Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka
( April 27, 2012, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Buddhism Betrayed? : Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka (A Monograph of the World Institute for Development Economics Research) – Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, University of Chicago Press, 1992
Short excerpt from the chapter on the Period of Buddhist Revivalism – 1860-1915:
“There is no doubt that Sinhala Buddhist revivalism and nationalism, in the form we can recognise today, had its origin in the late 19th nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is in this earlier period that we see most clearly the contours and impulsions of a movement that acted as a major shaper of Sinhala consciousness and a sense of national identity and purpose….
….The dominant leader of the revival movement was Migettuwatte Gunananda “an aggressive and dynamic bhikkhu who was the first to start mass agitation on Buddhist grievances among the urban and rural masses. In contrast to other learned bhikkhus of the period, he was a fiery orator, pamphleteer and a fighter who led the challenge to Christianity and the missionaries” (Kumari Jayawardena, “Bhikkus,” p. 13).
Gunananda was the acclaimed orator in the famous debate between Christians and Buddhists staged in 1873. And together with several wealthy Sinhala traders, arrack renters, and coconut planters, Gunananda became a member of the Theosophical Society. Although in the following years the most prominent Sri Lankan actors in the Buddhist revivalist cum nationalist movement would be laymen such as Dharmapala, it is important to remember that some prominent monks (such as Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala, Valane Siddharta, Weligama Sri Sumangala, and Ratmalane Sri Dharmaloka) were involved with the causes promoted by the revivalist and nationalist upsurge, such as the establishment of Buddhist schools and the temperance movements of 1904 and 1912 (Kumari Jayawardena, “Bhikkus,” p. 14)
The most significant activity of the Buddhist revivalism stimulated and sponsored by Colonel Olcott and the Buddhist Theosophical Society founded in 1880 was the establishment of Buddhist schools to counter the near-monopoly that the Protestant missions (and to a lesser extent the Catholic Church) had over the educational system. Looking ahead, we shall see that this issue would surface again in the 1940s and I950s.
Dharmapala first found his vocation and acquired his propagandist skills in association with the Theosophists, hut later broke away to propagate Buddhist causes as he envisaged them….
The major features of Dharmapala’s Buddhist revivalism are a selective retrieval of norms from canonical Buddhism; a denigration of alleged non-Buddhist ritual practices and magical manipulations (an attitude probably influenced by Christian missionary denunciation of “heathen” beliefs and practices); enunciation of a code for lay conduct, suited for the emergent Sinhalese urban middle-class and business interests, which emphasized a puritanical sexual morality and etiquette in family life; and, most important of all, an appeal to the past glories of Buddhism and Sinhalese civilisation celebrated in the Mahavamsa and other chronicles as a way of infusing the Sinhalese with a new nationalist identity and self-respect in the face of humiliation and restrictions suffered under British rule and Christian missionary influence.
For our purposes it is most relevant to note that Dharmapala’s brand of Sinhala Buddhist revivalism and nationalism was supported by and served the interests of a rising Sinhala Buddhist middle class and a circle of businessmen and that some of these latter were implicated in the anti-Muslim riots of 1915 directed against their competitors – Muslim shopkeepers and businessmen, who were branded as exploiters of the Sinhalese consumer public at large. [The anti-Muslim riots of 1915 are well documented. For example, see Journal of Asian Studies 24, no. 2 ( 1970): 219-66, in which there are three essays under the rubric “The 1915 Riots in Ceylon: A Symposium,” with an introduction by Robert Kearney; Ameer Ali “The 1915 Racial Riots in Ceylon (Sri Lanka): A Reappraisal of Its Causes,” South Asia, n. s., 4, no. 2 ( I 981): 1-20; A. P. Kannangara, “The Riots of 1915 in Sri Lanka: A Study in the Roots of Communal Violence,”Past and Present, no. 102 (1983): 130-65.]
The ethnic overtones of the Buddhist-nationalist journalism of the time has been amply documented. (See especially Kumari Jayawardena, Ethnic and Class Conflicts in Sri Lanka Colombo: Navamaga Printers, 1986).
The newspaper Sinhala Jatiya, edited by the novelist Piyadasa Sirisena, not only invoked a Sinhalese “national awakening” but also in tandem carried anti-Moor stories in its columns shortly before the (1915) riots. In 1909, Sirisena urged the Sinhalese to “refrain from . . . transactions with the Coast Moors, the Cochins, and the foreigner. ” In 1915, when the hostility had reached a higher intensity, the Lakmina, a Sinhala daily, writing of the Coast Moors, said, “A suitable plan should be adopted to send this damnable lot out of the country,” and the Dinamina, another newspaper, condemned “our inveterate enemies, the Moors.”
Dharmapala was an uncharitable propagandist in the same vein. In a 1910 issue of the Mahabodhi Journal, which he published, he denounced the “merchants from Bombay and peddlers from South India” who trade in Ceylon while the ‘sons of the soil” abandon agriculture and “work like galley slaves” in urban clerical jobs.(Mahabodhi Journal Oct. 1909.)
Sinhala Bauddhaya, also run by Dharmapala, was most vociferous in its attacks; in 1912 this journal complained, “From the day the foreign white man stepped in this country, the industries, habits, and customs of the Sinhalese began to disappear and now the Sinhalese are obliged to fall at the feet of the Coast Moors and Tamils.” In this same paper Dharmapala later printed verses describing how the Sinhalese were exploited by aliens together with a cartoon that showed the helpless Sinhala in the grip of alien traders, money lenders, and land grabbers. It should come as no surprise’ therefore, that the Sinhala Bauddhaya, together with the Sinhala Jatiya was prosecuted and banned in 1915 for carrying inflammatory statements that helped fuel the riots.
Dharmapala’s letter to the secretary of state for the colonies, which he wrote from Calcutta on June 15, 1915, demanding a royal commission to investigate the causes of the riots and denouncing the Muslims gives some idea of the anger that fueled this reformer’s romantic search for and reinstitution of a lost pristine Buddhism and an ancient robust, just, and noble Sinhala civilization.(This letter is reproduced in Guruge. ed., Return to Righteousness: A Collection of Speeches, Essays, and Letters of the Anagarika Dharmapala, Colombo, Government Press, 1965)
His condemnations of the alien influences that had spoiled his people and religion were vigorous, even coarse:
“The Muhammadans, an alien people who in the early part of the nineteenth century were common traders, by Shylockian methods became prosperous like the Jews. The Sinhalese, sons of the soil, whose ancestors for 2,358 years had shed rivers of blood to keep the country from alien invaders, . . . today . . . are in the eyes of the British only vagabonds…. The alien South Indian Muhammadan comes to Ceylon, sees the neglected, illiterate villagers, without any experience in trade, without any knowledge of any kind of technical industry, and isolated from the whole of Asia on account of his language, religion, and race, and the result is that the Muhammadan thrives and the sons of the soil go to the wall.” (Guruge. ed., Return to Righteousness p 540)
Dhamapala was duly interned in Calcutta in 1915 for his political efforts and his previous activities in Ceylon.”
from the backcover:
Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah is professor of anthropology at Harvard University and curator of South Asian Ethnology at the Peabody Museum. He is a past president of the Association for Asian Studies. His numerous books include Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy, also published by the University of Chicago Press.
Buddhism Betrayed?Given Buddhism’s presumed non-violent philosophy, how can committed Buddhist monks and laypersons in Sri Lanka today actively take part in the fierce political violence of the Sinhalese against the Tamils?
Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah’s Buddhism Betrayed? seeks to answer this question by looking closely at the past century of Sri Lankan history and tracing the development of Buddhism’s participation in such ethnic conflict and collective violence. Tambiah analyses the ways in which this participation has, over time come to alter the very meaning of Buddhism itself as a lived reality.
Even before Sri Lankan independence, Buddhist activists and ideologues—monks and laypersons, educators and politicians – accused the British raj of “betraying” Buddhism and spoke of a need to restore Buddhism to its rightful place in the life and governance of the country. Tambiah sympathetically portrays and critically assesses the ways in which these views gave rise to discriminatory anti-Tamil policies. He details the increasingly volatile nature of the participation of monks in national politics from its first stirrings in the 1940s to its final phase, when some monks themselves become parties to violence. The successive transformations of “political Buddhism” and what some vocal Buddhist monk ideologues now conceive as an ideal Buddhist-administered society are outlined and evaluated.
Buddhism Betrayed? skilfully combines detailed scholarship with the author’s own passionate plea for an end to hostilities. In the eloquent essay on the “burdens of history” in Sri Lanka that concludes the book, Tambiah examines the Sinhalese Buddhists’ alleged long-term historical consciousness, with its anti-Tamil sentiments as portrayed in chronicles written by monks over the centuries, and advances countervailing evidence in Sinhalese history of tolerant assimilation and incorporation of peoples and traditions from South India.