Monday, September 30, 2013

Passing down culture




Passing down culture to children serves an obvious egoistic purpose: to make them look, feel and behave like you. This is why most Sri Lankan expatriate parents take pains to teach their children Sinhala, and build temples in their new homeland to have Avurudu Uthsawa and sing Bakthi gee; habits that don’t help their children much in a foreign country.  Although not so crudely apparent, parents living in Sri Lanka too promote culture through symbolic practices. Symbols can be easily imitated but they tend to loose their original meaning after few generations. Playing recorded pirith in the morning or keeping night vigil at a funeral house are few examples. Nevertheless I am not suggesting we abandon these symbolic practices as they serve some purpose. 


Cultural symbols are easy but propagating deep fundamental characteristics of a culture is hard. For instance, living a simple life, not giving too much importance to oneself, being respectful to all living things around you, etc. These can be taught only by example and even then it is not enough to know them as facts but must have it in one’s flesh, so to speak, if you want your children to really get it. 
Having grown up in the Colombo suburbs, most of what I know of my culture comes from symbolic practices or through conscious learning and I cannot claim that much of it is in my “flesh”. The little I have in my flesh came from my parents. They had relatively loads of culture in their flesh. Hailing from a rural village in Kurunegala with a paddy farming background they made adjustments to their village-ness to fit in with the city crowd just like most of their peers who migrated there. But no amount of adjustments could hide their village-ness. I hope I got some culture out of my parents but I know that I have failed to match them. 

Whether it is in one’s flesh or learnt, culture is knowledge. It is amazing how much knowledge can be lost within few generations. How many of us today are knowledgeable of Sinhala medicine, arts, astrology, engineering etc., probably less than the number of undergraduate students in the universities. I don’t know what it takes to cultivate a paddy field let alone do it without using pesticides or artificial fertilizers although it was probably common knowledge for my grand parents.  The wealth of knowledge we have managed to loose through westernization is irrecoverable. In that sense, the so called brain drain is insignificant since all that is lost due to “brain drain” can be restored by another group of people who can learn it from the same source that continue to exist in the form of western education. 

Just like parents who pass down culture to boost their own egos, a nation too has an ego and preserving its culture serves to secure nation’s endurance. However the best way to do it is not to store culture in libraries or make children study it for exams but to create new knowledge within it. In recent times, two extraordinary sons of Sri Lanka accomplished this for our culture: Kumaratunga Munidasa and Nalin De Silva in literature and philosophy respectively, if such narrow definition of their contribution is permitted. What is unique about Kumaratunga Munidasa and Nalin De Silva is that they not only uncovered a unique heritage but produced new knowledge exclusively within that system of knowledge. Their contribution to our culture, while promoting our nation’s endurance, has given us something to be passed down to our children serving our own individual egos.

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