What happened in our history
By H. L. D. Mahindapala
The pioneering Indo-Aryan settlers, who came to be known as Sinhalese later, never stopped making history from the time they stepped ashore. The mission of making history came naturally to them. It was their innate penchant for making history that gave birth to a new civilization which rose to the heights of any other civilisation of its time. Their achievements entitled them to the foremost place in the history they created and left behind. They sowed the land with their sweat, blood and tears and the history they made in the process belongs exclusively to them. They laboured in the passage of time to enrich the land with their culture. It is a history that shines to this day with the grandeur of the distinguishing Sinhala-Buddhist culture. History belongs to those who made it and not to those who came as invaders, or predators, or destroyers, or those who live off the fat of the land fertilized by the self-sacrificing ancestors.
Their creative energy left behind a glorious legacy for their descendants to inherit with pride and joy. Each step they took to explore and transform the land into fertile fields of agriculture and culture lifted the Sinhalese above the other migrants who arrived in time to reap the harvests of the foundational ground prepared by the pioneering forefathers. The Sinhalese not only made this new found land their home but also opened it up for others to come in and make it their home as well.
History was made by bonding with the land. The Sinhalese took to the land like duck to water. They had no alternative either because they had taken the critical decision not to go back. They had severed their umbilical cord with India – a momentous decision that made all the difference to the creation of a new civilisation. They did not have one foot in their new land and another in old India like those who came from the Dravidian culture. The essential difference between the two major and minor settlers who came from India is that the Sinhalese set out creatively and energetically to construct a unique civilisation of their own, with a brand-new identity, while the descendants of the Dravidians stagnated as mere imitators recycling mechanically the culture they brought with them from across the Palk Straits. They had nothing new to offer. They were quite content to bask in the glory of the S. Indian culture.
The role of the Sinhalese has been entirely different. They were out to make a history of their own with a new identity. Each new step was a historical move to pave the way into the future – a future which opened up in all its glorious splendour. They made it their mission to expand the horizons to its limits, always “mindful of the good of all”. (Mahavamsa – IV:7). What happened in Sri Lankan history in the initial stages was to create a unique identity resisting with all their might the alien invasions, colonisations, migrations and even integrations with the Dravidians. Of course, the initial challenges they faced came mainly from the Dravidians. The clash of cultures was inevitable considering the geographical proximity to S. India. Known records indicate that geographical neighbours globally turn into historical enemies. It was no different with the Dravidian neighbour. The indelible character that distinguished Sri Lankan history has been the triumph of the Sinhala settlers over the repeated incursions of the Dravidian intruders / invaders.
The pro-Tamil school of historians, aiming to tailor facts, records and events to suit their separatist agenda, tend to downgrade the monumental achievements of the Sinhala-Buddhists and exaggerate their role to make it appear as if they were the founders and makers of Sri Lankan history from “the dawn of history”. (Vaddukoddai Resolution -May 14, 1976). If this is true the history of Sri Lanka would have been written in Tamil and the whole of Sri Lanka would have been an extension of Jaffna. Separatists are desperately in need of a revised history to make them look great in the eyes of the world. The best they have achieved so far is to compare a few potsherds found here and there with that of Jethawanaramaya, the second largest monument of the ancient world next to Pyramids of Giza. The 33-year-old Vadukoddai War (from May 1976 to May 2009) is the last attempt to reverse and rewrite the history of the nation by the Northern invaders. As on the previous occasions in history they failed at the end of a futile war.
There is no doubt that the clash between these two cultures went a long way to shape the history of the nation. It is the resistance to the Dravidian culture in particular that gave the unmistakeable identity to the history made by the Sinhala-Buddhists. The overall history of the nation was defined by the struggles to save the Sinhala-Buddhist identity from being destroyed by the alien forces. It began with Sena and Guttika, the Dravidian horse traders, and ended with Mahinda Rajapakse defeating Velupillai Prabhakaran. Unforgiving history repeats itself relentlessly, maintaining a determined course as it winds its way to its destiny.
The collective task of contemporaries living in their inherited histories has been to renew and defend the legacies left behind by their ancestors. Revisionists will, of course, rewrite history (as seen in the anti-Sinhala-Buddhist Vadukoddai Declaration of War in 1976) to suit their immediate political agendas. But over and over again historical necessities have forced the living generations of Sinhala-Buddhists to reignite and reinforce perpetually their faith in their past that leads them to their future. They rely on their heroic past because the new-fangled alternatives have failed to deliver. They find security and hope only in the legacy left behind by their committed ancestors. Going back to the past is also a dutiful acknowledgement of the validity and the legitimacy of the inherited vision, values and the legacies left behind by the ancestors.
Imbibing and sharing the legacy handed down from the past is the instinctive response of those living in the present. After all, our ancestors, we are told, laboured to create a place “mindful of the good of all” while being “lawful according to tradition”. (MV – IV:54). With each step the pioneering Sinhalese settlers knew that they were defining and reinforcing their way forward to their destiny in their new land of hope. The bonding power of the history they made each day created a magnetic field to hold them together against all odds. Their collective genius gave them a sense of history that led them all the way to their tryst with destiny.
Their mission was to carve out new paths in an unknown territory with their own creative energies. They arrived on the shores with all the Indo-Aryan skills, tools and experiences to construct a new life of their own. But the primary driving force that lifted them above the others stemmed from the fact that they courageously broke away from their Indian past and set out on an innovative course to create a new civilisation, new culture, new language that had stood the test of time. Naturally, their commitment and affinity to the land grew exponentially with their successes. Their daring endeavours to find their way in unchartered territories guided by their own instincts and ingenuity made them daring architects in the making of their own history. The enlightened vision of the founding fathers is enshrined in the legacy that speaks to the living from the depths of history.
The genius of the Sinhala people is in giving the world a new history. The alternative was to merge with the rival Dravidian culture and disappear into the big belly of S. India. They either had to make this virgin territory their glorious homeland or wither away into the margins of history like the very first settlers, the aboriginals, whom they encountered on their arrival. They also knew that they had to do it themselves. There was no one else to do it for them or guide them. There was no compass to show directions. Of course, like all great civilisations that flourished in the pages of history, they borrowed from other cultures. But their achievement was in transforming and stamping the seal of their genius into the borrowings.
For instance, the Sinhala language was created out of borrowings like English, French or any other great language. But it is the native input that made it the linguistic vehicle for the dissemination of the subtle profundities of Buddhism. The quintessential Sinhaleseness in the language came out of the tongues and the minds of those creating a new culture and a new civilisation. The new civilisation needed a new language to articulate its birth, growth and inheritance. It needed new words to identify and consecrate its experiences, environment, ideologies and adventures, Sinhalese came out of that necessity to describe the new world they were creating.
The legacy they left behind reveals that they were gifted with a colossal capacity to make history on a grand scale. With their creativity they advanced incrementally into one of the great civilisations of the ancient world, defining on their way forward their identity, dignity and destiny with unquestionable certainty.
No other settlers – Tamils, Muslims, Burghers — had the commitment, the inclination, the necessity and the capacity to break away from their past and carve out a new world which they could call their own. The creative contribution of the Sinhala-Buddhists to a new civilisation has not been matched by the other settlers. Only the adventurous Sinhalese took on the overwhelming challenges of their times and transformed the land, opening up every inch of it, for all those who want to call it their home. Their pioneering mission was to make the land blossom with a new culture and civilisation and to preserve both in an open society for all settlers to share it as their homeland based on peaceful coexistence. Tolerant pluralism, embracing diversity, was the secret of their success throughout their journey in history. There were, of course, the inevitable aberrations which branched out briefly into billabongs. But the general tendency was for most divergences to return and merge with the normal flow of the mainstream culture.
The minting of a brand new civilisation, culture and language that could stand shoulder to shoulder with the achievements of other comparable histories is what makes the Sinhalese a cut above the rest. Filled with hope, determination and courage they explored the virgin land and tamed wild nature to make it an island nation with a many-splendored culture. The founding fathers left their footprints on every micro-mini grain of sand in the land they occupied as they inched their way into the unknown future. By the time the Dravidians, the Portuguese, Dutch, Muslims and the British worked their way into Sri Lanka they discovered a flourishing, advanced civilisation and culture well established to combat the challenges that faced them. As expected, it was invariably the Sinhala-Buddhists that led the way to face the challenges that confronted them from time to time, It was their leadership and sacrifices that saved the nation. It is this role that gives them the foremost place in the history made in their heroic past.
The Sinhala settlers had no reason to look back, either in despair or regret, because they fulfilled their role of making a history second to none. They took to the land as if it had been a gift promised to them by the hidden forces of history to fulfil their destiny. As they dug deep roots into the soil their ties to the land became inseparable and indivisible. Propelled by the fervour of pioneering forefathers the history they made together carried them through tumultuous years. Several rivulets, originating from diverse sources, did flow into the mainstream of history. But it is the power and the glory of the mainstream that that defined the course of history as it flowed down the ages
The original decision of our founding fathers to sever the umbilical cord that tied us to India made all the difference to our history. The decision to go it alone was a courageous one. Eventually it landed as a chapter in Arnold Toynbee’s monumental work which records the triumphant responses of those who succeeded in overcoming the challenges faced by the pioneers of the past.
After abandoning our original home in India, digging new roots in a new land was not an easy task, as any migrant would know. But that is what our ancestors, our founding fathers, had to do. Their pioneering task was to make history and they did it their way in grand style. But it was not without its share of hazards. The passage to the future had to be fought every inch of the way.
The constant threat to the Sinhala settlers came from the overwhelming Dravidian culture. That has been the central drama in their history. The soil was fertilized by the blood shed to resist and rescue the identity of invading forces of the North. Sri Lanka is a nation built out of resistance to the inimical Dravidian forces. To a great extent the history of SL is the history of the power and the glory of the capacity of the Sinhala-Buddhists to defeat, overthrow and survive the massive thrusts of Dravidian incursions. The shadow of the Dravidian Big Brother loomed large over Sri Lanka throughout its history. Despite the overwhelming geographical proximity, military power, invasions, migrations, infiltrations, collaborations with other inimical forces the Sinhala-Buddhist forces triumphed in defeating and/or expelling the alien forces.
The first battle against the Sinhala people was waged by the two brothers, Sena Guttika, The last battle was fought by the two brothers Mahinda and Gota.
History has recorded who had won in the beginning and in the end. All this leads to one single conclusion: the Sinhala-Buddhist history has knocked Marxism, Leninism, Gramscicism, separatism etc., into a cocked hat. Gota’s victory on November 19 is the latest historical event that should convince the theoreticians that despite aberrations history will return again and again to rescue and resuscitate the Sinhala-Buddhist roots from its enemies within and abroad.
History will always go in search of its roots.
And as they say, history will never cease to repeat itself.