Wisdom of our ancestors and the truth behind our heritage: A Sri Lankan perspective
by Janaka Goonetilleke on 23 Jan 2013 19 Comments

We have for so long ignored and disregarded the wealth of knowledge from our glorious 2500-year-old civilization that we have become mere appendages to western civilization. We have been mere objects whilst the west seized mastery over the history of the last 500 years. It is time to reflect what we have given up in spite of the great technological achievements of western civilization. The technological achievements and material advancement of a minority have been at the expense of the environment, personal happiness and health. Today humanity is at a crossroads; can it pursue a path that is self destructive, unsustainable and that which has brought misery to a majority of humanity or could we look back and explore the civilisation we left behind?


Can we solve the problems of today with the same policies that created them? Are there any lessons we can learn from our past and how can we utilise them for the benefit of humanity? The path is very broad and long; however, even to get a glimpse of what can be achieved would be worth exploring by coming generations.


Heritage and Epigenetic


Sinhalese paid tribute to their ancestors in most of their personal rituals no different from the rest of the world. A Sinhalese bride and ordaining monks are characterised by the respect and tribute they pay to seven generations by wearing seven necklaces. The rituals of a wedding celebrates continuity of motherhood by presenting 7 katchi (3.5 meters) of cloth they reckon will imbibe the milk that a mother has fed the bride as a child which later is used to make clothes for the first born. It is a tribute to the continuity of motherhood, which nurtures and protects that inheritance, a recognition that history is within us and is not in the past.


In medicine, it is called epigenetic. Essentially it means that the environment sets your genes and it is inherited. An obese mother will have the tendency to give birth to a child that has childhood obesity; the same mother after surgery to cure obesity could have a child that is normal. Thus, an Asian Mind is different from a western mind, a concept first proposed by Japanese intellectual Tensing Okkakura and later accepted by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.


Buddhists recognise the part played by the environment in the precept of the Patticca Samupadaya, Sutra of Dependent Origination. Humans are only a part of the environment and live in harmony with the rest and do not suffer from the hubris that man controls the environment for his own benefit at the expense of others. This philosophy has been part and parcel of the Sinhalese in their endeavours for development.


Human Development


What does humanity desire of life? Can it be assessed in the proxy of money? These two philosophical questions must be assessed before one can seriously address the lessons we can learn from our past for the betterment of the future. Reality is the perception of each individual of that moment and it is these perceptions that rule the world best expressed by Buddha in the Kalama Sutra, Sutra of Independent Thought. Under these circumstances what drives the world is the perceptions and these are under attack today. The advertising media has sub consciously seduced us to believe in the philosophy of instant gratification as against a philosophy of living in harmony with due consideration for the many. It is like a mono-cultural plantation which depletes the nutrients from the same strata of the soil and makes future agriculture bleak.


Neurologists believe that the large brain, “Social Brain”, is a result of millions of years of social interaction that gives one the sense of well being in serving others, an inherited mindset that sustains humanity.


Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness, not pain or mindless self-indulgence, is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values – AYN RAND


The individual’s desire was best expressed by Rabindranath Tagore in his advice to Japan when it was looking to the west in the quest for modernity. He said modernity is the freedom of the mind not the taste in the tongue; science must be for the benefit of humanity not to its destruction, and modernity was not blind imitation of the west.


An individual’s desire for a life without fear and in happiness can only be achieved with a value system that is moral and compassionate with due consideration for the many (both animals and humans). This value system is nurtured and protected by motherhood and passed on to the next generation, this is our basic human nature that we have inherited, a fact well recognized by our ancestors. Today the earth that was carefully preserved by our ancestors to this generation is being destroyed and our responsibilities for future generations have been abdicated.


Economics and Work Ethic


Our ancestors believed in the dictum “Less is more” as against the western thought that “more is more”. This means that there is more time for yourself if you practice eastern philosophy or less time for yourself if you observe western philosophy. Buddhists calls it right effort and Christians pray for their daily bread not for tomorrow. Christian work ethic, however, demands hard work and saving for the future. This dichotomy was best explained by the Dalai Lama answering a question about humanity:

“Man sacrifices his health to earn money, then he spends his money to recuperate his health. Then he is anxious about his future that he does not enjoy the present, result being he does not live in the present or the future. He lives as if he is never going to die and then he dies having never really lived”.


Accountability and Governance


A sustainable economic and social unit in Sinhala was based on the Temple, Tank and Paddy fields. Sri Lanka being a Buddhist country believed in the theory of individualism and self-development. The individual perception drives the world according to Buddhism. Unity and social cohesion can only be achieved by actions for the benefit of the many. To achieve social cohesion and a moral value system, the temple was established where the priests not only addressed the spiritual and educational needs of the community, but also were responsible for establishing and maintaining moral and compassionate values in society, leading to a harmonious society. It is the temple that sought to give refuge to the Catholics in Wahakotte when they were discriminated by the Dutch colonialists, or for that matter gave refuge to a large number of immigrants from India (now Sinhalanised) with the acceptance of Hindu Gods in the precincts of the temple itself.


The rulers were monitored and the temple demanded that they observe the dasa raja dharmaya or ten commandments of good governance. To achieve this, Sinhala society saw to it that the temple was economically stable and independent. But the British in their endeavour to undermine the power of the temple confiscated the temple land by the Temple Lands Act.


Today there is a great void in society with no proper institution to demand adherence to social values. Under the guise of secularism, and weakening of the temple by politicization, society is led by a people’s democracy that lacks a moral code and has enslaved society to commercialism and greed. Should there be a multi religious powerful body to monitor the rulers and society in this modern era is a question that probably needs to be answered. It is also important to note that every profession in society had different means by which they were morally accountable, an aspect which is clearly lacking in the society of today.


Self Development and Creativity


The wisdom of Buddhism was instrumental in disciplining the Sinhala nation. Wisdom according to Buddhism is the key to plenitude and that wisdom can only be created by concentration (through meditation) and the realisation of this moment. That reality is at this moment not in the future or in the past, a clear deviation from the objectivism of the western mindset where the subject moves to the object where there is a timeframe that can be influenced by external factors. Planning and expectations of the future push the individual on an emotional rollercoaster that is stressful and prevents concentration.


Neurologists have realised that the brain is plastic and the perfection of the circuitry can only be achieved by a maximum stimulus that needs a thought process free of stress and able to concentrate. It is this stimulus that enhances development of expertise and creativity. This creativity when used in harmony with the environment creates sustainable technology that eludes humanity when done purely on the basis of material gain. Buddhist meditation has proved to be able to re-sculpt our brain so that it improves expertise, mental health and physiology.


Human Development: Sinhala garden and biodiversity


A Sinhalese garden was based on agro forestry. There were three types of trees - large, medium and shrubs and herbs. This vegetation used nutrients from three layers of soil - deep layer, middle layer and the superficial layer, very different from the mono-cultural growth that would deplete the nutrients from one layer. The products ranged from vegetables for consumption, herbs for medicine and large trees for shade and improvement of the quality of air. The vegetation also traps the water that replenishes the ground water and prevents flooding and landslides. The filtered ground water was extracted through wells for human consumption.


Multicultural agro-forest gardens maintained a biodiversity in harmony with human habitation. Vectors that transmit diseases like Dengue were not part of the biodiversity even if they were present as predators kept their numbers very small. Gardens today are very small and urbanization has caused major health care issues besides changes in biodiversity, poor quality of air etc. The cost of urbanization and small living spaces has never been accounted for in terms of human development. No thoughts have been given to changes in biodiversity and risks of new diseases and its costs. Large percentage of the GDP is spent on urbanization and very little on the development of rural areas for sustainable environment for human habitation. The rulers live in an illusion that urbanization and dehumanization is modernity.


Building Technology


Sinhalese building technology was integrated with the bio-climate. The environment was maximally utilised for the comfort of the occupants while simultaneously addressing the stresses and strains subjected to it.  The structure was dependent on the material available in the area. The masonry was essentially lime, sand and anthill clay or mud. The houses addressed the social needs of the occupants.


Ventilation and temperature control were established by the cool winds enhanced by the trees, use of a wooden angled roof, and prevention of transfer of heat across the walls. The walls themselves absorbed water when it was cold, and expelled water when it was hot, thus maintaining a constant temperature. This prevented cracking of the walls, an attribute that cement walls lack. Sinhala tiles and the quadrangle at the centre (mada medulla) also helped in ventilation and temperature control. The ground water was kept dry by using terracotta or mud; this prevented termites and hazards to timber. The reusability and environmentally friendly nature of the building technology has been given up for an energy expensive alternative that may not be sustainable in view of the ever rising energy costs.


Today that technology is being destroyed in the name of renovation. In Galle fort, the plaster that maintained its integrity for 300 years is being replaced by cement. In Colombo, the age-old remedy for termites is ignored and a system of pipes laid to inject insecticides regularly.  No thought has been given to the risks of insecticide poisoning when the chemicals infiltrate the water table.




Sri Lanka is an island; the topography of the land is such there are many ridges that extend from east to west. The ravine between these ridges was natural passages for tributaries that were used by our ancestors to build tanks for irrigation. The topography, vegetation and biodiversity was conserved.  There were three types of tanks


A)    Katakuruwewa: desilting tanks. These tanks were used to collect silt. The drainage from this to larger tanks was from a higher level. When these tanks needed desilting, elephant games were used to suspend the silt which was drained into the paddy fields thus nourishing it. Today no such attention is given, as they believe that caterpillar drainage machines can be used to desilt. This carries a risk of damaging the earth’s crust, which would drain the water into deeper water tables. The tanks would thus loose the capacity to hold the water. How much of this is responsible for the dry tanks at present is a very important question that has not been answered.


B)    Karawita wew: Tanks to prevent infiltration of saline water from the sea. These tanks were set in the coastal belt to increase the subterranean fresh water pressure to prevent the ingress of seawater


C)    Ebba wew: collection of tanks on river bunds to harness water during flooding and preventing devastation of human habitations due to floods


Catchment forests


These forests were called forbidden forests. In Minneriya, the catchment area of the forests was well endowed with the Weera tree. It has a thick mass of leaves with low evaporation, thus conserving ground water; it also protects the undergrowth during hot seasons thus maintaining biodiversity. Yet these trees have been cut and new agro forests established that do not maintain the water tables as well.


Today this finely balanced eco system of our ancestors is in ruins thanks to the advice of international consultants, politicians, IMF, World Bank and local technocrats that have never understood the wisdom of our ancestors. Today, due to the massive developmental programme, the north central province still suffers from lack of water resources for irrigation during certain periods, flooding and more importantly, 15% of the people suffer from kidney disease following contamination of drinking water by arsenic introduced by fertilizer (for high yielding foreign paddy crops). And self sufficiency for electricity promised is a far cry.


Public Health: Biodiversity


The emphasis on biodiversity and harmonious living with the environment was part and parcel of healthy living. The environment supplied the nutrients for human sustainability and prevented vector-controlled diseases due to a harmonious existence with the environment. Now, deforestation has introduced new human diseases, and curing these new diseases needs new research. The forests that have been so carefully preserved for continuity of humanity by our ancestors are being destroyed and one laments that these new problems are not calculated into the assessments of any major projects. It is a format of creative accounting whereby ordinary citizens are left to deal with the consequences.


Diet and modern disease patterns


The constitution of an average Sri Lankan has been built on a sustainable diet that his or her ancestors have been on. For instance, the coronary arteries of a Asian are much smaller than of a European and carry a higher risk of obstruction and coronary artery disease if fed on an alien high fat diet. It is well-known that Asians (Sri Lankans) in UK carry a higher risk of coronary artery disease and diabetes due to the European diet. Should Asians be eating Kentucky Fried chicken, Beef Burgers and drinking coke? Our inheritance says we are best off on an indigenous diet.




We in the 21st century have a lot to learn from our past. It is time to realise that history is not in the past but within us in every sense of the word. Unless and until we understand who we are, we can never progress. Blindly following the west is not the answer but adaptation to the present knowing our background should be a great starting point. It is better now than never.


Janaka Goonetilleke is author of Atapattu Walawwa: Residences of the Gooneratne & Dias Abeyasinghe Families of Galle; Atapattu Walawwa embodies some key aspects of the material conditions and social history of Sri Lanka, its architecture, building technology, design aesthetics, the challenge of tradition and modernization, re-orienting European influence under colonialism, contributing to the national and Buddhist revival

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