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Home > International Tamil Conferences on Tamil Eelam Freedom Struggle > > Peace with Justice, Australia >  Obstacles to Peace - Political Buddhism

International Conference on the Conflict in Sri Lanka:
Peace with Justice, Canberra, Australia, 1996

Obstacle to Peace  - Political Buddhism

By Ana Pararajasingham,
Secretary, Australasian Federation of Tamil Associations

In 1963, B H Farmer, the British writer, in his book Ceylon: A Divided Nation, (issued under the auspices of the British Institute of Race Relations in 1963,) wrote ".. it is of great consequence that from early times, at least as early as the writing of the Mahavamsa, the Sinhalese have thought of themselves as a unique and specially favoured people.

In August 1957, J R Jayawardne (who was to become Sri Lanka's head of state twenty years later) began his campaign against the then Prime Minister Bandaranaike, who had entered into a pact with the Tamil leader Chelvanayakam to devolve autonomy to the Tamil regions, by declaring:

"The time has come for the whole Sinhala race which has existed for 2,500 years, jealously safeguarding their language and religion, to fight without giving any quarter to save their birthright. I will lead the campaign."

In July 1981, Mrs Wimala Kanangara M.P and Minister for Rural Development declared in parliament "If we are governing we must govern, if we are ruling we must rule. Do not give in to the minorities. We are born Sinhalese and Buddhists in this country. Let us rule"

It is my contention that the phenomena known as "Political Buddhism" is best described by the above quotes. It is also my contention that a major obstacle to a negotiated peace in Sri Lanka is this phenomena variously described as "Political Buddhism", "the Land, Race and Faith Factor" and the "Mahavamsa Mindset". It is essentially an attitude deeply influenced by the way in which the Mahavamsa (an ancient chronicle of Sinhala history believed to have been written in the late 6th century AD by an unknown Buddhist monk) has been interpreted by latter day Sinhala nationalists.

Several modern historians who have sought to understand the Sinhala-Tamil divide have found the "Mahavamsa Mindset" to have been a significant factor in shaping Sinhala nationalism in such a way as to deny all non-Sinhala people (particularly the Tamils) an equal right to the Island. In his book "Buddhism Betrayed"?. Harvard Professor Stanley Tambiah has explored this phenomena in great depth.

The main themes underpinning the ideology born of this attitude has been brilliantly summarised by Kumari Jayawardne, a Sinhalese social scientist , in a 1986 publication by the Colombo based "Centre for Social Analysis". This publication entitled "Ethnic and Class Conflicts in Sri Lanka" is a revised edition of a series of articles published in the Sri Lanka Guardian in the wake of the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983. In these articles Kumari Jayawardne has examined the evolution of Sinhala Buddhist political and national consciousness during the colonial and post-colonial period. According to Jayawardne the themes are:

(a) The doctrine of primacy and superiority of the Sinhala "race" the members of which are claimed to be the original, true inhabitants of the Island. This is based on the myth that the Sinhalese are the descendants of Aryan migrants from Bengal.

(b) The belief that the Sinhala race has been placed in a special relationship to Buddhism as its protector.

Two powerful myths told by the chronicler of the Mahavamsa form the cornerstone of this ideology. These myths have been eagerly and relentlessly exploited, reinterpreted, and re-told by latter day Sinhala nationalists to advocate an ideology reflecting the themes identified above and implying that only the Sinhala Buddhist inhabitants are the true "sons of the soil" (Bhumi Putra) and that the others are interlopers and aliens.

The first tale is about the founding of the Sinhala race and begins by giving the Sinhala people a myth about their origins which, far fetched as it is, has been interpreted to show that the Sinhalese are a people with something special about them. The second is another myth and deals with the question of Sinhala hegemony in respect to the Island.

The first myth tells of a sexual union between an indian princess, (daughter of the king of vanga) and a lion resulting in the birth of twins- a son called sinhabahu (lion-arm) and a daughter called sihasivali. the animal-cum-human family live in a cave which the lion blocks with an enormous boulder imprisoning his wife and children while he goes hunting. one day the son removes the boulder and carries his mother and sister to the borderland of the vanga country. In searching for his lost family, the lion ravages several villages. this is seen by the human population as an animal attack on human settlements. The king of Vanga announces a reward to anyone who rids the land of the rampaging lion. In response, and against the pleading of his mother, Sinhabahu agrees to kill his father on behalf of his grandfather. The lion, full of love for his son, moves unsuspectingly to his death. Sinhabahu cuts off the lion's head and offers it to his grandfather. In return he is offered the kingdom of Vanga. He refuses the offer and returns to the land of his lion father and after carnal union with his twin sister builds a city (Sihapura) and rules it well. Vijaya, is the elder of twins born out of this incestuous union. Vijaya is of a violent temperament. When he and seven hundred of his followers begin to harass the people, the enraged public demand that Vijaya be put to death. Instead, the king (Sinhabahu) exiles his son along with his followers.

The exiled prince and his retinue arrive in Sri Lanka as the Buddha lay dying in mainland India. However, the Buddha's thoughts are with Vijaya and his followers and he assigns gods to protect them . The protection serves them well in their encounters with the local (aboriginal) population -the yakkas.  Vijaya espouses a female member of the local population called Kuveni and with her help massacres the other yakkas. Vijaya and his retinue then acquire wives from the neighbouring Indian kingdom of Madura- the chronicle defines the descendants of Vijaya and his followers as Sinhala as they are the direct descendants of the slayer of the lion (sinha means lion).

The other powerful story related by the chronicler of the Mahavamsa is that of the confrontation between the Sinhalese king Duttugemunu and the Tamil king Elara (Ellalan).

Gemunu is introduced in the Mahavamsa as the son of King Kakavana Tissa and Queen Viharamahadevi. At the age of twelve when requested by his father not to fight the Tamils (who are portrayed by the Mahavamsa to be people of a kingdom somewhere north of Kakavanna Tissa's domain), Gemunu reacts by curling up on his bed and telling his mother, the Queen Viharamahadevi, that the reason he is unable to stretch his limbs is that "over there beyond the river are the Tamils; here on this side is the sea; how can I lie with outstretched limbs?". On another occasion, Gemunu, angered by what he considered his father's cowardice sends him a female ornament. The father threatens to bind his angry (duttu) son with a golden chain. Duttugemunu (the angry gemunu) thereupon flees. On his father's death Duttugemunu has himself crowned as King and declares war on the Tamil King Elara. The Mahavamsa tells of the killing of thirty two lesser Tamil kings by Duttugemunu in his march to confront Elara. In the final battle Duttugemunu triumphs by killing Elara and Sri lanka is united under one royal umbrella. Gemunu's remorse at the killing of so many in his march to victory is dismissed by eight arrahants (enlightened saints) who tell him that he had only slain one and a half human beings-- one who had embraced Buddhism and another who had accepted the five basic precepts of Buddhism. The rest being "unbelievers" were not worthy to be even considered as human beings.

Both myths have been reactivated and recontextualised by latter day Sinhala nationalists to give shape and inspiration to suit the ideology in a 20th century context.

The myth of Vijaya is interpreted by latter day Sinhalese to "prove" the antiquity of the Sinhala people vis-a vis the Tamils and more importantly to assert a divine purpose as evidenced by the protection bestowed by the dying Buddha on the first Sinhalese-Vijaya and his retinue.

The special relationship between Buddhism and the founding fathers is also asserted by claiming that the Buddha attained Nibbana on the very day that Vijaya and his retinue arrived in the Island.

Similarly, the legend of Duttugemunu is retold in several formats to assert the basic tenet of Sinhala nationalism which is that the entire Island (including those regions where the Tamils form the dominant population) belongs to the Sinhalese and that the Island needs to be "unified" under Sinhala rule.

It is in keeping with this tradition that Sinhala historian K.M de Silva , refers to King Duttugemunu as someone engaged in "a ] relentless quest for domination of the whole Island" and that he accomplished what he set out to do, by establishing "control of the whole Island".

The non-human status of the non Buddhists as related in the Duttugemunu tale is also interpreted to suggest the special status of the Sinhala people.

While legends and myths of the Mahavamsa formed the basis of Sinhala nationalism, the present nationalism is also due to the considerable influence wielded by European thought in the 19th and 20th centuries. This dealt with racial concepts such as "Aryan".

The notion that the Sinhalese were an Aryan people was not a Mahavamsa inspired myth, but, an opinion attributable to European linguists who classified the languages spoken by the Sinhala and Tamil people into two distinct categories.

Robert Caldwell, in his "A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian South Indian Family of Languages (1856) " argued that there was no direct affinity between the Sinhalese and Tamil languages, while the German, Max Muller in his "Lectures on the Science of Language (1861)" declared that "careful and minute comparison" had led him to "class the idioms spoken in Iceland and Ceylon as cognate dialects of the Aryan family of languages". Contrary views were, however, expressed by others who classed Sinhalese with South Indian languages.

Christian Lassen and James Emmesrson Tennent were two who held that the Sinhala language was closely affiliated to South Indian (non Aryan ) languages. However, it was the "Aryan Theory' which was to hold sway as several European scholars lent support to this view. The linguistic classification began to acquire a racial dimension when local and foreign historians began to superimpose a distinct racial origin to the Sinhala people. L.E Blaze in the 1931 edition of his "A history of Ceylon for Schools" mentions that the mythical founder of the Sinhalese , (Vijaya) was ]"believed to be of the Aryan race". H.W Codrington in his "History of Ceylon (1926)" accepts the Aryan origin of the Sinhalese, but qualifies it by saying that "their original Aryan blood had been very much diluted through intermarriage..".

The notion that Vijaya was anxious to find "a queen of his own Aryan race" and the view that "his pride of race revolted at the thought of any but a pure Aryan succeeding to the Government which he had striven so laboriously to found" were quotes which popular Sinhala historians were to use in their interpretation of history.

These racist theories were based on spurious interpretations by European physical anthropologists who expounded the view that the Sinhalese were in fact a distinct race. These included M.M Kunte who declared that 'There are, properly speaking, representatives of only two races in Ceylon-the Aryans and the Tamilians, the former being descendants of Indian and Western Aryans", adding that he had discovered that the "formation of the forehead, the cheek bones, the chin, the mouth and lips of Tamilians is distinctly different from the Ceylonese Aryans." Virchow, another anthropologist expressed the view that the "Sinhalese were either Aryans or a mixed race, derived from the fusion of Aryan and the aboriginal inhabitants of the Island"

The influence of the Germans in promoting these racist notions was particularly significant. According to Professor Wilson of the University of Brunswick, Canada,

"It is likely that German scholars had a more compelling case in looking for the "cradle" of the Indo-European (which really meant the Aryan) race. The greatest of all students of Sinhalese culture was Wilhelm Greiger, whose German edition and translation of the Mahavamsa was completed in 1908. An English translation was completed in 1912. When he arrived in Ceylon in December 1895, Wilhem Geiger, in an interview with The Ceylon Independent stated that the purpose of his visit was to study Sinhala for scientific purposes in order to see if it came under the Aryan category."

One of the most effective and articulate exponent of this explosive Mahavamsa-inspired ideology was a man called Anagarika Dharmapala who was active during the early part of the 20th century. Dharmapala was a product of the newly emergent Sinhala petty bourgeoisie of small traders, white-collar workers, vernacular teachers , indigenous (Ayurvedic) physicians and moneylenders, who resented the economic, political and social advantages enjoyed by the westernised elite of the Island. Amongst the westernised elite were a large number of Christians who clearly appeared to enjoy the patronage of the colonial administrators.

Dharmapala, armed with the Mahavamsa-inspired ideology, began by first attacking the Christians whom he regarded as being the cause of a multitude of evils. He was vociferous in his attacks which were conducted through newspapers which he edited and through lectures he gave at gatherings of supporters. In 1902, Dharmapala wrote,] "This bright and beautiful Island was made into a paradise by Aryan Sinhalese before its destruction was brought about by the barbaric vandals. Christianity and polytheism are responsible for the vulgar practices of killing animals, stealing, prostitution licentiousness, lying and drunkenness.."

He also pointed to the past glories of the Sinhalese civilisation as portrayed by the Mahavamsa as a way of infusing the Sinhalese with a nationalist identity and self-respect in the face of the humiliation imposed by the British rule and Christian missionary activities. But, of course, in this attempt, he adopted a racist line which denigrated the non-Sinhala inhabitants and set in motion a vicious pattern which other Sinhala leaders were to follow.

The myth of Duttagemunu was used by Dharmapala to celebrate the". Sinhala Aryans of yore uncontaminated by Semitic and savage ideas". In 1915 he directed his attack against the Muslims by calling them "an alien people (who) by Shylockian methods have become prosperous like the Jews" .

By the 1930s the working classes too had became involved in propagating the racist notions advocated by Dharmapala and sections of the Buddhist clergy. These attacks were primarily directed at the "Malayalis" - a group of lately arrived migrants from Kerala (Malyalam) in India.

This upsurge in racism in Sri Lanka in the thirties coincided with the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy, and several local newspapers gave sympathetic accounts of the international and foreign policies of Hitler and Mussolini. Many nationalist and labour leaders found the language and rhetoric emanating from Germany and Italy, useful in their own propaganda. Viraya, the Sinhala paper of the Island's leading trade union, the Ceylon Labour Union was at the forefront of the attack lamenting the fate of the Sinhala people and calling for "a leader like Hitler who was implementing policies for saving the Aryan race from degeneration (Viraya, 17 April 1936).

This theme was developed in a letter (signed B Sirisena) which said (inter alia) "It was Hitler, the leader of Germany who said that leadership cannot be expected from those who are devoid of Aryan blood.In his country he has therefore prohibited marriage between Aryans and non-Aryans. He has even declared illegal the employment of young Aryan girls as domestics in the houses of non-aryans.... The intention of all these is the creation of a pure Aryan race. 'The letter, continuing, suggested that taking inspiration from fascist Germany, the Sinhalese should bestir themselves and prohibit marriages between "Aryan" Sinhalese and Malayalis.

The Mahavamsa was used with great effect. by trade unionists, the Buddhist clergy and Buddhist laymen like Dharmapala to attack non-Sinhalese by casting them as aliens and interlopers and in that process infusing the Sinhala people with the notion that to be a Sinhalese Buddhist somehow entitled them to greater claims on the Island in relation to the others.

Not surprisingly, the population so infused was easily incited to make violent attacks on non-Sinhalese when the latter (particularly the Tamils) were found to make claims to equal rights or asserted their right to a federal state or their right to secede. According to Ceylonese historian, Ludowyke "a special quality of hostility" could be elicited among the Sinhalese at times of conflict and stress because of what they knew about their history as told by the Mahavamsa and interpreted by laymen and Buddhist monks.

Bruce Kapferer in the book "Legends of People, Myths of State" refers to the responsibility of the Mahavamsa-inspired myths for the violence against Tamils. "Most Sinhalese did not participate in the killings of July 1983. Nonetheless, many watched, without acting, while Tamils burned. Compassionate Sinhalese sheltered Tamils in their homes. But, I have heard the very same people state that "they ( the Tamils) got what they deserved".

The power of these myths is to be also found in the names of the army regiments which since 1956 have carried names such as the "Gemunu Watch", " Sinha Regiment" and the "Rajarata Rifles", names filled with mythical significance attributable to the Mahavamsa.. Then of course, there are the statements and actions by Sinhala politicians which point to the extent to which the Sinhala psyche has been influenced by the notions made possible and popular by the way in which the Mahavamsa has been interpreted.

For instance in 1985,J. R Jayawardne, the then President of the Island called himself the 306th head of state in an "unbroken line from Vijaya". In 1986, Prime Minister Premadasa having published a short novel in Sinhala and English presenting the heroic progress of Duttagemunu, was to claim a role for himself similar to the mythical hero in unifying the Island under the Sinhala UNP Government.

The role of the populist historians and educationalists in perpetrating these myths as historical facts is very significant. The Vijaya and Duttagemunu stories as told in the ancient chronicles are reproduced in school texts and presented as fundamental to Sinhalese identity and to Sinhalese political rights.

Recognising the stranglehold of the Mahavamsa Mindset, many scholars in recent times have sought to unravel and explode the myths in a way that would help understand the historical realities.

R.L H Gunawardne, a leading Sinhala intellectual engaged in this task argues that the Sinhala consciousness is a recent phenomena which had emerged well after the period of Duttagemunu. Others have shown the Elara-Duttagemunu confrontation to be a dynastic battle having little to do with the Sinhala or Tamil identities of the adversaries.

There are others who have shown that a significant proportion of the present day Sinhalese are in fact descendants of Tamil immigrants from South India who by adopting Buddhism and the Sinhalese language have now become Sinhalese, and hence the irrelevance of the "Aryan Race" theory. Then there are others who have taken the "rationalistic stand by pointing out the "impossibility" of human descent from a lion and dismissing the Vijaya myth as a "pure flight of fancy'. Notwithstanding these attempts, the Mahavamsa Mindset has prevailed.

The explosive power of the "Mahavamsa Mindset", however, was not immediately grasped by the Sinhalese elite who assumed political power on the departure of the British (the last of the colonial rulers) ending a 450-year old occupation of the Island by various European powers. The first to realise the enormous political gain to be made through tapping the explosive Mahavamsa Mindset was, S.W.R.D Bandaranaike, who ironically, was a member of the elitist Christian Bandaranaike-Obeyasekera clan.

At the General election of 1956, Bandaranaike bulldozed his way into political power by successfully marshalling popular Sinhala support on a chauvinistic platform. This, however, does not mean that other Sinhala elitist politicians until then were unaware of the power of the "Aryan myth" and the emerging Sinhala consciousness which by the 1930s had become a formidable social force.

It only meant that they had not begun to employ it with the kind of formidable effect that Bandaranaike was able to do in 1956. There is an earlier example of this appeal to chauvinism by a member of the Sinhalese political elite, namely D.S Senanayake, who became the Island's first Prime Minister in 1948.

Nine years earlier, in 1939, addressing a gathering of Sinhalese in his capacity as Minister of Agriculture (in the Pre-independence Government), D.S Senanayake said in tones reminiscent of Hitler's "thousand year reich" ] "We are one blood and one nation. We are a chosen people. The Buddha said that his religion would last 5,500 years. That means we, as custodians of that religion shall last as long"

Today, the Buddhist clerical establishment, the chief proponents of the Mahavamasa-inspired chauvinism continues to be the chief obstacle to a negotiated peace. The recent military set backs suffered by the Tamils have only made these chauvinists even more intransigent. In a letter dated 10 January 1996, 18 Sinhala Buddhist organisations have urged the Sri Lankan President to pave the way for the families of landless Sri Lankan Army and Police personnel to be settled in the captured Tamil areas.

The call was made in the wake of an article in the Sunday Island of 31 December 1995. In this, Professor Abaya Ariyasinghe an academic exponent of "political Buddhism" announced that the historic Nallur Kandaswamy temple was really a monument built over a Buddhist place of worship. He then claimed (quite preposterously) that the name Nallur itself was a corruption of the Pali word Unanaluma. (Pali is the language from which the Sinhala tongue is believed to have originated and in which the Mahavamsa was written) According to the learned Professor "The very name Nallur echoes the term Unaloma. The meaning of "good village" attributed to Nallur bears no justification. The Pali word Unaloma means the hair grown on the forehead of the Buddha"


"Political Buddhism" is an impediment to peace in the Island of Sri Lanka because it is based on the doctrine of primacy and superiority of the Sinhala "race" and the Buddhist religion. The Sinhala political establishment has promoted and exploited this spurious doctrine to justify and perpetuate the unitary constitution under which political power is vested with the Sinhala nation. Hence, it is this doctrine which stands in the way of a negotiated settlement reflecting the reality that Sri Lanka is an Island of two nations.




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