Lanka without Vijaya….

Michael Roberts

This article was printed initially in the Lanka Monthly Digest, Special Millennium Issue, 27 January 2000.

In sending a letter to John D’Oyly as the British representative on 29 June 1812 on behalf of the King of Trisinhalaya (the Kingdom of Kandy) Pusvälla Rālahāmy began thus: “From the great King Vijaya born of noble exceeding pure race of the sun.” This was a conventional feature in several Kandyan letters of the time. That is several letters began with a reference to Vijaya. Conscious as he was of history, it was Junius Richard Jayewardene’s practice to refer to himself as the umpteenth head of state, the count including Vijaya as Number One in the line and, in effect, founding father. This was part of a manipulation of supposed history towards Jayewardene’s own ends. But such usages also raised the honour of the Sri Lankan state in general and the Sinhala people in particular. It placed a premium on antiquity.  When Chandrika Kumaratunga, speaking in South Africa referred to the Sinhala people as “the original inhabitants” of the island she was also placing a value on time and emphasizing the strengths of the Sinhala claims to the island in, say, roughly similar ways to the value that Jews place on Palestine.

This statement immediately raised a hornet’s nest. Tamil spokespersons immediately challenged the authenticity of this claim by alleging that Tamilians of the Sangam Age provided some of the original settlers.  Indeed, there are Tamil spokespersons nowadays who seek to out-Vijaya by claiming that Rāvana (a truly mythical creature in the standard sense of the “mythical”) was a Tamil. This is in step with the efforts of some individuals of Jātika Chintanaya persuasion who argue that the speakers of Elu (pure original Sinhala) were pre-Vijayan.

Such claims clearly are reaching back into the past vengeance. History has always been a legitimising tool, but here we see primordiality writ large, an inscription of facticity and primacy upon fable.

Let me take Vijaya as my illustrative case for this de-bunking exercise.

The story of Vijaya appears first in the Pāli chronicles, the fourth century CE [that is, AD] Dīpavamsa and the fifth or sixth century Mahāvamsa. These written texts were partly based on proto-Sinhala texts, now lost, known as Sīhala-Atthakatā-Mahāvamsa.

The latter appears to have embodied oral traditions. Thus, speculatively, one could say that the stories have their roots several centuries prior to the first century CE. This means that in talking of Vijaya the original storytellers were presenting a tale about events four or five centuries before their time. While I have the deepest respect for oral traditions, the reliability of tales that distant is liable to serious questioning.  It would be tantamount to Gunadasa Amarasekera presenting an oral tale from the Kottē period as historical fact — without any other evidential support.

The facticity of the story is further undermined when we find that Vijaya arrived in the land of Lanka on the same day that the Lord Buddha achieved  “parinibānna.” Such a fabulous coincidence makes it clear that, for the bhikkhus who sustained these traditions and wrote that the texts referred to above, the purport of these tales was to present a moral.  In this sense, the tale is rather akin to the origin myths of the various gods and godlings that are part of the Sinhala world: it depicts the essential character of the figure.

The story of Vijaya is a genesis story. He has been invented as an eponymous ancestor, an ancestral figure who is presented as civilizing immigrants bringing culture and state-form to the uncivilized peoples who inhabited the island. Vijaya is as much empirical fact as Adam. Neither existed. Nor did Eve. They represent parables, didactic statements about original points of genesis-cum-culture, that is, “culture” in the sense of civilized culture.

Vijaya then, should not be given the same evidential facticity as the figure of Mahinda (whose missionary journey is corroborated by Indian sources). And today in the twentieth century we know that all the people who inhabit our island have culture. It may have deteriorated somewhat into militarised and consumerised culture, but its still “culture.” So can we do without Vijaya or Ravana? Indeed, we must move into the new millennium without the weight of such archaic baggage.

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10 Comments

Filed under cultural transmission, historical interpretation, life stories, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, world events & processes

10 responses to “Lanka without Vijaya….

  1. perinbanayagam

    I just came across this vingette from Roberts — ten years after it appeared.
    Of course Roberts is right.Yet there is one question that historian or social scientist has raised or answred is — as far as I am aware — why did the monks of yore concoct these stories — as of course did many other civilizations .What were they up to?What were they seeking to accomplish?

    • Dear PERIN

      You pose a real googly of a question. It is very difficult for historians and other specialists w to work out the mentalities (note plural) of an era or a dominant segment of a community even when there is some body of data? When the source material is fragmentary it is doubly difficult. One also needs expertise in the language and culture surrounding the source material.
      I do not have those capacities. BUT relying on dim memories of history lessons at Peradeniya and the translated content of the 5/6th century Mahavamsa, we know that (a) the author claimed that it was written “for the serene joy and emotion of the pious;” and (b) that his Mahavihara monastic chapter enjoyed a special bond with the ruling dynasty of the state presiding over a kingdom dominated by Sinhala-speakers (that is “Old Sinhala” or also sometimes called Elu or Hela).
      So my conjecture is that this is an ideological position espoused by personnel convinced about the righteousness of their faith and fortified by the strength that this community of religious devotion (encompassing ordinary devotees) derived from its affiliation with the ruling institution. Thus fortified, as one may speculate, they shored up the value of their enterprise by clothing it with a destiny prophesied by the Buddha [alleged visits to the island by flight] et cetera et cetera. Thus to manifest destiny…….
      As you have twigged this type of ideology is common to many powerful world-sweeping religious movements, imperial kingdoms etc etc. USA and its leaders also spoke about their “manifest destiny” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries … and have since reached out in this direction after achieving super-power status – without convincing everyone.
      This comment, clearly, is sceptical, hard-headed and realist reading, with a leaning towards empirical facts. Such a reading also bears the imprint of ideology and one must be alive to our own predilections and the pitfalls associated with, say, to great a reliance on a transactionalist (read as “instrumental”) understanding of the world.

      Michael R

    • Dear PERIN

      You pose a real googly of a question. It is very difficult for historians and other specialists w to work out the mentalities (note plural) of an era or a dominant segment of a community even when there is some body of data? When the source material is fragmentary it is doubly difficult. One also needs expertise in the language and culture surrounding the source material.
      I do not have those capacities. BUT relying on dim memories of history lessons at Peradeniya and the translated content of the 5/6th century Mahavamsa, we know that (a) the author claimed that it was written “for the serene joy and emotion of the pious;” and (b) that his Mahavihara monastic chapter enjoyed a special bond with the ruling dynasty of the state presiding over a kingdom dominated by Sinhala-speakers (that is “Old Sinhala” or also sometimes called Elu or Hela).
      So my conjecture is that this is an ideological position espoused by personnel convinced about the righteousness of their faith and fortified by the strength that this community of religious devotion (encompassing ordinary devotees) derived from its affiliation with the ruling institution. Thus fortified, as one may speculate, they shored up the value of their enterprise by clothing it with a destiny prophesied by the Buddha [alleged visits to the island by flight] et cetera et cetera. Thus to manifest destiny…….
      As you have twigged this type of ideology is common to many powerful world-sweeping religious movements, imperial kingdoms etc etc. USA and its leaders also spoke about their “manifest destiny” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries … and have since reached out in this direction after achieving super-power status – without convincing everyone.
      This comment, clearly, is sceptical, hard-headed and realist reading, with a leaning towards empirical facts. Such a reading also bears the imprint of ideology and one must be alive to our own predilections and the pitfalls associated with, say, to great a reliance on a transactionalist (read as “instrumental”) understanding of the world.

      Michael R

      • perinbanayagam

        The real /relevant question is not whether the stories in the Mahavamsa of bestilaity,incest,teachery,betrayal,ethnic cleansing etc are true or not,but what sociopoltical purposes were served by recounting of these stories by the authors at that particular moment.The chronicles were composed and it appears recited on occasion by one author or authors and were no doubt addressed to a cognosecenti(Pali speakers) to meet certain political demands — like a national anthem!
        In this, these authors are not that different from modern historians who too compose their stories to fulfill some contemporary ideological demands!
        The question should then be not whether a grandson of a real lion (not that of a king called say Raj Singh),the eponymous Vijaya(victor,vindicator) came to Lanka but what did the chroniclers and others who used this story want this story to define …

      • I was under the impression that GC Mendis, Lakshman Perera and other good scholars did concentrate on this question., namely, the issue you raise so cogently. Again when I interpreted it as a didactic Adam and Eve moral story I thought I was doing the same thing. of course popular fare in recent times has been directed by contemporary purposes and where I — and others — have challenged such interpretations we too are directed ideologically.

        The fact that it was in Pali should not however foreclose on the probability that it was retailed in Old Sinhala — and even possibly originated in that language as did the Sihala-AththaKata Mahavamsa. Again when others transmitted the tale in Sinhala in subsequent centuries what was their agenda and purpose? So a question that continuously arises … and does not necessarily lead to the same answer tho there maybe commonalities. Given that the data on each ancient era or century is so sparse our answers are necessarily conjectural and based on flimsy evidence.

  2. perinbanayagam

    Okay, Michael. I stand corrected — only upto a point.The issue I raised is not about the historical authenticity of the text — that has been done by authentic historians — but about use of bestiality and incest etc. metaphors for sociopolitical purpose, to wit,the narrative construction the state and its legitimate subjects. But, that is a long story …

  3. Mary

    The Vijaya myth looks surprisingly similar tyo the story of Rama and Sita…and their association with Sri Lanka is well known.
    Vijaya takes the role of Rama and the tribal woman , of course, is a form of Sita…who was taken from a furrow of the earth.
    In the Ramayana Rama eventually leaves Sita in a hermitage with her two children and he reigns as king in solitary splendour. This is religious doctrine…not history !
    ( in the Greek version, the story of Jason and Medea ) Jason leavesMedea to marry the daughter of a wealthy merchant. With awful consequences !)
    This is a religious tract…not history !
    The story about Vijaya’s descent from a lion is a fantastically embroidered way of stating that he belonged to the Solar Dynasty ( lion represents Sun )…embroidered by village people so far from the source that they had forgotten everything.
    Rama did indeed live actually, historically…in the third millenium BC…( see L.A. Waddell…’How I deciphered the Indus Seals’and Makers of Civilisation…’
    And he may very possibly have visited India….but that was a VERY long time ago.

    • Mary

      I forgot to mention that there are more than 350 different versions of the Ramayana circulating in India…which has caused quite a fracas…there have been violent demonstrations and threats of bloodshed by people who believe that only the Valmiki version may be accepted.
      It is tragic when religious allegory becomes mistaken for history.

  4. sach

    Mostly tamil people subjected to eelam propaganda look at Mahavamsa in a hateful way which is apparent in Perin’s comments.
    1. Mahavamsa was written in 4-5 AD and the vijaya story is said to have taken 10 centuries prior to writing Mahavamsa. The monk who wrote that probably relied on the existing story line. There is evidence to suggest that author of Mahavamsa did not lie deliberately but put down what he knew as right and fact. And the society during 5AD did treat Vijjaya story as true. I do not know why Roberts did not highlighted in his reply though he mention this in the article.
    2. Even the critics of Mahavamsa has said the monk mahanama did not deliberately lie
    3. Is mahavamsa filled with incest, ethnic cleansing, beastiality, betrayal? Mahavamsa is the story of kings. Take any part of world and show a single country where betrayal was not part of it? If one were to malign mahavamsa due to so called incest, beastiality, then I guess most of the religious literature of Hinduism, chrisitianity and islam that is treated as divine would fall to that category.
    4. Is Mahavamsa historically accurate? Except the genesis story the mahavamsa is amazingly historically accurate. That is amazing for a book written in 4-5 AD. The writings in Mahavamsa can be correctly corresponded with the stone inscriptions, and data found in other countries?
    5. What is the ethnic cleansing in Mahavamsa? Mahavamsa’s stories are about ancient sinhala kings defeating invading armies from South India where Dutu Gamunu story is the main one. I wonder how defeating and killing an invading army is ethnic cleansing. This is given that Tamil ethnic consciousness has not even evolved during this time. When Mahabharata mentions Sinhala people in SL, South India is called as Chola, Pandya and not as Tamil.
    6. Is Mahavamsa a political tool? Probably Mahavamsa has political value and it may be for this purpose it was written down. At the same time targetting and maligning Mahavamsa is also a political strategy.

  5. Kevin

    I believe that the myth about Sinhalese descending from Vijaya is a complete lie. Firstly “Vijaya was a descendant of a lion/human hybrid” is this scientifically possible? Definitely not. Secondly ” who are Vijaya’s descendants?” Well Kuweni bore two children from Vijaya, a boy and a girl called Jeewahatha and Disala. These children are the ancestors of Vedda people living in Sri Lanka. Now this makes us think, “so who do Sinhalese descend from?” For this question we will have to the time of King Pandukabhya who I believe is a son of a native tribesman and a princess of Vijayan dynasty and I will tell you my reason for believing this. So firstly, “Pandukabhya’s uncles wanted him killed, because a prophecy said he will kill his uncles and set his own kingdom.” But why did the prophecy say this. If Pandukabhya was Aryan and of Vijayan Dynasty, why would his uncles hesitate to give him the kingdom? Why would they want to kill him as soon as he was born in the first place? My reason for this is, Pandukabhya was not of their bloodline. So lets go to the quarrel between the natives and Vijayan invaders. The natives wanted to get rid of these Aryan invaders and come back to power. “Mahavansa says that King Pandukhabya grew up with the natives and they protected and helped him to defeat his uncles and get the kingdom.” But why would they protect someone who is of Aryan bloodline and not their own? Well there should be a different reason for why the natives protected him. So lets go to his paternal blood line. In Mahavansa Pandukabhya’s father is Digagamini, who is of Sakya Dynasty, still Aryan. Chittra, Pandukabhya’s mother married him and her parents and brothers were fine with this, as the child will be of Aryan blood. But they wanted to kill this child when he was born, but why? There should be something else going on. A native tribesman called Chittaraja was guarding Chittra. It is very possible that this native tribesman made Chittra pregnant and so for this reason they wanted the brothers wanted the child killed as he was of hela(native) bloodline. Chittaraja was killed for this. So the question why was he killed if the child was Digagamini’s child? Why was Chittaraja guarding her in the first place if Chittra was married to Digagamini? So the natives must have protected Pandukabhya as he was of their bloodline. King Pandukabhya ended the war between the natives and Vijyan invaders. He also joined the 4 tribes together and united them. 4 tribes= siw, natives= hela. Siw-hela became Sinhala. If you keep repeating Siwhela really fast it eventually becomes Sinhala. Sinhala cannot be Sinha- la as in lion blood, because blood in Sinhala is ‘le’ and the ‘la’ in sinhala is not ‘le’ which means meaning blood, ‘la’ doesn’t have any meaning in Sinhala. So Siw hela are the most likely words that became SInhala. Thus these are the origins of Sinhala.

    Sinhala history is 2400 years old because it starts from King Pandukabhya but the actual history must be more than this because Sinhalese descend from the native hela people.

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