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Multilingualism, multiculturalism and Sinhala academia
[TamilNet, Saturday, 10 September 2011, 00:31 GMT]
‘Celebrating multilingualism’ in Sri Lanka, and delivering a keynote address in a language award ceremony in Colombo in July, Professor of Sinhala K.N.O. Dharmadasa said that Tamil came to be introduced into the island at a later time, especially after the Polonnaruva period (c. 13th century AD). According to the Mahavamsa myth he was relying upon, culture of multilingualism in the island began when “a group of settlers led by Prince Vijaya, who would have been speaking a dialect which linguists call Prakrit, came and settled down in the northern plains.” Meanwhile, delivering a lecture on Buddhism at the UN General Assembly in May and using it for campaigning Sri Lanka’s ‘reconciliation,’ another Sri Lankan Prof. Sudharshan Seneviratne said, arrival of Buddhism and other north Indian social ideologies heralded the beginnings of civilization in the island.
Prof. KNO Dharmadasa delivered the Keynote Address, “Celebrating Multilingualism” at the Bandaranayake Centre for International Studies Language Awards Ceremony 2011 on July 30.
Prof. Sudharshan Seneviratne delivered a speech “Humanism for Peace: A Buddhist Perspective,” at the Inter Faith Dialogue on International Peace, Harmony and Co-existence, celebrating Wesak at the UN General Assembly on May 16th 2011.Comments from an academic in Jaffna on both the addresses follow:
The kind of multilingual spirit in Prof. Dharmadasa doesn’t want to admit that Veddoid (Austro-Asiatic) and Tamil/ Dravidian were there along with or even earlier to Prakrit in the multilingual culture of the island, and that the birth of Sinhala as an identifiable language owes to all the above said strains.
It is well known that the most objective and the earliest written records found in the island are the Brahmi inscriptions dated to a couple of centuries before and after the dawn of the Common Era. They number more than a thousand.
These inscriptions, even though largely in Prakrit as they are mostly associated with Buddhist monastic endowments, betray any of the known Prakrits when come to a large part of the clan names, kinship terms and geographical terms found in them. Such terms are clearly in Tamil or in a tongue of Dravidian.
How do we explain the phenomenon if Tamil or tongues of Dravidian akin to it were not already present in the island at this known initial stages of ‘multilingualism’?
Recently, a very early Brahmi potsherd inscription, clearly in Tamil language and Tamil Brahmi script was found in the down south of the island, testifying to the early use of the Tamil language at the level of the ordinary folk.
If the Buddhist literary compilations in Pali/ Prakrit are the ones remembered in the Sinhala-Buddhist culture of today as its earliest pieces of literary heritage, the early Tamil literary heritage of the island is at least preserved in the corpus of Cankam literature, as the identity of one of its poets goes with Eezham.
The term Sinhala was not originally the identity of a language. It was a geographical identity. A language that evolved in the island, reaching an identifiable and literary stage by c. 8-10 century CE, was then known as He’la Bhasa in the inscriptions and literature (He’la is a cognate of Eezham).* * *
Passing through a creole stage is common in language development. Whether classical Tamil, Prakrits or Sanskrit – all have gone through it.
Why the hesitation in objectively exploring the creole stage of Sinhala? Why the Tamil/ Dravidian substratum in the making of Sinhala language never found acknowledged by Sinhala academics one-sided in highlighting Prakrits and Sanskrit?
Besides, a research on the possibilities of language replacement in the island from Austro-Asiatic cum Dravidian to Indo-Aryan through religious influences is yet to be undertaken with a spirit of objectivity.
The reason for the lacuna in objective language studies in the island is on one hand the stereotype psychological conditioning such as in the notion of Prof. Dharmadasa that Tamil came to the island after 13th century, and on the other hand the deficiency in the multilingual expertise of most of the Sinhala academics that their expertise was never in the Dravidian languages.
The resulting problem in the historical linguistics of the island is that whenever identifiably Tamil/ Dravidian elements are found in the Sinhala language, place names etc., they are blindly taken as ‘later’ influences that came through the Tamil ‘invaders’ after the 13th century.
There is an extensive but ‘unexplored’ Tamil/ Dravidian substratum present in Sinhala language, which any objective historical linguistic study would place to very early times.
For instance, Prof Dharmadasa’s teacher Prof D.E. Hettiarachchi assigned the etymology of the Sinhala word Pol (coconut) to Austro-Asiatic, as he could not trace its etymology to any Indo-Aryan (University of Ceylon, History of Ceylon Vol I).
But Tamil has a Dravidian cognate, Pul, which was originally a generic term for all palms and grasses including the coconut palm. This shade of usage is found only in very early layers of Tamil literature and later Pul meant only grass. This kind of affinity is not possible without early connections between the two languages at the level of the substratum.
In this regard, Sinhala academics of a rare genre like Prof Sucharita Gamlath could contribute a lot in enlightening academics as well as masses. We earnestly hope to hear their voices.
The historical development of Eezham Tamil as a language parallel to Sinhala in the island, having its own features compared to the Tamil of Tamil Nadu is another area that needs highlight when one deals with ‘multilingualism’ in the island.
Patronizing Sinhala-centric multilingualism that puts the erroneous and psychologically demeaning tag of ‘later arrivals’ is not multilingualism. Eezham Tamils would rather righteously prefer to have their feeling of equality in their own country than getting trapped by this brand of multilingualism of the island.
More than anything, ‘multilingualism’ could not be a smokescreen for erasing the territoriality of a linguistic nation of historicity in the island.* * *
Delivering a lecture on Buddhism at the UN where Sri Lanka’s permanent representative and his deputy are war-crime-accused, Prof Sudharshan Seneviratne’s ‘Buddhist humanism’ chose to use the occasion to subtly defend the ‘Truths Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ of the genocidal regime of Rajapaksa.
Sudharshan, who is also the Senior Cultural Advisor to Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was painting a rosy picture of the virtues of Sri Lanka’s ‘multiculturalism’ and about the possibility of the ‘plural cultural mosaic’ of Sri Lanka representing an ‘inclusive island society’.
However, unlike the ‘first coming–later coming’ paradigm, Sudharshan said “For thousands of years my country, Sri Lanka, was a place of convergence for different ethnic, cultural, religious and language groups.”
But as the ground reality in the island is increasing Sinhala militarisation, colonisation, land-grab and economic monopoly of the land of Eezham Tamils, to what extent the ‘imposed multiculturalism’ of cosmopolitan thinking tally with the Buddhist philosophy Sudharshan was upholding in his lecture is the question.
During the times of the colonial conquistadors, when the military was carrying out the temporal conquest the priests were engaged in the spiritual conquest. Since the Buddhist monks in the island today have no moral or spiritual capacity to do the job whether it is the Sudharshan’s ilk that has taken up the job to use the ‘multicultural philosophy’ for the dismemberment of a nation by another and ultimately to serve the corporate religion, is the other question.
‘Material reconstruction’ and ‘people to people connectivity’ and all the other verbose Sudharshan was talking about should take place when there is parity among peoples. Otherwise they will go only one-sided.
One may not need to oppose multiculturalism as it was always practiced silently in our societies. But the imposed political ‘multiculturalism’ in the island is a sophisticated smokescreen for structural genocide.* * *
Sudharshan differentiates heritage and culture:
“We have come to appreciate heritage as a multi-faceted catalyst and a source of People to People connectivity and conflict resolution. Heritage is seen as an idiom that expresses a common language of humanity where people reach out to each other for understanding, sharing and co existence,” Sudharshan said in his lecture.
“It is also seen as an alternative space and bench-mark for future peace initiatives undertaken by individuals and statesmen respecting pluralism. For this purpose a paradigm shift is needed to redefine heritage beyond the narrow confines of culture per se. We now identify environment, culture, knowledge from the past and the next generation as integral components of heritage,” he elucidated.
“It is in conjunction with this redefined concept of heritage that we also recognize the need to humanize education as an important feature in conflict resolution, especially through Peace Education prescribed by UNESCO,” Sudharshan further said.
But Sudharshan, who for a very long time was projecting the material, technological, environmental and productivity foundations of the Megalithic culture of South India-Sri Lanka as the basis for the rise of urbanisation in the region, made a different statement in his UN speech:
“The arrival of Buddhism and other north Indian social ideologies, such as Jainism, around 3rd Century BC heralded the beginnings of civilization and its cosmopolitan culture that provided a distinct identity to this island society,” Sudharshan said.
Here he is attributing a particular genre of abstract culture as solely responsible for the beginning of ‘civilisation’ in the island, contradicting his own theories of ‘secular heritage’ as well as redefining heritage from the ‘narrow confines of culture.’
Whether religion is a product of civilisation or religion produces civilisation is the question.
It should be noted in this context that in Tamil Nadu the evidence is clear that no single religion was responsible for urbanisation or civilisation but the basis was the material foundations of the megalithic culture. Why the picture should be different in the island?
Has Sudharshan changed his academic opinion just because some writers having ‘influential’ connections criticise him for viewing the pre-Buddhist Megalithic culture as the basis for the rise of civilisation in the island?
One such person, Dr Susantha Goonatilake, closely connected to some JHU ministers in the SL government recently wrote that Sudharshan had been projecting the earlier simple Megalithic culture into a later civilizational period of the country and that was “sociologically flawed.”
Dr Goonatilake is very ‘honest’ in his intentions and he has no faith in sophisticated approaches like multilingualism or multiculturalism. At the height of the Vanni war he wanted the SL government to permanently colonise Vanni with Sinhala soldiers and their families, and that is what the SL government is doing now.
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