A Christian Miracle-Worker or Kattadiya Down South

C. A .Chandraprema, introducing “God’s Secret Agent” by Herman Gunaratne, … courtesy of The Island

 The launch of Malinga Herman Gunaratne’s latest book ‘God’s Secret Agent’ at Misissa Hills a boutique hotel in Mirissa on 16 April was well attended. Among the guests were the former editor of The Island Gamini Weerakoon, the editor of The Sunday Times Sinha Ratnatunga, and the head of the Derana media network Dilith Jayaweera. There were as many foreigners as locals in the audience. Ashok Ferry who discussed the book with Herman G asked him whether it was a work of fiction to which the latter answered in the negative stating that this was a book which was based on his own experiences with a Christian ‘holy man’ by the name of Nissanka Wimalasuriya. This ‘holy man’ who according to Herman G, worked with the Holy Spirit had performed virtual miracles for him as well as many of his friends, curing physical or mental ailments, solving career problems and the like. This book was Herman G’s way of paying homage to this ‘holy man’ whom he had known for decades and also the unseen force that helped him to do what he did

This holy man’s forte had been in eradicating evil spells cast on people. Almost invariably the evil spell was cast in the form of a copper sheet with writings on it in a sealed bottle that had been buried on the premises of the affected person. The removal of this buried bottle in the instances mentioned by Herman G had miraculously resulted in the curing of physical ailments and the resolution of career problems. This is a theme very familiar to all Sri Lankans. This is what most village kattadiyas do for a living. Casting evil spells on people and burying various items in their properties is almost like a national sport in this country. Removing these evil spells is also an industry in its own right. The village kattadiya does it with the help of local deities. However the difference in Herman G’s friend was that he was a Christian who invoked the power of the Semitic God to do what he did. One may argue that all this is just superstition and hocus pocus, but it all depends on what works for you.

Everyone has heard the story of Alexi Nokolaevich the youngest son of the last Czar of Russia who had haemophilia and only a faith healer by the name of Grigori Rasputin was able to cure him or at least control the condition. As far as the Romanov’s were concerned, all men of science and medicine had failed and only the incantations of Rasputin worked. The same argument holds for the virtual miracles that Herman G credits Wimalasuriya the Christian holy man of having worked. A planter colleague who suffered from severe fits that could not be explained by the best medical specialists in Sri Lanka, was cured immediately after Wimalasuriya unearthed a buried bottle from a plantation bungalow that the planter had occupied many years ago. Wimalasuriya could produce results for many people. Herman G for his part had introduced Wimalasuriya to many people he knew including J. R. Jayewardene, Ravi Jayewardene, Merill J. Fernando, Devinda Senanayake and others. Wimalasuriya had even dug up little bottles with evil spells from President J.R.Jayewardene’s house in Ward place in the 1980s.

The tea baron Merill J Fernando had built a house for Wimalasuriya obviously in gratitude for services rendered. One of the highlights of the launch of this book was the introduction of various people who had been helped by Wimalasuriya or seen him in action to the audience. Among them were people whose stories had been related in the book. This writer has known Herman G for the better part of three decades and never knew him to be in any way interested in any kind of magic or charms or spells or even a religion. But it now turns out that Herman G has been living a different life with holy men and prayers and actually seeing the results of what most people would dismiss as hocus pocus. As he says, there are many things that cannot be explained in the terms that we are accustomed to, and this book is an attempt to come to grips with the inexplicable.

The stories that Herman G relates in this book are not unusual in Sri Lanka. But what sounds a discordant note is his insistence that there was something special in what Nissanka Wimalasuriya did which set him apart from the village kattadiya. Herman G speaks of Wimalasuriya’s complete disinterest in matters relating to money and the fact that he never asked for a fee for his services whereas the average village kattadiya would be a rapacious type who would depending on his reputation, charge fees rivalling that of skilled surgeons for complicated surgeries. This notwithstanding, the village kattadiya also delivers what his clients expect. The fact that Wimalasuriya did not charge fees for his services is taken by Herman G to be a sign that he was motivated by a higher ideal and was doing God’s work. There is no denying that the village kattadiya has no concept of doing God’s work in the way a devout Christian may conceive of it.

But there still are village kattadiyas and vedamahattayas who practice their professions without trying to make a fortune out of it. Even though many would now consider money to be more important than ‘pin’ (merit) there are still people who give equal weightage to both. The one thing that many people would immediately take exception to would be Herman G’s characterisation of the force that Wimalasuriya invoked as the ‘one true god’. No doubt Wimalasuriya invoked some unseen force to do his thing. But the village kattadiyas also do exactly the same thing as Wimalasuriya by invoking other unseen forces. In fact no religion seems to have a monopoly over this business of breaking evil spells. There was even a Muslim known to the public as ‘loku seeya’ in Ragama who invoked Hindu deities to remove evil spells and he too dug up bottles containing the cause of the malady with Muslims being among his clients.

If the village kattadiya is breaking an evil spell, that is a good deed how can anybody say that he was breaking spells with the help of demons while Wimalasuriya was doing the same thing with the help of the one true God? In fact one could argue that a kattadiya who can actually get a demon to do good, is inherently superior to a holy man who invokes the power of a benign God to do good! Herman G’s characterisation of the God invoked by Wimalasuriya as the one true God was in fact challenged at the book launch by an European gentlemen who said that he was a devotee of the Kataragama god and that he cannot see an iota of evil in that cult. In fact Herman G himself has related in this book how he was helped by one of the numerous local deities that the Sinhalese Buddhists believe in, by the name of ‘Kambili deviyo’. In this instance too Herman G characterises Kambili deviyo as an ‘evil incarnation’ but yet states incongruously that this evil force did him only good. That was long before Herman G had got to know Nissanka Wimalasuriya. The moral of all this may be that one must not uphold the propaganda in favour of one unseen force against another unseen force!

The Island 6/5/17

ALSO SEE

Bruce Kapferer: A Celebration of Demons, 1983

Bruce Kapferer: Feast of the Sorceror, 1997

Bruce Kapferer. “Introduction: Outside All Reason—Magic, Sorcery and Epistemology in Anthropology.” Social Analysis, 2002,  46, no. 3: 1–30.
Lambert, Stephen, prod. 1991. Suicide Killers. Documentary film,

Rohan Bastin The Domain of Constant Excess: Plural Worship at the Munnesvaram Temples in Sri Lanka. New York: Berghahn Book, s2002. 

Mazakazu Tanaka: Patrons, Devotees and Goddesses: Ritual and Power among the Tamil Fishermen of Sri Lanka. Kyoto: Institute Research in Humanities, Kyoto
University, 1991

Diane P.Mines,  Fierce Gods: Inequality, Ritual, and the Politics of Dignity in a South Indian Village. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 2005.

D. S  Farrer:  “The Healing Arts of the Malay Mystic.” Visual Anthropology Review 2008.4, no. 1: 29–46.

D. S. Farrer (ed.)  War Magic and Warrior Religion: Sorcery, Cognition, and Embodiment

 

 

 

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Filed under art & allure bewitching, cultural transmission, life stories, meditations, performance, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, unusual people, working class conditions, world affairs

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