Friday, May 22, 2015

Sinhabahu the Paradigmatic Myth of the Sri Lankan Oedipus

Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge M.D.

The mythological Story of Sinhabahu describes the origins of the 'Sinhala' race. The Sinhalese are an ethnic group native to the island of Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese speak Sinhala -an Indo-Aryan language (Lewis, 2009). The name Sinhala translates to lion people.

According to the Sinhabahu mythology, the Princess Suppadevi of Vanga Kingdom (a kingdom located in the eastern part of the Indian Subcontinent) was kidnapped by a ferocious lion and took her to the wilderness. While living with the lion she became pregnant and had twins. The newly born son was named Sinhabahu (means-hands like a lion's paws / the lion armed)) and daughter was named Sinha Seevali. The lion kept them in a cave and used to cover the entrance with a mighty rock.

When Sinhabahu was sixteen years of age, he removed the megalith and escaped with his mother and the sister. They went to the Lala kingdom evading the lion. When the lion found that the family had escaped it became furious and attacked villages seeking Princess Suppadevi and two children. The desperate villagers pleaded the King to rescue them from the fierce lion. The king of the Lala kingdom requested Sinhabhu to stop the menace caused by the lion. Young Sinhabahu went in search of the lion and killed him with a deadly arrow.

The people praised Sinhabahu for rescuing them from the evil beast. He was rewarded as a hero. After killing the lion Sinhabahu becomes the Archetypal Hero. Joseph Campbell in Hero with Thousand Faces (1968) indicated that hero is “any male or female who leaves the world of his or her everyday life to undergo a journey to a special world where challenges and fears are overcome in order to secure a quest, which is then shared with other members of the hero‟s community” 

Sinhabahu's story was told through the generations. Oral-traditional stories detail their heroes' growth through a narrative pattern of exile and return that places the heroes in situations repeatedly challenging their strength and resolve (Scot, 1990). Archetypes may find their way into narratives in the form of a typical character, story line, plot, imagery or themes and through their interconnectedness provide a platform for analysis. Hero and hero‟s journey is one of the archetypes that are almost always present in narratives in every culture. 

Prince Sinhabahu built a city called Sinhapura (The Lion City) and married his sister Sinha Seevali. They had a son named Vijaya. According to Mahawansa Prince Vijaya was the first recorded King of Sri Lanka from 543 BC to 505 BC. 

The lion or the beast was the father of Prince Sinhabahu who kidnapped his mother from her clan. The lion could have been a metaphor for a strong man with a monstrous strength or a man with a lion face (consider that fact that in Hansen's disease lion-like appearance or leonine facies is evident). 

Prof Gananath Obeyesekere postulates that Sinhabahu myth is the paradigmatic myth of the Sri Lankan Oedipus.  In his outstanding publication, The Work of Culture Symbolic Transformation in Psychoanalysis and Anthropology Prof Obesekara states that the Sinhabahu myth is striking for the absence of reference to remorse or any ethical qualms for father killing. 

The Prince Sinhabahu’s father was a lion which was a symbolic representation of a strong male. All symbolic representation has its genesis in the social, ideological and political concept (Miller, 2011). Hence Lion became the symbol for the 'Sinhala' race.
Carl Jung believed that animals almost invariably represent instincts and each animal represents a different instinct. Lion is an archetypal symbol for the Sinhalese people. A symbol has at its kernel a breath of life energy, be it instinctual or archetypal, named libido or anima (Jutta von Buchholtz, 2000).

Obeyesekere explores what he calls "symbolic remove"--the process through which symbolic forms existing at the cultural level. Symbols thus created are regressive because of their ontogenesis in individual development and unconscious processes, while also being progressive, in that the unconscious thought transforms the archaic motivations of early experience and looks forward to their realization in experience of the sacred (Nuckolls, 1997).

Culture is a regulator of human life and identity. Culture arises from shared symbols, language, ideology, beliefs, rituals, myths, stories and dominant metaphors (Fischer & Dirsmith, 1995). Sinhabahu is a cultural symbol as well as a dominant metaphor. For the Sinhala' race “Lion” became the totem animal. As Freud viewed the clan is celebrating the ceremonial occasion by the cruel slaughter of its totem animal. When the Prince Sinhabahu killed the lion people became over joyed and celebrated the slaughter. He was hailed as the king or the savior. However the lion symbol became the clan's identity.  

The Jungian Psychologist Barbara Hannah pointed out the archetypal symbolism of the lion, which entered the fourth class for it is becoming more and more divine. With its angry, roaring, fiery and passionate nature it is a wonderful symbol for the God of the Old Testament who has to be transformed by the doves of Diana.

Emile Durkheim (1915) proposed that animism and totemism were the primal forms of religion. In ancient Sri Lanka 4 tribes (Siv Hela) could be identified. These were Raksha, Yaksha, Naga and Deva tribes.  Before the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka (before 250 B.C) these tribes worshiped trees and stone monuments. They believed that spirits, and demons inhabit the earth. Still totemism and animism prevail among the Veddas ('forest-dwellers') – the indigenous people of Sri Lanka.

The Prince Vijaya – son of Sinhabahu was exiled from the kingdom and he came to Sri Lanka with his 700 followers. Vijaya married a local prince from the Yaksha tribe. Kuveni bore him two children, a son and a daughter. Later Vijaya abandoned Kuveni and his two children. He married a princess from India.  Kuveni's children fled the palace and lived in the jungle. Veddas are descended from Kuveni's children.

Jung recognized that there were universal patterns in all stories and mythologies regardless of culture or historical period and hypothesized that part of the human mind contained a collective unconscious shared by all members of the human species, a sort of universal, primal memory. There are many mythological stories like Sinhabahu that could be found in the ancient cultures.  Dr Wijaya Dissanayaka, Consultant Psychiatrist and the eminent lecturer, was on the view that most of these stories narrate the killing of the beast or the dragon by the hero, which truly depicts the oedipal conflict. 

In the Hindu epic Mahabharata is a narrative of the Kurukshetra War and the fates of the Kaurava and the Pandava princes. According to Mahabharata the King Babhruvahana kills his father Arjun with an arrow.

The ancient English poem Beowulf and Sinhabahu has some similarities. The Beowulf - the oldest surviving epic poem in the English language that was written in 700 AD evolved through many retellings before it was written down. Beowulf narrates an epic story of a prince who kills a terrible monster known as Grendel and frees the people.
From Sinhabahu to Beowulf and to the modern day Star Wars (the clash between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader) symbolize the conflict between farther and son. All these stories have one thing in common. The son is challenging the father’s authority projecting his primal hate towards the father and eventually commenting a patricide. 
Sigmund Freud was fascinated by the greatest works of world literature such as Oedipus Rex, The King, Hamlet, and the Brothers Karamazov that dramatically describe the unconscious motives of patricide.

Oedipus Rex, written by the Hellenic poet Sophocles, describes the patricide and incest motif. In the psychoanalytic perspective, it was transitional dynamic of the “ego” overcoming the “superego.  In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) Freud wrote that it is impossible to get “away from the assumption that man’s sense of guilt springs from the Oedipus complex and was acquired at the killing of the father by the brothers banded together. 

Freud never had a chance to read the Sinhabahu legend, but Carl Jung might have read it when he came to Sri Lanka. However, there were no any psychoanalytical writings based on Sinhabahu by Jung. 

Sigmund Freud expressed that parricide was the great crime at the base of all social evolution. In Totem and Taboo (1913), Freud’s cultural speculation on the Primal Father - the dominant male (The Lion in the Sinhabahu’s instance) Freud suggested that eventually the displaced sons of the primal father banded together and killed their oppressive patriarch.

Freud was on the view that in primitive societies, the head of the family gave free reign to the instinctual manifestations of his aggression at the expense of all others. Freud luridly wrote about the patricide and its unconscious motive. He made an emphasis on the term ‘Vatermord’ or murder of the father by the son. Freud further states that the hero commits the deed unintentionally.

Sigmund Freud theorized that the triadic family (mother, father, and child) maintains a complexity of love and competition. (Phelan, 2005).  Freud introduced the term ‘Oedipus complex’ in his ‘Interpretation of Dreams (1899). According to him, the concept is a desire for sexual involvement with the parent of the opposite sex, which produces a sense of competition with the parent of the same sex and a crucial stage in the normal developmental process (Ahmed, 2012).

The Oedipus complex is the psychic representation of a central, instinctually motivated, triangular conflictual constellation of child-parent relations. For Freud, the father was the foremost provider and protector, as well as the castrator if his authority and predominance were challenged (Loewald, 2000).The child has fantasies of taking his father’s penis, wishing him dead, and murdering him.

The killing of the father is, in Freud’s view, the requirement for the creation of the social order which, from then on, prohibits all killings. The father, however, has to be killed metaphorically only, as the actual exclusion of the father lies at the origin of so many psychopathologies from violence to the psychoses and perversions (Perelberg, 2009). 

Dr Vamlk Volkan, Professor of Psychiatry of the University of Virginia, luminously writes on the killing of the totem animal or the patricide thus. 

Long ago primitive people lived in small tribes led by despotic leaders. With his unlimited power, the leader or father considered all the women of the tribe his exclusive property. If the young men of the tribe, or sons, expressed jealousy, they were killed, castrated or excommunicated.  Their fate unbearable, the young men joined forces, killed the father and ate him. But the father’s influence would not disappear. In death he became more powerful. Haunted by the ghost of their father, the sons replaced him with a horrible and strong animal, a totem. It absorbed the sons’ ambivalence—the simultaneous hate and love they were experiencing for their dead father. Since the ghost of their father lived in the totem, however, the sons were still not free of his influence and their hate for him, as well as their love for him, continued. Totemism is thus both a religious and a social system” (Hence, the totem animal was used to maintain two useful prohibitions—one against killing the totem animal (patricide) and the other against having sexual relations with women of the same totem or clan (incest).  (Totem and Taboo in Romania: A Psychopolitical Diagnosis - Dr. Vamlk Volkan) 

In Totem and Taboo Freud, profoundly analyzed the incest in the ancient human societies and intricately discussed the emotional ambivalence associated with totem objects. He saw a similarity between the obsessional rituals associated with totem clanship and their taboos.

What is a totem? It is as a rule an animal (whether edible and harmless or dangerous and feared) and more rarely a plant or a natural phenomenon (such as rain or water), which stands in a peculiar relation to the whole clan. In the first place, the totem is the common ancestor of the clan; at the same time it is their guardian spirit and helper, which sends them oracles and, if dangerous to others, recognizes and spares its own children. Conversely, the clansmen are under a sacred obligation (subject to automatic sanctions) not to kill or destroy their totem and to avoid eating its flesh (or deriving benefit from it in other ways). The totemic character is inherent, not in some individual animal or entity, but in all the individuals of a given class. From time to time festivals are celebrated at which the clansmen represent or imitate the motions and attributes of their totem in ceremonial dances (Totem and Taboo Sigmund Freud).

Freud connects totemism's sexual restrictions to the Oedipus complex, where the totem is an image of a forefather, who had expelled his sons from the "horde" he ruled, to prevent them from having intercourse with the women of the horde. The sons joined in a severe revenge: "One day the expelled brothers joined forces, slew and ate the father, and thus put an end to the father horde (Stenudd, 2006).

Freud further stated that the totem feast, which is perhaps mankind’s first celebration, would be the repetition and commemoration of this memorable, criminal act [patricide] with which so many things began, social organization, moral restrictions and religion. Freud articulated that the Horror of Incest" concerns incest taboos adopted by societies believing in totemism. According to the Sinhabahu legend, the Prince Sinhabahu violated two social taboos. He killed the Lion (totem animal /father). Later the totem animal Lion became the father and guardian spirit of the Sinhala tribe. However the Prince Sinhabahu violated the totemic codes and marred his sister Sinha Seewali - the woman of the same totem which can be described as an incest. Loewald (2000) wrote that incest may be seen as the other side of parricide, the side where love appears dominant.   

In Totem and Taboo Freud stated:   The totems were originally only animals and were considered the ancestors of single tribes. The totem was hereditary only through the female line; it was forbidden to kill the totem (or to eat it, which under primitive conditions amounts to the same thing); members of a totem were forbidden to have sexual intercourse with each other.

Freud hypothesized that the existence of a primitive horde whose father is omnipotent; the murder of the father by the group of brothers, leading to the growth of the totemic clan, and the conditions for this possibility of thought. The legend Sinhabahu gave the totemism, -system of belief in which the Sinhala Nation got a mystical relationship with a spirit being -the Lion and it became the eternal symbol of the Sinhala Nation.


1)      Gananath Obeyesekere - Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University 

2)     Vamlk D. Volkan - Doctor of Medical Science honoris causa, University of Kuopio, Finland

3)     Dr. Lewis Kirshner- Harvard Medical School, Department of  Psychiatry

4)     Dr. Éric Smadja - psychiatrist, a psychoanalyst, a member of the Société psychanalytique de Paris and of the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA), a couples psychoanalyst, and also an anthropologist and associate member of the American Anthropological Association.

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