Ignite indigenous emotional bond | Sunday Observer

Ignite indigenous emotional bond

20 June, 2021

What is indigenous cannot be kept alive generation after generation unless the emotional bond with it is kept ignited. This has been a difficult task for colonised nations, whether in Asia, Africa or elsewhere.

The steel arms of modernity, industrialisation, mechanisation, skepticism and the cycle of commercial dependence on industrialised countries hold the world in its grip.

A dangerous monoculture of brick encased ‘development’ has been created, taught in brick encased schools and universities. We no longer connect with the schools of yesteryear where the roof was the sky and the ceiling the high branches of trees.

Education we had traditionally was bound with the natural world, the indigenous and the traditional, where every technology, craft, art, from water engineering to medicine or architecture was bound to the land, since confronting Western knowledge has come under its monopoly.

For a world lost in the seas of Western science sanctioned knowledge it seems time to return to the wisdom of the past.

It is a fact that the countless ways of maintaining wellbeing, found in so many cultures have been systematically killed or maintained in an ‘embalmed state’ at best, functioning under the auspices of Western dominated agencies.

Thus this knowledge is manipulated to suit certain agendas and not in the manner inherently used by the communities owning the knowledge.

Today the term knowledge is synonymous with Western knowledge and this writer has consistently argued in many platforms that this has been the downfall of humanity.

As mentioned above we live in an age where even what is traditional and indigenous is appropriated by certain elements with Western dominance.

Therefore the fostering of these expertise no longer comes from the internal consciousness of the people holding that knowledge but often ‘sponsored’ as token perfunctory conciliatory duties to the ‘third world.’

This perfunctory ‘respect’ comes centuries after we were subtly and overtly taught by most of the same entities that all that we held as indigenous was either fanciful or superstition.

Today, because we have dispensed of using our own minds we have often to be guided by outsiders on how to work with our own traditional knowledge and often we go along because we have not created a financial base the way our ancient kings did, to boldly use what is ours for the benefit of our people.

Careful analysis

A careful analysis of this just mentioned phenomena will show machinations aimed at world dominance by few global elements whose own survival depends on this.

This over mechanised, over industrialised, unto-death-developed world that we have been subtly bullied and coerced into creating is in its last stages. The survival of the fittest from now on will not mean blindly following the blind.

Our first crime was when we justified that for sustaining our lives we need to create a cycle of death for the earth and its creatures. This we learnt from outsiders who told us that the ‘scientific truth’ is that there is no option but chemical agriculture for the ‘modern’ world.

Believing this meant our umbilical cord with the earth was cut. We believed because we had sacrificed our minds on the altar of all that is connected with Western superiority.

We turned a blind eye to their ignorance, We ignored how the Western experts cannot fathom or explain how civilisations such as Sri Lanka achieved its complex water engineering upon high rock such as Sigiriya, or how we achieved our hydraulic feats or how we melted hard stone to pulp to enable intricate carvings. Or how a betel chewing traditional physician would by the manner of the person heralding the news (Dhutha Lakshana) know which reptile had inflicted its venom on a patient the physician had not seen.

Despite many such instances of ‘ignorance’ Western nations with their embryonic modernity have for centuries considered themselves the self-appointed ‘judiciary’ of all knowledge.

It is only when a nation is stoically confident of its heritage and understands and owns it whole heartedly, enveloped in a genuine love for it that it can use it for the benefit of the people.

A people doubting their own heritage can only suffer the consequences. Such a doubting nation can only fall to the trap of ‘doing as the Jonesses do’ and merely adopt copy-cat policies of other nations.

Bhutan, a small Buddhist country which carefully guards its heritage, is one example of a nation charting its own course.

It prioritised the happiness of its people over Gross Domestic Product and had other nations of purported might following suit after the usual initial cynicism that follows non conformism.

The examples of boldness from non Westernised countries such as Bhutan are very few.

For the majority of nations holding unique traditions for wellbeing, modernity and ‘development’ is today interpreted in just one uniform way and interferences are multi-dimensional that prevent indigenous communities and nations seeking their own path through their heritage.

Yet undisputedly it is this knowledge; the tangible and intangible that could transform people’s lives through education, health sciences, values and infrastructure and solve many of the ills modernity have brought upon. It is this knowledge that may yet save the West from total corruptness of soul.

The ills bought upon the world by rabid technological advancement range from climate change, air toxity, deforestation, over-medicalisation, global poverty and inequality. Yet if the route of middle path is followed the indigenous that this world craves for can exist peacefully with the modern.

Yet, for this to happen old civilisations such as Sri Lanka have to find themselves.

Speaking of this country, centuries of colonisation and seven decades of pursuing a general dependency mentality has cost us much. If we subject our conscience to an independent survey we will admit that we are longer assimilated with the wide range of our indigenous knowledge. The truth is our ignorance.

For such knowledge to thrive, active policies should be enacted dedicated to its survival. In the past much of such knowledge was passed on verbally from one generation to another. This is one reason for the lack of this knowledge surviving especially during the cultural change that occurred after colonisation.

Today, although we may have academic streams purportedly to promote heritage studies this mostly ends up as a theoretical exercise and are often confined to historical knowledge of monuments and ancient structures.

With the intangible components of heritage what is seen very often is that even when the theoretical foundation is sound, an emotional disconnect makes it confined to analytics alone.

For example, we cannot have much faith in someone who says they have expertise in traditional medical heritage and its immunity boosting methods if that person remains mortally afraid in times of pandemics and does not use that knowledge for their own health safety.

We are clearly not a nation who is today aware how to practically use our heritage knowledge whether in medicine or agriculture.

As indicated earlier the reality we have today is that the theoretics of heritage knowledge are routed through a Western dominated lens. Here when we use the word Western, we have to understand that these current day so called ‘Western’ territories were mostly indigenous, belonging to the original people of the land; the Aborigines who had a very unique set of beliefs, rites and expertise.

These aborigines have faced a similar fate as our Veddha community; they have been converted to modern man’s ideals and the loss, in every angle, is immense.

The knowledge, traditions, rites and beliefs these people held were deeply connected to nature, human wellbeing, ethics, wisdom and an all-encompassing spirituality that has nothing to do with dogma or theology as we know it today.

Ancient spirituality was the truest of the Yogic way of being where the entire cosmos was considered to be within the self.

The writings of native American John Neidhart documents through literature and poetry how this knowledge was forced out systematically from the native Americans with the Christianisation linked education system.

Let us look at a few examples related to Sri Lanka.

Current township design and the ancient past

Lack of our ancestral knowledge being evident in township design is very evident when we look at the ugly concrete patches which are our towns.

Devoid of any food producing or shade providing trees or water protection methods our towns are an assault on nature.

In Sri Lanka for a country that boasts of such ancient architectural and engineering marvels which few in the young Western world can explain, there is little which has influenced our town planning or city planning or engineering or architecture.

Our engineering schools have not mainstreamed the teaching of our ancient engineering and is solely dependent on Western knowledge of the subject.

My conversations with engineers such as Eng. Dr. Chandana Jayawardena. Eng. Dr. Sudath Rohitha and Eng, D. L. O. Mendis who have self-studied ancient engineering knowledge as their own personal mission have pointed to the fact that they spent their own time and effort in this and not as part of the formal course of study.

As one engineer worded it, not even a field trip was encouraged in their formal study programs of engineering. We have no current evidence that we have studied our ancient town and village planning heritage according to the spiritual and cultural values of the land in developing our current urban or rural engineering projects.

Epics such as Rajavaliya which have described the structure of our townships have not touched our consciousness. Rather we seem to merely follow other countries and the development models chosen by them.

We clamour for solutions of ‘sustainable development’ and look to Western nations for such solutions when most of them have been the very destroyers of sustainability and the creators of climatic ruin.

We have never questioned the word ‘development’ and never opened our eyes to the fact that we had within our villages, especially in pre-colonial time, the concept of ‘self-sufficiency’ and ‘contentment.’

In a recent interview with the Ven. Athuruliye Ratana Thera, it was revealed that the bikkhu was working on such a wellbeing oriented village model tied to his project ‘Matha’ that looks at connecting every rural village to become a solution for both climate change as well as food security through the ideologies of the Buddhist philosophy.

Living with the wild

We speak much of the man elephant conflict today and seek refuge in culturally alien solutions such as electrical fences.

We know not or care not that we had a past where we lived cheek by jowl with elephants when much of the country were jungles. We have lost the knowledge that these elephants need large quantities of water per day and that in the current reality of deforestation and aridity we force them into foraying through human habitation.

We have forgotten that we truly once functioned under the ‘do no harm’ logic which meant that we preserved the home of the creatures of the wild and did not remove their food and water from them. We have forgotten that they reciprocated in kind by not interfering with our own homes.

The number of elephant deaths and elephant related human deaths is starkly high in Sri Lanka today.

The numbers of elephants killed have risen from around 227 in 2010 to around 407 in 2020 and the percentage of elephants killed outside the protected areas of the national parks stood at 54 percent, according to Department of Wildlife Conservation Director Operations Ranjan Marasinghe.

In a public lecture he delivered last September on the above, this writer who was present observed that in the discussion that ensued by mostly elite Colombo based wild life enthusiasts, there was not a single reference to indigenous methods on handling the human-elephant interaction.

Yet centuries ago when we were surrounded by jungles, humans and elephant went about the business of living with perfect understanding.

If these giants got too close for comfort there were countless methods of pushing them back that did not hurt them but gave them only momentary discomfort.

Sujith Wijewardena, a volunteer with the Wild Life Department in elephant rescue and caring is well versed with some of the ancient knowledge connected to living in harmony with these creatures.

Kem krama

He recalls how one of the age-old Lankan methods of reprimanding an ‘elephant terrible’ taking a rendezvous among humans would follow our ancient kem krama (an ancient psychological treatise on the unexplainable that has solutions for almost every human as well as animal related issue!).

One such method would be to keep within its path the papaw fruit with the inner content pieced out and replaced with chillie. The visitor known for its stellar memory would never ever take this route after this fiery experience.

Also there were many different plant species allergic to the elephant which were grown to deter their intrusion.

Wijewardena recalls that one of the most powerful forms of controlling elephants was through the science of words where rhythm, tone and focus were adopted - known as the Manthra Shastraya of ancient Lankan/Indian tradition.

These are known to be recited focusing on the space between the eyes of the elephant and these recitations were once upon a time general knowledge, used by every adult and child. These worked not only on elephants but also on leopards, bears and mainly reptiles. There are true accounts of how such recitations materialised in unbelievable recoveries pertaining to snake bites.

There are narrations spanning over sixty years how lifeless bodies after two to three days of death after snakebites were ‘resurrected’ by summoning the intricate cosmic connection between man, beast and nature.

One such account was told to me by a woman who is currently around seventy years old who had as a child witnessed such a phenomena pertaining to a relative.

Today we would scoff at such stories. However, the vast expertise we had that connected us to all that was alive in the universe would make today’s universities modeled after Western prototype of learning look like a nursery.

We have thousands of Ola Leaf documents with this knowledge allowed to disintegrate in Lankan universities and libraries with no national policy to elicit and revive their knowledge.

Prof. Nimal de Silva a specialist on Lankan heritage and former director of the Centre for Heritage and Cultural Studies who supervises the PhD program on archaeology and traditional heritage once in an interview with this writer pointed out the colossal knowledge we are not seeking that is enshrined in our Ola Leaf manuscripts.

The superiority of man did not assail our ancestors and they did not consider human life to be exclusivist. Thereby all that man did for his own survival was not at the cost of his brethren of the wild or the earth, his greatest benefactor for survival. Our ancestors did not rape mother-earth for their survival.

The land holds the spirit of the nation

It is the land of a nation that is the mother earth and breathes the native spirit into the people; the land of each nation within this planet earth has been in existence for billions of years and the knowledge it carries is indeed sacred as it is mysterious.

It is this sacredness that we have wiped out from our minds today. Our minds are as sharp and lifeless as a knife on a sterile operating table.

We have succumbed today to being people who depend on other nations for caring for our soil, needless to say this would have been seen as preposterous by our ancestors.

For a country with thousands of years of agrarian heritage and over 2,000 varieties of traditional rice and hundreds of indigenous yams, fruits and vegetable varieties, we have been so afflicted by colonised, industrialised and western scientified stupor that we have to date not realized the value of motivating future generations to safeguard them.According to Food Anthropologist Dr. Raveendra Withanachchi, Department of Anthropology, University of Sri Jayawardenepura the traditional Lankan rice varieties, many of which are highly medicinal in quality could even run into 3,000. Many of these traditional grains are varieties that withstand the vicissitudes of weather change. We have failed to see the magnitude of the loss of not training our agriculture officials of the need to safeguard these grains.

Today, they are indeed gone forever as the multinational agro chemical industries meant them to, along with the natural fertility and health of the soil. This way countries with rich agrarian history would no longer be dependent on their own endemic produce but rather dependent on the hybrid varieties produced by these international companies as well as their fertilizer and other poisonous inputs.

And we would pay our hard earned national revenue to these companies. This is how our lack of connectivity with our indigenous bounty is making us poor and those who sell poison to us rich. Hence we desperately need agriculture specialists to be trained in indigenous knowledge as pertaining to the agrarian matters.It seems a dire need to revive the branch of Ayurveda connected with plants and soil; Wruksha Ayurveda and link it under the Agriculture Department.

This would once and for all solve our current fear of lack of fertiliser. This fear is solely based on an artificial fear injected over the years.

Once and for all we need to wake up from the dependency hypnosis, and stop leaning on ‘imported’ solutions.

Lanka’s ancient medical science

The ancient medical science of this nation was interlinked with the soil. Our pharmacy and our agrarian bounty were in our forests and in our gardens.

Before we got afflicted with the Western disease of private property greed and creating synthetic industries out of food and medicine and hailing these as separate industries, the interweaving cords between these categories were spiritual as well as cultural.

The Gurununwanse of the ancient village represented both spiritual, mental and physical wellbeing and the lifeline of each village was the weda mahattaya.

Food was the medicine and medicine was the food and what was emphasised was how to prevent disease. A surviving medical system rooted in nature may hold the mysteries of immunity boosting as much as the Deshiya Chikitsa (Sinhala Wedakama) of Sri Lanka.

We are indeed a poor nation because we neither recognize nor care for this knowledge even at a time when Western medical science is floundering helplessly against a pandemic.

Today we call ourselves Sri Lankans but we fail to recognise that we have turned upside down our traditional value based structure of life.

We have uprooted ourselves to the extent that at a time of a pandemic necessitated lockdown of the country we have Western medical pharmacies operating and the outlets for traditional medicine which sustained us for thousands of years are closed.

The silver lining is the effort to get Ayurveda doctors involved in the Covid-19 battle but the thousands of Sinhala weda mahattayas (traditional physicians), Siddha physicians and Unani physicians are still allowed to be assets in this life and death crisis.

For the sake of the nation and its self-sufficiency, national integrity and human wellbeing national decisions should aim at utilising the seamless range of our traditional knowledge.

Sri Lankans who have years of experience of researching indigenous knowledge such as native farming expert Thilak Kandegama and Prof. Raj Somadeva, Professor of Archeology and member of the World Archeological Congress, who have spoken extensively on indigenous plant species/rice/grain varieties and their health related value as well as tough resistance to vagaries of the weather should be sought for agrarian related decisions.

Sri Lanka’s revision of its education system and the incorporation of traditional knowledge as a subject in the school curricula, beginning from primary school to systematically cover different forms of knowledge, including agrarian knowledge is vital. This will help us to ensure future generations and policy makers know the basics of what is our own.

Currently there are plans afoot to teach English from grade one. With this decision Sri Lanka has an unique opportunity to integrate its traditional knowledge creatively into the English syllabus and thereby teach English as a language of communication while also rooting the Sri Lankan child in what is our own. Thereby a syllabus of English covering the traditional knowledge of the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers as pertaining to Sri Lanka could be the forerunner that will integrate national heritage, national harmony alongside teaching English.

This writer has written much on this based on practical work in this regard and will continue to write more on this in the weeks to come.

It is only through incorporating heritage studies to the school curricula can this nation build its own set of sustainable wellbeing goals for all of its citizens and not ape global fads.

There is an urgent need to get whatever few experts we have who authentically hold the knowledge of our ancestors to train our policy makers, especially in regard to health, agriculture and wild life management so that whatever reforms attempted are created intrinsically rooted with our intangible cultural heritage, enabling us to use such expertise for the future. This should be the foundation upon which our health, education, science, technology, innovation and development priorities are founded to prevent us becoming aliens to ourselves.