A well-written article titled ‘Goddess Pattini and Our Lady of Madhu’ by Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere appeared in the Sunday Times of February 8, 2015. According to the author, it was written with the objective of (1) leading the Buddhist and Catholics to understand each other in inter- religious communication and (2) to fill in what [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Seeking truth more accurately

Response to ‘Goddess Pattini and Our Lady of Madhu’

A well-written article titled ‘Goddess Pattini and Our Lady of Madhu’ by Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere appeared in the Sunday Times of February 8, 2015. According to the author, it was written with the objective of (1) leading the Buddhist and Catholics to understand each other in inter- religious communication and (2) to fill in what was missing in the public records on Madhu Shrine, and relations of Fr Joseph Vaz with the Kandyan kings (Vimaladharmasuriya II and Sri Vira Narendrasingha), topics associated with two major events of Pope Francis’ visit to Sri Lanka.

In this article, Gananath Obeyesekere, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University USA, an expert on Asian deities, particularly the Pattini cult, presents a fairly accurate picture of Joseph Vaz and the history and thinking of his times (paradigm). The kindness of Buddhist-Sinhalese and the benevolence of the ‘true Sinhalese’ kings of Kandy (before the Indians took over) towards Catholics, vis-à-vis the Dutch, who persecuted the Catholics, was a point that did not receive much attention in the media during the Pope’s visit, and the Catholic Church and the Catholics ought to be grateful to Prof. Obeyesekere for filling this gap in the records.

But, in spite of his expertise in the Pattini cult, the record he attempted to fill was a poor statement of a historical fact, with no archaeological artifacts of structures, statutes or inscriptions at the site. So far, no verifiable, falsifiable or reliable historical record on the subject has been found to make any absolute claim of what Prof. Obeyesekere is trying to say. We would be happy to know the contents of those pus kola poth; whether there was a Pattini Shrine at the present Madhu Church premises and who destroyed it. At best, what is known is that the Pattini cult was introduced during the time of King Gaja Bahu (114-136 AD), Mahayana Buddhists from South India arrived in Sri Lanka with their Avalokitesvara, Pattini and other cults and Pattini shrines were distributed all over the island including the Mannar District.

The assertion of Prof. Obeyesekere, “…that Madhu was once a shrine for the Goddess Pattini, another virgin goddess worshipped by Sinhala Buddhists during a long historical period” needs further analysis, as it may mean different things to different readers. A number of scenarios can be considered: (1) There was a Pattini shrine worshipped by Buddhists at the present site of the Madhu Church, which was destroyed by the Portuguese. (2) There was a Pattini shrine worshipped by Buddhists at the present site of the Madhu Church, but the Catholic Church (Jaffna Diocese) secretly destroyed it in later years to build the Madhu church (3) The Mahayana Indian Buddhists and Hindus who migrated to Sri Lanka continued the Pattini worship, and when some of them became Catholics, they found a similar goddess in Virgin Mary and replaced the cult of Pattini with devotion to Mary. They still worship the Pattini statue or a replacement of it (4) After the Hindu king Sankili (Cankili) had martyred 640 Catholics in Mannar in 1544, Catholic faith was growing strong, and so also the devotion to Virgin Mary. In the 1670s, the Catholics fleeing Dutch persecution in Mannar, took with them the statue of Our Lady from their church in Mantai near Mannar and settled at Marutha Madhu, near the Custom House of the Kandyan King, and placed the statue in a small shed (Maduwa). Probably, there was also a small shrine of Pattini in this locality, where Hindus and Mahayana Buddhists worshipped their Pattini goddess, while Catholics prayed to Virgin Mary in their shrine. More Catholic refugees from Jaffna came with a Portuguese lady Helena, who married the Customs officer. They improved the chapel and those Buddhists and Hindus who came to worship Pattini, began to pay their homage to Virgin Mary, calling her Pattini, while the Pattini-shrine was neglected and gradually abandoned. This kind of dual worship of Catholic saints and Hindu gods happens even in present day Kerala in India (5) There is no connection at all between the Madhu Church and the Pattini shrines that existed in the Mannar District, as they were distributed far away from the current Madhu Church.

Here is the analysis. The explanation (1) cannot be true, since the first record of Madhu goes back to 1670s when Catholics came to Marutha Madhu to escape Dutch persecution. The Portuguese had left the country by 1658. It is not reasonable to consider that fleeing refugees would be destroying shrines rather than saving their lives, and Catholics wouldn’t place their statue in a non-Catholic shrine and worship there. Explanation (2) cannot be true, as Tamil Hindu scholars would have been aware of this shrine, and Arumuga Navalar, who made claims for destroyed Hindu temples during the Portuguese period, would have made a claim for this too.

Explanations (3) and (4) are possible, but not probable. To assess them, one has to examine the physical features of the statue of Our Lady of Madhu. In contrast to presentations of Pattini in statues holding rings, in the statue of Our Lady of Madhu, Mary is holding Jesus as in many Catholic statues of the Virgin Mary. Her dress (not the outside clothes) in the carved statue is not Indian or Sri Lankan, but typical Jewish. Her facial expressions have an Indian/oriental touch, which probably attracted Hindus and Buddhists. According to its physical features, the statue at Madhu is certainly not of Pattini, but of Virgin Mary. Catholics (and the Pope, according Prof. Obeyesekere) were certainly not venerating Pattini goddess at Madhu Church for the past three and half centuries. Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims have been and are welcome to fulfil their vows or pray to Our Lady as an expression of their faith.

The assertion of Prof. Obeyesekere that “The Buddhists who came there simply thought they were worshipping their favourite goddess, Pattini. Our Lady of Madhu for them was Pattini and because most ordinary Buddhists at that time did not have an exclusivist view of religion they could find no disparity between the two ladies, Madhu and Pattini” is also not quite correct. In my assessment, they were aware that it was the Virgin Mary and not Pattini that they were venerating at the church of Our Lady of Madhu. In Tamil, Mathave and Amman are used for the mother, and Catholics and Hindus address Our Lady of Madhu as Madu Mathave or Madhu Amman. In 2001, A. Gamage tried to show that Madhu was a Pattini shrine, because people call her Amman (somewhat similar to Pattini Amman) and there is a tank called Kovil Kulam adjacent to the Madhu church, not knowing that church is also called kovil in Tamil.

I also question Prof. Obeyesekere’s claim, “During the long period of my research on Pattini in the late 1950s and 60s, I had the good fortune to visit Madhu and note that it was patronised by both Christians and Buddhists in large numbers.” I too visited Madhu during this period and did not see Buddhists there in large numbers. What I realised was that church land was zoned for Catholic pilgrims from different parts of the island such as Chilaw, Negombo, Jaffna, Mannar etc. and Wadiyas, often with huge catamaran sails were set there. All the services were Catholic with no trace of the Pattini cult. There were a few Buddhists and Hindus who had come to fulfil their vows to Our Lady of Madhu, and not to Pattini. Most of the buses that came from Chilaw, Negombo and further south, visited Anuradhapura historic sites as they left Madhu as a picnic, and Prof. Obeyesekere may have mistaken them for Buddhist pilgrims returning from Madhu.

The intention of Prof. Obeyesekere to unite Catholics and Buddhists through veneration of the Pattini goddess and Virgin Mary is much appreciated, but it goes contrary to the First Commandment in the Christian Bible and Jewish Torah to do it this way. While Buddhists find it easy to venerate Hindu gods, Catholics do not worship other gods. To have different opinions and different religious views is a good thing, and it does not necessarily mean that we all are against each other. It simply means, in differences we have an opportunity to seek the truth more accurately. It also gives us an opportunity to search for ‘unity in diversity’.

-Dr. Leonard Pinto

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.