The keynote address delivered on sociology day in 2015 at the University of Peradeniya, and elsewhere published as In Praise of Foolishness (with Apologies to Erasmus).In this essay he reflects back on his own works.
“In the more popular paper I argue that right thorough history literary chronicles refer to the king in heroic terms but a different dialectic prevails in respect of the Tamil king: when Duṭugämunu is conscience stricken Elāra emerges as a noble figure; when Duṭugämunu’s conscience is ignored in some later texts Elāra is depicted as a villainous and cruel king, a despoiler of Buddhist monuments. My friend, an eminent scholar who has written at length on Buddhism responds to the gush¬ing and sentimental comments of sociologists by informing us of a ninth century Pali work which says that the Tamils “were wrecking Buddhist institutions and damaging Buddhist monuments which were very dear to the people.” This text adds that Duṭugämunu was so overjoyed in his victory that he could not sleep for a month whereupon a group of monks recited benedictory verses to put him to sleep. I could not resist sarcasm when I added: “Naturally the good king entered into a profound sleep, this time his joy, not his conscience, having been stilled.” I pointed out to my friend that these various versions have little to do with empirical history but with debate, those contentious dialogues that erupt in history. I will admit I employ irony and sarcasm as part of my argument when I confront the pseudo-patriotism of scholars who wrote about these debates but I added that my friend honestly believed that the second version is the true one and not the earlier version in the Mahāvaṃsa. Unhappily my friend cut off all relations with me and thereafter lambasted me in popular newspaper articles; and he continued to do so even after he shed his secular attire and became a monk. What then is the moral of my tale? A text can provoke anxiety, even anger, and my own venture into irony and double-talk had backfired. In the case of my monkish friend he was so fixated on his view of the righteous Duṭugämunu and the hated Tamil monarch that sarcasm or no he would not brook any recognition that he might be wrong. With such intransigence there was no point in continuing an argument.”
“How I became an Anthropologist” by Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere
In my most recent book The Awakened Ones: Phenomenology of Visionary Experience I end my wandering mind with mention of my own anticipated end, a farewell as it were to an over-long life much of it devoted to scholarly work on the study of religion in practice. However, I find it hard to divorce practice from a sympathetic understanding that some of us natives think of as Buddhism, for example. As for me I would like to open our ethnographies and histories to the multiple ways in which we write and celebrate our work and praise our foolishness for none of us are omniscient and foolishness is part of our work and our species sentience. In much of my work I also celebrate comparison because for me it is hard to accept that as thinking-beings we have to confine our thought to some narrow sphere. Hence in the Awakened Ones I too have become possessed with the thought and spirit (in a metaphoric sense) of some select and powerful thinkers in both the Buddhist and Christian traditions — Buddhist visionaries who range over the cosmos in meditative ecstasies; poets like Blake who paints and poetizes what he sees in his visions; Christian mystical thinkers staring into a crucifix that then expands to a vision of Christ’s suffering on the cross; abstruse philosophers which few in our disciplines have heard of, such as the pre-Cartesian Protestant thinker Jacob Boehme who had a vision of life and the world when a ray of light fell on his pewter; the crazy brilliance of Madame Blavatsky and others like Catherine of Siena who wrote huge volumes in a dream-like state in the space of a few minutes; or Jung’s aging soul as it wandered into the cosmos in a powerful mystical experience that defied any rational explanation; and so on and on in a work far too long, I am afraid. A few months ago I met a brilliant young ethnographer and when I mentioned the names of some thinkers who had fired my imagination she was a genuinely puzzled as to why I study some of the aforesaid virtuosos that she had not heard about and what is the point of it all? I am not surprised because my work does to some extent under-mine our conventional ethnographies although I suspect my peregrinations might appeal to historians of religion, or so I hope. Now let me suggest to my young colleague the rationale for trying to understand Boehme’s perverse pewter and the other apparent esoterica that clutter my text without seeming rhyme or reason.
Let me start with Reason. I make the case that modern thought is very much under the spell of Cartesian rationality that had no sympathy or understanding and no space whatsoever for visionary experience in whatever shape or form whereas Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) who lived just before Descartes had no problem in reconciling Reason with mystical experience. Neither did the Greek Enlightenment; nor did Buddhists in all their varied histories. I begin my work with the Buddha’s deep meditative trance where he sat under the Bodhi tree, the tree of Awakening, during which experience he had an intuitive awareness of the main insights of Buddhism. For example, during the first watch of the night which is a four hour period he saw his birth and hundreds and thousands of rebirths and the coming into being and dissolution of world systems owing to the operation of karma. Thus I was almost forced to pose the issue of the nature of empirical time, a period of four hours, and mythic or mystical time which is beyond measure, beyond time. Once the Buddha understands or intuitively grasps some of his profoundest insights he then explains that knowledge to this disciples in rational terms. This interplay between the intuitively grasped knowledge and Reason I memorialize as a distinction between the It and the I, the interplay between intuitive awareness and Reason, borrowing the former term from Nietzsche to temporarily replace the Freudian notion of the Id. In respect of the awakened ones of my book, their insights on life and the world emerge when rational thought is in abeyance and the active voice is replaced by passive thought of the It. Further, my thinkers have not abandoned I-thinking but, like the Buddha, have at some point transformed visionary experience in rational terms, playing games with the It and the I. Hence my aphorism: that which is non-rational is not necessarily irrational. I do not focus exclusively on the deep trance of my mystical virtuosos but also on what I call aphoristic thinking, familiar to many of us when we are caught off guard or alone by ourselves in a space of silence and are struck by thoughts that happen as it were unmediated by the rational consciousness. I refer to those given to aphoristic virtuosity such as Friedrich Nietzsche when he is by himself lost in thought in the gardens of Sils Maria and Ludwig Wittgenstein when in a state of unawareness he wanders into the isolation of Swansea or in Ireland away from academia. And of course that wonderful psychotic Daniel Paul Schreber who thought brilliantly of “not-thinking-anything-thought,” a very Buddhist idea of thoughts without a thinker, of thoughts that happen to us when discursive thinking disappears. So I tell my readership, especially the young ones, pray heed to my foolishness and at least read my introduction and my chapter on the “visionary experience,” a must for not only for understanding The Awakened Ones but also for my earlier thoughts on psychoanalysis and religion and my thinking on dreams, those precursors of the visionary experience. One must not forget that we were dreaming animals long before we became speaking humans.
Much of my thinking on visionary experiences were inspired by my early book Medusa’s Hair: An Essay on Personal Symbols and Religious Experience. It would surely have struck the reader that the book starts with my own fantasy when at a popular pilgrimage site I saw a woman with matted hair swaying in ecstasy in the shrine premises prompting me to silently exclaim, “Medusa!” Thus my finished ethnography was begotten in fantasy but as I climbed the ladder of my intellectual exertion I began to explore the ways in which ecstatic religiosity gets transformed into a public idiom, a process that I was soon to label “the work of culture.” I end that work with a quotation from W.B. Yeats who tells us that after we transform fantasy into thought we might revert into fantasy once again:
“Now that my ladders gone
I must sit down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
It is no wonder that The Awakened Ones has me quote poetry all over the place. It upsets me that poetry has had so little bearing on the ethnographies I have read, although we know that art and literature have much to say about the very intellectual issues that we ethnographers deal with. Why then have we ruled them out as a sources of inspiration whenever we describe pleasure and pain, joy and sadness, life and death, Eros and Thanatos? I do not decry the enrichment of our lives and our work that a good ethnography brings forth. But I am only lamenting our contemporary over¬specialization such that rich forms of literary and artistic life seem to have little bearing on our work as ethnographers? But then how can I blame my colleagues when much of my own writing has been what might be called “normal ethnography” without imposing on the word “normal” a negative connotation. Normal anthropology has been a part of my being, as it is with the creative work of most ethnographers.
The Work of Culture: Symbolic Transformation in Psychoanalysis and Anthropology is in the spirit of normal ethnography. In it I deal with the integration of the Weberian notion of culture, that is, those webs of meaning we spin as we create meanings, and the Freudian notion of “deep motivation” or unconscious motivation. I then expatiate on ways in which deep motivation is integrated into public meanings to bring about “the work of culture,” a notion central to all of my writing. The major theme of the book is the ways in which the Oedipus complex is expressed in Buddhism and Hindu thought in a variety of ways, providing a critique and a reformulation of both Weberian and Freudian thought, although with a sympathetic understanding of the many insightful works of Freud on “meta-theory,” those works that bypass and sometimes override the important clinical case studies. That comparative method has had it apotheosis (if you will forgive that word) in Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist and Greek Rebirth. It shows clearly how foolish I can be when I juxtapose these vastly different cultures and time periods into a comparative frame. But foolishness like madness has its method. In this case any rebirth eschatology has a simple and an indelible structure: we are born, we die and then we are reborn again and so on and on. What provoked this venture in comparison is this: whatever the culture, whatever the history, whatever the present there is no escape from this ineradicable structure or model of the long run. My book is the exploration of the multiple ways in which this structure is transformed in those societies (and there are many) that have a theory of rebirth, irrespective of whether we are talking of the Buddha, of Pythagoras or that great rebirth fanatic Empedocles, or the Inuit or the many others that are the foci of my blurred lenses. If I may borrow or misuse a phrase from Wittgenstein let me proclaim, foolishly, that there are “family resemblances” that cut across the diversity of the different “forms of life.” Unhappily, if I remember right, not one reviewer dealt with the comparative method enshrined in my karma text which shows what low priority such a method has in the ethnographic imagination. Or is it something else? Imagining Karma is not an easy book to read but I am fool enough to believe that difficult books should not be shunned because they are hard to digest.
That last venture brings me to a sad feature of our intellectual situation. What we write gets dated very soon and after a time gets unread. I think of those I have known or partly known during my long sojourn in saṃsāra, the Buddhist world of becoming and change that all of us inhabit: Paul Radin, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Meyer Fortes, Edmund Leach, David Schneider and many, many departed ones. I wonder how many of these creative thinkers are read in our day. This is not due to the proliferation of knowledge and the thousands of books and journals that makes many of us shudder with exhaustion as we skip reading even the more interesting journals, only dipping into reviews that might, hopefully, give us space to reflect on what books might eventually interest us. But there are deeper reasons for the benign neglect of once creative thinkers. To use Weber’s phrase it has to do with “the fate of our times.” It is Weber who noted that the historical sciences constitute a youthful discipline, an adolescent one for the simple reason that our thoughts and what we write must of necessity change with changes in the world we live in. This might mean that ideas or theories that we passionately clung to might begin to be supplanted by those changes that include other ways of theoretical thinking as our disciplines move into different terrains. Some terrains might be benign, some not as benign as for example when language obfuscations and “fishy thinking” begin to invade the territory we, or our departed ones, once inhabited. But there other reasons why our disciplines are inherently unstable. And that is because the ethnographies that we write belong to the historical sciences that lie in-between the more rigorous natural sciences and the more open speculations of philosophers. As an ethnographer of religion I must of necessity write long discourses often based on our preexisting historical knowledge or the construction of texts based on interviews with “informants.” How can one not miss the fact that that such knowledge is inherently unstable? I am proud that my first field research based on informant interviews, watching dozens of rituals and meticulous translations of texts, were mostly written in the middle and late 1950s before I became a professional anthropologist. It resulted in The Cult of the Goddess Pattini, a monstrously long work that took time to finish and publish in its present form. On later rereading it I realized some errors of fact that I had inadvertently committed but more disconcertingly, in spite of the fact that I documented the cult in different parts of the nation, in both Sinhala and Tamil regions, I realized how much of information I must have missed. Even with the best of intentions there is no way that I could rake in other forms of life pertaining to the goddess and her cult. There is inherent incompleteness in our ethnographies and histories. And as for theory, I have later rethought and revised my early Freudianism and therefore one cannot avoid the upsetting notion that, at least in hindsight my later theoretical rethinking might have produced another and more interesting book! Sometimes as I reread some of my early articles on religion I ask: how is it that I wrote such nonsense? But I think one has to praise ones foolishness because if we take the case of Pattini one is compelled to recognize that owing to the “fate of our times” most of the rituals have vanished out of existence and although some written texts have been published in Sinhala and Tamil there are no other extant enactments of such an important ritual series in our history, or for that matter in the history of religion. It is therefore not surprising that to this day those who work on the multiple lives of this goddess, so important in both Sri Lanka and South India, must of necessity read and absorb The Cult of the Goddess Pattini. There is a further moral to my tale. Pattini is a history of a past that is no longer present and so is ethnography in general that deals with the life-ways of small communities that have rarely been given a voice in history. And that is why if one wants to study the past, even when the past is no longer present, we must fall back on those pioneers whom we have mentioned earlier. Azande and Nuer as “tribes” might not be now what they were before but for that very reason, if one wants to understand their pasts in order to relate them to present realities we must resort to Evans-Pritchard’s pioneer work on religion even though some of us might think that he was wrong, as all of us are, for some of the time.
In my own work I introduce the notion of “debate” that I define as those “contentious discourses that erupt in history.” History as I understand it is often a precipitate of debates, some serious, some perverse but everywhere leading to arguments and counter-arguments. In my book The Work of Culture I demonstrate the existence of debates on the parricide in history, some by the actors in the story and some by the scholars writing history. There are dozens of debates on the great parricide king of Sri Lanka, Kāśyapa, ranging from the serious to the absurd. I have my own take on these debates but, given the nature of the ancient records there is no way one can claim either a finality to the debate or proclaim its “truth” because even with the best of evidence truth in history must be within quotes. And contentious discourses exist because of the existence of a provocateur of debate, sometimes identifiable some¬times silent because often enough the voices of provocateurs do not enter official history. These provocateurs whom we label informants abound as silent witnesses of our ethnographies that simply could not exist without them. And as for debate I know for sure that when someone writes an especially provocative history or ethnography, there would be a response in a counter debate in scholarly arenas, always conducted in terms of polite academic talk. Nevertheless, behind the scenes there might well exist a lot of anger expressed in various private arenas, coffee shop conversations where humor, fun, invective and even insult have a place. It is Irwin Goffman who had made us sensitive to these forms of double-talk. But what happens when private anger becomes public scholarly talk? I will now explore the disconcerting phenomenon wherein the religious ethnography can turn sour and opens up a debate in public talk. Let me start with the reaction by a distinguished Buddhist scholar, later a monk, to my work on the conscience of the parricide in Buddhist history where I present to a popular Sri Lankan audience what I had put down earlier in more theoretical terms on the parricidal conscience in The Work of Culture.
Let me begin with a piece of biography. I was born in a village in the Western Province of Sri Lanka and at age five moved to Colombo where we now had piped water, an ersatz modern toilet but no electricity. Nevertheless I used to return to my village during holidays. There with my village friends I was attuned to village sports, puzzles we shared with my female cousins and games where punning, satire, spoonerisms and other form of double meanings including vulgar neologisms were a fun part of our existence. Until very recent times Sri Lankans of my generation were adept at these forms of life and no wonder they reappear in the collective rituals of the Pattini cult and in the wonderful ritual dramas of demons that I, and especially Bruce Kapferer, have studied in the Western and Southern provinces of our Island. Sinhala writers bring these language theatrics into their novels and especially their modern dramas. Even as an undergraduate in the University of Ceylon in the early fifties, where I studied English literature in the heyday of the new critics, I was infected with those forms of humor. In class I was especially attuned to the vulgar humor and the outrageous comments of the actors in Elizabethan comedy as, for example, the wise Fool in Twelfth Night when he says “I did impeticos thy gratillity” instead of “thanks a lot!” As a student I was fascinated with William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity and no wonder I loved Pope’s satires, and occasionally Dryden, even the cruel humor of Swift. Not only do I use these satiric modes in everyday conversation but I also employ them, somewhat mischievously in my professional writing. For example, when in Medusa’s Hair my informant Abdin, used to smash hard coconuts on his skull in a ritual scenario expressive of his castration anxiety I have facetiously, and somewhat cruelly, labeled that event as his “nut cracker performance.” That fun-talk has slipped into my most recent work The Awakened Ones and it is there full-scale in my work in progress where I deal with the problematics of Sri Lankan histories and stories and parody and make fun of the work of patriotic scholarship.
Now let me deal with the scholar monk’s reaction to my paper on the conscience stricken king Duṭugämunu (161-137 BCE) who in some histories of Sri Lanka ap¬pears to be troubled by his conscience, but appears untroubled in other histories. King Duṭugämunu became the ruler who brought the whole of Sri Lanka under his sovereign rule after a fifteen-year war against Eḷāra, a Tamil king from Chola in South India. The Mahāvaṃsa, the great sixth century chronicle of Sri Lanka, records that the king, having vanquished the Tamil Eḷāra and killed many Tamil soldiers, sat in the royal palace, but the victory did not bring him joy, for, as the text says, “thereby was wrought the destruction of millions (of beings).” A group of world-renouncer monks then tell the conscience stricken king that he should not worry because the Tamil enemies were not to be esteemed more than beasts and therefore the king’s sin was no more than the killing of one and half human beings (although it is not clear how the monks calculated that arithmetic). The king himself by contrast had already built a cetiya or Buddhist shrine in honor of the dead king who though a Hindu was the very embodiment of goodness. He ordered that those passing by should dismount when they reach Elāra’s monument and we have evidence that as late as 1818 a Sinhala aristocrat fleeing from British terror got off his palanquin to honor that cenotaph. I have a detailed analysis of the conscience of the parricide here and at greater length in The Work of Culture. In the more popular paper I argue that right thorough history literary chronicles refer to the king in heroic terms but a different dialectic prevails in respect of the Tamil king: when Duṭugämunu is conscience stricken Elāra emerges as a noble figure; when Duṭugämunu’s conscience is ignored in some later texts Elāra is depicted as a villainous and cruel king, a despoiler of Buddhist monuments. My friend, an eminent scholar who has written at length on Buddhism responds to the gushing and sentimental comments of sociologists by informing us of a ninth century Pali work which says that the Tamils “were wrecking Buddhist institutions and damaging Buddhist monuments which were very dear to the people.” This text adds that Duṭugämunu was so overjoyed in his victory that he could not sleep for a month whereupon a group of monks recited benedictory verses to put him to sleep. I could not resist sarcasm when I added: “Naturally the good king entered into a profound sleep, this time his joy, not his conscience, having been stilled.” I pointed out to my friend that these various versions have little to do with empirical history but with debate, those contentious dialogues that erupt in history. I will admit I employ irony and sarcasm as part of my argument when I confront the pseudo-patriotism of scholars who wrote about these debates but I added that my friend honestly believed that the second version is the true one and not the earlier version in the Mahāvaṃsa. Unhappily my friend cut off all relations with me and thereafter lambasted me in popular newspaper articles; and he continued to do so even after he shed his secular attire and became a monk. What then is the moral of my tale? A text can provoke anxiety, even anger, and my own venture into irony and double-talk had backfired. In the case of my monkish friend he was so fixated on his view of the righteous Duṭugämunu and the hated Tamil monarch that sarcasm or no he would not brook any recognition that he might be wrong. With such intransigence there was no point in continuing an argument.
It seems to me that any reader would immediately see the connection with The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European myth-making in the Pacific and Marshall Sahlins’s biting response in How“Natives” Think, of Captain Cook, For Example. What struck me is that most anthropologists who took up the cudgels on Cook’s behalf wrote articles reminiscent of my monkish scholar and one actually lamented how the New York Times could have demeaned itself by reviewing such a bad book. Another had a snide reference to my lack of education in English literature. Let me be blunt: I still think Sahlins is a fine scholar and a creative thinker but I imagine he likes to think as my monk did that he can do no wrong, as I also foolishly do on occasion. What is striking about that whole debate of the nineties is that few actually responded positively to my work; many who were sympathetic in private almost never responded in public in my defense. I am still amazed that one can write critically about Columbus, Cortez and many other explorers but to this day I cannot understand how Cook continued to be the avatar of Enlightenment humanism in much of the ethnographic imagination. Much, much, later when following an ingrained habit I looked at anthropologists writing about “debates in history” at my favorite watering place, Waterstones in London, nowhere did I see a reference to the debate on Cook. However, one writer commenting on that debate said that my problem with the Apotheosis was the lack of field work experience which of course would damn almost all of The Awakened Ones, all of Cannibal Talk and all of Imagining Karma. How is it that ethnographers have come to fetishize field-work? It seems to me that The Apotheosis of Captain Cook carried with it the taint of untouchability. For some of my critics I must seem a foolish person and also an ignorant one. That indeed is true: in the course of my long intellectual life I must have been sometimes a fool and many a time an ignorant one because omniscience is not one of my strengths. I therefore declare alongside my favorite aphoristic thinker: “One must be very humane to say, ‘I don’t know that’ to afford ignorance.”
I must now affirm with many a hermeneutical thinker that we cannot escape our historical, political and cultural placement but Weber was only partially right when he thought that our disciplines might help to mitigate our prejudgments. But Weber’s own thinking suggests that there is no way that those of us in the human sciences could ever produce a value free discipline or some kind of “objectivity.” For myself I cannot escape my own past when my nation fell under British rule in 1815 and when the resistance of 1818 was brutally crushed with multiple executions without an iota of due process. And many others were shipped to the favorite penal colony of the time, Mauritius. The Pax Britannica was built on horrendous violence when all resistance was eliminated in and around 1840. But thereafter, whatever faults British rule brought about in the violence of conquest, they also brought in its aftermath many of the positive institutions: the rule of law, the right to dissent, public universities as centers of learning and so on. But the seeds of the past continue to germinate in our present. And that is why Captain Cook is a visible representative of that brutal past and that is why I wrote about him. And that is why some of my most vociferous critics were Australians for whom Cook was a kind of founding ancestor; although there were those Australian colleagues who wrote with passion refusing to accept the myth of the noble civilizer. And that is why my Indian friends have reacted well to The Apotheosis of Captain Cook because in their historical experience the Captain Cooks of the world were everywhere in colonial South Asia. And on the other hand that is why as a student of literature I began my love of poetry, in English and in Sinhala; and that is why I decided to become an anthropologist, studying my own native worlds; and that is why I cannot cease from mental fight but with a pen instead of a sword as I write this last farewell.
Most of my writing on Sri Lanka focused on the area I was born, the Western Province and later the Southern and Sabaragamuva provinces that came under colonial domination under the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British from the early fifteenth century onwards. I was seduced by the marvelous ritual dramas of the Pattini cult and soon with the demonic dances and exorcisms in the ritual dramas I have also studied but not in such great detail as Bruce Kapferer and others have, as they have gotten hooked on them. Even when I have worked in other areas of the Island I carried my baggage of prejudice because I saw other places in terms of my own familiar ethnographic areas. It is only in the last fifteen years or so that I began serious work on the little known areas of the old Kandyan provinces that succumbed only in 1815. I started by questioning the work of the pioneer anthropologists Brenda and Charles Seligmann on the Väddas, often listed as aborigines or primitives by historians and ethnographers. None of these labels are true. My current research has shown that the people who called themselves Väddas, were not very different from Sinhalas occupying similar ecological zones except the latter had a kind of caste system whereas the Väddas did not. There were Väddas who were sophisticated literates like their Sinhala neighbors and there were those who lived in the forests like “primitives.” Some Väddas were Kandyan aristocrats. The Väddas whom the Seligmanns studied lived in small groups in the north-eastern dry zone in conditions of dire poverty. Nonetheless the Seligmanns did record and translated for our benefit dozens of Vädda ritual texts and in my view documented the main features of Vädda religion where ancestral deities known as Bandaras (Lords) were propitiated in collective rituals. The Banda¬ra Lords were constantly being invented in Vädda religion such that when a Vädda dies that person becomes a nä yakka or kin deity who eventually departs to a rock fastness in the area. There they can possess humans who then have to propitiate them in collective rituals. I think the Seligmanns did understand the Vädda ancestor cult and showed that they were not Buddhists, in the sense they did not buy the karma theory or the Buddhist rituals performed by monks. But the Selignanns, like their nineteenth century counterparts, were interested in the true primitive living in small, poverty stricken communities and neglected their sophisticated neighbors who, precisely because of their sophistication, could not have been true Väddas. Further, the Seligmanns were blind to the historical past of the Väddas, and had not even the remotest idea that it was a Vädda chief, a Kandyan aristocrat, who with his fighting force was a major player in the 1817-1818 rebellion against the British. Kivulegedera as he was called was captured and executed and soon the British forces raided and decimated much of the Vädda population in the very area that the Seligmanns studied. When the Seligmanns visited Väddas a hundred or so years later is it a wonder they were living under conditions of dire poverty. It seems that the Seligmanns conflated poverty with primitivism.
When we expanded our range of field work among Buddhist communities in this region and studied at length dozens of collective rituals we found little difference be¬tween Buddhists and Väddas. Both spoke Sinhala and both propitiated the great ancestral deities, some of whom were deified spirits of the dead, some actually executed during the rebellion and soon deified. The Sinhalas however practiced Buddhist rituals in addition to the many Bandara Lords that both groups propitiated. But if the Väddas believed that all deceased persons become “kin deities,” this was not the case with the Buddhists. If however a Buddhist had a powerful or respected deceased ancestor, then he could perform a simple ritual in one of the shrines for the Bandara Lords and convert the dead person into an ancestor-deity. Occasionally among both groups all deceased male members of a lineage might become Bandara Lords. But whether Buddhist or Vädda those living in a vast area in the old Kandyan kingdom propitiated a collectivity of twelve or sixteen Bandara Lords showing considerable overlap. What is further striking about both Vädda and Buddhist is that the sorcery rituals of the low-country and the Pattini enactments we were familiar with simply did not exist in the areas we now studied. Sorcery beliefs did exist but they were simple rituals performed by local ritual specialists with little fuss. It is no wonder that I used to tell my friends about my fieldwork sojourn: “I am learning something new every day.”
What are the implications of this brief thumbnail sketch of a vast and complex region? There is of course my own foolishness in imagining that I knew one region so well, when in reality I knew only a segment of cultural life, albeit an important one that has given me many insights not only about my own society but on my own theoretical understanding which permitted me to link that understanding with other life-forms. But there is a more serious implication. When one studies a slice of life in a conventional ethnography in a complex region we are missing much. I know of Indian ethnographers who must of necessity push open their ethnographies into the larger arenas in which the scholar qua historian living in a larger world must confront. So is it with my friends who are American natives (not to be confused with native-Americans), practitioners of the same craft as mine, or so I would like to think. How could one study, let us say, a religious sect without seeing its implications for the larger religious world in which that segment is implicated? One of our easily forgotten great ethnographers of religion Lloyd Warner demonstrated this when he studied a single cemetery only to show its larger relevance to American life. We can and must remain ethnographers looking intensively at a small sliver of species existence and then open up that dis¬course to lived existence in general. But obviously we have to invent other strategies as we move from studying segments to opening our lives to larger discourses. Those larger discourses might well have considerable relevance to huge problems, such as karma and rebirth or my favorite but difficult text, The Awakened Ones. I would not have been able to deal with that voluminous work without the inspiration from my own ethnographic imagination. As I write this I am still at work opening up my life to areas that I have thus far neglected and who knows whether I will see its completion. But being a Buddhist of sorts that too is to be expected for life as well as work is always incomplete because we know that we, like other creatures, are born in Eros and die in Thanatos, hopefully with a semblance of dignity.