The Cursing Practice in Sri Lanka as a Religious Channel for Keeping Physical Violence in Control: The Case of Seenigama

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This study deals with the cursing services in Sinhala Buddhism in Sri Lanka which some gods offer to the people. The author, who is using the mimesis and scapegoat mechanism theory of Girard as a point of reference, concentrates on the god Devol in the hamlet of Seenigama on the south-west coast. Why do people ask gods to harm or even kill their adversaries? Why is cursing on the increase in the country, and how does Buddhism, a religion preaching “ahimsa” (non-violence), cope with the cursing practices? The author dissociates himself from the idea of some writers, that cursing is identical to black magic. Cursing is certainly a form of violence, but because it stops at one incident, without triggering endless cycles, it can traditionally be seen as a religious channel for violence, that helps to keep it in control, according to the author.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1997 E. J. Brill (The Netherlands)

Seenigama Devalaya

Seenigama Devalaya on the small island off Southern Beach

The theme of my research, carried out in the early nineties in the South of Sri Lanka in the so-called Low Country, focuses on creed and practice concerning violence in Sinhala Buddhism. In this study I deal with one aspect of this, namely the activities connected with certain gods, especially Devol Deviyo in the hamlet Seenigama. These serve the people by meting out punishments and other forms of violence involving putting curses on particular indiviuals. My questions are: how to explain this cursing (“awalada,” “sapa karanawa” or “pali gahanawa”), why do people ask the gods to harm or even kill their adversaries and what role does Devol Deviyo play in that practice? I will also briefly deal with the increase in cursing since the sixties. The mimesis and scapegoat mechanism theory of Rene Girard will be used as a reference. As a side issue I finally deal with the question of how Buddhism, a religion preaching “ahimsa” (non-violence) tried (and tries) to cope with the practices of cursing relating to some gods who, like the demons, are all “placed under the supreme jurisdiction of the Buddha” (Sarachandra, 1958, p. 114); consequently all rituals and beliefs are “integrated into a Buddhist cosmology” (Gombrich, 1971, p. 5). Cursing, widely practised by Buddhists, is part of those Buddhist rituals and beliefs and therefore can not be dismissed as “folk religion. ” Obeyesekere, in his study of 1975, unfortunately identifies cursing with sorcery and cites besides Seenigama, the Hindu and the Muslim shrines in Muneswaram and Kahatapitiya. My study however deals only with the ceremonies of cursing in the Buddhist shrine of Devol Deviyo at Seenigama (meaning sugar village). I also did some research at other shrines to Devol in Sri Lanka. I conducted my research by the method of “participatory observation” and by interviewing people in the concerned area, i. e. along the south-west coast. The most important subjects of research were naturally the supplicants and priests at the shrines. Some of these and other informants could speak English. Otherwise I was helped by an interpreter. The myths around Devol Deviyo I learned from my informants. The Weeragoda story of Devol killing his child one can also find in Weerakoon (1985, p. 107). In 1993, 1994 and 1995 I visited the Seenigama shrine at different times.

I will first describe the activities of the gods involving cursing and their background and then concentrate on Devol Deviyo. Generally speaking the Sinhala Buddhist gods seek the well-being of the people and abstain from assistance in “kodivina” (black magic) and other forms of harming, hurting or even killing people. Gods however often have also their “dark” or – in the words of the average Sinhala Buddhist – their “bad” side. That does not make them less popular.

The Sinhala Buddhists actually like gods with a “bad” side, because it makes them feel more at ease with the negative sides of themselves. The great popularity of the god Kataragama (Skanda/Murugan) is not least due to the fact that he is known as a warrior and that he has a concubine or a second wife besides his first wife (Gombrich and Obeyesekere, 1988, p. 191). A god who like Buddha appears too holy (one can also say too light or too “ahimsa”/non-violent), e. g. , Vishnu, the protector of Buddhism in Sri Lanka (Gombrich and Obeyesekere, 1988, p. 71), is not easy for the people to approach about ordinary problems. The distance between such a god and the people has become too great.

There is on the other hand also the moral influence of Buddhism in society. In this respect preference should be given to the gods without “dark” sides. This shows that there is something contradictory in society. The same applies to the curses of gods like Getabaru, Devol Deviyo, Kadavera, Suniyam and Kali. (1) Every Buddhist subscribes to the five precepts, including the first one of “refraining from killing living beings” (Dhammananda, 1987, p. 163).

People on the other hand can hardly abstain from taking revenge (“paliganima” or “paliyak”), if someone has done something wrong to them, even if that means badly harming or killing the adversary through cursing. Public opinion however condemns the practice of cursing. Getabaru for example is one of the “dark” faces of the god Kataragama, but due to the karmic effect of the good deeds of the Buddhists the latter has risen so much in the hierarchy of the gods, that it would be better not to remind the people any more of that “dark” side. In view of this Getabaru therefore withdrew to an isolated place on a mountain in the interior near Morawaka on the road from Galle to Deniyaya. There in isolation and, as it were, far from the official Buddhist world he exercises now his despised yet well appreciated powers. People fear and therefore also respect his power to curse.

The case of Kadavera is even more ambiguous. He too is one of the “dark” faces of Kataragama, but his place still is in the town of Kataragama. His power to curse cannot be exercised inside the (big) shrine of the god Skanda, but is carried out in secret outside the shrine at a place at the Menik river, where he also receives “billa puja” (animal sacrifices) (Feddema, 1995, p. 143). This especially is embarassing to many Sinhala Buddhists. Today they consider Kataragama unlike Kali as a national Buddhist god, since the shrine a few decades ago completely fell into the hands of the Sinhala Buddhists (see also Gombrich and Obeyesekere, 1988, p. 99 and Chapter 5). Knowing that Buddha has condemned “billa,” they feel somewhat ashamed that Kadavera is accepting “billa” from people, especially businessmen, and exercising harmful powers near or at least not far from the Kataragama shrine. They often try to deny it or to cover it up, when I ask for information about it.

Amiguity of Devol Deviyo We see the same ambiguity concerning the god Devol in Seenigama on the south-west coast. He has a shrine (“dewale”) on the beach, where he performs his blessing together with the goddess Pattini. However, about 400 metres off shore on a tiny and hardly accessible island he performs (via the “yakka”/”demon” Diwi) his cursing. This indeed is ambiguous. On the one hand Devol Deviyo likes to preserve the image of a respected Buddhist god. On the other hand, he wants to continue to respond to appeals for cursing, which promote his fame in the country.

A tacit compromise settles the problem. People who want to pray, bring an offering (“puja”) or make a vow (“bara”), come to the shrine on the beach. People who come for “cursing,” go to the island. They have to take the trouble to go there or to wait for a while, if the sea is rough. It is outside the official Buddhist world as it were. From the land one cannot see what happens on the island, because a stone wall has been erected there to ensure privacy. For the hamlet this seems acceptable. I think of the case of Weeragoda, a village nearby, where another shrine of Devol Deviyo is located. In 1992 the “kapuwaraya” (the priest/servant of gods, abbreviated to “kapua”) of Seenigama looked after the shrine of Weeragoda because of a temporary vacancy. In the beginning he sometimes also did cursing on request, until this evoked protests from the population. Cursing has a negative effect on the environment and is therefore bad for the village, the people argued.

In Seenigama this negative influence has been neutralized by the narrow stretch of the sea, people think.

Devol is a local god. He is in charge of a large part of the Low Country along the south-west coast. He is reputed to especially look after the owners of fishing boats and (recently also) the owners of transport vehicles, such as buses and vans. In the fishing season the boat owners (“aithikaru”) together with their “kamkaru,” the often poor fishermen who cooperate with the “aithikaru” (Feddema, 1988a), go at least once a month to the shrine of Devol Deviyo to offer some “puja. ” The shrine is situated on the main road between Colombo and Galle.

The passing buses and vans stop briefly to put some coins in the till, kept beside the road at the entrance to the shrine area, and worship. Every month an amount of about fifty kilos of coins is collected. It shows the magic power of Devol Deviyo, people believe.

“He can do big things,” a young man in one of the surrounding villages told me. People may sometimes qualify his cursing trade as “paw” (bad), but they still respect it, because it is a sign of the power he has and which they might need or have to avoid one day.

In the mythology around Devol one sees his magical power too. He is a son of the king Rajasinghe of the town Kudupura, as the myth tells. The king banishes him together with six of his brothers because of their dissolute behaviour. The seven brothers in vain try to land from their ship at different places in Sri Lanka. At last they are shipwrecked near Seenigama. With the help of the god Sakra and a raft they reach the coast safely. However the goddess Pattini, who was in charge of that area then, puts seven ‘mountains’ of fire in front of them. (2) The brothers throw their ornaments into the fire, trying to change fire into water in order to help at least Devol survive. Pattini allows him to stay. It is unclear what happened to the six brothers. Devol receives the consent of Pattini – the god Skanda helped him with that – to ask offerings from the people in exchange for healing sick people at seven places: Seenigama, Unawatuna, Udulgapitiya (Dodanduwa), Weeragoda, Gintota, Ambalangoda and Panadura.

The Weeragoda myth is also an illustration of Devol’s magical power.

Weeragoda is about 6 miles from Seenigama. Devol goes there to live at the house of his concubine. Every morning he walks to Seenigama and comes back with rice, fish and a few coconuts. The woman wonders how he manages to do this. They have a son. When he is old enough, she asks him to follow his father and find out what is going on. The boy tells her after coming back, that his father is making rice from beach sand and fish with his walking-stick and gets coconuts by commanding a few coconut trees in Seenigama to bend down to him.

Devol sees this as a betrayal of his secret, flies into a rage, kills his son and departs. He leaves his walking stick behind, which grows into an imposing and very rare tree for that country. It is remarkable that neither Weerakoon nor any of my informants questions Devol’s killing of the innocent boy, which is usually the case in myths about scapegoats (Girard, 1986, pp. 34 and 143). People are so impressed by Devol’s magical power, that it seems everything he does is taken for granted.

The Threatening Competition with God Kataragama Devol Deviyo, though perhaps “viewed by the Buddhists of that area as a major deity in their pantheon” (Obeyesekere, 1975, p. 7), is still a local god, who has not (yet) a place in the official Buddhist pantheon. Being a local and not a national god is a drawback, more so today since distance hardly plays any role with the modern means of transport. It is therefore not easy for him to compete with the very popular pantheon god Kataragama (Skande), although the town Kataragama is somewhat on the periphery of the country. Today nearly everbody undertakes a pilgrimage to Kataragama once a year for religious and/or recreational purposes. Orthodox Buddhists, who do not bother so much about the gods, also go in order to give alms (“dana”) to the many beggars who flock there. The most suitable periods are August and April, festival and new year months. The pilgrimage is often a pleasure trip for relatives, friends or people of the same village, as well as being religious.

Devol Deviyo cannot compete with all that, although his “dewale,” like nearly all Devol shrines, has a festival for a week in August.

Most of them recently added innovations copied from Kataragama like “fire walking” and the “kavadi”-dance, both under the guidance of a “kapua. ” The dance is very popular among the young people, because it is often for them the only chance to have contacts with contemporaries of the opposite sex. Two Devol shrines (Unawatuna and Panadura) also made Suniyam their patron god. This is an astute decision, because recently the god Suniyam has become a rising star among the Sinhalese (Obeyesekere, 1986 and Feddema, 1996). In Unawatuna the “kapua,” besides his general work in the Devol shrine, even allows Suniyam to take possession (“avesa”) of him in order to be able to help people with their problems as an “avesa sami. ” That is a good innovation in order to attract more clients, because the “avesa sami” is becoming popular in the country and it is trendy to consult him. The Devol shrine at Unawatuna is still flourishing, while the ones in Udulgapithiya and Gintota have nearly come to a standstill. Of the seven Devol shrines the position of the one in Seenigama is by far the best. This is neither due to innovations imitated from Kataragama, although the festivals such as “fire walking” in August, attract thousands of people, nor to the introduction of Suniyam as the patron god of the shrine. The main cause is the practice of cursing.

Cursing is a centuries old tradition in Seenigama, but generally it was invoked by the people no more than a few times a month. At present there are more than 20 occurences of cursing per day on the tiny island, much more than the average number of people coming for the ordinary “puja” or “bara. ” Traditionally Wednesday and Saturday are the proper days for cursing, but the demand today is so great that it is not possible anymore to limit it to those two days. The increase came to a climax in the eighties. Obeyesekere mentions for the early seventies an estimate of 1 per day, but I wonder whether this is not rather too low, also because he gives a much higher estimate for the Kali shrine at Muneswaram, 11 per day (1975, p. 9).

The “kapua” Lionel de Silva, who started his work in Seenagama in 1968, has given me an estimate of 60 per month in 1970. That would mean an average of about 2 per day for that year already. He mentions a same average of 2 per day for sixties. For the year 1975 de Silva however mentions the number of 150 per month, meaning about 5 per day. In 1980 according de Silva 300 people per month (about an average of 10 per day) came to the shrine to request cursing. Since then he mentions an increase of 100 per month every five year. In 1985 there was an average of 400 per month (13 per day), in 1990 an average of 500 per month (17 per day) and in 1994 an average of 600 per month (20 per day). I could only check these data partly for the years 1994 and 1995. I visited the shrine on Wednesday 7 July 1994 and counted then 22 clients for cursing. Wednesday is like Saturday a day people prefer for cursing, as I said before. I needed more indications of the average number of clients. In November I came again and then over 5 days from 12th till 16th of November counted an average of 17. 4 per day. (Saturday 12-11: 16; Sunday 13-11: 14; Monday 14-11: 8; Tuesday 15-11: 9 and Wednesday 16-11: 26. ) The total number of clients for cursing on those five days was 73. Of them 50 were males and 23 females. Thursday the 18th of November I missed. Friday the 19th was a “Poya”-day, the monthly Buddhist celebration day on full moon. None came that day. Cursing on a “Poya”-day is not done. Also the priests will not serve the people for cursing on that day. On the day after “Poya”-day there were 26 clients for cursing, 17 males and 9 females. That was Saturday 20-11. On Sunday 21-11 I counted 21, of whom 7 females. Especially the number on Sunday 21-11-’94, as a Sunday not being a prefered day for cursing, could be an indication, that de Silva was not very far wrong with his estimate of 20 per day in 1994.

At the beginning of 1995 and in December of that year I visited the shrine in Seenigama again. In the week of 25th of February till 3rd of March I counted 195 clients, of whom 84 were females. (Saturday 25-2: 47; Sunday 26-2: 32; Monday 27-2: 22; Tuesday 28-2: 51; Wednesday 1-3: 25; Thursday 2-3: 6; Friday 3-3: 12. ) That would mean an average of nearly 28 per day. Especially on Saturdays it is very busy for the priests. On three Saturdays in March I counted more than 30 clients each day, meaning 38, 36 and 33 on respectively 4-3, 11-3 and 18-3. On the 16th of March it was “Poya”-day again. That affected also the number on Wednesday 15-3, there being only 12 clients, of whom 5 were females. The day before a “Poya”-day is also not preferred for cursing. Friday 17-3, the day after a “Poya”-day also had a low number of clients, there being 6, of whom 3 were females. That could indicate, that the average of 28 per day on the basis of the data I collected in the week of 25-2 to 3-3, could be high. On the other hand in that week there was also a day, which was not preferred – the 1st of March. Nobody likes to curse on the first day of the month, as it is not an auspicious day for this. It was however a Wednesday. Maybe because of that as many as 25 clients came that day. It nevertheless was relatively low in comparison with the previous day, i. e. Tuesday 28-2, when 51 clients came, of whom 22 were females. The figure of 51 for a Tuesday is abnormally high.

It would appear that many of them came, because they wanted to avoid the first of the month. These data suggest an average of 25 per day.

The first months of the year however seem popular for cursing. In the week of Sunday the 10th to Saturday the 16th of December 1995 I counted a number of 136, of whom 52 were females (Sunday 10-12: 12; Monday 11-12: 13; Tuesday 12-12: 11; Wednesday 13-12: 27; Thursday 14-12: 14; Friday 15-12: 18; Saturday 16-12: 41). That would mean an average of 19. 3 per day in that week. My data for 1995 suggest anyhow an average of 20 to 25 per day for that year. That is certainly much more than the 1 per day Obeyesekere mentioned for the early seventies and also more or less in line with what the “kapua” de Silva estimated for 1994. The number of priests also reflects the increase in cursing. In the sixties there was one “kapua” at the shrine of Seenigama, while in the seventies and the early eighties two priests were employed. In 1986 a third one came. Since then three full-time priests work at the shrine, joined in 1994 by a fourth one on a part-time basis.

Methods of Cursing At the Devol shrine in Unawatuna the clients for cursing activities are just as numerous as the clients who ask for blessings to help them find a job, win someone’s love, or become pregnant, or to aid them with visa problems or lack of energy. The cursing in Unawatuna (about 3 or 4 cases per day) however is not done in the name of Devol Deviyo, but of Suniyam, the patron god of the shrine. That is also true in the Panadura shrine. In Unawatuna as well as in Panadura a tiny island is not available and the “kapua” in both cases does his best to prevent the leader of the shrine (Devol Deviyo) from getting a bad name in the Buddhist environment. This cover-up of the cursing practices, being carried out at a Devol shrine however, doubtless with material profit, is rather underhand.

Cursing is on the increase. That the Hindu goddess Kali recently has become popular among Sinhala Buddhists is not unrelated to her cursing activities. A further indication is the “polgahanawa”-ritual in the shrines. People take a coconut with a small flame on top of it in their hands holding it at chest height, bring it above their heads and then throw it with force to the ground onto a piece of cement or a big stone, which is placed there for that purpose. If they manage to smash the coconut, it is primarily meant to reinforce the wishes they have laid before the gods. It can however also indicate a wish to harm an adversary. Cursing is done in this way in Unawatuna and Panadura. In most other shrines cursing cannot officially be done, but today more and more people are using the “polgahanawa”-ritual to express an informal cursing.

Seenigama however uses a special stone (“gala”) for the cursing practice, or rather two stones, a large and a small. The person concerned grinds red chilli, black pepper, white onion and mustard with the small stone on the big stone, while he or she utters the words of his or her curse. The “gala” itself is not important, because it is, just like chilli and pepper, part of every household kitchen. The “gala” in Seenigama however now has a special power in the minds of the people, having been used for so many years for cursing. The most important aspect of this institution is the cursing itself. It is performed orally. The client has to pronounce the words of his or her curse, instructed by the “kapua,” who sits near him or her. The “kapua” first asks the client to tell him what he or she wants to happen to the adversary whether known or not: death, a serious mental illness, an accident, broken legs or being forced to leave the village of residence. The kapua then says: “In the name of Devol I call punishment and evil over . . . ” and asks the client to repeat this or use other cursing words while grinding the chilli etc. on the “gala. ” He (she) often also says: “May you die young and be reduced to ashes” or “May you not prosper but perish” or more in general or indirectly: “May those who are jealous of me perish. ” He (she) must say it quite a few times. Repetition of the curse on different occasions is important. The “kapua” therefore asks the client not to limit his visit to the island to one time, but to come three times. Only then can he guarantee the effect of the curse. Most people comply and pay 265 Sri Lanka rupees altogether (if one curses two times the fee is R 175,- and one time R 100,-). The monthly income of the shrine from the cursing fees in 1994 was roughly R 52,000. In 1995 the average monthly income was about R 61,000.

Revenge of Kuveni’s Son, the Scapegoat Diwi? Although cursing may formally be conducted in the name of Devol Deviyo, the real work is done by Diwi-yakka. Diwi is an interesting figure. He is according to the Seenigama myth a son of the Aryan prince Vijaya, the founder of the Sinhala nation, and the Yakkha queen Kuveni (Gunawardena, 1985, p. 60). The Yakkha were the main origional inhabitants of Ceylon and had both kingdoms and cities (Wijesekera, 1987, p. 67 and 1986, p. 7). They were subjugated and later on demonized by the Aryan conquerers (Feddema, 1995, p.

133/134; Wijesekera, 1987, p. 360). Demons or evil spirits are today called “yakku” (singular: “yakka”). They can be seen as scapegoats, who are still resentful about what happened to them (Feddema, 1995, pp. 134, 145). Diwi is a special scapegoat, because the founder of the Sinhala nation killed him when he took the side of his mother Kuveni. She was ill-treated and chased away by Vijaya after he had made use of her and her love in order to destroy and subjugate the Yakkha. When Devol came from Trivandrum (South India) to Ceylon, Diwi helped him together with eleven other “yakku” to land at Seenigama and cross safely over the “mountains” of fire that Pattini had put in front of Devol. Was it a kind of revenge or resistance on the part of Diwi to help a newcomer from South India against the new rulers of Ceylon including the goddess Pattini? Devol in any case up to now sees in Diwi his right hand or main servant. In every “Devol Natuma,” a religious dance feast in the honour of Devol, 12 oil lamps burn constantly for Diwi and the other (eleven) “yakku” to thank them for their assistance during the landing of Devol.

Also remarkable is the Telme-dance at the Devol Deviyo feast. The story of that dance is as follows: Vijaya became in his reincarnation a king in India. He had a small lake in front of his palace on wich floated a large lotus flower. One day there was a strong fragrance emanating from the lotus. The king could not resist the scent and went to the lake placing his nose very near to the flower. Kuveni was present in the flower, reborn as a baby frog.

When the nose of the king was near the lotus flower, she crept via his nose into the head of the reborn Vijaya, causing him a constant headache.

This story does not need much explanation. If Kuveni is still vengeful, it is clear that her son the “yakka” Diwi does not mind harming or even killing Sinhalese people, after they have been cursed in the name of Devol Deviyo. The people know that a “yakka” who has the sanction of a god can be very violent (Feddema, 1995, p.

136). They are also aware of the magical power of Devol Deviyo. No wonder that the people fear the cursing power of the Devol-Diwi team.

A “yakka” may not object to harming or killing people, but that is a different matter for Buddhists. One becomes a Buddhist by taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha and subscribing to the five precepts. The first is: “I will abstain from killing living beings. ” It also implies abstaining from torturing and tormenting. Cursing is a deliberate deed, causing people harm, torment or death. An important justification for cursing has always been that it was directed at punishing “bad” people, especially thieves. Buddhists certainly can understand that, as theft has now increased markedly.

Cursing then is seen as an alternative to the modern system of being punished by the police or the state. Using this rationalisation, even good Buddhists participate in the practice of cursing.

The Case of Mr. T.

The case of Mr. T from a village about 30 miles north of Galle and nearby Seenagama can be seen as a typical example. He is a middle class Buddhist 60 years of age. He believes in the existence of the gods and the demons, but normally ignores them. In 1991 someone broke into his house during his absence and stole R 2000,-, some jewellery belonging to his wife and the official property deeds of two pieces of land he owns. The loss of the deeds especially worried him. He reported the theft to the police. Neighbours told him they saw a person from the village near his house on the day of the break-in. He was probably the burglar, but proof was lacking. Mr. T.

rejected the idea of going to the police again, but told some friends and neighbours that he planned to go to Seenigama. If he went to the police again, the suspect would soon find out that he was accusing him of the theft. If he was really guilty, he could take revenge e. g. by destroying the two deeds. For this reason Mr.

T. chose to go to Seenigama: “I wanted to avoid the suspect’s getting the feeling of being chased by me. By going to Seenigama I acted “innocently. ” I only told the people that I was going to Seenigama. The suspect had no proof that I went there with the intention of cursing, let alone with the purpose of cursing him. ” On the island of Seenigama the “kapua” asked Mr. T. whether he wanted the death of the suspect. His answer was: “I don’t care if he dies due to the cursing, but the most important thing for me is to get back the deeds to the two pieces of land. ” The “kapua” promised him that they will be returned to him before a certain date (9th of September 1991). He hardly believed it, but he nevertheless made a “bara” (vow) at the shrine on the beach, that he would give seven oil lamps to Devol Deviyo, if the deeds were returned within the promised time. One day before the fixed date Mr. T. visited Seenigama again. The “kapua” answered him: “Wait, it is not yet the 9th of September. ” The next day just after his midday sleep, someone reported to him that in a paddy field nearby documents had been found. They proved to be the deeds. The money and jewellery were still missing. He did not mind so much, because he was glad that he had his deeds back. At about midnight someone knocked at the door. A young man about 27 years of age apologized for the burglary and offered biscuits. He was accompanied by a friend. Mr. T. accepted the biscuits and gave the two persons tea. The next day he fulfilled his vow and gave the biscuits to the “kapua. ” Since then the thief never appeared in the village again. The moral condemnation by the community of what he had done was such that he could not live there any longer.

Mr. T. strongly believes that it was due to Devol Deviyo or his servant Diwi that the young man apologized to him and left the village. In this case exile and not death was the punishment. Mr. T.

comments: “I did not exclude death, because going to Seenigama implies that risk, but retrospectively I do not regret that he has not been killed, but was forced to live in exile. ” Death or exile, I asked him whether that is a Buddhist way to take revenge. Mr. T. : “No, Buddhists should leave revenge to the gods or to the effect of karma during this life or for the next birth of the evil-doer. I am aware of that, but we Buddhists mostly still wish to take revenge ourselves and want retaliation in the short term. ” The fact that a god is carrying out the revenge helps people of course not to be troubled by the Buddhist conscience in this matter.

An middle-aged farmer from Koggala, whom I met at the shrine in Seenigama, had big problems with some neighbours. When I asked him, whether participating in cursing did not worry him, being a Buddhist, he answered: “No, it is not contrary to Buddhism to wish someone’s death in the case of cursing, because it is the god, who does the job and he will of course look to it, that nobody will be harmed or killed unrightfully. ” This “divine punishment of an evil-doer” seems effective, because people believe in it and because of the social context of the villages. Every villager soon gets to know all the village gossip, if someone tells the neighbours that he or she is going to visit the shrine in Seenigama for a special purpose. Thieves and other evildoers often become very worried, which shows they are under social control, have a religious conscience or believe in the divine power of punishment. “Maintenance of anonymity is very important for the clients,” according to Obeyesekere, who adds: “Hence people who live in the vicinity of a shrine rarely visit it” (1975, p. 5). My research gives a different picture. Black magic is practised in secret, but cursing is mostly not. People areoften very open about it, not having any objection to publicity; indeed the contrary is true, as the case of Mr. T. shows. People from nearby villages, Seenigama included, certainly also come to the shrine. Only high-class people from the cities often feel ashamed, that they participate in the cursing practice. They sometimes keep their names secret at Seenigama. In general however people are eager to tell others what kind of injustice someone has done to them and that they therefore went to the shrine of Seenigama to invoke a punishment on him/her.

The negative sides of this “religious system of punishment” are the lack of an independent judge or an adequate judicial system and the fact that suspects are always seen to be guilty. One takes the law into his or her own hands and can do so because a god or priest is prepared to help him or her in exchange for some money. The suspect in Girard’s terms can sometimes become the scapegoat for various frustrations. With the help of a god but without an open and fair trial the scapegoat then is exorcized. This is a more serious consequence, if the scapegoat is not a thief or another evil-doer, but just an adversary.

Other cases might illustrate this. One day in March 1995 I was allowed entrance to the small island, when the cursing took place.

It was crowded on the tiny island. About 15 people (mostly accompanied by relatives and/or friends) requested the service of the priest at the same time. In order to save time, the priest invited all to come together in the small shrine to participate in the religious ritual antecedent to the cursing. The music of a horn was heard, presents were given, oil lamps were lit and the priest asked Devol Deviyo, the resident of the Seenigama Dewale, as he explicitly called him a few times, to help those troubled persons against their adversaries. After that the priest went to the “gala” (stone) just outside the shrine, where the real cursing started for the persons concerned, one after the other. Patiently they waited for each other and later on for the boat to bring them back to the mainland. During that time I managed to ask all of them to tell me the reason for their coming. Here is a brief summary.

  1. A middle-aged businessman, a local politician from Colombo was killed by 6 men with knifes. The suspected wrongdoers had all been caught and were waiting in jail for their trial. The widow did the cursing and the sister of the murdered man read the names of the six, who were charged for murder. The husband of this sister was also present. For them the trial was not enough. They wanted the six persons, whom they call murderers, to become mad too.
  2. A woman of about 45 years of age without children from a suburb of Colombo came, because her husband was living with another woman, who lived at her parents’ home. She still loved her husband and wanted him back. The cursing was not directed at him, but at the lady and also her parents, because they allowed him there to spend the nights with their daughter, she said. She wished them to die.
  3. A man of about 35 years of age had a farm of 29 toddy-palm trees in a village near Galle. From them he produces toddy on a commercial basis. Someone destroyed the blossoms of his trees. He does not know the wrongdoer, but it must have been a person, who is jealous of him, he said.
  4. A man from a village nearby was building a house. While the house was half ready and couldnot be locked, someone took the opportunity to steal a door and a window frame. The wrongdoer was not known.
  5. A high-class lady from Kandy was here with two relatives, because her only son, a student, was being bewitched by or at least in the grip of the family of his girlfriend, who influenced him not to study and not to come anymore to her as his mother, she said. Caste or class differences would not have bothered her, if there had been “true love,” but this family according to the lady had no manners and was just manipulating her son. To destroy that family seemed the only way to get him back.
  6. A woman of 33 years of age from a suburb of Colombo wanted her husband to die, because he had left her and their baby of one year for another woman after three years of marriage. Her husband did this for the money, she said, because that woman is rich, having a job with a salary.
  7. A cinnamon farmer and his wife from Embalapitiya were robbed of jewellary, R 3000,- in cash and a video cassette in their own house by four mashed men, who tied the man’s hands behind his back. They were not so concerned about the stolen goods, they wanted revenge and the unknown thieves to be killed.
  8. A farmer of about 55 years of age from Koggala had three complaints. One neighbour was a drunkard who constantly shouted loudly at him. Another neighbour had destroyed a gate on his land. Thirdly 5 young boys had set fire to the leaves of some plants from the forest, which he had spread out in the sun for drying. They were all jealous of him, he said, because he was progressing economically and they were not.
  9. A retired Navy officer and his wife from Ambelangoda had come, because someone had damaged their beautiful house by throwing big stones onto the roof at night at about 4 o’clock. He called himself an innocent person. He therefore had no idea who could have done this. He asked for a punishment and that it would not happen again.
  10. A woman of about 28 from a suburb of Colombo had been deserted by her husband, who now lived with another woman, who was still living with her parents. He took their four year-old child with him. An elderly sister accompanied her. She wanted husband and child back and cursed the other woman and her parents.
  11. A farmer of about 40 years of age, who called himself a relatively poor man, from a village near Galle, had a small piece of land of about 6 acres next to the land of a wealthy powerful farmer “with vehicles etc. ” Recently the latter with a number of men had just occupied the land. The police did not help him. For him there was no other option than to curse the evil-doer.
  12. A man and wife of about 45 years of age from Ratnapura, who owned and ran a flourishing cafe-restaurant at their house, had been robbed of more than R 300,000, a watch and a camera. Burglars came at night, breaking a window. The owners discovered the robbery only the next morning.
  13. A man of about 50 years of age from a village of south-east Sri Lanka had a severe quarrel with his wife. She ran away and was not prepared to return. He had come there, because he wanted her to be punished for that and at the same time he wished her to return soon.
  14. A middle-class man from Colombo and his wife had come there, because they had a land dispute with the sister who lived in the next-door house. They had lost a court case about that, but they had started an appeal, because the judge in their opinion had overlooked an important detail of the case. They were not able to wait till the Appeal court had given its judgement. The sister was acting injustly towards them, they said. They asked Devol Deviyo to use his power to get her change her mind.
  15. A woman from Colombo, who had a secretarial job at the university, was living with her brother. His purse with R 3500,- had been stolen, after he had left it near an open window in his house.

The thief, a neighbour, had shared the monney with 2 friends and together they had spent most of it on drinking and eating. One of them was not satisfied with his part. He had therefore revealed to the brother and sister under condition of secrecy the name of the thief. The woman, a Christian, now on behalf of the brother was cursing the thief. She was combining her trip to the shrine with a few days vacation in Radgama, a village 30 miles south of Seenigama.


It was not because of the lost money, she was there. She wanted him to break his legs and to openly acknowledge to them, that he had stolen the purse, she says.

These cases speak for themselves. Cheating, e. g. borrowing money, but not returning it, and evidence, that someone is practising black magic against you, can be a reason for cursing too. People also go to Seenigama, if a girl has fallen in love with a man who is not acceptable to her family. Cursing such a man is then justified by picturing him as a villain. Businessmen and politicians are known to visit Seenigama in order to try to eliminate rivals. That at least is the rumour. It is however highly doubtful, whether they then would succeed in those intentions, unless the rival was at fault towards them. Competition sometimes indeed was and is a motive to try to curse a rival, no matter whether the chance of any effect is small. Traditionally fishermen sometimes cursed other fishermen, because their boat attracted more fish than their own boat. There however must be a well-founded reason for cursing. Someone must have done something wrong towards you. If not, one might be tempted to give false evidence. The cursing then will not help or even have a boomerang effect on the curser, my informants stress. A kind of injustice must be at stake. It makes no sense to curse innocent people.

Cursing is not Identical with Sorcery To think otherwise is to confuse cursing with black magic (“kodivina”). Obeyesekere seems to do that. In the article cited in Ethnology the word sorcery is used many times in this respect and he speaks of “public sorcery shrines” (1975, p. 5). Seenigama is indeed a public shrine, but certainly not a sorcery shrine. Cursing cannot be identified with sorcery. Buddhists tell me that in their view cursing is a minor thing in comparison with sorcery. Anyhow, there are quite some differences between the two.

  1. Cursing is a matter of words and done by mouth, while sorcery is more a matter of action and is performed by hand, e. g. , by putting some charmed material into a pot or on the ground near the house of the person one wants to harm.
  2. In the practice of cursing one supplicates a god or gods and with sorcery one tries to enlist the help of demons.
  3. The specialists concerned with cursing and sorcery are not the same. Cursing is led by a “kapua” (priest) and sorcery is performed by a “kattadiya” (demon specialist). Moreover the “kapua” is only intervening between the god and the curser. The latter indeed does the actual cursing himself, while in practising sorcery the client is only paying the money; all the work is done by the “kattadiya. ” Cursing is financially also much cheaper than practising sorcery.
  4. In the cursing process the name of the wrongdoer, whether known or not, is often not mentioned. The priest might know the person or even be related to him or her. There is also no need to do so, because the god will know. In the practice of sorcery the names of the person to be harmed are always mentioned, and often written down too. The attack is direct, while in the cursing process the accusation is often more indirect.
  5. Cursing is a reaction and has to do with retaliation, while sorcery is an action towards a person, based on hatred and jealousy.

Moreover sorcery mostly starts a cycle of violence, while cursing does the opposite: the cycle of violence stops after the cursing.

This last is probably the most important difference between cursing and sorcery. It shows that cursing is not only to be seen as violence, but also as a religious channel for violence that helps to keep it in control. Girard sees judical punishment as embodying revenge in principle, but as infinitely superior in practice to the extent that it represents the “last word” of violence. The punishment is not carried out by the injured party, but by a “transcendent” entity, the State, against which no further revenge will be taken. The same seems to apply for the practice of cursing.

There is no counter-cursing. The wrongdoer cannot take revenge and will not take revenge, because he or she feels guilty, the more so by being punished by a god. Sorcery may be “a canalisation of aggressive impulses of individuals” (Obeyesekere, 1975, 11), cursing however is in nature a religious channel for keeping physical violence in check.

Cursing remains itself no doubt a form of violence, just like sorcery. It therefore is understandable, that Devol Deviyo does not carry out the retaliatory violence directly; he lets the “yakka” Diwi do the dirty work for him. Thus, just as the god helps the believer escape blame, so the “yakka” helps the god escape blame.

There is however also another side. Because cursing violence tends to stop at one incident without triggering endless cycles, there is a strong analogy with the judicial system, with the god playing the role of the transcendent entity, the State.

If a judicial system is completely lacking, the religious system is according to Girard “essentially functional in preventing the vicious circle of mimetic violence” (1990, p. 56), e. g. by the “lesser” violence of sacrificial substitution (Girard, 1984, pp. 17 and 103). Today in Sri Lanka however the judicical system is not lacking. Effective or not, it punishes wrongdoers and forbids blood revenge. The idea of revenge by taking the law into one’s own hands and even killing adversaries did, however, not disappear from the minds of the people. In the case of cursing today, religion is therefore also used in order to avoid punishment by the judicial system which does not allow people to harm others severely or to kill them because of feelings of revenge or enmity. Moreover the ‘religious system of punishment’ in the eyes of the people seems often more effective than the modern judicial one.

Frustration After a Rise in Expectations How can we explain the increase in activities of cursing? In the first decades after gaining independence in 1948 there was a strong rise in expectations among the people. These high expectations could not be met. The ensuing frustration caused an increase in jealousy and scapegoat mechanisms among the people. Not only was the system or the ruling political party blamed, but also neighbours and minority groups,(3) who seemed to be more fortunate than themselves.

The context of what Girard calls mimesis and scapegoat mechanisms is a process of urbanisation in the demographic and especially in the cultural sense.

The capital Colombo in the first two decades after independence became an irresistible pull-factor for people of the country-side.

It was at the same time a period of enormous population growth.

Since 1948 the population of about 7 million doubled in less than 25 years. Employment possibilities were far outstripped by this population growth, especially in the rural areas. Thousands tried their luck in the capital. Colombo not only became densely populated in and around the centre, but also expanded tremendously, absorbing the villages within a distance of twenty to twenty five miles. On the coast, even in the far south, many shanty squatter settlements came into existence. Here the traditional Sri Lankan pattern of village community is often disturbed.

In the villages around Colombo middle-class urban dwellers more and more “displaced the original inhabitants of the older village” (Gombrich and Obeyesekere, 1988, p. 69). The social cohesion of the traditional village (with, e. g. , communal harvest rituals and communal funerals where nearly all were present) slowly disappeared, not only from the suburbs of Colombo, but also from many other villages around the country. This process of urbanisation in the cultural sense – one can also call it (a kind of) modernization – is not limited to the city itself. The process has been strengthened by the modern and relatively cheap means of transport in the country and the increased mobility as a result. The high rate of modern education in Sri Lanka, since the thirties, has contributed to the spreading of a semi-urban way of life to the rural areas too.

Kinship ties however still play an important role in Sri Lanka. In most cases the extended family does not live together any more, but is divided over village(s) and town. That lessens the importance of the kinship system. Yet migrants from the rural areas mostly still rely on their close and more distant relatives in the city or town and often even on other non-related village people there, if they need a job or temporary lodgings. Certainly the extended family, which even in its contracted form resembles the nuclear family, including the married sons and daughters with young children, remains a strong unit of mutual support and social control.

More Mimesis in a Less Hierarchical Society What seems important is the disappearance of the social cohesion of the traditional village, based on hierarchical caste and class distinctions between families banded together through the hierarchy of patron-client relationships. Everybody knew his or her place.

That limited the envy due to mimesis. Girard understands mimesis to mean that one does not have desires autonomously or independently, but chooses instead to model himself on another person and to use his or her desires as a model. In a less hierarchical society this model becomes at the same time an obstacle whose position one wants to take. The paradox therefore is that in an egalitarian society there is a great increase in mimetic desire and rivalry. Equality is good in itself, because it ends the injustice of (feudal) hierarchy, but on the other hand it is also a source of new suffering, because it leads to a never ending desire for more material things and a rise in competition and rivalry (Girard, 1986, p. 123; Feddema, 1988b, p. 213).

This seems to be the case in Sri Lanka today. “The people of the country are completely in the grip of the desire to get rich,” as one of my informants puts it. This applies to the whole period since 1948 because of this rise in expectations after independence, but especially to the years since 1977, when the United National Party (UNP) came into power. Before 1977, the left-wing nationalist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), who also cooperated for a few years with Trotzkyites and Communists in a People’s Front, tried to moderate that trend among the people. It was the time of a more or less autarchic protectionist policy, closing the borders to the import of modern (attractive) goods from abroad. The government even strongly advised the people to avoid a life of luxury and to bring their savings to the bank regularly.

In 1977 a new era started. Since then competition has even been enhanced from above, because the UNP strongly favours free enterprise. A new class of entrepreneurs, owners of private transport vehicles and small industries, came into existence. This new class directly or indirectly provided the impetus for a huge rise of mimetic rivalry. People see this social group as their reference group, with which they compare themselves and which they want to copy. It seems to be a new answer to the frustration of the high expectations after independence which could not be met and of the educated and well-qualified young people who in large numbers remained unemployed.

Rebellion or Accommodation? The American sociologist Robert Merton distinguishes five different responses to such a situation of frustration (1957, pp. 193-211).

One is rebellion. It was the reaction of the People’s Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukhti Peramuna), JVP, via a violent youth uprising in the beginning of the seventies and later again at the end of the eighties. It was an example of what Girard calls the scapegoat mechanism. In the seventies the JVP considered the SLFP or the ruling People’s Front and in the eighties the ruling UNP as the scapegoats, which had to be ‘exorcised. ‘ Action provokes reaction.

After its defeat in the seventies, but especially at the beginning of the nineties, the JVP itself became the subject of revenge. The leader was killed in 1989 and many of his followers just disappeared when the JVP collapsed (Chandraprema, 1991).

Another type of reaction according to Merton is conformity. Taking the new class of small entrepreneurs as the group of reference seems to be just such a reaction. Conformity in this case means adjustment to the status quo by longing for and trying to achieve the same position as the new entrepreneurs. This does not look impossible to the average people, since many of the new bus owners and garment industrialists are ordinary people like themselves, sometimes even previous classmates at school. It is an illustration of the paradox I mentioned earlier, namely that mimesis is increasing in a more egalitarian society. Wanting to reach a position like that of the new entrepreneurs means, however, that one has to compete with “equals,” who are striving for the same thing. If it takes a long time before even the beginning of success comes, the misfortune is often attributed to a scapegoat, to someone, who is more prosperous than oneself. A scapegoat can be found among neighbours or among colleagues at the job or even among the reference group of new entrepreneurs themselves, who appear to have many enemies. One not only feels better, because someone else can be blamed for what seems at first sight one’s own failure, but even more importantly, one can “project onto others one’s own jealousy and indeed more generalized feelings of hostility” in this way (Gombrich and Obeyesekere, 1988, p. 130). The answer often is to harm the scapegoat by harassing him, destroying or stealing his goods. In the cases mentioned above we came across the word jealousy used explicitly a few times, as an answer to the question, of why they had been troubled by the adversaries, whom they wanted to curse at the shrine in Seenigamma.

Just destroying a gate or the blossoms of toddy trees would appear to be clear forms of enmity, probably wholy or partly based on jealousy. Theft is a more complicated matter. I have no intention of analysing why people start stealing or even burgling. There must certainly be an economic reason. There is however often also the more hidden motif of envy. Are thieves not frequently using as a justification for their deeds the fact that the harmed person, from whom they steal, is more prosperous than they? Frustration after the rising of expectations due to independence, migration (rural-urban and rural-rural), urbanisation in the cultural sense, the disappearance of social cohesion of the traditional village based on hierarchical caste, sex and class distinctions, and the increasing gap between poor and rich due to economical competition, all created a climate, in which mimetic envy, violence and crime could flourish. The increase of cursing in the recent decades seems to be a reflection of that. Urban dwellers and countrymen, rich and relatively poor people, men and women, are all going to the cursing shrine at Seenigamma.

And the women go too. That also looks like a reflection of the above-mentioned socio-cultural changes in the country. In November 1994 I counted over a period of 7 days, the poya-day not included, 39 women (32. 5%) out a total of 120 persons, who had come to the Seenigama shrine to curse. In February and March 1995 over a period of 12 days I even counted 138 women (43%) out of a total number of 320 cursers and from the 10th till the 16th of December 52 women (38%) out of a total of 136. That is certainly a higher percentage than in the past, when the father or the brother mostly did the cursing for the deserted, unmarried or widowed women. Women however are, at least today, often the driving force behind the decision of the man to go to the cursing shrine in Seenigama. The retired Navy officer from Ambelangoda, whom I mentioned among the 15 cases, felt a bit ashamed, that I had met him at the cursing shrine. He stressed his innocence, but also added that his wife, who according to him “very much believes in the power of the gods,’ had induced him to go.

Lastly a few concluding remarks about the attitude of Sinhala Buddhism towards the cursing institution. Buddhism did not succeed in preventing or stopping the disguised violence of cursing through Devol, Getabaru and Suniyam, in the past or at the present. Hardly anybody foresaw the sudden breakthrough of mimesis and rivalry after the independence and after the introduction of economic liberalisation, nor the violence, jealousy and “scapegoating” this provoked. Buddhism had and still has, however, some success in that cursing in official public opinion cannot boast a good name. It has to be concealed. Devol and his priests therefore have to carry out the cursing activities on a tiny uninhabited island, a few hundred metres from the coast, behind the wall built around the island. This means that the practices there are kept hidden from the eye and ear of the formal Buddhist society. Cursing is in other words tolerated, but not approved. One knows and is aware that cursing is intensively practised by Sinhala Buddhists, but it does not have an official Buddhist sanction.

Recently, i. e. in the last few years, passengers in buses and vans make a gesture of worship with their hands folded in front of their chest towards the shrine of Devol Deviyo in Seenigama when they pass. Furthermore since 1992 the priests of Devol and Getabaru have been allowed to carry out cursing activities in a tiny building on the official premises of the main shrine of Vishnu in Dondra. Vishnu is said to have been nominated by Buddha himself on his deathbed to protect Buddhism in Sri Lanka. He is not only respected as a high Buddhist god, but is also considered to be a “Bodhisattva” (a future Buddha). Therefore, it is not insignificant that recently in Dondra under his aegis Devol and Getabaru were allowed to practise cursing activities. It is not only an additional illustration of the recent increase in cursing activities, but it also shows that the need to conceal or to disguise the cursing violence in the formal Buddhist Sinhala society of Sri Lanka is somewhat less pressing today.

(4) NOTES * Dr. J. P. Feddema is an antropological researcher at the Free University of Amsterdam.

  1. The goddess Kali is mentioned last. Not because she is the least involved in cursing activities – probably on the contrary the most of all – but because she is still considered to be a Hindu Tamil goddess. Because Sinhala Buddhists today, due to the cursing practices at her shrine, are becoming more and more worshippers of Kali, I could not therefore leave her out.
  2. This confrontation of Devol with Pattini, the mother-goddess of the living, causes Weerakoon to write that Devol is not the expelled son of an Indian king, but “the returning ancestor from the land of the dead” (1985, p. 105).
  3. Not only is the minority group of the indigenous Tamils used as a scapegoat in Sri Lanka, but Christians (because of their privileged position during the colonial time), Muslims, Mayalali workers and Indian Tamil plantation workers in recent decades also have been a target of an anti-movement among the Sinhala Buddhist majority (Jayawardens, 1990).
  4. My thanks go to all those without whose help I would not have been able to carry out this study. I cannot mention them all, but I make an exception for W. N. Dharmasuriya especially, M. R. Tilakaratna, D. M. Somasiri, S. Serasingha and Sarath Weerarathna. I am also grateful to Mervyn Ananda M. A. , Dr. M. Anspach, Rev. Fr. Harry Haas, Dr. Paul Hubers, Dr. A. Lascaris, Dr. Nancy McCagney, Helen Richardson M. A. , Prof Dr. J. Termekes and Prof Dr. J. M. Schoffeleers for their comment on the first draft.

 

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J.P. Feddema
Journal of Asian and African Studies
Vol.32 No.3-4 – Dec 1997 – pp.202-222
COPYRIGHT @ E.J. Brill (The Netherlands)

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