Monday, August 24, 2015

Goddess Pattini and Our Lady of Madhu

The newspapers today are full of the welcome news of the possibility of success for the democratic process and the rule of law in Sri Lanka. Some of us might be tempted to forget another important event namely the visit of Pope Francis, a good man, and the hope he represents not only for Catholics but also for Buddhists like me. For me the new Pope might herald an emergence of a new era of Papal relations, a more democratic and open world that we Buddhists can also join in. I also hope that sometime in the near future the Pope can join my pantheon of leaders who have combined idealism with a sense of the practical world in which we live; among them Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and a few others waiting in the wings, as it were.

Of course we know that one of the wonderful occasions was the Pope’s visit to the shrine of Our Lady of Madhu and his canonization of Fr. Joseph Vaz. I want to fill in what is missing in the public record of these events. I am sure the Pope will be pleased to know that Madhu was once a shrine for the Goddess Pattini, another virgin goddess worshipped by Sinhala Buddhists during a long historical period. And as for Joseph Vaz he would never have made it but for the support and encouragement of Kandyan kings, especially the gentle Vimaladharmasuriya II (1687-1707). It is a pity that no one, as far as I know, has put the public record straight during the visit of the Pope, perhaps out of ignorance of the past, among both Catholics and Buddhists. Or is it something else, such as the vestiges of intolerance that exists among both communities and hard to erase? My discussion will show that the past not only illumines the present but also hopefully will lead to a sympathetic understanding of inter-religious communication.
I came to know Our Lady of Madhu during my research on the Cult of the Goddess Pattini. During the long period of my research on Pattini in the late 1950s and 60s I had the good fortune to visit 
Madhu and note that it was patronized by both Christians and Buddhists in large numbers. The Buddhists who came there simply thought they were worshipping their favourite goddess, Pattini. Our Lady of Madhu for them was Pattini and because most ordinary Buddhists at that time did not have an exclusivist view of religion they could find no disparity between the two ladies, Madhu and Pattini. At the time of our research there was no proof that there was a Pattini shrine that was later identified with Madhu. However over the last twenty years we have been conducting research on little known palm leaf manuscripts (pus kola pot) known as vitti pot or “books of events,” some of which could be dated prior to the advent of the Portuguese in 1506. One important scenario recounted in the vitti pot relates to a group of Tamil Buddhists pushed out of their South Indian hometown owing to a war and then being forced to arrive in Sri Lanka in the area around Mannar. Prior to their arrival they had to face a huge storm but they were saved by the intercession of the Goddess Pattini. They are befriended by a fluently bilingual Veddah chief and taken to the capital city of Kotte via the famous shrine of Munnesvaram. The king gave them land grants and new designations and titles and incorporated them into the Sinhala Buddhist social structure. Anyway the upshot of my tale is that a shrine for the Goddess Pattini in Madhu seems a distinct possibility and reinforced the fact that there were shrines for this goddess everywhere in the island. When Catholics visited this part of the country as migrants (or if local people, as ones who had been already converted) it was nothing unusual for them to continue to worship Pattini in the Mannar district and at some point the transmutation of the goddess into Our Lady of Madhu would have been inevitable. Our worlds have changed since then and I am not sure whether the Sinhala Buddhists still go to Madhu in large numbers and whether the old equation Madhu=Pattini still holds. Let us hope it does.
Thus far we are dealing with plausible interpretation of what occurred in history but as far as Fr. Joseph Vaz was concerned we are in the realms of empirical history. That history begins with the first sovereign king of Kandy Vimaladharmasuriya I (1501-1604) who was born in Peradeni Nuvara in the present day Kegalle district (hatarakōrale) and had to flee to Kotte after the murder of his father by Rajasinha I (1581-1593).Konappu Bandara as he was then called sought refuge in Kotte during the regime of its first Catholic king Dharmapala (whose father was Vidiye Bandara, an unrelenting Buddhist prince, hostile to Catholicism). In Kotte Konappu married the daughter of Tammita Bandara, Vidiye Bandara’s brother, who had already embraced Catholicism; consequently Konappu also probably had to become a Catholic. Soon he was banished to Goa by the Portuguese captain general for murder or attempted murder and there he not only became renowned as a fighter but he also became a Catholic and was known as Don Juan of Austria. Most foreigners continued to refer to him by that name. To cut a long story short he ended as king of Kandy with the very Buddhist name Vimaladharmasuriya (“the pure dharma of the sun-dynasty”) and married princess Dona Catherina, a converted Catholic in Mannar, whose father was a Kandyan ruler but not the consecrated heir to the throne. Even though Vimaladharmasuriya became later a staunch Buddhist, his spouse did not give up her Catholic identity. Her children were taught Buddhism by monks as was the convention but they were also educated by Catholic priests and consequently the royal family had bicultural roots (and also knew Tamil and Portuguese both widely known languages at that time). After the death of Vimaladharmasuriya, his cousin Senerat became king and married Dona Catherina from whom she had a son, Rajasinha II, a truly great king who ruled for about 50 years (1635-1687).
As a young man Rajasinha and his brothers defeated the famed Portuguese general Constantino de Sa and all his forces in the battle of Randenivela in 1630 and eight years later Rajasinha trounced the Portuguese invading forces once again in Gannoruva. All these Kandyan kings were inveterate foes of the Portuguese but they welcomed Catholic priests in their midst and indeed many Portuguese as well as other foreigners were fully accepted in various positions in the Kandyan kingdom.The distinction the kings made between the Portuguese invaders and their priests is an important one that had resemblances in the past of Sri Lanka where Sinhala kings could wage war or treat South Indian kings as enemies but they could also welcome Tamil Buddhist monks into their kingdom, and indeed some of them became leading figures in the Buddhist monk order. Rajasinha married queens from Madurai and it was his chief queen who begat the gentle Vimala-dharmasuriya II and brought him up among her Telegu relations. However, by now the Portuguese were displaced by the Calvinist Dutch who might have been religious liberals in Holland but not in Sri Lanka. It was during this period of the Dutch persecutions,that we begin to hear of Joseph Vaz.
As Sinnappa Arasaratnam says: “As soon as the Portuguese were expelled from the island, the Dutch took stern measures to root out all trace of Portuguese influence” and their rule saw a “ruthless suppression of Catholics in Ceylon” fearful of a re-conquest by the Portuguese. “This challenge to the existence of the Catholic Church in Ceylon produced a response in the person of the Venerable Father Joseph Vaz and his Oratorian mission.” Kandyan support of Catholicism after Vimaladharmasuriya II cannot be understood without knowledge of this key event, that is, the enormously successful apostolic mission of Fr. Joseph Vaz in the Kandyan kingdom.
Joseph Vaz’s model was the great Spanish missionary Francis Xavier, a disciple of Ignatius Loyola, and with him one of the founders of the Society of Jesus. He was also the first Jesuit to work in the East. Xavier was especially noted for his success in converting the various castes in what is known as the Fishery Coast on the coastal regions of South India and stretching from Tuttukudi (Tuticorin) to Kanya Kumari (Cape Comorin) and inhabited by fishing communities. The poverty and low status of the people of the Fishery Coast is central to understanding their acceptance of the universalistic and non-discriminatory message of Christ, some of whose disciples were fishermen.
About the conversions on the Fishery Coast, Xavier could say that “often my hands are paralyzed with baptizing.” What is even more remarkable is that Xavier did not know a single Indian language but was assisted by local disciples. The source of his success it seemed to me was not only the depressed communities’ self-perception of the Christian message of social equality but also that Xavier adopted a Christological model which resonated with Hindu traditions of ascetic wanderers. He constantly visited village after village often barefoot. He ate plain rice, seldom ate meat and no wine was available in the villages. He “slept on the bare ground or on a mat spread on the floor.” In contrast to the pleasure loving and arrogant Portuguese officials and settlers he wore a cassock patched and peeled, if I may say so, such that “he seemed very much the Christian counterpart of the sannyasin,” even though he wore black and not the yellow or saffron robe. Nevertheless, Xavier treated Hindus and other non-believers as demon worshippers, a pejorative attitude to other religions normal at that time. He attacked idolatry “in a militant and aggressive manner.” As Fr. Don Peter points out he “failed to see “that images were used in non-Christian religions for the same reason for which they were used in Christianity and Catholicism.” And worse: on occasion he made even “children seize the idols and smash them to bits; then spit upon them and trample them underfoot.”
Joseph Vaz followed Xavier’s ascetic model. He too slept on a mat on a cow-dunged floor like that of an ordinary poor household. It is as if he was familiar with the Buddhist injunction for monks to sleep on a low bed or on a pallet of straw. He travelled often barefoot with a few fellow priests. And like Xavier or Jesus or the Buddha himself he was a wanderer, never staying at one place for long. He “never had a spare cassock and used one as long as it could last.” S.G. Perera tells us that even “non-Christians were most impressed by the ascetical life … and in their eyes he represented the Eastern ideal of a man of religion, a Christian sannyasi or yogi, a man of prayer and penance and poverty.” Later on in the Kandyan areas his lifestyle resembled the ascetic tradition of Buddhist forest monks, a highly idealized tradition that people were aware of through familiarity with, or rumours of, actual living examples and also well represented in popular jataka tales intrinsic to the living tradition of Buddhism. It is no wonder people called him maha swami.
It was not only the ascetic life style that impressed the Sinhalas but also the fact that Joseph Vaz was a Konkani Brahmin and Brahmins were a species that they were thoroughly familiar with. Quite unlike his model Saint Xavier, he looked like Sinhalas in physique and complexion. And he was completely proficient in Tamil and Portuguese and soon learned Sinhala, perhaps enough to converse. It is important to realize that most Sinhala people he conversed with were far removed from the kind of discontented castes of the Fishery Coast. Politically, Joseph Vaz was dependent on the good will of the gentle Vimaladharmasuriya II and his son Narendrasinha, both Buddhists, such that he simply would not and could not castigate Hindu and Buddhist beliefs as “demon worship.” Vaz was aware that from his viewpoint Buddhists were heretics but that designation was something he could not publicly proclaim or articulate. Royal tolerance simply would not extend that far. Catholics fleeing from Dutch persecutions or fears found refuge in the areas under Kandyan political control which was a vast area. Fr. Joseph Vaz’s missionary outreach embraced much of this area and there is little doubt that today’s Catholic population in the Kandyan kingdom and much of the low country owed considerably to the apostolic work of Joseph Vaz and the tolerance of Kandyan kings.
Against the background sketched above one can now deal with the important new direction of Kandyan cosmopolitanism during the reigns of Vimaladharmasuriya II and his son Narendrasinha. The former apparently ignored the treaty of 1638 between the Dutch and his father Rajasinha II which stated that the monarch “should not allow Roman Catholic monks and priests and other ecclesiastics to domicile themselves in his dominions ….” In fairness to Rajasinha, he also seemed to have ignored much of the horrendous articles of that treaty including no. 17 that required the expelling of Catholic priests from his domain. When one of the missionaries died Vimaladharmasuriya permitted him to be buried in Christian style in the Church in Kandy within the city limits itself. In spite of his support of Catholicism and the many Indian ascetic sects he remained a good Buddhist king concerned with the welfare of the sasane or the Buddhist dispensation and civilizational order. A splendid account of his Buddhist activities is found in chapter 97 of the Chulavamsa devoted to him and I won’t mention the details here except to note that the king’s support of Buddhism is confirmed by the Catholics themselves in a report of 1701 of the Congregation of the Oratory (Oratorians). It says “that though the King of Kandy is zealous for his religion, he has permitted the Fathers to perform public acts of Christian devotion, such as processions and feasts,” kinds of ceremonial activities to which Sinhala Buddhists were well attuned. What the Oratorian report does not mention is that the king’s Buddhist tolerance extended also to other groups ensconced in Kandy, from Muslims to Brahmins and to the many South Indian wandering mendicants who were as much of a presence in the kingdom as the Catholics, not to mention Portuguese and European settlers. Even though Vaz learned some Sinhala, these conversations between Kandyan kings and foreign visitors must I think have been in Tamil or Portuguese, both languages known to most Kandyan kings and chiefs.
I hope the Catholics and Buddhists will not forget these two chapters in their history that could I think serve as a model for interreligious tolerance and understanding. Such spaces for tolerance are hard to find and I am sure that Pope Francis would have appreciated these scenarios from the past had he been made aware of them. But these are not isolated events: similar scenarios exist in our histories and other people’s histories and a task of a responsible scholarship is not to whitewash the past but to point to areas in our species existence that transcend seemingly irreconcilable differences.
(Notes: This article was based on my book The Cult of the Goddess Pattini; Sinnappa Arasaratnam, “Oratorians and Pedicants” in Ceylon and the Dutch; W.L.A. Don Peter in Francis Xavier, Teacher of Nations; Father S.G. Perera, Life of the Venerable Father Joseph Vaz, Apostle of Ceylon. Perera rightly points out that “Vimaladharmasuriya was one of the chief benefactors of the Church in Ceylon, for it is his tolerance and benevolence that enabled Father Joseph Vaz to effect the revival of the faith in the island.” Father Joseph Vaz died on 16 January, 1711 at age 60, after 35 years of gruelling missionary activity.
About Dutch intolerance, Valentijn, Ceylon translated by Arasaratnam mentions that the Dutch treaty was so unfair to the Kandyans that it would have been impossible for the king to agree to its terms. Finally, my work on the rare vitti pot and popular histories have not yet been translated but hopefully they may appear in the future if time and chance permits.)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Kiri Amma dana


Saturday, November 17, 2012

සත් පත්තිනි හාස්කම්

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Friday, November 9, 2012

Kiri Amma alms giving at Abhyarama

කිරි අම්මාවරුන්ට දානයක් අභයාරාමයේදී මහින්ද රාජපක්ෂ ජනාධිපතිතුමාගේ ජන්ම දිනය නිමිත්තෙන් නාරාහේන්පිට ශ්‍රී අභයාරාම විහාරාධිපති මුරුත්තෙට්ටුවේ ආනන්ද හිමියන් ගේ අනුශාසකත්වයෙන් වාර්ෂිකව පැවැත්වෙන කිරි අම්මාවරු දහසකට පිරිනැමෙන මහා දානය තෙවැනි වරටත් ලබන සෙනසුරාදා (17) දින අලුයම 4.00 පැවැත්වීමට කටයුතු යොදා ඇත.