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Owning Our Shadow

16 August 2017 Posted by No Comment

By Sajeeva Samaranayake

Is there a deeper problem at the heart of this society apart from its Government (according to some) and western conspiracies (according to others)? If there is a deeper set of causes will we ever identify them as a society? In this spirit I am content to offer my diagnosis without delivering a prescription in the same breath.

What is nation building?

Nation building is to build a common space which all citizens can call their home. It must necessarily bring into focus all excluded communities, the weakest and the most vulnerable. A state that marginalizes them is not a state at all but simply a marginalizing mechanism used by some against the many. From this perspective nation building is not simply about strengthening the political or economic power of some, but using inclusive processes to help the marginalized complete their long road to social inclusion and social justice. The marginalized individual and community, no less than the mainstream individual and community are dynamic actors in bringing this about. When we consider the kind of relationship that should emerge between the mainstream and the margin we must keep in view the words of former UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold;

It is more noble to give yourself completely to one individual than to labor diligently for the salvation of the masses.

Unless we are sufficiently human to relate to, understand and truly help one other human being how do we think we can help two, or ten or a thousand or millions? Hammarskjold was telling us not to get carried away by superficial ‘success’ but to come home to the real and the true; to focus on quality – not quantity. But how can we relate to others without relating to ourselves? The post World War II German leader Konrad Adeneur writing to Frank Buchman, the founder of Moral Re-Armament said:

It is my conviction too, that men and nations cannot outwardly enjoy stable relationships until they have been inwardly preparing for them.

This preparation is to deepen our sensitivity and understanding. To do this we need the most direct and human approach so that we cannot get sidetracked into any of the ‘professional and technical routes’ that entice us with the prospects of superficial ‘success.’ These routes are about advancing our small self or ego. Indeed nation building itself can be turned into a very attractive ego trip. We must guard against such trips.

The direct and human approach is the perspective of pain, hardship, disappointment, frustration and despair. These are our basic facts, the soil we have to work with. For all this and more, we use one compendious term, suffering. The Christians may call it bearing the cross and Muslims jahiliyah or ignorance.

We must look at the suffering of the poor and powerless; their origins during the British period and how their marginalization was accompanied by the disintegration of our native social values. We must also look at the suffering of the rich and the powerful as they scrambled to take their places within an emergent middle class under the British masters, how they sought to enhance and secure both their wealth and power, struggled to discharge their new role as political masters of the island and remained disconnected from the poor that they claimed to serve.

Their fall from grace was accompanied by a failure to preserve the British values of public governance this country inherited and institutionalized very effectively up to the grant of independence. The lack of understanding and disconnection between the powerless and the powerful ended in youth revolts and a civil war revealing a nation at war with itself and unable to make sense of the destructive emotions thrown up by a shattered relationship. There was basic suffering on the part of the poor and additional suffering on the part of the rich who found the poor an inconvenience, a constant reminder that all was not well. The responsibility must be shared as they were both confined to a narrow ethic of competition and consumerism – what we define as superficial success. They did not see each other as human beings – human beings who suffered and desired happiness and who had real potential for achieving that happiness.

Self interest, slavery and exploitation

 A society of human beings must have some principles by which they regard themselves as bound apart from self interest or ego. When such principles are absent it is natural to have a state of anarchy and lawlessness in which the powerful and the wealthy dominate the weak and rule on the basis of that residuary principle of human society – might is right. Now ‘might is right’ as the actual basis of governance will never be conceded. This is for intelligent people to work out on the basis of their observation of reality.

Slavery was one of the first relationships that human beings devised to take advantage of the powerless, and it had one virtue in that there was no deception about what was happening. As human society advanced through feudal agrarian to capitalist trading systems the common man began to lose his land, livelihood and status in society and had to fit within the labour requirements of the capitalist state. What happened here was quite simple even though the process took several centuries. The weakest and the least literate part of the population were made vulnerable by the capitalist acquisition of traditional land so that they could be exploited generation after generation as cheap labour.

This was the next relationship of exploitation between the powerful and the powerless and it is the most fundamental principle that makes the current globalized economy run. All these political, legal and financial systems enable exploitation first and then seek to enforce some order and regulation second. Protection of the most vulnerable is not a priority. One thing that they do very efficiently is to hinder and block clear communication between the powerless and the powerful.

Attainment and non – attainment of social equality

In the western countries where this process was also accompanied by political and social revolutions the status of most of the ‘new poor’ was equalized by according equal respect and equal opportunities for education and social mobility. The same process did not happen in most of the third world economies like Sri Lanka for three reasons.

First and foremost the colonizing British wanted the island to be an economically productive proposition that fitted into their imperial economic order. The inquiries and consultations that took place prior to the introduction of the Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms of 1833 took place within this frame of reference. The reforms were in any event top down and the peasants who were going to be most affected had no say in this decision making. Secondly the traditional elite and the new rich who took their places within the emergent middle class were as merciless as the British in depriving the ‘new poor’ of their land and wealth for the purpose of their own economic advancement freed of the traditional social norms that made excessive greed and consumption shameful and foolish conduct. Thirdly the new economic order was built on the graveyard of the old social system and its values which had sustained the Sinhalese and Tamil societies in the island for over two millennia.

These values have been documented by J.B. Disanayaka in his book Monk and the Peasant. All Lankans must know:

  1. That we are, after all, equal
  2. That things must be shared
  3. That animals too need our love
  4. That money isn’t everything
  5. That elders deserve respect

Social life is enabled once the basic requirements for living are secured. Leisure is a pre-condition for civilized living that makes time for cultural and spiritual learning and advancement. It is the dialogue that develops between secure social beings that produces that necessary wisdom for ordering society for peaceful co-existence. Institutions for the public good are established and sustained upon this footing. In short personal security is translated into social security and this in turn is used to achieve structural and institutional security. However it cannot be ignored that the very acquisition and consumption of basic requirements is also a social activity that cannot ignore the values inherent in social relations. But this precisely what happened under the new economic order ushered in by the 1833 Reforms. The old social system was dismantled for the economic advancement of the powerful within the Colony. A minority benefited but the rural majority fell from a position of relative dignity to a state of landlessness, poverty, unemployment and hunger. As K.M. De Silva noted in History of Sri Lanka:

Throughout the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and in the first decade of the twentieth, there are frequent references in published official documents to famines, conditions of near famine, chronic rural poverty, destitution and above all, starvation in many parts of the country, especially the dry zone. After a century of rule, the British colonial administration had not succeeded in improving the living standards of the rural population in most parts of the country. Peace and stability they certainly had brought, but they had alleviated little of the hardships of the Sinhalese peasants.

A principal feature of the current globalized capitalist order and its normative framework in governance, finance, trade and law is its apparent self-sufficiency and rigorous exclusion of the social norms and cultural traditions of people in the third world. This has taken place because the educated elite professional in the third world is generally a creature of western language, knowledge, values and training who is ignorant of his own indigenous value system. This allows the (generally) less educated politician to play on the rural voter’s sense of alienation and insecurity with the parochial rhetoric of race and religion. Neither the professional nor politician sees the social well being of the peasant as part of his responsibility.

To summarize, we don’t really like each other in this society. There is a fundamental crisis in interpersonal relations and this has struck the very heart of society – our family relations. Many children today have no family apart from the fact that a man and woman have copulated to produce them. All this indicates that we are living within a spiritual and cultural vacuum. So long as this vacuum exists we can try and solve the problems created by and within institutions, like the education system, the legal system and public service etc, etc but without ever confronting what needs to be confronted – our darker side, our shadows. We continue to beat around the bush, talk in figures and concepts quite unaware that the ground beneath us has been pulled away.

When all pretences have come crashing down

What are we left with, my friends?

 It is spiritual energy that brings all kinds of polarities (right and wrong, male and female, earth and sky, humans and animals etc) together. Perhaps, some of us know that this quality is in short supply in our society. Spirituality is the essence of all religions. However both narrow religion and popular religion can operate to subvert spirituality. This is the common experience of all cultures and societies.

Every generation is mandated with the task of re-creating its own spiritual domain as source energy to answer its own unique problems. The mere repetition of ancient verbal formulas – unaccompanied by the requisite personal commitment will simply not do. However spiritual values cannot take root and grow without an enabling and supportive social environment. An open and convivial atmosphere is needed for communication to take place across social and cultural boundaries. This is quite different to the familiar languages of Buddhists preaching to fellow Buddhists, Christians sermonizing to fellow Christians and Muslims praying all by themselves. In particular there is a need for environments that are not polluted by politics of any kind.

Today the social domain is all but extinguished by politics of patronage – a subjective and emotional throwback to our feudal era. Human rights have failed to get even a foothold in this society due to the all pervading legitimacy of patronage. Social values are either dying or dead. There is a need to re-learn our own social values. However a look back at the past provides a broad perspective on our current predicament and helps in the identification of root causes.

Destruction of social systems

Today, most Sri Lankans in general and Sinhala Buddhists in particular, prefer to ignore the impact of two watersheds in Ceylon History that destroyed their social and cultural values. Although these two calamities are separated by over 600 years in time they represent the beginnings of a definite erasure of a collective social consciousness united by a common worldview. They are:

  1. The Kalinga Magha invasion of 1215 that wrote finis to the irrigation civilisation in Rajarata; and
  2. The idealistic but top down Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms of 1833 that removed the last remaining structures of both the ancient Sinhala and Tamil social systems.

On the positive side the most significant social and cultural revivals of the past three centuries were the restoration of the monastic order by Ven Welivita Sri Saranankara and King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe in 1753 and the Buddhist and Hindu revivals towards the end of the 19th century. None of these created a new society but asserted a common cultural identity within the hierarchical ranking of an old feudal society. In many ways these reforms stopped short of being futuristic and they derived inspiration from the past without offering real hope for the future. The three architects of the Buddhist revival – Ven Hikkaduwe Sumangala, Colonel Olcott and Anagarika Dharmapala each had their own visions of Buddhism. They achieved much in education but perhaps the time was not right to forge a new social foundation in a spirit of social equality. These three giants eventually parted ways. In characteristic fashion we focus on their coming together and the work they did without really examining why they could not agree between themselves. I have not studied the work of Arumuga Navalar in depth but it is possible that Hindu society was also at a decidedly pre-modern and feudal stage of evolution in the late 19th century.

Westernized history

 Among the new influences that came to shape the colonial and post colonial Sri Lankan mind was the westernized study of our own history. Dominated by English speaking historians who were strong on categories and cold abstract analysis but weak in feelings and emotions and drawing connections between ideas and people across space and time we inherited a disjointed, simplistic and dualistic narrative of who we were and what we did in history. The real foundations and organizing principles of our ancient society remained a closed book.

The signal contribution of western style historical scholarship was to trap our historical sources within the dualistic worldview of Newton and Descartes which affirmed identity, division and separation.

Descartes was a giant of the Age of Reason; the Enlightenment of the 18th century that released the arts and sciences from the all embracing stranglehold of Christian religion so that they could develop to their fullest extent within a secular and open field of exploration and inquiry. This freedom that was based on separation of the church and state and individual freedom had a justification and rationale within the evolutionary process of Europe.

This shift from subjective faith and religion to objective science and human rights; from feudalism to republican ideals of democracy was a natural and home grown process in Western Europe and America. This movement was perhaps achieved partially in Sri Lanka in the liberal phase of representative democracy for 40 years from 1931 to 1971. But the next 40 years represented a complete reversal of objective principles to return government to a personalized, subjective and feudal realm.

It is very clear that the British and our own leaders over-estimated the efficacy of western norms within a country like Sri Lanka. India remains a rare example of an Asian country that was able to inherit and maintain a functional democratic system of government. When we probe Indian history we see the prior regeneration of Indian society that took place due to the famous Bengali Renaissance in the 19th century due to the sterling work of Ram Mohan Roy and Rabindranath Tagore. And in Gandhi they found a leader who could take their essential spiritual and social values into politics.

Just as there was fire beneath the ashes of a broken India before the British took over at the turn of the 19th century there is a quiet determination that a new beginning is within our grasp once more. That determination is based on the undisputed necessity of a unifying worldview to replace the Cartesian model of separation. Those free entities that developed to their full potential must now revert back to a harmonious whole to end the cycle of violence that engulfs this planet and all its creatures.

The Axial Tradition

While the late colonial leaders over-estimated the power of western norms they under-estimated the pan Indian cultural unity that enveloped the sub continent and central Asia, the Indian ocean and South East Asia up to the beginning of Muslim invasions in the 8th century CE. This was in turn a part of a broader and deeper axial tradition that took root in China, India, the Middle East and Greece from the 7th to the 3rd centuries BC with the wonderful coincidence of great sages, munis, prophets and philosophers arising to embody a common core of human wisdom and compassion. Those Eastern Traditions, in particular, that grew around Taoism, Buddhism and Jainism rejected fixed verbal categories and affirmed the ultimate powerlessness of all thoughts and words.

It is to the gradual disappearance of this monumental worldview that we must attribute the loss of our collective memory as Lankans. In this way western style historical scholarship underpinned by Cartesian dualism laid the intellectual foundations for a society where brother would not recognize brother; and war became the natural outcome.

We were unable to access our past except through spectacles borrowed from the West. As a result we were debarred from learning our true identity and prevented from learning from our own past. The human rights discourse was likewise distorted with the implicit adoption of Cartesian fixed categories (like children, women, disabled etc) isolated from their contexts. The root of all identity politics in this island (both ethnic politics and human rights politics) lies within this limited worldview which replaced the more balanced, harmonious and functional philosophy of the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva periods as located within the axial tradition.

In a single sentence our world has become a narrow place with each community fitting neatly into its own box. And so there is a Buddhist box, a Hindu box, a Muslim box and a Christian box. This is a laughable and ridiculous situation. We cannot truly understand Hinduism and Buddhism as Indian religions in isolation from each other. Likewise the Abrahamic Religions Christianity and Islam throw light upon each other. Both Indian and Abrahamic Religions owe their origins to the axial tradition of mankind – an inner urge and compulsion towards light and freedom.

It is our central convictions that are in disorder – and the world reflects this back to us. Our loss – due to the double whammy of Kalinga Magha and Colebrooke/Cameron was a worldview and this is what we must re-claim today by rising to the occasion. As E.F. Schumacher (author of Small is Beautiful) said:

“The way in which we experience and interpret the world obviously depends very much indeed on the kind of ideas that fill our minds. If they are mainly small, weak, superficial, and incoherent, life will appear insipid, uninteresting, petty and chaotic. It is difficult to bear the resultant feeling of emptiness, and the vacuum of our minds may only too easily be filled by some big, fantastic notion – political or otherwise – which suddenly seems to illuminate everything and to give meaning and purpose to our existence. It needs no emphasis that herein lies one of the great dangers of our time.”

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