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Mihintalava - The Birthplace of Sri Lankan Buddhist Civilization

Steering clear of deadlocks

Alokayen Parinamaya Vuvo
Author: Kumari Gunaratne
Ratna Publishers, Colombo 10
303 pp Price Rs. 375

AS a teenager, I had the bliss of reading the beautiful book entitled "How to win friends and influence people" by Dale Carnegie way back in 1955 or so.

It was the original English version. And I was absorbed in going through it breathlessly upto the end of it. It was the era of Enid Blyton's just after A.L. Bright Story Readers dominating the children's or teenagers' books which I enjoyed very much.

Dale Carnegie was quite different but it hoisted me to a higher plane of thinking quite suited to the adolescents who are eager to broaden their circle of friends and their outlook of life. I benefitted a great deal from Carnegie's work.

Last week, after about a gap of fifty years, I came across another book of interest, going out of the beaten track, peeping into wide vistas through "light". This is Kumari Gunaratne's Sinhala translation of "Transformed by the Light" authored by Melvin Morse M.D. with Paul Perry.

The Sinhala version "Alokayen Parinamaya Vuvo" is a torch-light indeed to open the eyes of the Sinhala reader to the fact that truth is more interesting than fiction.

This book pushed me into a totally different field. This work deals with "The Powerful Effect of Near-Death Experiences on People's Lives" as explained by the original authors.

Fortunately, I had studied something of Ethics - both Western and Oriental revolving round the axis of Hedonism, the doctrine that pleasure is the highest good. It attracted me for some other reason too. That is, I learnt Pali and Buddhism for my S.S.C. or G.C.E. O/L Exam those days.

And we were coached in Buddhism by a then-newly-passed out graduate from Peradeniya, one Gunawardene. He was a real master at that. Somehow or other, he made us feel excited to learn Buddhism. A study of religion for teenagers!

Inspite of my moulding mind, I was very inquisitive about a line of a Pali stanza preached by the Buddha which is prominent in my memory even now. That is, "Na ca so, na ca anno" (He is not the same but he is not different altogether).

It explains that birth and death are not two separate entities in the flow of Kamma but only the manifestations of two links of the same chain of rebirth. I presume there is a strong relevance of that idea of life here and life-after to the near-death experiences under review in this book.


Before trying to get at the substance of this book, I would rather deviate a bit to air my views on the form or style of translating it into Sinhala. Nowadays we find heaps of rank writing where Sinhala is concerned-a dull and lurid language.

Variety has vanished paving way for the march of monotony. Once we read a para or two of such a book, we feel like dumping it into the dust-bin because of its insipidity. The root-cause of all that deterioration is that the writers are not well read and pathetically ignorant of grammar.

In such a situation I find a promising writer in Kumari Gunaratne presenting the reader with this translation written in good Sinhala sans grammatical mistakes, sans monotony, sans paucity of words. I have never before met her in person but I saw her photo on the back cover.

For her age as seen from her photo, her command of the language is incredible. Thanks to her gurus or her own voracious reading of Sinhala classics of a bygone era or else she must be a prodigy. I am not in the least exaggerating but, based on my own observations, only admiring her skill.

This is remarkable as she is a graduate in Law where as even those who have followed disciplines in Sinhala language are no more than weaklings in the art of writing good Sinhala.

As a translator, her use of Sinhala is closer to that of Hemapala Munidasa for the depth as evident in the Sinhala version of the Indian Epic, Mahabharatha, I.M.R.A. Iriyagolle for his fresh spirit, newly coined words and compact idea in "Manuthapaya", his Sinhala translation of the great French classic, "Les miserables" by Victor Hugo and Professor Somaratne Balasuriya for clarity and plainness of expression in "Pitastaraya", his Sinhala rendering of the French novel", "L' Etranger," by Albert Camus.

Awkward terms

Throughout this whole book of 302 pages, I found only three awkward terms which are negligible. I would, however, point them out below: (1) Ovunta pirimi lamayakugen dinayak nolebunoth (P 101) meaning "If they don't get a date from a boyfriend."

If this were rendered in Sinhala as, "Thama pemvatha hamuveeme awasthawak nolebunoth" it would be familiar and facile to the general reader who as had no English education and also it would bring out the correct English idiom, (ii) The verb, "Parikalpanaya kala hekke" (at P. 128) apart from its English technical use, can easily be translated as "Sithagatha hekke, nirnaya kala hekke".

It can then be conveniently comprehended; (iii) the nominal, "Sadana lada katha" (P. 146) would sound better and be clearly understood by "Gothanalada katha" (Fabrications). Nevertheless, these oddities may well be ignored considering the big task of translating this medico-philosophic work of research.

Now to turn to the substance or the cases under review and the author's inferences. At the very outset, on reading Dorna's reference to a light as if emanating from a camera, I remembered Plato, the Greek philosopher and his "Cave Analogy" and its reference holds fast as long as the end of the book.

As for Dorna's dream, of her grandfather dying a few days later, her dream, is a premonitionary one. This is in other words, precognition as used in Morse's work. But the mention of her grandfather's communication with his grandson as confirmed by his notes refer to retrocognition.

Supernatural vision

The following extract from Ven. Narada Thera's "A Manual of Buddhism" first published in 1949, Chapter XII: Rebirth will surely illustrate this matter without religious bias: "The development of this supernormal vision is not restricted only to the Buddha and His disciples.

Any person, whether Buddhist or not, could possess this faculty. Some Indian Rishis, even before the advent of the Buddha, developed such powers as clair audience, clairvoyance, thought reading, and so forth."

At one place (P. 35), Dr. Morse quotes one's near-death experience as follows: "Now I know that life is for living, light for life-after." The term, "light", apart from its physical context, also means comprehension.

In Greek mythology, the human-being, Prometheus is said to have stolen "fire" from the abode of Gods. Nevertheless, that "fire" which gives light is to be interpreted as wisdom or power of understanding.

Light is often associated with great sages like the Buddha or Christ. Lord Buddha once uttered, "Aloko udapadi, Panna udapadi" (There arose light; and, there arose wisdom).

Dr. Morse says that he learnt a lot during his study at Seattle. The main thing he had learnt there, according to him, is "listening, listening to the wisdom of children." He states that it is possible to pursue the biggest mystery pertaining to man from his inception.

So he poses the most pertinant problem thus: "What happens after we die?" He points out a clue to that question by quoting a certain Banker's belief that there is a spiritual aspect of the universe and it adds more meaning to life than merely seen by the naked eye.

Spencer's experience (P. 94) has convinced him that life remains even after death of the body. Is this view not relevant to the pre - and after - death formless floating state Gandabba described in Buddhism.

Author Melvin Morse being a Catholic I presume, uninfluenced by his religious faith, infers that "death is no more journey's end but only one route on the journey." How true it is with the Buddha's doctrine.

It points to rebirth. Ven. Narada Thera explains rebirth as follows: "If one believes in the present and in the future, it is quite logical to believe in the past. If there be reasons to believe that we have existed in the past, then surely there are no reasons to disbelieve that we shall continue to exist after our present life has apparently ceased."

Dr. Morse seems to explain that the near-death experiences are conditioned by psychic powers. This view is consistent with that of Ven. Narada Thera: "Extraordinary experiences of some modern reliable psychist and strange cases of alternating and multiple personalities tend to throw light upon this belief in rebirth."

Yet another remarkable discovery by Dr. Morse is the phenomenon of stopping of watches when worn by people with near-death experiences which subtle transforms the electromagnetic power around their bodies and their cells.

Dr. Melvin Morse is engaged in his research with intelligence, sensibility and distinction.

He obeys two impulses as a researcher - one to submit himself with candour and humility to works he admire, the other, to uphold his own scale of values. And his research poses many questions worthy of further development.

Kumari Gunaratne ably enables the Sinhala reader to gain access to the torch-bearers trying to seek light of wisdom. And her attempt is commendable. A glossary of technical terms, however, is a must for this book.

Handy reference book on history

Kandy at War

Author: Dr. Channa Wickremesekera

Vijita Yapa Publications

KANDY at War by Dr. Channa Wickremesekera with its subtitle 'Indigenous Military Resistance to European Expansion in Sri Lanka 1594-1818' is a creditable achievement in the field of research as relates to the history of the Kandyan kingdom. It is a definitive contribution in an area of our history that has not had the benefit of in-depth research.

We have remained satisfied with citing the invader's accounts of our military capacity without, except in a rare instance or two, seeking to correct the obvious bias or prejudice in such accounts. This is especially so with the Portuguese material on this subject as on several other issues too.

Dr. Wickremesekera in his history focuses on the Kandyan military establishment and its functioning in the face of the successive attempts by the Portuguese, Dutch and English to defeat indigenous resistance to foreign occupation.

The military machine itself was no more than the means of politically mobilizing the people against an enemy. There is therefore understandably a political dimension too to the subject.

The main political factor was the king and his acceptability to the Buddhist establishment which was the link between the king and the people.

The Hill country or the 'Kanda Udar Rata' was the one region in the country which in the 14th century coped with an Aryachakravarti invasion from the north by mobilizing an army without the mediation of a king. The army so mobilized chose its king - Senasammata Vikramabahu.

The core of this army was the militias of the clans that had settled in principally the Matale and Dumbara regions. They had been subject to an invasion by a Jyoti sitano who had led an army of Aryachkravarti in order to establish here a system of tax collection through a zaminadari system.

The Bandaravaliya that Jyoti inducted to the region assimilated with the clans and constituted the ruling class of the region.

It rebelled against Aryachakravarti and it is in the resulting invasion by Chakravarti that Senasammata Vikramabahu won his spurs. These are alternative versions of events in the region that have not as yet been recognized by 'conventional' history.

I mention these matters in order to be mindful of the fact that the Kandyan army had traditions which it did not share with armies elsewhere in the country.

The concept 'Senasammata' in relation to a ruler breaks the bounds of carefully maintained dynastic traditions - even those of a spurious nature - and assets the power a ruler has over a people by virtue of his command over a readily available army.

Political dimension

Dr. Wickremesekera has carefully abstracted his subject from its political dimension presumably to gain focus on his closely defined project.

He operates with the basic concept of a 'frontier' with as in the case of the American colonists is what had been pushed back with further settler expansion into Indian territory. The Portuguese had pushed back its frontier across the Four Korales and right up to the foot hills of the Kandyan kingdom.

Dr. Wickremesekera begins his account from 1594 when Konappu Bandare - Wimaladharmasuriya as named by the Sangha - became the ruler of the Kandyan kingdom and commenced his drive against the Portuguese.

The concept of 'frontier' is new in these studies. It is meaningful too and contributes to precision of expression.

Dr. Wickremesekera writes, "Across the frontier in the south-west - and occasionally elsewhere as well - Kandy and the Europeans clashed in an attempt to gain advantage over each other. The Kandyans often pushed back the Europeans from the interior, limiting their control to their strongholds.

Sometimes the European strongholds in the interior, limiting their control to their strongholds. Sometimes the European strongholds in the interior had to be evacuated and the frontier contracted right up to the coast."

Simplistic view

This appreciation does not allow for what Dr. Wickremesekera calls the simplistic view that the Kandyans confined themselves to the strategies of guerilla warfare - "avoiding superior force and weakening the enemy until they are weak enough to be overwhelmed."

This no doubt was their main combat strategy and was used as a defensive measure. In almost all occasions when it was used the invader was annihilated on his retreat.

But there were the daring offensive attacks too as when "the Portuguese were fortifying the eastern coast and threatening to seal Kandy off from the world in the 1620s the Kandyans launched raids into the Jaffna peninsula and attempted to overthrow the Portuguese rule there with the help of the local population."

Dr. Wickremesekera takes count of all other items too that relate to an army - its mobilization, weaponry and related technology, field preparation as the strengthening or demolition of forts, the erecting of stockades, the cutting of trenches and the movement of military hardware and baggage.

This is an intensely researched and very readable publication. It is an excellently arranged handy reference book too. It engages the sustained attention of the reader and I may add that his skills as a gifted novelist have been of assistance to Dr. Wickremesekera.

He obtained his first degree in History Special and his doctorate from Monash, Australia. I would with some trepidation add that this has saved him from the misplaced 'nationalist' binds and inhibitions of our 'conventional' history of this period.

Enriching children's literature

The Invisible Host
Author: R. S. Karunaratne
Sooriya Publishers, Colombo 10

READING R. S. Karunaratne's The Invisible host was indeed an enthralling experience, which I digested at a stretch, with much enthusiasm and animation though this collection of short stories, is primarily meant for children and young adults.

Each story in this collection can be considered as a fable, intrinsically woven with a moral lesson.

The author had shown his prowess in ample measure in handling this form of short stories in his previous contributions such as Once upon a Time and In The Land of Nowhere both of which can be cited as an eloquent testimony to prove his success in this form of art and craft.

This genre of literature has a rich tradition which had its heyday in Aesop's fables and R. S. Karunaratne had adopted the art of narrating this form of short stories with enviable dexterity.

There are altogether 32 short stories in this collection. Though they are short in length, keeping in mind that they are meant for easy assimilation by children and young adults, these short stories are quite rich with layers of deep meanings.

Thus they open up a virtual treasure-trove, stimulating young readers' taste-buds with tales of mystery and suspense, ensuring that they will experience a joyful flight of excitement and a lot of fun in the process.

Besides, the moral lesson, highlighted at the end of each story, these stories activate the young readers' minds with incisive perception which will go a long way in moulding them as discerning readers when they reach adulthood.

Among these fascinating short stories in this collection, I find "Cobra Wisdom" as one of my favourites. It is about a wise king who had strange habits and his Queen who became suspicious about his activities.

The king used to eat some food, all by himself, prepared by one of his trusted servants. The queen probing into this stranged habit of the king, bribes a servant to bring her a portion of this food.

To her amazement, she finds a small cobra in her dish which was brought by the servant. Feeling numb with fear, she encounters the small cobra, who reveals that the king had the habit of consulting it, to get advice in worldly matters.

The queen, in vain, tries to persuade the cobra to stay with her, thinking that she can use the serpent for her own benefit.

However, the cobra does not accede to her request, but condemns her for trying to corrupt the servant by bribing him and also emphatically tells her that it advises only wise and righteous kings.

There is an array of such short stories in this book, enticing the children and young readers to become voracious readers in their quest for adventure, interspersed with a sprinkling of noble sentiments.

As we are living in a concrete jungle, in which conundrum, corrupting young minds in numerous ways, dictated by pecuniary considerations is rampant, and in this set-up the author's contribution to the children's and young adults' literature is like a dew drop in the parched desert, which deserves our whole-hearted appreciation and also emulation.

Let us hope fervently, as hope springs eternal in human heart, that he will be purposeful in striving hard to enhance the parameters of children's literature through his short stories.

It will result in a renaissance in the field of children's and young adults' literature in which many new writers spinning the web of children's stories would emerge to the limelight. To that end, let us pray, with religious zeal, that he would have a smooth ride, striding along the cobbled highway, striving hard to reach the pinnacle of literary stardom.

Focus on a literary giant

Munidasa Kumaranatunga and Criticism of Poetry
Author: Prof. Risiman Amarasinghe
An author publication
"Ramindu Mahala", Seeduwa North, Seeduwa. Rs. 400

IT is not easy to evaluate the literary heritage of Munidasa Kumaranatunga in a short essay or pamphlet. Many are the scholars who have paid attention to Kumaranatunga's ideas on poetry. But few have been objective in their views.

Prof. Risiman Amarasinghe's contribution is unbiased, praiseworthy and noteworthy in this regard. Munidasa Kumaranatunga, we all know, was an erudite scholar, editor, grammarian, critic, poet and a literary figure par excellence.

Kumaranatunga was deeply conversant with Sanskrit literature and applied its principles to the study of Sinhalese literature. This did not make him a slave of Sanskrit. He safeguarded his independence.

A number of critics of the Peradeniya school paid attention to Kumaranatunga's views. They were sharply critical and quite unsympathetic. Prof. Risiman Amarasinghe shows how inconsistent were the opinions of Prof. Ariya Rajakaruna who was also prejudiced against Kumaranatunga.

Chapter two of this book discussed the "Kukavi Wadaya". It collates a large number of facts and opinions.

"Virith Vekiya" is another controversial publication of Kumaranatunga. This is where Kumaranatunga's critical ideas come out most eloquently according to Prof. Risiman Amarasinghe.

Criticism is not just to say something is good or bad, but to show appreciation of experience and how they are presented through the language. This is what has not been adequately appreciated by the Peradeniya school of critics.

Prof. Risiman Amarasinghe rebuts all arguments raised by the critics of Kumaranatunga using concrete, powerful and sound evidence.

Prof. Amarasinghe is a scholar with three doctorates to his credit. His competence in Sinhala, Pali, Sanskrit, Prakrit, English, Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Portuguese is unquestioned. He is also a great legal luminary par excellence.

Munidasa Kumaranatunga and Criticism of Poetry is his latest scholarly contribution to the history of Sinhala literature and to the art of criticism.



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