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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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'.