Professor KNO Dharmadasa, the present Editor in Chief of the Sinhala Encyclopedia goes down in history as mounting to date, the only direct, authoritative academic challenge to Professor Leslie Gunawardana, an ancient period historian of Sri Lanka who became a darling of certain social anthropological circuits through his “The People of the Lion: The Sinhala Identity and Ideology in History and Historiography”- (1979) and “Historiography In a Time of Ethnic Conflict, Construction of the Past in Contemporary Sri Lanka”- (1995). This is the second instalment of Prof. K.N.O’s conversation with Darshanie Ratnawalli continued from 15 February, 2015.
DR- Here’s something serious. In page 14 of “Historiography in a time of Ethnic Conflict” Professor Gunawardana implies not only that Prof. Paranavitana’s identification of the language of the Vallipuram inscription as Sinhala is wrong but that Paranavitana realized several decades later that it was wrong and instead of admitting to the error openly, tried to cover it up by quietly dropping that identification in his second edition of the Vallipuram inscription.
KNO- (Laughs aloud)
DR- Let me read; “It will have been evident from the preceding discussion that, according to the periodization of the evolution of the Sinhala language which came to gain general acceptance among scholars, the appearance of the Sinhala language as a clearly distinguishable linguistic form was dated in the eighth or the ninth century. It has also come to be accepted that the language of the early Brahmi inscriptions in the island should be classified as Prakrit. Since Paranavitana was not a scholar who limited his scholarly activities merely to epigraphy but had also studied the development of the language, it would be justified to expect that these views would come to bear a modifying influence on his original opinions on the identity of the language of the Vallipuram inscription several decades later. In the introduction to his second edition of the record, Paranavitana (1983:79-81) does not refer to the language of the Vallipuram record as Sinhala or even as Old Sinhala.”- That last statement is a lie.
KNO- It’s a lie. Exactly.
DR- Far from NOT referring to the language of the Vallipuram record as Sinhala or even as Old Sinhala, in the introduction to his second edition of the record- I have it now- Paranavitana starts the introduction with the sentence; “THIS is the only example, so far known, of an early Sinhalese inscription engraved on a sheet of gold. It was brought to me by…”…
KNO- …so and so. That’s right.
DR- So this sentence fairly leaps to the eye. It occurs right under a big heading; ‘NO. 53. VALLIPURAM GOLD SHEET INSCRIPTION’. How could Prof. Gunawardana get away with this?
KNO- People like you who question this kind of thing were not there at that time especially among the historians of this country. I think maybe they were scared to challenge…
DR- I think when an accredited, high profile historian like Leslie Gunawardana makes a statement like this, a lot of people would take it on faith and not bother to double check. Anyway Inscriptions of Ceylon Vol. 2, Part 1 where they could have checked was maybe not widely available. It’s not in print now. Even I got hold of it with difficulty.
KNO- Maybe. But this is something really lacking among our historians. It was lacking even at that time. I don’t know how this could happen. At that time who were the ancient historians of this country?
DR- Sirima Kiribamune. She was refraining from criticizing Prof. G out of friendship…
KNO- Yes she refrained. And Amaradasa Liyanagamage…
DR- Another friend…
KNO- A very good friend. They were very close. Then there was Rohanadheera who was not taken very seriously by some scholars. So he would not have wanted to come forward. Anyway he did not write much in English. So these were the people who could have challenged him and did not due to personal things.
DR- Do you think this was a mistake or deliberate dishonesty?
KNO- You mean by Leslie?
DR- Yes. This particular instance.
KNO- Well this happens to people. Maybe he was trying to salvage his reputation. If you take his ‘Historiography in a time of Ethnic Conflict’, it’s a very silly pamphlet. He is trying to call me ‘Goebbels’ and various unnecessary things.
DR- In that pamphlet he informs us that his research for that particular paper was facilitated by an invitation from the University of Chicago to be Numata Visiting Professor and the award of a Rockefeller fellowship at the same university. He says it provided him “the opportunity for utilizing the magnificent resources of the University of Chicago library”. After all this facilitated research is it natural or unnatural to make this sort of mistake?
KNO- (Laughing). I mean you don’t have to go to Chicago to…All these things are there in Sri Lanka. This is just to impress people.
DR- So Professor Gunawardana creates this fable of Paranavitana’s revised views and repeats it several times (p15-16, ‘Historiography…’). He says; “It is interesting to note that, in the Sri Lankan case, groups on both sides of the barricades have found Paranavitana’s views of 1939 more useful for their purposes in comparison to his revised views of 1983.”
KNO- Revised views!!
DR- There were no revised views!
KNO- No revised views. Exactly.
DR- In another sentence he says; “In more recent times, with the gathering momentum of the ethnic conflict, most writers have tended to ignore the change in Paranavitana’s views and his earlier statements are continually cited by rival groups embroiled in contemporary controversies”. Again he says; “In his recent comments on the Vallipuram inscription, Professor Veluppillai (1990) objects to Paranavitana’s use of the term “Old Sinhala”, but he makes no mention of the change in the latter’s views”. There was no change.
KNO- No change. Exactly. Unfortunately Paranavitana was dead by the time this was said. This reminds me. By this time when Leslie was writing “Historiography…” , a lot of people, especially the American scholarship who invited him to Chicago, etc. that circle were I think impressed by Leslie’s stance.
Senarat Paranavitana, the ‘Outsider’
Professor Senarat Paranavitana had one great “disadvantage”. He was not a product of Peradeniya or any university for that matter, despite the letters after his name. He was the product of practical training, professional experience, enterprise and innate Southern brilliance, much the same as Martin Wickramasinghe. He was a trail blazing scholar with a unique intellectual footprint.
On the down side Professor Paranavitana enjoyed none of the cushioning, sheltering, cosseting and the covering up that belonging to an institutional fraternity typically gives. The institutional fraternity came crushingly down on him during his last years, when a fixation on Malaysia had him in its thrall.
Professor Sirima Kiribamune, a mild non-confrontational historian by all accounts, said, “This has sparked off a great deal of controversy, his most severe critics being Professor Nilankanta Sastri, Dr. K Indrapala and Dr. RALH Gunawardana. Prof. Paranavitana's approach to this problem and the methods adopted by him to establish his case have caused a great stir among historians. Whether Prof. Paranavitana will be accepted as a scientific historian among scholars will largely depend on the outcome of the test he is being at present subjected to. He once enjoyed a respected position among historians. That he will keep this is not beyond doubt (‘Some Reflectionson Professor Paranavitana’s Contribution to History’).”
And yet, when Professor Leslie Gunawardana, a Peradeniya luminary started displaying gross dishonesty at worst or gross incompetence at best, the fraternity was curiously silent. Perhaps the prevalent feeling was “What’s a few lies among friends?”
DR- Which was politically correct
KNO- Exactly. And my stance was not. Actually one of these people, I don’t want to mention names, said "I have a feeling that Leslie is correct. But I don’t have enough evidence to say so”. He said that openly! I think that was what they wanted to hear and not what I had to say. Although what I had to say was correct, they thought it was not politically correct. But historical truth is historical truth.
DR- Prof. G was insisting that Sinhala had become distinct only after the half nasal had emerged. But did Sinhala need the half nasal to become distinctive?
KNO- No. Actually half nasal is one feature. But we also have ‘අැ’, which Kumaratunga insisted was the most distinctive sound in Sinhala, which you find only after the 8th, 9th centuries AD. Before that it was එ. For example we have the ‘වැව’ now. But say in 6th, 7th centuries it was ‘වෙව’. There are so many other features which gives Sinhala the identity it has today. Half nasal is another feature which is not found in other Indic languages.
DR- Buddhaghosa said in the 5th century AD that he was translating the Sinhala commentaries because the monks from outside cannot understand them. The moment a language is not understandable by other speech communities, it is distinct right?
KNO- Yes. Even people who knew Prakrits of India could not understand our commentaries. Because it had become a distinct language.
DR- Even mutually understandable languages can be distinct right? For example in ancient India Prakrits and Sanskrit were mutually understandable but belonged to different cultural registers. Prakrits were the common peoples’ and…
KNO- Sanskrit was the higher classes’…
DR- They were mutually understandable but still they were distinct because nobody would have confused them?
KNO- Yes. Nobody would have confused them.
DR- So languages can be mutually understandable and still be distinct?
DR- So when two languages are not mutually understandable they are definitely distinct?
KNO- yes definitely
DR- They don’t need a half nasal or an ‘‘අැ’?
KNO- No that came much later.
DR- Professor Gunawardana hung on to them and tried to insist that because the half nasal and the ‘‘අැ’ weren’t there before the 8th, 9th centuries, Sinhala wasn’t distinct up to that time.
KNO- This is something which no other linguist has said. He was going into fields where he is not an authority.
(Continued next week)