Some 35 years ago, a youth seeking the roots of his own intellectual culture undertook a pilgrimage to Lumbini, or the ancient Rumindai mentioned in the Asokan edicts. He journeyed along the ancient route, traversing the Ganga Valley and entering the fertile Tarai. He was no stranger to this landscape, shaded with green paddy fields, or to the people who greeted him with gentle smiles. His own culture, after all, had introduced him to Tathagata, or ‘the perfect one’, who was born to Queen Maya in a beautiful grove at Rumindai. The prince, who was named Siddhartha, or ‘the one who achieves his goal’, was to gift to the world the message of loving kindness, peace and contentment, not to mention an ability to see things in their true perspective. Siddhartha’s doctrine shaped the culture and thinking of this youth, excited at the prospect of touching the hallowed ground where the illustrious teacher first saw the light of this world. Having finally reached Rumindai, he rested under a canopy of stars, embracing exuberant thoughts of his own encounter with Siddhartha. At dawn, he stepped out of the lodge, and then – time stood still!
What visually greeted me on that morning 35 years ago is still imprinted in my memory, never to be forgotten. Colours of all shades merged with the dawn sky, depicting a vast emerald sea. The green hue from the paddy fields touched purple, seeping into the blue horizon of the misty mountains, and reached out to the majestic sun-bathed, snow-capped mountain that stood there, glittering, releasing a rainbow of hues in all directions. This must be the centre of the universe, I thought, where the Great Mount Sumeru majestically occupied its epicentre. The whole saga of Siddhartha’s birth unfolded before me. The dream of Queen Maya, the collection of water from Lake Anavatatta, the procession to her parents’ home, and finally, the birth of Siddhartha. For a youth from Sri Lanka, this was spiritual and cultural connectivity at its best. Indeed, we must recognise and celebrate these elements of our shared heritage, lending connectivity to the poles of Southasia.
Historicity of conflict
As historian Romila Thapar says, “In a seemingly contradictory way, looking into the future requires an understanding of the past. Such an understanding can illumine the present, and enable one to think more meaningfully about the future.” It has long been popularly held that the past determines the way we view the present. Conversely, it is now evident that the present also shapes how we view the past. This axiom leads to two understandings: first, that there is a need to understand the historical process of conflict in human society with special reference to Southasia; and second, that there is also a need to situate conflict in modern Southasia within an alternative perspective.
‘Conflict’ can be understood as the competitive action of incompatibles, as expressed through physical or mental struggle arising from discord. Conflict has existed since the beginning of history. Conflict, social tension and processes of marginalisation increased their tempo during what is popularly known as the Janapada Period, which was around the 6th century BC. This also coincided with the emergence of Buddhism. Buddhism, as with other movements of dissent, originated within a society that was undergoing tremendous change. Pre-existing social, economic and political relationships were being redefined and conclusively altered. Some of the social values of pre-urban communities were being replaced by impersonal relationships of the new class-based society, which essentially functioned within a new production-distribution system.
The effort to secure political, social and economic hegemony resulted in tensions, and consequently unleashed destructive confrontations among lineage societies (for instance, the Vajji, Shakya and Koliya clans) as well as nascent kingdoms (Magadha, Kosala, located roughly in modern-day Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, respectively). The life story of the Buddha, as narrated in Sri Lanka’s Pali Canon during the 1st century BC, provides a graphic picture of social tragedies and conflicts within families, between villages and political entities. The Shakya and Koliya clans confronted each other over the sharing of waters of the Rohini River. Likewise, the Mahaparinibbana Sutta provides us with insights on the war between the kingdom of Magadha and the Vajji republic, a conflict based on economic interest and a confrontation between two systems of governance. (It is possible that some of their descendents may have founded the later dynasty of Lichchhavi in Nepal.) During Buddha’s lifetime, Vidudhabha, the monarch of Kosala, annihilated his kinsmen. We also hear of the marginalisation of various groups – cleaners, hunters, barbers and pastoral communities – as well as instances in which people fled from military diktat and other oppressive conditions.
Some three centuries later, with the rise of the empire system, conflict reached an even higher plane. The inscriptions of Ashoka Maurya provide a clear insight into the destruction of life and property wrought by various wars. Reading the Arthashastra, from the 4th century BC, tells much of the control and tension that prevailed throughout the society and polity. Indeed, the list is unending as to the nature of conflict and marginalisation that took place through the period of the land-grant economy, popularly known as the feudal period. To this, one may also add the waves of invasion that took place throughout Southasian history, as well as the nature of conflict inherent in such situations. These ranged from new political systems, new forms of religious icons, new languages and other cultural elements. These also included the processes of marginalisation of the conquered, which often had conflicting interests with pre-existing customs and institutions.
Rise of the bikkhu
Resolving conflict is not a novel concept to pre-modern societies in Southasia. We need not be educated by the West on the modalities of neutralising conflict. Our cultures had long evolved built-in safety mechanisms to resolve stress points in society as a survival strategy. In fact, one of the earliest instances of a social contract, reflecting people-to-people connectivity, is found in the Agganna Sutta. It describes how the people, oppressed by conflict, elected an individual, called mahasammata (‘the great elect’), who was expected to maintain peace and equilibrium in society through the laws of dhamma, or righteousness.
In this context, it is interesting to note the in-built concepts of accountability, transparency and good governance that are inherent in the norms worked out by a society, be it from above or below. With the emergence of the advanced state developing into systems of empire, Buddhist texts highlight the concept of the ‘universal king’, or chakkavatti raja. Several important Buddhist texts credit the Chakkavatti Raja as the person responsible for fulfilling obligations not only towards the area’s subjects, but also towards the whole of his domain. As such, his responsibility was essentially to maintain quality of life. The king, for his part, agreed to uphold the code of conduct prescribed to the ruler, known as dasa raja dhamma. Thus, society and its habitat were considered integral components.
Movements of dissent emerged in response to growing levels of internal conflict, alienation and marginalisation. Oftentimes, individuals opted out of the system entirely. Nearby forest tracts, or aranya, subsequently became an alternate habitat in juxtaposition to the city, stratified society and the state, and those who went from householders to houseless citizens often became wandering ascetics, the shramana and paribrajaka. It was they who triggered off the often brilliant intellectual discourse on conflict resolution of the mind and society of the 6th Century BC in the middle Ganga Valley.
Siddhartha Gautama unfolded a people-friendly movement for this purpose. The order of the bikkhu, also known as sangha or gana, was meant to resolve conflict at the group level. The guiding norm of this people-to-people connectivity was his instructions to the sangha to wander among the people and spread the dhamma, for the betterment of the people and the deities. Inner democratic norms were constituted according to the traditions of the Vajji republic, so as to avoid conflicts within the sangha.
At the individual level, one had to be accountable for one’s own acts, to one’s own self and to society, in order to curtail conflict. Buddhism’s basic panchasheela required abstaining from five things – destroying life, taking things not given, sexual misconduct, false speech and intoxicating drinks – each of which are basic tenants of ethical conduct that can lead to a peaceful society. Furthermore, lay ethics pronounced by the Buddha clearly prescribe the duties and obligations of an individual towards his or her immediate family, society, servants and slaves, teachers, holy people and even the state. Perhaps one of the best examples of concord and amicable behaviour neutralising tension and conflict is known as the ‘seven factors preventing decline’, the sapta aparihaniya dhamma, prescribed in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. The Buddha instructed the Lichchhavi of Vaishali that, as long as they assemble in concord, rise in concord, continue time-tested traditions, respect elders, respect women, respect places of worship, and respect the clergy, they would continue to prosper in unity.
Significantly, early historical texts (such as the Kautilya Arthshastra and Manu Dharmashastra) also prescribe norms of behaviour imposed from above aimed at easing situations of conflict. Drawing inspiration from the code of conduct prescribed in religious teachings, mainly Buddhist, Ashoka developed his own brand of conflict resolution through Ashoka Dhamma. This was his royal pronouncement to ease tensions following a series of brutal and repressive wars within an empire that covered a vast physical expanse, housing communities at different levels of social, economic and technological development.
The heritage discourse
This backdrop provides a shared starting point with which to understand the relevance of people-to-people connectivity and alternative systems of conflict resolution. Is this mere rhetoric, or do ground realities demand rethinking? For centuries, the rich cultural personality of Southasian countries was nurtured through cross-cultural interactions. Nonetheless, in the current context, one of the most critical challenges we face in Southasia is bridging national, religious and cosmopolitan identities with a futuristic vision.
Southasia is a historically evolved region, drawing its ‘identity consciousness’ from the rich heritage found in the region’s classical literary texts and inscriptions, sculpted art, architecture and from its extensive oral traditions. Indeed, we in Southasia are nurtured within a legacy of a shared heritage that is over 3000 years old. This heritage is essentially inclusive, with an ethos that is a classic representation of diversity and commonality. The shared heritage of the people of Southasia is a key to understanding that diversity, which is simultaneously the factor of commonality in our society. On the other hand, the compartmentalisation of Southasian society is a legacy of colonial rule, wherein imagined racial categories, mythic martial races, along with policies of divide-and-rule, formed the basis for multiple dichotomies in the region. The postcolonial period witnessed the continuation of these dichotomies, resulting in a sharper polarisation and marginalisation of communities through those same imagined categories.
For years, various groups and policymakers have attempted to arrive at different formulas and processes while seeking an elusive ‘peace’. Ironically, many of these peace initiatives allow very little involvement of the people, academics, artists and social activists, and are instead more the purview of bureaucrats and politicians. In all their imagined wisdom, such figures pronounced the basis, modalities and execution of peace processes, which were subsequently inevitably doomed to failure. The people, academics, artists and other primary stakeholders in society were instead sidelined, to become bystanders watching the ‘unmaking of history’ through peace imposed from above.
At this point, the conflict-resolution discourse in Southasia must change, in order to take up issues that go beyond the narrow confines of politics and administrative issues. Instead, the focus has to be on heritage, as an area of refinement that was never grasped by the minds of policymakers. ‘Heritage’, in this discourse, needs to be considered as a multifaceted catalyst, as a source of finding relationships among people with an eye to conflict resolution. This discourse must seek to understand the pre-colonial heritage, and question exclusiveness against inclusiveness; to evolve a grassroots-level connectivity, cutting across ethnic, language, religious and political divides; and always juxtaposed against divisions imposed from above. It must look at heritage as an idiom that expresses a common language of humanity, where people reach out to each other for understanding, sharing and co-existence.
Educating beyond culture
Thus far, little of this has taken place. As such, in view of the apathy and ignorance displayed by national policymakers of the need to redefine heritage beyond parochialism, a critical need is highlighted: to create a discourse that leads to an alternate perspective for peace. A paradigm shift is required, wherein a fresh discourse, within a newly created space, will be a benchmark for future peace initiatives, as well as an innovative thought process for the next generation.
Heritage is synonymous with inheritance, legacy, tradition and custom. We must seek to redefine heritage from a particular defining trajectory – culture, environment and knowledge. The primary stakeholder of heritage is the next generation, and the process of disseminating heritage is education. Heritage, therefore, must be thrust beyond the narrow confines of ‘culture’. Culture is undoubtedly a product of human thought and action, and it essentially reflects the achievements and refinements of any society. A culture is cross-fertilised by parallel processes, and represents the best of humane aspirations and connected destinies. Cultural diversity is a living reality, and will continue to be so despite the overarching global culture imposed from above.
Culture does not stand alone, but exists in a symbiotic relationship with environment. Information on the culture-environment symbiosis shaping the thinking and behaviour patterns in society (whether in the past or present) is transmitted to us through knowledge, both traditional and contemporary. These factors will be critical for the very existence and sustenance of Southasian societies in the coming decades. It is incumbent upon us, as concerned citizens of Southasia, to recognise the complexities involved in the maximisation and application of knowledge information in multicultural societies situated within altering patterns of globalisation.
Redefining the vision of the futuristic role of education is one of the most central and challenging issues facing contemporary Southasian societies. The crisis in education and its functional use conclusively emerged during the postcolonial period. In Sri Lanka, for instance, there is yet much soul-searching as to why several generations of Sinhala- and Tamil-speaking youth took up arms against the existing socio-political and economic system, and sacrificed their lives to realise a dream of creating their own space and culture. Not only has the current generation of leaders been unable to come up with answers, they have failed even to understand the problem. This failure to find timely solutions to the crisis has unleashed violent and parochial responses from the next generation, which is rapidly developing a leaning towards fascist and fundamentalist ideologies. The critical factor we all tend to forget is that each individual from the next generation is a non-renewable resource.
Education is nonetheless yet to be recognised as a valid factor in conflict resolution in Southasia. The negation of a liberal education in the postcolonial period has been a major impediment, one that has produced a vertically divided society in this region. Textbooks in Sri Lanka became something of a New Testament of parochialism, derailing any sense of aesthetic and intelligent appreciation of the technological and cultural achievements of humanity as a whole. Humanising and democratising education, through the liberal arts, needs to be seen as a remedial strategy in the process of restructuring future education policy in multicultural Southasia. This process will ultimately sustain an intellectually independent next generation of Southasians, who will represent the best of humanistic traditions and values as citizens of the world.
The cultural landscape of contemporary Southasia represents a habitat of multicultural, multi-religious, ethnic and linguistic identities. To this, one may also add class, caste and gender variations that have an additional bearing on identities shaping the region’s cosmopolitan cultural ethos. At this time, the critical question is the level of our commitment to the ethical notion of respecting other cultures.
Archaeology offers a significant, though potentially dangerous, tool with which to forge an answer to this question. Contemporary states and other groups contending for power in Southasia have increasingly come to appreciate the functional value of symbols drawn from the past, especially in the construction of ‘national’ identities and imagined political communities. Meanwhile, arch-aeological and historical studies have been deeply involved in the nationalist enterprise since its very inception. The political uses of culture-related material, or heritage from historical and archaeological sources, are now being made with increasing sophistication.
As such, as professionals reading the past, it is incumbent upon today’s archaeologists to study the region’s heritage in the most scientific manner possible, devoid of biases and prejudices. The primary objective of professionals is to make public the manner in which Southasians have come to inherit their heritage, with special reference to its shared nature and inclusiveness. Above all, the professional archaeologist must rise above parochial thinking, and position archaeology as not only a methodology of reading the past but also as a futuristic science.
While Southasia celebrates a vibrant history of cultural pluralism, there is a tragic contradiction posed by conflicts triggered off on the basis of imagined racial lines. One of the most unfortunate features of such conflicts is the conscious and unconscious impact it has on education policies, cultural-resource management and even the archaeological agenda in Southasia. Furthermore, it also results in the destruction of cultural property by all participating groups. Archaeology and history are subjects that are effectively used by all parties in conflicts wherein the past is subverted in order to create imagined identities. But conversely, archaeology and heritage studies are perhaps the best avenues to rectifying the process of cultural plurality, and de-mythologising all forms of parochialism in a scientific manner, by placing alternative histories before the next generation for a more rational understanding of the past. The mindset must be reoriented beyond the monoculture and ‘mono-country’, and instead be exposed to cross-regional and cross-cultural horizons.
All of this calls for a soul-searching exercise on the untold human misery caused by ethnic and other forms of conflict in our former colonies. It is the responsibility of professionals and intellectuals with a humanistic social awareness to provide society at large with an alternative strategy for social change, as well as with sustenance against the destructive processes that are dislocating the historically evolved social systems of Southasia.
Sri Lanka, as with other Southasian countries, faces a grave threat of preserving its heritage. While there is a growing consciousness about the need to do so, there remains ambiguity as to what exactly needs to be protected, as well as the modalities of protecting cultural property. In view of this, what is needed at this time is a convergence of all stakeholders – incorporating the general public, relevant officers of the state, private sector, schoolchildren, other professionals, clergy and international organisations. Therefore, as an alternative to the monologue with the past, we now have to carry out a dialogue with the past, and utilise education, environmental studies, archaeology and heritage studies as a way to charter a new roadmap towards conflict resolution.
One current example of this unique dialogue is at Jetavana, within the sacred city of Anuradhapura, a World Heritage Site situated 200 km north of Colombo. Following two decades of excavation and conservation, Jetavana has now recently been opened to the public, operating on a wholly new vision. It has unveiled a novel approach to the presentation of heritage sites in Sri Lanka, currently known by the unwieldy title Public Participatory Interactive Multicultural Museum and Site Presentation. This idea signals a definitive paradigm shift in that it introduces an alternate concept of shared cultures in the presentation of World Heritage Sites in multicultural societies.
Grasping the essence of ‘social archaeology’ is a vital factor in understanding the rationale for a paradigm shift in heritage-site presentation. The intangible cultural value is critical in establishing an identity to any heritage site. This includes the Jetavana site, which is identified as a place of religious observance that is entwined with sentiments of piety. Although primarily a Mahayana Buddhist site, Jetavana has yielded several statues of Hindu deities, as well. A Mahayana statue, for instance, carries a 10th century AD Tamil inscription, which records an endowment by a mercantile guild in South India. The discovery of West Asian ceramics and large quantities of imported ceramics and raw material for beads only further bespeak of the multicultural and multi-religious character of the Jetavana site.
The presentation at Jetavana and in the nearby museum is carried out in a strictly non-parochial manner, and in all three of Sri Lanka’s national languages, thereby providing the best evidence of the multicultural personality of the island society. It is appropriate that the history of Sri Lanka is presented as a shared culture, with all ethnic, religious and language groups as equal stakeholders of the historical legacy, rather than alienating any one of them from the shared mainstream culture. Though this is primarily a religious site, the rationale of the site presentation is to situate Jetavana within a socio-cultural context representing its international dimension.
So doing has also revealed Anuradhapura in its real context. This magnificent site has for too long been presented almost exclusively as a religious site, and identified with a dubious term – ‘monastic city’. In so doing, it has been robbed of its true legacy as a colourful multi-cultural city and thriving commercial hub. The artefacts retrieved from Jetavana provide insight into these dynamics and urban personality: hundreds of thousands of beads, ceramics, ivory and other luxury items speak volumes about the arrival of merchants from the Mediterranean, West and East Asia, and other parts of Southasia, and the co-existence of people of different faiths and cultures. Jetavana is now one of the most regularly visited sites in Anuradhapura. In addition to foreign tourists, it draws a large number of schoolchildren from the Tamil-speaking Hindu and Muslim groups in north and east Sri Lanka.
Other such projects currently underway in Sri Lanka include the Kandy Heritage City Cultural Mapping Project, a digital exercise to record the heritage monuments of the multicultural city of Kandy, which offers a long, shared heritage of Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian and colonial cultures. This undertaking involved a wide group of stakeholders, instructing them on the value of protecting the diversity and cultural plurality of Kandy, which reflects the cultural reality of Sri Lanka’s shared heritage. Likewise, the Ethnographic Museum for Plantation Workers of Indian Origin, near Gampola in the Central Province, depicts the hitherto hidden cultural connectivity between India and Sri Lanka. The Ola Leaf Revitalisation Project, meanwhile, is currently in the process of revealing the shared literary content among different cultural and religious groups in Sri Lanka, as well as new information connecting Sri Lanka with South India and Southeast Asia.
Each of these efforts is utilising both tangible and intangible heritage to bring about conflict resolution. In so doing, they are also providing a valuable blueprint for the next generation of professionals who undertake to read the past. For this purpose, ‘heritage’ is to be understood not as a static, backward-looking genre. Rather, emphasis needs to be placed, increasingly, on the function of heritage in understanding shared cultures and cultural plurality.
This essay has been adapted from two lectures, given in May 2007 and September 2005.