Anthropologizing Sri Lanka: A Eurocentric Misadventure

By Goonatilake, Susantha; Bates, Karine | Anthropologica, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Anthropologizing Sri Lanka: A Eurocentric Misadventure


Goonatilake, Susantha, Bates, Karine, Anthropologica


Susantha Goonatilake, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001, xiv + 306 pages.

Reviewer: Karine Bates McGill University

In Anthropologizing Sri Lanka Susantha Goonatilake, a Sri-Lankan researcher cross-appointed to the New York Center for Studies of Social Change and the Vidyartha Centre in Colombo, Sri Lanka, reviews recent work on Sri Lanka by four renowned anthropologists affiliated with prestigious Western universities: Richard Gombrich (Oxford), Gananath Obeysekere (Princeton), Bruce Kapferer (London), and S.J. Tambiah (Harvard). Through a critical analysis of their works on Sinhala Buddhism, Goonatilake wishes to demonstrate these authors' Eurocentric biases and limited understanding of Sri Lanka's culture and society. Goonatilake sees in the works of Gombrich, Obeysekere, Kapkerer, and Tambiah a resurgence of a "virulent colonial anthropology in Sri Lanka" (p. xiv) and rebukes these authors for offering misinformed accounts of Sinhala Buddhism.

To develop his argument, Goonatilake has divided his book into five parts. First, he situates the anthropological research on Sri Lanka in the global context of the history of anthropology. In part 2, he reviews Gombrich's and Obeysekere's attempt to interpret Sinhala Buddhism with reference to Protestantism. Thirdly, he examines Kapferer's analysis of the central role of sorcery in Sinhala society. In part four, he presents Tambiah's study of fratricide. Finally, he focusses on the cultural and educational backgrounds of these experts on the anthropology of Sri Lanka. Therefore, what Goonatilake proposes is not only an analysis of anthropological research on Sri Lanka but also a study of the anthropologists themselves.

In part 1, Goonatilake describes the dominant and yet evolving theoretical landscape within which anthropological research tends to be framed. He begins with a reminder that much of current anthropological work is still based on Western models originating in 17th-century Europe. However, he also points to competing frameworks emerging in Asia and non-Western countries that seem to have had a growing impact not only on ways to conduct anthropological research but also on the ways in which anthropologists, especially those from Western countries, are perceived by the societies they purport to study. He also points out how the spread of Buddhism in Western countries may have impacted Western thinking, much in the same way previous contacts between Europeans and Sri Lankans had changed Sri Lankan thinking. Emphasizing that Sri Lanka has never been isolated from foreign influence, Goonatilake concludes part one by questioning anthropological work on Sri Lankan society that fails to consider the many cross-influences between European and Sri-Lankan cultures and ways of thinking.

In chapters 2-5, the author analyzes the thesis of "Protestant Buddhism" proposed by Gombrich and Obeysekere. Goonatilake criticizes the methodology of the authors, as well as their knowledge of the contexts within which concepts of Protestantism and Buddhism have evolved and have been used. Richard Gombrich's book Buddhist Precept and Practice (1991) describes the study of a village in which Buddhist life is undisturbed by external influence and then transformed by the introduction of Protestantism by missionaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Gombrich and Obeysekere's Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka (1988), the anthropologists based their study on Obeysekere's idea of Protestant Buddhism. For him, Protestant Buddhism consists in protest against the British and also in an integration of various characteristics of those colonizers. Protestant Buddhism has in turn been transformed through changes in class-based values.

Goonatilake highlights the Eurocentric biases apparent in Gombrich's conception of Buddhism, including common Western misunderstandings of Sri Lankan concepts such as dukkha. He also faults Gombrich for arriving at the conclusion--on rather scanty data--that Sri Lankan's practices and precepts of Buddhism are discrepant. …

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