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Ethical values in a changing village

We reproduce the D.A. Rajapaksa Commemorative Oration delivered by Deshamanya J.B. Disanayaka Professor Emeritus, University of Colombo, on November 24, at the BMICH.

TRADITIONS: With the dawn of a new century and a new millennium, we are becoming more concerned about what is in store for us in the future. Social scientists predict that globalisation will ultimately take us to a new village, a Global Village with new hopes and aspirations.

What kind of impact will the Global Village have on Asian nations like Sri Lanka which have cultures moulded by age-old ethical values?


D.A. Rajapaksa

Sri Lanka, in spite of modern advancements in technology, is still a nation basically made of traditional villages. Though many have moved into the cities in search of greener pastures, the majority of Sri Lankans are still villagers, who try to come to terms with the new economic order.

Sri Lanka has been a nation of villages from its very beginnings. The village was called 'grama' in Sanskrit, 'gama' in Pali and 'gam' in Sinhala as distinguished from the city 'nagara', 'nuvara' on 'pura'.

The first royal capital of the island, Anuradhapura, (City of Anuradha) was originally a village, Anuradha-gama, (Village of Anuradha) as attested by Ptolemy, the Greek cartographer, who drew the first map of the island in the first century where this village was clearly marked as 'Anurogrammon'.

The ruler of the village was called 'gramani' in Sanskrit, 'gamani' in Pali and 'gaemunu' in Sinhala, an epithet that was attached to the names of Sinhala kings from the earliest times, such as Duttha Gamani and Vattha Gamani, two of our greatest kings.

The Sinhala village, in terms of anthropological analysis, is a blend of two kinds of distinct social entities: the traditional society, on the one hand, and the urban society, on the other.

There was a close link between the Sinhala village and the city, an interaction between what the anthropologists call the Great Tradition of the city and the Little Tradition of the village.

The structure of the traditional Sinhala village may be studied from three points of view: its material culture, behaviourial culture and ethical culture: Its material culture relates to its economic structure, which has as its basis agriculture.

Its behaviourial culture relates to its customs and habits, ceremonies and festivals which are manifestations of their system of beliefs and ethical values. Its ethical culture relates to its system of moral values, which determine the nature of human relationships.

From time immemorial, the Sinhala village has undergone changes at all levels of its structure. As in most Asian societies the crucial agents of change are westernisation, industrialisation, urbanisation, commercialisation, modernisation and in recent times, globalisation and technologization.

Change is a universal process that affects all beings and things and the Buddhists who uphold the theory of impermanence of matter, anitya, understand the process of change as an eternal law.

What concerns us is not the fact that the village is changing but how this change will, in the final analysis, affect ethical values that determine human relations.

The material culture of the village is the level that exhibits the most obvious changes that are taking place.

For example, bullock carts have now been replaced by modern, air-conditioned vehicles. Traditional sweetmeats have given way to cakes and pastries. Baskets made of cane and reed are replaced by plastic boxes and polythene bags.

The saris that female undergraduates wore to lectures have disappeared giving place to denims and other modern apparels. Supermarkets have pushed Sunday fairs into the background.

Traditional houses are replaced by modern housing complexes, Kitchens and pantries have no place for hearths, water pots and firewood.

Drinking water comes not from wells but from bottles. Old taverns disappear giving place to new wine stores in the bazaar and wine stores have become an integral part of the supermarket.

On the level of behaviour too, the Sinhala village is undergoing several changes: Village children prefer international schools to traditional educational institutes such as the pirivena. The marriage broker's task has been taken over by the matrimonial columns of the press.

The monk who delivered sermons in the traditional bana-maduva (sermon hall) has been surpassed by the monk who appears on television, mass media, both print and electronic, have reached distant villages exposing, both print and electronic, have reached distant villages exposing them to modern lifestyles.

These new patterns of behaviour are transforming the Sinhala villager into a modern citizen who will be at home in the Global Village.

How have these changes affected human relations? Have these changes modified the ethical structure of the Sinhala village in a substantial way? Is the traditional village going through a process of 'cultural erosion'?

The aim of this lecture is to inquire into questions of this natures so that we begin to understand reality which will help in re-establishing human relations on a sounder footing.

The ethical structure of any culture is based on the set of moral values held in esteem by its people. In the Sinhala village, this set of moral values is one that is inspired and nourished by Buddhist principles.

All ethical values such as honesty, humility, equanimity, coexistence, justice and respect for elders, have their origins in Buddhism which was introduced into the island three centuries Before Christ.

Buddhism is a philosophy and a way of life based on it. It is a philosophy that emphasizes the idea of self-lessness, anattha. It interprets the concept of 'attha' (ego) as a psychological perception that hinders true understanding.

In Buddhism, those who are egoistic are denounced as ones who are full of conceit and arrogance (ahankara), while those who place 'others above self' are considered noble. He who clings on the idea of' I as the one and only' is looked down upon as a person whose human relations are at a low ebb.

The ethical structure of the traditional Sinhala village was based essentially on the moral concept of love and respect for others. Moral values such as honesty, humility and justice, for example, derive their validity from the concept of 'you above me'.

Honesty is valued because the one who is honest does not lie, cheat others or steal from others. Humility is valued because the one who is humble places oneself on a position lower than that of others.

Justice is valued because the one who is just is fair by the others. Thus the idea of love and respect for others is the factor that determined the nature of human relations in the traditional village.

Human relations cut across a whole range of people in the society: for example, between husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings, relatives, neighbours, friends, monks and laymen, teachers and pupils, doctors and patients, fellow countrymen, rulers and so on. How did the idea of 'love and respect for the other' find expression in the traditional Sinhala society?

Ethical values are abstract concepts which find expression in patterns of behaviour, say, in habits and customs. What are the habits and customs observed in the Sinhala village that express the idea that the other is loved and respected more than oneself?

These habits and customs are basically two-fold: verbal and non-verbal. Verbal customs are those that are expressed in words and non-verbal customs are those that are expressed in physical terms.

In the traditional Sinhala family, the wife and the husband were bound by ties of mutual love and respect. Their love and respect was expressed verbally by means of certain forms of address used by them. Neither the wife nor the husband addressed each other by his or her personal name. Addressing the husband or wife by his or her name was considered a mark of disrespect.

Thus, the husband was referred to as "lamayinge tatta" (father of the children) "kollange tatta" (father of the kids) or "Siripalage tatta" (Siripala's father). The wife was referred to as "lamayinge amma" (mother of the children) "kollange amma" (mother of the kids) or as "Siriyavati's amma" (Siriyavati's mother). Another phrase for the wife was "gedara aetto" (the one at home).

I still remember how my own mother, born and bred in village in the Hatara Korale, referred to my father as "ara kande" (literally, that party). Ara kande koheda giye?" (Where did that party go?) meaning "Where did my husband go?

To get the other one's attention, the wife or husband used the word "me" (here) or the phrase "me aehunada?" (Did you hear?). They never issued orders or commands. She never ordered him, for instance to go to the temple by using the imperative very yanna" (go): "pansal yanna" (please go to the temple).

Instead she made a polite suggestion using the conditional verb" "giya nam": "pansal giya nam" (if you went to the temple), implying that it would be good if you went to the temple. Even to say 'please come here' the husband would say "poddak mehata ava nam" (How nice if you could come here). The word "poddak" in this context means 'please'.

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