Giving up Sinhala identity and proudly embracing Ponnayā as a self-identity

(Buddhist monks clash with military and police officers at a protest held in front of Homagama Court against the arrest of Gnanasara Thero General Secretary of Bodu Balu Sena, an extremist Buddhist organization. Photo credits: Eshan Fernando)

(Buddhist monks clash with military and police officers at a protest held in front of Homagama Court against the arrest of Gnanasara Thero General Secretary of Bodu Balu Sena, an extremist Buddhist organization. Photo credits: Eshan Fernando)

What does it mean exactly to give up an ethnic identity? Is it possible to erase one’s ethnic identity? Though, it may not be possible to erase one’s ethnic roots, giving up identity could be usually a political decision and a political statement. Furthermore one does not have a singular identity, but multiple identities, all of which are socially constructed. It is easier to define ourselves within frameworks of these existing identities; especially within identities that are assigned at birth such as gender, ethnicity, caste etc. Deviating from, refusing to accept assigned identities, or even criticizing those identities is usually punished, stigmatized, and discriminated in our societies. The punishment, stigmatization, and discrimination one must bear in the process of refusing an identity inevitably supplies a political consciousness to the refuser. Why should I step outside, conventional norms of masculinity, ethnicity and caste (and face the punishments, stigmatization and discrimination)? Why can I not bring a constructive criticism about an identity, while keeping myself within the identity? Perhaps, even when I refuse the ethnic identity, I might be still unable to abandon myself from the framework of ethnic identity completely. I might be still attempting to reframe the identity.

I do not mean to say that I have completely abandoned my ethnic identity, but this issue came to light upon reception of a Facebook post I published denouncing my Sinhalese ethnic identity.

“I am not a Sinhalese. I don’t have an ethnicity I am more proud calling myself an outcast than calling myself Sinhalese. Below quote is from another article I have written previously.

‘I am a Sinhalese. How do I know I am a Sinhalese? Because my parents are Sinhalese. How do I know my parents are Sinhalese? Because their lineage has been Sinhalese. But how can one reduce my background to say that I am simply Sinhalese. With the surname ‘De Alwis’ my great grandfathers were influenced by Portuguese, further my great grandmothers were married to Dutch. No. I am not Sinhalese by lineage.

The second argument is as follows: I am Sinhalese, because I speak and write the Sinhala language. I have problems with this argument as well. I have two friends. One’s father is Tamil. Other’s father is Muslim. Both of their fathers have died. The first friend has a Tamil Surname and Sinhala name, and he grew up with his Sinhala mother and her relatives. The latter’s both surname and the name are Muslim and he also has grown up with his Sinhala mother and her relatives. Without knowing a word of Tamil, both of them are identified as Tamil and Muslim, respectively, on their birth certificates. Sinhala-ness is neither related to our lineage, nor does it relate to our language. It is only the tradition. Even being Tamil and Muslim is solely the tradition’

Quoted from: Damith Chandimal (2014), Teaching racism through school curriculum, My ‘Ala’ Story, Grade six story, parrot story and Gnanasara story

The first comment I received for this Facebook post was from a young man who stated‘you, outcast ponna kæriyā. You better eat shit than (writing) this’.

Kæriyā is a word considered obscene and insulting, however it is also used with the meaning of ‘thug’ with connotations of masculinity. Literally Kæri means seminal fluid. The second commentalso from him was a picture of shit with a text stating ‘here, eat’.

Without my responding, one of my friends responded. ‘When you say ‘ponna kæriyā, isn’t it paradoxical? Then tell me whether you have tasted shit.’The paradox is evident as ponnayā connoted a meaning of emasculation while the term kæriyā connoted a meaning of masculinity and power. The second argument is based on the logic that somebody should have tasted something (shit) before asking others to taste it. While I was glad to see my friend note this paradox, I was interested in the rhetoric of this violent response

I first noted his use of the term ‘Ponnayā,’ a derogatory term for feminine men and homosexuals in general, often used in the context of hate speech. Reading into his use of the word, one may wonder if Ponnayās can become Kæriyās? Are Ponnayās the ones who criticize the religion and ethnicity? Are there Sinhala Ponnayās? Are there Buddhist Ponnayās? This is not the first time that I have been called a ‘Ponnayā’ by racists. According to them, where does my Ponna identity place? Why do I become Ponna? What will be taken away from me when I am Ponna? Do I become Ponna, when I leave my Sinhala identity? Can I continue being a Ponnayā, while keeping my Buddhist identity? Does it mean my sexuality, when the term Ponnayā is stated?

At the middle of the conversation, the young man who called me ‘outcast’ (Awajataka) ponna Kæriyā in the first comment left the conversation after blocking me from his profile. Soon after, a second person joined the conversation elaborated the notion of being ‘outcast’ relating the illegitimate birth.‘Don’t you get a doubt who made you born to your mother whether is it your father or a dog or a mule?’I answered him with ‘No. I do not have such a doubt. Because I believe that human beings cannot make children by having sex with a dog or a mule. But I do not think I should obstruct his imagination of possibility to have a human child born out of lion-human relationship . I do not have any problem with anybody who likes to have sex with dogs and mules’).

According to Mahavansa epic story, the Sinhala Nation was born from a sexual relationship between human woman and a lion. [In the above conversation] the lion symbolizes a respected animal and a ‘legitimate birth.’, while the dog was used a as a symbol of inferiority and an ‘illegitimate birth’. Paradoxically the lion lives away from us in a foreign country, in a forest, while the dog lives amongst us. Is our understanding of so called culture referring to the things which are foreign, and outside of our lives?

I did not become angry with his insulting words against my arguments. Not getting angry could be a Ponna characteristic. Perhaps those who are not Ponna become angry. The macho guys declare wars, start fights. Peace could be a Ponna characteristic. I understood that he places his ethnicity on the ground of Buddhism, so I responded with a story from the Buddhist texts:

“The Blessed One was staying near Rajagaha in the Bamboo Grove, the Squirrels’ Sanctuary. Then the Brahman Akkosaka Bharadvaja heard that a Brahman of the Bharadvaja clan had gone forth from the home life into homelessness in the presence of the Blessed One. Angered & displeased, he went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, insulted & cursed him with rude, harsh words.When this was said, the Blessed One said to him:

“What do you think, Brahman: Do friends & colleagues, relatives & kinsmen come to you as guests?“

“Yes, Master Gotama, sometimes friends & colleagues, relatives & kinsmen come to me as guests.”

“And what do you think: Do you serve them with staple & non-staple foods & delicacies?”

“Yes, sometimes I serve them with staple & non-staple foods & delicacies.”

“And if they don’t accept them, to whom do those foods belong?”

“If they don’t accept them, Master Gotama, those foods are all mine.”

“In the same way, Brahman, that with which you have insulted me, who is not insulting; that with which you have taunted me, who is not taunting; that with which you have berated me, who is not berating: that I don’t accept from you. It’s all yours, brahman. It’s all yours.

“Whoever returns insult to one who is insulting, returns taunts to one who is taunting, returns a berating to one who is berating, is said to be eating together, sharing company, with that person. But I am neither eating together nor sharing your company, Brahman. It’s all yours. It’s all yours.”

Akkosa Sutta: Discourse on Insult, Brahmana Sanyutta, Sanyuktta Nikaya

translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (1999)

This comments adds a different dimension to my Ponna identity. I am questioning his accusation on the ground of Buddhism. In his response, he accused me of being a‘radical,’ and that I have studied at Art Faculty in University. Does my Ponna identity go together with Radical-ness and Art? I am not the only one who was recently recognized as ‘radical Ponnayā’. Film Director Chinthana Dharmadasa who questioned Buddhist identity of the ancient ‘Buddhist’ King Dutugemunu in a TV programme was also blamed as ‘Radical Ponnayā’on social media.

This further complicates the meaning of the term ‘Ponnayā’. It is not simply a term related to gender or sexuality. A ponnayā criticizes the beliefs of the majority. We should not abandon the term Ponnayāby simply accepting it as a violent word.The Ponnayāidentity should be embraced proudly.

Ponnayā is identity which could be embraced proudly

In general there is an acceptance that the term Ponnayā is a derogatory term used in relation to a person with same-sex feelings, or a feminine man. It is also used in the context of a person with ‘weak or pusillanimous characteristics’. However an additional meaning is now emerging to the term ‘Ponnayā’ based on its use in the context of hate speech on social media platforms, such as Facebook. According to this emerging new meaning, Ponnayācan be a radical person who criticizes the way the majority thinks. Looking more in-depth into this meaning helps us to redefine the term. Hence I would like to associate the term Ponnayā with an important political sense.

Ponnayā is the one who challenges the hegemony in a system of existing beliefs and practices. Even if we consider the definition of Ponnayārelating to sexual minorities, it is still challenging the hegemony of heteronormativity.

I am a Ponnayā. I am proud of being a Ponnayā. I understand the importance of Ponna political usage. I am questioning the logic of hypocritical morality. I understand when replying to Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists, the use of Buddhism helps to problematize their ego consciousness. Is Buddhism a knowledgebase or a religious identity which could only be used by the Sinhala Nationalism, masculinity and heteronormativity?

The use of teachings of Buddha to support racism, nationalism, violence, and hypocritical bonds to ‘culture’ is inherently non-Buddhist, though Buddhism has been used to support violence, racism and nationalism in its historical evolution of Sinhala-Buddhist identity in Sri Lanka. Identity politics of Sinhala-Buddhism strongly contradicts with the Buddhist Scripture. If Sinhala-Buddhist identity could exist, a Ponna-Buddhist identity could also exist. I suggest that Ponnayā identity is more harmonious with Buddhism than the Sinhala identity. In Buddhist understanding, one’s attachment to an ethnicity, caste, warna, or family is a desire which binds somebody to the cycle of births. When such a desire turns into violence, can Buddhism further advocate for it in any sense?

Suddodhana king drags the hand of Buddha asking to stop him from begging for alms

Suddodhana king drags the hand of Buddha asking to stop him from begging for alms

Leaving Sinhala Identity is Buddhist; Ponna Buddhist Identity is Buddhist

‍Buddha left the Sākya Caste in his path towards becoming a Buddha. Neither Buddha nor his Teachings did not carry aSākya-Buddhist identity. The next question is whether it is possible for lay Buddhists who do not wish to attain nibbāna to maintain a Sākya-Buddhist identity. ‘Sākya’ and ‘Buddhist’ are two different, separate identities. When Buddhism advocates for giving up belongings, and luxuries, and power Sākya identity advocates for increased gathering and consumption of belongings, luxuries and power. These two identities are contradictory. These two identities as exist as two separate phenomena, and the ideological conflict between the two is inevitable. Hence we must critically look at how Buddha left Sākya identity to have Buddhist identity, and the construction of Buddhist identity in this country along with the Sinhala ethnic identity.

If leaving a caste/ethnic identity (Sakya/ Sinhala) is Buddhist, why should we bring a Ponna identity into here? Ponna is not only an identity, Ponnayās challenge the hegemony in a society. Ponnayā could be a man in a patriarchal society who gives up conventional masculine power one has; a Sinhala person who gives up the power associated with one’s Sinhala ethnic identity, or even a person from a higher caste who gives up their caste identity could be Ponnayā. Take the example of Siddhārtha, who left the lifeof a prince and became an ascetic in his search of truth. He gives up marriage, colour, caste, royal family, inheritance and many other conventional regimes of power privileging him. He gives up his marriage, denies even his child’s marriage. This could be interpreted as the denial of heteronormative hegemony. In today’s context, giving up race and ethnicity is Ponna and Buddhist. Hence we must discuss the importance of Ponna-Buddhist identity.

Coming back to the Facebook comment response to my quoting the Buddhist scripture, the term Ponnayā was conflated with the adjective ‘radical’. In some discussions Ponnayā was not used alone but with the adjective ‘radical’. This has led me to posit some questions. Are all Ponnayās radical? Or is that some portion of Ponnayās are radical? Though I accept that there might be differences in the approach taken by different Ponna individuals, I believe that all Ponnayās are radical. The word Ponnayā is used to discourage the persons who challenge the norms and sanctions in a given society. However, proudly embracing the Ponna identity, disables its function as an insult or a word of hate and discouragement. For example, we can look at how Buddha reinterprets the identity of beggar, and begging, and how it no more become a concept of hate, and discouragement.

Suddhodhana King– Why are you insulting the Sākya Caste by begging from house to house?

Buddha -Suddhōdana, I do not belong to your caste. I belong to Buddha’s caste. I do not follow your tradition. I follow the ways which previous Buddhas have followed. On becoming enlightened one becomes a member of the family of the Noble Ones and their dignity does not depend upon outward trappings but on wisdom and compassion.

The act of begging for food from house to house problematizes the hegemonic power associated with King Suddhōdhana’s royalty and Sākya caste. At some moment in my life, when I started completely refusing an identity which was enforced on me, my relatives in the previous identity could no more imprison me within the norms and sanctions of my previous identity in which they themselves have been imprisoned. Though criticizing the Sinhala-Buddhist identity could be limited for somebody within the Sinhala-Buddhist identity, a person with a Ponna-Buddhist identity faces no such limitation.

A Ponna-Buddhist identity was non-existent so far in the history. Non-existence of Ponna-Buddhist identity helps us to draw some parallels with the early Buddhism. When Buddhism was first introduced, there was no such a Buddhist identity hailing from the past. Consequently what Buddha did was questioning the hegemony in the era. What radical is thinking differently from the hegemony or questioning the hegemony. The Kālāma Sutta reveals of the freedom offered by Buddha to question the hegemony in Buddha’s time.

Yes. Kālāmas, it is proper that you have doubt, that you have perplexity, for a doubt has arisen in a matter which is doubtful. Now, look you Kālāmas, do not be led by reports, or traditions, or hearsay.

Be not led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: ‘this is our teacher’. But, O Kālāmas, when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome (akusala), and wrong, and bad, then give them up… And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome (kusala) and good, then accept them and follow them

. Kalama Sutta (panchama Sutta), Mahavagga, Duthiya Pagnasaka, Tika Nipata, Anguttara Nikaya
(translation as quoted in Walpola Rahula (1959) ‘What the Buddha taught’)

The bias of being led byreports, traditions, the authority of religious texts, mere logic or inference etc. parallels with the bias of being led by heteronormativity, patriarchy, masculinity, and Sinhala-Buddhist identity in today’s context. As suggested in the Kalama Sutta, critical thought is an integral part of the Buddhism. The present form of Buddhism has been a result of a historical evolution. Hence the reports, traditions, hearsay, the authority of religious texts, mere logic, inference, appearances, delight in speculative opinions, seeming possibilities, and the idea of ‘this is our teacher’ etc. must be critically evaluated, to understand the teachings of Buddha.

Linking the start and end: Understanding Ponnayā as a political identity beyond the discourse of ‘Sex’

The Ponna-Buddhist identity must be extended its interpretation beyond the notion of sex and sexualities. Ponnayā should be identified as an identity which challenges hegemony socially, politically and economically.

The term Ponnayā needs to be understood with a sensitivity to the place which it has been placed in the current political discourses. No word has a universal, all time meaning. For example, half a century before, the term ‘queer’ was used as a derogatory term in the West, though now its meaning has been conceptualized as being more inclusive to those who challenge the heteronormative, gender normative hegemony.

What I am strongly proposing is that we could extend, alter and reclaim the meaning of the term ‘Ponnayā’ in a different sense:Ponnayāas a person who challenges hegemony. This should expand the word’s meaning beyond the‘same-sex’ notions, as well as take away the derogatory connotations it carries. Further, bringing ‘Ponnayā’ as a positive word within the Sinhala-Buddhist discourse heavily problematizes the ego consciousness, and masculinist understanding of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist politics that are linked to violence and discrimination. Further I see this as an opportunity to discuss the teachings of Buddhism in relation to queer politics, and to generate a discussion on having a richer understanding of the teachings of the Buddha.

(Note. Buddhists are a minority in this Country, though the census statistics may identify the Buddhists as the majority. No one can be born into Buddhism. Being born into Buddhism is a product of a colonial understanding of religion.Ponnayās, too,are a minority in this country. Nobody can become a Ponnayā by birth. To become a Ponnayā, one must have the courage to challenge the hegemony).

By Damith Chandimal (Edited by Kenneth Gunasekera)

Damith Chandimal is a human rights defender, queer activist, writer and social researcher based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He works as a consultant to the INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre on the protection of human rights defenders and documenting human rights violations. He is also a student in the Masters Programme in Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Colombo.


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