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New Peradeniya pays tribute to old Peradeniya

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by Liyanage Amarakeerthi

Text of Speech made at at a function held on August 9, 2023 to celebrate the handing over to Professor Gananath Obyesekere’s personal library, the Obeyesekere Collection, to the library of University of Peradeniya.

When I was invited to speak on Professor Gananath Obeyesekere’s work, I said, ‘even though I am more than happy to speak and I am quite familiar with his work,’ I asked, ‘wouldn’t it be better if someone younger, such as Dhammika Herath speaks representing the department of Sociology.’ Here we are, representing the New Peradeniya in appreciating, paying tribute to the old Peradeniya.

My background is literature, and my training is in comparative literature, literary theory, postcolonial studies, Cultural Studies, and so on being the components of that training. In my speech, I will highlight what Professor Gananath Obeyesekere’s work has been to me as a scholar in above subjects teaching in Sri Lanka.

Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere

Let me begin with a short anecdote. In 1993, I was a third-year student at the university of Colombo. On one July day, the inter faculty drama competition was taking place. For the competition, I had written and directed a play. When my play was about to be staged, I peeked through the curtains to take a last look at the panel of judges to make sure they were ready to see the greatest short play in the world. The chairperson of the panel was an elegantly dressed lady, a beautiful madam, who spoke mostly in English.

After many hours, the competition was over but not the intense discussion of the panel. After a while, however, it also ended; my play won all major awards the best play, best script, best actor and so on. Soon after the awards were given away, professor Sarath Wijesooriya, then a lecturer, came to me and said, ‘Anna Ranjini Madam enna kiwwa.’ I went into that special room hoping very much that she would not speak to me in English. Ranjini Madam was that elegant lady, the chairperson of the panel of judges. She talked to me in Sinhala and appreciated the play, and asked me to meet her at Lauries Rd, Bambalapitya.

Gananath and Ranjini Obeyesekere at the book gifting event at Peradeniya

There we met not only in that summer, but nearly every summer after that, when Obeyesekeres were on vacation. In one of those conversations, I heard ‘Fulbright fellowship’ for the first time. In 1997 I won it; after winning the scholarship, I had to send out applications to universities. In that summer too, Obeyesekeres were in Sri Lanka. Professor Gananath Obeyesekere mentioned ‘the University of Wisconsin.’ In those were pre-internet days, and such little pieces of information mattered a lot. Now, it is 2023, and during the last 30 years, Professor Ranjini Obeyesekere has been my mentor, friend, and an inspiration for working tirelessly in my field. Though history is not always the best judge, let’s hope madam, that your mentee will be judged fairly.

Professor Obeyesekere’s work has been inspirational for me in many ways. Primarily, he has been one of the role models for me and some others in Sri Lankan academia, especially in the faculties of arts, where such role models are extremely rare. He has been an inspiration in speaking truth to power, in keeping a critical distance from all centers of power, and in feeling at home in the loneliness that often comes to you when you keep that distance.

Let me explain briefly, how I have worked some Obeyesekere thoughts into the curricular that I teach at the department of Sinhala here at Peradeniya. Last semester I taught a part of a course, recently introduced to our curriculum, and it deals with the European/colonial representations of Sri Lanka. Edward Said is, of course, an essential thinker there. Our own Obeyesekere is equally important, if not even more relevant. None of my students read scholarly books in English, but when I used Professor Obeyesekere’s Cannibal Talk, and The Apotheosis of Captain Cook translating some sections and explaining some more, my students could see a great thinker at work.

They are intelligent enough to see the main point. Cannibalism has been a conceptual tool of colonialism, the European colonizers representing certain groups of human beings as cannibals. Even more than Sati in India, cannibalistic practices, which were extremely rare, were over emphasized by the colonizers when representing certain groups of people. We have learned from Said’s Orientalism that representation of other people, Asian, African, American, and so on, in colonial discourses is mediated by power, and that power to represent overlaps with power to govern, power to punish, and power to murder.

In there, ‘knowledge’, the knowledge of ‘other’ constructed with the aim of subjugating the other, is a form of power. Foucault may have shown that knowledge is power. Obeyesekere’s work, especially the works mentioned above, shows a much more complex picture of that ‘knowledge/power’ axis. Once a discourse is constructed around a subject and a knowledge is produced within that discourse, many people contribute to sustaining it and giving it a life of its own, as ‘The Doomed King’ amply demonstrates.

Professor Obeyesekere has taught us, how to challenge the received knowledge in a field of study. In Medusa’s Hair, he challenges Edmand Leach, an intellectual giant of the field of anthropology, and one of his teachers. Such debates are now almost nonexistent in our faculty. Some of the debates created by Obeyesekere are of a global scale. His famous book, Apotheosis of Captain Cook, generated a lasting debate with the famous anthropologist Martin Sahlins. Two great anthropologists of our times responded to each other by writing book-length responses.

That debate generated some other debates; other famous anthropologists such as Clifford Geerts, Stanley Thambiah, and so on dedicating special conference panels to the Obeyesekere-Sahlins debate. As I understood it, the thrust of Obeyesekere’s argument was that Hawaiian natives were not epistemologically naïve to accept colonizing Captain Cook as a powerful deity of a new order which was too powerful to resist. Sahlins did have extremely interesting points about what happened when the Old-world colonizers met the New World, the American continent. But my postcolonial Sri Lankan mind tend to agree with Obeyesekere.

Professor Obeyesekere is the most important theoretically oriented scholar in recent times. His psychoanalytic approaches and extremely agile and fluid readings of classical historical narratives and historical characters have rendered them much richer than they had been represented in some colonial, nationalist, or postcolonial readings.

His book, The Work of Culture, one of my favorite Obeyesekere masterpieces, is an extraordinary work beautifully demonstrating a great mind of our times at work. One of the greatest prose writers to be produced by Peradeniya and its department of English, Obeyesekere uses the paradigm of Oedipus to reexamine historical Buddhist characters such as Asoka, Dutugemunu, Kashyapa, and so on.

Given as a series of lectures in 1982, under the general title of “Psychoanalytic Anthropology and some problems of Interpretation,” the book, The Work of Culture, is a rich summary of the author’s previous work, and a demonstration of how a great thinker can work with already familiar materials and yet come up with new insights with surprise, delight, and wisdom. The book, as the case with Obeyesekere scholarship, is an exhibition of putting English language at work to make rich scholarly arguments in beautifully crafted prose, that is not threateningly difficult but yet deep and complex in thought.

In this book, Obeyesekere revisits his famous argument on the Dutugamunu’s conscience, and shows us once more that Gamani was a complex character with a complex personal history. Estranged from his father, under the shadow of a strong mother, married to a woman of whom the dominant historical narratives prefer to be silent, having a brother with whom his relationship is a ‘typical case of sibling rivalry,’ and then, and finally as a king who is forced by contemporary politics to kill a virtuous king. For Obeyesekere, the troubled conscience of Gamini as a son, brother, husband, father, and a ruler, can be used as a metaphor of reminding us of the need for a society conducive to have much more peaceful conscience not only for rulers for all of us.

Not surprisingly, this rich reading of historical events and characters was misunderstood, Obeyesekere was turned into a national villain in extremely one-dimensional nationalist/racist by the Sinhala press. Peradeniya university that produced Obeyesekere was to produce scholars who argue that Dutugemunu, by extension Sinhala people, has no sense of guilt in their conscience! No wonder that Sri Lanka has descended into the political, ethical, cultural abyss that it is in right now.

Obeyesekere has been a leading critic of European enlightenment rationalism. In ‘Medusa’s Hair’ he uses the theories of personal symbols and psychoanalysis to understand mythic-religious experience at the level of religious magic. His critique of Western rationalism finds its best expression in the ‘Awakened Ones: Phenomenology of Visionary Experience,’ a stunning book close to my heart since I have been a writer and scholar looking for all possible alternatives to naturalist realism.

The critique of Western rationalism has been something fashionable in our country, with extreme cultural relativists getting themselves lost in the domain of Natha deviyo. Obeyesekere’s critique of rationalism is the kind that would not end up producing or promoting the racists such as Channa Jayasumana.

Professor Obeyesekere critically defends the enlightenment tradition, supplementing Cartesian rational cogito with all kinds of other forms of insight, intuition, or vision articulated within the European enlightenment tradition itself and beyond. Descartes famously said, ‘I think therefore I am.’ There, ‘to think’ means rational thought.

But meditative insight, vision, the sudden vision or the epiphany of poets, or what Freud calls, ‘lucid dreaming’ have been ‘forms of knowledge’ in nearly all traditions. Obeyesekere’s study is the only book-length treatment of these phenomena in recent years.

That brings me to another point I want to make: ‘comparative nature of Obeyesekere scholarship.’ Some of his books are large, intimidatingly so. But written in elegant and unpretentious prose, they are invitingly readable, and once you get in, you would not come out of them without a feeling of remarkable expansion in your consciousness and awareness. Take for example, ‘Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth.’ Before I encountered this book, I did not know that the idea of Karma as a form of ethical rationality and as a form of causality explaining human life beyond our mundane world or this life, can be used as a theoretical category for intercultural understanding.

Karma, not necessarily in the Buddhist sense of the word, has existed in many other cultures. Deep, reflective thinking, and philosophical formations on life after death have not been unique to a single culture. This book, as several other Obeyesekere books and essays, demonstrates that serious big questions about life such as the meaning of life have been raised everywhere.

Sometimes, human beings have learned from each other the art of asking those questions. Sometimes, similar questions have been asked independent of each other. In many ways and on many times, Obeyesekere scholarship has shown us our shared humanity. I have tried to pass on that message to my students hoping to get them out of parochial nationalisms they have been brought up in for decades in our country.

Speaking of parochialism, let me touch on Professor Obeyesekere’s recent book, a lovely little book, ‘The Many Faces of the Kandyan Kingdom’, that invites us to reconsider the cosmopolitan nature of Kandyan kingdom through the 16th and 18th centuries. Several Kandyan kings such as Rajasingha II, enjoyed having foreigners in Kandy. While those foreigners were useful as servants, interpreters, craftsmen, soldiers, mechanics, gunners and so on, it was not for instrumental reasons, the king liked having international visitors around.

The king enjoyed seeing the many faces of humanity in his domain. With such cosmopolitan outlooks, the king and the elites were not threatened by the presence of cultural difference. There is no wonder that the subtitle of the book is ‘lessons for our time.’ In ‘our time, even when we beg for more tourism dollars and foreign support, those very nationalist forces that brought the country down, can be seen promoting extreme chauvinism and xenophobia.

Social theory has been something fashionable in Sri Lanka for decades. But many theory persons are insanely pretentious and esoteric. Some theoreticians are just name-droppers whose pretensions do no more than dulling the epistemological cutting edges of those theories. Obeyesekere, in contrast, demonstrates how theories can be applied in analyzing texts and rituals in a way the theories themselves are better honed. ‘Medusa’s Hair’ is a beautiful example of that fact. Even when one does not agree with Obeyesekere’s theories, one can still admire the way theories are used.

In Medusa’s Hair, the main theoretical approach was Jungian and Freudian psychoanalysis. The book deals with folk priests and priestess who perform magical religious acts. Abdin is one of them. He uses religious trance to bury himself in a grave for hours and come back unharmed. Obeyesekere spends years observing him. At one point, he asks Abdin if he ever had ejaculation while in the coffin, and Abdin answers, ‘Yes. Every time.’ Perhaps Freud is right in arguing that many of such religious-mythical heroics can be sublimations of unfulfilled sexual desires. We really do not know if Abdin lied. Obeyesekere was able to ask that question because he had a good grounding in psychoanalytic theory. All Obeyesekere books are full of such examples.

As a scholar in literature, let me wind up highlighting another hallmark of Obeyesekere scholarship, which is dear to my heart. Professor Obeyesekere has a rich literary mind. In fact, it runs in the family, Obeyesekere family. Gananath and Ranjini are the most celebrated literary couple in the country. In addition to Ranjini translating Sinhala literature into English, Gananath constantly uses literary works in his research. In using literature, especially narratives, for research Obeyesekere does not reduce them to mere facts but attends to the richness of narrative literature by paying attention to layered-meanings, connotations, sub-texts, the meanings of narrative structures and so on.

That requires a deeper understanding of how literature works. The younger generation of sociologists of this country must pay attention to the way Obeyesekere reads, interprets, and engages with literary works. It was clear from the early work of Obeyesekere that the taste for good literature was a hallmark of his work, and his early essays in Sinhala and English attest to the fact that he could have become the literary giant of this country in the generation after Sarachchandra and Ludowyke, had he stayed in the field of English or Sinhala. Nearly all his work contains constant reference to literature both European and South Asian, especially Sinhala.

I said earlier that Professor Gananath Obeyesekere has been one of my role models. Let me now qualify that statement a bit. We have a group of younger academics here at the faculty of Arts, who constantly speak of the ways of waking up from the nightmare of mediocrity we are trapped in. When mediocrity is the majority, the nightmare is, for them, their sweetest dream ever. A group of us regularly meet, informally, to discuss this issue.

The name Obeyesekere, both Gananath and Ranjini, constantly appear in those discussions. Both of them are role models for all of us. But here comes the qualification: I wish Professor Gananth wrote more in Sinhala. If he did so through 1980s through 1990s, the parochialisms that led to the nightmare mentioned above would not have engulfed all of us. I also wish that the group of excellent scholars made of Ganananth, Michael Roberts, Stanley Thambiah, Siri Gunasinghe, Sugathapala de Silva, Kithsiri Malalgoda, C.R. de Silva, H. L. Seneviratne, and so on did not leave the country. For example, the vacuum created by Siri Gunasinghe by leaving the country and not writing enough in Sinhala, was filled by extremely one-dimensionally nationalist ideologues.

Yet again, if professor Obeyesekere did not leave country, when he did, and if he did not write in English until he became a leading anthropologist in the world, he would not have been able to build up the rich personal library donated to us today, and, perhaps, he would not have been able to write the great books, I mentioned above. I invite younger scholars in our faculty, and the brightest of our students, to learn your English well and come of your parochial worlds, here we have now the biography of Obeyesekere and, his library, a road map of his intellectual journey, and make them your own.

I own twelve of his books, I can be the only one to own a copy of the Pattini book in my generation, because it is so rare now. But I don’t have time to touch on all of them here. Let’s organize ourselves into a group, and collectively read Obeyesekere books, and the Obeyesekere collection.

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