Dire need to resurrect our indigenous knowledge

Saturday, 3 August 2019 00:10 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Suryamithra Vishwa

Recently, a foreign-educated Sri Lankan with a degree in health studies from a Western university was talking about losing some family members to cancer. She was at the same time speaking highly about her foreign degree. Although brought up in Sri Lanka (she had gone abroad only for a few years for studies) she could not speak in Sinhala. She had studied in a Western country a subject related to health studies but was clueless about her own country’s native medicine. 

She certainly did not seem to know that there are many instances where active cancer cells have been destroyed easily by eating local foods such as manioc consistently on advice and as prescribed by a professional Ayurvedic physician. However, today our physical systems are so crammed with processed and unhealthy food and health detrimental lifestyle patterns that treatments that our forefathers used would probably not even adhere to our bodies.

While being ignorant about Sri Lanka’s rich heritage, she was praising India as a ‘spiritual country’. I commented that India’s spirituality is retained by its people who value their ancestral culture, practices and attitudes. I also opined that for me, Sri Lanka is equally ‘spiritual’ despite the fact that we have largely lost our spiritual connection with our land. We have forgotten that Buddhism should be as a living religion practiced in letter and spirit and not reduced to mere rituals. We have lost touch with our ancient and vibrant past – our Hela culture that pre-dates Buddhism in the island. 

Indians of yore and the people of many other nations considered Lanka a paradise. Our politicians have made it hell with their corruption, greed and bad governance that does not even have a shadow of Buddhist philosophy in it. Yet, this land belongs to us along with our heritage. 

Today our sole pathetic ambition is to go from the village to the town and then clamour blindly to leave for a so-called civilised Western country making a mockery of ourselves and shaming our distinguished ancestors. It is ironic that some Sri Lankans are more thorough with the history of other countries and the customs and values of those nations than their own. We know the poets, writers, singers and legends of other nations and not ours. We know the contemporary creative writers of those countries but do we know ours?  


The progress of a country is based on the health of its people. Despite all the modern Western medicines, we see people dying in the prime of life or living lives tied to the hospital. 

The natural resources of this country have been brazenly ruined. Much of our endemic herbs, fruits and trees that served as invaluable medicine are extinct or getting extinct or our knowledge of their curative benefits are extinct. 

Visit any doctor practicing Hela medicine and you would know the holistic, integrated manner in which we looked at physical and mental well-being. Any of these doctors and Ayurvedic physicians can tell us that what we have today are lifestyle illnesses. We today buy illnesses that come packaged in the form of fancy food that can hardly be called food. They come to us through the machines of processing factories located in distant lands. We buy these at exorbitant prices. Forgotten are our native foods. We then build large ‘speciality’ hospitals to treat terrible diseases like cancer. 

Education and health 

In fact, the people today are sick from mental diseases that go undetected and which are prompted by an educational structure that kills the spirit, maims the brain, and destroys in totality the very concept of what an intellect should be. If we visit a university it is not uncommon to find students grovelling in front of their lecturers because they have long ago learnt that any independent thinking and valuing of knowledge for its own sake and even a vague questioning of the teacher would land them in the No Return Zone of their educational journey. The teacher in turn is often a person full of pride and an inflated ego, having no capacity for curiosity and humility. It is well known that a good teacher is an eternal student but this is not the case today. 

We then have a higher education system where Western theories such as development studies leave no room for proving these theories wrong, despite the fact that some of the development assumptions have proved dysfunctional in the West. Propelled into rote learning, from kindergarten onwards, we are not trained in the Buddhist or the Vedic tradition of knowing our innermost selves that will help us understand our skills and talents, and who we are as individuals. 

What exactly is ‘development’?

Does development mean aping a bloc of countries which have put concrete on the very soul of man and where technology is today used more for destroying than healing? 

For more on ‘development’ we can roam around Colombo and come to our own conclusions. We should then go and see the reservoirs built by our ancient kings to learn how land was used with respect and without greed and make our comparisons.

After the colonisers gripped this country and the souls of power-hungry locals, every value that we respected was turned on its head and the greed for money that was introduced then, continues to date. 

We go to Western lands where White invaders killed and ruined with cunning the original people of those lands and we come away with high respect for those countries, hail their model of ‘development’ and even worse, go and study those models and come back to orchestrate more ruination at home. 


Wealth, according to our ancestors, was not money. Native Americans believed in the protection of a superior form of wealth – the wealth of the heart, conscience, spirit, associated with land and the natural world. With this being destroyed by the invading White man the land of those people turned into rivers of blood, ruthless domination turned land and values into mere commodities. This is how it is for countries like us too and we continue to think of this as normal. 

Our happiness and that of other living beings

Countries such as Bhutan, which carefully protect their heritage and values through wise policy making, such as ensuring that the bulk of their land has forest cover, and that their culture is not ruined by unplanned tourism, give us hope. 

This South Asian country had shown the way back in 1972 that Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product. Although the Bhutanese go abroad for studies they return to their country with no intention of staying on as second class citizens in other countries. Countries such as Bhutan ensure that their ancient practices such as native medicine and practiced wisdom of Buddhism, are passed onto new generations, knowing well that a people burdened with sicknesses, either physical or mental, cannot be happy. 

The happiness of Sri Lankans, although ruined by politicians, is now left in the hands of citizens. We should take the initiative to see that happiness of the citizens is ensured. 

In Buddhism maintaining the happiness of individuals is not sufficient. It should extend to all living beings. That is why we wish for the well-being of all living beings alongside us. 

But what do we see in practice? Having inundated our country with plastic, we see daily, the sorry image of animals such as elephants, driven out of the ever shrinking forest cover cut down by man’s greed, encroaching more and more into villages and dying after consuming plastic trash or being ruthlessly killed by man. 

True knowledge 

Would we continue to blindly walk away with bags and bags of plastic and not use paper, if we had been imparted true knowledge? What if we were taught in schools that to throw plastic irresponsibly is a crime? What if we were taught in school that we cannot call ourselves happy when our fellow creatures that inhabit the land with us are killed daily because of us? What if we were taught as children that to recognise people by their religion and ethnicity and to de-humanise them based on this was an absolute crime? 

Our natural environment 

Often there are frantic Facebook posts of people panicking at the mere sight of some furry insects on trees. There are responses to such posts immediately prescribing solutions such as burning the whole tree along with the insects. This shows our mentality. We think that only we should live on this earth. The average person cares little for the eco system which needs the protection of every insect and every plant, so that we in turn are protected from calamities such as drought, floods and other natural retributions to our unkind actions against the earth. 

A story that would baffle the modern world 

The recalling of the following true story to a group of Western educated Lankan scholars got me a few cold stares and the muted muttered response of ‘Mumbo Jumbo’ by one of them. This completely true story however would show us how connected we were to all that lived in earth before modern purported knowledge completely brainwashed us. The story dates back about 40 years ago and was told by a still living relative of a middle aged woman who had got bitten by a snake in a rural Lankan village and died. 

At a time when bodies were not cut up and embalmed the body was in the process of being taken for burial on the third day after demise when an old man in a loin cloth, typically looking like a farmer had been at the side of the road watching the funeral procession. He had then inquired from one of the grieving relatives as to the cause of death. On being told it was a snake bite, the man had said that he could try to bring the woman to life if he is given about an hour. The relatives had agreed. 

Subsequently the body was removed from the coffin and laid on the ground. The snake bite had been on one of the toes of the woman. To check whether the woman could be resurrected or not the man had kept his thumb on the forehead, between the eyes of the woman and spoken something softly.

The man had then instructed the relatives to go cut down some plantain trees and from the point of the snake bitten toe of the woman, to the location of where she was bitten, to lay the tree trunks, covering the top with plantain trunk sheaths. The relatives were instructed not to panic or make a noise if they see any movement of the plantain trunks. Soon after the tasks instructed being carried out, there had been movement of the plantain trunks twice, where the snake had answered the summon of the old man and arrived to retake its poison from the woman and then departed under cover of the plantain sheaths. 

The woman had opened her eyes and soon after taken to the old man’s medicinal hut to administer full treatment and within a week she was restored to her normal health and had apparently, according to her relative, who told the story, lived up to her eighties. 

This story shows us the deep connection we once had with the other creatures that co-exist with us and which we have now seemed to have forever lost. 

Our Hela knowledge 

The above story shows us a small segment of our ancient Hela knowledge that encompassed all of our interactions with ourselves and our earth. Overall, the Hela knowledge of Lanka was known to have 64 segments based on 64 industries that existed at that time. We who are today dependent on the handouts of the West have forgotten our past and what we could learn of it for today. 

Elements such as fire, water, earth and wind formed the basis of ancient knowledge and this knowledge was ingrained in our ancient mind that still live within us, in our genes, diluted though it may be with the borrowed consumerist rubbish that we have imbibed. To revive this knowledge is our duty. 

Await our series on indigenous knowledge 

(The Harmony page will be running a series on indigenous knowledge of our country written by scholars and practitioners who have made studies on it and those who have received knowledge through their ancestral lineage and practice it. We believe that resurrecting our indigenous knowledge is the resurrection of our very consciousness about who we were and are as a people.)

- Pix by Tharinda Elvitigala