Knowledge in the Sinhala World. Yesterday and Today

Sajeeva Samaranayake presents his considered thoughts on the discussions associated with Geedreck Usvatte-Aratchi’s National Trust talk on “Sinhala Attitudes to Knowledge” – which appeared in the Island as well as Thuppahi in August 2017. Emphasis in blue is that of The Editor, Thuppahi; but the black highlights are the author’s.

In the following note I am setting out the findings of Dr. Usvatte Arachchi, my comments thereon and some questions that arise. This is to help move this discussion forward as it appears to be a very critical inquiry into our collective capacity as a Sinhalese speech community.

 Samaranayake    Usvatte-Aratchci


  1. That modernization under the influence of secular (i.e. capitalist and Marxist) ideas by passed Sri Lanka. When modern “politics” originated in 19th century Europe with the democratic revolutions and gave rise to new branches of learning and a new awareness of secular disciplines Sri Lanka was a subjugated colony without freedom.
  2. No attempt was made to translate the new knowledge to Sinhala
  3. Our universities did not recognize this need
  4. We relied on English but this was not effective
  5. Sinhala remains a patois – a local language which has not kept pace with time – “linguistic isolationism?”
  6. Sinhala speakers have been left behind
  7. Our attitude to knowledge is owed to the Bhikku Sangha



My attempt here is to see how this paper can be framed. Three generalizations appear when we seek to understand why Sinhalese remains a patois language.

  1. If we take language as an expression of the collective consciousness there is an assumption of a ‘developed’ consciousness which supported the irrigation culture of the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva Periods. Dr. UA extends this to Dambadeniya and perhaps Yapahuwa as he sees these two as extensions of Polonnaruva.
  2. Beyond that we see a ‘decline’ of consciousness as well as language and a definite failure to renew itself in response to challenges that were both local and foreign
  3. European culture begins to make inroads into our literacy from 1505. While the Portuguese were Catholic and pre-secular in ideology the Dutch and British represented secular forces. However, all three were colonizing influences and the British had the opportunity of dominating the island linguistically. English remains as a dominant force in this era of globalization. The weakness of Sinhala appears to be counter-balanced by the strength of English as an alternative – especially where global knowledge is concerned.

Admittedly, Sinhala unlike some American native languages, has not died. Yet the claim is that what was once a highly functional and versatile capability has stopped growing and become stagnant.

In seeking to understand this we need to factor in that most potent language of all – violence. This has been the elephant in the room for several centuries after Kalinga Magha and the forced drift to the South West coupled with the fragmentation of Sinhalese polity and the entry of the Portuguese. Also see Perpetual Ferment by Kumari Jayawardena.

While scholars divided life into specific subjects it was the role of mother and father and teachers in society – generally the Buddhist monks to help children and youth to connect them to their reality. This vital connecting role supports the inter-generational transmission of knowledge through rituals.

The simple but profound acts of teaching and guiding the young was performed by society until we entrusted this task to a new ‘educational system’ in the 19th century. What was a cultural function became a step in the economic ladder. Important fundamentals were lost in this transition.

The concept of ritual is important in understanding how a community underlines its attitudes and values and sense of self in the midst of change. Language itself is ritualized by long and continuous usage and it thus becomes an integral part of ritual – whether this is part of ‘ordinary life’ or more formal occasions. Our traditional salutation with raised and joined hands and the worshipping of elders are examples of rituals which embody deep meanings. While they survive in some form they are also considerably diluted or absent – especially within urban and westernized settings.

Violence ruptures ritual and it brings into being a wholly different atmosphere of domination. The dominator will also resort to the same or modified rituals and ceremonies post-violence in order to legitimate and ‘normalize’ the new status quo. This is how colonization proceeded.

Language could accordingly acquire colour from the ritual setting where relationships are unequal and hierarchical. We must thus face the question whether the Sinhalese themselves have assigned their own language a lower status viz a viz the language of the white man. If we observe the preferred language of commercial establishments both in the city and rural areas, the names of new international schools and high-rise apartments the association of prestige with the use of English seems obvious. My belief is that it is fundamentally our attitude rather than any perceived limitation in Sinhala that will decide whether our mother tongue will sink or swim in the future.

However, there is the whole issue of violence and domination to be confronted because these pollutants have undeniably percolated into our manipulative attitude towards social communication.

We have learnt – thanks to the progress made in psychology in the last century that violence is a form of disorganized communication. Mahatma Gandhi and his followers demonstrated that non-violence is a highly developed and organized form of communication. Most of our interpersonal communications take intermediate positions between these two positions.

The ability to read where we are in terms of our quality of communication is emotional intelligence. The insecurity that comes with violence can take this quality away leading to what we may term emotional blindness. This leads directly to a failure to perform optimally in one’s close relationships – especially within the family. Where a mother or father lose their authority in this way they cannot be expected to discharge their public roles either. Indeed, the public domain becomes a mere reflection or extension of private failure.

Colonization with violence and the subsequent failure to decolonize (which is the post 1948 history of the island) has seriously affected both the emotional intelligence and role stability of Sri Lankans. The fulfilment of these two conditions represent preliminary hurdles in re-discovering freedom and exercising rights.

We refer to the identification of feelings by infants and their naming with the help of caregivers as the acquisition of emotional literacy. The Sinhala language is rich in affect but the decline of emotional intelligence and role stability has led to a drop in emotional literacy. Psychological awareness in society needs supportive factors and we are yet to identify and strengthen them. Those who work closely with two critical groups of service providers who work with small children – public health midwives and preschool teachers attest to the low levels of psychological awareness among them.

While new disciplines like psychology and counselling have been received we have not prepared the ground to receive them. Consequently, we can see a gap between theory and practice; and between the book knowledge and personal values that are implicit in those roles.

Teaching a subject like human rights can be done by a professional who has picked up sufficient knowledge but the absence of a culture of human rights is telling.

Stephen Hawking once said that ‘the enemy of knowledge is not ignorance but the appearance of knowledge.’ With the gradual push of education deeper and deeper into the market the number of areas where both students and qualified professionals have acquired a false literacy have grown.

Praxis and the commitment to practice appears to be low.

In summation violence and its unresolved consequences appear to loom large as challenges. This indicates with great clarity that the future development of the vernaculars must necessarily be accompanied by the voices of the oppressed and subalterns whose turn to sit at our table has surely come.


  1. How did the Sangha approach their role historically?
  2. What are the current trends among the Sangha?
  3. Do they accept/recognize any of the findings above?
  4. What are the salient lessons we can learn from the updaters of Hebrew and Japanese?
  5. What can professionals do to develop their subjects in the vernacular?
  6. How do we understand the process of partial secularization in Sri Lanka?
  7. In those islands of relative secularity (administration, law courts, universities, professions, English speaking schools) carved out by the British and maintained after 1948 the attitude to knowledge followed a different course. What was it?
  8. Has linguistic domination become a part of our culture where it is acceptable to steamroll people with a “power language” that that some people cannot understand/are not comfortable with?


From …… Madan, T.N. (1997) Modern Myths, Locked Minds: Secularism and Fundamentalism in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi p 5/6

Secularization ordinarily refers to socio-cultural processes that enlarge the areas of life – material, institutional and intellectual – in which the role of the sacred is progressively limited

Secularity is the resultant state of social being

Secularism is the ideology that argues the historical inevitability and progressive nature of secularization everywhere


Secularization is not an ‘objective’ and inexorable process but one that has been contextually shaped – even in the West. It is therefore necessary at the outset to ask about the active elements of this process and how they interact with other modernizing processes. Buddhism for example had a largely secular orientation and it would be necessary when looking at Sri Lanka to understand this aspect in its original and historical significance from the time of Asoka before we start looking at ‘modern secularism’ and ‘ancient religions’ as two antagonistic forces.


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