Andi Schubert, in The Island, 31 August 2016, where the title is “Some selective (bio)logical readings of the Mahawamsa” = see Col-Telegraaph version for commentary = https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/some-selective-biological-readings-of-the-mahawamsa/
In a recent article on the confrontation between those holding the “Different Yet Equal” vigil and prominent members of the “Sinha Le Jathika Balamuluwa,” Prof. Susirith Mendis poses a very interesting challenge. In drawing out the critical role that blood plays in Sri Lankan politics, I read what Prof. Mendis is doing as an encouragement to think biologically. What I hope to do therefore is to examine the relationship between (bio)logy, i.e. the logic of the reproduction of life, and politics as it emerges in our current political discourse.
Prof. Mendis traces the roots of the Sinha Le movement to the 2000-year-old, legendary, “atavistic fears” encapsulated by the image of Gamani of Mahagama (Prince Dutugemunu) lying in the foetal position on his bed as per The Mahawamsa. This symbolically important moment in the text provides a useful starting point for a broader consideration of what may emerge when The Mahawamsa is read biologically. Like many incidents in The Mahawamsa, the story of Prince Dutugemunu is, funnily enough, actually premised on an outright overturning of a patriarchal, biological/ reproductive order. For example, according to Geiger’s Mahawamsa, the reason for Prince Gamani to take the foetal position was in response to his father’s request to take three oaths – the first to be true to the bhikkhus, the second, to have no enmity towards his brother, and the third, to never fight with the Damilas (153). As The Mahawamsa records this event, both brothers happily agree to the first two oaths but reject the last one. In fact, this oath angers Prince Gamani so much that he goes and lies on his bed in the foetal position as a symbolic representation of what is taking place in the country. Now all of this seems straightforward enough and these concerns may certainly still be a valid fear for a segment of the population today. But I believe it is important to understand this moment biologically. On the one hand, Prince Gamani’s return to the foetal position is provoked by his anger with his father and his desire to show himself as distinct from both his brother (who, by the way, also refused to take this oath, but I digress).
So it seems to me that he returns to the foetal position by actually rejecting the demand of his father. As The Mahawamsa goes on to tell us, Prince Gamani actually goes on to complete this repudiation of his father’s masculinity by sending him a woman’s ornament. And in fact we only find out why he is in this foetal position when his mother comes and asks him. In a sense, therefore, she becomes the mid-wife of his apparent dissatisfaction with the status quo. So in fact this moment of great symbolic significance to understanding the current status of the Sinhalese is actually quite contrary to a patriarchal biological order. Here we have the symbolic birth (the foetal position of Gamani) of a critical political divergence that is quite strangely premised on a rejection of a biological/ reproductive order.
Any discussion of the biological ordering in The Mahawamsa would be incomplete without referencing the story of Sinhabahu. In this story there is a strange engagement between biology and patriarchy. Let us leave aside for the time being the dubious biological assumption that Vijaya’s grandfather was an actual lion. Let us instead consider how to understand Sinhabahu’s rejection of his mother’s pleas (she tries to restrain him from setting out to kill his father) and his desire to kill his father for three thousand gold pieces and a possible kingdom (52). In fact, The Mahawamsa indicates that Sinhabahu had to keep trying to kill his father the lion, to spill the lion’s blood as it were, because of his father’s great tenderness towards him. Strangely enough, it seems like he was only able to kill his father once his father decided to treat him like an enemy rather than his son. As a correlative to this story, The Mahawamsa also indicates that the reason the followers of Vijaya were called Sihala was because of the fact that they were associated with Sinhabahu who had spilled (rather than preserved) the blood of the lion (58).
This also led me to consider a couple of other critical moments in The Mahawamsa in a similar light. I started thinking about Vijaya and his role in Sri Lanka. As most Sri Lankans know, Vijaya’s children with Kuveni became the progenitors of the Veddas. However, because she was not of royal lineage, Vijaya’s ministers bring down a princess from Southern India to be Vijaya’s official queen and thereby ensure that Vijaya claimed his place as the ruler of the country. Funnily enough, The Mahawamsa says that this union did not actually produce any sons who could ascend the throne and therefore the throne was passed down to his nephew (62). So it seems strange to me that the person considered the father of the Sinhalese race, was actually unable to (re)produce any legitimate offspring to rise to the throne. It was only ‘natural’ then that the answer to this problem was resolved by bringing down a new king from the land of Vijaya’s ‘birth’. In biological terms, the story of Vijaya can in fact be read as a deep desire to preserve a biological order even as its imminent collapse is becoming increasingly clear.
Another moment in The Mahawamsa that is often discussed today is the birth of Pandukabhaya, who according to the text at least can boast a lineage of being both related to Lord Buddha as well as being from the line of the local royalty. As the story goes, Pandukabhaya’s mother was Ummadacitta and his father, Dighagamani, was in fact her cousin (her mother’s brother’s son). Since soothsayers had prophesied that her son would rise up and eventually take control of the kingdom, Ummadacitta’s brothers resolved to lock her away from society. However, that plan failed when her cousin was able to impregnate her. Therefore, her brothers decided that while they welcomed the marriage, that if their sister bore a son they would put the child to death. Knowing of their plans, Ummadacitta paid another woman who was also about to give birth a 1000 pieces of money to exchange her child with Pandukabhaya just prior to his birth (67). Quite unsurprisingly, it is the daughter of a peasant woman that becomes the forgotten symbolic reference point for the preservation of the young prince’s life and aristocratic line. However, her (il)legitimacy is also an invitation to consider the funny re-alignment of the patriarchal biological/ reproductive order in this story. We can therefore see that what ensures Pandukabhaya’s life is actually the disassociation and rejection of his birth by his mother, Ummadacitta. In other words, Pandukabhaya’s eventual rise to the throne would not have been possible without his mother’s emphatic rejection of him as her child and the legitimacy she invested in a peasant woman’s daughter.
In the midst of an increasing insistence on a xenophobic, heteronormative framing of our ethnic histories, it would be useful to revisit some of these stories that we rely on without much critical thought. As I have tried to show through this essay, examining the (bio)logical contradictions of some stories in The Mahawamsa offer an interesting counter-argument to how these stories are used as the basis for nationalist claims. Therefore, this selective reading while quite incomplete, is intended as the opening statement in an increasingly urgent, much broader conversation about the concatenation of nationalism, patriarchy, and biology that shapes our discourse in the country today. It would be better for those of us who wish to give a politically bankrupt nationalist movement a shot in the arm to be more judicious when arguing that we should get to the heart of the matter. We might not like what we find.
NB: All references are from Wilhelm Geiger’s translation of The Mahawamsa (1912).
Michael Roberts: 2001 “Dakunen sädi kotiyo, uturen golu muhudai,” [The fierce/vile Tamils to the south, the turbulent/ unfathomable sea to the north]” Pravāda 6: 17-18.
Michael Roberts: 2001 “Sinhala-ness and Sinhala Nationalism,” in G. Gunatilleke et al (eds.): A History of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: Recollection, Reinterpretation and Reconciliation, Colombo: Marga Monograph Series, No 4.
Michael Roberts: 2001 “The burden of history: obstacles to power sharing in Sri Lanka”, Contributions to Indian Sociology, n. s., May 2001, 35: 65-96.
Michael Roberts: 2002b “Primordialist strands in contemporary Sinhala nationalism in Sri Lanka: urumaya as Ur,” Colombo: Marga Monograph Series on A History of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: Recollection, Reinterpretation and Reconciliation, Colombo: Marga Monograph Series, No 20.