Cultural Domination and Subordination among the Sinhalese: Colonialism, Resistance, Religion and Critical Discourse

Image from Rough Guides

In my previous two articles I discussed Caste and Class domination and subordination.  In this article, I am looking closely at cultural domination in the context of post-independent Sri Lanka, in particular the contemporary period. Some comparison with the colonial period is also inevitable in this exercise.

Culture defined simply as ‘way of life’ of a people or ‘a set of beliefs, values, norms and practices’ is too generic –though it is a good starting point to delve into the subject. Culture is not an autonomous sphere-though it seems like this in some circumstances.  Culture of a given society is closely interlinked with power.  Power speaks to culture, shapes it, and co-exists with it.  Thus in the academic literature, there is reference to ‘culture of power’.  This is visible in societies as a whole or institutions such as schools, universities, or other public institutions.  It can also exist in the state, political parties, and religious institutions.

As a social construct built over centuries, a culture is associated with and/or engraved in vital ‘institutions’. This is different from the day-to-day cultural practices of the masses at village or city levels.  Official culture is closely linked to the institutional culture.  It is here that the cultural domination of a particular variety or group projects power towards various audiences who ultimately buy the messages being transmitted via various communicative means or rejects them.

Powerful forces in societies with vested interests construct conditions of domination vs. subordination. Those who are exercising the benefits of such domination tend to preserve them while those who are subjected to conditions of subordination tend to struggle against them and seek liberation.  During the colonial periods, heroic attempts were made in Sri Lanka by organised groups to secure liberation with devastating effects to person and property.  At that time, the dominators were easily identifiable.  There were the agents of colonising powers associated with the colonial administration and those indigenous families and groups who supported their endeavours on various pretexts.

In addition to direct control exercised via colonial administrations, judicial systems, land and sea control, etc., there were indirect methods of control such as the education system, perks and privileges provided to local chieftains and their families including the ‘access’ made available to the colonial masters. Such privileges included the ability to amass vast tracts of land and other resources, products of local crafts, distinguishing attire, a pirivara (collection of domestic and official attendants), residences, ability to use insignia such as flags and costumes (e.g. mul anduma), travelling methods and vehicles such as horse driven carriages or dolava (wooden chair carried by men with strong arms).  All these material and symbolic paraphernalia added to their composite status as ‘somebodies’ during the colonial periods.  The language and religion also played key roles.  Some indigenous chieftains converted themselves to Catholicism or Christianity during various periods of colonial rule in Sri Lanka.

While this was going on, the Sinhalese who did not belong to the ruling strata of society and its top layer-the elites- lived mainly in semi-urban periphery or rural locations and engaged in various trades/occupations determined largely by their caste status, agriculture, local treatments of various sorts, teaching in temples or associated places of learning, etc. They relied mainly on the knowledge imparted to them through languages such as Sinhala, Pali and to some extent Sanskrit.  Many accepted their subordination constructed by the dominant layers of the colonial society -foreign and local.  However, there were others who resisted such domination and subordination and resorted to various acts of defiance and critique via speeches, writings, and vernacular discourses.

When considering the history of the colonial period, in particular the British colonial period, the focus of academic writing is either on the two rebellions and how they were crushed by the colonial government or how the Kandyan peasantry lost their traditional land and the tea plantations were established or indeed the political process where there was a transition from strict control by the colonial master to self-government after granting independence in 1948.  Not much research has gone into finding better information about various acts of defiance and protest, though there were a few notable historians who delved into this subject during the early post-independent period. Some references have been made to indirect methods such as circulating kala pattara or official methods such as submitting petitions to colonial government officials. Yet there is much to do in terms of research to uncover how the Sinhalese who felt extreme subordination during the periods of colonisation expressed themselves via various means available to them so that the readers can be enlightened on hidden aspects of Sinhalese/Sri Lankan history.

The main manifestation of the dominance created by colonial powers was the ‘master-servant relationship’ pervading most spheres of life and society.  This is a relationship between those who held and exercised power and those who were powerless.  One example is those who worked for the colonial administrations or their armies.  Another is the relationship between the superintendent (and his subordinate staff) of tea estates and those who worked in them to earn a living. Another is the relationship between the judiciary and the public or the police and the public.  The latter is important in that the large majority of those who were disempowered by the macro processes of domination at a generic level had to face various indignities and deprivations when they came face to face with law enforcement agencies in outlying areas such as Hambantota district and/or Giruwapattuwa. Thus there were areas, districts and/or provinces that experienced not only extreme geographical and physical hardship due to the terrain, rainfall patterns, vegetation, lack of infrastructure facilities but also the way that the officialdom exercised power over the ‘subjects’ in their official and personal capacities.

Legal fraternity, more importantly the bush lawyers, functioned as intermediaries who also acted as translators and/or brokers between the colonial administration of justice and ‘the subjects’ (more than citizens enjoying certain rights) who were illiterate not only in the language of administration but also the law itself.  Similar dependencies and indignities existed during encounters between other professionals such as doctors –who acquired their knowledge in the English medium- and patients who functioned in a totally different realm of the Sinhalese cultural universe.  This extended to other work areas such as road construction, land development and surveying, maintenance of services in cities, transport, education and communication.

An essential feature of ‘the master-servant relationship’ was that the fate and life chances of the subordinated people depended on the will and grace of the master as the latter had the title, office, power, status, language of the foreigner, colourful insignia, and the like whereas the subordinated had the bare wherewithal for mere existence and the crudeness of lifestyle that such an existence afforded. Though the laws existed, accessing their functionaries was cumbersome, expensive and most of all required a degree of individual stamina that many did not possess.  Thus the personal and emotional anxieties entered the scene where the subordinated sought assistance from the master and the master expected something more than a working relationship in return.  The terms such as corruption and graft entered Sri Lankan vocabulary.  During the kingdom times, giving gifts was an acceptable practice, which continues until today.  However this is quite different from the concept and practice of corruption and giving grafts to officials, local politicians, and those enforcing the law at ground levels.

The political, administrative and cultural discourses used during the colonial period to justify power and control indigenous land, people, labour and minds had their unique characteristics. For example, service to his majesty the king or her majesty Queen became the right thing to do.  Criticism of them who enjoyed political authority over the colonies was the wrong thing to do.  The concept of ‘service’ in the name of king or queen in various areas thus became one element of the official discourse and the grand norm of governance.  Gazette publications became one instrument of exercising power from the top to the bottom in the governance-administration hierarchies.  The public and government officials were expected to behave according to the dictates included in such publications.  This is a practice that continues up to now in a different post-colonial context where the master-servant/subject relationship has taken a new shape and existence.

While the legislature was the battleground of ideas in terms of discussing what is right and wrong as well as what ought to be done to solve people’s problems with the participation of people’s representatives elected on a restricted criteria, the education institutions of the colonising countries opened up channels of accessing and constructing different discourses by the local intelligentsia drawn from mainly well-to-do families.  Even those who were literate in the classical languages, literatures, histories and religions thus had to obtain legitimacy for their ideas, research, findings and arguments through the institutions of learning that were located in the Western Imperial metropolis.  Thus when the University of Ceylon was established in Colombo as a college initially and moved to Peradeniya in the 50s, most of the academics in various disciplines were those who obtained their qualifications from England.

The Sinhala (Tamil to some extent) ethos started to enter the universities in small ways in the 60s but more effectively from the 70s. Rejuvenation of local language, culture, religion, drama, music, literature in the midst of otherwise a colonial institution dominated by intellectuals who had validated their claims to knowledge from the institutions of colonising country took place in various forums, departments, lecture theatres, publications, seminars.  The new era of Sinhala cultural activities started to find its validation through the higher education systems in the country itself, while confronting the arguments, ideas, concepts, theories brought in by the lecturers and professors from the Western institutions of higher learning.

The onset of Sinhalese youth movement and a critical discourse in the late 60s and the rebellion in 1971 as a resistance movement against the alleged domination of people’s lives by those in the then government and vested interests behind it have to be looked at in this evolving context. The advocates of resistance drew inspiration from the two rebellions that took place during the British colonial period. The methods of domination as well as resistance had four key elements: Discourse (critical or establishment), organisation-counter organisation, justification of actions, and rectification.  At the discourse level, the ideas presented by the JVP had the characteristics of a resistance discourse against a rule and ruling class that they viewed as not acting in the best interests of the alienated and subordinated segments of society, primarily the educated youths, peasants and workers.  Elections were seen as smokescreens.  Once in power they saw the politicians from the winning parties acting quite different to the faces and words they displayed before the elections and the promises made. The machinery of power, including the armed forces, police, judiciary and the prisons were seen as instruments of oppression rather than liberation and freedom. Those who benefitted from ‘the system’ (samaja kramaya) were seen as few and those who excluded were many.

To construct this discourse, the JVP used several planks such as the threat of imperialism, Risks of Indian invasion, Dispossession of the Kandyan peasantry and the working class, and the national question meaning the ethnic issue.  The discourse of the governing parties was premised upon the legitimacy derived from elections and the popular mandate given by the people coupled with the right of governments to use weapons and force to crush anti-social elements.  Use of arms by anyone else was considered illegal and punishable. On the other hand, the JVP leaders and cadres saw taking up arms against the oppressive regime as a legitimate exercise.  Thus the concept and practice of ‘violence’ started to creep into the official and public vocabulary of the country followed by sporadic violent actions justified by discourses of governance vs. resistance.

Domination-Subordination in Recent Periods

In order to understand cultural domination and subordination in more recent times, it is important to identify and understand the key planks of the prevailing discourses. Since the early 80s ethnic conflict, separatism, federalism, unity and integrity, sovereignty, and self-determination started to make their presence.  Interestingly, ‘supremacy’ is not a word that found wide expression in such discourses though rare references have been made to ‘Sinhala supremacy’ in the critical writings by Tamil intellectuals, politicians etc. Critical/Resistance discourses existed from the South via the JVP as well as the North via Tamil parties and organisations. Opposition political parties also articulated critical discourses when the democratic rights and freedoms of people were under threat from the government of the day and its agencies.

Cultural domination is exercised by privileged segments of the society through ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ means.  Among the former is the very powerful ‘political culture’ that has been constructed over the decades by mainstream and allied parties. This culture depends on the key argument that the elections determine who rules the country. One mainstream party depends on a very nationalistic-narrowly defined as Sinhala Buddhist platform – where some degree of accommodation for minorities is made within an overarching ‘majoritarian’ framework of governance. During some periods, this party has adhered to the principles of democracy more than other times (e.g. 1970-75).  The other mainstream party depends on a pluralistic platform granting better accommodation to ethnic minorities while struggling to make inroads into the Sinhala Buddhist constituency. Adherence to democratic principles is considered as fundamental to hold the society together – though this attitude changed during previous periods of governance by the party concerned. Minor parties bring in an array of ideas, principles and theories but once they are in a coalition they tend to go with the majoritarian viewpoints at the time. Irrespective of manifest differences in party platforms, the political culture and the politics of culture constructed by parties in power and those in the opposition are quite dominating forces before-during-and after the elections.  In the construction of this political culture, factors such as class, caste, ethnic and provincial cultures also matter.

In addition, there are manifestly symbolic aspects of cultural domination and subordination used in everyday interactions also.  One such aspect is the local terminology used between those with power, wealth and status vs. those who do not.  Terms of address such as ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’ are widely visible in Sinhala verbal exchanges today including in government offices, education institutions, law enforcement agencies, and the security forces. We may ask whether this is a remnant of colonial practice or the practice is reflective of a deeper existence of a master-servant relationship under a neoliberal economic paradigm and a centralised governance model?  My contention is that this is not merely symbolic.  It reflects a greater disparity in relationships, attitudes, and even subservience of those who do not belong in the upper echelons of class and status hierarchies. The production of a subservient personality among the emerging generations of youths through the education systems instead of critical thinkers is symptomatic of the process, which reproduces a master-servant relationship in the broader society. The superior position commanded by the political process in conjunction with the governance process over previously semi-autonomous areas such as higher education seem to suggest that this process of reproducing subservient and dependent personalities in contrast to critical and independent ones will continue. Resistance and critical discourses emanating from the academia and students in a context where critical media culture is being marginalised co-exist with dominant discourses.  Battle of ideas continues in a not so level playing field.  Curtailment of avenues available for the younger generation to express their views including resistance views and develop an independent personality can be seen as an act of design rather than accident.  Such dependency is counter productive when Sri Lankan youths have to encounter regional and global economy in their search for employment.

In terms of cultural domination-subordination thesis, another important question is whether there is a Sri Lankan culture that dominates particular groups of people and conversely subjects them to multiple subordinations? The complaint from some Tamil organisations and commentators is of such subordination. This is a point that requires further critical scrutiny. Since Sri Lanka is a country with several religions, ethnic communities, languages, and ways of life, one would expect it to evolve ‘a common culture’ out of different cultures existing in the land.  Such a common culture could emerge fully if there is institutional support, particularly from the state.  There is a possibility of such a culture emerging from multiple interactions that take place among members of different cultural communities in various venues over time.  Some decades ago, anthropologist Gananath Obeysekersa wrote about religious syncretism – a reference to one cultural group borrowing beliefs, rituals and practices from another.  A good example is Kataragama devale rituals and perahara.

It is possible to argue that what exists today is not a Sri Lankan culture or a common culture but majority and minority cultures within the boundaries of Sri Lanka. Majority culture, that is Sinhala-Buddhist, is presented nationally and internationally as the Sri Lankan culture with infrequent references to minority cultures.  Whether this is an inclusive process is questionable but the majority population seems to be comfortable with this projection of Sri Lanka’s culture.  However, those in the minority communities feel excluded from this projection of culture.  Here one can clearly see the influence of power, including ceremonial, over the projection of a constructed culture and a national identity in a majoritarian sense.

Institutional culture is associated with monuments, defined activities, ownership, management, and resources. Some are owned by the state. Others are supported by the state.  Some do own their own means of sustenance.  Philanthropists and well-wishers in the civil society also contribute.  After the conclusion of the war, the Sri Lankan army contributes actively to the construction and maintenance of cultural monuments.  Such activities are essential elements of symbolic cultural domination –an essential element in the overall domination exercised by powerful groups in society over the populace.

Particular individuals or close-knit groups achieve cultural domination by the use and diversion of resources as well as public symbolism.  The key messages being transmitted to the public tend to have particular meanings that appeal to a majority –not necessarily the minorities. If there were a common Sri Lankan culture, such messages would be relevant and meaningful to all its citizens.

It is important to examine whether the dominant culture subordinates some members of the majority Sinhala Buddhists also? It is here that the concept of class is useful. Those in the upper and upper middle classes project power by using various venues –social, religious, and cultural.  They utilise highly sophisticated communication media for this purpose along with specific discourses. Activities that project culture of power to the masses require significant resources.  Only those with access to resources can achieve this. The publicly sanctioned religious ceremonies in the Sinhala Buddhist world have assumed a class character.  The dominant religious idiom in the country has also acquired a class character.  Projection of the dominant cultural idiom has acquired a power character also.  Thus it is highly important to understand class, power, and culture nexus to comprehend how cultural domination has been constructed and utilised.

Projection of ‘dominant culture’ by using various communicative, official and artistic media to a nation of people as the ‘common culture’ has its rationale and logic.  However, such logic can appeal to only some segments of society –not all.  If a certain segment –whether they are Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim or any other- feel alienated and excluded from such a projected culture, then members of such segments cannot meaningfully participate in it. Thus this leads to a situation of ‘cultural dissonance’, ‘alienation’ and ‘cleavages’ along with associated frustrations.

A common culture can best be absorbed by different segments of a society if it is not an enforced one.  It should absorb the best aspects from all cultures existing in the land, with an awareness of their significance, meanings, symbolisms, and functions. Buddhism, in its original messages, does not advocate ‘dominating or exclusivist’ practices.  Rather it embodies a set of concepts, practices and explanations that are inclusive and should appeal to all humankind.  Its key messages appeal to a universalistic audience.  However, in some situations those with power tend to define it in such a way that it becomes an exclusivist doctrine and a practice.  Thus we need to question as to whether institutional Buddhism at certain levels have become exclusivist, unaffordable, and unacceptable to segments of Sri Lankans?

There is a close nexus between institutional/ceremonial Buddhism and the dominant caste and classes that sustain the state.  Each blesses the other, rationalise and sustain.  Ceremonial Buddhism –in contrast to spiritual Buddhism – contributes to the maintenance of domination-subordination process as it seemingly tolerates the continuation of the ‘unequal social order’, continued appropriation of labour, land and other resources by the upper classes (supiri classes) to the detriment of lower classes and subordinated masses.  Only at the symbolic level through rituals and public ceremonies (such as perahara) that these differing classes and dominating/dominated groups are brought together as one audience.  At the relational levels, inequalities and disparities continue, though they do not exist in the eyes of those who are placed at the apex of class and caste hierarchies.  One has to wonder whether the lack of any serious and critical discourse about these inequities from the Buddhist clergy is indicative of institutional tolerance for an unequal social order?

Those who adhere to the principles and practices of spiritual Buddhism following the word of Buddha do so as individuals or small groups aspiring to achieve the highest goals in solitary environments away from the stresses of daily life.  Their wishes are non materialistic and they do not by and large adopt practices of ‘display Buddhism’ or ‘ceremonial Buddhism’ maintained by Buddhist institutions, i.e. temples.

Thus cultural domination exercised by the dominant caste and classes is a key phenomenon in postcolonial/post-independent Sri Lanka. In order to understand the basis of ruling ideology, one has to understand the nature of this domination, which is fundamentally at odds with more secular governance philosophies associated with democracy, human rights, liberalism, and the ability to dissent.

The Buddhist message, though focused on the liberation of mind and body from the Samsaric cycle of birth and rebirth, has seemingly assumed a more secular character in the Sri Lankan context tolerating inequalities that exists in society. While the masses at the bottom of various hierarchies are toiling and suffering, symbolic inclusion in public ceremonial Buddhist activities, i.e. display Buddhism, via Buddhist institutions alone is not sufficient for true inclusion of differing segments of society.  A critical discourse that allows excluded classes, castes and other minority groups to find hope and a future within a framework of equality, justice and mutual care without being subjected to the processes of domination-subordination needs to arise from Buddhist institutions if they are to gain relevance and acceptance among a cross section of the population in a truly humanitarian sense in the 21st century.

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  • Eyes

    What an excellent article Siri Gamage. Congratulations on the versatility of an un-skewed presentation. I believe is also the kind of effect Buddhist philosophy also might bring out in the persona, if we are just patient enough to understand and listen to its core messages. I wish you all the very best!

  • sajeeva samaranayake

    Very useful Dr Gamage. Please keep writing.
    Organized and institutionalized Buddhism in Sri Lanka and probably most other Asian countries is indistinguishable from a kind of agrarian paternalism which is deep rooted. However these roots have been shaken by the forces of globalization which have also carried some Buddhist traditions (including Theravada) to the west. Colonial secularism (and its post colonial variants based on human rights) have been quite ineffective in reforming or re-constructing the relationship between the sasana and state in Sri Lanka. We must therefore focus on a model of secularism that is embedded within the history and praxis of religiousness here.