High Commission of Sri Lanka in India

Keynote Address by High Commissioner Prasad Kariyawasam 4th SAARC Folklore and Heritage Festival Agra, 30 September 2011 PDF Print option in slimbox / lytebox? (info) E-mail

I was delighted when Madam Ajeet Cour invited me to participate in this Festival, since I have a fascination for folklore and traditional knowledge. However, it is with much reluctance that I accepted her invitation to deliver what is described as the ‘keynote address’. All who know Madam Ajeet Cour would realise how difficult it is to say no to her and I had no choice. Representing as it were the tribe of Babus of South Asia, I am not the best person to speak on a subject such as Folklore and Heritage to the distinguished and knowledgeable audience present here. Therefore, I will confine my words to a few desultory thoughts on the subject, especially the value of folklore and heritage for the very survival of humankind, and leave the theoretical aspects and debates in the field to the learned academics at this Festival to dwell upon at length. Madam Ajeet Cour has been very kind to me by not defining a specific area to speak, and this gives me the opportunity of expressing my thoughts freely.

First let me thank FOSWAL and Madam Ajeet Cour for organising this 4th SAARC Folklore and Heritage Festival. FOSWAL, launched in 1987 as a result of the tireless efforts of Madam Ajeet Cour, is the first and only non-governmental organisation in the South Asian region that is working in the specific area of culture. FOSWAL has been working hard since its inception to create people to people connectivity in our region by drawing together the writers, creators, artistes, poets; activist for peace, gender and environment; as well as Babus like us and politicians from the region. In her own unique style, Madam Ajeet Cour has contributed immensely to the SAARC ideal for over two decades creating awareness of issues that are of vital and common concern to the people of our region through literature, song, dance, poetry, theatre and film.

My childhood days belong to an era very different from that of today’s children. It was an era long before the advent of television, the internet, social networking sites, and video games. We only had Radio, but even a small transistor radio was a luxury that few could afford. Some of you from India would recall the broadcasts of Radio Ceylon of that era. That was an era where children would gather around to listen to tales from their grandparents as there was no television to bombard young minds towards numerous distractions.  The stories that were narrated then to us by our elders were a mixture of fun and purpose. Our grandparents and the elders had the insight to inspire and warn us as well through folklore. The world of our ancestors that seemed simple due to lack of modern day gizmos was never short of wisdom, a quality which today seems to be on the wane or one-dimensional despite modern advancements in science and technology. As Baidyanath Saraswathi says, folklore needs to be accepted “as fundamental experience of human life and not as a vestige of pre-industrial societies”. If we examine carefully, what the world often tends to dismiss as superstition, are generations of experience built upon the human-being’s interaction with nature and human wisdom that has been passed down for several hundreds of years from generation to generation.  Folklore, traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of our communities that have been passed through generations by word of mouth; and folk dance and folk music that originates in traditional popular culture; all contain within them, teachings such as respect for nature, importance of maintaining ecological balance, living in peace and harmony with oneself and the world around us. They contain invaluable lessons for understanding the interconnectivity and interdependence of all phenomena that surrounds us.

The world we live in today is one that has reached a peak in terms of scientific advancement and still continues to advance at break-neck speed. Yet, despite all the technology that enables marvellous results at the press of a few buttons, increasingly, there seems to be confusion about the meaning of life, erosion of fundamental human values, and disrespect for nature and for each other. Though our societies have progressed in terms of modern industrialisation and we claim social advancement and development, we have not been able to shed the human propensity for violence against fellow humans and our own environment, or even to avoid a culture of excessive consumerism. This is where it becomes important for our South Asian societies to delve into our rich traditional folklore to seek out the wisdom of our traditional cultures, to help us fashion industrialisation and development as well as social progress along a humanistic and sustainable path.

Our region, South Asia, represents a versatile and rich cultural and natural landscape. The social philosophies and the religious cultures of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam connect us. As stated by journalist B.G. Verghese “South Asia is... not merely a geographical expression, but also an association of ideas, experiences, interactive cultures and aspirations straddling the past and future”. Yet somehow, we have allowed our colonial legacy of compartmentalisation of societies to follow us right into present times. In fact, unfortunately, we ourselves are now engaged in accentuating this trend. This deprives and in fact constraints us from opening our hearts to each other in our region to forge ahead with regional integration and peaceful co-existence.

I would like to quote here, the well known Sri Lankan Archaeologist, Professor Sudharshan Seneviratne, who was formally the Director General of Sri Lanka’s Central Cultural Fund. Professor Seneviratne, speaking on cultural connectivity and heritage says,
“…one of the critical challenges we face in South Asia is bridging national, religious and cosmopolitan identities with a futuristic vision. It is said that even more than the shared past it is allure of the common future that now beacons and binds the SAARC together. It must be our collective endeavour therefore to strive towards our connectivity as a key to sustaining the spirit of the SAARC as a gift to the next generation. This in fact is the tangible and intangible personality of South Asia.
For centuries the rich cultural personality of South Asian countries was based on cross-cultural interactions. We in South Asia are nurtured within a legacy of a shared heritage for over three thousand years and its ethos is a classic representation of diversity and commonalities. Our heritage is essentially inclusive and not exclusive. The shared heritage of the people of South Asia is a key to understanding that diversity, which is the bench-mark commonality in our society.”

He goes on to say that it is essential to focus therefore on Heritage as an area of refinement providing the basis for coexistence; and that Heritage is to be considered as a multifaceted catalyst, as a source for peaceful coexistence in South Asia. In this process, heritage would be viewed as an idiom that expresses a common language of humanity where people reach out to each other for understanding, sharing and coexistence.

As you all know, India and Sri Lanka are bound not only by geographic proximity but by history as well. An important event in Sri Lanka’s history which is celebrated even today is that of Emperor Asoka sending his son and daughter to Sri Lanka 2300 years ago. They set out to Sri Lanka from Sanchi and were received in Sri Lanka’s ancient magnificent Kingdom of Anuradhapura. This is an important civilizational link between our two countries. A sapling of the Pipal tree under which Prince Siddharta attained enlightenment as Gautama Buddha in Bodhgaya, was taken to Sri Lanka by Emperor Asoka’s daughter. That tree continues to stand in Anuradhapura even today. It is acknowledged as the oldest recorded tree in the world and has remained in continuous worship since the inception in 3rd Century BC.  

The introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka has had a profound influence on every conceivable aspect of life in my country. Therefore, I would like to dwell briefly on Buddhist philosophy in the context of what I emphasised earlier on the need to seek out the wisdom of our traditional cultures to help fashion industrialisation and development along a humanistic and sustainable basis. As you all know, Buddhism emerged in India in response to the social, economic and political realities of a society that was in transformation from a village culture to an urban society. If one were to think back, society way back then was no different to the societies we live in today. What is different today are the technological advancements, especially in the field of ICT that has engendered rapid globalisation. Society then, as today, especially in the face of urbanisation, saw a rise in conflict with destructive confrontations between kingdoms, as well as competition, marginalisation, oppression and self indulgence in Societies. The Buddha said that it is greed and forcible removal of wealth owned by others, and enslavement of some communities that lead to social tension and conflict. Similar sentiments were echoed by Mahatma Gandhi who said “there is enough in the world for everybody’s need, but not enough for anybody’s greed”. The Buddha, as you know, advocated the Middle Path as a panacea for the resolution of both social as well as individual tension at different levels. One of the earliest documented social contracts for conflict resolution is found in the Agganna Sutta which describes how the individual, elected by society to settle disputes, was required to maintain peace through laws of righteousness, adhering to norms of good governance, accountability and transparency. These principles are further elaborated in the prescription of ‘Ten Righteous Obligations’ or the ‘Dasa Raja Dharma’ to be followed by a Ruler. A Ruler was responsible not only for just governance but also to uphold the protection of the environment. The Buddhist code of environmental protection prescribed both to lay followers as well as for monks stresses the symbiotic relationship between the human and his environment and the value of its interdependency for our very survival. The Buddha himself is said to have spent one week in meditation to pay gratitude to the Pipal tree which provided him shelter during his final quest for enlightenment.

The Five Precepts that the Buddha advocated established a code of conduct by which the individual would hold himself accountable to society. This was a way to ensure that the individual would be responsible to himself as well as to society, leading to the elimination of mistrust and suspicion. Regional folklore of the local oral tradition was absorbed by the Buddhist practitioners and retold in the form of Jataka Stories, that reflect previous lives of the bodhisattva, the aspiring Buddha. These stories, somewhat similar to the fables in the Panchatantra and Hitopadesha, conveyed to the local communities, the value and merit of a life of righteousness, spirituality, duties and obligations.

Though Sri Lanka represents a culture flavoured by Buddhist philosophy, there is also a legacy of a shared heritage enriched by Hindu, Islamic and Christian cultures, representing diversity as well as profound commonalities. This heritage, common to our entire region, provides rich sources to draw upon.

I sincerely hope that these random thoughts of a Babu or a career diplomat may not have created confusion in the minds of the erudite audience and experts of Folklore and Heritage, present here today. Mine was an attempt to highlight the importance of traditional knowledge and folklore for the survival of humankind in the face of some seemingly negative effects of the exponential advancements in science and technology. Moreover, having been involved in protection of intellectual property worldwide, where industrialized countries focus primarily on protecting the patent rights of their scientific achievements, I am more than convinced that we must place a premium on our own traditional knowledge and excellence in folklore. This is an important area which can benefit humankind in the search for peace and tranquillity of the human mind, and for sustainable development and human coexistence in harmony with nature. Therefore the ingredients that comprise folklore and heritage can become essential tools for the very survival of humankind.

I urge you in your deliberations to focus not only on sharing your own knowledge in this field amongst yourselves but to seek ways and means to protect its intellectual property value and rights as you endeavour to share this knowledge with the world at large for the benefit of all humans. More importantly, you may wish to seek ways and means, as to how Traditional knowledge and Folklore could be used as a tool for creating peace and stability in our region.

I wish this festival a great success and once again thank Madam Ajeet Cour for her invaluable initiative.

Thank you.