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
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
(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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.