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The Sri Lanka Reader

History, Culture, Politics

by John Clifford Holt, Duke University Press, March, 2011

The Sri Lanka Reader is divided into five sections: (i) From Ancient to Early Modern; (ii) The Colonial Encounter; (iii) Emerging Identities; (iv) Independence, Insurrections, and Social Change; and (v) Political Epilogue.  The editor has sought to present his sources in a ‘fundamentally historical’ way and he has also, to his eternal credit, attempted to be inclusive, representative and fair to all things ‘Sri Lankan’ without pandering to petty and narrow sectarianism. 

The Sri Lanka Reader History Culture Politics John Clifford HoltThe Sri Lanka Reader is a sweeping introduction to the epic history of the island nation located just off the southern tip of India. The island’s recorded history of more than two and a half millennia encompasses waves of immigration from the South Asian subcontinent, the formation of Sinhala Buddhist and Tamil Hindu civilizations, the arrival of Arab Muslim traders, and European colonization by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and finally the British. Selected texts depict perceptions of the country’s multiple linguistic and religious communities, as well as its political travails after independence in 1948, especially the ethnic violence that recurred from the 1950s until 2009, when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were defeated by the Sri Lankan government’s armed forces. This wide-ranging anthology covers the aboriginal Veddhas, the earliest known inhabitants of the island; the Kings of Kandy, Sri Lanka’s last indigenous dynasty; twenty-first-century women who leave the island to work as housemaids in the Middle East; the forty thousand Sri Lankans killed by the tsunami in December 2004; and, through cutting-edge journalism and heart-wrenching poetry, the protracted violence that has scarred the country’s contemporary political history. Along with fifty-four images of paintings, sculptures, and architecture, The Sri Lanka Readerincludes more than ninety classic and contemporary texts written by Sri Lankans and foreigners.

John Clifford HoltJohn Clifford Holt is William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of the Humanities in Religion and Asian Studies at Bowdoin College. He has written many books, including Spirits of the Place: Buddhism and Lao Religious CultureThe Buddhist Visnu: Religious TransformationPolitics and Culture, and The Religious World of Kirti Sri: Buddhism, Art and Politics in Late Medieval Sri Lanka. He has also been awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka.

ISBN-10: 0822349825, ISBN-13: 978-0822349822


Book Review

by Tissa Jayatilleke,, Colombo, November 20, 2011

Duke University Press( Durham and London) has published this superb anthology edited by that most perceptive and shrewd observer of Sri Lanka and its complex social, economic and political history, John Clifford Holt who is William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Humanities in Religion and Asian Studies at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine in the United States.  He has written several books and, of those, the ones I am familiar with and profited from reading are The Buddhist Visnu: Religious Transformation, Politics and Culture(2004), The Religious World of Kirti Sri: Buddhism, Art and Politics in Late Medieval Sri Lanka(1996), Discipline: the Canonical Buddhism of the Vinayapitaka(1981), and Buddha in the Crown: Avalokiteswara in the Buddhist Traditions of Sri Lanka(1991), for which he received an American Academy of Religion Book Award for Excellence.  Prof. Holt is the recipient of an honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Peradeniya and, in 2007, was selected by the University of Chicago Divinity School as its Alumnus of the Year.

John Holt and I have been friends for over two decades now.  During this period I have watched with great admiration and pride his invaluable contribution to the promotion of mutual understanding between his country and mine. Promoting of such understanding is also the mandate of the United States-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission, with which institution I have been associated for as long a period of time as the length of Prof. Holt’s and my friendship.  As founder – director of the Intercollegiate Sri Lanka Education (ISLE) programme, since 1982 Prof. Holt, along with several of his colleagues from the U.S. academic world, has brought over 400 American undergraduates from some of the leading Liberal Arts colleges in the U.S. on a semester abroad to Sri Lanka. ISLE is formally associated with the University of Peradeniya and Sree Padma Holt is now its capable executive director. As noted above, Holt has written four solidly researched books on aspects of Sri Lanka’s religious culture, three of which have been translated into Sinhala and published locally.  I consider John Holt to be a direct descendant of that excellent American scholarly line that stretches from the late and much revered Howard Wriggins, of Columbia University, to the present.  Besides Wriggins and Holt, this line includes Robert Kearney, Marshall Singer, Myron Weiner, Bardwell Smith, John Ross Carter, Donald Smith, Dennis McGilvray, Steven Kemper, John Richardson, Patrick Peebles, James Manor, Anne Blackburn, Susan Reed, Charlie Hallisey, John Rogers, Jon Walters, Susan Mrozik,  Michele Ruth Gamburd and others. A number of these scholars have also been connected to ISLE as students or faculty directors. Some also have been Fulbright award recipients over the years.   Neither my friendship with John Holt nor my obvious admiration for his scholarship has got in the way of what I say in my comments on The Sri Lanka Reader.

The well- known observation about books and their covers notwithstanding, sometimes a book cover does justice to the contents of a book, other times not. In the case of The Sri Lanka Reader, the cover of the book and its contents complement each other beautifully. The photograph by  Adele Barker ( she is a former Fulbright scholar and author of Not Quite Paradise  An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka published in 2010) that adorns the cover of The Sri LankaReader and the cover design are both extremely pleasant.  The tastefully designed cover is an apt forerunner to the handsome and insightful  ‘documents, analytical accounts, photographs and poetic works’ that Holt has woven together in spellbinding fashion in producing this volume. As its editor and publisher declare,   The Sri Lanka Reader is indeed ‘a sweeping introduction to the epic history of the island nation located just off the southern tip of India’.  It is an anthology that includes ‘more than ninety classic and contemporary texts written by Sri Lankans and foreigners’.

Holt dedicates The Reader most appropriately to ‘all Sri Lankans who have died as a consequence of political violence and those who work for peace’.  I wish to draw  attention to a couple of crucial points the editor of the publication makes in his introduction as they are the same that I have been making during numerous  orientation programmes to countless American diplomats, other American public servants and academics for nearly three and a half decades  now, namely, that despite its small size (approximately that of the U.S. State of West Virginia) Sri Lanka is an enormously complex and complicated country; one that, despite its cultural similarities, is markedly different from its giant neighbour across the Palk Straits and is an entity not to be imagined–no matter how strong the temptation may be– as ‘a manageable version of India’.

John Holt’s  Reader   is a stellar collection of wide-ranging essays both scholarly and popular, folklore, poetry and reportage that run into a mammoth 700 plus pages.  Nor is this all. The book contains 54 images of paintings, sculptures and architecture together with its editor’s suggestions for further reading and, a comprehensive index. It is an extreme labour of love on the part of John Holt, a sincere admirer of all that is best of Sri Lanka and an equally sincere critic of the seamier side of this complex Indian Ocean island.  C.R. de Silva, a former Professor of History at Peradeniya now at the Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, is absolutely right in his observation that The Sri Lanka  Reader  “… is a book that you will return to time and time again.  It will undoubtedly become the standard collection of documents on Sri Lanka and its history.”

It is impossible in a brief essay such as this to do justice to so varied and broad-ranging an anthology .  The most one can do is to seek to offer a flavour of the publication in an effort to entice the discerning reader to search for more.  I undertake the latter task in this brief essay.

The Sri Lanka Reader is divided into five sections: (i) From Ancient to Early Modern; (ii) The Colonial Encounter; (iii) Emerging Identities; (iv) Independence, Insurrections, and Social Change; and (v) Political Epilogue.  The editor has sought to present his sources in a ‘fundamentally historical’ way and he has also, to his eternal credit, attempted to be inclusive, representative and fair to all things ‘Sri Lankan’ without pandering to petty and narrow sectarianism.  Furthermore not only has John Holt included in his anthology those ‘classic’ pieces that should find their way into any serious collection of writings on Sri Lanka, but he has also found the space for writers and artistes whose works are yet to receive the exposure and acclaim that they deserve.  The contributions of Robert Knox, Anagarika  Dharmapala, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Martin Wickramasinghe, R.L. Spittel, Walpola Rahula, K.M. de Silva, K.W. Goonewardena, Howard Wriggins, S.J. Tambiah, Robert Kearney, Paul Caspersz, Dennis McGilvray, A.J. Wilson, A.T. Ariyaratne, Ismeth Raheem, C.R. de Silva, K. Indrapala, Michael Roberts, Jean Arasanayagam, and John Holt himself are interspersed with the writings of such younger Sri Lankans and Americans as Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe , Mirak Raheem, Antoinette Ferdinand, Lilani Jayatilaka, Michele Ruth Gamburd and Ben Schonthal.  In addition, English translations of notable works of those Sri Lankans who write in Sinhala and Tamil are included.

Of the essays included in The Reader, my personal favourites are found in Sections IV and V.  These are K.M. de Silva’s Sri Lanka in 1948; James Manor’s The Bandaranaike Legend; Howard Wriggins’s After Forty – Five Years; Lasantha Wickrematunga’s And Then They Came for Me; and Lilani Jayatilaka’s Moderation the Only Way.

De Silva’s is a superb account of the socio-political dynamics of Ceylon in 1948 when the island made the transition from a British colony to a newly independent state.  As de Silva notes, at the dawn of independence the country was an “an oasis of peace, stability and order.”  However “beneath the surface…, religious cultural and linguistic issues were gathering momentum and developing into a force too powerful for the existing social and political set-up to accommodate or absorb.  They were to tear the country apart within a decade.”  De Silva’s essay gives us a persuasive and convincing assessment of D.S. Senanayake, the country’s first prime minister.  It is a pity that no scholarly biography has yet been written of this towering national political personality,  arguably the best prime minister Sri Lanka has had to date.  The editor has very deftly placed The Bandaranaike Legend, the conclusion to James Manor’s (1990) notable study of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike (The Expedient Utopian : Bandaranaike and Ceylon) between de Silva’s essay and Howard Wriggins’s swan – song of Sri Lanka titled  After Forty – Five Years .  Each essay complements and reinforces the other.  Manor’s substantial study of Bandaranaike is too well known to need recapitulation here.  I should like, however, to quote anon   an extremely significant paragraph from Manor’s The Bandaranaike Legend that Holt has included in The Reader, since   the key points Manor makes in it mesh with my personal assessment of Bandaranaike the man as well as of the government he headed as prime minister in 1956.

My long held view is that although he played to the Sinhala gallery to gain transient political power, Bandaranaike himself was no Sinhala zealot.  He was too educated and possessed of a universal worldview for such zealotry, as evidenced by his early (1926) advocacy of federalism as a possible solution to the then not yet-deadly competition between the Sinhalese and Tamils and later by his decision to enter into a pact with the then leader of the Federal Party in 1957. We should also not forget his substantial, and for the time, pioneering work done in relation to constitutional reform and devolution as Minister of Local Administration in the State Council (1936- 1946) and later (1947- 1951) as Minister of Health and Local Administration in the House of Representatives when the State Council was replaced by the former.  Having exploited the resurgent Sinhala nationalism that was on the rise in post – independent Sri Lanka to ensure his electoral success, Bandaranaike the non – chauvinist attempted subsequently to put that genie back in the bottle.  However, the passions he had unleashed proved far too strong for Bandaranaike to contain them.  His vacillating and indecisive attempts at containment led to destructive factionalism within his own Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) coalition that formed the government of the day. In sharp contrast to his notable predecessor D.S. Senanayake and his successors Sirimavo Bandaranaike, J.R. Jayewardene, R.Premadasa, and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga–who were all surer-footed and hence exercised more authoritarian control over their subordinates, as does the current incumbent–eventually the politically fragile Bandaranaike was destroyed by the very forces that propelled him into power.  Here, as promised above, is how Manor captures effectively the rise and fall of Bandaranaike:

He [Bandaranaike] had hoped to use chauvinism as a means to achieve power, believing that he could disarm it by making modest, long – overdue concessions to Sinhalese Buddhist interests, and then by concentrating on reform to remove social injustice and soothe the anxieties of would be communalists.  He did not succeed partly because the problems he inherited were so severe, partly because his ruling coalition contained too many contradictions, partly because his government functioned so sluggishly, but very substantially because of the way Bandaranaike himself thought and acted.

In his After Forty – Five Years, Howard Wriggins   confirms  our views. He records his 1955 encounter with Bandaranaike, the then leader of the opposition and aspirant for the post of the prime minister of Ceylon.  Whilst discussing the rising swabasha movement, which demanded a change in official language policy, Bandaranaike had startled Wriggins by saying: “you know, Professor Wriggins, I have never found an issue as good as the language issue for exciting the people! Bandaranaike had said so in a way that had suggested he was confident the excitement could be managed” — i.e., that the genie could be put back in the bottle.  Here is how Wriggins put it:

It would be wrong to assign all the blame (or credit) for this [ the Ceylonese Jacksonian revolution Bandaranaike ushered in 1956] to Bandaranaike alone.  Others, far more passionately committed to Sinhalization of Sri Lanka than he, seized the opportunity and pushed all the harder.  They found ready acolytes, and no leaders of principal parties dared stand against the tide.

On the morning of 8 January, 2009, Lasantha Wickrematunga was brutally assassinated  in broad daylight as he drove to his office.  Like most independent-minded journalists, Wickrematunga   lived in the shadow of death by assassination for a considerable period of his professional life.  He had left behind an editorial to be published, consequent to his death, which the Sunday Leader duly carried on 11 January 2009,   titled  And Then They Came for Me.  It is a powerful indictment of the culture of impunity that has prevailed  in Sri Lanka from 1970 onwards  but has become particularly virulent  since 2005.  Towards the end of this hard-hitting editorial Wickrematunga expresses the hope that “my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration…”  And he goes on to hope against hope and say:

I hope it will help galvanise forces that will usher in a new era of human liberty in our beloved motherland.  I also hope it will open the eyes of your President to the fact that however many are slaughtered in the name of patriotism, the human spirit will endure and flourish.  Not all the Rajapakses combined can kill that.

After Wickrematunga’s murder, Sri Lanka witnessed further death and destruction during the last stages of the war against the LTTE and in May 2009 we witnessed  the brutal and intransigent Tigers’ spectacular demise.  Most of us hoped that the bloody events   ‘on the sands of Mullativu’ which brought the internecine war to a close would pave  the way for healing and national reconciliation. Tragically, post-war developments have instead taken us on a disappointingly different direction where Sinhala triumphalism, coupled with increased authoritarian governance,   have placed reconciliation on the back burner. Our Holocaust, an editorial published on 16 May, 2009, in the Tamil diaspora newspaper The Tamil Guardian and republished in The Sri Lanka Reader,   makes a tragic and  ominous prediction to the effect that as long as the Tamils are oppressed, “Sri Lanka will never be able to live inpeace’.

Neither Sinhala triumphalism nor the continuing violent defiance of the Tamil diaspora will help the Sinhalese and Tamils of Sri Lanka to learn to respect each other and share constitutionally guaranteed equal rights as citizens of the country.  Only the moderate middle–  the non-sectarian segment of the Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese living in Sri Lanka– can and will usher in ethnic peace and social stability in our island home. It is such a consummation that Lilani Jayatilaka devoutly wishes for in her essay of 17 May, 2009 titled Moderation the Only Way that is the penultimate item included in The Reader. Before I proceed further I wish to state that, unlike the disclaimer made with regard to my comments on John Holt, nothing I say about Moderation the Only Way   or its author is dispassionate: they are entirely passionate for both professional and profoundly personal reasons! Lilani Jayatilaka’s essay,  as editor  John Holt notes, offered “a more moderate humane, and nuanced perspective” than the predictably slanted editorials and other contributions that appeared in most Sinhala, Tamil and English newspapers published in Sri Lanka and overseas at that time.  It is an essay, John Holt goes on to note, that is “noteworthy not only for its expose`  of the internment camps containing Tamil refugees but also for its insistence on the need for Sri Lankans not to be held hostage by Sinhala ultranationalists, on the one hand, and by Tamil separatists, on the other.”  I wish to end my comments on The Reader quoting the concluding lines of Moderation the Only Way as I identify totally with the sentiments expressed therein:

[T]hen  there  are  the Tamil Tigers who manipulate the emotions of the vulnerable with information and misinformation.

But then there is information and misinformation disseminated by the government of Sri Lanka as well.  The Sinhala supremacists and the radicalized Tamils make an emotional choice as to whom and what they will believe, fuelled by their ethnic loyalties.  Each has access only to partial truths, which they believe are whole truths.  In this lies their blindness.  I write in favour of moderation — to  see these  partial  truths for what they are and to recognize the fact that the whole truth will continue to elude us; to beware of the rhetoric of hate and to refuse to become a pawn in the diabolical vision of either the nationalists or the separatists.  For while the ultranationalists and the separatists pursue their own ends, the people of this land of whatever ethnicity are being required to pay with their lives for the intolerance and intransigence of the bigoted few.



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