Religio-cultural fundamentalism, liberty and social progress in Sri Lanka and the world
(ECONOMYNEXT ) – In this H.M.A. Herath Annual Memorial Oration delivered by W A Wijewardene, an economist, teacher and thinker takes the listener and reader from the furthest reaches of known human civilization to modern day politics and governance.
He delves deep into the complex philosophical questions and ideas that are found in countries mired in conflicts, denying freedoms and blocking citizens from progressing to reach their full potential in peace and freedom.
This oration was delivered on January 31, at an event organized by the Department of Public Administration and its alumni.
By W A Wijewardene
It is indeed an honour as well as a privilege to be invited to deliver the inaugural Professor H.M.A. Herath Memorial Oration. This Oration was established by the Public Administration Alumni Association in honour of Professor Herath who was one of its leading livewires ever since it was formed in the early 1990s.
He devoted his time, energy and resources without reservation to keep it alive and growing. He had the remarkable ability to address every student who attended the Annual Get-together of the Association by his or her first name though they would have passed out from the university many years ago.
It contributed to create a sense of belongingness among members, a necessary factor to pull them towards the cause of the Association. In this sense, Professor Herath was both Patriarch and Matriarch of the Alumni Association.
I met Prof. Herath in 1992 at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura just after he had returned to Sri Lanka from Carlton University. This young academic, beaming with youthful spirit and a sense of humour, was introduced to me by his Guru Matha, Prof. Ramanie Samaratunga, now at Monash University but at that time a senior lecturer at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura.
I was instantly attracted to him not only because of his high academic credentials but also by the extreme degree of humbleness and modesty he displayed in his dealings with others. It paved the way for a long relationship between both of us. The initial good impression that I had formed about him was reinforced in me in each passing day.
I was recruited to the Public Administration Alumni Association by Prof. Herath. He left me with no choice but to enrol myself as a life member. Since then, both of us worked together as a team to promote student welfare, academic standards and, above all, the subject discipline called public administration.
Whenever there was an issue, Prof. Herath was there to play his role as a responsible team member to resolve it. Thus, there was an inseparable umbilical connection between Prof. Herath and the Alumni Association. Today, that umbilical cord has been severed creating an unfillable vacuum. It is the duty and the responsibility of all of us to fill that vacuum and take the Association to greater heights. That is the best accolade that we can afford to him.
Prof. Herath ’s life story is a source of inspiration to all of us. He had put it in print-form beating all odds that were working against him. Any other person in his circumstances would not have embarked on such a feat.
He, having been disabled by a terminal illness, was struggling for life, while lying on stomach and depending on outside support. It was painful to move even a finger and, therefore, he was on strong pain killers. But it was not an impediment to this indefatigable Granda Homo who had experienced much worse debacles in life.
Hence, he dictated his life story word by word to someone who was present at house whenever he was awake from drug-induced slumbers. The book titled EdaaMedaaThura (Life from Early Days to Today) was being printed on schedule but he had to depart this world before he could lay his eyes on the final print. Hence, it had to be released posthumously. But by any measurement, it was the best gift Prof. Herath had left to posterity.
Prof. Herath had been born in the mid-1950s to a low-income farmer family that had lived in a remote village in Monaragala District in Sri Lanka. It was a large family of eight children and he was the seventh member of that family.
There are a few remarkable qualities about his family. Despite personal differences among siblings, they all had tolerated each other and welcomed their presence in the family. When the call of responsibility demanded, they nourished each other even at personal costs to them. Parents who had not got an opportunity to receive formal education had only one goal in life.
That was to provide a good education to their children, at least to the younger ones. In the words of Prof. Herath ’s mother, the objective has been to ‘awaken the eyes of the children’. An economist would translate this into a formal phrase that his mother wanted to help her children to attain social mobility through education.
This type of family values in which even the erring members were tolerated and supported while placing education at the top of the family goals is a rare possibility in contemporary Sri Lankan family system. Prof. Herath who was nourished by this advanced value system could in his later life as an adult work with people of diverse opinions and beliefs without offending them or getting offended in return.
Prof. Herath’s childhood, albeit replete with innumerable hardship, suffering and frustration throughout, had been a university of practical learning for him. In the primary school he attended, the entire morning had been devoted to gardening. Students had as a team cultivated vegetables, corn and yams in the school garden. It not only helped them to gain experience in farming but also to earn some money for the school by selling the crops.
This type of education exposing students to vocations available in the locality while cultivating entrepreneurship from an early age is to be contrasted from the certificate-based book education being provided to them today. It had paid ample dividends to Prof. Herath throughout his life. In the senior grades in the school, he had been a part-time farmer as well as an entrepreneur.
To earn money for his education as well as for the family, he had cultivated paddy, vegetables, sugarcane and numerous cash crops not only on land owned by the family but also on lands leased from others or encroached from the state. The crops had been sold in the market and on most occasions, by carrying on shoulders before going to school.
The humble man within Prof. Herath tells us that he did not possess any extraordinary intellectual skills compared to many others. All his academic attainments, according to his admission, are the dividends he had been paid by his continuous hard-work. But his success at school, at university and at Carleton defies this humble statement.
At the post-primary level when the history teacher accuses him of copying at the examination from the textbook because he had provided perfect answers, he corrects the teacher by presenting the answers verbally.
His learning between farming and school classes cannot be accomplished unless he had been endowed with an extraordinary learning skill. He completes his Advanced Level examination through numerous hardships by moving from Monaragala to Hettimulla and then to Pinnawala. University education is being completed with flying colours while working in government services.
The man with no previous exposure to English masters the language at Carleton within three months and completes both the Master’s degree and the Doctorate in that language.
The man in the final stage of the terminal illness and lying on the stomach with no body movement taps to his memory and dictates his life story in the correct sequence without omitting any important incident or name. These can be accomplished only by a man of very high intellectual capacity.
Prof. Herath has served the University of Sri Jayewardenepura as a lecturer, Head of Department, Dean and on numerous occasions as the Acting Vice Chancellor.
His contribution to making the degree course in Public Management recognised by employers, development of the Faculty Staff, improvement in logistics facilities and, above all, laying the foundation for making the Faculty of Management Studies and Commerce the most demanded management school in the country are marked indelibly in the annals of the University.
As Dean of the Faculty and when he had the orientation program for the fresh students, I was on most occasions a guest. It gave me an opportunity to observe how he made plans for the future of those students. I recall that he was emphasizing on the need for them to make use of the facilities available at USJ and develop themselves.
If the students expected to have a bright future, they should wholly rely on themselves and not on others. He gave examples from his own experiences. Coming from a backward village in Monaragala District, he said that his biggest challenge was to improve skills in handling the English language. There was no shortcut, he advised the students.
It is through hard work, devotion and perseverance that one could master the language. This was specifically challenging when the family or school background was not supportive. But everyone had the same brain capacity and it was up to students to try again and again until they succeed. He told me that he emphasized particularly on learning English because that was the passport for those students to explore unknown territories.
I also got the opportunity to participate in two international conferences in which Herath read papers. One was on e-Government initiative in Sri Lanka hosted by Monash University. The other was on universalizing socio-economic security in South Asia, jointly organized by the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, and the Institute of Human Development, New Delhi.
The two papers he read at these conferences were breakthrough studies well appreciated by the scholars who were present. I was deeply moved by the honour he brought to the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, in particular, and Sri Lanka, in general. His scholarly contributions have not stopped at that.
Recently, he has released four scholarly books including a revised edition of his doctoral thesis submitted to Carlton University. Two recent books had been on Development Administration and Power Sharing in Sri Lanka.
To honour this academic of a rare breed, I chose an apt title for my oration. From the long association which I had with him and from the books he has published, I can safely conclude that it is a topic close to his heart.
RELIGION, CULTURE AND FUNDAMENTALISM
Homo sapiens, Man the Wise, is divided into exclusive groups on language, race, ethnicity, culture or class today. This was not the case when Homo sapiens emerged as winners of the two-legged animal world some 100,000 years ago.
They acted on instinct, dictated by their genetic code, and made a living by hunting and gathering as groups. Reproduction took place whenever a suitable partner was found for mating, irrespective of whether it was from the same group or not.
Some 70,000 years ago, they developed cognitive skills – skill to use the thought process for learning, problem-solving and grasping new ideas – and began to spread out to the rest of the globe from their ancestral seat in East Africa .
Between 70,000 and 30,000 years since they began to come out of Africa, they developed the ability to communicate their thinking by using a unique sound system which is now called the language . It was the same sound system which every Homo sapiens used and there was no difference in the language.
However, this began to change ‘century after century’ and what was spoken by the older ancestors of any human race differed significantly from what is spoken by its extant members. By the same token, the language to be spoken by their descendants in the future would be different from what they speak now.
This is being called ‘drifting of the language’ .
When Homo sapiens migrated to new territories, over thousands of years, the original language spoken by their ancestors drifted to new dialects and eventually into new languages.
This has happened by joining with new genetic pools after one local population that has migrated to another locality and mated with the members of new populations living in that locality, creating what is known as a ‘gene flow’ .
Languages become distinct from each other but at the same time are connected to each other. This happens by borrowing new sounds from other languages and naturalising them in a normal evolutionary process.
Thus, according to linguists, the Sinhala language spoken by the majority of people living in Sri Lanka is made up of words borrowed from several other languages, including Pali, Sanskrit, Portuguese, Dutch, English, Tamil and, of course, the languages of the old inhabitants, namely, Rakshasas, Yakshas and Nagas . Today, these words have been fully Sinhalised and no one feels that they have come from alien languages.
The Three Questions
One offshoot of the cognitive revolution which humans went through was the raising of three basic questions for which they did not have answers.
The first was relating to before the birth: where did we humans come from? The second is about after birth and the present: What are we, humans? The third is after death: where will we humans go from here? .
Since humans could not perceive answers to these three questions, an attempt was made to give the answers by using religion. Of the four main religions that dominate the world today, three, namely, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, gives credit to an almighty deity for creating human beings. They exist today, at the mercy of the same deity.
After death, they would go back to the same deity. The fourth religion – Buddhism – has a different contextual explanation. While not accepting the creationist theory, it attributes the birth of humans to a long journey through a sea of births and death known as Samsara.
This is similar to the world view presented by evolutionists that it is through an evolutionary process spanning over 3 billion years that Homo sapiens have emerged some 100,000 years ago after either annihilating the other types of Homos or simply by being smarter than they are.
This evolution will continue to take place by transferring their genetic pool to subsequent Homo sapiens to be born but not in the same fixed way but through an evolutionary process.
Here again, both Buddhists and Evolutionary theorists subscribe to the same world view.
But after death, Buddhism presents that a human will continue to do his journey through Samsara unless he can put a stop to the process of birth and rebirth.
Evolutionary theorists posit that after the death of the present gene carrier, an evolved form of his gene will be passed onto each subsequent generation. In the end, Homo sapiens will become a superhuman unparalleled in human history .
Physicists, on the other hand, believe that all species are the product of primordial quantum fluctuations generated by non-smooth expansion of the universe in which stars becoming an integral element .
Taking a contrarian view, Hawking thinks that the belief in an afterlife merely wishful thinking and after death, all species are reduced to dust .
Religion has therefore been created to answer the ‘from-where, what and where-to’ questions relating to humans. The answers provided to these questions by the three main religions, namely, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, are similar in nature.
Hence, there cannot be any war – mental or physical – among the practitioners of these three religions. Buddhism, on the other hand, differs in its approach from other religions and is more similar to what the evolutionary scientists have posited.
This difference need not be a cause for any battle between the practitioners of Buddha’s Dhamma and those who believe in other faiths. This is because the Dhamma preached by the Buddha requires its adherents to have an intellectual and tolerant approach to resolving issues even with those who speak of ills or virtues of the Buddha .
Culture and Adaptation
Human culture began to take its root some 70,000 years ago when Homo sapiens developed the cognitive skills .
Culture is the common way a group of humans behave: how they should eat, sleep, play, love, mate, reproduce, entertain and interact. It is not fixed or unchanging. Instead, culture is continuously changing and in a state of ‘constant flux’ .
In this flux, every culture borrows practices from other superior cultures and adapt them to their own cultures. As the Sri Lankan writer Martin Wickramasinghe has noted, the Buddhist Sinhalese have borrowed exorcising practices from South Indian Hindus. However, instead of sacrificing live animals for bribing evil spirits to leave the bodies of their patients, the Sinhalese exorcists made it a symbolic sacrifice only.
Thus, those exorcists, instead of decapitating the fowl to be sacrificed by way of inducement to leave the patient, prick the comb of the fowl and offers only a drop of blood to the evil spirit. Similarly, when they bribe Hindu Gods for boons, they offer them only metal figures of animals and not the carcasses of slaughtered animals as is being done by Hindus .
This is an instance of readaptation of a cultural practice borrowed from another culture. Interaction with other humans through trade, commerce or physical movement allows cultures to adapt, change and evolve. In the olden times, the Silk Road that connected China with Europe via land and maritime routes was the cause of change in cultures that prevailed among the people who lived along the routes .
Though cultures change constantly through adaptation and personification, cultural conflicts can arise within the culture, known as intra-cultural conflicts, and among different cultures called inter-cultural conflicts. The first is due to the failure of the members of a society to go through changing cultural traits.
The second is due to the failure of recognising and appreciating cultural differences among different types of human groups. Both have as their root the intolerance of other cultural practices guided by a forceful superiority complex being harboured among members of society.
To demonstrate intra-cultural conflicts, a hypothetical thought experiment can be devised. Suppose a person is captured in the year 1900, put to sleep by administering a sleep-inducing drug, wakened up in 2020 and released in a modern town. How would that person who had slept for 120 years continuously feel about what he sees?
Everything would be abnormal to him when compared with what he had at the time of going to sleep.
He cannot tolerate the new cultural practices he observes and may conclude that the culture has completely been destroyed. But a person who lives in the current period may not feel so because he has personally gone through the changes in the cultural traits due to adaptation of superior cultural practices.
A similar hypothetical experiment could be devised to demonstrate inter-cultural conflicts too.
Seven traits of cultural and Religious Fundamentalism
Cultural or religious fundamentalism therefore, means becoming intolerant of cultural or religious practices of others and viewing one’s own culture or religion as superior to all other cultures or religions. Any ‘ism’ is an extreme form of human emotions. It does not accommodate counterviews and is not ready to change even when there is evidence contrary to the main thesis or theses it has propounded. It does not allow open verification through objective inquiry.
What is taught as the main thesis of ‘ism’ has to be accepted without questioning. There is, therefore, a rigid, regimental type restriction placed on human intelligence under the reigns of ‘ism’ . Hence, once a person accepts an ism, he surrenders his intellectual curiosity, the quest for knowledge, self-development through wisdom and ability to assess situations based on objectively and impartially gathered evidence. Instead, he will become a part of huge propaganda machinery that does not allow critical thinking or probing .
Several traits can be identified as peculiar to fundamentalist thinking.
First, cultures and religions are built on some mythological facts. Though these mythological facts come to conflict with modern rational thinking, fundamentalists refuse to shed those views. Anyone criticising those accepted myths is considered a traitor.
Second, there is a common belief that one’s own religion or culture is superior to all other religions and cultures. Hence, a priori measures are taken to prevent other religions or cultures from getting mixed up with one’s own religion or culture.
Third, there is a general fear that all other religions and cultures are onto subsuming and destroying one’s own religion or culture.
Fourth, arising from the third, it is generally believed that there is a necessity to fight for protecting one’s religion or culture.
Fifth, the defensive action initiated originally is transformed into an offensive action in which destroying other religions or cultures is considered a merit earning activity.
Sixth, the past is considered as glorious and therefore there is an insistence that society should go back to old religions and cultural practices.
Seventh, in order to protect one’s own religion or culture, it is considered necessary to regulate and control human behaviour including the expression of one’s creative mind in the form of art, literature, music or public media.
These have become the core-values of fundamentalist thinking throughout the globe.
A good example for the extreme use of fundamentalism to establish a state that caters to one’s personal interests could be found in the actions of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in India .
According to Sen, BJP had resurrected an old Hindutva Movement or Movement for establishing Indianness in India in the mid-1970s by misrepresenting facts, fabricating established historical evidence, inventing history and using violence and force on moderate Hindus as well as other ethnic and religious groups .
While India is a country of diversity with many religious beliefs, languages and ethnic groups, the Hindutva Movement has tried to project India as a Hindu country. To reclaim this land exclusively for Hindus, it has rewritten Indian history as essentially a Hindu civilisation, an essential prerequisite for establishing a grand Hindu vision of India.
This has, according to Sen, also helped Hindutva to marshal the support of Indian diaspora which are bent on maintaining an Indian identity in their host countries in the midst of a perceived threat from the dominant cultures there; it is a solace to feel that Hindus reign at least in their old native land. According to Sen, this is what BJP did after its electoral victory in 1998 and 1999: “various arms of the government of India were mobilised in the task of arranging ‘appropriate’ rewritings of Indian history.
Even though this adventure of inventing the past is no longer ‘official’ (because of the defeat of the BJP led coalition in the general elections in the spring of 2004), that highly charged episode is worth recollecting both because of what it tells us about the abuse of temporal power and also because of the light it throws on the intellectual underpinning of the Hindutva Movement” .
Accordingly, fresh textbooks were written with a focus on Hindu supremacy by deleting the objective analyses written by reputed academics earlier. The hastily completed work also contained numerous factual mistakes and serious omissions drawing severe criticism from academia, press and media. Yet the BJP government which was bent on establishing its own political agenda paid no heed to them, according to Sen.
The worst was yet to come in the form of fabricating archaeological facts: The Indus valley civilisation that had existed in North-West India and Pakistan much before the recorded history of Hinduism was also projected as a Hindu civilisation by renaming it ‘Indus-Saraswati civilisation’ focusing on a non-existing river called the Saraswati River mentioned in Vedic texts.
To prove their point, the BJP led intellectuals, in fact, had invented new archaeological evidence, according to Sen, by producing a computerised distortion of a broken seal of the Indus Valley Civilisation, a fraud committed on Indians at home and abroad in the name of justifying the Hindutva Movement. The BJP government today has taken it further forward by introducing controversial citizenship legislation in which refugees of Islamic faith are to be prohibited from becoming citizens of India .
In a subsequent publication, Amartya Sen has argued that propagandists’ hard work leads to the development of collective social thought, a thought which has no rational foundation but believed by many as the truth.
The social thought then leads to collective political action, presenting a distorted view to an already emotionally worked up electorate and thereby easily securing electoral victories. Once the political power is secured, it is now easy to translate the illogical social thought to public policy which even at first glance is spurious but defended tooth and nail in the name of cultural nationalism.
This is what has happened in India and many emerging countries including Sri Lanka.
The cultural nationalism has used political power to reverse the time machine through public policy. But, is it not a boon to a country? Yes, it is a boon, if one does it to win the future and not to go back to establish the past which is already gone by.
It is a spurious act committed by a nation especially when the rest of the world has moved forward. As Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed had recently advised, one could gain from history immensely if history is learned to identify the past mistakes and thereby not to repeat the same .
Liberty has been the basic aspiration of all human beings. It denotes freedom from the servitude of all bonds with which mankind can be tied. It encompasses the freedom of thought, expression, property, and livelihood, as long as it does not infringe with the same aspirations of others.
The best advocate of freedom in this sense has been the Buddha who posited that “one should not do anything to another person which one does not want to be done to himself” .
In another discourse, he preached that a person who, thinking that he has powers, “beats, imprisons, confiscates, blames or banishes another person” commits an unskilful act and it should be avoided .
To avoid it, the Buddha further says that one should not return harm with harm and destroy the thought to harm to another person by cultivating self-discipline .
This approach to liberty is self-perpetuating since it does not require an outside body or an authority to deliver liberty to human beings. It also overrules the possibility of the presence of externality which economists today have been highlighting when it comes to the fair treatment of people in society.
The Buddha’s message is that one should not knowingly exert an external cost on another person since he himself is aversive to such external costs being inflicted on him. In this elaboration of liberty, external benefits can still be passed onto other members of society since it as a whole adds to the happiness of the mankind, on the one hand, and helps the deliverer of the benefits to attain his personal ambitions, on the other.
This is delivering liberty to people through ‘self-governance’ which is an effective way of ensuring liberty.
The Buddha’s version of liberty was restated by the 17th century English philosopher John Locke that “no one ought to harm another in his life, heath, liberty or possessions” and also preserve as much as possible the rest of mankind . It discourages exerting external costs while encouraging the delivery of external benefits
Traditionally, the threat to human liberty came from authoritarian or despotic rulers.
After Homo sapiens gave up hunting and gathering for agriculture some 10,000 years ago, new settlements were started, food plants were tamed and both draught and food animals were domesticated.
Then, there was the necessity to protect land, food stocks, livestock, men, women and children from invading tribes. Initially, it was tribal leaders who took the responsibility for defending the tribe from invaders. For this purpose, it was necessary to acquire fighting power by recruiting and training soldiers and equipping them with weaponry.
These tribal leaders who acquired their power through divinity were those who could decide on the life and death of the other tribal members. This was how human liberty was compromised in the initial stage for protection. Later, these isolated tribes got developed into kingdoms and kingdoms into empires.
Whatever the size of the political organisation, it was the human liberty that was sacrificed in the name of protection, prosperity and dignity. The establishment of nation-states was the mechanism employed to resolve conflicts, maintain law and order and contain violence emanating from within the society and from outside.
Law became so essential that it was held that whenever there was no law, there was no freedom too.
Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson in their latest book, The Narrow Corridor , have documented a problem, called the Gilgamesh Problem, that threatens the sustenance of human liberty. Gilgamesh was the ruler of Uruk some 4,200 years ago. He was a merciful dictator and supplied the people of Uruk with all the modern infrastructure facilities, including an advanced city.
But the city was his possession and he could do whatever he wanted with the lives of the people.
He took the sons away from parents for his destructive wars with neighbours and daughters for his sexual pleasures. Since the parents could not fight with the brutal force of Gilgamesh, they turned to their main deity, Anu, for help. Anu, following a procedure similar to checks and balances being practised today, created a double of Gilgamesh called Enkidu and released him to Uruk.
Enkidu’s job was to contain the behaviour of Gilgamesh whenever he tried to abuse his powers. He did a good job initially but later realised that by teaming with Gilgamesh, he could enhance his benefits package.
The duo got together and unleashed their brutality on the people of Uruk. Thus, a system introduced to contain the authoritarian ruler became the source brutality and people did not have a mechanism to remove it. Hence, the prospect of liberty vanished along with the checks and balances that were introduced.
Consequently, the threat to human liberty today is the collusive activity of despotic rulers and those who have been engaged to protect the people from them.
Marriage of Despots and Religion
When religion and culture are established as fundamentalist institutions, there is a tendency for fundamentalist religious and cultural leaders to side with despotic rulers to oppress the people.
That marriage is for the benefit of both parties.
Despotic leaders can claim legitimacy to their rule by clinging onto the support base of fundamentalists. In return, fundamentalists can enrich their position by using the power base of despotic rulers. In such a state, the government is captured by militant religious leaders who want to establish a fundamental religious state.
To support them, a culture which is in constant flux is twisted and presented as a fixed social institution. Anyone who opposes the militant religious sects is brutally oppressed by using state powers. Accordingly, liberty is taken away from ordinary citizens who now have been converted to a defenceless, voiceless and powerless group.
Thus, though Sri Lanka is not a de jure theocracy – a system of government-run by religious leaders – it is a de facto theocracy.
These informal theocrats have assumed the power to decide what the ordinary citizens should wear, which shops they should patronise, what they should create a work of art and with whom they should have their social relationships.
The worst outcome of these unhealthy developments is the guardians of human liberties – the political leaders – seeking to sustain their power by clinging to these self-interested power groups.
Normally, military rulers in any country are considered as powerful leaders. But they can sustain their power only by clinging onto these sub-militant groups, as has been shown in Myanmar.
De Facto Theocracy
In that country, no military ruler can sustain his power unless he aligns himself with the ‘Poppy Barons’ who runs an alternative bandit rule in the infamous Golden Triangle or certain militant Buddhist monks who roam streets by taking power into their hands. Sri Lanka’s political leaders of all hues are not an exception.
Thus, the present political leaders in Sri Lanka seem to have chosen to be lame ducks in the face of the threateningly growing de facto theocratic rule in the country.
But that had not been the case in the past as many past Sri Lankan leaders had demonstrated. Two cases can be quoted to prove this point. One is the bold stand taken by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike against militant Buddhist fundamentalists in what was known as the Bavatharanaya issue.
The other is the application of the rule of law by Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake when a misdemeanour by one of his strong party supporters was brought to his notice.
A first-hand account of the Bavatharanaya issue has been made by the former civil servant Eric J de Silva in a newspaper article recently . Bavatharanaya (Crossing the Stream of Birth and Rebirth) was a fiction written by Sri Lanka’s renowned writer Martin Wickramasinghe on the life story of the Buddha.
Immediately after the book was published in 1973, a group of militant Buddhist monks had begun an agitation campaign for the banning of the book claiming that it had insulted the Buddha.
Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, having read a report by Eric that it was a work of art and had nothing to do with the Buddha had dismissed the forceful submissions made by militant Buddhist monks for the banning of the book. In the second incident,
Deputy Minister C P J Seneviratna, a strong UNP stalwart, had stormed a temporary police station in Mahiyanganaya and released some suspects who had been arrested by the Police for unruly behaviour . When this was brought to the notice of Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake, he had just ordered that the Police should do its duty according to the law.
Such principled politicians and strong-willed public servants help protect the liberty of citizens.
However, an incident involving the arrest and deportation of a British woman who had a tattoo of Buddha’s head in 2014 was an example where the Police had succumbed to the pressure of religio-cultural fundamentalists and accordingly functioned as a cultural-police force .
On seeking justice through Sri Lanka’s legal system, after three and a half years in 2017, the Supreme Court delivered justice to her by declaring that her detention and deportation were illegal and awarding her compensation amounting to £ 4000 . Yet, after the Easter bombings in Churches and tourist hotels in April 2019, similar arrests were made by the Police on religious grounds implying that they were serving their duty as a cultural police force.
When a government tolerates such acts of violating fundamental human rights, it is the replay of the Gilgamesh Problem outlined by Acemoglu and Robinson in The Narrow Corridor. In this instance, liberty is denied to people by the government and the Police which are created for delivering the same.
All societies today aspire to ameliorate the life of their members through social progress. In this context, social progress encompasses political, economic, social and cultural advancement of people. Prof. Herath has defined it to be inclusive progress in his book on Development Administration:
“When taken as a whole, what is expected of development is the advancement of people. In other words, development is human development. It is the progress of the whole society. It brings about a change in the progress of society. This human social progress should be a continuous improvement. In this way, the final goal of development is the progress of the whole human society. That progress should not be limited to a few individuals or a small group. It should necessarily be an inclusive progress” .
Later in the book, Prof. Herath has made the following remark:
“Material progress is very important for successful lay life. Yet, the possession of material resources like vehicles, money, houses, lands etc. will not guarantee a contented lay life. In this respect, attaining spiritual advancement will help a person to lead a contented successful life”
According to Prof. Herath, three core values have to be accomplished when planning for development by any society. They are the ability to sustain a better livelihood, live with self-esteem as a person and make appropriate choices without being forced by outside parties .
What Prof. Herath has outlined as progress is helping members of society, without exception, to attain self-perfection. This is the essential element that should be inbuilt into any social progress program.
The core-value of every major religion is to help the adherents to attain self-perfection, though the path to do so differs from each other.
But one important pre-requisite for following the path prescribed is the existence of liberty. That liberty encompasses the freedom to think, believe, express, choose and live.
Innovation, Challenging the Established Order
Human society progresses only if its members become inventive and innovative. Inventions involve creating new things and innovations, making them available to members.
Both require one to challenge the existing order – social, technical, political, economic, religious and cultural.
If Copernicus and Galileo did not challenge the existing wisdom of the Christian church, the world would still have believed that the earth was flat and the sun was revolving around the earth .
The founding Vice Chancellor of the Vidyodaya University, the predecessor to the present University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Rev. Welivitiye Sri Soratha, is reported to have advised the undergraduates that they should be challenging, probing and critical.
This wisdom has been incorporated into lyrics of the University anthem.
The forced allocation of resources through central leadership could deliver higher economic growth to society. But such economic growth becomes short-lived since long-term sustenance of growth depends on the continued supply of inventions and innovations to the system.
Inventions and innovations thrive when human beings enjoy self-esteem and are free to choose, two important core values identified by Prof. Herath as necessary for sustained social progress.
This was evident in the old Soviet Union. In the absence of liberty, the Soviet Union failed to replicate inventions and innovations and as a result, could not continue with the high economic growth it generated in the 1930s and 1940s.
As Acemoglu and Robinson have noted, “One can pour resources into patents, universities, new technologies and even create huge rewards for success (for some Soviet scientists, the reward was to stay alive). But it is not enough if you cannot replicate the rambunctious, disorderly and disobedient nature of true experimentation” .
No society has been able to manage it unless liberty is enshrined into the system.
What it means is that for long-term sustained economic progress, the inputs should come from both the top-down and bottom-up systems equally. Human liberty is a sine qua non for proliferating bottom-up views in the form of inventions and innovations.
The religio-cultural fundamentalism has taken liberty away from people. When cultures and societies continuously advance, evolving into new shapes in the process, fundamentalists seek to take them backward and imprison the members in old systems. They deny the freedom of choice to members and in the process impede the drive for inventions and innovations. The social progress is the casualty and when society does not progress, the corollary is the intra-society as well as inter-society conflicts.
Homo sapiens became the masters of the globe after this species developed cognitive skills some 70,000 years ago. It facilitated them to spread out to rest of the globe from the ancestral seat in East Africa, create language, domesticate both plants and animals, settle down in specific places and build kingdoms and empires.
Throughout the subsequent millennia, they underwent considerable evolution not only in their genetic build-up but also in the way they behave, known as the culture.
They are still evolving and one cannot predict into what form these animals would evolve in the future. However, the groups that have not been able to experience this evolutionary process safely have converted themselves to fundamentalists seeking to stop the evolutionary process and turn it backward.
The corollary has been the denial of liberty to people and generation of intra-society and inter-society conflicts among human beings.
The denial of human freedom has impeded the process of inventions and innovations, a must for continued social progress.
This is the most serious social problem faced by societies today.
BOOKS AND JOURNAL ARTICLES
Acemoglu, Daron and Robinson, A James, 2019, The Narrow Corridor: State, Societies and the Fate of Liberty, New York: Penguin
Brown, Dan, 2017, London: Origin, Bantam
Dawkins, Richard, 2012, The Magic of Reality: How we know what is really true? London: Black Swan
Dhammaratana, Rev Hisselle, 1963, SinhalayeDravidaBalapema, Nugegoda: Humanitarian Writers’ Forum
Frankopan, Peter, 2015, The Silk Roads, , London: Bloomsbury
Goonawardhana, Gate Mudliyar W F, 1973, Sinhala Vaag Vidya Muladharma, Colombo: Gunasena.
Harari, Yuval Noah, Sapiens, 2011, A Brief History of Humankind, London: Vintage Books
Harari, Yuval Noah, 2016, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, , London: Vintage
Hawking, Stephen, 2011, Available at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21128222-500-existence-where-did-we-come-from/
Hawking, Stephen, 2018, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, London: John Murray
Herath, H M A, 2017, Development Administration (in Sinhala), Dehiwala: Sri Devi
Iddamalgoda, Thilak, 2003, What a Policeman! (In Sinhala), Ratmalana Sarvodaya
Koparahewa, Sandagomi and Arunachalam, Sarojini Devi, 2011, Tamil Words in Sinhala Language (in Sinhala) Colombo: Godage
Sen, Amartya, 2005, The Argumentative Indian, London: Penguin Books
Sen, Amartya, 2006, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, London: Allen Lane.
Wickramasinghe, Martin, 2006, Buddhism and Culture, Rajagiriya: Sarasa
Wijewardena, W A, 2012, “Cultural Nationalism: Boon or Bane?” in Daily FT (Available at: http://www.ft.lk/article/71136/Rise-of-cultural–nationalism–Boon-or-bane
Wijewardena, W A, 2014, “Woman with the Buddha Tattoo: Much more economics in episode than religious sentiments”, Colombo: Daily FT (Available at: http://www.ft.lk/columns/woman-with-the-buddha-tattoo-much-more-economics-in-episode-than-religious-sentiments/4-288858)
Kithmina Hewage- Institute of Policy Studies