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Oppressive history seen through poet’s work

New book explores history, religion, cultural change
Monday, April 1, 2013

Two sides exist in every story; one can be portrayed as a hero or a villain, depending upon which side of the fight you see. In contemporary Sri Lanka, the leaders and soldiers who prosecuted a war to defeat a long-running separatist rebellion are either lauded as great heroes or denounced for committing atrocities.

According to Dr. Stephen Berkwitz, department head of religious studies at Missouri State University, the situation can be related to a period 400 years ago, when a Sinhala poet named Alagiyavanna made the decision to turn his back on the Buddhist culture and convert to Catholicism and work for the Portuguese colonizers.

“How he is seen to history depends greatly on whom you ask. Some people see his works as cultural treasures, while others dismiss him as a traitor to the nation,” said Berkwitz.

Berkwitz’s recently published book, “Buddhist Poetry and Colonialism: Alagiyavanna and the Portuguese in Sri Lanka” (Oxford University Press, 2013), explores the tumultuous change one poet experienced as the island of Sri Lanka was colonized by the Portuguese. Berkwitz analyzed how Alagiyavanna’s writing changed as he morphed from a Buddhist in a prominent position in the court of a Sinhala king, through the warfare and colonialism of Sri Lanka, and into a practicing Catholic employed under the Portuguese crown. The verses of poetry translated in the book provide a window into the tremendous religious and cultural changes of the early seventeenth century, when Europeans and Asian Buddhists had sustained and intensified exchanges.

“Alagiyavanna starts writing a traditional poem celebrating the Sinhala king…It’s a picture of Sri Lankan society that is very idealistic,” said Berkwitz. “Forty years later, he’s living and working under Portuguese rule, and he writes another poem. As was the custom, it’s celebratory to make this (Portuguese) general larger than life, but there’s a much more sober view of society because it’s wracked by warfare and rebellion, and there’s more violent imagery. The piece appears more realistic because, in the past, there was only imagery of a king who makes all of his enemies bow down before him.”

In the book, Berkwitz argues the poet’s shifting viewpoint was caused by the Portuguese colonialism. This was just the beginning of what became an almost 500 year history of European colonialism for the small island; Berkwitz noted that many Sri Lankans still resent those previous European powers.

Berkwitz began the research for this book in 2005, attained a Fulbright scholarship to continue the research, learned to read Sinhala poetry and the Portuguese languages and spent seven months in Sri Lanka and made later research trips to Portugal.

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College of Humanities and Public Affairs
The College of Humanities and Public Affairs offers 16 undergraduate, eight graduate and six certificate programs. Departments in the college include criminology and criminal justice, defense and strategic studies, economics, history, military science, philosophy, political science, religious studies, sociology and anthropology. The department of defense and strategic studies is housed in the Washington, D.C. area. The college helps students understand social, political and legal structures, ethical principles, religious systems, and economic institutions and practices within a global, historical, and contemporary context. 
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