04 January 2023

Sirith, like pirith, persist

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Scroll down for previous articles]

Uruvarige Vanniyalaeththo once made a pertinent observation on the differences between customs and laws. Laws, he said, can and will be broken, whereas ‘sirith’ or customs persist. His people, he claimed, protect the forest because of ‘sirith’ and not on account of laws. ‘The moment laws were brought in, they were broken,’ he observed.

Customs are not cast in stone, but they are not amended in the frequency, say, in which constitutions are changed. Sirith evolve over time. Their longevity is due to the fact that they are practical, serve some kind of communal purpose and are generally accepted as being beneficial to the collective and the individual.

Laws, in contrast, are designed by a few, typically the ruling elites or their lackeys, to maintain a system skewed in their favour. Laws are amended (grudgingly) to accommodate demands for a more egalitarian order but typically the intent embedded in the word is not matched by institutional arrangement or procedural protocols. There is allusion to values and norms but legal strictures by definition have no truck with such things.

Sirith refer to a moral universe where the overall integrity of a social order rests on self-discipline informed by a cognisance of the harm to the collective, to oneself and the natural order that is typically the outcome of indiscipline.

Some may argue that in complex social arrangements laws are necessary, that sirith just cannot deliver. Perhaps. We have complex systems and innumerable laws. Are they of the contain-all kind? Can there ever be such all-encompassing systems? Well, the fact that laws are constantly changed and constitutions consistently amended indicates that the answer is ‘no.’

At some level political culture has something to do with norms. That’s probably why the non-binding term ‘spirit of democracy’ is spoken of. It’s not the done thing, we’ve heard people say. It’s not cricket, that’s another dismissal heard in societies with a strong fascination with the game.

A few years ago, i.e. in the early days of the Yahapalana regime, I was appointed to the Public Performances Board which at the time was headed by Saman Athaudahetti. It was a privilege working under him. He was knowledgeable, patient, fair-minded and had a vision.  I won’t go into the details of that experience but will limit myself to a single conversation.  

Akila Viraj Kariyawasam was the subject minister at the time and he arranged a meeting with the then Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. It was a brief meeting at which concerns were expressed and discussed. At one point someone pointed out that with limited human resources it was next to impossible to appraise tele-dramas. The Prime Minister came up with a solution that was simple and perfect.

‘You could set guidelines and inform people who wish to produce tele-dramas. You can tell them that if at any point anyone complains about the content claiming that guidelines were being violated, you would check the particular episode. If you find that guidelines had indeed been violated, you would determine that the particular station suspend the telecast thereafter.’

He may have used different words, but that’s the gist. Simple. Perfect.

That’s not laying down the law, so to speak. That’s setting guidelines. That’s shaping the culture of engagement. That’s all about encouraging self-discipline. Sirith in the making.  
I have long since resigned from that Board and I am not sure what the policy regime is like. I do remember that I helped draft guidelines for grading films. Saman was clear about it: ‘we should not censor, what we should do is grade the movies as is the case in most countries.’ Some producers and directors want the ‘U’ grading, i.e. ‘universal’ or for any audience without restriction. However, some content is clearly unsuited for certain audiences because of explicit sexual content or extreme violence. A grading system (for example, for Unrestricted or Universal through PG 13 — with parental guidance for kids 13 or younger, PG 15, PG 17, More Suitable for Adults to Strictly for Adults) would in effect create guidelines for the filmmaker and the viewing public. The relevant Act would have to be amended for this to come into force. I don’t know what happened thereafter.

Back to sirith. They cannot be enforced. They have to be agreed upon and it is unlikely that the vast majority of any society would submit to something that is preposterous (as is sometimes the case with formal laws, a prime example being the 13th Amendment!).

Are we done with sirith? Some may want it. Some may think, ‘yes, done!’ And yet there are things that are not willed away. We still abide by the sirith that compels us to ‘attend’ a magula (essentially to rejoice when someone achieves something significant) and a maranaya (a moment of tragedy). Regardless of the nature of our relationship with the person or family or community. A case in point: the first lorry loads of rations voluntarily collected by citizens in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami were sent to the North and East, vast areas of which provinces were controlled by the LTTE, a terrorist outfit masquerading as ‘Sole-representatives of the Tamil people’).  

I still remember overhearing a comment on a bus two days after the 9/11 attacks: ‘honda vade emarikaavata — eth pau e minissu (America deserves it, but it’s so sad that the people had to suffer).’ The political context was not forgotten, but neither was the human tragedy.

Where does all that come from? In a word, sirith. Persists. Like pirith.

Other articles in this series:

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road