Accepted Paper:

Social solipsism in the anthropologies of Sri Lanka  


Susantha Goonatilake (Royal Asiatic Society Sri Lanka)

Paper short abstract:

Two worlds of social explanations tangential to each other exist today in Sri Lanka, one based out of the country, strong on fictional theory but low on facts and the other based locally, strong on observation but low on theory. The two do not meet.

Paper long abstract:

In the 1960s, social science education of Sri Lanka switched to local languages creating a world of learning, separate from that of foreign-based anthropologists (FBAs). In both, the subject matter was Sinhalese. The Sinhalese, unlike simpler societies studied hitherto by anthropologists, were heir to a rich tradition of literature going back to the pre-Christian era in history as well as in the behavioural condition described in Buddhist thought and practice. As this bifurcation was occurring, a “critique of anthropology” on the subject’s colonial connection developed elsewhere - with no FBAs on Sri Lanka participating. Most Sinhala-educated anthropologists were ignorant of these debates or of the major writings by FBAs. FBAs, in turn were generally unaware even in translation of the local literature, except in some amusing manifestations. Obeyesekere, at a time when Freud was being ridiculed and Buddhist-based cognitive therapy becoming accepted in the West, suggested psychoanalysing Sri Lankan chronicles. A Protestant Buddhism was invented to explain Buddhists’ revival of what colonials destroyed. The carriers of this “Protestantism”, were however anti-Christian Theosophists, exposed by the Buddhists as irrational. Kapferer wrote four books on the character of Sinhalese, based on a sample, mostly of three believers in exorcism. Tambiah invented incidents. The list goes on. In contrast, locals without this external baggage using both historical material and observations were delivering another “anthropological” reality. This is in recent peer-reviewed conferences which bring about a few hundred presentations every year. FBA fiction and locals’ fact collide.

Panel P065
Indian social anthropology in South Asian perspective: reflection and retrospection