Sinhalese Thought Police and the Tamil Scapegoatism Syndrome
7 January 2009
First, to a couple of dictionary definitions:
‘A group of people who aim or are seen as aiming to suppress ideas that deviate
from the way of thinking that they believe to be correct’ [New Oxford
American Dictionary, 2001, p. 1765]
‘Somebody made to take the blame for others’ [Microsoft Encarta Dictionary,
2004, p. 781]. Scapegoatism is the transitive verb of scapegoat.
Adolf Hitler, during 1933-1945, made the Jews as the scapegoats for his
Aryan-domination claims. Taking a leaf from Hitler, in the blessed island of
Ceylon, since mid-1930s Tamil political leaders when they raised their voices on
behalf of Tamil rights, have been the victims of scapegoatism by the Sinhalese
politicians, press and public who prided themselves as the Sinhala-Buddist Aryan
thoughts. In my count, only five Tamils have earned this status. In
chronological order, they have been:
G.G. Ponnambalam Sr. (from 1934 to 1948)
S.J.V. Chelvanayakam (from 1949 to 1977)
S. Thondaman Sr. (from 1947 to 1978)
A. Amirthalingam (from 1977 to 1989)
V. Pirabhakaran (from 1983 onwards)
Ponnambalam Sr and Thondaman Sr were vilified by the Sinhalese politicians and
press when they raised their voices on behalf of Tamil rights. Once they joined
the Sinhala dominated Cabinet, and their voices became muted, they lost their
glamour as cussing targets.
Thirty years ago, A. Amirthalingam, the then Leader of Opposition cum Leader of
the Tamil United Liberation Front, was the most reviled Tamil politician
scapegoat and the prime target of the Sinhalese Thought Police (STP), because of
his advocacy for the Eelam separate state.
See below a transcript of
Amirthalingam’s parliamentary speech delivered on Dec.6, 1978, on the debate
relating to the Appropriation Bill, 1979, Head 160 – Minister of State
(Programme 1: General Administration Services and Publicity –
Recurrent-Expenditure, Rupees 5,667,100).
after his death in 1989, Amirthalingam’s stock has risen among the STPs. In an
email I sent to Prabhath Sahabandu [the current editor of Island,
Colombo] on Oct.9, 2008, I noted as follows:
Tamils know, that you are an exemplar hypocrite is proven when you shed
crocodile tears (for umpteen times) for Amirthalingam and his colleagues. When
those guys were living, you never thought (or wrote or published) that what they
called and demanded within parliament and beyond parliament, were reasonable.
All the best for your spineless writing.”
The LTTE leader Pirabhakaran, because of his conviction on fighting for Eelam,
has become the current scapegoat of STPs, the likes of H.L.D. Mahindapalas,
Bandula Jayasekeras and Prabhath Sahabandus.
Not many may be aware that the cussing practice of Sinhalese has attracted the
attention of a Dutch scholar J.P. Feddema and he had published
a paper entitled,
‘The Cursing Practice in Sri Lanka as a Religious Channel for Keeping Physical
Violence in Control:The Case of Seenigama, in the journal Journal of Asian
and African Studies in 1997. For this study, Feddema had focused on the god
Devol in the hamlet of Seenigama on the south-west coast. He had asked the
1. Why do people ask gods to harm or even kill their adversaries?
2. Why is cursing on the increase in the country?
3. How does Buddhism, a religion preaching
‘ahimsa’ (non-violence), cope
with the cursing practices?
Feddema had inferred from his anthropological observations that “cursing is
certainly a form of violence, but because it stops at one incident, without
triggering endless cycles, it can traditionally be seen as a religious channel
for violence, that helps to keep it in control”.
Feddema had also highlighted the scapegoatism syndrome prevalent among the
Sinhalese Buddhists as follows:
it takes a long time before even the beginning of success comes, the misfortune
is often attributed to a scapegoat, to someone, who is more prosperous than
oneself. A scapegoat can be found among neighbours or among colleagues at the
job or even among the reference group of new entrepreneurs themselves, who
appear to have many enemies. One not only feels better, because someone else can
be blamed for what seems at first sight one's own failure, but even more
importantly, one can "project onto others one's own jealousy and indeed more
generalized feelings of hostility" in this way (Gombrich and Obeyesekere, 1988,
p. 130). The answer often is to harm the scapegoat by harassing him, destroying
or stealing his goods.”
Attention is also drawn on the popularity of Hindu goddess Kali, among Sinhalese
Buddhists. I have transcribed the entire text of this study below, for its
interest and relevance.
Amirthalingam’s Parliamentary Speech on Dec.6, 1978
The interjections made by other parliamentarians who listened to Amirthalingam
on Dec.6, 1978, provides some facets on the media vehicles used by the STPs.
[Source: Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), 6th Dec. 1978,
I move, ‘That the Programme be reduced by Rs.10.’ I am sure the Hon. Minister of
State will not regard my cut as the unkindest of all cuts.
Which is the unkindest cut? Your cut?
He certainly can afford a cut!
As the Minister in charge of the mass media, which plays a very significant role
in the affairs of any country, the departments coming under the purview of the
Hon. Minister of State are very important. We all know the ability of the Hon.
Minister of State in the fields of propaganda and mass contact. In fact, one
already sees a new trend in the dissemination of information among the public,
which the Hon. Minister of State has already started in the departments under
I was rather surprised to see a pamphlet or small booklet published by the
Department of Information containing the editorials which appeared in ‘The
Hindu’ relating to certain problems in this country. We welcome the placing
before the people of what appears in other countries, in other newspapers,
regarding our problems. But all that I would request is that the Hon. Minister,
with his sense of fairness, will not present only one side of the matter. I hope
the other side of the question, the other side of the problem, will also be
similarly presented to the public in publications by the Department of
There have been a series of articles, leading or otherwise, appearing in various
newspapers in the world with regard to the problem of the Tamil people in this
country. Some of those articles have been published by local newspapers who for
their own purposes publishes them. Some of them were even given a slight twist
with certain omissions and published by some of the local newspapers. I should
say in fairness to the Department of Information that in regard to the
editorials from ‘The Hindu’ that were published, there was no attempt
made to omit anything or to distort anything. But I would only say that only
articles with a certain slant, putting forward a certain point of view, some of
them addressed to me and my party, were published. But I should say that even
articles which seek to draw the attention of the Government and the people to
the grievances and problems of minorities also should similarly be placed before
the people so that they may know how the world is viewing the problems. That is
all that I will say in regard to that matter.
The Department of Information, the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, the
Government Film Unit – all these – and even the Press Council come under the
purview of the Hon. Minister of State. In regard to the three media, that is,
the SLBC, the Government Film Unit and the Department of Information that come
under his purview, I shall only make the request to the Hon. Minister, in whose
sense of rectitude and fair play I have confidence, that these instruments
should not be used or permitted to be used, or function as purveyors of false
In fact, we are all aware that democracies in other countries of the world have
been undermined through false propaganda. Dictatorships have been enthroned,
bolstered up and maintained through false propaganda. The master exponent of the
art of false propaganda was the mouth-piece of Adolf Hitler, Dr. Goebbels. If
not for that propaganda machinery, Hitler may not have been able to carry the
German people with him. He may not have been permitted by the people of Germany
to perpetrate the horrible crimes that he committed against humanity. So the
instrument of propaganda can be used for evil as well as for good. All that I
would like to say is that the instruments of state propaganda which are in the
hands of the Hon. Minister of State should be used for propagating the truth,
the truth relating to all sections of this country, the truth which alone can be
the basis for a just and equitable society. Beyond that I do not want to say
anything further because the Hon. Minister, I am sure, will understand the
cryptic statement of my case.
The Press Council has a very vital function to perform. I should say that it has
not been very effective in curbing the misdeeds of the press. Even recently
there has been very provocative articles appearing in certain sections of the
press. In fact, shortly before the holocaust of August 1977 in this country
there were two articles that appeared in the ‘Sun’ of the 12th
and 13th of August, articles written by my own erstwhile university
lecturer, Mr. F.R. Jayasuriya. I am sure if the Minister of State had a chance
he would never have permitted articles of that type to be published. That
article virtually gave the signal for the attack on the Tamil people. Even after
that there have been certain sections of the press publishing articles of that
type. It may be said that certain newspapers supporting my party also have
published inflammatory articles.
In fact, I have always, whenever I had a chance, tried to see that articles
which can be inflammatory are not published, but it may not be always possible
for busy people to keep track of what is published. But there are other types of
scurrilous and slanderous articles which are published in newspapers. The Hon.
Member for Jaffna (Mr. Yogeswaran) referred to a certain news report that
appeared in the ‘Daily Mirror’ a few weeks back when I was not in this
country. I understand that a former Competent Authority was the person who was
responsible for the publication of that news report which said that it was being
speculated in political circles that my wife is going to be appointed the
Chairman of the Ceylon Leather Corporation. I know the mischievous thoughts
behind it. There were certain elements which had been falsely stating that she
had at some meeting stated that she wishes to make shoes out of the skins of
certain persons. Having that in mind this mischievous news report had been
published in the ‘Daily Mirror’. After all, Sir, the Times of Ceylon
Group of Newspapers is under the control of the Government. There is a Competent
Authority in charge of these publications. I would like to know whether the
Competent Authority was aware that such a mischievous and slanderous news report
had appeared. If he knew, what action had he taken? Has no action been taken
up-to-date against the publication of stories of this type?
In fact, Sir, it was stated at one stage that the correspondents who publish
news stories should publish them under their names. The country should know, the
readers should know, who the correspondent is who takes responsibility for the
news story. Unfortunately, that is not being enforced in this country, and that
is how, taking cover under anonymity, scandalous news reports are placed before
In this particular instance, though I and my wife were both out of this country,
the TULF Parliamentary Group considered this matter, and the Acting Leader of
our parliamentary group sent a correction to that newspaper. They published that
correction with a footnote which was still more insulting. Are these newspapers
here to give currency to falsehoods or are they here to publish the truth?
I think, Sir, we should give teeth to the Press Council and see that a proper
check on the publication of news stories of this type is maintained. The Hon.
Minister of State should take steps in that direction. The correspondents who
send news stories to the papers should give their names so that the people
concerned, the people affected, might know who is responsible for a particular
story. It may be that in the interest of a free press the reporters may refuse
to divulge their sources of information. But, in the case of stories of this
type – I understand, the previous weeks or a few days before that, the same
newspaper published a report that Mr. Nanda Ellawala was going to be appointed
the Chairman of the Leather Corporation –
(Deputy Minister): He actually uttered those words.
The Hon. Deputy Minister of Local Government, Housing and Construction says that
Mr. Nanda Ellawala uttered those words – that he will skin somebody on Galle
The leaders of the United National Party
That could not have been taken seriously.
I do not think he will find my skin suitable for making shoes.
You are not thick-skinned.
My hide is not so thick. But in the case of my wife this was something she never
said and something she never dreamt of saying. It was given currency by certain
mischievous individuals and in spite of a denial on the floor of this House –
Mr. Chairman, your worthy predecessor, the Hon. Minister of State, knows that on
the floor of this House and outside, that statement was denied – for a newspaper
to give currency to such a story is, to say the least, most despicable. No
respectable newspaper will resort to stories of this type. They think it very
clever in publishing stories of this type, little realizing that they are only
revealing the vacancy of their own minds.
All this arises because there is no proper control of publications of news
stories as there ought to be. The Press Council should take serious note of
matters like this and I would urge the Hon. Minister of State to see to it that
innocent people are safeguarded against scandalous, scurrilous and false reports
and to see that newspapers are compelled to publish corrections giving equal or
more prominence than the original story. This is necessary because once mud is
thrown it tends to stick however much one may try to wash it away. So adequate
amends must be made and adequate safeguards against mud-slinging journalism
should be provided. These are the only two matters to which I wanted to refer,
and I thank you, Mr. Chairman, for giving me the opportunity to do so.”
The Cursing Practice in Sri Lanka as a Religious Channel for Keeping Physical
Violence in Control; The Case of Seenigama
[courtesy: Journal of Asian and African Studies, Brill, Dec.1997,
(Note by Sachi: The subheadings, words/phrases in italics, within
parentheses and within quotation marks are reproduced, as in the original. The
‘Notes’ and ‘References’ provided at the end of the paper are also reproduced as
in the original. Especially of interest, is the Note 3, where Feddema has
informed us that not only the indigenous Tamils, but also Christians, Muslims,
Malayali workers and Indian plantation workers have become scapegoat targets of
the Sinhala Buddhist majority.)
This study deals with the cursing services in Sinhala Buddhism in Sri Lanka
which some gods offer to the people. The author, who is using the mimesis and
scapegoat mechanism theory of Girard as a point of reference, concentrates on
the god Devol in the hamlet of Seenigama on the south-west coast. Why do people
ask gods to harm or even kill their adversaries? Why is cursing on the increase
in the country, and how does Buddhism, a religion preaching ‘ahimsa’
(non-violence), cope with the cursing practices? The author dissociates himself
from the idea of some writers, that cursing is identical to black magic. Cursing
is certainly a form of violence, but because it stops at one incident, without
triggering endless cycles, it can traditionally be seen as a religious channel
for violence, that helps to keep it in control, according to the author.
[The Main Text]
The theme of my research, carried out in the early nineties in the South of Sri
Lanka in the so-called Low Country, focuses on creed and practice concerning
violence in Sinhala Buddhism. In this study I deal with one aspect of this,
namely the activities connected with certain gods, especially Devol Deviyo in
the hamlet Seenigama. These serve the people by meting out punishments and other
forms of violence involving putting curses on particular individuals. My
how to explain this cursing (‘awalada,’, ‘sapa karanawa’ or ‘pali gahanawa’),
why do people ask the gods to harm or even kill their adversaries, and
what role does Devol Deviyo play in that practice?
I will also briefly deal with the increase in cursing since the sixties. The
mimesis and scapegoat mechanism theory of Rene Girard will be used as a
As a side issue I
finally deal with the question of how Buddhism, a religion preaching "ahimsa"
(non-violence) tried (and tries) to cope with the practices of cursing relating
to some gods who, like the demons, are all "placed under the supreme
jurisdiction of the Buddha" (Sarachandra, 1958, p. 114); consequently all
rituals and beliefs are "integrated
into a Buddhist cosmology" (Gombrich,
1971, p. 5). Cursing, widely practised by Buddhists, is part of those
Buddhist rituals and beliefs and therefore can not be dismissed as "folk
Obeyesekere, in his study of 1975, unfortunately identifies cursing with
sorcery and cites besides Seenigama, the Hindu and the Moslim shrines in
Muneswaram and Kahatapitiya. My study however deals only with the ceremonies
of cursing in the Buddhist shrine of Devol Deviyo at Seenigama (meaning
sugar village). I also did some research at other shrines to Devol in Sri
Lanka. I conducted my research by the method of "participatory observation"
and by interviewing people in the concerned area, i.e. along the south-west
coast. The most important subjects of research were naturally the
supplicants and priests at the shrines. Some of these and other informants
could speak English. Otherwise I was helped by an interpreter. The myths
around Devol Deviyo I learned from my informants. The Weeragoda story of
Devol killing his child one can also find in Weerakoon (1985, p. 107). In
1993, 1994 and 1995 I visited the Seenigama shrine at different times.
I will first describe the activities of the gods involving cursing and their
background and then concentrate on Devol Deviyo. Generally speaking the
Sinhala Buddhist gods seek the well-being of the people and abstain from
assistance in "kodivina" (black magic) and other forms of harming, hurting
or even killing people. Gods however often have also their "dark" or - in
the words of the average Sinhala Buddhist - their "bad" side. That does not
make them less popular. The Sinhala Buddhists actually like gods with a
"bad" side, because it makes them feel more at ease with the negative sides
of themselves. The great popularity of the god Kataragama (Skanda/Murugan)
is not least due to the fact that he is known as a warrior and that he has a
concubine or a second wife besides his first wife (Gombrich and Obeyesekere,
1988, p. 191). A god who like Buddha appears too holy (one can also say too
light or too "ahimsa"/non-violent), e.g., Vishnu, the protector of Buddhism
in Sri Lanka (Gombrich and Obeyesekere, 1988, p. 71), is not easy for the
people to approach about ordinary problems. The distance between such a god
and the people has become too great.
There is on the other hand also the moral influence of Buddhism in society.
In this respect preference should be given to the gods without "dark" sides.
This shows that there is something contradictory in society. The same
applies to the curses of gods like Getabaru, Devol Deviyo, Kadavera, Suniyam
and Kali.(1) Every Buddhist subscribes to the five precepts, including the
first one of "refraining from killing living beings" (Dhammananda, 1987, p.
163). People on the other hand can hardly abstain from taking revenge
("paliganima" or "paliyak"), if someone has done something wrong to them,
even if that means badly harming or killing the adversary through cursing.
Public opinion however condemns the practice of cursing. Getabaru for
example is one of the "dark" faces of the god Kataragama, but due to the
karmic effect of the good deeds of the Buddhists the latter has risen so
much in the hierarchy of the gods, that it would be better not to remind the
people any more of that "dark" side. In view of this Getabaru therefore
withdrew to an isolated place on a mountain in the interior near Morawaka on
the road from Galle to Deniyaya. There in isolation and, as it were, far
from the official Buddhist world he exercises now his despised yet well
appreciated powers. People fear and therefore also respect his power to
The case of Kadavera is even more ambiguous. He too is one of the "dark"
faces of Kataragama, but his place still is in the town of Kataragama. His
power to curse cannot be exercised inside the (big) shrine of the god
Skanda, but is carried out in secret outside the shrine at a place at the
Menik river, where he also receives "billa puja" (animal sacrifices)
(Feddema, 1995, p. 143). This especially is embarassing to many Sinhala
Buddhists. Today they consider Kataragama unlike Kali as a national Buddhist
god, since the shrine a few decades ago completely fell into the hands of
the Sinhala Buddhists (see also Gombrich and Obeyesekere, 1988, p. 99 and
Chapter 5). Knowing that Buddha has condemned "billa," they feel somewhat
ashamed that Kadavera is accepting "billa" from people, especially
businessmen, and exercising harmful powers near or at least not far from the
Kataragama shrine. They often try to deny it or to cover it up, when I ask
for information about it.
Ambiguity of Devol Deviyo
We see the same
ambiguity concerning the god Devol in Seenigama on the south-west coast. He
has a shrine ("dewale") on the beach, where he performs his blessing
together with the goddess Pattini. However, about 400 metres off shore on a
tiny and hardly accessible island he performs (via the "yakka"/"demon" Diwi)
his cursing. This indeed is ambiguous. On the one hand Devol Deviyo likes to
preserve the image of a respected Buddhist god. On the other hand, he wants
to continue to respond to appeals for cursing, which promote his fame in the
A tacit compromise settles the problem. People who want to pray, bring an
offering ("puja") or make a vow ("bara"), come to the shrine on the beach.
People who come for "cursing," go to the island. They have to take the
trouble to go there or to wait for awhile, if the sea is rough. It is
outside the official Buddhist world as it were. From the land one cannot see
what happens on the island, because a stone wall has been erected there to
ensure privacy. For the hamlet this seems acceptable. I think of the case of
Weeragoda, a village nearby, where another shrine of Devol Deviyo is
located. In 1992 the "kapuwaraya" (the priest/servant of gods, abbreviated
to "kapua") of Seenigama looked after the shrine of Weeragoda because of a
temporary vacancy. In the beginning he sometimes also did cursing on
request, until this evoked protests from the population. Cursing has a
negative effect on the environment and is therefore bad for the village, the
people argued. In Seenigama this negative influence has been neutralized by
the narrow stretch of the sea, people think.
Devol is a local god. He is in charge of a large part of the Low Country
along the south-west coast. He is reputed to especially look after the
owners of fishing boats and (recently also) the owners of transport
vehicles, such as buses and vans. In the fishing season the boat owners
("aithikaru") together with their "kamkaru," the often poor fishermen who
cooperate with the "aithikaru" (Feddema, 1988a), go at least once a month to
the shrine of Devol Deviyo to offer some "puja."
The shrine is situated on the main road between Colombo and Galle. The
passing buses and vans stop briefly to put some coins in the till, kept
beside the road at the entrance to the shrine area, and worship. Every month
an amount of about fifty kilos of coins is collected. It shows the magic
power of Devol Deviyo, people believe. "He can do big things," a young man
in one of the surrounding villages told me. People may sometimes qualify his
cursing trade as "paw" (bad), but they still respect it, because it is a
sign of the power he has and which they might need or have to avoid one day.
In the mythology around Devol one sees his magical power too. He is a son of
the king Rajasinghe of the town Kudupura, as the myth tells. The king
banishes him together with six of his brothers because of their dissolute
behaviour. The seven brothers in vain try to land from their ship at
different places in Sri Lanka. At last they are shipwrecked near Seenigama.
With the help of the god Sakra and a raft they reach the coast safely.
However the goddess Pattini, who was in charge of that area then, puts seven
'mountains' of fire in front of them.(2) The brothers throw their ornaments
into the fire, trying to change fire into water in order to help at least
Devol survive. Pattini allows him to stay. It is unclear what happened to
the six brothers. Devol receives the consent of Pattini the god Skanda
helped him with that - to ask offerings from the people in exchange for
healing sick people at seven places: Seenigama, Unawatuna, Udulgapitiya
(Dodanduwa), Weeragoda, Gintota, Ambalangoda and Panadura.
The Weeragoda myth is also an illustration of Devol's magical power.
Weeragoda is about 6 miles from Seenigama. Devol goes there to live at the
house of his concubine. Every morning he walks to Seenigama and comes back
with rice, fish and a few coconuts. The woman wonders how he manages to do
this. They have a son. When he is old enough, she asks him to follow his
father and find out what is going on. The boy tells her after coming back,
that his father is making rice from beach sand and fish with his
walking-stick and gets coconuts by commanding a few coconut trees in
Seenigama to bend down to him. Devol sees this as a betrayal of his secret,
flies into a rage, kills his son and departs. He leaves his walking stick
behind, which grows into an imposing and very rare tree for that country. It
is remarkable that neither Weerakoon nor any of my informants questions
Devol's killing of the innocent boy, which is usually the case in myths
about scapegoats (Girard, 1986, pp. 34 and 143). People are so impressed by
Devol's magical power, that it seems everything he does is taken for
The Threatening Competition with God Kataragama
Devol Deviyo, though
perhaps "viewed by the Buddhists of that area as a major deity in their
pantheon" (Obeyesekere, 1975, p. 7), is still a local god, who has not (yet)
a place in the official Buddhist pantheon. Being a local and not a national
god is a drawback, more so today since distance hardly plays any role with
the modern means of transport. It is therefore not easy for him to compete
with the very popular pantheon god Kataragama (Skande), although the town
Kataragama is somewhat on the periphery of the country. Today nearly
everbody undertakes a pilgrimage to Kataragama once a year for religious
and/or recreational purposes. Orthodox Buddhists, who do not bother so much
about the gods, also go in order to give alms ("dana") to the many beggars
who flock there. The most suitable periods are August and April, festival
and new year months. The pilgrimage is often a pleasure trip for relatives,
friends or people of the same village, as well as being religious.
Devol Deviyo cannot compete with all that, although his "dewale," like
nearly all Devol shrines, has a festival for a week in August. Most of them
recently added innovations copied from Kataragama like "fire walking" and
the "kavadi"-dance, both under the guidance of a "kapua." The dance is very
popular among the young people, because it is often for them the only chance
to have contacts with contemporaries of the opposite sex. Two Devol shrines
(Unawatuna and Panadura) also made Suniyam their patron god. This is an
astute decision, because recently the god Suniyam has become a rising star
among the Sinhalese (Obeyesekere, 1986 and Feddema, 1996). In Unawatuna the
"kapua," besides his general work in the Devol shrine, even allows Suniyam
to take possession ("avesa") of him in order to be able to help people with
their problems as an "avesa sami." That is a good innovation in order to
attract more clients, because the "avesa sami" is becoming popular in the
country and it is trendy to consult him. The Devol shrine at Unawatuna is
still flourishing, while the ones in Udulgapithiya and Gintota have nearly
come to a standstill. Of the seven Devol shrines the position of the one in
Seenigama is by far the best. This is neither due to innovations imitated
from Kataragama, although the festivals such as "fire walking" in August,
attract thousands of people, nor to the introduction of Suniyam as the
patron god of the shrine. The main cause is the practice of cursing.
Cursing is a centuries old tradition in Seenigama, but generally it was
invoked by the people no more than a few times a month. At present there are
more than 20 occurences of cursing per day on the tiny island, much more
than the average number of people coming for the ordinary "puja" or "bara."
Traditionally Wednesday and Saturday are the proper days for cursing, but
the demand today is so great that it is not possible anymore to limit it to
those two days. The increase came to a climax in the eighties. Obeyesekere
mentions for the early seventies an estimate of 1 per day, but I wonder
whether this is not rather too low, also because he gives a much higher
estimate for the Kali shrine at Muneswaram, 11 per day (1975, p. 9). The
"kapua" Lionel de Silva, who started his work in Seenagamma in 1968, has
given me an estimate of 60 per month in 1970. That would mean an average of
about 2 per day for that year already. He mentions a same average of 2 per
day for sixties. For the year 1975 de Silva however mentions the number of
150 per month, meaning about 5 per day. In 1980 according de Silva 300
people per month (about an average of 10 per day) came to the shrine to
request cursing. Since then he mentions an increase of 100 per month every
five year. In 1985 there was an average of 400 per month (13 per day), in
1990 an average of 500 per month (17 per day) and in 1994 an average of 600
per month (20 per day). I could only check these data partly for the years
1994 and 1995. I visited the shrine on Wednesday 7 July 1994 and counted
then 22 clients for cursing. Wednesday is like Saturday a day people prefer
for cursing, as I said before. I needed more indications of the average
number of clients. In November I came again and then over 5 days from 12th
till 16th of November counted an average of 17.4 per day. (Saturday 12-11:
16; Sunday 13-11: 14; Monday 14-11: 8; Tuesday 15-11: 9 and Wednesday 16-11:
26.) The total number of clients for cursing on those five days was 73. Of
them 50 were males and 23 females. Thursday the 18th of November I missed.
Friday the 19th was a "Poya"-day, the monthly Buddhist celebration day on
full moon. None came that day. Cursing on a "Poya"-day is not done. Also the
priests will not serve the people for cursing on that day. On the day after
"Poya"-day there were 26 clients for cursing, 17 males and 9 females. That
was Saturday 20-11. On Sunday 21-11 I counted 21, of whom 7 females.
Especially the number on Sunday 21-11-'94, as a Sunday not being a prefered
day for cursing, could be an indication, that de Silva was not very far
wrong with his estimate of 20 per day in 1994.
At the beginning of 1995 and in December of that year I visited the shrine
in Seenigama again. In the week of 25th of February till 3rd of March I
counted 195 clients, of whom 84 were females. (Saturday 25-2: 47; Sunday
26-2: 32; Monday 27-2: 22; Tuesday 28-2: 51; Wednesday 1-3: 25; Thursday
2-3: 6; Friday 3-3: 12.) That would mean an average of nearly 28 per day.
Especially on Saturdays it is very busy for the priests. On three Saturdays
in March I counted more than 30 clients each day, meaning 38, 36 and 33 on
respectively 4-3, 11-3 and 18-3. On the 16th of March it was "Poya"-day
again. That affected also the number on Wednesday 15-3, there being only 12
clients, of whom 5 were females. The day before a "Poya"-day is also not
preferred for cursing. Friday 17-3, the day after a "Poya"-day also had a
low number of clients, there being 6, of whom 3 were females. That could
indicate, that the average of 28 per day on the basis of the data I
collected in the week of 25-2 to 3-3, could be high. On the other hand in
that week there was also a day, which was not preferred - the 1st of March.
Nobody likes to curse on the first day of the month, as it is not an
auspicious day for this. It was however a Wednesday. Maybe because of that
as many as 25 clients came that day. It nevertheless was relatively low in
comparison with the previous day, i.e. Tuesday 28-2, when 51 clients came,
of whom 22 were females. The figure of 51 for a Tuesday is abnormally high.
It would appear that many of them came, because they wanted to avoid the
first of the month. These data suggest an average of 25 per day. The first
months of the year however seem popular for cursing. In the week of Sunday
the 10th to Saturday the 16th of December 1995 I counted a number of 136, of
whom 52 were females (Sunday 10-12: 12; Monday 11-12: 13; Tuesday 12-12: 11;
Wednesday 13-12: 27; Thursday 14-12: 14; Friday 15-12: 18; Saturday 16-12:
41). That would mean an average of 19.3 per day in that week. My data for
1995 suggest anyhow an average of 20 to 25 per day for that year. That is
certainly much more than the 1 per day Obeyesekere mentioned for the early
seventies and also more or less in line with what the "kapua" de Silva
estimated for 1994. The number of priests also reflects the increase in
cursing. In the sixties there was one "kapua" at the shrine of Seenigama,
while in the seventies and the early eighties two priests were employed. In
1986 a third one came. Since then three full-time priests work at the
shrine, joined in 1994 by a fourth one on a part-time basis.
Methods of Cursing
At the Devol shrine in Unawatuna the clients for cursing activities are just
as numerous as the clients who ask for blessings to help them find a job,
win someone's love, or become pregnant, or to aid them with visa problems or
lack of energy. The cursing in Unawatuna (about 3 or 4 cases per day)
however is not done in the name of Devol Deviyo, but of Suniyam, the patron
god of the shrine. That is also true in the Panadura shrine. In Unawatuna as
well as in Panadura a tiny island is not available and the "kapua" in both
cases does his best to prevent the leader of the shrine (Devol Deviyo) from
getting a bad name in the Buddhist environment. This cover-up of the cursing
practices, being carried out at a Devol shrine however, doubtless with
material profit, is rather underhand.
Cursing is on the increase.
That the Hindu goddess
Kali recently has become popular among Sinhala Buddhists is not unrelated to
her cursing activities. A further indication is the "polgahanawa"-ritual in
the shrines. People take a coconut with a small flame on top of it in their
hands holding it at chest height, bring it above their heads and then throw
it with force to the ground onto a piece of cement or a big stone, which is
placed there for that purpose. If they manage to smash the coconut, it is
primarily meant to reinforce the wishes they have laid before the gods. It
can however also indicate a wish to harm an adversary. Cursing is done in
this way in Unawatuna and Panadura. In most other shrines cursing cannot
officially be done, but today more and more people are using the
"polgahanawa"-ritual to express an informal cursing.
Seenigama however uses a special stone ("gala") for the cursing practice, or
rather two stones, a large and a small. The person concerned grinds red
chilli, black pepper, white onion and mustard with the small stone on the
big stone, while he or she utters the words of his or her curse. The "gala"
itself is not important, because it is, just like chilli and pepper, part of
every household kitchen. The "gala" in Seenigama however now has a special
power in the minds of the people, having been used for so many years for
cursing. The most important aspect of this institution is the cursing
itself. It is performed orally. The client has to pronounce the words of his
or her curse, instructed by the "kapua," who sits near him or her. The
"kapua" first asks the client to tell him what he or she wants to happen to
the adversary whether known or not: death, a serious mental illness, an
accident, broken legs or being forced to leave the village of residence. The
kapua then says: "In the name of Devol I call punishment and evil over . .
." and asks the client to repeat this or use other cursing words while
grinding the chilli etc. on the "gala." He (she) often also says: "May you
die young and be reduced to ashes" or "May you not prosper but perish" or
more in general or indirectly: "May those who are jealous of me perish." He
(she) must say it quite a few times. Repetition of the curse on different
occasions is important. The "kapua" therefore asks the client not to limit
his visit to the island to one time, but to come three times. Only then can
he guarantee the effect of the curse. Most people comply and pay 265 Sri
Lanka rupees altogether (if one curses two times the fee is R 175,- and one
time R 100,-). The monthly income of the shrine from the cursing fees in
1994 was roughly R 52,000. In 1995 the average monthly income was about R
Revenge of Kuveni's Son, the Scapegoat Diwi?
Although cursing may
formally be conducted in the name of Devol Deviyo, the real work is done by
Diwi-yakka. Diwi is an interesting figure. He is according to the Seenigama
myth a son of the Aryan prince Vijaya, the founder of the Sinhala nation,
and the Yakkha queen Kuveni (Gunawardena, 1985, p. 60). The Yakkha were the
main original inhabitants of Ceylon and had both kingdoms and cities
(Wijesekera, 1987, p. 67 and 1986, p. 7). They were subjugated and later on
demonized by the Aryan conquerers (Feddema, 1995, p. 133/134; Wijesekera,
1987, p. 360). Demons or evil spirits are today called "yakku" (singular:
"yakka"). They can be seen as scapegoats, who are still resentful about what
happened to them (Feddema, 1995, pp. 134, 145). Diwi is a special scapegoat,
because the founder of the Sinhala nation killed him when he took the side
of his mother Kuveni. She was ill-treated and chased away by Vijaya after he
had made use of her and her love in order to destroy and subjugate the
Yakkha. When Devol came from Trivandrum (South India) to Ceylon, Diwi helped
him together with eleven other "yakku" to land at Seenigama and cross safely
over the "mountains" of fire that Pattini had put in front of Devol. Was it
a kind of revenge or resistance on the part of Diwi to help a newcomer from
South India against the new rulers of Ceylon including the goddess Pattini?
Devol in any case up to now sees in Diwi his right hand or main servant. In
every "Devol Natuma," a religious dance feast in the honour of Devol, 12 oil
lamps burn constantly for Diwi and the other (eleven) "yakku" to thank them
for their assistance during the landing of Devol.
Also remarkable is the Telme-dance at the Devol Deviyo feast. The story of
that dance is as follows: Vijaya became in his reincarnation a king in
India. He had a small lake in front of his palace on wich floated a large
lotus flower. One day there was a strong fragrance emanating from the lotus.
The king could not resist the scent and went to the lake placing his nose
very near to the flower. Kuveni was present in the flower, reborn as a baby
frog. When the nose of the king was near the lotus flower, she crept via his
nose into the head of the reborn Vijaya, causing him a constant headache.
This story does not need much explanation. If Kuveni is still vengeful, it
is clear that her son the "yakka" Diwi does not mind harming or even killing
Sinhalese people, after they have been cursed in the name of Devol Deviyo.
The people know that a "yakka" who has the sanction of a god can be very
violent (Feddema, 1995, p. 136). They are also aware of the magical power of
Devol Deviyo. No wonder that the people fear the cursing power of the
A "yakka" may not object to harming or killing people, but that is a
different matter for Buddhists. One becomes a Buddhist by taking refuge in
the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha and subscribing to the five precepts. The
first is: "I will abstain from killing living beings." It also implies
abstaining from torturing and tormenting. Cursing is a deliberate deed,
causing people harm, torment or death. An important justification for
cursing has always been that it was directed at punishing "bad" people,
especially thieves. Buddhists certainly can understand that, as theft has
now increased markedly. Cursing then is seen as an alternative to the modern
system of being punished by the police or the state. Using this
rationalisation, even good Buddhists participate in the practice of cursing.
The Case of Mr. T.
The case of Mr. T from
a village about 30 miles north of Galle and nearby Seenagama can be seen as
a typical example. He is a middle class Buddhist 60 years of age. He
believes in the existence of the gods and the demons, but normally ignores
them. In 1991 someone broke into his house during his absence and stole R
2000,-, some jewellery belonging to his wife and the official property deeds
of two pieces of land he owns. The loss of the deeds especially worried him.
He reported the theft to the police. Neighbours told him they saw a person
from the village near his house on the day of the break-in. He was probably
the burglar, but proof was lacking. Mr. T. rejected the idea of going to the
police again, but told some friends and neighbours that he planned to go to
Seenigama. If he went to the police again, the suspect would soon find out
that he was accusing him of the theft. If he was really guilty, he could
take revenge e.g. by destroying the two deeds. For this reason Mr. T. chose
to go to Seenigama: "I wanted to avoid the suspect's getting the feeling of
being chased by me. By going to Seenigama I acted "innocently." I only told
the people that I was going to Seenigama. The suspect had no proof that I
went there with the intention of cursing, let alone with the purpose of
On the island of Seenigama the "kapua" asked Mr. T. whether he wanted the
death of the suspect. His answer was: "I don't care if he dies due to the
cursing, but the most important thing for me is to get back the deeds to the
two pieces of land." The "kapua" promised him that they will be returned to
him before a certain date (9th of September 1991). He hardly believed it,
but he nevertheless made a "bara" (vow) at the shrine on the beach, that he
would give seven oil lamps to Devol Deviyo, if the deeds were returned
within the promised time. One day before the fixed date Mr. T. visited
Seenigama again. The "kapua" answered him: "Wait, it is not yet the 9th of
September." The next day just after his midday sleep, someone reported to
him that in a paddy field nearby documents had been found. They proved to be
the deeds. The money and jewellery were still missing. He did not mind so
much, because he was glad that he had his deeds back. At about midnight
someone knocked at the door. A young man about 27 years of age apologized
for the burglary and offered biscuits. He was accompanied by a friend. Mr.
T. accepted the biscuits and gave the two persons tea. The next day he
fulfilled his vow and gave the biscuits to the "kapua." Since then the thief
never appeared in the village again. The moral condemnation by the community
of what he had done was such that he could not live there any longer.
Mr. T. strongly believes that it was due to Devol Deviyo or his servant Diwi
that the young man apologized to him and left the village. In this case
exile and not death was the punishment. Mr. T. comments: "I did not exclude
death, because going to Seenigama implies that risk, but retrospectively I
do not regret that he has not been killed, but was forced to live in exile."
Death or exile, I asked him whether that is a Buddhist way to take revenge.
Mr. T.: "No, Buddhists should leave revenge to the gods or to the effect of
karma during this life or for the next birth of the evil-doer. I am aware of
that, but we Buddhists mostly still wish to take revenge ourselves and want
retaliation in the short term."
The fact that a god is carrying out the revenge helps people of course not
to be troubled by the Buddhist conscience in this matter. An middle-aged
farmer from Koggala, whom I met at the shrine in Seenigama, had big problems
with some neighbours. When I asked him, whether participating in cursing did
not worry him, being a Buddhist, he answered: "No, it is not contrary to
Buddhism to wish someone's death in the case of cursing, because it is the
god, who does the job and he will of course look to it, that nobody will be
harmed or killed unrightfully."
This "divine punishment of an evil-doer" seems effective, because people
believe in it and because of the social context of the villages. Every
villager soon gets to know all the village gossip, if someone tells the
neighbours that he or she is going to visit the shrine in Seenigama for a
special purpose. Thieves and other evildoers often become very worried,
which shows they are under social control, have a religious conscience or
believe in the divine power of punishment. "Maintenance of anonymity is very
important for the clients," according to Obeyesekere, who adds: "Hence
people who live in the vicinity of a shrine rarely visit it" (1975, p. 5).
My research gives a different picture. Black magic is practised in secret,
but cursing is mostly not. People areoften very open about it, not having
any objection to publicity; indeed the contrary is true, as the case of Mr.
T. shows. People from nearby villages, Seenigama included, certainly also
come to the shrine. Only high-class people from the cities often feel
ashamed, that they participate in the cursing practice. They sometimes keep
their names secret at Seenigama. In general however people are eager to tell
others what kind of injustice someone has done to them and that they
therefore went to the shrine of Seenigama to invoke a punishment on him/her.
The negative sides of this "religious system of punishment" are the lack of
an independent judge or an adequate judicial system and the fact that
suspects are always seen to be guilty. One takes the law into his or her own
hands and can do so because a god or priest is prepared to help him or her
in exchange for some money. The suspect in Girard's terms can sometimes
become the scapegoat for various frustrations. With the help of a god but
without an open and fair trial the scapegoat then is exorcized. This is a
more serious consequence, if the scapegoat is not a thief or another
evil-doer, but just an adversary.
Other cases might illustrate this. One day in March 1995 I was allowed
entrance to the small island, when the cursing took place. It was crowded on
the tiny island. About 15 people (mostly accompanied by relatives and/or
friends) requested the service of the priest at the same time. In order to
save time, the priest invited all to come together in the small shrine to
participate in the religious ritual antecedent to the cursing. The music of
a horn was heard, presents were given, oil lamps were lit and the priest
asked Devol Deviyo, the resident of the Seenigama Dewale, as he explicitly
called him a few times, to help those troubled persons against their
adversaries. After that the priest went to the "gala" (stone) just outside
the shrine, where the real cursing started for the persons concerned, one
after the other. Patiently they waited for each other and later on for the
boat to bring them back to the mainland. During that time I managed to ask
all of them to tell me the reason for their coming. Here is a brief summary.
1) A middle-aged businessman, a local politician from Colombo was killed by
6 men with knifes. The suspected wrongdoers had all been caught and were
waiting in jail for their trial. The widow did the cursing and the sister of
the murdered man read the names of the six, who were charged for murder. The
husband of this sister was also present. For them the trial was not enough.
They wanted the six persons, whom they call murderers, to become mad too.
2) A woman of about 45 years of age without children from a suburb of
Colombo came, because her husband was living with another woman, who lived
at her parents' home. She still loved her husband and wanted him back. The
cursing was not directed at him, but at the lady and also her parents,
because they allowed him there to spend the nights with their daughter, she
said. She wished them to die.
3) A man of about 35 years of age had a farm of 29 toddy-palm trees in a
village near Galle. From them he produces toddy on a commercial basis.
Someone destroyed the blossoms of his trees. He does not know the wrongdoer,
but it must have been a person, who is jealous of him, he said.
4) A man from a village nearby was building a house. While the house was
half ready and couldnot be locked, someone took the opportunity to steal a
door and a window frame. The wrongdoer was not known.
5) A high-class lady from Kandy was here with two relatives, because her
only son, a student, was being bewitched by or at least in the grip of the
family of his girlfriend, who influenced him not to study and not to come
anymore to her as his mother, she said. Caste or class differences would not
have bothered her, if there had been "true love," but this family according
to the lady had no manners and was just manipulating her son. To destroy
that family seemed the only way to get him back.
6) A woman of 33 years of age from a suburb of Colombo wanted her husband to
die, because he had left her and their baby of one year for another woman
after three years of marriage. Her husband did this for the money, she said,
because that woman is rich, having a job with a salary.
7) A cinnamon farmer and his wife from Embalapitiya were robbed of
jewellary, R 3000,- in cash and a video cassette in their own house by four
mashed men, who tied the man's hands behind his back. They were not so
concerned about the stolen goods, they wanted revenge and the unknown
thieves to be killed.
8) A farmer of about 55 years of age from Koggala had three complaints. One
neighbour was a drunkard who constantly shouted loudly at him. Another
neighbour had destroyed a gate on his land. Thirdly 5 young boys had set
fire to the leaves of some plants from the forest, which he had spread out
in the sun for drying. They were all jealous of him, he said, because he was
progressing economically and they were not.
9) A retired Navy officer and his wife from Ambelangoda had come, because
someone had damaged their beautiful house by throwing big stones onto the
roof at night at about 4 o'clock. He called himself an innocent person. He
therefore had no idea who could have done this. He asked for a punishment
and that it would not happen again.
10) A woman of about 28 from a suburb of Colombo had been deserted by her
husband, who now lived with another woman, who was still living with her
parents. He took their four year-old child with him. An elderly sister
accompanied her. She wanted husband and child back and cursed the other
woman and her parents.
11) A farmer of about 40 years of age, who called himself a relatively poor
man, from a village near Galle, had a small piece of land of about 6 acres
next to the land of a wealthy powerful farmer "with vehicles etc." Recently
the latter with a number of men had just occupied the land. The police did
not help him. For him there was no other option than to curse the evil-doer.
12) A man and wife of about 45 years of age from Ratnapura, who owned and
ran a flourishing cafe-restaurant at their house, had been robbed of more
than R 300,000, a watch and a camera. Burglars came at night, breaking a
window. The owners discovered the robbery only the next morning.
13) A man of about 50 years of age from a village of south-east Sri Lanka
had a severe quarrel with his wife. She ran away and was not prepared to
return. He had come there, because he wanted her to be punished for that and
at the same time he wished her to return soon.
14) A middle-class man from Colombo and his wife had come there, because
they had a land dispute with the sister who lived in the next-door house.
They had lost a court case about that, but they had started an appeal,
because the judge in their opinion had overlooked an important detail of the
case. They were not able to wait till the Appeal court had given its
judgement. The sister was acting injustly towards them, they said. They
asked Devol Deviyo to use his power to get her change her mind.
15) A woman from Colombo, who had a secretarial job at the university, was
living with her brother. His purse with R 3500,- had been stolen, after he
had left it near an open window in his house. The thief, a neighbour, had
shared the monney with 2 friends and together they had spent most of it on
drinking and eating. One of them was not satisfied with his part. He had
therefore revealed to the brother and sister under condition of secrecy the
name of the thief. The woman, a Christian, now on behalf of the brother was
cursing the thief. She was combining her trip to the shrine with a few days
vacation in Radgama, a village 30 miles south of Seenigama. It was not
because of the lost money, she was there. She wanted him to break his legs
and to openly acknowledge to them, that he had stolen the purse, she says.
These cases speak for themselves. Cheating, e.g. borrowing money, but not
returning it, and evidence, that someone is practising black magic against
you, can be a reason for cursing too. People also go to Seenigama, if a girl
has fallen in love with a man who is not acceptable to her family. Cursing
such a man is then justified by picturing him as a villain. Businessmen and
politicians are known to visit Seenigama in order to try to eliminate
rivals. That at least is the rumour. It is however highly doubtful, whether
they then would succeed in those intentions, unless the rival was at fault
towards them. Competition sometimes indeed was and is a motive to try to
curse a rival, no matter whether the chance of any effect is small.
Traditionally fishermen sometimes cursed other fishermen, because their boat
attracted more fish than their own boat. There however must be a
well-founded reason for cursing. Someone must have done something wrong
towards you. If not, one might be tempted to give false evidence. The
cursing then will not help or even have a boomerang effect on the curser, my
informants stress. A kind of injustice must be at stake. It makes no sense
to curse innocent people.
Cursing is not Identical with Sorcery
To think otherwise is
to confuse cursing with black magic ("kodivina"). Obeyesekere seems to do
that. In the article cited in Ethnology the word sorcery is used many times
in this respect and he speaks of "public sorcery shrines" (1975, p. 5).
Seenigama is indeed a public shrine, but certainly not a sorcery shrine.
Cursing cannot be identified with sorcery. Buddhists tell me that in their
view cursing is a minor thing in comparison with sorcery. Anyhow, there are
quite some differences between the two.
1) Cursing is a matter of words and done by mouth, while sorcery is more a
matter of action and is performed by hand, e.g., by putting some charmed
material into a pot or on the ground near the house of the person one wants
2) In the practice of cursing one supplicates a god or gods and with sorcery
one tries to enlist the help of demons.
3) The specialists concerned with cursing and sorcery are not the same.
Cursing is led by a "kapua" (priest) and sorcery is performed by a
"kattadiya" (demon specialist). Moreover the "kapua" is only intervening
between the god and the curser. The latter indeed does the actual cursing
himself, while in practising sorcery the client is only paying the money;
all the work is done by the "kattadiya." Cursing is financially also much
cheaper than practising sorcery.
4) In the cursing process the name of the wrongdoer, whether known or not,
is often not mentioned. The priest might know the person or even be related
to him or her. There is also no need to do so, because the god will know. In
the practice of sorcery the names of the person to be harmed are always
mentioned, and often written down too. The attack is direct, while in the
cursing process the accusation is often more indirect.
5) Cursing is a reaction and has to do with retaliation, while sorcery is an
action towards a person, based on hatred and jealousy. Moreover sorcery
mostly starts a cycle of violence, while cursing does the opposite: the
cycle of violence stops after the cursing.
This last is probably the most important difference between cursing and
sorcery. It shows that cursing is not only to be seen as violence, but also
as a religious channel for violence that helps to keep it in control. Girard
sees judical punishment as embodying revenge in principle, but as infinitely
superior in practice to the extent that it represents the "last word" of
violence. The punishment is not carried out by the injured party, but by a
"transcendent" entity, the State, against which no further revenge will be
taken. The same seems to apply for the practice of cursing. There is no
counter-cursing. The wrongdoer cannot take revenge and will not take
revenge, because he or she feels guilty, the more so by being punished by a
god. Sorcery may be "a canalisation of aggressive impulses of individuals"
(Obeyesekere, 1975, 11), cursing however is in nature a religious channel
for keeping physical violence in check.
Cursing remains itself no doubt a form of violence, just like sorcery. It
therefore is understandable, that Devol Deviyo does not carry out the
retaliatory violence directly; he lets the "yakka" Diwi do the dirty work
for him. Thus, just as the god helps the believer escape blame, so the
"yakka" helps the god escape blame. There is however also another side.
Because cursing violence tends to stop at one incident without triggering
endless cycles, there is a strong analogy with the judicial system, with the
god playing the role of the transcendent entity, the State.
If a judicial system is completely lacking, the religious system is
according to Girard "essentially functional in preventing the vicious circle
of mimetic violence" (1990, p. 56), e.g. by the "lesser" violence of
sacrificial substitution (Girard, 1984, pp. 17 and 103). Today in Sri Lanka
however the judicical system is not lacking. Effective or not, it punishes
wrongdoers and forbids blood revenge. The idea of revenge by taking the law
into one's own hands and even killing adversaries did, however, not
disappear from the minds of the people. In the case of cursing today,
religion is therefore also used in order to avoid punishment by the judicial
system which does not allow people to harm others severely or to kill them
because of feelings of revenge or enmity. Moreover the 'religious system of
punishment' in the eyes of the people seems often more effective than the
modern judicial one.
Frustration After a Rise in Expectations
How can we explain the
increase in activities of cursing? In the first decades after gaining
independence in 1948 there was a strong rise in expectations among the
people. These high expectations could not be met. The ensuing frustration
caused an increase in jealousy and scapegoat mechanisms among the people.
Not only was the system or the ruling political party blamed, but also
neighbours and minority groups,(3) who seemed to be more fortunate than
themselves. The context of what Girard calls mimesis and scapegoat
mechanisms is a process of urbanisation in the demographic and especially in
the cultural sense.
The capital Colombo in the first two decades after independence became an
irresistible pull-factor for people of the country-side. It was at the same
time a period of enormous population growth. Since 1948 the population of
about 7 million doubled in less than 25 years. Employment possibilities were
far outstripped by this population growth, especially in the rural areas.
Thousands tried their luck in the capital. Colombo not only became densely
populated in and around the centre, but also expanded tremendously,
absorbing the villages within a distance of twenty to twenty five miles. On
the coast, even in the far south, many shanty squatter settlements came into
existence. Here the traditional Sri Lankan pattern of village community is
In the villages around Colombo middle-class urban dwellers more and more
"displaced the original inhabitants of the older village" (Gombrich and
Obeyesekere, 1988, p. 69). The social cohesion of the traditional village
(with, e.g., communal harvest rituals and communal funerals where nearly all
were present) slowly disappeared, not only from the suburbs of Colombo, but
also from many other villages around the country. This process of
urbanisation in the cultural sense - one can also call it (a kind of)
modernization - is not limited to the city itself. The process has been
strengthened by the modern and relatively cheap means of transport in the
country and the increased mobility as a result. The high rate of modern
education in Sri Lanka, since the thirties, has contributed to the spreading
of a semi-urban way of life to the rural areas too.
Kinship ties however still play an important role in Sri Lanka. In most
cases the extended family does not live together any more, but is divided
over village(s) and town. That lessens the importance of the kinship system.
Yet migrants from the rural areas mostly still rely on their close and more
distant relatives in the city or town and often even on other non-related
village people there, if they need a job or temporary lodgings. Certainly
the extended family, which even in its contracted form resembles the nuclear
family, including the married sons and daughters with young children,
remains a strong unit of mutual support and social control.
More Mimesis in a Less Hierarchical Society
What seems important
is the disappearance of the social cohesion of the traditional village,
based on hierarchical caste and class distinctions between families banded
together through the hierarchy of patron-client relationships. Everybody
knew his or her place. That limited the envy due to mimesis. Girard
understands mimesis to mean that one does not have desires autonomously or
independently, but chooses instead to model himself on another person and to
use his or her desires as a model. In a less hierarchical society this model
becomes at the same time an obstacle whose position one wants to take. The
paradox therefore is that in an egalitarian society there is a great
increase in mimetic desire and rivalry. Equality is good in itself, because
it ends the injustice of (feudal) hierarchy, but on the other hand it is
also a source of new suffering, because it leads to a never ending desire
for more material things and a rise in competition and rivalry (Girard,
1986, p. 123; Feddema, 1988b, p. 213).
This seems to be the case in Sri Lanka today. "The people of the country are
completely in the grip of the desire to get rich," as one of my informants
puts it. This applies to the whole period since 1948 because of this rise in
expectations after independence, but especially to the years since 1977,
when the United National Party (UNP) came into power. Before 1977, the
left-wing nationalist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), who also cooperated
for a few years with Trotzkyites and Communists in a People's Front, tried
to moderate that trend among the people. It was the time of a more or less
autarchic protectionist policy, closing the borders to the import of modern
(attractive) goods from abroad. The government even strongly advised the
people to avoid a life of luxury and to bring their savings to the bank
In 1977 a new era started. Since then competition has even been enhanced
from above, because the UNP strongly favours free enterprise. A new class of
entrepreneurs, owners of private transport vehicles and small industries,
came into existence. This new class directly or indirectly provided the
impetus for a huge rise of mimetic rivalry. People see this social group as
their reference group, with which they compare themselves and which they
want to copy. It seems to be a new answer to the frustration of the high
expectations after independence which could not be met and of the educated
and well-qualified young people who in large numbers remained unemployed.
Rebellion or Accommodation?
sociologist Robert Merton distinguishes five different responses to such a
situation of frustration (1957, pp. 193-211). One is rebellion. It was the
reaction of the People's Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukhti Peramuna), JVP,
via a violent youth uprising in the beginning of the seventies and later
again at the end of the eighties. It was an example of what Girard calls the
scapegoat mechanism. In the seventies the JVP considered the SLFP or the
ruling People's Front and in the eighties the ruling UNP as the scapegoats,
which had to be 'exorcised.' Action provokes reaction. After its defeat in
the seventies, but especially at the beginning of the nineties, the JVP
itself became the subject of revenge. The leader was killed in 1989 and many
of his followers just disappeared when the JVP collapsed (Chandraprema,
Another type of reaction according to Merton is conformity. Taking the new
class of small entrepreneurs as the group of reference seems to be just such
a reaction. Conformity in this case means adjustment to the status quo by
longing for and trying to achieve the same position as the new
entrepreneurs. This does not look impossible to the average people, since
many of the new bus owners and garment industrialists are ordinary people
like themselves, sometimes even previous classmates at school. It is an
illustration of the paradox I mentioned earlier, namely that mimesis is
increasing in a more egalitarian society. Wanting to reach a position like
that of the new entrepreneurs means, however, that one has to compete with
"equals," who are striving for the same thing. If it takes a long time
before even the beginning of success comes, the misfortune is often
attributed to a scapegoat, to someone, who is more prosperous than oneself.
A scapegoat can be
found among neighbours or among colleagues at the job or even among the
reference group of new entrepreneurs themselves, who appear to have many
enemies. One not only feels better, because someone else can be blamed for
what seems at first sight one's own failure, but even more importantly, one
can "project onto others one's own jealousy and indeed more generalized
feelings of hostility" in this way (Gombrich and Obeyesekere, 1988, p. 130).
The answer often is to
harm the scapegoat by harassing him, destroying or stealing his goods. In
the cases mentioned above we came across the word jealousy used explicitly a
few times, as an answer to the question, of why they had been troubled by
the adversaries, whom they wanted to curse at the shrine in Seenigamma. Just
destroying a gate or the blossoms of toddy trees would appear to be clear
forms of enmity, probably wholy or partly based on jealousy. Theft is a more
complicated matter. I have no intention of analysing why people start
stealing or even burgling. There must certainly be an economic reason. There
is however often also the more hidden motif of envy. Are thieves not
frequently using as a justification for their deeds the fact that the harmed
person, from whom they steal, is more prosperous than they?
Frustration after the rising of expectations due to independence, migration
(rural-urban and rural-rural), urbanisation in the cultural sense, the
disappearance of social cohesion of the traditional village based on
hierarchical caste, sex and class , and the increasing gap between poor and
rich due to economical competition, all created a climate, in which mimetic
envy, violence and crime could flourish. The increase of cursing in the
recent decades seems to be a reflection of that. Urban dwellers and
countrymen, rich and relatively poor people, men and women, are all going to
the cursing shrine at Seenigamma.
And the women go too. That also looks like a reflection of the
above-mentioned socio-cultural changes in the country. In November 1994 I
counted over a period of 7 days, the poya-day not included, 39 women (32.5%)
out a total of 120 persons, who had come to the Seenigama shrine to curse.
In February and March 1995 over a period of 12 days I even counted 138 women
(43%) out of a total number of 320 cursers and from the 10th till the 16th
of December 52 women (38%) out of a total of 136. That is certainly a higher
percentage than in the past, when the father or the brother mostly did the
cursing for the deserted, unmarried or widowed women. Women however are, at
least today, often the driving force behind the decision of the man to go to
the cursing shrine in Seenigama. The retired Navy officer from Ambelangoda,
whom I mentioned among the 15 cases, felt a bit ashamed, that I had met him
at the cursing shrine. He stressed his innocence, but also added that his
wife, who according to him "very much believes in the power of the gods,'
had induced him to go.
Lastly a few concluding remarks about the attitude of Sinhala Buddhism
towards the cursing institution. Buddhism did not succeed in preventing or
stopping the disguised violence of cursing through Devol, Getabaru and
Suniyam, in the past or at the present. Hardly anybody foresaw the sudden
breakthrough of mimesis and rivalry after the independence and after the
introduction of economic liberalisation, nor the violence, jealousy and
"scapegoating" this provoked. Buddhism had and still has, however, some
success in that cursing in official public opinion cannot boast a good name.
It has to be concealed. Devol and his priests therefore have to carry out
the cursing activities on a tiny uninhabited island, a few hundred metres
from the coast, behind the wall built around the island. This means that the
practices there are kept hidden from the eye and ear of the formal Buddhist
society. Cursing is in other words tolerated, but not approved. One knows
and is aware that cursing is intensively practised by Sinhala Buddhists, but
it does not have an official Buddhist sanction.
Recently, i.e. in the last few years, passengers in buses and vans make a
gesture of worship with their hands folded in front of their chest towards
the shrine of Devol Deviyo in Seenigama when they pass. Furthermore since
1992 the priests of Devol and Getabaru have been allowed to carry out
cursing activities in a tiny building on the official premises of the main
shrine of Vishnu in Dondra. Vishnu is said to have been nominated by Buddha
himself on his deathbed to protect Buddhism in Sri Lanka. He is not only
respected as a high Buddhist god, but is also considered to be a
"Bodhisattva" (a future Buddha). Therefore, it is not insignificant that
recently in Dondra under his aegis Devol and Getabaru were allowed to
practise cursing activities. It is not only an additional illustration of
the recent increase in cursing activities, but it also shows that the need
to conceal or to disguise the cursing violence in the formal Buddhist
Sinhala society of Sri Lanka is somewhat less pressing today.(4)
* Dr. J.P. Feddema is an antropological researcher at the Free University of
1 The goddess Kali is mentioned last. Not because she is the least involved
in cursing activities - probably on the contrary the most of all - but
because she is still considered to be a Hindu Tamil goddess. Because Sinhala
Buddhists today, due to the cursing practices at her shrine, are becoming
more and more worshippers of Kali, I could not therefore leave her out.
2 This confrontation of Devol with Pattini, the mother-goddess of the
living, causes Weerakoon to write that Devol is not the expelled son of an
Indian king, but "the returning ancestor from the land of the dead" (1985,
3 Not only is the minority group of the indigenous Tamils used as a
scapegoat in Sri Lanka, but Christians (because of their privileged position
during the colonial time), Muslims, Mayalali workers and Indian Tamil
plantation workers in recent decades also have been a target of an
anti-movement among the Sinhala Buddhist majority (Jayawardena, 1990).
4 My thanks go to all those without whose help I would not have been able to
carry out this study. I cannot mention them all, but I make an exception for
W.N. Dharmasuriya especially, M.R. Tilakaratna, D.M. Somasiri, S. Serasingha
and Sarath Weerarathna. I am also grateful to Mervyn Ananda M.A., Dr. M.
Anspach, Rev. Fr. Harry Haas, Dr. Paul Hubers, Dr. A. Lascaris, Dr. Nancy
McCagney, Helen Richardson M.A., Prof Dr. J. Termekes and Prof Dr. J.M.
Schoffeleers for their comment on the first draft.
Chandraprema, C.A. 1991. Sri Lanka: The Years of Terror. The JVP
Insurrection, 1987-1989. Colombo: Lakehouse Bookshops.
Dhammananda, K. 1987. What Buddhists Believe. Kuala Lumpur.
Feddema, J.P. 1988a. Vormen van samenwerking in Dodanduwa, een vissersdorp
in zuid-west Sri Lanka. In: Antropologische Verkenningen, jrg 7, nr. 3,
Feddema, J.P. 1988b. Hoe lang hog maken wij onszelf en de ander zowel tot
model als rivaal? In: Wending 5, 212-225.
Feddema, J.P. 1995. The "Lesser" Violence of Animal Sacrifice, a Somewhat
Hidden and Overlooked (Ignored?) Reality in Buddhist Sinhala Ritual
Concerning the "Yakku." In: Anthropos 90, 133-148.
Feddema, J.P. 1996. Transformaties in bet Sinhala boeddhisme. De groeiende
aantrekkingskracht van de Sunyiam cultus. In: FOCAAL, Tijdschrift voor
Antropologie, hr. 28, 91-110.
Girard, R. 1984. Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore/London: J. Hopkins
University Press. (Originally published in Paris in 1972 as La violence et
Girard, R. 1986. De Zondebok. Kampen: Kok Agora. (Originally published in
Paris in 1982 as Le bouc emissaire.)
Girard, R. 1990. Wat vanaf bet begin der tijden verborgen was ... Kampen,
Kok Agora. (Originally published in Paris in 1978 as Des choses cachees
depuis la fondation du monde.)
Gombrich, R. and G. Obeyesekere. 1988. Buddhism Reformed, Religious Change
in Sri Lanka. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Gunawardena, R.A.L.H. 1985. The People of the Lion: Sinhala Consciousness in
History and Historiography. In: Ethnicity and Social Change in Sri Lanka,
55-107 (Papers of a Seminar in 1979). Dehiwala: The Social Scientist
Jayawardena, K. 1990. Ethnic and Class Conflicts in Sri Lanka. Colombo.
Merton, Robert K. 1957. Social Theory and Social Structure. Glencoe, Ill.:
Obeyesekere, G. 1975. Sorcery, Premeditated Murder, and the Canalization of
Agression in Sri Lanka. In: Ethnology, Vol. XIV, No. 1, 1-23.
Obeyesekere, G. 1986. The Cult of Hunyam: a New Religious Movement in Sri
Lanka. In: Beckford A., New Religious Movements and Rapid Social Change,
197-219. London: Sage.
Sarachandra, Ediriweera R. 1958. Traditional Values and the Modernization of
a Buddhist Society: The Case of Ceylon. In: Bellah R.N. (ed.), Religion and
Progress in Modern Asia, 109-123. New York: The Free Press.
Weerakoon, R. 1985. Sri Lanka's Mythology. Colombo: Samayawardhana.
Wijesekera, P. Nandadeva 1986. Contacts and Conflicts with Sri Lanka.
Wijesekera, P. Nandadeva 1987. Deities and Demons, Magic and Masks I.