H.L. Seneviratne Retires

From Sinhalese Poetry to an Anthropology of Political Engagement

By Susan McKinnon
This is an image of H.L. Seneviratne

H.L. Seneviratne presents a talk entitled “Culture Wars in the Monastery: Politics of a Temple-Paintings-Project in Sri Lanka” on Sept. 26, 2008.
Photo by Philip McEldowney, Librarian, Alderman Library

When I think of H.L. Seneviratne, three vivid images come to mind: a man of exquisite aesthetic sensibilities, a man of profound scholarly sensibilities, and a man of passionate political sensibilities. Taken together, these images provide a glimpse into the treasures H.L. has brought to the University of Virginia since he joined the Department of Anthropology in 1972. 

A man of exquisite aesthetic sensibilities. Poetry, Music, Dance, Film, Drama: H.L. has been involved in them all. Early on, from 1958-1962, he edited a Sinhalese poetry magazine called Nisandasa. He has written widely about poetry, about the idea of national music, about Kandyan dance, about Russian and Indian film, and about cinema more generally. He is responsible for the fact that the University of Virginia library has the largest collection of Indian films in the U.S. (over 1500) as well as an extraordinary collection of classics in the British documentary school. This is a remarkable resource for many departments and programs in the University. And, of course, H.L. made use of this marvelous collection by teaching well-loved courses on Indian cinema and Bollywood.

A man of profound scholarly sensibilities. H.L. is also a man whose life-long scholarly work has resulted in a truly profound understanding of Buddhism, the Buddhist monkhood, and the relation between religion and the state in Sri Lanka. His book, Rituals of the Kandyan State, considered both the pre-colonial ritual forms of the Palace of the Tooth Relic in Kandy, the last capital of the Sri Lankan kingdom, and the historical transformations of ideas about the relation between religious cult and state power in the colonial and independence eras. This book has been recognized as a classic and established H.L. as the scholarly authority on the renowned Buddhist and Royal Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. Beginning in the 1970s, H.L. undertook a study of Buddhist monasticism and he has, in the intervening years, published widely on Buddhism, Buddhist monasticism and the relation between religion, politics, ethnicity, and the state, particularly in Sri Lanka. H.L. is, quite simply, one of the foremost scholars on these issues and his work is highly esteemed internationally. Generations of students here at University of Virginia have had a unique opportunity to benefit from H.L.'s insights into the complex workings of religion and politics, Buddhism and the state, and the unfolding ethnic and religious conflict in Sri Lanka. 

A man of passionate political sensibilities. H.L.'s work placed him in the midst of one of the great political and religious crises of our day, the civil war in Sri Lanka. In the midst of this crisis, H.L. struggled to find a new scholarly voicea voice of engagement in the midst of an extremely heated debate, a voice that could mount an informed political critique and challenge the status quo. Just as H.L. began his work on Buddhist monasticism, there began a turbulent period (which has not yet ended) of youth rebellion, ethnic violence, and civil war in Sri Lanka. This became, in effect, the context of H.L.'s fieldwork. And this context led him to at least two significant critiques: one of anthropology, itself, and one of the political position of Buddhist monks in the ongoing Sri Lankan conflict. With regard to anthropology, H.L. questioned the stance of "scientific detachment" and unblinking cultural relativity, at the same time that he forged a notion of the social accountability of anthropologistsan accountability that would involve not only an explanation but also a critique of the position of various actors in the social dramas they were describing. As he notes, he became convinced that "responsible anthropology needs to address issues of societal malaise with a view to producing analyses with potential for amelioration." In this way, H.L has contributed to the emergence of a contemporary anthropology of social engagement. With regard to the events in Sri Lanka, these events motivated him to postpone his study of Buddhist monasticism, per se, and to take on the thorny question of the role of the Buddhist monks in the development of the Sri Lankan conflict. His 1999 book, The Work of Kings, traces the long-term effects of a movement to "rationalize" Buddhism in Sri Lanka that increasingly involved monks in the political and economic spheres and at the center of the developing ethnic conflict and civil war. H.L.'s sharp critique of the monks' role in this conflict was something of a "bombshell." Among scholarly circles, The Work of Kings was immediately recognized as a strikingly original and important book, and as a work of passion and courage. H.L. has shared his insights not only in academic circles and with his students here at the University of Virginia but also with the public in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. H.L. has been a constant commentator in the popular press, writing often for the Lanka Guardian and other publications. In this, H.L. has been a model for us all of an anthropologist with the courage to take a stand and speak out in difficult and trying political circumstances.

We honor H.L. in his retirement and thank him for his many contributions to anthropology, the Department, and the University during his 36 years with us!