By Vijitha Yapa

A topic often discussed in Sri Lankan homes over the past few centuries has been the issue of God in a Buddhist land where conversion to Christianity under foreign influence bestowed various favours to the ‘natives.’

In his latest book, Herman Gunaratne presents a new argument: while Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha were superior beings, are the (330 million) deviyos or gods worshipped in many Buddhist temples agents of Satan?

Gunaratne criticises leaders who profess to advance the cause of Sinhalese-Buddhism but at the first sign of trouble rush to South Indian kovils. They strip themselves naked to the waist to propitiate Hindu gods or what he calls “powerful evil forces.”

The author admits instances when he sought the help of some of these deities when he faced difficulty. He writes of his father who had slept in a hotel in the south but in his alcohol-induced state left the room’s door open. The next morning, he searched in vain for his silver Dunhill cigarette case and lighter.

Staff at the hotel advised him to seek the help of an anjanam eli (light) reader. He was told that he’d find the missing goods but needed to first find a brown-eyed boy who lived near Nilagiri who could help him read the anjanam eli. A white saucer blackened with soot in the middle on which a picture would be seen by the ‘right eye.’

And so the brown-eyed boy looked at the sooty saucer and described seeing images of his master’s son Nissanka coming into the room and stealing the items. Herman’s father confronted Nissanka and recovered the stolen items.

The incident reminded me of the anjanam eli man who was consulted by Upali Wijewardene’s sister Anoja when her brother’s Learjet disappeared in February 1983. He said that Upali was dead and this was an omen that Sri Lanka faced dark days ahead. Five months later, the country witnessed the ravages of Black July.

More than half the book is devoted to Herman’s adventures with a man called Nissanka Wimalasuriya who believed in prayer and his method of liberally sprinkling holy water to cure those who were affected by evil. Herman’s association with him began when Annesley collapsed with an epileptic seizure at the Pundaluoya Planter’s Club while he was playing tennis.

In desperation, Annesley’s mother had visited a house in Moratuwa where prayer meetings were being held. Here she met Nissanka who said her son was in deep trouble due to an evil curse. Herman’s assistance was sought to bring Nissanka from Gampola station to a house in which Annesley had once worked.

At the house, he requested that Herman dig near a papaya tree where there would be a small bottle with blood, human ash and a copper scroll. When the bottle was opened – having poured holy water on it first – Annesley let out a blood-curling scream and thus ended the evil curse. This was Herman’s introduction to Nissanka – a man of faith.

The book contains many episodes involving Nissanka’s battles against evil forces. Meeting him was a turning point in Herman’s life. Many stories of blood-soaked missiles, human ash and copper sheets with strange figures that were described by Nissanka offer a glimpse of the grey side of the world.

But is there a difference in pirith pan – the water blessed by Buddhist monks following many hours of chanting – and the holy water that Nissanka used?

An interesting experiment was conducted by Herman when a child possessed by evil spirits was brought to Nissanka. Despite many attempts, the child screamed and ran towards the windows of the building.

Nissanka asked Herman to sprinkle holy water on the windows. Herman surreptitiously sprinkled holy water on three windows, Buddhist pirith pan on the fourth and left the last window without any. When the child ran to the first window, she said it was burning her. She said the same of the other windows including the one with pirith pan. But at the last window (where no water had been sprinkled), she laughed demonically and attempted to break through it.

Conviction about the use of holy water to cure evil is highlighted but Herman does not relate whether Nissanka helped him in events involving his own life. Such revelations would have been more meaningful to conclude the book.

We only hear that Nissanka had lived in a house modernised through the generosity of Dilmah Tea founder Merrill J. Fernando and was cheated out of it by a daughter-in-law. Messages from God to move the son and daughter-in-law out of the house were ignored by Nissanka’s wife; and eventually, Nissanka lost the power to receive communications from God in the evening of his life.

Fate or Karma?