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.