Mythic Fantasies: Rāvana displaces Vijaya in the Sinhala Chauvinist Lexicon

Lakshman Gunasekara, courtesy of HORIZONS, 10 March 2019, where the title reads “From Vijaya to Ravana: Sinhala geo-politics as new cosmic war” with highlighting emphasis added by the Editor, Thuppahi

The trend in Sinhala ultra-nationalist discourse in the past decade clearly indicates a shift in mythic inspirational fundamentals – a fading of the ‘Arya’ Vijaya persona and a slow but vociferous (and already violent) rising of a Ravana persona. Is this an ideological shift that was required by the intensity of Sinhala supremacist war effort?

Readers of my ‘Horizons’ column last week may have sought an answer to the question in my title last week, ‘Was Ravana a Sinhalese?’ and been disappointed with the lack of one. Since my column last week discussed the rise of Ravana symbolism in terms of pure myth, the question of Ravana’s ‘ethnicity’ is clearly in the realm of myth as well – modern myth, that is.

In the first place, I owe an apology to readers if I took my argument about pseudo-myth versus ancient ‘authentic’ myth a little too far by implying that modern myth-creation is ‘fakery’ while the ancient is not. All myths are ‘fake’ in terms of evidence-based, archaeologically surmised (based on limited proof available) ‘real’ history. However, the word ‘fake’ is too simplistic a designation for a real stream of organised human thought, perhaps based on extremely ancient collective memory, usually remotely pre-historic, that is firmly entrenched in human collective consciousness in the form of highly elaborate and ideologically structured narrative discourses.

Such ancient ‘epics’ and mythology has long served human society across the world as important inspirational props of unifying social behaviour and action, with some of these epics and mythologies evolving and surviving as ‘religion’. Virtually all known human societies have and have had their epics and religions. These perform a vital function of spiritual-ideological intimacy among the believers providing an essential social-psychological foundation for their community whether in simple societal formations or in more elaborate state-society formations.  The modern nation-state is the most modern of such formations.

Hence, given the concrete reality of these social formations throughout human pre-history and history, in social analytical terms, it is necessary to recognise the authentic impact and function of such epics-religions. Nineteenth and twentieth century Euro-rationalism did endeavour to dismiss religion-mythology as mere ‘fake’ or as ‘un-real’ social dynamics that are inevitably fading away under the pressure from scientific ‘materialism’ and rationalism.

While Karl Marx talked about the ‘opium of the people’ and rationalists ever since (and before as well) have tended to fail to adequately factor in the profound ‘real’ power of these ideological streams. There are many religionists – especially fundamentalists –  today who claim that religion has “defeated” and survived rationalism.

Euro-rationalism did have its moment of glory and romance. But, today, thanks to the contributions of post-modernism and post-structuralism, there is a more balanced and nuanced understanding of the real, social, power of ideology and inspiration, including the role played by collective memory and the vast corpus of community-centric inspirational narratives, whether ancient, medieval or modern.

The ‘concrete’ evidence of the sheer social power of inspirational narratives (whether or not archaeologically evidenced) is seen and felt in the most bloody and brutal ways. The suicide bomber of today, just as much as the ‘Berserker’ of ancient Scandinavia, is evidence enough of the power of pure ideology (not necessarily with the aid of insurgent support systems) to inspire violence and politics of various kinds.

Whether inspired by the Odin and the Valkyries or by Jahweh or Allah or by Rama or Ravana, people throughout history have had powerful inspiration to resist far greater opposing military might. Such inspirational ideologies have also enabled imperial conquests and modern geo-political expansionism, Christian America being the best current example.

Interestingly, the latest modern scientific research and technology has enabled the debunking of much myth that had long been presumed to be ‘real’ history.  But such disproving of myth has failed to blunt to the social power of such myth. Only the fading away of believing communities, either through demographic absorption or extinction due to de-population, has resulted in the emasculation of the power of myth-religion.

For example, modern Israeli and world archaeology has finally concluded that there was no such event as the ‘Exodus’ of ‘Israelites’ from Egypt. In fact Zionism-inspired archaeologists and political theorists are still desperately searching the tiny territory of Palestine-Israel in attempts to confirm the historicity of Kings David and Solomon. Many Israeli archaeologists are sceptics.

The religious personas of Abraham (Ibrahim) and Moses (Musa) are now firmly relegated to pure myth, but the religions that have evolved from this root mythology, namely Judaism, Islam and Christianity remain as powerful, if not more powerful than ever before. Such is the ‘real’ power of human fantasy.

After all, our own archaeology ‘great’, Professor Senerath Paranavithana, was shouted down when, in newly post-colonial Sri Lanka, he attempted to point out that, in strict scientific terms (i.e. archaeological evidence), the Buddha never came to this country. Today, the narrative of the three visits by the Buddha to Sri Lanka, elaborately described in our ancient Pali chronicles, is as powerfully believed as when the ancient chroniclers authored and circulated that narrative.

I have yet to see any Sri Lankan archaeologists daring to publicly espouse the cause of archaeological realism in relation to Sri Lankan Buddhist and Sinhala myths and fantasies. A small minority of ultra-nationalist archaeologists and historians have been quick to academically de-bunk the ‘Ramayana Trail’ but the harder reality of tourism revenue prevented that de-bunking from resulting in a take-down of the new myth-based industry.

The Buddha visitation story is perhaps the most enduring as ‘real’ history. And, though less people now believe that Vijaya Kumaraya was ‘real’, they are still a tiny and ineffective minority.

In any case, ‘real’ or not, Vijaya is now being replaced with a far more convincing and reassuring cosmic warrior-king, namely, Ravana.

Why ‘convincing’ and ‘reassuring’? This is because Prince Vijaya was never a heavyweight warrior-leader, being a young, ‘bad-boy’ princeling at the most, and one who momentarily fell prey to a hostile (mythical) witch-queen, Kuveni. In comparison, Lord or King Ravana is, by far, a most powerful and accomplished cosmic warrior.

And when confronting a bigger ‘enemy’ – India – the Sinhala ultra-nationalists need such cosmic strength to power their resistance and to inspire their followers.

But there is another, more profound, reason for the replacement of Vijaya by Ravana. This arises from the maturing and modernising – or, post-modernising – of Sinhala ultra-nationalist discourse in the face of new geo-political challenges facing the quest for ethnic supremacy on island Lanka.

In terms of ancient, myth-laced, Sri Lankan historiography, the inhabitants of Lanka have “constantly” faced geo-political threats from their immediate vicinity, south India. Ancient and medieval historiography can be seen as performing that vital socio-political function of mobilising defence of local polities on the island against the pressures of immediate neighbouring societies and polities – essentially the chiefdoms and kingdoms of south India.

The sheer geographical proximity and socio-cultural intimacy made it inevitable that relations across the Palk Strait were complex and nuanced, ranging from essential cross-fertilisation to socio-economic resource competition. We see such resource competition even now in the clash of fishing industries.

In the immediate post-colonial period, the Sinhala-dominant Sri Lankan state, no doubt guided by that ancient geo-political outlook of a threat from across the Strait,  attempted to distinguish between Chennai (Thamil Nadu) and Delhi. The Thamil ethnic affinity and support for Thamil Eelamist insurgency naturally spurred Sinhala-dominated Colombo to attempt to play Delhi against Chennai.

But post-Cold War geopolitics has changed the global environment. In the first place, Colombo soon learned that Delhi dictated inter-state relations and not Chennai. And the challenge of defeating the insurgency combined with the corrupt opportunism of the Rajapaksa regime resulted in an even greater geopolitical development : the arrival of China on the island in a major way.  The use of Chinese support by the ultra-nationalist endeavour against secessionism and counter-nationalism resulted in Delhi becoming the ‘real’ enemy of Sinhala Desa (as the ultra-nationalists see Sri Lanka).

At the ideological level, then, inspirational fantasy required a far more potent cosmic counter to Delhi/Bharath than little known Prince Vijaya could provide. After all, Vijaya is a tiny myth and not a powerful persona who holds an eminent position in the larger South Asian mythology of the Ramayana. In short, Vijaya does not instil cosmic fear in the Indians as does Lord-King Ravana.

When the mythical Prince Vijaya is recorded as landing in Thambapanni, neither the Deepavansa nor Mahavansa indicate precisely the location of that mythical ‘Thambapanni’ on real island Lanka. This is the mythic nature of the ‘Vijaya Kumaraya’ story in our ancient Pali chronicles. At the same time, the chronicles describe the inhabitants of Lanka/Sihala as ‘demons’ of various kinds, as if to justify the conquest of Lanka island by the humans led by Vijaya.

The fact that, in real, non-mythic,  Thamil Nadu , to this day, there is a real river, ‘Thaamrapaani’, and an associated locality with that same name, adds a real-life twist to the mythical geography in this Sinhala origin myth. It is notable that the origin myth narrated by these earliest Pali chronicles, is couched in a mythic geography that emphasises that the sources of human (Sihala) migration are north Sub-continental and not the geographically proximate south Sub-continent.

The original ‘homeland’ of the mythic Vijayan migrants is named in the chronicles as Vaanga and Laata. These are territories which are real-historical and are located by Indian historians and geographers as in north-east and north-west India. Vaanga is located as an ancient region in what is now the Bangla region (shared by India and Bangla Desh) and Laata in modern-day Gujarat. This geographical northern bias by the Pali chronicles is likely due, firstly, to the cross-Strait threat perception of the ancient compilers. It could be also due to the religious threat perception of the Theravadin compilers due to the rise of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and its somewhat isolated evolution and estrangement from religious streams across the Strait.

Modern-day Sri Lankan historiographers, both amateur and scholarly, till recently, took the Vijaya legend as indicative of some historical fact of a specific migratory wave. There is no doubt that, in linguistic terms, the Sinhala language shows some links in vocabulary with the Sanskrit-based languages of the northern subcontinent.

Hence the whole ‘Arya Sinhala’ discourse that has coloured Sri Lankan ethno-politics since the late 19th century. Not any more, now that the ‘Arya’-led Indian state is the ‘enemy’ and not just the Dravidian Thamils across the Palk Strait.

Thus, in the interests of real politics, as seen in terms of the ideological realm, the Arya fantasy has given way to a revival of hard nativism – the Ravana legend, even if the Sinhalas actually do not even possess an ancient SInhala Ramayana mythology of their own (like the many Ramayanas in India and south-east Asia). After all Lord Ravana’s ten heads are surely better than the little brain of naughty boy Vijaya. Ravana is the ultimate big bad guy, with cosmic technology and all.

Precisely because the Sinhalas do not have their own Ramayana mythology, we can look forward to (amateurish) attempts today to create one – in ‘Game of Thrones’ style perhaps.

****  ****


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