Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere
It is with some dismay that sometime back I read of a minister of the government making a case for the execution of "traitors" and his conviction that executions were a common-place practice of ancient Sri Lankan kings. I am distressed that Sri Lankan kings, some of whom were imbued with practical Buddhist values should have been targeted in this manner. Your readers may be surprised to know that the Mahavamsa (including the section now known as the Chulavamsa) rarely mentions executions ,
although it does mention the sad fate of kings who have been murdered by potential usurpers and rightly attributes these murders as a manifestation of "the lust for kingship," a neat anticipation of the notion of the "will to power" made famous by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. But murder of kings or persons that were a threat to kings could hardly be considered execution of traitors. Unfortunately, the Chulavamsa has only a brief mention of the Kotte period and we have to use Sinhala sources such as the standard R?j?valiya and similar texts to deal with some of the bloody executions and their problematic nature during that period.
Let me begin with a key period in Sri Lankan history, namely the disastrous invasions by Magha and his South Indian mercenaries and his ally Jayabahu who I think obtained his army from the area of the Ramnad, the closest point of entry to Sri Lanka. These two joint invasions resulted in the destruction of the traditional centers of civilization and their slow but inevitable abandonment. The leader of the resistance was Vijayabahu III but it was his son, the truly great Sri Lankan king Parakramabahu II (1236-1270), who finally dispersed the invaders and brought the three divisions of the Island (Pihiti, Maya and Ruhuna) under a single "canopy." This ideal could not have been realized unless Parakramabahu II, in addition to being a king imbued with practical Buddhist values, was also an exceptional warrior and strategist. I want to focus here on another side of his achievements: his knowledge of Buddhist doctrines and above all his attitude to executions and his humane vision of Buddhism. The R?j?valiya texts as does the C?lavamsa and the P?javaliya and all chronicles emphasize his restoration of Buddhist sites and the construction of new ones, his learning and scholarly identity as Pandita Kalik?la S?hitya Sarvag?a P?rakramab?hu and above all his compassion (Cv. 83: 4-7). "People whose heads were to be cut off he punished only in stern fashion with dungeon and fetters and then set them free again. But for such people as deserved prison the Ruler to whom pity was the highest, ordained some lighter punishment or other, and reprimanded them. But on people who should have been banished from the country the Ruler who might be likened to Manu, laid but a fine of a thousand (kah?panas). But on all those who deserved a fine, he looked with indignation and with all sorts of words of rebuke he made of them honest men." What is remarkable is that several R?j?valiya texts confirm this but adds that forty thousand of the enemy forces were surrounded by the king’s brother who with the help of the Sinhala armies stationed between Polonnaruva and Uratota "handed them all to king Parakramabahu. Those Tamil soldiers were not put to death, but were permitted to go to their own country," a model that those of us living today should bear in mind because it is clear that the R?j?valiya endorsed the notion of the king’s compassion even in respect of his enemies (Rjv: 60, Suraweera trans.) All our texts recognize that while the invaders were South Indian mercenaries they were not from the Chola country, a land with whom we had good relations, at least during this period. All our texts assert that Parakramabahu dismissed corrupt monks who had flourished during the "interregnum" (the period of Magha) and then "sent many gifts to the Cola [Chola] country and caused to be brought over to Tambapanni many respected Cola bhikkhus who had moral discipline and were versed in the three Pitakas and so established harmony between the two Orders" (Cv, 84: 9-10). Not only that: he also invited a "grand Thera" from the Tamil country named Dhammakitti for further developing the Order. The king ordered the promulgation of rules for monk discipline and the reformation of the Sangha known as the Dambadeni katik?vata, a notable text that ought to be required reading for contemporary monks and concerned laypersons.
His successors might have their failings but they were not given to chopping heads or breaking legs. Consider Parakramabahu IV (1302-1326) who was also known as a scholar or pandita. He had several times assembled monks and made them perform the "ceremony of admission to the Order," that is, the upasampad? ordination whereby novices become fully ordained monks (Cv. 90:65). More significantly he built a temple for the Tooth Relic and the Bowl Relic in the new capital of Kurunagala. And may puritanical Buddhists please note that in addition to music at the temple he instituted in honor of the relic "dances and songs performed by the dancing girls and the actors, preparing delight for the world." (90: 73-75) The king himself composed a work in Sinhala entitled "ceremonial of the Tooth Relic" to be performed as part of the daily temple ceremonial. He not only appointed a "grand thera" from the Chola country with whom he read the Pali Jatakas but more remarkably the king himself "rendered by degrees these five hundred and fifty beautiful J?takas from the Pali tongue into the Sihala speech" (90:82-83). A king imbued with the spirit of the j?takas could hardly be someone interested in executions and gruesome punishments. These were powerful kings who represented practical Buddhist values. By contrast we must remember that the truly model Buddhist kings representing ideal Buddhist values of self-sacrifice and humility exemplified in Sirisangabodhi had little chance against usurpers animated with the lust for kingship; and unsurprisingly the Bodhisattva type kings had drastically shortened regimes.
Yet, many Sinhalas do believe that in the time of the Kandyan kings condign punishments were common and some think that they should be reintroduced here, no doubt inspired by similar practices in the current Middle East. The idea of cruel Kandyan punishments came into our popular consciousness from Robert Knox. Knox had a dreadful account of these punishments, especially by his bête noire Rajasinha II, the king who, incidentally, had him confined to a vast open "prison" when he could have as easily chopped off his head. Knox (in the second edition of his famed book, pp. 129-34) has not only a picture of an impaled person on a kind of cross but he also depicts a tree with hanging body parts. He has a long litany of the king’s cruelty, including this: "After their Confession, sometimes, he commands to hang their two Hands about their Necks and to make them eat their own flesh, and their own Mothers to eat of their own Children …." I think it is Professor K.W. Goonewardena who first informed us that Knox could not possibly have seen Rajasinha II (and therefore his portrait of the king is a fake) and it is extremely unlikely that the "natural cruelty" Knox attributed to the king is any better, or at best no more than popular myths about the king in Kandyan villages. What we have in Knox is partly a projection of the Western obsession with cannibalism and also I might add with Knox’s knowledge of the English and European custom of "quartering" traitors and thieves, a practice that went right down to the late 18th century, and consisted of cutting the traitorous body into four quarters, pulling out the victims bowels while body parts are hung on trees and public places, as in Knox’s drawing (see picture facing p. 130). The colonial historian Henry Marshall in his Ceylon was so appalled by the British decapitation of Keppetipola that he must have felt compelled to write of his own Scottish hero Wallace who fought the English king Edward I, a contemporary of our own Parakramabahu II! Not only was Wallace condemned to death as a traitor but his wife was also executed. "After being dragged to the usual place of execution, at the tails of horses, he was there hanged on a high gallows, on the 23rd of August, 1305; after which his bowels having been taken out while he yet breathed, and burned before his face, his head was struck off, and his body hacked into quarters. His right arm was set up at Newcastle, — his left at Berwick" (p. 220). Wallace was a traitor from the point of view of the English but a patriot from the Scottish point of view, forcing us to recognize that one nation’s traitor can be another’s patriot, and those whom we nowadays list as traitors might well be patriots in the eyes of another.
Quartering seems to have been practiced, at least occasionally, in Sri Lanka by the Portuguese. This was the fate of Domingos Correa who was quartered on 14 July, 1596. Domingos was a Sinhala Catholic aristocrat serving the Portuguese but he decided to switch sides and join the fighting forces of Vimaladharmasuriya I of Kandy who granted him a small kingdom (Mundukondapola) in the Kurunagala district and endowed him with the name of Edirimannasuriya. Although he was a formidable foe of the Portuguese he was eventually captured by Samarkoon Rala, a Sinhala who was a Portuguese general. He was taken to Colombo where he was quartered. "Forthwith his hands were cut off, and afterwards his head, and his body quartered and placed in public places …where it remained for some days till the boys played their games with his skull" (Fernao de Queyroz, Ceylon, 515). In the case of Domingos Correa too it was hard to know who the hero-patriot was and who the traitor. He was a traitor and apostate from the Portuguese point of view but surely not from that of the Kandyans who led a war of resistance against the Portuguese. Who is then a traitor and who the patriot seems to rest on an arbitrary definition depending on whose side you take.