When viewing the Tamil or Sinhala-majority arenas in pre-colonial times in Sri Lanka one can perceive manifest symbols of lordship and hierarchy existing amidst layers of caste and class differentiation. The penetration of Portuguese and Dutch colonial powers in certain coastal areas from the 16th century onwards merely complicated, amplified and strengthened these practices of superordination and subordination. Fortunately, the English prisoner Robert Knox observed these modalities of hierarchical power and provided us with classic ‘engravings’ of King Rajasinha the II’s imposing regality and autocracy in the mid-seventeenth century.
The picture of lordship accruing to the kings of Sihale located at Mahanuvara (Kandy) was accepted by the Dutch who had control of the coastal areas from the mid-seventeenth century. They sent embassies to Mahanuvara periodically to mark this subordination in the rite of dakuma – seen here in General Hulft’s dakuma in 1656 and in the abject gestures of subordination displayed in a painting of a dakuma by Brandes in 1785.
General Hulft’s dakuma before the King of Sinhale,1636 … a painting by Brandes of a Dutch dakuma before the Sinhale king circa 1785
These marks of superordination and subordination were not restricted to the apex of society or the customs of court. An array of demeanours and practices were inscribed in socio-political custom at all levels of society – as illustrated in a line drawing from the early 19th century that depicts an Adigar in procession in the Kandyan regions.
Again, numerous sources and our own observations indicate that the gates and verandahs of aristocratic lords were sites where these gestures of subordination/superiority were displayed. Indeed, a noble lord in his walauwwa was the epitome of power and hierarchy at the local level. One needs to absorb the details provided by Gananath Obeyesekere in his Land Tenure in Village Ceylon (1967) on the foundations provided by his ethnographic work in 1961 in Hiniduma Pattuwa in the Southern Province to fully comprehend the resonances of hierarchical power in everyday life.
The profound mark of hierarchy was also etched within the concept of pirivaraagena that is so central to Buddhist teaching and practice. The Buddha is understood to be, and represented as, a benevolent lord surrounded by respectful followers in positions of subordination. The spatial location of Buddha statues, as well as the demeanour of faces and gestures in the personnel surrounding him, denote a tale of superior benevolence.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the presentations of self that are pursued by ministers of state today are imbricated with notions of primacy and/or superiority …. And sometimes with marks of paternalistic benevolence extended from above to those down below. Nor is it surprising that the Rajapaksa clan from Hambantota have provided us with several illustrations of this political practice. It is with these instances that I conclude my argument.
As President in 2009 Mahinda Rajapaksa presided over one of the most significant moments in Sri Lanka’s recent history: namely, the defeat of the LTTE in 2009. He was abroad when the final stages of the battles were taking place. On his return to the motherland, in the full glare of lights and cameras, he descended from his plane and knelt down in obeisance to the land. The Lord was dedicating his subordination to the Motherland.
…. And then, when his armed forces, Sri Lanka’s armed forces, had marched into the last bastion of the LTTE beyond the waters of Nandhikadal Lagoon, and finalized the military subordination of the Tamil Tiger forces, Mahinda Rajapaksa visited the site and presented the journalists and the world with a magnificent picture of a Rajapaksa crossing a bridge with key personnel pirivaraagena. This was lordship etched in the media at its most optimal moment.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the government’s agents of state should fashion billboards or present photographs of Mahinda Rajapaksa as a benign benefactor and imposing presence.
Again, the ‘casts’ presented below could even emulate the tale of the walauwwa hamu (the manorial lord) in a hansi putuva (armchair) absorbed in a book and thus affirming the ‘lesson’ of a ruler steeped in learning.
But, always grounded in local custom, Mahinda Rajapaksa also took steps to limit his claims: just as he loved the maubima Lanka, he also subordinated self to the good Buddha. His own magisterial power had to be seen as a force imbricated with patriotism and a Buddhist aura.
So, to conclude, the good paternal lord is presented as all things to all potentates and all personnel.
The degree to which this picture is accepted by the populace is another realm.
The term dakuma (dakum) means “appearance” and describes an act of obeisance or homage involving gifts to a superior …and in specific contexts signified subservience — namely acceptance of the lordship of the superordinate party
A SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY
De Silva, K. M. 1996 Reaping the Whirlwind, Penguin.
Dewaraja, Lorna 1972 The Kandyan Kingdom of of Ceylon, 1707-1760, Colombo, Lake House Investments, Ltd.
Ionescu, Ghita 1969 “Eastern Europe,” in G. Ionescu & E. Gellner (eds.) Populism. Its Meanings and National Characteristics, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, pp. 97-121.
Jupp, James 1978 Sri Lanka — Third World Democracy, Frank Cass and Company, Limited, London.
Knox, Robert 1911 An Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon, ed. By J. Ryan, Glasgow, Maclehose and Sons.
Obeyesekere, Gananath 1966 “The Buddhist Pantheon and its Extensions,” in M. Nash (ed.) Anthropological Studies in Theravada Buddhism, New Haven, Yale University Southeast Asian Series.
Obeyesekere, Gananath 1967 Land Tenure in Village Ceylon, CUP.
Pieris, Ralph 1956 Sinhalese Social Organisation, Colombo, University of Ceylon Press.
Roberts, Michael 1984 ” ‘Caste Feudalism’ in Sri Lanka? A Critique through the Asokan Persona and European Contrasts”, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 18: 189-217 [reprintedin Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, pp. 73-88].
Roberts, Michael 1994 Exploring Confrontation. Sri Lanka: Politics, Culture and History Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers.
Roberts, Michael 1994b “The Asokan Persona as a Cultural Disposition,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp. 57-72.
Roberts, Michael 1994c, “The Asokan Persona and its Reproduction in Modern Times,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp. 73-88.
Roberts, Michael 1994d “Four Twentieth Century Texts and the Asokan Persona,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp. 57-72.
Roberts, Michael 1994f “The 1956 Generations: After and Before,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp. 297-314.
Roberts, Michael 2004 Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, 1590s to 1815, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications.
Roberts, Michael 2009 “Some Pillars for the Future,” Frontline, 26/12, 6-19 June 2009
Roberts, Michael 2009 “The Rajapaksa Regime and the Fourth Estate,” 9 December 2009, http://www.groundviews.org/2009/12/08/the-rajapakse-regime-and-the-fourth-estate/
Roberts, Michael 2010a “Hitler, Nationalism and Sacrifice: Koenigsberg and Beyond… towards the Tamil Tigers,” 19 March 2010, in http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2010/03/19/
Roberts, Michael 2012 “Mahinda Rajapaksa as a Modern Mahāvāsala and Font of Clemency? The Roots of Populist Authoritarianism in Sri Lanka,” 25 January 2012, http://groundviews.org/2012/01/25/mahinda-rajapaksa-as-a-modern-mahavasala-and-font-of-clemency-the-roots-of-populist-authoritarianism-in-sri-lanka/
Alan Strathern 2012 “The Royal We: Sinhala Identity in the Dynastic State,” 12 Dec. 2012, https://thuppahis.com/2012/12/12/the-royal-we-sinhala-sentiments-and-the-kingdom-of-kandy/
Thiranagama, Dayapala 2012 “Ending the Exile and Back to Roots: Fears, Challenges and Hopes,” 2 January 2012, http://groundviews.org/2012/01/02/ending-the-exile-and-back-to-roots-fears-challenges-and-hopes/.
Walicki, Andrzej 1969 “Russia,” in G. Ionescu & E. Gellner (eds.) Populism. Its Meanings and National Characteristics, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, pp. 166-709.
Wiles, Peter, 1969 “A Syndrome not a Doctrine: Some Elementary Theses on Populism,” in G. Ionescu & E. Gellner (eds.) Populism. Its Meanings and National Characteristics, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, pp. 166-709.
Worsley, Peter 1969 ‘The Concept of Populism,” in G. Ionescu & E. Gellner (eds.) Populism. Its Meanings and National Characteristics, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, pp. 212-50.
2 responses to “Rulership: Modalities of Superiority and Domination in Sri Lanka”
Domineering but benevolent Lord or Pioneer of free thought and simplicity”?
Michael’s write up says:
“The Buddha is understood to be, and represented as, a benevolent lord surrounded by respectful followers in positions of subordination. The spatial location of Buddha statues, as well as the demeanour of faces and gestures in the personnel surrounding him, denote a tale of superior benevolence. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the presentations of self …”
On the other hand, when you read various suttas that re-tell the details of the life of the Buddha, a different picture also comes out for the Buddha in his lifetime. Let me give a few instances.
1. Once, when he was staying at Kapilavatthu, Dandapani the Sakyan asked him what he taught and when the Buddha told him, Dandapani was not impressed, “shaking his head, wagging his tongue he departed leaning on his stick, his brow furrowed into three wrinkles; so the Buddha was treated as another teacher to be disputed with.
2. Like other ascetics of that era, it seems that the Buddha would usually wander from place to place for nine months of the year. When he was wandering the Buddha would sleep anywhere – under a tree, in a roadside rest house, in a potter’s shed. Once Hatthaka saw the Buddha sleeping out in the open and asked him: “Are you happy?” The Buddha answered that he was. Then Hatthaka said: “But sir, the winter nights are cold, the dark half of the moon is the time of frost. The ground has been trampled hard by the hooves of the cattle, the carpet of fallen leaves is thin, there are few leaves on the trees, your yellow robes are thin and the wind is cold.”
3. And so on, even a cursory reading of the life of the Buddha is enough to ascertain that what you see in temple paintings, where a god like person (radiating circles of light from his head) and being “priviveraagena” by devotees, gods, angles is most likely how the pious Buddhists of later centuries wanted to see and imagine the Buddha. In my view the Buddha was a Socrates like figure and not the aristocratic hierarchic figure that Roberts has presented.
So, when Michael R says, “It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the presentations of self …” he should have actually said that even the Buddha’s presentation in murals and sculpture has been molded to follow the pre-judgments of society, rather than to imply that the Buddha’s life style gave justification to a hierarchic system.
The sixth and fifth centuries B. C. in Northern India, and along the silk route, during the time in Greece from Heraclitus to Aristotle, there were no powerful kings who imposed any dogmas; only small city states (e.g., the rule of the Lichchavi princes in North India, or Greece during the time of Pericles) where a high degree of free thinking and an inquiring spirit were encouraged, with little attention to the trappings of respect and power for the teacher or revealed truth.
This was in utter contrast to the Brahmin tradition in Ancient India, or the Abrahamic rabbinic tradition in the Hebrew world, where again, what was said by the teacher was what was revealed to him by God himself. Brahamins were the ultimate in social superiority.
In contrast, the Buddha, the Jains, and the Greek thinkers of the 5th century B. C. were at one in proposing inquiry by one’s own intellect rather than through revelation.
One may even say that the Buddha’s motto was “Ehi Passiko”, which mean “come and test it out for yourself”. The same sentiment was expressed in the Kalama sutta, and in the Gnana sutta where the Buddha insisted that things should be tried out before being accepted as true, or sacred and worthy of respect and trust. However, the Buddha and Socrates were moral teachers. But it was from there that the Greeks went on to apply the concept of “Ehi passiko” to physics questions by testing them out, and Archimedes was one of the earliest experimental scientists.
I have written more about all this in chapter three of my book “A physicist’s view of matter and mind”, published by World Scientific” some years ago.
One reason I enjoy reading your blog is to look at the vintage photos you reproduce. But, in this particular commentary, you have mixed apples and oranges.
Lord Buddha is in statue format. In real life, how many accompanied him in his journeys 2,500 years ago is lost to history. But, the contemporary politician guy whom you had depicted in 8 frames looks to me, as a ham actor, delivering ‘photo ops’ to the camera men. Except for the two frames in which the guy is portrayed in an arm chair reading the LLRC Report, would you care to count the number of sycophants, fart catchers and bodyguards who relish in their proximity to the ham actor, and comment on it?