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John Holt Responds to Gananath Obeyesekre about The Sri Lanka Reader

by Prof. John Holt, February 16, 2012

The first is the issue of trying to represent the substance and sensitivities of another culture/country, particularly one as complex and varied as Sri Lanka, in a way that neither privileges the “foreign” perspective nor fetishizes the “local.” Perhaps because of its extended period of 450 years of European colonization, this issue may be even more challenging in Sri Lanka than in other contexts.  Our scholarly perspectives are not quite as “globalized” as we might like to think, and the discourses we deploy and the choices of focused research we choose in our attempts to understand cross-culturally are simply not as abstract or as transcendent as we may prefer or assume...

A second general issue that I think is raised by Obeyesekere’s review, one that is also signaled in his opening paragraph, is the massively ambitious nature of this project, a project attempted in the service of providing an introduction to a more general readership that goes beyond the academic.

In responding to Gananath Obeyesekere’s review of the Sri Lanka Reader, let me state out front that I have great respect for his studies of Sri Lankan culture and society.  I’ve learned a tremendous amount from reading his many works over the years, works that provided many leads for research that went into a number of my own books.  Because of my respect for him, I was disappointed to read his unsolicited review of the Sri Lanka Reader, a review that he has now published in a number of other venues as well.  Whether he was responsible or not for how his review has been entitled in various places, it has been headlined as:  “Gananath Pans Holt Reader” or “Sri Lanka Reader:  Biased and Prejudiced.”  These headlines stunned me.  Obviously, I think they are quite unfair.  I had tried very hard, as some other reviewers have recognized, to be as balanced and as representative as I possibly could when editing the Reader.  At first, I hesitated to respond to his review, but its appearance in four venues leaves me with little choice.

The Sri Lanka Reader John Clifford HoltCritical review of the works by other scholars is one of the functions that all of us take on in the academy. It is one of the ways in which different perspectives are brought to bear on a discipline or subject matter. I have myself tried to participate in many scholarly debates.  Over the years, Gananath and I have been critical and engaged readers of each other’s work, challenging each other through a number of reviews and articles.  From my side, I have suggested that including an ethno-theological account of what Pattini means to religious people in Sri Lanka, rather than only than a psychoanalytical interpretation, would have further enriched his otherwise exhaustive presentation of the Cult of the Goddess Pattini.  In addition, I later challenged his formulation of the notion of “protestant Buddhism” because the phenomena he described in 19th and 20th c. Sri Lankan religious culture scarcely resembled in theological substance what Protestantism (Christianity) meant or emphasized for the religious in Europe or America.  From his side, Obeysekere more than reciprocated (at least that is how I felt at the time) when he published a review of my Buddha in the Crown: Avalokitesvara in the Buddhist Traditions of Sri Lanka, a review in which said that I imagined “seeing Mahayana everywhere” in Sri Lanka and that some of my findings were based on questionable anthropological methods. I chose not respond to that broadside because I just didn’t want to be drawn further into a public-style type of brawl.  As many of you know, Gananath’s style of review is known for generating very spirited interchanges.  Instead, I decided to take the advice of colleagues, both in Sri Lanka and America, who said I should follow the “high road.”  When I first saw his review of the SL Reader last week, I thought I should again just take the high road.  But with friends and family sending me copies of it from what is now four different sources, including the AISLS list serve, I  reluctantly decided that I have to respond to some of his comments and, in particular, note some of the inaccuracies and lack of considerations in his review.

While I will try to give a point-by-point response to Obeyesekere’s criticisms, I think that there may be some matters other than specifics that are raised or implied in his review.  The first is the issue of trying to represent the substance and sensitivities of another culture/country, particularly one as complex and varied as Sri Lanka, in a way that neither privileges the “foreign” perspective nor fetishizes the “local.” Perhaps because of its extended period of 450 years of European colonization, this issue may be even more challenging in Sri Lanka than in other contexts.  Our scholarly perspectives are not quite as “globalized” as we might like to think, and the discourses we deploy and the choices of focused research we choose in our attempts to understand cross-culturally are simply not as abstract or as transcendent as we may prefer or assume.  Moreover, for those who were not raised in the linguistic mother tongues that so indelibly nuance the emergence of consciousness, we simply cannot cultivate the subtleties of understanding that may be intrinsic to the perspectives of those who have been born and bred in specific cultures and histories.  I have lived in Sri Lanka for periods amounting to six or seven years, though I have followed its religio-political culture now for more than thirty on a daily basis.  Still, each time I return to the country, I am humbled by how much I simply do not nor cannot know about this complicated place.  There are layers upon layers (some say “wheels within wheels”) operating simultaneously within an ever-changing socio-cultural-political dynamic.  (In this regard, I’ve often thought about the relevance of the Buddha’s observation regarding impermanence for trying to understand what unfolds in Sri Lanka.)   Many of you know that for thirty years I have invested a lot of my energies in introducing Sri Lanka to undergraduate American students who study on the ISLE Program.  Very often I have had to reflect upon the intrinsic difficulties of how people from culture A come to formulate their impressions about culture B.  It is fluid, evolving and sometimes very frustrating task, for a variety of reasons.  Consequently, I have also gained much respect for those who labor in the field of translating texts, because many of the problems they face in finding precision are fundamentally of the same kind that one faces in trying to help students comprehend what they encounter.  In the end, I think that we can only comprehend in degrees, not in absolutes, and that we have to recognize that the process is always fraught with blindsides and covered up trenches.  I’m afraid that perhaps the limitations of my knowledge in some areas must have come through at some level while Obeyeskere read through parts of the Reader.  Yet I think that this is a lesson from which we can all draw some wisdom.  We can never be too careful, especially as outsiders, when formulating representations of other cultures.

On the other hand, the Sri Lanka Reader, and the other readers in Duke University Press’s World Reader Series, are not meant to be simply the articulation of a local point of view.  Indeed, when I selected various texts, I chose a number of pieces for the sake of inclusion and representation.  But by including them, I didn’t necessarily personally agree with or endorse the substance of these observations either.  Lots of foreigners have left their observations for posterity, and their points of view are necessarily non-local and contain perspectives that could not be generated from the vantage point of Sri Lanka’s insularity.  I’m referring to items that I included such as those by Fa Hien, Ibn Batuta, Robert Knox, Leonard Woolf, Sebald de Weert, Philip Baldaeus, Howard Wriggins, Henry Steele Olcott, etc., and all those wonderfully-dug out-and-many-translated-into-English-for-the-first time-Portuguese sources.  Of the 105 entries included the Reader, 27 were written by foreigners.  The views contained in these sources are not gospel truth, but their culturally encoded observations do enrich our understanding of what has happened historically and politically on the island in spite of their biases and prejudices.  I also knew when compiling the Reader that selecting some sources while excluding others would draw inevitable carping:  “Why did he include this when he could have or should have included that?”  Moreover, I knew that in trying to be inclusive I would offend the exclusivists (and here I am emphatically not referring to Gananath Obeyesekere) who think that they have a sacred right to inhabit, own and represent the island.  Yet, in spite of their handicaps, foreigners, of course, actually see some things that the locals may not, owing to the various processes of conditioning that create the prisms that we all carry around as a result of our own personal histories.  To his credit, in the first paragraph of his review, after saying something nice about me, Obeyesekere informs his readers that his review of my book contains his own “prejudices.”  We all have them, for better or worse.  And so does the Sri Lanka Reader by nature of the selection of its contentsIn that spirit, perhaps we could rationalize one of the headlines of Obeyesekere’s review, though I do not think this was what was intended.

A second general issue that I think is raised by Obeyesekere’s review, one that is also signaled in his opening paragraph, is the massively ambitious nature of this project, a project attempted in the service of providing an introduction to a more general readership that goes beyond the academic.  Because of the nature of this project, I was genuinely challenged by very general questions that continuously lurked in my mind as I worked through the process of compilation:  What has this island meant to its various inhabitants and visitors during its long history?  What political fault lines (including the “ethnic conflict”) need to be emphasized over time?  What noteworthy achievements of cultural expression should be flagged?  What should someone know about Sri Lanka who has never been there?  And so forth.  The most general of questions are often the most difficult to field.  For someone who teaches the study of religion to undergraduates, I have found over the years that the introductory course is the most difficult to teach, and here, while compiling the Reader, I was mindful of what types of devices and materials have to be strategically deployed to engage readers constructively in this most difficult of pedagogical challenges.  I was also concerned to create a gateway or platform so that those who follow might be introduced to topics, issues, or moments that deserve further inquiry.  Indeed, some of Gananath’s specific comments about various pieces in the Reader point us beyond to further inquiry.  In another vein, as I said in the preface to the Reader, one concern that I brought to the project was that I wanted to draw attention to a number of voices that had not yet been registered in the manner that they deserve, as well as publish translations of important works that have yet to appear in English.  Finally, I was encouraged by my editor to go beyond only academic purviews to include poetry, fiction and even some cartoons.  Yes, it was an extremely challenging process to put such an ambitious project together.  The more I worked on it and made choices, the more I was aware that I had also made choices not to include other possibilities.  I’m sure some people have felt left out.

Having made these general comments, I will try to respond specifically to some of Obeyesekere’s critical observations.

Some of Obeyesekere’s criticisms are inevitable with a volume such as this.  His general observation that the frame for the book is unwieldy is acknowledged, if unavoidable. When an editor from Duke University Press first approached me about the project, my first inclination was to decline precisely for that reason.  (I have never aspired to write a textbook either.)  I then learned, however, that the book would be part of a series of readers, many of which were already published, and I was sent several examples covering countries in South and Central America.  All of the titles in the series bear the subtitle of “History, Culture, Politics.”  I further learned that the general idea of the series was to try to give insights into the ways in which history is remembered through representative voices and cultural expressions, sources reflecting political history articulated through these cultural artifacts and lenses.  Some of the books in the series have an experimental flare and I was impressed by the creativity reflected in a number of them.  It is a wonderful series and so I set about trying to meet its high standard.  In comparison, the Sri Lanka Reader may be the most academically oriented and most strictly historically focused of the lot.  It is certainly one of the longest and most comprehensive.  One of the reasons for this is that Sri Lanka’s recorded history is far lengthier than countries in Central or South America.  In any case, the goal was not to provide a synthetic and tight historical narrative with pretensions to objectivity.  I don’t think Obeyesekere was aware of the nature of this series in general, its mission and parameters and for whom these books are offered (they are actually classified by Duke for the “travel” section of bookstores!).  If left completely to my own devices and without the models presented to me, no doubt I would have created something else.  But as I have said, it became my effort, in consonance with Duke’s World Reader Series, to reach out beyond the academic audience to provide a gateway or platform.  I also had in mind, of course, the undergraduate students who study on the ISLE Program in Sri Lanka, people in the diplomatic community assigned to posts in Colombo, foreigners working for NGOs, Sri Lankan-Americans (Canadians/Europeans/ etc.) who are curious about the history and culture of the island, and the more intellectually serious traveler.  I also thought that many contemporary Sri Lankans could benefit from a reading of this volume.  But this book was never intended to be a definitive academic history of Sri Lanka, only a primer or perhaps a supplement, at best a somewhat funky and thought provoking annotated source book.

Obeyesekere has criticized my general introduction, including the introductions I wrote to the five parts and their subsections, and my introductions to each selected piece, as not substantive enough to give coherence to the volume.  While trying not to be defensive on this point, in comparison to the other Readers in the series, my introductions are quite lengthy and I came under some editorial pressure from the press to reduce my extended commentaries and my considerable attempts at providing context and synthesis. I did my best to introduce and knit where and when I could.  In another review, I have been highly praised for distilling so much in an effective way within the general introduction.  Few will read the book cover-to-cover, but if they do they will find consistent threads and continuities.  The book doubles back on itself in many instances.  But I suspect that the book’s greater value for most will be that it can be dipped into at any place, returned to from time to time.

As for his criticism about the cover of the book, I had an argument with my Duke editor about this, and I lost.  For the same reasons that Obeyesekere cites, that it doesn’t quite serve the purpose of the volume, I argued for other possibilities.  In the end, the editor went ahead with this choice despite my objection.  The decision about the cover was driven by marketing concerns, which in these days is a priority for any university press.

I object to Obeyesekere’s comment that I do not provide coverage of the Sinhala-on-Sinhala violence that has occurred in Sri Lanka, especially during the JVP insurrections.  That’s just not the case.  As someone who lived in Sri Lanka during 1988-90, who firsthand witnessed appalling violence and spent many restless nights with my family lying awake while hearing machine gun fire in the near distance, and since, as some of you know, I have edited and published the memoire of a brutally assaulted and unjustly imprisoned former research assistant of mine who personally suffered terribly from the government’s wrath, I am not naïve to this history or the realities of such violence, as Obeyesekere seems to imply.  Within editorial constraints, I attempted to address this by including and then editing Robert Kearney’s and Janice Jiggins’ now classic article about the 1971 JVP insurrection (after considerable challenges and personal expense involved in obtaining copyright permission), and then by including two short stories that vividly capture the sense of fear that gripped the public in the late 1980s.  I had wanted to include Rohana Wijeweera’s dramatic courtroom speech at his first trial, but it is too rambling and ultimately incoherent.

I appreciate the importance of Obeyesekere’s comments about the various types of problems (alcoholism, incest, etc.) now facing some villagers in Sri Lanka, many of which he points out are the byproduct of spouses having taken employment in the Middle East.  He says I have not addressed them.  But precisely this issue and its ramifications are addressed in a very cogent, empirically rooted essay written by Michelle Gamburd in the latter part of the Reader.

Obeyesekere’s comments about A.T. Ariyaratne and Sarvodaya are somewhat typical of criticism often leveled against the man and his movement in Sri Lanka. I probably personally share in Obeyesekere’s views regarding the idealistic philosophy and historical view that guides this movement.  But I felt that since Sarvodaya is one of the largest NGOs in Sri Lanka and has actually made an effective impact for many women and children in many villages (that I have visited personally), and that since it has been internationally recognized repeatedly and remains of great interest to so many students who first come to Sri Lanka having read George Bond’s Buddhism at Work, that I should include a brief piece that outlines its philosophy.  So I chose what I judged to be a clearly written essay from Ariyaratne’s Collected Works.  I didn’t choose this because I share Sarvodaya’s “primordialist” view of the village.  When I read that part of Obeyesekere’s review, I thought:  “Wow!  This is a great example of shooting the messenger after reading/hearing the message!”

About the Robert Knox description of the Veddas that Obeyesekere objects to, I never got the sense from reading Knox’s work that he was just making up these observations/descriptions.  I do know that a Sri Lankan historian, on the basis of internal evidence within the text, believes that his movements were always quite restricted, so I would concede that Obeyesekere’s observation here is instructive.  I did scour the Seligmanns’ work, as Obeyeskere suggests, as my first choice to find a suitable selection.  But one of the charges to editors in this series is to find readable tracts accessible to the more general reader.  Unfortunately, I found most of the passages I considered in the Seligmann’s book to be too stilted, too formal and too dense to hold the interest of the intended readership.

As for the comments about the Portuguese section, I remain extremely grateful to Jorge Flores for compiling such a well-crafted section of the Reader.  He accomplished what few other scholars could do.  Many of the entries have been translated from the Portuguese for the first time.  Perhaps I should have inserted something written from the Sinhala perspective, and probably from Tamil and Muslim perspectives as well.  But we didn’t. Yet, I believe this section is one of the highlights of the book for both the serious and more casual reader.  And Flores’ comments and titles for each piece certainly do not reflect a colonialist perspective, which seems to be what Obeyesekere implies in his criticism.  By the way, both Jorge and I are anti-colonial too.

About Obeyesekere’s comments regarding John Davy’s account of the last king of Kandy, and Torrington’s account of the 1848 rebellion, these were included, as Obeyesekere rightly suspects, to indicate something of the British perspective in play at the time.  Yes, it is very painful especially to read Davy’s account of the last Kandyan king’s alleged public cruelty.  And, of course, nationalist historians have sought to dispute the account.  Specifically, as for Obeyesekere’s view that this last king was popular among sections of the Sinhala community, that may well be.  Whatever the case, we also know that he was extremely unpopular among other sections and that Sinhala collusion with the British to disestablish the last king was essential to his demise.  Historically, it would seem as if what was more generally bemoaned throughout the Sinhala community was the loss of kingship per se, rather than the loss of this particular king.  That becomes more apparent when reading about the 1818 and 1848 rebellions that sought to re-establish kingship.  That’s one of the reasons why I also included the accounts by Forbes and Torrington about these landmark historical moments.

Obeyesekere’s comments about how I don’t seem to be aware of the contexts for the ballads of Pitiye devi and Dadimunda did really disturb me.  Some of you may recognize the fact that I previously have published the first from a translation of a palm leaf manuscript in Buddha in the Crown and the second in The Buddhist Visnu.  I did months of field work at devales where these texts are sometimes part of ritual liturgies.  Of course I would know that the singing of the ballads takes place within a ritual context!  I guess I was not precise enough regarding that aspect in the introductory pieces to these selections.

Finally, regarding the brief fifth section or epilogue of the Reader, I quickly pieced these editorials and newspaper reports together just after or during the dramatic days of mid-May, 2009.   I had very little time to do it (amidst end of the academic year pressures and the fact that the manuscript was already long overdue at the press).  But under the circumstances, I felt that I needed to at least provide some recognition of those momentous days.  I asked two well-known colleagues in Sri Lanka if they could quickly write an essay trying to capture the possible ramifications of what had just occurred, a piece that I could include as an epilogue to the volume.  Neither could do so within the severe time constraints, so I selected representative perspectives published in representative newspapers during or within days of the end of the fighting.  Obeyesekere says that he was offended by the final piece written by a reporter from the Globe and Mail (Toronto). He also says that this kind of public propaganda utilized by governments in South Asia, the stuff reported by the Globe and Mail, is very common.  Though there are a couple of interpretive errors in the piece, Obeyesekere’s point about the commonality of these political expressions is actually one of the reasons why I decided to include this piece, in addition to registering the fact that much chest-pumping triumphalism was publicly vented in the days following the defeat of the Tigers on the Sinhala side.  Obeyesekere fails to mention that in this final section, I also published editorials from a British-based Tamil publication that referred to the event as a “holocaust,” an editorial from The Island that heralded it as “the greatest rescue mission in Sri Lankan history,” and a thoughtful essay, also from The Island, on the need for moderation in such a turbulent time.  Again, I sought a balance. 

While putting this volume together, I was more than aware of the frightful historical gaps I’d left unattended, especially in those dimensions of Sri Lankan history about which I am not a cutting-edge expert.  The final selection was based on many criteria and was so difficult that I had to raise the issue immediately in the opening sentences of the Reader.  Please see the acknowledgements section.

I’ve received some unfortunate hate e-mails from Sinhala extremists because, from their perspectives, I’ve given too much voice to Tamils and Muslims.  Others have said that I should “become better educated” so I would understand the fiction regarding the so-called “legitimate grievances” that Tamils claim need to be addressed.  I’ve also received a lot of very positive feedback from a variety of Sri Lankans (Sinhala, Muslims, Tamils and Burghers), friends and academics alike who celebrate the book for its scope, selection, balance, depth and general excellence.  I’m sorry to have disappointed Gananath Obeyesekere.  But I will also say that I have taken his comments seriously and in the spirit of constructive criticism, despite the fact that the bylines for his review are not very reflective of the value of this work. In the end, I still have a very good feeling about the Reader, a feeling that the book will have a long shelf life and that it will be helpful for those seeking to gain a foothold in Sri Lankan studies.  I also think that even some specialists will benefit from specific pieces that are included within it too. 

I invite anyone who hasn’t seen the Sri Lanka Reader yet to take a look for themselves to see if is worthwhile reading or not. 

From my side, enough ink about this has already been spilled and I plan to go back to the high road, one that leads to some peace of mind while skiing in the mountains of Maine.

John Clifford Holt