"To many of us, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year is an occasion on which we attempt to repeat certain rituals and ceremonies of the past, based on a lifestyle that had agriculture (i.e. paddy cultivation) as its main vocation. Some of us, I mean, a significant portion of our people fail to see any relevance of such New Year rituals, customs and ceremonies to modern life.
But on closer inspection, with a knowledge culled from our sociology and anthropology of the past, we observe in these practices a definite social relevance and a meaning. Such a relevance and meaning could be underestood only in the total context of all such rituals, customs and ceremonies. An understanding of that nature perhaps would assit us to develop new insights and gain from the practice of New Year customs etc, and help in building the nation in a positive way. The history of the New Year goes back to our primitive period in history. Various beliefs, perhaps those associated with fertility, gave birth to many rituals, customs and ceremonies connected with the New Year. The advent of Buddhism in the third century BC led to a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in the Buddhistic light. The majority of the people in our country were Buddhists, and as such, it is no surprise that the Buddhist outlook was predominant in transforming the New Year rites to what they are now (possessing a logical and positive base). Hinduism, on the other hand, existed side by side with Buddhism, in medieval times. New Year practices interpreted in the Hinduistic way developed among the Hindus. Buddhism and Hinduism were historically connected with each other. Their philosophies were running along parallel dimensions, except for certain ultimate truths concerning the self, the way to achieve emancipation and the nature of a creative god and nirvana (which Buddhism denies). There was no serious contradiction in New Year rituals that are found among the Buddhists and Hindus. Even today, Hinduism exists peacefully with Buddhism in the Buddhist areas. The organised rivalries appearing as ethnic diversions are the result of terrorist tactics which did not disturb the main lines of such peaceful integrative existence of the two religions.
But on closer inspection, with a knowledge culled from our sociology and anthropology of the past, we observe in these practices a definite social relevance and a meaning. Such a relevance and meaning could be underestood only in the total context of all such rituals, customs and ceremonies. An understanding of that nature perhaps would assit us to develop new insights and gain from the practice of New Year customs etc, and help in building the nation in a positive way.
The history of the New Year goes back to our primitive period in history. Various beliefs, perhaps those associated with fertility, gave birth to many rituals, customs and ceremonies connected with the New Year. The advent of Buddhism in the third century BC led to a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in the Buddhistic light. The majority of the people in our country were Buddhists, and as such, it is no surprise that the Buddhist outlook was predominant in transforming the New Year rites to what they are now (possessing a logical and positive base).
Hinduism, on the other hand, existed side by side with Buddhism, in medieval times. New Year practices interpreted in the Hinduistic way developed among the Hindus. Buddhism and Hinduism were historically connected with each other. Their philosophies were running along parallel dimensions, except for certain ultimate truths concerning the self, the way to achieve emancipation and the nature of a creative god and nirvana (which Buddhism denies). There was no serious contradiction in New Year rituals that are found among the Buddhists and Hindus.
Even today, Hinduism exists peacefully with Buddhism in the Buddhist areas. The organised rivalries appearing as ethnic diversions are the result of terrorist tactics which did not disturb the main lines of such peaceful integrative existence of the two religions.
The structure of the New Year rites, customs and ceremonies would prove an important point. The start of the New Year ceremonies is made by looking at the so-called old moon and engaging in a ritual bath on behalf of the passing year. Buddhism turned this act to an act of gratitude for the past year. To Hinduism it was one of establishing purity - specially bodily purity, gradually making way to spiritual purity.
The break with the past by doing away with everything associated with it might have been a praatice, we, as primitive people had in the past. In the sixties, I observed, how, when a death had occurred the Veddas completely demolished their huts and constructed a new one. In the past, they left the old cave and occupied a new cave; thus starting a new life, breaking from the past.
The New Year for the Buddhists, and maybe according to Hindu practice, provided an important break with the past. It was a break undeertaken with two important principles in mind. On the one hand, you break away from the past, but do that with gratitude. This gratitude was not found in primitive times. The awe the primitive people had for natural objects (e.g. the sun, moon etc,) prompted them to worship such objects, and the Hindus gazed at the moon and bade `adieu' to the past year, perhaps with some nostalgia, but always with gratitude.
Secondly, they did this with a firm resolve to do better in the New Year. The prayers of the Hindus to gods and the transfer of merit to gods by the Buddhists were believed to a prosperous harvest and a successful New Year. This resolve was very important to both cultures - Sinhala and Tamil. One could observe it on a number of occasions associated with the New Year; particularly in the astrological beliefs which gave life to certain rituals.
The gazing at the old moon and ritual bathing for the passing year were undertaken at auspicious times. Even the preparation of the hearth, lighting of the hearth, preparation of food; particularly milk rice, the partaking of meals, engaging in the ritualistic bath for the incoming year, and gazing upon the New Year moon as well as the start of economic life in the New Year - all had specific auspicious times set for them. Buddhism, although it does not believe in good and bad times, saw in it a sociological truth. A community of people get disciplined by working to time. An auspicious time once set, people believe that it is bad to work outside it. The strength of the beliefs lays the foundation for a trait of positive behaviour; working according to a time-table. Long before Western management specialists talked of time management, the Sinhala and Tamil culture had developed an intricate measure to manage time through a framework of auspicious and bad times. This came into their culture through astrology.
Today we talk of stress and how it should be managed. The managers who teach us how to manage it often fall victims to stress, little knowing about its vicious tentacles. In our culture, a necessary break in routine life is caused by the onset of the New Year. Everything usually engaged in comes to a halt, except recreationary and religious activities. This is a very welcome break for the entire nation.
Sociologically the importance of this break is seen when one observes the busy commercial life in the city of Colombo. In Fort, Pettah and Maradana, a considerable number of petty and lower middle class traders ply their trade all through the year. The only time they take a break from the stressful workschedule is during the New Year period. From the onset of the New Year, around the 12th or 13th of April till about the 20th, one does not see the usual busy commercial life in Colombo.
The trders all go back home, and very useful break in thier life is thus caused. Not only petty and lower middle class traders, but also rich merchants who migrted to the city from the village, take a welcome break from their stressful work-schedule during this time and often visit their rural places of origin. It is sometimes their only tenuous connection with the village from where they have migrated to the town.
Stress is positively met not by individual solutions, but through cultural or social opportunities created to defuse it at the community level. The atmosphere provided with sufficient room for recreation, religious rituals, community or family interaction and the emphasis on values and norms provide an elegant opportunity to deal with social or individual stress in a creative way.
Even the solutions to conflicts is built-in to the structure of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebrations. The strengthening of family units takes place in the form of eating together at home according to a set plan created by auspicious times and fortified by rituals which are looked at with respect. The father and mother lead, and the children follow. They exchange gifts, paying attention to seniority, and these activities release a fund of goodwill and thus strengthen the foundation of family life.
In the community, social visits are made, and usually a plate of oil cakes, milk rice and plantains are sent from one house to the other. Each one reciprocates by continuing the chain of mutual exchange. Even those who for some reason or other have developed ill-feeling, exchange such food. I have never come across any family refusing such a plate of New Year food sent to them in the village. The only instance that I experienced it in the city was in a so-called educated family who blatantly refused such a gift from another family (a neighbour) who wanted to put an end to the misunderstanding between them that arose over a simple act of misinformation.
In the case of the others mentioned previously, it puts an end to misunderstandings and ill-feelings which had eaten into them like a smouldering fire in the past. Perhaps the beauty and the healing power of the New Year festivals is not known to such families as the one referred to earlier, for whom such a cultural practice is not comprehensible.
We often talk today of a conflict between the younger and the elder generation. Why have we forgotten how the Sinhala and Tamil New Year is a built-in strategy to establish goodwill between these two generation?' The father exercises his role as the economic leader in the family while the mother underscores her duty as the cultural leader. If the ceremonies and rituals are given expression, we observe how this leadership gradually is passed on over to the younger generation.
One could see this in a family where a young man or woman has just got married. Functionally, he and his wife then perform the functions of the father and mother. The New Year, it is often said, is for the younger people, and it is centred on the new generation to whom power and authority is gradually transferred in the activities connected with the New Year. The elderly father and mother perform their part and on such occasions, the father and mother would graciously hand over their one-time duties to the younger generation while the young people never forget the value of paying respect to their elders.
The value of paying respect to elders is found underlying all phases of New Year celebrations. It is one of the vital reasons that motivates our young people not to forget their parents in their old age. If we understand social-cultural occasions such as the New Year with their emphasis on such values, it would be an eye-opener for all other ethnic groups (Muslims, Burghers etc,) and religious to make the best out of it.
Of values associated with the Sinhala Tamil New Year we have already spoken of gratitude and paying respect to elders. Cleanliness (i.e purity of body and mind) is another such value. The ritual baths at the end of the passing year and the onset of the New Year lay emphasis on washing the head with lime and such other medicinal herbs, weraing clean clothes etc. These values, the elders see, are ingrained in young children during the New Year. The New Year is thus not an occasion only of celebrations but also of positive socialization.
The importance attached to food cannot be forgotten. It should be shared by everyone. No one who comes to the house is allowed to depart without a meal. Even animals are fed, as they also considered a part of the family.
The food often consists of milk, milk-rice and other grains and fruits. The use of such items, I believe, are dictated by reasons of health. The ritualistic offerings made to Hindu gods and the Buddha consists of such items only. Could it be that the insight into our individual and community health prompted our ancestors to choose such items of food alsofor the New Year?
The leadership pattern in the village is often articulated during the time of the New Year. The religious leader (i.e. the Buddhist monk or the pusari), the social leader (i.e. the physician or teacher), and. Also the economic leader (i.e. the affluent landed or management strata), all have a duty to perform which they do with great dedication and pleasure. The mutual interaction of the community awakens itself from a long, incentive slumber and adds colour to the rural village life. Even those who do not visit the village temple or the god's shrine do so on this occasion.
With social change, interior patterns of behaviour have come to mar the usefulness of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. One such pattern is the inordinate use of alchol. Sometime ago, if one were to partake of alcohol, he could not take part in New Year activities. The wing dedicated to Goddess Pattini would never tolerate a drunken individual who mounts it. It is unfortunate to observe how today such positive cultural values are undermined, giving rise to verbal and physical disorganisation among people.
The Sinhala and Tamil New Year should be viewed afresh from a socio-anthropological angle, and if possible be resuscitated to serve as a catalyst to change our attitude and also serve as a seasonal socializing agent of our young people. It could also be a resocialization agent in the case of adults and thus perform a useful task.
It is a pity that some Christians think that the New Year is solely a Buddhist function. No doubt, it is true that it has come to possess predominantly Buddhist characteristics in a Buddhist country; but among Tamils and Hindus it is still a Hindu function. Why is it that Sinhala and Tamil Christians do not locate in the New Year any positive values and integrate themselves with their religious practices intact?
I have observed Muslims during Ramadan, exchanging food with members of other communities and religions. Ramadan is a religious festival. The religious identity of each group is thus foster and sustained by religious behaviour, specially designed for such a situation. Why not we develop the Sinhala and Tamil New Year to integrate a common cultural pattern of socio-cultural behaviour for all communities and religions?
The Muslims, Burghers, Malays, the Sinhala Christians and Tamil Christians and all others could join in it. This is a vital phase of national integration through a system of parellel behaviour, perhaps based on one's own religion. But it would remain a process of positive integrative behaviour in practising the vital values and norms underscored in rituals, ceremonies, beliefs etc, associated with the Sinhala and Tamil New Year.