In raising questions about this essay Perinpanayagam also seems to be working within this frame of interpretation. On reflection, now, I suggest that we need to move beyond these utilitarian limits. I think we should be guided by the literary and aesthetic sensibilities that informed Godfrey Gunatilleka when he (implicitly) challenged the “practical reasoning of modernism” underpinning my polemics. Let me quote him: “To me the myth of Sinhabahu and Vijaya has a powerful and unique symbolism. It depicts the violent transition from a condition of brute nature to a primary human condition. This has to occur through a tragic act of parricide of the brute father. This is the primal Freudian drama set in a context of humanisation and liberation. As in a Greek tragedy the spiral of violence must continue through Vijaya whom the father has to exile for his criminality and who must create his new kingdom through treachery and the abandonment of his consort and his children.”
1f. Further clarification of Gunatilleka’s perspective can be found in another of my articles in 2000 which was reproduced in Thuppahi in 2014. So, now, here, I invite readers to my early article on “Lanka without Vijaya”, the comments it drew in 2010, and the two recent comments from Peiris and Simon before proceeding to the cross-reference that embodies Godfrey Gunatilleka’s full intervention …. And THEN to invite visitors to this site to pen their thoughts in the manner, say, of “Mary’ (how apposite a name for this type of fabulous enterprise).
1g. A SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY is supplied right at the end for serious scholars and I welcome information that expands on this ‘supply’. Note that the refereed academic publications from the pens wielded by Robert Perinbanayagam and Gerald Peiris are manifold –so only a small sample are included here.
TWO: Lanka without Vijaya….by Michael Roberts
In sending a letter to John D’Oyly as the British representative on 29 June 1812 on behalf of the King of Trisinhalaya (the Kingdom of Kandy) Pusvälla Rālahāmy began thus: “From the great King Vijaya born of noble exceeding pure race of the sun.” This was a conventional feature in several Kandyan letters of the time. That is, several letters began with a reference to Vijaya. Conscious as he was of history, it was Junius Richard Jayewardene’s practice to refer to himself as the umpteenth head of state, the count including Vijaya as Number One in the line and, in effect, founding father. This was part of a manipulation of supposed history towards Jayewardene’s own ends. But such usages also raised the honour of the Sri Lankan state in general and the Sinhala people in particular. It placed a premium on antiquity. When Chandrika Kumaratunga, speaking in South Africa referred to the Sinhala people as “the original inhabitants” of the island she was also placing a value on time and emphasizing the strengths of the Sinhala claims to the island in, say, roughly similar ways to the value that Jews place on Palestine.
This statement immediately raised a hornet’s nest. Tamil spokespersons immediately challenged the authenticity of this claim by alleging that Tamilians of the Sangam Age provided some of the original settlers. Indeed, there are Tamil spokespersons nowadays who seek to out-Vijaya by claiming that Rāvana (a truly mythical creature in the standard sense of the “mythical”) was a Tamil. This is in step with the efforts of some individuals of Jātika Chintanaya persuasion who argue that the speakers of Elu (pure original Sinhala) were pre-Vijayan.
Such claims clearly are reaching back into the past with a vengeance. History has always been a legitimising tool, but here we see primordiality writ large, an inscription of facticity and primacy upon fable.
Let me take Vijaya as my illustrative case for this de-bunking exercise.
The story of Vijaya appears first in the Pāli chronicles, the fourth century CE [that is, AD] Dīpavamsa and the fifth or sixth century Mahāvamsa. These written texts were partly based on proto-Sinhala texts, now lost, known as Sīhala-Atthakatā-Mahāvamsa.
The latter appears to have embodied oral traditions. Thus, speculatively, one could say that the stories have their roots several centuries prior to the first century CE. This means that in talking of Vijaya the original storytellers were presenting a tale about events four or five centuries before their time. While I have the deepest respect for oral traditions, the reliability of tales that distant is liable to serious questioning. It would be tantamount to Gunadasa Amarasekera presenting an oral tale from the Kottē period as historical fact — without any other evidential support.
The facticity of the story is further undermined when we find that Vijaya arrived in the land of Lanka on the same day that the Lord Buddha achieved “parinibānna.” Such a fabulous coincidence makes it clear that, for the bhikkhus who sustained these traditions and wrote that the texts referred to above, the purport of these tales was to present a moral. In this sense, the tale is rather akin to the origin myths of the various gods and godlings that are part of the Sinhala world: it depicts the essential character of the figure.
The story of Vijaya is a genesis story. He has been invented as an eponymous ancestor, an ancestral figure who is presented as civilizing immigrants bringing culture and state-form to the uncivilized peoples who inhabited the island. Vijaya is as much empirical fact as Adam. Neither existed. Nor did Eve. They represent parables, didactic statements about original points of genesis-cum-culture, that is, “culture” in the sense of civilized culture.
Vijaya then, should not be given the same evidential facticity as the figure of Mahinda (whose missionary journey is corroborated by Indian sources). And today in the twentieth century we know that all the people who inhabit our island have culture. It may have deteriorated somewhat into militarised and consumerised culture, but its still “culture.” So can we do without Vijaya or Ravana? Indeed, we must move into the new millennium without the weight of such archaic baggage.
THREE; Ten Comments associated with Lanka Without Vijaya Article in Thuppahi
THE responses to “Lanka without Vijaya….”
- perinbanayagam………………….February 26, 2010 at 5:15 pm Edit
I just came across this vingette from Roberts — ten years after it appeared.
Of course Roberts is right. Yet there is one question that historian or social scientist has [not] raised or answred is — as far as I am aware — why did the monks of yore concoct these stories — as of course did many other civilizations. What were they up to? What were they seeking to accomplish?
Dear PERIN………..You pose a real googly of a question. It is very difficult for historians and other specialists to work out the mentalities (note plural) of an era or [of] a dominant segment of a community even when there is some body of data. When the source material is fragmentary it is doubly difficult. One also needs expertise in the language and culture surrounding the source material.
I do not have those capacities. BUT relying on dim memories of history lessons at Peradeniya and the translated content of the 5/6th century Mahavamsa, we know that (a) the author claimed that it was written “for the serene joy and emotion of the pious;” and (b) that his Mahavihara monastic chapter enjoyed a special bond with the ruling dynasty of the state presiding over a kingdom dominated by Sinhala-speakers (that is “Old Sinhala” or also sometimes called Elu or Hela).
So, my conjecture is that this is an ideological position espoused by personnel convinced about the righteousness of their faith and fortified by the strength that this community of religious devotion (encompassing ordinary devotees) derived from its affiliation with the ruling institution. Thus fortified, as one may speculate, they shored up the value of their enterprise by clothing it with a destiny prophesied by the Buddha [alleged visits to the island by flight] et cetera et cetera. Thus, …. to manifest destiny…….
As you have twigged, this type of ideology is common to many powerful world-sweeping religious movements, imperial kingdoms etc etc. USA and its leaders also spoke about their “manifest destiny” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries … and have since reached out in this direction after achieving super-power status – without convincing everyone.
This comment, clearly, is [a] sceptical, hard-headed and realist reading, with a leaning towards empirical facts. Such a reading also bears the imprint of ideology and one must be alive to our own predilections and the pitfalls associated with, say, too great a reliance on a transactionalist (read as “instrumental”) understanding of the world.
- perinbanayagam………………March 23, 2010 at 9:35 am Edit
The real /relevant question is not whether the stories in the Mahavamsa of bestiality, incest, treachery, betrayal, ethnic cleansing etc are true or not, but what socio-political purposes were served by recounting of these stories by the authors at that particular moment. The chronicles were composed and it appears recited on occasion by one author or authors and were no doubt addressed to a cognosecenti(Pali speakers) to meet certain political demands — like a national anthem!
In this, these authors are not that different from modern historians who too compose their stories to fulfill some contemporary ideological demands! The question should then be not whether a grandson of a real lion (not that of a king called say Raj Singh),the eponymous Vijaya(victor,vindicator) came to Lanka but what did the chroniclers and others who used this story want this story to define ……..
I was under the impression that GC Mendis, Lakshman Perera and other good scholars did concentrate on this question., namely, the issue you raise so cogently. Again, when I interpreted it as a didactic Adam and Eve moral story I thought I was doing the same thing. Of course, popular fare in recent times has been directed by contemporary purposes and where I — and others — have challenged such interpretations we too are directed ideologically.
The fact that it was in Pali should not however foreclose on the probability that it was retailed in Old Sinhala — and even possibly originated in that language as did the Sihala-AththaKata Mahavamsa. Again, when others transmitted the tale in Sinhala in subsequent centuries what was their agenda and purpose? So, [it is] a question that continuously arises … and does not necessarily lead to the same answer though there may be commonalities. Given that the data on each ancient era or century is so sparse our answers are necessarily conjectural and based on flimsy evidence.
- perinbanayagam….April 9, 2010 at 1:03 am Edit
Okay, Michael. I stand corrected — only up to a point. The issue I raised is not about the historical authenticity of the text — that has been done by authentic historians — but about use of bestiality and incest etc. metaphors for sociopolitical purpose, to wit, the narrative construction the state and its legitimate subjects. But, that is a long story …
- Mary………….January 28, 2012 at 9:27 am Edit
The Vijaya myth looks surprisingly similar tyo the story of Rama and Sita…and their association with Sri Lanka is well known.
Vijaya takes the role of Rama and the tribal woman, of course, is a form of Sita…who was taken from a furrow of the earth.
In the Ramayana Rama eventually leaves Sita in a hermitage with her two children and he reigns as king in solitary splendour. This is religious doctrine…not history! (in the Greek version, the story of Jason and Medea) Jason leaves Medea to marry the daughter of a wealthy merchant. With awful consequences !)
This is a religious tract…not history!
The story about Vijaya’s descent from a lion is a fantastically embroidered way of stating that he belonged to the Solar Dynasty ( lion represents Sun )…embroidered by village people so far from the source that they had forgotten everything.
Rama did indeed live actually, historically…in the third millenium BC…( see L.A. Waddell…’How I deciphered the Indus Seals’and Makers of Civilisation…’
And he may very possibly have visited India….but that was a VERY long time ago.
- Mary………..January 29, 2012 at 12:56 am Edit
I forgot to mention that there are more than 350 different versions of the Ramayana circulating in India…which has caused quite a fracas…there have been violent demonstrations and threats of bloodshed by people who believe that only the Valmiki version may be accepted. It is tragic when religious allegory becomes mistaken for history.
- sach………….April 17, 2015 at 10:50 am Edit
Mostly tamil people subjected to eelam propaganda look at Mahavamsa in a hateful way which is apparent in Perin’s comments.
- Mahavamsa was written in 4-5 AD and the vijaya story is said to have taken 10 centuries prior to writing Mahavamsa. The monk who wrote that probably relied on the existing story line. There is evidence to suggest that author of Mahavamsa did not lie deliberately but put down what he knew as right and fact. And the society during 5AD did treat Vijjaya story as true. I do not know why Roberts did not highlighted in his reply though he mention this in the article.
2. Even the critics of Mahavamsa has said the monk mahanama did not deliberately lie
3. Is mahavamsa filled with incest, ethnic cleansing, beastiality, betrayal? Mahavamsa is the story of kings. Take any part of world and show a single country where betrayal was not part of it? If one were to malign mahavamsa due to so called incest, beastiality, then I guess most of the religious literature of Hinduism, chrisitianity and islam that is treated as divine would fall to that category.
4. Is Mahavamsa historically accurate? Except the genesis story the mahavamsa is amazingly historically accurate. That is amazing for a book written in 4-5 AD. The writings in Mahavamsa can be correctly corresponded with the stone inscriptions, and data found in other countries?
5. What is the ethnic cleansing in Mahavamsa? Mahavamsa’s stories are about ancient sinhala kings defeating invading armies from South India where Dutu Gamunu story is the main one. I wonder how defeating and killing an invading army is ethnic cleansing. This is given that Tamil ethnic consciousness has not even evolved during this time. When Mahabharata mentions Sinhala people in SL, South India is called as Chola, Pandya and not as Tamil.
6. Is Mahavamsa a political tool? Probably Mahavamsa has political value and it may be for this purpose it was written down. At the same time targetting and maligning Mahavamsa is also a political strategy.
- Kevin.……June 8, 2015 at 7:44 pm Edit
I believe that the myth about Sinhalese descending from Vijaya is a complete lie. Firstly “Vijaya was a descendant of a lion/human hybrid” is this scientifically possible? Definitely not. Secondly” who are Vijaya’s descendants?” Well Kuweni bore two children from Vijaya, a boy and a girl called Jeewahatha and Disala. These children are the ancestors of Vedda people living in Sri Lanka. Now this makes us think, “so who do Sinhalese descend from?” For this question we will have to the time of King Pandukabhya who I believe is a son of a native tribesman and a princess of Vijayan dynasty and I will tell you my reason for believing this. So firstly, “Pandukabhya’s uncles wanted him killed, because a prophecy said he will kill his uncles and set his own kingdom.” But why did the prophecy say this. If Pandukabhya was Aryan and of Vijayan Dynasty, why would his uncles hesitate to give him the kingdom? Why would they want to kill him as soon as he was born in the first place? My reason for this is, Pandukabhya was not of their bloodline. So lets go to the quarrel between the natives and Vijayan invaders. The natives wanted to get rid of these Aryan invaders and come back to power. “Mahavansa says that King Pandukhabya grew up with the natives and they protected and helped him to defeat his uncles and get the kingdom.” But why would they protect someone who is of Aryan bloodline and not their own? Well there should be a different reason for why the natives protected him. So lets go to his paternal blood line. In Mahavansa Pandukabhya’s father is Digagamini, who is of Sakya Dynasty, still Aryan. Chittra, Pandukabhya’s mother married him and her parents and brothers were fine with this, as the child will be of Aryan blood. But they wanted to kill this child when he was born, but why? There should be something else going on. A native tribesman called Chittaraja was guarding Chittra. It is very possible that this native tribesman made Chittra pregnant and so for this reason they wanted the brothers wanted the child killed as he was of hela(native) bloodline. Chittaraja was killed for this. So the question why was he killed if the child was Digagamini’s child? Why was Chittaraja guarding her in the first place if Chittra was married to Digagamini? So the natives must have protected Pandukabhya as he was of their bloodline. King Pandukabhya ended the war between the natives and Vijyan invaders. He also joined the 4 tribes together and united them. 4 tribes= siw, natives= hela. Siw-hela became Sinhala. If you keep repeating Siwhela really fast it eventually becomes Sinhala. Sinhala cannot be Sinha- la as in lion blood, because blood in Sinhala is ‘le’ and the ‘la’ in sinhala is not ‘le’ which means meaning blood, ‘la’ doesn’t have any meaning in Sinhala. So Siw hela are the most likely words that became SInhala. Thus these are the origins of Sinhala.
Sinhala history is 2400 years old because it starts from King Pandukabhya but the actual history must be more than this because Sinhalese descend from the native hela people.
FOUR: Two Off-the-Cuff Email Responses to my Circulation of this Essay in May 2017
4.1 Gerald Peiris, 14 May 2017: Michael, A ‘debate’ on the Vijaya myth is a figment of imagination. People are as unconcerned about it as, say, about the myth of Romulus and Remus being fed by a she-wolf, or of a resurrected Jesus ascending to heaven 42 days after his execution. What JRJ was trying to impress was that SL has an extraordinarily long (may be even unique) historiographic tradition. Your analogy of Gunadasa Amarasekera writing on the Kotte kingdom is also somewhat far-fetched due mainly to the fact that maintaining ‘story-telling’ was very much a tradition of those early times, especially in the monasteries.
So, this the article itself is, more than all else, a purposeless indiscretion of youth, I have to say. … Regards, Gerry
4.2 Richard Simon, 15 May 2017: …. to be honest, I’m not that interested in the subject. Vijaya may or may not have been a real person. Was Theseus a real person? Was Heracles? Perhaps there were real personages once associated with these names, but the deeds that are told of them are obvious fabrications, intended to nurture the collective identities of the peoples they represent. The same is evidently true of Vijaya and the Sinhalese origin-myth. It must be very, very old. Tales of skinwalkers and animal-human hybrids pre-date agricultural civilization in many places. The Buddhist material – miraculous visits to Lanka by air, etc. – would have accreted very much later. So what you have here are two layers of myth: one pre-civilizational, the other clearly derived from the Greater Indian cultural matrix.
FIVE — Roberts: “Vijaya as Founding Father: The Force of Primordiality, the Uhrsprüngliche Moment” 9 June 2014
Some letters from the Kandyan court to the British began with the phrase “from the great King Vijaya born of the noble … Race of the Sun …”. President JR Jayewardene seized on this tradition in numbering the line of kings leading up to his Presidency. In different fashion, when visiting South Africa President Chandrika Kumaratunga spoke of the Sinhalese people being “the original inhabitants” of Lanka – immediately provoking a howl of protest from Tamil spokespersons.
There are Tamil propagandists who seek to out-Vijaya Vijaya by claiming that Rāvanā was Tamil; but they are ‘matched’ by Sinhala propagandists, such as Nalin de Silva, who make equally fabulous claims by majestic leaps to the pre-Vijayan period on the basis of literal twists on the figures in the Indian epics. But every one of these history-makers treats Vijaya as a historical figure, a fact.
So the past is clearly seductive, beguiling. Primordiality and antiquity are writ large and are used as foundations for claims to sovereignty. The Uhrsprüngliche moment becomes an instrument of legitimacy in contemporary political rhetoric.
It is not difficult, of course, to de-bunk the Vijaya story. There isn’t a single shred of evidence from the centuries BC to support the appearance of this figure in the Pali chronicles of the fourth and fifth centuries BCE. Even if we allow for the probability that it was part of the Sīhala-Atthakatā-Mahāvamsa that was the basis for the Pali chronicles, the point at which the latter text emerged (to surmise, say, in the second century BCE) seems so distant from the supposed moment of Vijaya’s advent that our scepticism must be extreme.
Vijay means “conquest” – a clue to its symbolic meaningfulness to the creators of the oral traditions that then became chronicles. On this ground and with positivist scepticism about the empirical factuality of Vijaya’s advent I presented a ‘thesis’ on this subject in a journalistic intervention around the year 2000. The story of Vijaya, I said, was a genesis story. He was invented in the Sinhala-Pali traditions as an eponymous ancestor, a civilising immigrant bringing culture and state-forms to the uncivilised peoples who dwelt in Siri Laka. He was no more empirical fact than Adam and Eve. Both tales were didactic parables about original points of genesis-cum-culture, that is, culture in the sense of civilised culture.
While my empiricist perspective in this particular article was leavened by the interpretative twist that highlighted its didactic purpose, my concluding note to the effect that we should enter the new millennium without “such archaic baggage” re-inserted the practical reasoning of modernism.
Till Godfrey Gunatilleke intervened. Let me quote him: “To me the myth of Sinhabahu and Vijaya has a powerful and unique symbolism. It depicts the violent transition from a condition of brute nature to a primary human condition. This has to occur through a tragic act of parricide of the brute father. This is the primal Freudian drama set in a context of humanisation and liberation. As in a Greek tragedy the spiral of violence must continue through Vijaya whom the father has to exile for his criminality and who must create his new kingdom through treachery and the abandonment of his consort and his children. Thereafter Vijaya gives up “his evil ways” and reigns righteously. This is the pre-Buddhist state before the conversion, before the preaching of the Dhamma which begins with the sermon on “spiritual calm.”
A critical facet in this intervention on Gunatilleke’s part is his insistence that the Vijaya legend cannot be understood in isolation. It is part of a developmental series and requires the conversion of Dēvānampiya Tissa [in the 3rd century BC] to crystallise its implications to the full.
Likewise, Gunatilleke observes that there are many Dutugämunus in the Mahāvamsa: “the triumphant warrior; the victor stricken with Asokan grief over those slain in the war; the righteous king who ordained that no work be done for the Lohapasāda without the ‘work being appraised and wages being paid;’ the monarch who had scruples about levying taxes to build the Great Stupa; the dying king who said that ‘all his benevolence while he reigned did not gladden his heart, only the two gifts he gave without care for his life while he was in adversity…’ gave him solace; who after death becomes the first disciple of the Maitreya Buddha.”
Such sensitive readings of ardent Sinhala recollections of their past mark the route we, today, must take. The dismissive responses of secular, rationalist scholars only alienate and sponsor chauvinist fundamentalism in opposition to the extremism of the secularists. It is not necessary to expunge Vijaya in the clinical empiricist manner adopted in my initial essay. Rather the pathway lies in the approach taken by Gunatilleke with his call for “a reasoned liberation from the past” that does not totally jettison the morals encoded symbolically in mythic tales. Gunatilleke’s route opens the possibility of both appreciating and limiting the myths of the past by recognising their emotional relevance for many Sinhalese today; by granting that they contribute to some cherished values and serve as an anchorage that stabilises the sense of collective Sinhala being; and yet noting their mythological moral-making character.
SIX: SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY
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Greenwald, Alice 1978 ‘The relic on the spear: historiography and the saga of Dutthagâmini’, in Bardwell L. Smith (ed) Religion and legitimation of power in Sri Lanka, Chambersburg: Anima Books, pp. 13-35.
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I stress that I have not read some of these works.
2 responses to “Engaging the Vijaya Fable Once Again”
Presumably none has read the book”Greek Myth inthe ancient tradition’
by Merlin Peris where he clearly shows that the story is clearly copied fromGreek Mythology ….Ulysses and Circe in the Odyssey
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