By Suryamithra Vishwa/DailyFT-Harmony Page
In last week’s Harmony page we focused on some of the social ills of this country that were distinctly noticeable during the COVID-19 necessitated lockdown, such as child abuse and domestic violence. We also looked at the pandemic of the cycle of violence, vices and warped mentalities that exist in the guise of normalcy that we do not discuss as a grave and serious public virus and social menace.
Ragging is one of these social evils that we drew attention to last week, at how so-called ‘educated’ youth at university give vent to jealousy, frustration and abnormalities of thought, by mentally, verbally or physically torturing fellow human beings to the point of them preferring to end their young lives than pursue their lifetime goals.
This week we try to understand our ‘modern’ society in which all the above said mind origin diseases occur. In this interview we speak with senior Cultural Anthropologist and Traditional Knowledge/Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) specialist Dr. Danister Perera. Dr. Perera teaches Indigenous Knowledge in Natural Resource Management at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura and Sri Lankan Culture in Sociology at the University of Kelaniya. Dr. Perera is a member of UNESCO national steering committee of ICH.
In this interview Dr. Perera juxtaposes our current society with how we lived before colonisation, industrialisation, globalisation and technology changed us.
As a special initiative of the Daily FT, the aim of the Harmony page is to introduce holistic aspects that are generally missed in conventional journalism and this interview is one more attempt in this regard. Following are excerpts:
Q: As an expert in cultural anthropology, indigenous knowledge and intangible cultural heritage, could you speak on pre-colonial knowledge priorities as applicable when one compares today’s knowledge system and what we had before colonisation?
A: The current knowledge system introduced with colonial culture is recognised as the formal or official knowledge that backs mainstream education, values and norms of today’s society. That is what we have to carefully look at as the turning point from traditional knowledge that prevailed in pre-colonial society which was embedded within our intangible cultural heritage. Now we have come far away from our own cultural knowledge heritage which had been neglected, oppressed, discriminated, unprivileged and underestimated for centuries due to various reasons. However I am not against modernity or advancement of technology. It is necessary to update and promote current living standards. No society can escape from this change. It happens.
Dynamism is a vital feature of culture. We need to entertain it. However my main concern is to find our cultural identities and values in this major transformative phase. We have gone through colonial influences under three European nations and then faced the industrial revolution as well as the green revolution that had drastic impacts on our cultural heritage including our ancient agrarian heritage.
Being knowledgeable is easy by qualifying by exams and testing with high marks. But it will not make a person be an intellectual. To reach intellectual level one needs more life-skills and ethical obligations to be completed. Even after being an intellectual, wisdom is not easy to gain by itself. Values, norms, morals and disciplines should be there to achieve wisdom. It is a life-long practice to be a wisdom holder
The next major transformation was the globalisation process through geopolitical connections that made us more dependent on other countries. The open economy changed our lifestyle in a highly sophisticated manner and the IT revolution introduced a new model of thinking based on cyber-values. Now we are functioning on that platform and based on very different values as compared to say 300 years ago or even a century ago.
Q: How do you compare these two systems as per the values centred around them?
A: Actually I would not really rush to compare these two systems. But if we want to differentiate them we can call them two traditions. These are two phases of one process. When we try to differentiate it for the purpose of understanding, it should not be a matter of nostalgia. It should be a matter of humanism. Today we talk about human rights, social justice and equity more than ever. However the question is whether we adhere to them practically. This is a burning issue with all modern societies. We are obliged by conventions, policies and laws to protect human rights as a universally bound ethical agreement.
Despite all this, true peace is yet to be achieved. If there is any riot or war that results in shedding blood and killing people or any disturbance or unrest to any community anywhere, then what we have with all these above mentioned structures, becomes a farce. We have many religions and so many cults that teach good conduct and guide us to many spiritual pathways.
Unfortunately still people kill other humans in the name of religion or in the name of God. This reveals the egoistic and greedy human mind which is not truly tamed by spiritual teachings or capable of holistically guiding itself or even capable of basic awareness. Ancient cultural heritage were a practice of values as a set of life-skills. Elders were responsible in disseminating and propagating this life-philosophy nurtured by cultural ethos.
Q: I want to ask you how the concept of discipline is different in our Eastern pre-colonial structure of education as compared with that of the Western system from which I presume we inherited corporal punishment.
A: In the current global situation knowledge has become a commodity. It is a matter of power and wealth. Therefore it is now shaped by global market needs and consumer demands. In this model we cannot separate education from the ‘knowledge business.’ In the so-called pre-colonial society education was accounted as a matter of discipline. ‘Vidya dadati vinyam’ means education provides discipline. They believed that education’s first purpose was to change human behaviour for the better. Knowledge without discipline was a poison as per ancient norms. They have recognised knowledge, intellect and wisdom as three separate results one can gain through education.
Being knowledgeable is easy by qualifying by exams and testing with high marks. But it will not make a person be an intellectual. To reach intellectual level one needs more life-skills and ethical obligations to be completed. Even after being an intellectual, wisdom is not easy to gain by itself. Values, norms, morals and disciplines should be there to achieve wisdom. It is a life-long practice to be a wisdom holder.
Formal education focuses only on livelihood and earning more money to reach high life-standards but not to produce a good citizen enriched with values. Therefore conventional school education is not sufficient for producing wise people. To inculcate wisdom in Sri Lankans the education system has to add more in-depth cultural heritage aspects. If we do so it will bridge the gap in what is missing from the current system.
Values are inherited from elders, parents and teachers by following in an apprenticeship. It is a real life-experience that improves one’s life-skill. If an element of this model is introduced we will be able to start the journey of rekindling a simplicity based humanity that was passed on to the younger generation by our pre-colonial education structure.
Q: You are a cultural anthropology focused expert on the medical systems that existed before colonisation; Deshiya Chikitsa (Hela Wedakama) and Ayurveda. Robert Knox during his imprisonment in Sri Lanka had observed that every citizen was well versed in the art of healing using herbs. Could you explain, keeping in line with what would have constituted as priority knowledge then and how you see the situation today, where ‘educated’ persons often end up extremely sick with diverse illnesses, mainly out of stress and are clueless about how to care for their bodies.
A: Indigenous medicine is an art of healing which is more than a medical system dedicated only for curing diseases. Caring of one’s own body was a part of traditional knowledge inherited by the culture for millennia. It was the stewardship of owning one’s health and taking the responsibility for it, which meant health of both the body, mind and spirit (encompassing spiritual values connected with religion).
Our ancient lifestyle was bound to nature and followed all the laws of nature as a deed of culture. ‘Healthy environment provides healthy life’ was their motto that kept them healthy. As a result their life was more meaningful and productive. Life satisfaction and happiness were at an optimum level to reach the state of wellbeing and active livelihood. Their lives were not sedentary. They had an active body and peaceful mind. Today we have restful (sedentary) body and stressful (restless) mind.
The hectic lifestyle has made us neglect our body and to become sick easily. We are taught to think that health is a commodity that can be brought from doctors, found at hospitals and bought at the pharmacy. But the naked truth is that health has nothing to do with doctors, hospitals and medicine. None of them can make you healthy. This modern society is drugged. People become sick because of medicine and doctors. That is because we have no sense of ‘nature being the best medicine’ as Hippocrates has taught as the basic theory of medicine.
Q: Could you comment in detail about the link between culture and medicine?
A: Separation of cultural values from the practice of medicine has become a big issue in the modern day medical system. In 1963 Michel Foucault, a French philosopher wrote a book that was translated as ‘The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception’ in which he coined the term ‘medical gaze’ to denote the dehumanising medical separation of the patient’s body from the patient’s identity. The dehumanising that occurs within the Western medical profession is a new manner of propagating unethical practices in the present health sector. It is sometimes called medical violence.
I would like to couple Foucault’s ideas with Ivan illich who wrote ‘Medical Nemesis’, published in 1975. His work was very controversial and disregarded by many in the Allopathic medical profession but his arguments still remain noteworthy. He was talking about medicalisation which is a very big problem within the health care system at present as it was during the time he coined this term. The most important notion he introduced is ‘cultural iatrogenesis’. By this term he tried to explain how much medical profession can influence the cultural heritage and cultural behaviour of a patient and then displace the belief systems from cultural heritage.
Let me highlight this cultural influence as a part of medical violence which sometimes occurs violating social justice and human rights. It is not blame that is intended in making this analysis but trying to convince our modern society about the harmful impact of new knowledge systems that do not respect our cultural heritage even in a professional manner.
Q: Could you speak on how our indigenous culture, after Buddhism was introduced to the island, and before it, handled the concept of ethics in society?
A: I think pre-Buddhist society did not have any major differences of cultural heritage when compared with post-Buddhist culture. I am not talking about any religious point of view. Our indigenous people had a cult of what we can call green religion at the time when Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka. Therefore they could easily adapt to the new religion and absorb it into their culture and made a new version of Buddhism called ‘Sinhalese Buddhism’. Then only it became Sinhala-Buddhist Culture as a result of practicing Buddhist ethos as the core of traditional culture from top to bottom.
Q: Today we say that we are ‘developed’ and ‘scientific’. But does ‘development’ and the ‘scientific’ need to have only the Western interpretation? Didn’t these words have their own interpretation to our societies in ancient times, for example when countries such as Sri Lanka and India had developed medical systems that cured people in an efficient manner with complex curative treatments?
A: Science in our language is ‘Vidya’. But modern science as we know it today has no sense of Vidya. Modern science literally means ‘knowledge’. But Vidya has a broader meaning ‘to know, to perceive, to see, to understand, to reason upon’ with a task assigned ultimately to eliminate ignorance (Avidya). But in modern science, sometimes they lead people to be ignorant. By discovering new things by scientific engagements alone they become more ignorant on the truths that exist on other levels. Once they dig into a matter deeply they neglect the rest of it and step away from the holistic picture.
Modern science is based on a kind of analysis that ends up with reductionism. At the end they find many things in nothing. But in the traditional way of Vidya the holistic approach is more important. In our indigenous system of medicine we do synthesis. We take the person as a whole and a triune of body-mind-spirit that is connected to the nature. To treat the person as a whole is the scientific way of our Vidya.
The spiritual philosophy of indigenous medicine is based on four values viz; ‘Karuna’, ‘Maitri’, ‘Priti’ and ‘Upeksha’. This is almost similar to ‘brahma viharana’ taught in Buddhism but not exactly. Brahma viharana represents fourfold values ‘metta’, ‘karuna’, ‘mudita’ and ‘upekkha’ which are to be practiced by the society to reach higher spiritual attainment. In this context the patients are accounted not ‘just cases’ but as persons with the notion of ‘there are no diseases but sick people’. This leads us to shift form a mechanical approach to an anthroposophic approach.
Indigenous medicine is an art of healing which is more than a medical system dedicated only for curing diseases. Caring of one’s own body was a part of traditional knowledge inherited by the culture for millennia. It was the stewardship of owning one’s health and taking the responsibility for it, which meant health of both the body, mind and spirit (encompassing spiritual values connected with religion)
Q: Could you explain the concept and the values of the ‘Gurukula’ system of education that was prevalent in Sri Lanka prior to colonisation and how do you see what is believed by some that this system promoted the caste system?
A: Gurukula literally means family of teacher. In ancient time the education was established in a gurukula based manner that sometimes was restricted to the family lineage or sometimes for a group of acolytes. Anyway in this pedagogic system the knowledge transmission was highly disciplined centred around the teacher’s monitoring and supervision. The selection criteria were also practiced in a traditionally accepted manner where they checked the horoscope and physical features to confirm the suitability of the student for the selected subject/art/craft.
It was long a period of learning by adaptation as an apprentice during the probationary period. After the eligibility is affirmed by the teacher, the pupil is allowed to observe and participate in the lessons and get access to the teacher’s manuscripts. The caste system had nothing to do with gurukula system that was dealing with many traditional craftsmanship graded into different castes. Within Sri Lankan culture this caste system did not lead to discriminative social strata.
Q: Could you explain what the ‘Gurumushti’ tradition really meant; was it a withholding of the full knowledge known to the teacher or was it a deep loving -indness and empathy which was unique to the teacher, as some researching traditional knowledge have argued?
A: Gurumushti is the supreme and ultimate gift of teacher that is granted for the best pupil as traditionally accepted. It is also a kind of intellectual property rights safeguarding method to keep untrusted persons away from accession to the secret knowledge. But the whole concept of gurumushti is based on trust and recognition of successful transmission when it is completed. It ensures the continuous and secured survival of that knowledge system from generation to generation. Some people argue that the gurumushti is something that disturbs the flowing of knowledge for the benefit of mankind but there is no logical basis for this explanation.
If you look at the way some traditional knowledge elements are exploited commercially, the conventional law is not sufficiently powerful to prevent such unethical business deals. But when the tradition is secured in this gurumushti model the illegal exploitations can be null and void. Therefore when we create a customary law for safeguarding intellectual property rights of traditional knowledge we need to consider gurumushti as an effective strategy in such a defensive legal system.