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  Social construction and deconstructionof a ‘theocracy’ Susantha Goonatilake ∗  Archaeology aims at imagining past societies, using physical data together with, if available,historical documentation. But this imaginative process is bound by factors widely discussedin social epistemology, including unequal social relations among researchers. Such unequalgeopolitics in knowledge has been explored by the present author and others (Goonatilake1982, 1984, 1999, 2001; Clough 2001). The present exercise aims to investigate and question the social and intellectual contextin which Anuradhapura, the first capital in Sri Lanka, has been interpreted as belonging to a ‘theocracy’(Coningham etal  .2007).PrehistoricarchaeologyhasdatedthesitetoaroundtheninthcenturyBCatwhichtimeitwasoneofthelargestcitiesinSouthAsia.Acontinuoussetofchronicles,authenticatedbyphysicalremains,documentthecontinuationofthecityfromat least the fourth/third century BC up to the eleventh century AD, when it was sacked by south Indian invaders. The written evidence includes Sinhalese chronicles (written in Pali),descriptionsofthecitybyforeigntravellersandalargenumberofinscriptionsdatingbacktothe third century BC. This documentation describes the secular roles of personages such askings and ministers. Although there is of course a strong monastic presence, the monasteries were known as centres of both religious and secular learning. In spite of this, Coningham et al  . argue, mainly from archaeological evidence, that Anuradhapura was a ‘theocracy’, a heavily loaded word with connotations that are inappropriate for Anuradhapura. The theocracy thesis of Coningham  Anuradhapura was the Sri Lankan capital for 1500 years. It featured monasteries and lakesand attracted merchants engaged in the Indian Ocean trade. Coningham excavated in thecity for a number of years, noting a ‘ huge volume  ’ of exotic and imported material found within the city, giving an ‘ extremely rich artefactual sequence  ’ which allowed the developmentof Indian Ocean networks of trade from early times to Anuradhapura’s abandonment in theeleventh century (Coningham  et al.  2007: 703).In2003heturnedhisattentiontoAnuradhapura’shinterland,mappingsitesthatappearedon the surface. As a result of the first three seasons, he advances ‘ a number of working hypotheses  ’abouttherelationshipbetweenthetownandtheruralsettlementsthatsurroundedit (p. 713). He proposes a major administrative role for the monasteries, and interpretedthem as belonging to a self-regulating hierarchy (p. 717). He finds analogies in the hydraulicand irrigation systems with Khmer polities, and in the distribution and size of the stupas(commemorative monuments) with the Maya pyramids (p. 716). Citing only a Westernauthority he states that ‘ most South Asian Early Historic states are considered to be almost  ∗ Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, 96 Ananda Coomarswamy Mawatha, Colombo 7, Sri Lanka (Email:susanthagoona@gmail.com)  ANTIQUITY   85 (2011): 1060–1067 http://antiquity.ac.uk/ant/085/ant0851060.htm 1060        D   e     b   a    t   e Susantha Goonatilake  theocratic in their political and economic structure  ’ (p. 714–5). This no doubt encouragedhim to designate the Anuradhapura hinterland as functioning as a ‘ theocratic landscape  ’ forthe majority of the period under analysis (i.e. 500 BC to AD 1000) (p. 717).Coningham does attempt to compare and contrast his findings with the written record.He mentions the existence of a corpus of inscriptions dating from the third century BC tothefirstcenturyADwhichdescribealargenumberofofficialswithinthekingdom.Henotesthat records of donations in temples include those with titles of army commander, treasurer,minister, administrator, chief, village headman, and head of a household. He finds evidenceof metalworkers and stonemasons indirectly indicating the existence of social groups aroundthese activities. He also notes a tax regime and references to revenue officers supporting thestateadministration.Revenueswentbothtothesecularsystemandtothe sangha—  theBud-dhistmonks’institution.HealsomakestheoreticalrecoursetotheIndiantext,  Arthasastra  of Kautiliya (srcinally assigned to around the fourth century BC, but probably in its currenttext dated to the second to fourth centuries AD [Mabbett 1964; Trautmann 1971: 10]) to describe what he claims is a template of South Asian cities which gives different hierarchiesof an ideal kingdom, concluding that the categories of sites he defines in the hinterland donot correspond with the contemporary settlement hierarchy advocated in the  Arthasastra. Critique BoththearchaeologicalanddocumentedparallelscitedinConingham’spaperraiseanumberof problems. The irrigation systems of Cambodia and Java are both very different from theSinhalese systems. Angkor was dependent on two vast reservoirs ( barays  ) and canals fed by Lake Tonle Sap. Earlier discussions on the Sri Lankan irrigation systems compared themto the so-called ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’ of Marx and implied in Wittfogel’s  Oriental despotism.  Coningham’s temple-based Bali irrigation systems functioned in a decentralisedmanner without reference to higher level authorities. But Coningham ignores key points of the empirical studies on ancient Sri Lankan irrigation systems, not only the early findingsof Parker (1881) and Brohier (1934), but also more recent formulations like those of  Panabokke (2001). The last has described the socio-technical system associated with theSinhalese irrigation system as one connected through cascades to the macro-irrigationsystem. Thus the Sinhalese system is neither technologically and socially centralised, nordecentralised.Coningham compares the stupas to the Maya pyramids as examples of social control by an elite. He evokes the contemporary Jasmine Flower Festival as an example of a ‘ means to redistribute produce throughout the population ’ (p. 716). This completely ignores the factthat the Jasmine Flower Festival is celebrated both by mass contributions by lay followersin local temples around the country, as well as at Anuradhapura itself where the organised,mass distribution occurs. It is a people’s effort, both in accumulation and distribution, not a system of centralised control. A similar example would be the mass distribution of food andsupplies to more than a million pilgrims who come during Poson, the main Anuradhapura festival.Thecollectionsaredoneisland-wide.Asimilarexampleis dansal—  free‘restaurants’to feed tens of thousands of pilgrims where food is prepared and distributed to people by  1061  Social construction and deconstruction of a ‘theocracy’  thousands of volunteers. There is no centralised control. The government maintains only police and health services — aided by volunteer Buddhist health organisations.Coningham finds that the specifications and categories of sites in Anuradhapura’shinterland have no correspondence with the settlement hierarchy stated in the  Arthasastra  .But the Sinhalese chronicle,  Mahavamsa   (  Mhv  ; Geiger 1960) gives descriptions of thefounding of Anuradhapura by Pandukabaya (fourth century BC) and describes the setting up by Pandukabaya of suburbs in the city, a reservoir, a chapel, quarters for ‘Ionians’(Mediterraneans), a lying-in shelter, a hall for those recovering from sickness, a cemetery and a place of execution, and describes the employment of, among others, 500 sweepers forthe town and 200 cleaners for the sewers (  Mhv   x.89–102).  Mahavamsa  alsogivesdetailsoftheconstructioninthesecondcenturyBCofthefirstlargestupa,theMahathupa,indicatingthatitwasbuiltbymassparticipation.ThusKingDutuge-munu who builds it asks ‘ how shall I have the bricks transported without laying burdens on the  people  ?’ (  Mhv   xxx.15). For its construction, ‘ Samaneras   [junior monks]  . . .  brought the clay  ’(  Mhv   xxix.6). Indicating mass lay participation, common people came ‘ in festal array, with fragrant flowers and soforth ’(  Mhv  xxix.16,17).Wageswerepaidforthoseworkingandatev-erygateprovisionwasmadeforfreefoodanddrinkaswellasgarmentsforthem(  Mhv  xxx.15,17–20). The chronicle adds that the king was ‘ well versed in the duties of Kings  ’ (  Mhv   xxxi.36) referring to the ten obligatory duties of a just Buddhist king — the  Dasa Raja Dharma  .In other respects too, the Sinhalese stupas and the attendant social system have no parallel with the centralised Maya. Maya pyramids were platforms for human sacrifice — a far cry from the function of peaceful Buddhist stupas. Further, the stupas of Anuradhapura werenot centralised in the manner of Maya pyramids, there being stupas all over the country.In addition, the three main monasteries in Anuradhapura competed ideologically with eachother. Coningham, for his comparative purposes, could also well have compared stupasat Anuradhapura with others around the country such as in Kelaniya and Tissamaharama  which would have made a further mockery of comparisons with the Mayan centralisedsystem.Similarly, Angkor Wat in Cambodia is not a suitable comparison for Anuradhapura. AngkorWatsrcinallylayatthecentreofacentralisedsystemassociatedwithHinduismandlater, Mahayanism. But, when the same package of beliefs that supported the Anuradhapura stupas, namely Sinhalese Buddhism, arrived in Cambodia, it led to deep cultural change. As Hall remarked ‘ South Asian influences   [on Southeast Asia]  outside the royal court and among the common people actually occurred largely through Sinhalese contacts  ’ (Hall 1981: 22).The centre–periphery relationship in Angkor Wat changed dramatically with the adoptionof Sinhalese Buddhism. Its effects led some scholars even to say that Sinhalese Buddhismhelped in the dismantling of the centralised Angkor system (Chandler 1992: 78).‘Theocracy’ as different dictionary definitions evoke it is ‘a form of government by Godor a god either directly or through a priestly order etc; loosely a system of government by a sacerdotal order, claiming a divine commission . . .  also a State so governed’ 1 ; ‘a system of government in which priests rule in the name of God’ 2 ; ‘a form of government in which 1 The new shorter Oxford English dictionary on historical principles,  edited by L. Brown, Volume 2, N–Z. 1993.Oxford: Clarendon Press. 2 The new Oxford American dictionary.  2001. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 1758. 1062        D   e     b   a    t   e Susantha Goonatilake  God or a deity is recognised as the supreme civil ruler . . .  a system of government by priestsclaiming a divine commission’ 3 .None of these fit the most basic of descriptions of what we know from the literature on Anuradhapura. We know it to be a city with secular functions, kings, ministers, revenueofficers — the whole panoply of secular government. Anuradhapura was the capital city  where secular rule as well as trade was centered, and large stupas were erected there  because  it was the capital city.The term ‘theocracy’ itself, we should note, is closely allied with the Abrahamaicreligions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Here ‘truth’ is revealed by ‘God’ and hasfoundationally a supernatural overlay. Buddhism in contrast possesses strong elements of observation and deduction (apart from elements of the supernatural). The defining text for Anuradhapura’s Theravada Buddhism is the fifth-century   Visuddhimagga  , the distillation of Sinhalese Buddhist thought. It was no revelation, like the Torah, Bible or Quran. Thereare superficial similarities between Christian monasteries with their monumental cathedralsand Buddhist ones with their stupas in that there was religious practice, writing or copying of books and communal living. But with that, the similarities end.ThepredominantideologyofChristianmonasteriesespeciallyduringtheInquisition,wasone of intolerance, later transferred by the Portuguese to Sri Lanka in the sixteenth century  which led to the destruction of all major Buddhist monasteries. Nevertheless, modern Western centres of learning such as Oxford, Cambridge and Coningham’s own DurhamUniversity also started from such Christian monasteries and religious centres. This goes tothe central core of what occurred in the monasteries of Anuradhapura and their role inmatters of the intellect.The world’s first monastic universities were in Buddhist India, Taxila, Nalanda,Vikramashila and the Maha Bodhi. The latter was built in the fourth century AD by the Sinhalese King Meghavanna (AD 304–332) and for 1000 years remained the world’sfirst university complex funded by a foreign country — Sri Lanka (Barua  1975). The mainmonasteries of Anuradhapura — Mahavihara (third century BC), Abhayagiri (first century BC) and Jetavanaramaya (third century AD) — were similar in nature to these Indiancounterparts where both monks and lay-persons studied together.The university monasteries in Sri Lanka also specialised in ‘lay subjects’ such asarchitecture, art, astrology, astronomy, logic, medicine, poetics, poetry, political science,rhetoric and sculpture. The  Dambadeni Asna   written  c  . AD 1303–1325 mentions thatthe sciences and arts taught included languages, grammar, astrology/astronomy, law, logic,history and painting. The  Hansa Sandesa   describes the curriculum of one institute asliterature, Asian languages, Buddhism and logic. The  Gira Sandesa   lists subjects taught atonecomplexasphilosophy,logic,artandarchitecture,economics,law,medicine,astronomy,astrology and mathematics. The historian of the very Portuguese who destroyed the centres,Queyroz,observedthatSinhaleseconsidermathematicstaughttherethe‘ mahasastra  ’—thegreat science (Goonatilake 2010). What was thought and taught in Buddhist monasteriesin Anuradhapura were thus much nearer modern university systems than the theocracies of medieval Christendom. 3 Random House unabridged dictionary.  1987. New York: Random House, p. 1967. 1063  Social construction and deconstruction of a ‘theocracy’  Situating interpretation Since they had serious issues with his interpretation, Sri Lankan scholars of history, Paliand Buddhism arranged for a closed-door meeting with Coningham and some of his co-authors at the 165-year-old Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka which had pioneered muchof the archaeological research in Sri Lanka. The general conclusion was that the description‘theocracy’ was not valid and could even be a negatively-charged pejorative.Disappointment was the more keenly felt, since Kelaniya University, which co-sponsoredConingham’s research, is home to departments of Buddhist studies, history, Pali andSinhalese which, if consulted, would have offered ample counter to the basic thesis,including publications on the topic of ideological control at Anuradhapura in the leading British university on Asian studies (Goonatilake, H. 1974), in the Sri Lanka Departmentof Archaeology (Goonatilake, S. 1981) and in the journal of Kelaniya University itself (Goonatilake, H. 1983). A contrast could be drawn here with Alexander Cunningham, the first Director of the Archaeology Survey of India and a friend of Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage (Allen 2002;Trevithick  2006). Unlike Coningham, Cunningham had approached Sinhalese sources tofind the meaning of his Indian finds. Thus, it was from the Sinhalese monk, Subhuti, with whom Cunningham had a long correspondence, that he learnt about many knotty issues in Buddhist texts which were directly relevant to the archaeology (Allen 2002:236). What is the remedy to prevent similar distortions in future? Foreigners doing medicalresearch in Sri Lanka go through a monitoring process by local experts, just as certainother countries require research permission for foreign researchers in subjects varying fromanthropology to biology. The same model must be brought in so that foreign archaeologistscan be given excavation rights only after a local panel, not just of archaeologists, butalso of experts in Sinhala, Buddhist Studies and Pali have gone through the fieldwork orpublication proposals — to ensure the contextual background is adequate. This is especially necessary for the historical period, in the same way as those who excavate Roman sites areexpected to have a good knowledge of ancient history and Latin. It would be safer still if thetheoretical framework were worked out with local scholars, and the consequent publications written in partnership. A previous generation of Western archaeologists working in SriLanka in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did their theorising from within such localcontexts. References  A  LLEN , C. 2002.  The Buddha and the Sahibs.  London: John Murray.B  ARUA  , D.K. 1975.  Buddha Gaya Temple: its history  .Buddha Gaya: Buddha Gaya Temple ManagementCommittee.B ROHIER  , R.L. 1934.  Ancient irrigation works in Ceylon .Colombo: Government Publications Bureau.C HANDLER  , D. 1992.  A history of Cambodia  . Boulder(CO): Westview Press.C LOUGH , S. 2001. Thinking globally, progressing locally: Harding and Goonatilake on scientificprogress across cultures.  Social Epistemology   15(4):379–416.C ONINGHAM , R., P. G UNAWARDHANA  , M. M  ANUEL ,G. A  DIKARI , M. K   ATUGAMPOLA  , R. Y  OUNG , A.S CHMIDT , K. K  RISHNAN , I. S IMPSON , G.M C D ONNELL  & C. B  ATT . 2007. The state of theocracy: defining an early medieval hinterland inSri Lanka.  Antiquity   81: 699–719. 1064 
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