|15th SAARC Conference 2008-Connectivity, heritage and conflict resolution: A SOUTH ASIAN PERSPECTIVE|
|Tuesday, 05 August 2008|
by Prof. Sudharshan SeneviratneDirector General,Central Cultural Fund
Professor of Archaeology, University of Peradeniya
South Asia is a historically evolved region drawing its ‘identity consciousness’ from the rich tangible and intangible heritage found in its natural landscape. We in South Asia are nurtured within the legacy of a shared heritage for over three thousand years and its ethos is a classic representation of diversity and commonalities.
Our heritage is essentially inclusive and not exclusive. The shared heritage of the people of South Asia is a key to understanding that diversity, which is the factor of commonality in our society. Compartmentalization of our society was a legacy of the Colonial rule where ‘imagined’ racial categories, mythic martial races along with policies of divide and rule formed the basis for multiple dichotomies in South Asia. The Post Colonial period witnessed the continuation of such dichotomies resulting in a sharper polarization and marginalization of communities through imagined categories introduced from above. It must be our collective endeavor to strive towards our connectivity as a key to sustaining the spirit of the SAARC as a gift to the next generation.
Situating select individuals of the shared heritage
As an entrée to the discourse let me unfold the nature of three brilliant south Asians – Rabindranath Tagore, Ananda Coomaraswamy and Lakshman Kadirgamar, who valued knowledge and shared culture as the prime social wealth. Their individual personalities epitomized the best qualities of Classical South Asian culture blended with the highest cultural norms of modernity of the Internationalist!
In their own individual styles they contributed subtle vibrations of understanding the rhythm of human nature - representing perhaps the ultimate essence of blending aesthetics, knowledge and intelligence. Tagore translated his ideals into living reality by founding the Shanti Niketan or the university without walls – the ashram of knowledge reciprocity. It was the point of convergence and catalyst for the beauty of nature and mind - this fusion Tagore believed to be the very poetry of life! Ananda Coomaraswamy who shifted his focus from earth science to aesthetics, rediscovered and redefined the indigenous tradition and its identity and fine tuned its underlying philosophy towards metaphysics. Kadirgamar’s philosophy of life, political philosophy and cultural philosophy, both, as a Sri Lankan and as an uncompromising internationalist, derived from the simple axiom that every one of its citizens had a right to live in dignity within this island and no one could deprive another of that sacred right. His respect for all religions, languages and cultures was a way of life for Kadirgamar through absolute conviction of his belief that while taking pride in his or her culture one must celebrate and respect other cultures. Respect for diversity was his norm.
All three of them were elegantly accomplished individuals who believed in the beauty of all encompassing culture of human dignity and possessed intellectual personalities celebrating diversity and inclusiveness. Their ideals will be a permanent beacon to all those who value quality of life and the culture of dignified humane aspirations.
Resolving Conflict in classical South Asia
Resolving conflict is not a novel concept to South Asian societies. We need not be educated by the west on the nature of conflict and the modalities of neutralizing conflict. Our cultures had evolved in-built safety mechanisms neutralizing tensions and stress points in society as a survival strategy. In fact one of the earliest instances of a social contract, reflecting people to people connectivity, is attributed to South Asia. The Agganna sutta describes that people oppressed by conflict elected an individual who was called Mahasammata (‘the great elect’) as ruler to settle disputes. Mahasammata was expected to maintain peace and equilibrium in society through the laws of Dhamma or righteousness.
Interesting to note in this context is the in-built concepts of accountability, transparency and good governance that are inherent in the norms worked out by society, be it from above or from below. With the emergence of the advance state developing into empire systems, Buddhist texts highlight the concept of the Universal King or Chakkavatti raja. The Chakkavatti Sihanada sutta and Mahasudassana sutta, credit the universal king as the person responsible for duties and obligations not only towards the subjects but also for the total environment of his domain assuring his responsibility to maintain quality of life. The king agrees to uphold the code of conduct prescribed to the ruler known as dasa raja dhamma. Thus society and its habitat are considered integral components.
This is repeated in the popular Buddhist invocation as:
Devo vassatu kalena
May there be rains at the right season
Sassasampatti hotu ca
May there be a plentiful harvest
Pito bhavatu loko ca
May the people be happy
Raja bhavatu dammiko
May the rulers govern with righteousness
Siddhartha Gautama unfolded a people friendly movement for this purpose. The creation of the order of bikkhu, also known as sangha or gana, was to resolve conflict at the group level. The guiding norm of this people to people connectivity was his instructions to the sangha "to wander among the people and spread the dhamma for the betterment for the people and the deities".
At the individual level one had to be accountable for ones own acts, to ones own self and to society in order to curtail conflict. The five precepts (or panchasheela) where one resolves to abstain from - destroying life, taking things not given, sexual misconduct, false speech and intoxicanting drinks are basic tenants of ethical conduct that do not disturb society. Lay ethics pronounced by the Buddha in the Sigalovada sutta, Parabhava sutta, Dhammika sutta, Mahamangala sutta to mention a few, clearly prescribe the duties and obligation of an individual towards his or her immediate family, society, servants and slaves, teachers, holy people and even the state. Perhaps one of the best examples of concord and amicable behavior neutralizing tension and conflict is known as the seven factors preventing decline (sapta aparihaniya dhamma) prescribed by the Buddha in the Mahaparinibbana sutta. The Lichchhavi of Vaishali were instructed by the Buddha that as long as they assemble in concord, rise in concord, continue time tested traditions, respect elders, respect women, respect places of worship, and respect the clergy they shall continue to prosper in unity and not decline. Drawing inspiration from the code of conduct prescribed in religious teachings, mainly Buddhism, Ashoka Maurya developed his own brand of conflict resolution through Ashoka Dhamma.
Situating the discourse
This discourse revolves around the relevance of people to people connectivity and heritage as an alternative system of conflict resolution.
For centuries the rich cultural personality of South Asian countries were nurtured through cross-cultural interactions. It is ironic that during the advanced period of ‘print capitalism’ (after Benedict Anderson) sustaining distance contraction, we have constructed vertically arranged ethno-national compartments. As Eric Wolf points out, one nation or culture cannot be studied in isolation because "human populations construct their cultures in interaction with one another" (1982: ix). Even the Diaspora does not form an isolated entity. One of the critical challenges we face in South Asia is bridging national, religious and cosmopolitan identities with a futuristic vision.
For years various groups and policy makers attempted to arrive at different formulas and processes seeking that illusive ‘peace’. Ironically enough peace initiatives have less involvement of the people, academics, artists and other social activists and are more the purview of policy makers, bureaucrats and politicians. In all their imagined wisdom they pronounced the basis, modalities and the execution of the ‘peace initiatives’ and peace processes that were inevitably doomed to failure. The people, academics, artists etc. who are the primary stake-holders in society were but by-standers watching the ‘unmaking of history’ through peace imposed from above. It is a process that must be embraced, cultivated, expressed and sustained by people and not by unimaginative decision-makers in society.
The discourse takes up specific areas that go beyond the narrow confines of hacked politics and administrative issues. The focus has to be on heritage, as an area of refinement that was never grasped by the crass minds of dull-witted policy makers. Heritage in this discourse is to be considered as a multifaceted catalyst. Heritage in the main is viewed as a source of people to people connectivity in conflict resolution. It seeks to understand the Pre Colonial heritage and question exclusiveness against inclusiveness; grassroots level peoples’ connectivity cutting across ethnic, language, religious and political divides juxtaposed to divisions imposed from above by Colonialism and later by local decision-makers. It looks at heritage as an idiom that expresses a common language of humanity where people reach out to each other for understanding, sharing and co-existence.
It then brings up the critical need to create an alternative space for a discourse leading to an alternate perspective for peace. The critical need of the hour is a definitive paradigm shift where a new discourse within a newly created alternative space will be a benchmark for future peace initiatives and a new thought process by the next generation. This perhaps is "the pluralist intellectual personality challenging exclusiveness" of futuristic South Asia envisioned by Amarthya Sen in Argumentative India.
Heritage must be thrust beyond the narrow confines of culture per se. We seek to redefine heritage and situate culture, environment, knowledge and the next generation as its integral components providing it with a deeper construct. UNESCO has envisioned categories such as tangible and intangible heritage promoting World Heritage Sites and promotes conventions on Diversity and Peace Education.
Heritage undoubtedly is the end product of human thought and action essentially reflecting higher achievements and refinements of any society. Thus heritage does not evolve in a vacuum or in isolation. It is cross-fertilized by other parallel cultures that are essentially shared. It represents the best of humane aspirations and connected destinies and is in fact one of the best sources of understanding societies, their behavior and thinking patterns. Each community carries the finger print of its own heritage personality while it shares many elements of other techno-cultural groups as well. Diversity therefore is a living reality and will continue to be so despite the overarching (and imagined) global culture imposed from above.
Culture and environment essentially have a symbiotic relationship. This calls for an alternative understanding of the total cultural ecology or the interacting and symbiotic relationship between resident communities and the natural environment of their habitat. It is a process that ultimately determined the nature and level of social, economic, political and religio-cultural formations in pre Industrial societies. We have to recognize it as a discursive process interacting with two or multiple systems in the formation of social systems on the one hand and cognitive aspects associated with such societies on the other.
Information on the culture-environment symbiosis shaping the thinking and behavior patterns in society, in the past or present, is transmitted to us through knowledge. In addition to traditional knowledge contemporary knowledge is embedded in each culture. It is incumbent upon us, as concerned citizens of South Asia, to recognize the enormous complexities involved in the maximization and application of knowledge information in multi-cultural societies situated within altering patterns of globalization.
Redefining the vision of the futuristic role of education therefore is one of the most central and challenging issues facing contemporary South Asian societies. Ironically enough, education is yet to be recognized as a valid factor in conflict resolution in South Asia. The negation of a liberal education in the Post Colonial Period is a major impediment that has produced a vertically divided society in this region. Humanizing and democratizing education through the Liberal Arts is seen as a remedial strategy in the process of restructuring the future educational policy in multi cultural South Asia. It is seen as a process that will ultimately sustain an intellectually independent next generation of South Asians who will represent the best of humanistic traditions and values as citizens of the world. In view of this, the document on Peace Education propagated by UNESCO must receive serious cognizance by all organizations and individuals who desire a liberal and inclusive education for the next generation.
This region had its own tradition of grasping the essential dynamics of conflict and had evolved remedial strategies in dealing with such situations as well. While conflict did exist in our pre modern society, it is Colonialism that inducted entirely new forms of conflicts that had long term consequences running well into the post Colonial period. Imaging South Asia and its past in the Colonial mind directly contributed to the rise of new forms of conflicts based on identities, which spilled over to other issues such as access or alienation from resources and decision-making process. It is also argued that in South Asia exclusionist nationalism tends to regard other cultures as subordinate and with an increasing tempo of intolerance (Thapar 2001:xix).
It is not surprising that the post Colonial generation viewed sectional ideologies as a consequence of identity based on religion, caste, language, ‘race’ or some other form of group affiliation and also as a natural process associated with the historical evolution of social systems in South Asia. Clearly the dominating features of this period are: economic alienation and the possibility of geo-political units being carved out on ethno-cultural or more specifically ‘racial’ lines. Such inverted sentiments are further compounded by internal readjustments demanded by those who wish for alternative political systems – such as social fascism, and externally through altered processes of globalization. It is correctly pointed out "Current nationalisms – ethnic religious, linguistic – cannot be entirely isolated from globalization" (Thapar 2004:21). It is in this context one must understand the role of reading the past in contested identities and in legitimating social and political power. This is the ‘other’ picture of our shared fate in South Asia.
The dialogue: alternative space for heritage and conflict resolution
The cultural landscape of South Asia essentially represents a habitat of multi-cultural and varied biological identities. In contemporary South Asia we possess ethnic, language, religious and religio-cultural diversity providing its regional society with multiple identities shaping the cosmopolitan cultural ethos of South Asia. The critical question is the level of our commitment to the ethical aspect of respecting other cultures. This is all about sensitivity towards cultural identities and interaction among culturally diverse resident communities.
Contraction of cultural spaces through globalization and the need to reorient the existing mindset from the narrow spectrum compartmentalized time, space and cultural rubric is an imperative. While South Asia celebrates a vibrant history of cultural pluralism and diversity, there is a tragic contradiction posed by conflicts triggered off on the basis of imagined racial lines. One of the most unfortunate features of such conflicts is the conscious and unconscious impact it has on educational policies, cultural resource management and the archaeological agenda in South Asia. Secondly, it also results in the destruction directed at cultural property by all participating groups. While Archaeology and history are subjects that are effectively used by all contending parties in conflicts where the past is subverted in creating imagined identities, conversely archaeology and heritage studies are perhaps the best avenues that could rectify the process of cultural plurality and demythifying all forms of parochialisms in a scientific manner and place alternative histories before the next generation for a better and rational understanding of the past. The mind set must be reoriented beyond the mono country and monoculture and be exposed to cross-regional and cross-cultural horizons.
It is the social responsibility of professionals and intellectuals with a humanistic social awareness to provide the society at large with an alternative strategy for social change and sustenance against destructive processes dislocating historically evolved social systems in South Asia or for that matter those found else where in the world. The ideoscape of presenting the heritage and the re-introduction of a liberal education in conflict resolution is suggested as an urgent remedial strategy as against the self-destructive path currently unfolding in our region.
South Asian countries are facing a grave threat of preserving its heritage conditioned by human created environmental problems, looting, war situations, natural disasters and threat to the tangible and intangible heritage introduced by ‘modernization’ and images of parochialism negating its cultural plurality. While there is a growing consciousness about the need to preserve our heritage for the next generation, there is yet some ambiguity as to what needs to be protected, modalities of protecting cultural property and whose heritage must be protected?
In view of this, a convergence of all stakeholders – incorporating the general public, relevant officers of the state, private sector (banking and hospitality management sectors), school children, other professionals, clergy, and international organizations - is seen as a logical necessity in this capacity building and awareness elevating exercise for empowerment. Bringing the message home on UNESCO Charters to all stakeholders through discussions, the audio-visual medium, interactive programs and hands-on activities is seen as a positive pro-active method that would yield a long term spin off of shaping an inclusive society and an appreciation of cultural property as an endowment of humanity from the past to the present and future generations.
Therefore, as an alternative to the monologue with the past we now have to carry out a dialogue with the past and utilize education, environmental studies, archaeology and heritage studies as a major avenue of chartering a new road map in conflict resolution. The state, UNESCO and the public at large must come to terms of a partnership in relation to Heritage Sites. Unless and until we learn to present the past incorporating all communities as its stakeholders respecting their tangible and intangible heritage and develop an unbiased historical explanation of the past, it will only alienate different groups from the mainstream culture for different reasons. The primary target group in our effort therefore is the next generation, who are the primary stakeholders of the heritage. While they belong to different religious, language and ethnic denominations they essentially form the future leadership of heritage managers.
Our efforts at utilizing both the tangible and the intangible heritage in conflict resolution are paying rich dividends and we are today hopeful towards positive attitudes by the next generation of professionals reading the past. Heritage is therefore to be situated beyond its narrow spectrum definition. It is be identified not as a static factor only looking at the past but its futuristic function in understanding shared cultures, cultural plurality and as a factor instructing the next generation of the true personality of the inclusive multi cultural mosaic of the South Asian society.
In spite of recurring upheavals I am positively optimistic about the wisdom of the people in our region to rise above abysmal parochialisms and reach out to each other with sanity and understanding on cultural connectivity and our shared heritage as a point of convergence "beyond the bloody dances of death" (Bhan 2006:99). It gives us hope to know of individuals who are involved in the Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature who have a vision Beyond Borders. Recent happenings in South Asia with special reference to the Nalanda Project, Sri Lankas efforts to name multi-religious sites as World Heritage sites – gives a glimmer of hope on the perpetuation of our shared heritage valued by the people. Similarly, the founding of a liberal arts school in Pakistan by the Agha Khan Foundation and the conscious effort by Pakistan to promote Buddhist heritage as source of connectivity are laudable activities indeed. The Lumbini Project in Nepal could be a potentially high value site for people to people connectivity. All these efforts will essentially initiate a dialogue with those "who so far have remained outside the periphery of mainstream political discourse…..and in strengthening cultural connectivity and common historico-civilisational links…" (Bhan 2006:102).
At the 2007 SAARC Cultural Ministers Meeting held in Colombo, our proposal for the SAARC Heritage Center carried the following message.
"It is apparent that the region must preserve this rich culture bequeathed to us from the past in a redefined form and as a living source of cross-regional cultural connectivity sustaining the spirit of the SARRC and also blending tradition with modernity.
The convergence of the arts and crafts will represent a cross-section of South Asian culture intrinsic to each country and its internal regions. Cross regional people to people heritage connectivity and environmental awareness are two major gains in this venture. Cross-fertilization of inter regional arts and crafts and the revitalization of indigenous arts and crafts that are facing extinction will be another positive gain. All our countries are concerned of the impact of globalization and other market forces that are diluting the indigenous arts and crafts. This center shall not only revitalize such endangered arts and crafts, it shall play a pivotal role in the preservation of the tangible heritage (as per UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage – 1972) and the intangible heritage (as per UNESCO Convention for the safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage - 2003).
This centre could be developed as an awareness-building and capacity-building venue. The target group will be our next generation. Youth arriving here from the SAARC region as observers, apprentices and participants in the arts and crafts activity is to be seriously taken note of. As a center of dissemination of cultural knowledge it will bring together our children, the next generation of SAARC leadership, who belong to different ethnic, language, religious and cultural groups and inculcate within them the norms and values of respecting diversity, inclusiveness of our regional culture and shared aspirations eventually sustaining the spirit of the SAARC.
As South Asians we are in more than one-way shareholders to a common heritage situated in time and space. We are the inheritors of a culture that is so vibrantly enriched by sophisticated social philosophies that originated in this region and had an overarching impact beyond its natural landscape and also by both indigenous and shared values.
This is indeed a tribute to the remarkable synthesis that has been achieved in South Asia between two or more related but divergent value systems. We have also been inspired for thousands of years by the messages of peace that emanated from this region, not only in terms of its sublime message of cultivating the supreme humane personality but also as a social philosophy that released dynamics of an expressive higher culture in art, sculpture, architecture and literature. This is spiritual and cultural connectivity at its best. Let us therefore recognize and celebrate these elements of our shared heritage lending connectivity to the people of South Asia!
Courtesy :(Part 1) The Island 29-07-2008
(Part 2) The Island 30-07-2008
|Last Updated ( Monday, 09 March 2009 )|
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