SINHALA LANGUAGE: THE DEFINING ELEMENT OF OUR NATIONAL CULTURE

  

“මුහුද දෙබෑ කරන..., අහස පොළොව සිඹින...,
රටට සෙනෙහෙ පුදන..., ලෙයින් මසින් සැදුන…

සැබෑ පියෙකි දරු දහසකි...
, මුලු රටේම ලේ නෑයෙකි...,
අපේ එකෙකි සිය දහසකි... , මේ දරු හට මව් දහසකි...

‍යව්වනයේ මේ සගයා..., අපට නොහැකි මේ කරනා
...,
අපේ එකෙකි මේ මිනිසා....., මේ මිනිසා...

…රටක් රාජ්‍යයක් වටිනා...
,  මේ මිනිසා...

“අපි වෙනුවෙන් අපි”,



Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

From historic times, the primary distinguishing characteristic of the
Sinhala people of Sri Lanka has been their Sinhala language. Their
collective identity as a distinct community is established by their
unique language. Language is the defining element of any advanced
culture and it gives the strongest form of identity to a community.
Sinhala is one of the world’s oldest living languages and as a vibrant
language Sinhala has a celebrated history of over 2300 years. The
Sinhala language grew out of Indo-Aryan dialects and exists only in
Sri Lanka and has its own distinguished literary tradition. The script
used in writing Sinhala evolved from the ancient Brahmi script used in
most Aryan languages, which was introduced to the island in the 3rd
century BCE.

In 1909, the Sinhala script won international recognition from a group
of reputed international scholars as one of the world’s most creative
alphabets. It has been named as one of the world’s 16 most creative
alphabets among today’s functioning languages, and some of them among
the oldest known to mankind.

All salient aspects of our national culture – tangible and intangible,
either grew or evolved within the borders of our country. Sinhala
language and literature evolved and developed in Sri Lanka. All other
languages used in Sri Lanka originated in other countries. It is
significant to note that the overwhelming majority of people of Sri
Lanka are distinguished by their language – Sinhala. Sinhala language
has not only been  a means of communication for our people but also a
strong unifying influence providing solidarity and strength to the
Sinhala community as a unique cultural entity in the world. From
historic times virtually all place names of the country are in the
Sinhala language – in the North, South, East, West and Central
regions.

This unifying effect has prevailed from historic times, but was
threatened to some degree with the arrival and impact of European
colonial powers, especially with the wide-ranging socio-economic
changes to which the country was subject during the British period of
occupation.

SINHALA LANGUAGE AND BUDDHISM

Sinhala language in both its oral and written, informal and formal
forms developed as the language of Buddhism in our country. The
primary activity of Buddhist vihares, then and now, has been
‘dharma-desanaa’, bana’ or sermons which were invariably conducted in
Sinhala. From historic times, our Buddhist bhikkhus and our royalty
were responsible for the development, preservation and promotion of
the Sinhala language.  Bhikkhus were in the forefront in the
propagation of education in general, both religious and secular. The
Mahavihara, Abayagiriya and Jetavanarama Buddhist fraternities and
associated monasteries were outstanding places of learning equivalent
to universities of today. They had international affiliations with
international students. The medium of instruction and all scholarly
activities in these institutions were conducted in the Sinhala
language. Large libraries were a part and parcel of these
institutions. Particularly in these institutions, scholar Bhikkus were
involved in translation into Sinhala of Pali and Sanskrit literary
works pertaining to Buddhism, on a large scale. The patronage received
from Sinhala royalty played a dominant role in the propagation and
preservation of Sinhala language. We had kings who were outstanding
Sinhala scholars compiling Sinhala literary works of high quality,
both in prose and verse.

EARLIEST SINHALA LITERARY WORKS
According to Prof. Senarat Paranavithana the earliest specimens of
Sinhala metrical compositions may be dated to the first century BCE.
Four of the early Brahmi inscriptions of Sri Lanka have been
identified as poetical compositions. The Mahavamsa composed in Pali in
the 5th century CE was based on ancient Sinhala Commentaries known as
Sihala-Atthakatha-Mahawamsa. The Sigiri graffiti scribbled on the
mirror wall are dated to 7th-8th centuries and are on fascinating
secular themes- many of the verses of an amorous or romantic nature.
Some of the oldest Sinhala literary works date from the 9th century
CE. The Dhampiya-Atuva-Getapadaya is the oldest Sinhala prose work
which dates back to the 9th century.
Sinhala literary work flourished during the Polonnaruwa and
Dambadeniya period from 10th to 13th century CE which is considered as
the golden age of Sinhala literature. Among prominent Sinhala prose of
this time is the Amavatura written in the 13th century by Gurulugomi.
Dharmapradipikava is another of his compilations. Gurulugomi’s works
are characterized by the use of pure Sinhala (Elu) words and limiting
Sanskrit and Pali loan words to the minimum. Other literary works of
this period include the Buthsarana by Vidyachakravarti, the Pujavaliya
and Saddharma-Ratnavaliya. The latter is renowned for the beauty of
its style and the simplicity of its language. Other notable prose work
is the Saddharmalankaraya by Jayabahu Dharmakirti in the 14th century,
Thupavansaya, Elu-Attanagalu Vansaya and the Dambadeni Aasna.

SINHALA POETRY

The Sinhala people have excelled in poetry. The Pujavaliya of the
13trh century refers to twelve famous Sinhala poets who flourished
during the reign of king Aggabodhi-I (568-601 CE). The Sinhala
language is a poetical language. It lends itself easily to metre and
rhyme due to its grammatical flexibility and rich vocabulary
comprising of a large number of synonyms. Sinhala is a mellifluous
language with a smooth sweet flow, with high vowel content and is
comparable to French and Urdu, widely regarded to be the two most
romantic languages in the world. One of the greatest literary
monuments of the medieval period is the "Kavsilumina" a 13th century
"Maha-Kavya" composed by King Parakrama Bahu-II (1234-1269). The
oldest Sandesha poem of which we have any evidence is the "Mayura
Sandeshaya" (Peacock’s message) dating back to the 13th century, if
not earlier. The work no longer exists, though examples from it are
cited in the classical Sinhala grammar "Sidath-Sangarawa" (13th
century).

During the Kotte period (15th-16th centuries) Sinhala poetry was
receiving greater attention especially by way of “Hatan Kavi” or war
poems and “Sandeshas” or message poems.  This period marks the
efflorescence of Sinhala poetry with secular "Sandesha" poems gaining
much popularity. Among the popular Sandesha poems of this period are
"Thisara Sandeshaya" (Swan’s message, dated 14th century), "Gira
Sandeshaya" (Parrot’s message), "Hansa Sandeshaya" (Goose’s message),
"Parevi Sandeshaya" (Dove’s message), "Kokila Sandeshaya" (Cuckoo’s
message) and "Selalihini Sandeshaya" (Starling’s message) belong to
the 15th century.

Jataka tales formed the thematic content of most Sinhala poetry of the
medieval period. "Kavya-Sekharaya" written in mid 15th century by Sri
Rahula Mahathera narrates the "Sattubhasta Jataka" and Guttilaya of
Vetteve Thera (15th century) is based on the "Guttila Jataka". Other
Sandesha poems include the "Sevul Sandeshaya" (Cocks message), "Hema
Kurulu Sandeshaya" (Oriole’s message) "Ketakirili Sandeshaya"
(Hornbill’s message), "Nilakobo Sandeshaya" (Blue dove’s message) and
"Diyasevul Sandeshaya" (Black swan’s message).

THREATS TO SINHELA LANGUAGE IN THE PAST

It is recorded that many Sinhala literary works of the Anuradhapura
period were lost when South Indian Dravidian invaders destroyed places
of Learning and Buddhist establishments in Anuradhapura and
Polonnaruwa. In the distant past, the Sinhala language faced serious
threats from South Indian Tamil-speaking Dravidian invaders who caused
untold damage to Sinhala writings. Vast libraries of ‘ola’ palm-leaf
manuscripts  in the thousands were set fire to and destroyed by these
foreign invaders in ancient capital Anuradhapura at various times
since the 1st century BCE until the city was abandoned, and later in
Polonnaruwa during the 11th to 13th century period when the greatest
destruction was caused to thousands of ola manuscripts stored in
ancient libraries, Buddhist temples and monasteries.

CATHOLIC PORTUGUESE ATROCITIES

This was followed in early 16th century by the Portuguese and later by
Dutch invaders, with their gun powder and soldiers, who brought in a
reign of terror to the country, killing and undermining Sinhala and
Buddhist scholars,  causing widespread destruction to Sinhala and
Buddhist places of learning and setting fire to ola manuscripts.  All
Buddhist temples and places of learning in the maritime areas under
the Catholic Portuguese control were demolished. Monasteries were
razed and their priceless treasure looted. Libraries were set on fire.
In 1588, the world renowned Buddhist educational institution Wijayaba
Pirivena at Totagamuwa and Keragala, which had carried on the
traditions of ancient Taxila and Nalanda universities were destroyed
and their incumbent killed. Weedagama Privena in Raigam Korala,
Sunethradevi Pirivena of Kotte were burnt and destroyed. The valuable
books of the temple were destroyed. The great Poet monk Weedagama
Maithree Thero who wrote Lowedasangarawa and Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula
were living in that temple at the time of its demolition by Catholics.

Ratnapura Samandewalaya was destroyed. Colombo fort was constructed
with the stones of the destroyed and plundered Kelaniya temple. King
Buwanekabahu's five storied Royal palace and the seven storied palace
called Kithsimewanpaya built by Dambadeniya king were demolished. The
three-storied Dalada Maligawa of Kotte was pulled down to the ground.
Buddhist religious edifices, which had taken generations to build,
were completely destroyed by Catholics. Never were a glorious
civilization and a noble culture more brutally destroyed. The work of
centuries was undone in a few years. The Catholic Portuguese period
(1505 - 1658) constitutes a long and poignant chronicle of oppression
and injustice meted out to the Sinhala Buddhists. The Catholic
Portuguese were the first colonial power to pave in this country the
way to almost continuous religious tensions – the repercussions of
which is felt to this day in Sri Lanka. The Dutch, who ousted the
Portuguese in 1640, occupied the places under Portuguese control. They
continued similar trade activities and started converting people to
their form of Protestant Christianity. They too were instrumental in
destroying Buddhist temples, monasteries and the royal palace at
Hanguranketa.

VENERABLE VELIVITIYE SARANANKARA THERA

Before the arrival of the Portuguese, during the Kotte and Mahanuwara
kingdoms under Sinhala kings, there was a great revival of Sinhala
language and literature. The same patronage to Sinhala learning was
not forthcoming from the Tamil speaking Nayakkar or Malabar kings of
the Mahanuwara period. Bhikkhus who had contributed much to the
advancement of Sinhala writings were not accorded necessary
recognition. This state of affairs continued until the emergence of
Venerable Velivitiye Saranankara Mahathera (1698-1778) a great Sinhala
patriot and an outstanding scholar. His initiatives, patronage and
contribution to the revival and strengthening of the Buddha Sasana,
Sinhala language and Buddhist culture are immeasurable and unsurpassed
by anyone during the colonial and the post colonial period of over
five centuries. His impact was so strong, that in the second half of
the 19th century, it was students and their successors who established
outstanding places of learning such as Vidyodaya Pirivena at
Maligakanda, Vidyalankara Pirivena at Peliyagoda, and Parama Dhamma
Cetiya Pirivena at Ratmalana.

BRITISH PLUNDER AND CRUELTY

The British finally in the early 19th century, capturing the entire
country, did the most catastrophic and shattering damage to our
Sinhala Buddhist cultural heritage and thereby to our language. They
not only introduced their language as the medium of communication in
all affairs of governance and economic activities, but took direct
measures to undermine the Sinhala language and culture. English was
forced upon our people as the language of administration, the language
in which justice was meted out, the language in which government
records were kept. The Sinhala language and ordinary Sinhala people,
suffered immensely during the British period of occupation.

To serve their self-interests they practiced the "divide and rule"
policy by setting one community against the other. It is a well known
fact that the British gave special privileges to the Tamil minority
and those of the Christian faith. They were provided with better
opportunities for education, employment and other government services.
They soon became privileged communities. In terms of the density of
schools per unit area, the Jaffna district had the highest density. In
1870 there were only two Buddhist schools left in the country - in
Panadura and Dodanduwa, with an attendance of 246 children as against
805 Christian Schools with an attendance of 78,086 children. As far as
the Sinhala community is concerned, for generations in the past, their
traditional places of learning were the Buddhist temples where
Buddhist monks were teachers of both religious and secular subjects.
These centers and Buddhist monks were not accorded the same
privileges/support accorded to Christian missionary schools and
teachers.

As an act of revenge against the 1817-1818 rebellion against them, the
British ordered their troops to destroy all property belonging to the
Sinhala people. They destroyed houses by setting fire, destroyed home
gardens and cattle. Thousands of acres of paddy land, irrigation
works, reservoirs and water ways were destroyed to starve the
population to death. Water that spilled into surrounding areas turned
Wellassa into a large malaria mosquito breeding ground killing
thousands of people. Almost all Sinhala nobles and bhikkhus linked to
the rebellion were beheaded to terrorize the population.  During the
Kandyan rebellion of 1818, every man over 14 years was ordered by the
British to be killed and some sixty thousand Sinhala people were
massacred. Large numbers of local leaders were annihilated by the
British - Veera Keppetipola, Veera Puran Appu and Veera Gongalegoda
Banda are the better known. These are the same hypocritical British
who now talk of ‘Human Rights’!

After the rebellion was crushed the British embarked on a policy of
appropriating millions of acres of land belonging to peasants in the
Hill country regions and selling them to British capitalists to
develop commercial plantations. Thousands upon thousands of Sinhala
peasants were rendered landless and homeless by this inhuman act
perpetrated in mid 19th century. To make matters worse for ordinary
people, the British imposed a highly discriminatory direct tax system
on our people which included license fees on guns, dogs, carts, and
shops. Labour was made compulsory on plantation roads, unless a
special tax was paid. A mass movement against these oppressive taxes
developed in 1848, centred in the Matale region which was soon
suppressed by the British using brutal force.

Traditional agriculture was a way of life for the people. It had the
influence of bringing about social cohesion, or a sense of
togetherness among people. They worked jointly helping each other in
their farm activities. It provided them with sufficient leisure time
to be engaged in other productive and creative pursuits including
cultural, literary and religious activities. This economic
independence of the country was destroyed by the British by converting
the long-standing self sufficient sustainable economy of our country
to an outer-oriented, instable commercial economy dependent on
fluctuating external world markets. Sri Lanka's economy was
transformed to become a cheap source of agricultural raw material for
industries in Britain. The economy became so badly outer-oriented; a
greater part of essential food requirements of the large mass of our
people had to be imported from other countries. With the decline of
traditional farming vast areas of former productive land were forced
to be abandoned owing to neglect of irrigation facilities or acquired
by the British for development of export agriculture - coffee, tea and
rubber.

As far as the ordinary people were concerned, the loss of freedom and
privileges that they enjoyed under their kings and traditional
leadership had a strong negative psychological impact on people. This
situation did not permit the emergence of leaders from rural areas
where the large mass of the dominant community lived. Besides, royal
patronage was the strongest form of motivation and support for those
involved in creative cultural and literary pursuits in ancient times.
These supports were no longer available to our people.

POST INDEPENDENCE DILEMMA

When the British left Sri Lanka in 1948, they made sure that power
remained in the hands of the English educated and English speaking
few, who were toeing their line. To make matters worse, power
-political, administrative, and economic was inherited by those
belonging to the westernized Colombo sub-culture dominated by
Christians. Most of the qualified professionals subscribed to this
sub-culture. It is most unfortunate that we did not have political
leaders of the caliber of the Mahatma Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu,
Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Lal Bahadur
Sasthri, S. Radhakrishna, Zakir Hussain, Krishna Menon, Subash Chandra
Bose, Sardar Vallabhai Patel and Ambekar, to name a few. Indian-ness
was the common characteristic in all of them although they were highly
exposed to western culture. They were self-less leaders committed to
work for the welfare of the common mass of people. They were inner
oriented, true representatives of Indian culture, who were able to
feel the pulse and listen to the heart beat of ordinary Indian people.
They were proud of being Indian. They were strongly supported by a
bureaucracy that was equally Indian.

During this time, most of the prominent local people involved actively
in political and professional fields were products of a non-national
education given by the British imperialists or the Missionary
establishment who were not conversant with the history and the culture
of their country. Some of them were token Buddhists who did not belong
to the culture of the people. Among them were some who had returned
from education in Britain, influenced by leftist ideals and were known
as “leftists” or “Marxists” of the time. These "intellectuals" were
also inheritors of the Colombo urban sub culture and were actively
involved in translating the knowledge created by their masters in the
west into the "vernacular".

ENGLISH LANGUAGE AND WESTERM CULTURAL NORMS
During the British colonial era (1796-1948) and a good part of the
post-independence period, the promotion of the English language and
Western cultural norms was the order of the day as far as the
political establishment of the country was concerned. The same was
true in regard to most professionals at decision-making levels in the
public and private sectors and big businesses. Their attitudes and
actions either directly or indirectly had the effect of denigrating
Sinhala language and Sinhala cultural norms and the simple Buddhist
way of life to an inferior state.  The influence and authority of the
village temple was reduced to a level of parasite owing to the willful
neglect and undermining of these traditional institutions by the
rulers. The study of history was dropped from school curriculum
thereby preventing children from being exposed to their history and
cultural heritage.

The urban English education system had much to do with this
undesirable development. School educational services during this time
were basically the monopoly of Catholic and Christian missions and
English was the medium of instruction in these schools. European
cultural norms were promoted vigorously by these schools. Under the
circumstances, the social status and recognition were based on one’s
exposure to western culture and especially one’s ability to
communicate effectively in the English language and familiarity with
and often the observance of western cultural norms. Opportunities for
advancement in fields such as education and professions were almost
exclusively the monopoly of people with such exposure.

Higher learning at this time was basically bifurcated; the rural
masses and bhikkhus studied Sinhala and other oriental languages
whereas in the urban areas English was the medium of instruction and
communication. Opportunities for advancement were highly limited to
the former. They were low-paid and distant from the government whereas
the latter were better paid and enjoyed more benefits from government.
It is simply a miracle that Sinhala language was able to survive this
tragic situation for over four and a half centuries. It was the
dedication of the Sinhala scholars, especially our Buddhist scholar
Bhikkhus, and the inherent strength of the Sinhala language that may
be cited as main reasons. Among the most prominent who contributed to
that miracle were the Venerables Velivitiye Saranankara Mahathera,
Hikkaduve Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera (early 20th century) who was the
founder of the Vidyodaya Pirivena, Venerable Waskaduwe Sri Subhuti
Nayaka Thera (early 20th century), Ven. Kahave Sri Ratanasara Nayaka
Thera, Ven. Baddegama Sri Piyaratana Nayaka Thera, Ven. Velivitiye Sri
Sorata Nayaka Thera and Ven. Panangala Sri Piyaratana Nayaka Thera

RISE OF A NEW COSMOPILITAN URBAN ELITE

These people formed a class of their own with undue privileges which
were not available to the large majority of those without similar
exposure. It was a new elite that developed on the basis of its
member’s knowledge of the English language and was associated with the
Greater Colombo region. A wider more cosmopolitan outlook
differentiated this urban elite from the more ‘old fashioned’
predominantly Buddhist, Sinhala speaking rural folk. What developed
here was a form of sub-culture which was referred to by some
Sinhalayas as “Thuppahi culture” which accorded a highly step-motherly
treatment to Sinhala language and culture. This had a strong negative
impact of undermining and decimating the commonly spoken indigenous
language of the nation to an inferior position. The step-motherly
treatment of the Sinhala language by the  government and the urban
elite running affairs of the economy, business and private sector
activities, and the Catholic and Christian missionary education
establishment, continued even after the country attained political
independence in 1948.

There are many aspects of western culture which are commendable and
helpful to enrich one’s life. But most of these outer-oriented urban
elite which included the so called Sri Lankan political leaders, held
to half-baked foreign values, superficialities and strange ways of
living. They were barely conversant with the plight of the majority of
people - the ordinary Sinhala people in particular. They were not
representative of the large mass of people, but became the trusted
servants of the British administration. Almost all of the qualified
professionals belonged to or subscribed to this sub-culture. The
British left no room for the leadership to emerge from the truly
indigenous people.

The excessively poor living conditions of the large mass of rural folk
led to migration of youth to Colombo and other big towns. Some were
subjected to the influence of the extremes forms of undesirable urban
culture that was gaining ground in urban areas. Alcohol abuse, crime
and underworld activities of later years may be explained in terms of
this urban migration.

BUDDHIST RESURGENCE OF LATE 19TH CENTURY

In late 19th century, a series of public debates took place in
Panadura between Anglican Christian clergymen of Sri Lanka and
Buddhist bhikkhus led by the fearless Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera,
culminating in the defeat of the Christians. There were some fearless
Bhikkhus who openly spoke out against British rule and the colonial
mentality of our so-called leaders. The Buddhist revival that followed
was aided by the Theosophists led by American Col. Henry Steele
Olcott. When Olcott visited this island, the Sinhala Buddhists,
although formed the majority in the country were a highly
underprivileged group in their land of birth. To the 802 Christian
schools that had come up there were only four Buddhist schools. Nor
was Sinhala taught at a privileged school like Royal College even at
the beginning of the 20th century. Olcott was instrumental in
establishing Buddhist schools in Colombo and other important urban
centres in the country. Among these national schools were Ananda
College, Colombo established in 1886, Dharmaraja College Mahanuwara,
Maliyadeva College Kurunegala, Mahinda College Galle and Meuse us
College Colombo as a Private Girls' school founded in 1895 by the
Buddhist Theosophical Society managed by a Board of Trustees. It was
during the late19th century that one notices a surge in secular
Sinhala literature. The Sinhala novel had its beginnings during this
period. Piyadasa Sirisena, Sagara Palansuriya, Munidasa Kumaratunga,
Hemapala Munidasa, W.A. Silva and J.H. Perera were prominent among the
Sinhala scholars of this period.

In late 19th and early 20th centuries, Anagarika Dharmapala(1864-1933)
was a leading figure of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. He spearheaded a
movement to revive Buddhism and Buddhist culture in Sri Lanka. He
spoke of the superficiality of the lives of those of the Colombo sub
culture who have joined up with the colonialists to run the country.
Then there was another outstanding patriot - Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy
who urged our people to develop a sense of their own traditions and
national culture. He challenged the intrusion on eastern values by the
expansion of western society.

CHANGES STARTNG IN MID 20TH CENTURY
In the middle of the 20th century, Mr. W. W. Kannangara and a few
others led a movement which made Sinhala the medium of instruction for
all Sinhala children up to Grade V in all government schools.
Subsequently, Sinhala and Tamil became the languages of government and
higher education. In the 20th century, there were many Sinhala
patriots who helped to enrich and save our language and culture. The
late fifties and sixties in particular was a period when we saw the
emergence of outstanding personalities and cultural pursuits. Among
them, W. F. Gunewardena Martin Wickramasinghe, Senarath Paranawithana,
Munidasa Kumaratungha, L.H. Mettananda, G. Malalasekera, Ediriweera
Sarathchandra, Mahagama Sekera, Madawala S. Ratnayake, Gunadasa
Amarasekera, K. Jayatilaka, Amaradeva, Premasiri Khemadasa, Chitrasena
and Vajira, Solias Mendis, Lester James Pieris and a few others
including their students.

Their literary works appealed to the hearts of a generation that was
just beginning to shed the last vestiges of European socio-cultural
domination in the island. The basis of their work which made them
prominent was Sinhala language, Sinhala culture and Sinhala Buddhist
values. Among outstanding Buddhist monks who assumed global status at
the time were Venerables-Walpola Rahula, Ananda Maithriye, Narada,
Piyadassi, and Madihe Pangnaseeha. One of the essential text books
used in courses on Buddhism in most universities in the western world
has been "What the Buddha Taught" by Venerable Walpola Rahula written
initially in Sinhala.

With these developments after the mid 20th century, Sinhala language
started to revive and books on diverse subjects were written by those
competent in the language. New forms of poetry and drama were
introduced and Sinhala songs and movies became popular forms of
entertainment. Among positive trends during this period was the
official recognized of Sinhala as the national language, the
establishment of a Cultural Affairs Ministry, the elevation of two
Pirivena’s to University status, the take-over of Missionary schools
by the government. It was the Sinhala Buddhist leadership, including
leading Buddhist monks who were in the forefront in the initiative to
take-over schools and making higher education accessible to all
irrespective of religious affiliation. It is an accepted fact that
this enabled rural youth to come to the forefront. Many were able to
secure university education and excel in their professional fields.

Unlike India's Shantiniketana or Vishva Bharati and its strong Indian
cultural influence on up-coming leaders of that great nation, the
first University of Ceylon at Colombo and subsequently at Peradeniya
catered to and promoted the interests of the colonial masters and
western culture until recent times. As far as the promotion of our
national culture is concerned, it is questionable whether the several
universities that we have today have made any significant
contribution. They in fact should be in the forefront in this
initiative. The majority of our  university students are Sinhala
Buddhists from provincial schools. There may be a diversity of reasons
for their lack of initiative to be actively involved in activities
that relate to the promotion of our national culture. Whether the
undue interference of Marxist political elements on university
students lives is a reason for this unfortunate state of affairs, is
yet to be known.

CATHOLIC ACTION

A significant development during the 1960's was the emergence of the
outspoken Mr. L.H. Mettananda and his Bauddha Jatika Balavagaya (BJB)
which was instrumental in exposing the work of Catholic Action and its
control over Sri Lanka's mass media. The seeds for the current
Buddhist Revival campaign were laid by Mr. Mettananda who played a
singular role in writing the Buddhist Commission Report in 1956. This
report had strong impact on political developments in the country at
that time. The Press Commission Report of 1964, of Justice K.D. de
Silva, makes glaring references to the work of Catholic Action in the
media and its control of leading newspapers in the country. The BJB
presented invaluable evidence to the Press Commission on Catholic
Action. Catholic Action was behind the failed Catholic Army Officers
Coup in 1962 to overthrow the legitimately elected government of
Mrs.Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

PERIOD OF INSTABILITY

This period of healthy growth which began in 1956, was short lived and
with the passage of about two decades, there emerged distinct signs of
a downward trend in the importance accorded to the Sinhala language
and national culture in general. During the last few decades, it was
the Sinhala Buddhist community who underwent traumatic experiences and
all fatalities, owing to the efforts of the local Marxists to
counterbalance the imbalance created by the outer-oriented Colombo
clan. The situation in the country was worsened by the youth uprising
in the south and the north and the widespread violence and bloodshed.
Leadership at all levels - political, professional and secular -
deteriorated during the past few decades. This was also a time which
saw extreme divisiveness, animosity and criminal activity among people
supporting opposing political parties. This was a time when bribery
and corruption was institutionalized, and crime and underworld
activities became rampant.

DOWNWARD TREND WITH GLOBALIZATION

A distinctly downward trend had its beginnings in the late 1970s, and
continued for about four decades. This was with the adoption of the so
called policy of ‘open economy’ and unrestricted globalization which
resulted in a drastic degeneration of local culture and values. What
followed was the excessive outer orientation of the entire system with
anything western being respected and accepted as necessary for the
furtherance of so called “development process” of the country and
enrichment of lives of our people. The emphasis was on western systems
of governance, development, education, language, social dynamics and
organization English language became the means to get things done
during this time.  A striking attitudinal change was observed in
people caught in this trend who were largely the English educated
urban folk, dominated by non Buddhists. Their life-style was becoming
highly materialistic and superficial, competitive, self-centred and
corrupt. With the expansion of urban areas and sub-urban
neighborhoods, the impact of this sub-culture was spreading inland.

These trends were strengthened by the influx into the country of
foreign NGO’s and international schools and expansion of tourism and
related business activities, foreign travel for education and
employment and also the arrival of foreign-funded Evangelical and
Christian unethical conversion business practices in the country which
paid little heed to local cultural norms and values.

UNDESIRABLE INFLUENCES

This attitude was further promoted by the importance accorded to
western attire, western music and dancing, partying, foreign trips and
watching televised cricket matches for long hours. Youth became more
and more prone to popular western youth lifestyles characterized by
partying, loud and sensuous music, disco and break dancing, and
associated smoking, drinking, use of drugs and laxity in sexual
behavior. They were inclined to dress like, speak like, act like, do
things like and live like westerners being brainwashed by what they
see on television and read in popular mass media. There were not
conversant with the superficial nature of lives of most westerners.
Unethical conversions to Christianity was rampant during this time and
being Christian was considered fashionable in a society that was
blindly following western norms and lifestyles. Catholic Action which
remained dormant until 1977 raised its head again, and has been a key
player in the moves to create religious and communal tension in our
country by playing one community against the other -against the so -
called 'majoritarianism' of the Sinhala Buddhists.

Foreign exposure through foreign employment, tourism and
commercialized relationships with tourists, popular screening of adult
movies, increased availability and use of illicit drugs and alcohol
continue to have a very harmful impact on our youth in particular.
There was a significant increase in the sex trade, casinos, gambling
and other extreme forms of underworld activities often patronized by
political leaders. Disharmony and abuse in families, family break-ups,
divorces, abortions, alcoholism, drug addiction, and other forms of
vice and family crime and disruption became commonplace. Among the
many complex reasons for this trend is employment of women in the
Middle East and in local garment factories, especially in urban and
sub-urban areas, separation of spouses occasioned by such employment.
All these “global” changes have directly and indirectly affected
negatively the traditional cultural norms and have resulted in
undermining of Sinhala culture and Sinhala language.

IMPACT OF MASS MEDIA

There was excessive publicity and importance accorded to these trends
by the media, especially the electronic media.  Television was
introduced during this time with little restriction if at all, on the
nature and type of programs that were presented, and all English
newspapers and media in general, was basically promoting the
“thuppahi” Colombo sub-culture and life-styles. This led to excessive
impacts of western culture and values and the blind adoption of
foreign customs, behavior patterns and organizational systems by our
people.

In general, what became the order of the day were  irresponsible,
unethical and highly commercialized mass media programmes, television
in particular, with undue emphasis on commercials and misleading and
mind-polluting propaganda contrary to the cultural norms of the
country. These became harmful especially to the innocent minds and
psyches of children and youth. These so called modern trends were
largely responsible for the drastic change of attitudes and thinking
observed in most people, especially in urban neighborhoods even in
recent decades. Promotion of western commercialized values had been
the order of the day, especially for the English mass media. The
administrative and editorial staff of the national news media
continues to be  dominated by non Buddhists and people with little
sense of nationalism or interest in its promotion.

The direct and indirect impacts of these ‘developments’ have been the
sheer disregard for and undermining of our national cultural norms and
values. It had led to significant change of attitudes and priorities
of our people especially in urban areas. This brought about
divisiveness and confusion among Sinhala Buddhists. This has seriously
affected the significance of the Sinhala language as the traditional
medium of communication among the people. Besides, it has begun to
seriously affect the unity and long-established cohesiveness of the
Sinhala Buddhist community. Western systems including western
religious beliefs, norms, and traditions that have been thrust upon
the Buddhist community have introduced divisiveness and disharmony
among Sinhala Buddhists. This has been clearly manifest during the
last few decades.

ATITUDINAL CHANGES WITH ENGLISH COMMUNICATION
During the past six decades, the language of government in our
motherland has been English for all purposes, and not Sinhala or
Tamil. Knowledge of English has been a big advantage and sometimes an
essential requirement for better employment in both the public and
private sectors. It was difficult to get ahead in society without a
knowledge of English. In most urban settings in the country, teaching
children to communicate in English has become quite fashionable even
today. The western oriented education systems, media, television,
tourist industry, foreign employment – all contribute to this peculiar
change of attitude among our people in recent years.

The most striking influence of all these developments and trends was
the strong outer orientation of people, especially the youth. The
heightened importance accorded to spoken English at the expense of
Sinhala was clearly evident during this time, so much so, those who
spoke English were considered by many as the more educated ones that
should be emulated.

Also, there is the tendency among some people to give undue importance
to those who could speak the English language.  They are considered to
be smarter, refined and better calibre as opposed to those who could
not speak English. It is common observation and experience generally
in the urban settings that people who communicate in English draw more
attention and respect and find it easy to get things done as compared
to those communicating in Sinhala.  Such disregard and disrespect for
the Sinhala language has the tendency to push other aspects of Sinhala
culture to the background. Owing to the lack of a strong exposure to
their own cultural values, learning English has made these misinformed
and misguided people to move further away from their culture and
values.

It is not the language per se but its cultural dimension that has
become a serious problem in our country. There is a tendency among
some of the English educated folk, to observe western mannerisms and
attitudes and consider themselves to be more refined, more cultured
and a step above the others. Often in superficial ways, they tend to
observe peculiar mannerisms and deportment that are different to or
contrary to our long established cultural norms. This unwarranted and
ridiculous attitudinal changes that learning English or being able to
speak the language has brought about not only tends to alienate this
group of individuals but also has led to divisiveness among our youth.
This trend has made some of our youth to shy away from their own
language and culture. Speaking English or mixing English with Sinhala,
or adding English words while speaking in Sinhala became the
fashionable and accepted practices. This we commonly observe in some
television programs to the dismay of many.

There is no question that there are many positive aspects and much to
be learnt from other cultures. However, unfortunately it is those
superficial, worthless and undesirable aspects of other cultures that
have been of appeal to some people. Often the immature, naïve,
careless and slapdash individuals get trapped in these western
superficialities. The youth of this period - 1980's and 1990's grew up
at a time when there were extreme forms of political unrest and
violence in the south and north. There was polarization of ethnic
communities. The economic and social trends and developments at this
time such as globalization without a human face, introduction of
television characterized by highly commercialized and often crude
programs, expansion of tourism industry without restrictions, and
increase in overseas employment encouraged outer oriented attitudes
and lifestyles of most youth and the disintegration of many families.

There is no dispute that on many counts, knowing English is highly
advantageous, especially for our youth. A working knowledge of English
has become a requirement in a number of fields, occupations and
professions such as medicine and computing. It is very helpful in
learning and improving many useful skills. It is a global language and
over a billion people speak English to at least a basic level.
Besides, it is one of six official languages of the United Nations.

Most youth of last two decades were not conversant with the history of
their country. They do not know that our country is the oldest
continually Buddhist country in the world. They do not know that
history and culture of our people have been shaped and mounded by
Buddhism since its introduction to the island over 2200 years ago.
Being unaware of the richness of their cultural heritage, most youth
have become indifferent to their culture. Our youth still did not have
proper role models to follow and genuine youth leaders to guide them.
It is the greatest tragedy that befell our nation, because youth are
our greatest resource and they determine the future of our country and
its cultural heritage.

There is definitely no case for not learning English. But what is
necessary to emphasize is that the Sinhala language needs equal
emphasis as English. Undue emphasis on learning English will have the
effect of undermining the Sinhala language faster. Equal importance
should be accorded to the learning and use of Sinhala language.
Otherwise it will be a cultural genocide much like the effects of the
propagation of western culture and evangelism in our country, in the
name of globalization. The learning of Sinhala literature, Sinhala
culture and history by our children is fundamental to bringing about
an attitudinal change in our younger generation. This will make them
develop a sense of pride in their outstanding cultural heritage. They
will begin to be appreciative of the wholesome values of their
glorious culture. And, this will help them to develop a lifestyle and
livelihood that is beneficial to them and the society in general.

GANGODAWILA SOMA THERA

Venerable Gangodawila Soma Thera who came to the limelight in the
1990's, stands out as someone unique. He spearheaded the cause of
reviving Buddhism and Sinhala culture, and restoring a sense of
nationalism and pride among our people. He was a charismatic figure
who earned island-wide popularity and reputation as a bold bhikkhu who
campaigned for the Sinhala Buddhist cause at a time when many
prominent luminaries of the Maha Sangha either kept silent or took up
ambivalent positions.  At a time when the country was experiencing a
burgeoning open market economy which was destructive of traditional
values and increased terrorist activities by the racist Tamil LTTE,
Venerable Soma was a forceful defender of the traditional way of life
identified with the Sinhala Buddhists of the country.

One of his outstanding missions was to mould the younger generation to
live according to the Dhamma. He guided the young and old to live
according to Buddhist teachings. Thousands flocked to listen to his
sermons, which were delivered effectively in simple Sinhala language.
His mission was to mould the younger generation to live according to
the Dhamma and soon they rallied round him in an organization called
'Thurunu Saviya'. With the rapid change in cultural values and the
escalating crime rate of the time, Soma Thera started various
programmes to address the minds of the young.

Through his television and radio programs he highlighted how the
practical side of Buddhist theories could help ordinary lives.
Television stations clamoured to get him to discuss religious and
social issues.  'Andurin Eliyata' and 'Nanapahana' Sinhala television
programmes soon became the most popular Sinhala television programmes
that provide him with a sound platform to address an increasingly wide
audience.
He had the extra power of enticing the audience, especially the young
crowd. He was listened to by many and watched by many and read by
many. Sinhala news media highlighted his campaigns. He strengthened
the Jathika Sanga Sammelanaya headed by outstanding scholar monks. His
untimely death had a strong impact on the mobilization and coming to
the forefront of concerned Buddhists and prominent Bhikkhus of the
country to confront the forces that were undermining the cultural
ethos of the country and to bring about a change in the political
culture of the country by restoring Buddhist norms and principles in
running the affairs of the country.

FEW ENCOURAGING DEVELOPMENTS
Our country is now witnessing the beginnings of a revivalist movement,
especially with the eradication of Tamil LTTE terrorism and the dawn
of an era of political stability where people across the country are
enjoying long-awaited peace and freedom. What we see is a movement to
revive cultural nationalism with a sound leadership given by a
popularly elected Executive President, to save the country from
disintegration, to halt the rapid erosion of social values, and to
direct our society towards cultural rejuvenation based on traditional
Buddhist values. We now have a leader who is not a product of the
outer-oriented Colombo sub culture, but a true son of the soil. His
concern is the welfare of the ordinary citizens, particularly the
marginalized Sinhala Buddhists and the protection of our Buddhist
culture and value system which are characterized by non-violence,
tolerance and peaceful co-habitation with all communities who have
made our country their home.

Among the encouraging developments in the country during the last five
years is the  introduction of the teaching of the History of Sri Lanka
in schools which was stopped by the government in late 1970s. This has
been made a compulsory subject for children right up to ‘O’ levels.
Also evident is an increasing interest in development and promotion of
Sinhala performing arts, especially traditional dances. The teaching
and study of Sinhala Aesthetic studies has become generally popular
school curriculum. Sinhala music and songs have received a boost owing
to the influence of  television, radio and the increased production of
CD’s, DVD’s and associated electronic devices, although the cultural
pollution promoted by some of the “Super Star” programmes and “tele
natya” have been subject to criticism.

The extreme degree of popularity attained by some Sinhala television
programmes focused on discussions among reputed professionals on
important national issues and Buddhist issues had a definite positive
impact on reinforcing our traditional cultural norms, Sinhala
language.  Another blessing in disguise during the last stages of
military action against LTTE Tamil terrorists was the popularly
watched on-site Sinhala television programmes highlighting the untold
sacrifices and heroic deeds of our Sinhala youth in the war front.
People were made to realize that these gallant Sinhala youth were
engaged in activities that were focused on protecting not only our
land and people but also, most importantly, the glorious national
culture that forms the foundation of this great nation of ours. Among
Sinhala songs during this period that attained the highest degree of
popularity were those on our military personnel-  -

“මුහුද දෙබෑ කරන..., අහස පොළොව සිඹින...,
රටට සෙනෙහෙ පුදන..., ලෙයින් මසින් සැදුන…

සැබෑ පියෙකි දරු දහසකි...
, මුලු රටේම ලේ නෑයෙකි...,
අපේ එකෙකි සිය දහසකි... , මේ දරු හට මව් දහසකි...

‍යව්වනයේ මේ සගයා..., අපට නොහැකි මේ කරනා
...,
අපේ එකෙකි මේ මිනිසා....., මේ මිනිසා...

…රටක් රාජ්‍යයක් වටිනා...
,  මේ මිනිසා...

“අපි වෙනුවෙන් අපි”,



An encouraging development well evident in our country in most recent
times is the increased popularity of the use of meaningful Sinhala
names for children and for government development programmes. Also,
Sinhala publications by way of books, magazines and newspapers have
increased in recent years.

A somewhat awkward and somewhat silly development of recent years,
especially with the popular use of the electronic media such as
television and radio, is the tendency for people to struggle speaking
formal written Sinhala instead of a readily understood form of
Sinhala. This is often seen in television and radio interviews of
ordinary people on common happenings. Both the interviewers and those
interviewed resort unnecessarily to formal often grammatical Sinhala
language thereby preventing people from expressing their views in a
clear and direct manner. The spoken form of the Sinhala language is
rich and most expressive and it is a pity why the spoken form is
forgotten the moment one encounters a microphone.

There is much to be desired in the way Sinhala is used in most Sinhala
television programmes.  The thematic content of some Sinhala
television programmes are contrary to our cultural norms and values.
For some westernized Sinhala elements, both men and woman, it has
become fashionable to mix English words while communicating in Sinhala
and there appears to be undue importance attached to western and
foreign attire among most youth appearing on television. Given the
fact that most people are quite sensitive to what is promoted via
television and that it has a strong impact on children and youth, it
is important that this media is not permitted to resort to programmes
that are contrary to our cultural norms.

FATE OF SINHALA LANGUAGE

Of some 7000 languages that exist in the world, about 2500 are
expected to disappear from the face of the earth in a hundred years.
This means 25 languages will disappear every year. Languages live when
people use them in their daily lives. The preponderance of the Sinhala
community continues to use their language at home, in schools, in
public places such as temples and in communications with government
and other establishments. Under these circumstances, in spite of
emphasis on learning and use of the English language, Sinhala will
continue to be used and the possibility of losing our language is
remote.

The large majority of Sinhala people are Buddhists and the language of
Buddhism in Sri Lanka is Sinhala. Buddhist culture and the Sinhala
language are integral and inseparable components of our nation’s
cultural heritage. The preservation and promotion of the Sinhala
language is directly affected by the preservation and promotion of
Sinhala Buddhist culture. Buddhist cultural activities, ceremonies and
festivals are invariably conducted in Sinhala. Sinhala terminology
characterizes all tangible items and aspects associated of Sinhala
culture. Our Bhihhkus have been in the forefront in protecting and
propagating the Sinhala language. All names and titles of our Bhikkus
from ancient times have been exclusively Sinhala.  All Buddhist
functions and activities in Buddhist temples are conducted in the
Sinhala language. All Buddhist temples and establishments have Sinhala
names.

In any event, the present President of our country has openly accorded
the rightful prominent place to our national culture when he, for the
first time in the history made his maiden speech at the United Nations
General Assembly in the Sinhala language. His regime has given due
prominence to the Sinhala language and the glorious visual cultural
heritage of our nation in all important national functions.

There are no signs that Sinhala culture or its integral component the
Sinhala language are in the process of decline and deterioration. No
patriotic Sri Lankan will allow the defining element of their glorious
cultural heritage to be sacrificed for the sake of accommodating
foreign modes of the so called ‘modernization”, “westernization’ and
“globalization” of our country. The Tamil language has not suffered as
much as Sinhala language in its usage and development in recent times.
It will continue to be studied in Tamilnadu and escape the challenges
to which the Sinhala language is subject owing to the present day
overemphasis on learning English and the negative cultural impacts of
this development.


Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

2 comments:

  1. Sri Lanka needs people like Anagarika Dharmapala, and movements like Hela Havula to make this a better country!!

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  2. wachanaye parisamaptha arthayenma oba ....daa hitha kamiyek....(oba thumata dakwana gawrwayak hatiyata meya maw basin liveemata nohakiveema gana ma kanagatu wemi) i'm very grateful of your notice i cant explain in words what is value of it ..there is no any words to put away we need like you people. i'm very proud of you after read you .may triplegems bless you sir......"budu saranai"

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