Psychological interpretation of Lanka’s history
New vistas on the early
history of Sri Lanka
A Vijitha Yapa Publication
Author:Prof. Wijaya Dissanayake
“Historians generally prefer to draw a clear line between their field
and the realm of fable.
Anthropologists and psychologists however do not dismiss legends and
myths in the way our orthodox historians do and attempt to extract
whatever useful information.”
That is to build a credible tale of what could have actually happened
in the past, ”at least on a provisional hypothesis.”
The above passage culled from the text itself could be
self-explanatory as regards the content of this book into which has been
invested much intellectual concentration. There is nothing so mysterious
as the dead past which is incredibly copious in content too.
To the task of historian falls the duty of sieving out its major
landmarks and going on to record them. Supplementing the historian’s
role are other peeps into this dead past as ruins of cities,
inscriptional evidence and even legends handed down through generations.
The author has exerted himself with tremendous zeal to accumulate
into a corpus all these, as regards the early history of Sri Lanka and
that in a mere 200-page text. But wait, he skips the actual margins and
the book covers vistas even beyond Lanka, yet hinging on the island’s
tale. That way the radar encompasses far more than intended.
Not only to other regions does the author travel but also to other
mental areas for, “history is a dynamic and complex process linked both
to biological and environmental factors and to the past of human
societies, having associations with culture, belief systems and other
influences that fluctuate from one era to another”.
Like to wade through all that? Read the book. Actually leaving aside
the bias springing from the fact that it is our own Gods given country
(Deiyo dunnu rata), it may be apt to remark that disproportionate to the
island’s small size an amazing historical abundance of events has been
orchestrated here. It could be due to the location of the island sited
in mid-Indian ocean or the energy oozing from the main actors on the
stage of Lankan history.
Always one notices a leaning towards a positive and benign acting by
most of them. In Buddhism they saw a very benevolent force that could
help rulers to maintain law and order and breed a morally sensitive
populace. The traditions imbibed run to the present day in a majority of
That the early history of the island is inextricably interwoven with
the rise of Buddhism is manifest clearly and this historical matrix
almost dominates a good part of the book. The author’s high erudition
and professionalism prevents him from being emotional about it all and
salient facts as regards the process are presented in a rather neutral
way. However, myths and legends are given a prominent place, and never
dismissed as fabrications.
Myths and legends
He goes out of his way to defend “Myths and Legends“ stating that
they are not falsehoods but are forms of expression of ancient cultures
which attempt to explain the arcane mysteries of nature in simple
concepts. In short the dim antiquity comes alive via these myths and
legends. While many a scholar of Lanka tends to scoff at these legends
and myths, it is to the credit of the author that he does not share this
disaparaging attitude. In fact he posits, in his introduction, “It is
with the intention of improving our understanding of this legend based
and incomplete early period of Lankan history and clarifying some
obscure debatable issues that this study was undertaken”.
A laudable motive indeed especially considering the fact that the
author now lives in self–exile in England! Dissanayake, while
concentrating on the myths and legends does not depreciate the
chronicles either which complement to build up a more balanced picture
of the past.
Chapter 1 deals with the story of the peopling of the island in
pre-historic times, the Yakkas, while it is followed in Chapter 2 by the
entry of the Nagas, a more peaceful South Asian tribe. Chapter 3 peaks
to the account of the major Peopling event in Lankan history, the entry
of waves of migrants from the Gangetic civilisation of Northern India
bringing over the urban Gangetic civilisation. With admirable
professionalism the author superimposes historicity to events that
follow, which have been translated almost into the realm of mythology by
legends and even at times by chronicles.
Chapter 4 deals with a geographical and ethno-linguistic paradox as
to how that the Sinhala language that descended from Middle Prakrit
managed to survive the influence of a Darvidian speaking population
inhabiting a large area in between.
Skipping a sequential order these chapters too that follow are of
paramount importance in giving a psychological interpretation of Lanka’s
early historical legends such as Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to
the Maurya Empire’s report on the island, how the chronicles described
foreign trade of the island, and under the umbrella or Chatra of Part 3
titled “Silk Road of the Indian Ocean “are very “palatable” titles.
The merchants from a Lost civilisation, a trade mission to the Roman
Empire, visit of the Greek mariner, Kosmas 550 CE Wait. The reviewer
forgot to mention the Walking Ape that struts at the earth right at the
He and she, strut out of Africa to finally people the whole world.
Fact or fiction read the text. It is certainly a book worth reading
spreading its orbit to such distant phenomena, profusely illustrated and
carrying some very valuable maps.
The author ends it all up by this humble admission. “The conclusions
arrived are tentative and provisional and at best they are probabilities
that may need revision.” But yet the text provides delightful reading
and is a writer’s fitting tribute to Mother Lanka, with her long and
colourful and turbulent history. A history almost out of proportion to
her small terrain.