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Home > Tamil National Forum > Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha > Prelude to the Indo-LTTE War (1987-90): An Anthology > Part 1 > Part 2 Broiling and Near-toppling of Rajiv Gandhi > Part 3 The Annoyance and Anger of the Sinhalese > Part 4 The Deals of Indian Mandarins of Deception > Part 5 The Rage of Sinhala Buddhist Monks > The Indo-LTTE War (1987-90) - An Anthology. Part 1 > Part 2 > Part 3 > Part 4 > Part 5 > Part 6 > Part 7 > Part 8 > Part 9 > Part 10 > Part 11 > Part 12 > India & Tamil Eelam Struggle for Freedom
Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
to the Indo-LTTE War (1987-90) - Part 5
If in 1987, Rajiv Gandhi’s mandarins had a monkey brigade as an appurtenance to advance their strategies in Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese political elements who opposed the Rajiv – Jayewardene Accord had the powerful Buddhist monk brigade as an appurtenance.
J.R. Jayewardene had a love-hate relationship with the Sinhala Buddhist monks in his political career that spanned from 1943 to 1988. This meant that he was not averse to use these monks as a ‘political weapon’ of convenience, when it suited him. “They are my Parthasarathys” was one celebrated quip of wily Jayewardene, to taunt his bete-noire Indira Gandhi, the then Indian prime minister, who had chosen G.Parthasarathy (a Tamil brahmin-bureaucrat) as her foreign policy advisor on the Eelam Tamil issue. Some background details deserve mention.
Since 1956, Sinhala Buddhist Monks (SBMs) pose as the metaphorical ‘elephant in the room’ in the discourse of ethnic rivalries among the Sinhalese, Tamils and also Muslims. Until recently, they have also been viewed as the ‘sacred cows’, as their projected power on the Sinhalese politicians salivating for power-grab seems out of proportion to their arithmetic cluster. In his memoirs, J.N. Dixit makes only a passing mention [not even a sentence!] to how SBMs sabotaged the Rajiv-Jayewardene Accord. To quote,
The non-Sinhalese researchers (including the Indian academics, with a solitary exception of Prof.Urmila Phadnis) as well as pro-government politicians and ‘human rights analysts’ among the Tamils (the likes of Radhika Coomaraswamy, Rajan Hoole and D.B.S.Jeyaraj) dare to ‘touch’ critically on the nefarious deeds of these SBMs in their monographs, books, run-of-the-mill reports, sermonizing commentaries and “award-winning” addresses.
At least two reasons exist for this status of SBMs as ‘untouchables’ for research and analysis. First, for subservient kibble pickers, it is prudent not to stir the proverbial hornet’s nest. Secondly, lack of proficiency in reading the Sinhalese texts, where much of the thoughts of SBMs appear. Here is a sample of such writing from one such kibble picker:
Harvard University anthropologist Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah (an ethnic Tamil Christian) ventured into the commenting on the political deeds of SBMs in 1980s and brought out his scholarly monograph ‘Buddhism Betrayed’ in 1992, only to become ensnared in voluble protests against his work. My review of this book appeared in the Tamil Nation print edition and I append it below for supplementary background reading, on some details which may be of some interest to readers.
For example, how many SBMs are there in Sri Lanka? A clear census of Sri Lankan SBMs is lacking. According to one published figure in early 1970s, they numbered around 17,000. In 1988, one young monk has been quoted as mentioning a number of “about 30,000 Bhikkus” [see below]. How many of them disrobe annually? How many among them attain ‘Nirvana’ annually?
Prof. Tambiah in his book had acknowledged the input of Dr. Sarath Amunugama, to his analysis and had specifically cited Amunugama’s 1991 paper on SBMs that appeared in the journal Religion. Only recently, I acquired a copy of this Amunugama paper, which describes in detail the historical and political motives of SBMs for sabotaging the Rajiv-Jayewardene Accord of 1987.
Amunugama (born 1939) is a mandarin academic-turned politician, who currently serves as the Minister of Enterprise Development and Investment Promotion in President Mahinda Rajapakse’s jumbo Cabinet. In 1987, he was in the inner circle of Gamini Dissanayake, the Colombo initiator of Rajiv-Jayewardene Accord. He receives a passing mention in Dixit’s memoirs, as follows: “Jayewardene asked me to be in touch with Gamini Dissanayake and an intellectual associate of Dissanayake called ‘Sarat Amunugama’ for working out the details.” [p. 193-194]
By 1989, when Premadasa ascended to presidency, both Dissanayake and Amunugama had lost their ‘power’ privileges, and according to the thumbnail sketch that accompanied his 1991 paper, Amunugama was a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University in 1990 [at the height of second JVP insurgency].
Subsequently, Amunugama entered the parliament in 1994 as a UNP MP, and jumped ship to SLFP camp in 1999. For a short period (2004-2005), Amunugama functioned as the Finance Minister under President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Despite his opportunism in the political stage, Amunugama is considered as a scholar on Sri Lankan brand of Buddhism (holding a doctorate from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris) and what he had written in 1991 on SBMs is a good read.
I found it somewhat amusing that in two short paragraphs, Amunugama had described how the SBMs brought to power the first SLFP government, under S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. But, probably out of deference and ill-ease, he had left out the vital detail that a powerful clique from the same SBMs successfully plotted and assassinated prime minister Bandaranaike in 1959. In my 1992 review of Prof. Tambiah’s book Buddhism Betrayed, I have provided a few campaign contribution details which have been excluded from Amunugama’s study, presented below.
Despite some omissions and attendant bias on selections of specific episodes that tend to project “Tamil guerrillas” (LTTE) in negative connotations, it is my impression that Amunugama had contributed a readable, factual, academic essay on the activities of SBMs between 1987 and 1989, which is worth a look in its entirety. Please note that the words/phrases in italics or within parentheses and dots (wherever they appear) are as in the original.
Buddhaputra and Bhumiputra? Dilemmas of Modern Sinhala Buddhist Monks in Relation to Ethnic and Political Conflict by Sarath Amunugama [courtesy: Religion, 1991, vol. 21, pp. 115-139] [see also Sinhala Buddhist Ethno Nationalism - Masquerading as Sri Lankan 'Civic Nationalism']
On 29 July 1987, India and Sri Lanka entered into an agreement, commonly referred to as the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, aimed at ending Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka. By this agreement the Sri Lankan authorities agreed to effect changes in the country’s constitution and devolve substantial power from the centre to the provinces. Eight Provincial Councils were to be established, one of which – the council of the amalgamated North and Eastern provinces – would be Tamil dominated. This would, in effect, grant a degree of autonomy to the Tamils in what they claimed were their ‘traditional homelands’.
The signing of the Accord, with little advance notice or discussion, sparked off mass opposition in Sinhala-dominated parts of the country. These demonstrations were organized by the Mavbima Surakeeme Viyaparaya (MSV) or ‘The Movement for Safeguarding the Motherland’. Founded in July 1986 the MSV had grown rapidly as a powerful ‘umbrella organizaiton’ of monks, non-Marxist political parties of the opposition (SLFP, MEP and JVP through its front organizations) and important lay Buddhist associations.
The mass opposition to the Accord, which caught the Government by surprise, led to the rapid deployment of the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) in the North and East, releasing Sinhala troops for active duty in the South. A few days later the JVP, which had up to now kept a low profile in the MSV, took over the anti-Accord struggle.
From then on, till the killing of its top leadership in late 1989, the JVP became the main adversary of the government and the severest critic of the Accord, though they did receive varying degrees of support from their erstwhile partners in the MSV. Many of the Sangha and lay Buddhist associations which constituted the MSV were sympathetic to the JVP’s implacable opposition to President Jayawardene and his policies. A journal of one such group of radical monks, which claimed to be ‘the only journal published by Sri Lankan Bhikkus’ reports:
In this paper I shall explore the reaction of radical Sinhala Buddhist monks, particularly those groups within the MSV, to ethnic and political issues related to the Accord. How did it affect their perceptions of the role of the Sangha in relation to national problems? What were the consequences of their deep involvement in political activity including, in the case of some monks, armed revolt? What were the elements of Buddhist ideology and symbolism which were highlighted in this encounter? In sum, how did they ‘manage’ the contradiction between Buddhaputra (sons of the Buddha) and Bhumiputra (sons of the soil)?
MAVBIMA SURAKEEME VIYAPARAYA
The Tamil struggle for a separate state – Eelam, was predicated on the claim that the Northern and Eastern provinces were their ‘traditional homelands’. While the numerical preponderance of Tamils in these two provinces was a demographic reality, the concept of a historical Tamil ‘homeland’ was bitterly contested by the Sinhalese. The Jayawardene regime itself, up to the time of the Accord, treated it as a non-negotiable issue. Previous negotiations on the ethnic problem (the Jayawardene-Parthasarathy talks as well as Thimpu and Bangalore negotiations) had floundered principally on this issue.
The MSV also treated this question as the centerpiece of its policy. It insisted that it was a non-negotiable issue, in its very first policy statement:
Though President Jayawardene was finally compelled to treat the ‘strong centre vs. traditional homelands’ issue as basically a political and demographic problem for purposes of obtaining a settlement, it was one which went to the heart of Sinhala-Buddhist consciousness. The ferocity of Sinhala-Buddhist opposition to the Accord can be understood only by examining the depth of this concern.
According to Sinhala-Buddhist tradition, fashioned largely by Vamsa literature, Sri Lanka is the Dhammadvipa (the island of faith), consecrated by the Buddha himself as the land in which his teachings would flourish. The Mahavamsa states that on the very day of the Buddha’s death, Vijaya – the founder of the Sinhala race – landed in Sri Lanka, as if to bear witness to the Buddha’s prediction.
Furthermore, it was believed that the Buddha had visited the island thrice. One of those visits was to Nagadipa in the northernmost part of the Jaffna peninsula. (Ironically, to establish concord between two quarrelling kinsmen.) The north was thereby firmly established within the sacred geography of Buddhists. Till the beginning of the ethnic war Nagadipa was an important pilgrimage centre for Sinhala Buddhists on a par with Mahiyangana and Kelaniya.
Centres of Buddhist pilgrimage provided dramatic evidence of Buddhist claims to the North and East. Some of these sites continued to be centres of Buddhist worship. Others, such as the legendary Gokanna Temple in Trincomalee, had been transformed into centres of Hindu religiosity. Most were in ruins. But they were identified and perpetuated in Buddhist consciousness through the repertory of Vandana gatha (worship stanzas) known to most Buddhists.
These feelings of religious inclusion were strengthened by a twentieth century phenomenon. Buddhist and Hindu lay organizations (sabhas) began to reclaim historic sites and rebuild religious edifices. For the Buddhists, the classic example was Anagarika Dharmapala’s attempt to reclaim and restore sacred Buddhist sites in India, particularly the Temple of Buddha Gaya. Following him, Valisinghe Harischandra campaigned to ‘save’ the eight sacred sites or Atamasthana in Anuradhapura. Modern Buddhists, concentrated in the South and Southwest of Sri Lanka, discovered that most of their sacred sites were located in the North Central, Northern and Eastern parts of the country.
In the pre-independence period Buddhists restored ancient sites at their own expense (for example the restoration of Ruvanveli Seya). With independence, and particularly after 1956, these reconstructions were undertaken either directly by government or by senior government officials, particularly Government Agents, who could mobilize the resources of the state on an informal basis as well as draw contributions from local entrepreneurs. (Among such officials were Nissanka Wijeratne who established the ‘sacred city’ in Anuradhapura, Ridgeway Tillekeratne who repaired the Somawathie Chaitya in Polonnaruwa and Somapala Gunadheera who restored temples in Trincomalee District).
Thus to most Buddhists the North and East constituted a part of their patrimony, a land from which they had been driven off by the Tamils, as graphically described in the Vamsa literature.
President Jayawardene had a reputation as a hardliner on the ethnic issue. A student of archaeology, passionately involved in Buddhist historical research, and a former office bearer of the Anagarika Dharmapala Trust, he was very sympathetic to the Buddhist view. But he was fast running out of options. As a clever politician, he had come to the realization that the ethnic impasse could not be overcome without a concession on the ‘homelands’ issue.
The MSV was formed at this junction with a variety of manifest and latent objectives. Buddhist leaders feared that there would be a ‘sell out’ by way of a negotiated settlement, which gave recognition to the Tamil ‘homeland’ concept. They had by now, come to dislike and distrust Jayawardene. In particular they felt that he was not hard enough in prosecuting the war against Tamil separatists. In their estimation he was not a person who would ultimately give way to the Buddhist leaders.
The MSV was also aware that Marxist parties and their allies – the LSSP, CP, NLSSP and SLMP, would support the President in reducing the power of the centre and devolving powers to Provincial councils. At the all-party conference convened by the President in 1986, devolution of power had been discussed and endorsed by the Left. Buddhist leaders felt that the need of the hour was a coalition which would be powerful enough to influence political events.
Up to now they had acted independently, with little effect on government policy. The MSV was therefore primarily designed to be ‘the voice’ of the unified Buddhists. It was to be a pressure group which no power in the country could ignore. To the non-Marxist opposition (SLFP and MEP) pursuing its own agenda, the SMV provided an opportunity of building a broad coalition against the UNP.
The new electoral system, for both the Presidency and Parliament, did not favour a single party approach. The SLFP which had emerged as the only credible alternative to the UNP, realized that it had to reach out to voters beyond its party vote bank. Traditionally ‘nationalistic’, it saw a great electoral possibilities in this new configuration.
In many ways the strongest backers of the MSV were a group of Sinhala-Buddhist politicians and professionals who could not be accommodated in the old hierarchy bound parties of both the Right and Left. They could see in this new coalition a leadership role for themselves based on possession of modern skills (e.g. Dinesh Gunawardene, Gamini Iriyagolla, Nath Amarakone, Gamini Wijesekera and Rupa Saparamadu). For instance, though Dinesh Gunawardene is a charismatic politician, the new electoral system appeared to portend the demise of his small party. The SMV appeared to him to be a good platform to gather a wider constituency, leading later perhaps to an electoral arrangement with the SLFP.
What were the constituent elements of the MSV and how was it organized? We could classify those constituting the SMV under three heads: Political organizations, Sangha associations and Buddhist lay associations.
Though the MSV proposed an elaborate organization on paper, reflecting perhaps the preponderance of Sinhala Buddhist professionals who acted as ‘back room boys’ – lawyers, civil servants, engineers and businessmen, in practice each of the constituent parts continued to maintain their identity though, they did coordinate information and publicity.
With well attended meetings, press statements, articles, pamphlets and links with mainstream Sinhala newspapers, they were able to present themselves as the voice of Buddhist opinion. They were also successful in getting the endorsement of Sangha chiefs (Mahanayakes). Palipane Chandananda Mahanayake of Asgiriya chapter emerged as the strongest clerical supporter of the MSV. His pre-eminent role in the movement was recognized by the International media which dubbed him, ‘Sri Lanka’s Buddhist Khomeini’.
The stated objectives of the MSV were an encapsulation of the demands of organized Sinhala groups on the ethnic issue. The Vinivida magazine lists 29 points as a draft of a common programme amplifying the following core objectives:
‘Prevention of Sri Lanka becoming a colony of the Indian Empire; the establishment of national unity in the basis of independence, territorial integrity, sovereignty of the people, democracy, freedom and basic human rights.’
Let us analyse how these ‘code words’ create dilemmas for the Sinhala monks and examine the ways in which they seek to resolve them within the realm of Buddhist ideology and symbolism.
THE ROLE OF INDIA
The traditional view is that Sinhala-Buddhist ideology is deeply permeated with anti-Indian feeling. We need however to examine countervailing beliefs within the same ideology. India is the land of the Buddha. President Jayawardene’s oft stated pronouncement, ‘I am a lover of India and a follower of her greatest son’ represents an important strand of Sinhala-Buddhist thinking.
India is Aryavarta, the land of the Aryans with whom the Sinhalese claimed kinship, thereby excluding ‘the other’ – Dravidian Tamils. Even more significantly, it was from India that the gift of Buddha Dharma – the most precious of gifts, was brought by the Thera Mahinda. In modern times Anagarika Dharmapala devoted the best years of his life to rekindling the flame in India, restoring sacred sites and making a pilgrimage to Buddha Gaya – ‘the Buddhist Jerusalem’ – the touchstone of a Sinhalese Buddhist commitment.
Dharmapala also set in motion a significant political trend by inducting young Sinhala Bhikkus for missionary activity in India. Several such monks, who were trained in Bengal, were fascinated by revolutionary politics in the province and the struggle for Indian independence. Vidyalankara Pirivena, a major centre of Buddhist learning, established strong links with India.
The Centenary Commemoration Volume of Vidyalankara Pirivena refers to these links, which were strengthened during the time of its third principal Lunupokune Dharmananda.
‘It is impossible to describe his contribution to Buddhist missionary activity in India. The world will recognize its value only in the future. A large number of Indian intellectuals came to him to study Buddhism. Many of them were so convinced by the doctrine that they entered the monkhood. Today they are engaged in Buddhist missionary activity in India. Though Buddhist missionary activity in India has a long history there was no interest in translating Dharma texts into local languages, till his students entered this field…Today the better part of the Tripitaka has been translated into Hindu. All this was done by his students.’
With the establishment of a department of Pali studies in the university of Calcutta, again thanks to Anagarika Dharmapala, several Sinhala scholar monks came to India to teach (Rambukwelle Siddharta, Walpola Rahula). Some others came to study Sanskrit. They were associated with the Vidyalankara Pirivena and were the driving force behind the pathbreaking Vidyalankara declaration of 1946, which justified the active social intervention of the Bhikku. (Among these monks were Walpola Rahula, Naravila Dhammaratane, Kotahene Pannakitti, and Bambarande Siri Sivali.) This declaration is taken as a charter by radical monks today.
Thus to ‘progressive monks, India was essentially a friendly country counterbalancing the alleged ‘pro-western’ bias of UNP regimes. For these monks the India of Subhas Chandra Bose and Nehru, with its socialist objectives and traditional cultural symbols, was an attractive model. They first supported the dominant socialist party of the Forties, the LSSP. Later they threw their support to S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike, whose SLFP claimed a close affinity with the policies of the Indian Congress.
With the escalation of ethnic conflict however Sinhala opinion – encouraged by both government and private media – took a distinctly anti-Indian turn. Each of the Indian moves in this area were perceived as anti-Sinhalese. Let us examine the chronology of events. The growing estrangement between the two communities was intensified by the anti-Tamil riots of July/August 1983.
The immediate provocation for this communal violence was the death of 18 Sinhalese soldiers, blown up by a land mine in Jaffna. These claymore mines and other sophisticated weapons were supplied by India as a way of escalating the civil war. The 1983 riots led to a new phase of Indian intervention in Sri Lankan affairs.
An estimated 130 000 Tamils fled to India, particularly to Tamil Nadu. This strengthened India’s hand as a ‘broker’ in the ethnic confrontation. From 1983 India engaged in a series of acts which showed up the inability of the Sinhalese to control events. Tamil guerilla groups were trained and equipped by India.
Tamil leaders were received in India and accorded ‘state guest’ status in New Delhi, human rights issues were raised in Internation fora, the Sri Lankan military offensives were halted, food parcels were dropped from Indian planes to counter an economic blockade of the north, Sri Lankan air space was violated and a threat of military invasion was made public. This intervention culminated in the Indo-Sri Lanka accord of 1987 and the arrival of Indian troops.
The majority of Sinhalese looked on these Indian activities as an infringement of the sovereignty of Sri Lanka. Within the UNP itself, a group led by the Prime Minister R. Premadasa accused India of meddling in local affairs and denounced the Accord. Let us now examine how the monks associated with the MSV looked at this dilemma from a religious perspective, as distinct from the political perspective, which they generally shared with the Sinhalese.
For Sinhala monks the Thera Mahinda, believed by them to be the son of Emperor Asoka and historically the founder of the sasana in Sri Lanka, is second in significance only to the Buddha himself. He is called anubudhu (like the Buddha) and monks claim ecclesiastical descent from him. How is Mahinda Thera represented in this time of trouble? The Founding Father from India is contrasted strongly with Rajiv Gandhi, sone of the ‘Empress of India’ – Indira Gandhi.
The Vinivida, celebrating Poson, the festival marking Mahinda’s arrival, makes a direct comparison. It highlights Mahinda’s words to Devanampiyatissa, the Sinhala King:
‘O great King, equal are the followers of Dharmaraja. It is with loving sentiment that I come from Jambudvipa.’
The Vinivida states,
Mahinda’s compassion is contrasted with the actions of Rajiv Gandhi.
This same contrast is manifest in a feature in the magazine entitled Letters to Thera Mahinda wherein the problems caused by Indian intervention and even the faults of Senior monks who do not openly protest against such injustice, are ‘reported’ to the founding father. Maduluwawe Sobhita a leading ideologue of the MSV, on the other hand emphasizes the ‘Sinhala-ness’ of the Sangha by turning the spotlight on the Bhikku Maha Aritta – the first Sinhala monk. We see how skillfully he makes Maha Aritta important for the present time.
What is noteworthy in this debate is the effort of the Sangha to separate the issue of the Indian origins of Buddhism from the ongoing political crisis with India. What is at issue here is the legitimacy of the Sinhala Sangha itself. Any doubt cast on the value of ecclesiastical succession originating with Mahinda would strike at the very roots of the Sangha organization. The history of each of the three main sects (Nikayas) of the Sangha begins with the validation of this succession. When the Mahavira succession died out in the country, Sinhalese Kings facilitated its resumption by getting down monks from Siam with legitimate succession to give higher ordination to locals. The later sects sought this legitimacy in Burma. The Amarapura went to Ava while the Ramanna were first given higher ordination at Pegu in 1861.
The Tapasa Nikaya which created a furore in the late 1950s did not believe in such ecclesiastical succession. Its leader Tapasa Himi claimed the right to ordain monks even though he himself had not received ‘Legitimate’ ordination. Nor had he received higher ordination. This was one of the main arguments used by other sects against the Tapasa monks. The ethnic war was a crucial period for the Sangha. They were not only leading Sinhala opinion, they were also reacting to strong lay sentiment. Any dissonance could call into question their closely guarded claims to traditional charisma. Due to the Sinhala monks identifying themselves strongly with Sinhala anti-Indian and anti-Tamil political sentiment they pre-empted any move to question the grounds of their legitimacy. The need to ‘indigenize’ the Sangha did not arise.
THE MONK AS A POLITICAL ACTIVIST
The changing role of the monk is an ever present phenomenon in Buddhist society. Though Max Weber, emphasizing the canonical view, defined the Sangha as a ‘community of renouncers’ they have played an important social role from the very inception. While the salvation seeker (in contemporary terms the meditative forest monk) is held in high esteem as a role model, Buddhist societies have always accommodated village monks (grama-vasi) who have provided religious and social services to the laity. The laity in turn provided sustenance (alms) to these monks in exchange for ‘merit’ (punya). The village monks had to be larger in number as the ‘merit’ needs of the laity could not be accommodated by ‘meditation’ monks, whose objectives in any case did not mesh with the needs of the laity.
Thus in Buddhist societies we see two distinct, though interacting, cultures. One is the canonical culture with the Abhidhamma as its apex. The other is the culture of Bahujana Hitaya – the Sangha’s intervention in society which is clear from the Vamsa Katha and related Buddhist literature.
A key stage in the Sinhala Sangha’s social interventionist culture was reached with the Vidyalankara Declaration of 1946 referred to earlier. This declaration clearly and directly recognized the changed status of the monk:
The monk who postpones his own salvation, it is argued, has found time for social amelioration. Since the 1940s this has meant either pre-occupation with social work (e.g. rural development sponsored by Heenatiyana Dhammaloka: Sarvodaya monks) or politics.
The Vidyalankara declaration rationalized the Bhikkus involvement in the left politics of that time, despite the strong opposition of the Buddhist establishment. However, it was only with the founding of the SLFP by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike that the radical monks found a party which was close to their concept of politics.
They threw themselves into the 1956 election campaign and were largely responsible for creating the SLFP’s identity as a ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ party. (This was not Bandaranaike’s original conception as the first SLFP manifesto and list of office bearers will show.) The election of 1956 was introduced in Buddhist terms by monks who were the chief speakers on SLFP platforms, as a ‘Mara Yuddha’, a fight against evil.
With their success at the election, the immediate post-1956 period marks the zenith of Bhikku influence in the country. The new Prime Minister Bandaranaike made changes in his cabinet to satisfy the monks. Newly designated ministers started out from Kelaniya temple for their oath taking.
A new department of cultural affairs was set up to look after the interests of the monks. Bandaranaike made Sinhala the sole national language with their approval. An agreement reached between Bandaranaike and Chelvanayagam, the Tamil leader, for the resolution of the ethnic problem was ‘torn up’ unilaterally in deference to the wishes of the monks. The recommendation of a leading monk that all vehicles should carry a Sinhala symbol, a direct affront to the Tamils, was implemented. Vidyalankara and Vidyodaya Pirivena were given university status.
The undoubted success of the monks in 1956 led to the institutionalizing of their political role. Every Sri Lankan party with a Sinhala base used monks in their election campaigns. They also set up ‘front’ organizations of monks sympathetic to their party position. The UNP, emulating the SLFP, proclaimed that they would create a ‘Dharmista’ (Righteous) society, a phrase resonant with Buddhist hopes. Bhikku organizations were established by the UNP in every Sinhala electorate, thereby neutralizing the SLFP’s advantage.
Though the UNP, after winning the 1977 elections, continued to court the monks, particularly the seniors in the sangha hierarchy, they could not make the same ‘connection’ that the SLFP established with their monks. Buddhist monks were never comfortable with J.R. Jayewardene who had his own vision of Buddhism drawn from a textual interpretation of the canon. He emphasized canonical concepts and downgraded the ritual and social role of monks. His was an intellectual Buddhism derived from the writings of western scholars like Rhys David and Edwin Arnold, as will be discerned in his Buddhist essays (later published as Golden Threads [Colombo, 1986]).
What was more significant for the monks however were the consequences of the UNP’s ‘free market’ economy. Though the state sector continued to be the dominant component of the economy, the UNP managed to liberalize the manufacturing and trade sectors leading to an influx of foreign goods and the creation of wealth and employment.
This also meant, however, an increase in inequality in the distribution of income. Traditional positions were downgraded while the ‘mudalali’ (trader) ethos was on the ascendant. It also meant that monks, intellectuals, artists, etc. who as custodians of traditional culture depended on state patronage, would be challenged by creators of new, more market oriented cultural products. Consumerism was a challenge to the ‘modest life style’ (alpecca) that Buddhism prescribed.
Many of the monks who were later to form the MSV attempted to protest against this growing consumerism. The government broke up many of these meetings. With the spread of ethnic violence, monks were drawn more forcefully into the arena of political agitation. From the beginning they were reckoned by government as actors in the drama. Parthasarathy, foreign policy advisor to Indira Gandhi, was requested to discuss his proposals for ethnic peace with senior monks. ‘They are my Parthasarathys’ said Jayawardene, thereby legitimizing the monks’ role as advisors on the ethnic issue. Monks were in the forefront of demonstrations against Indian intervention, often in collusion with government authorities.
However, once they perceived the Jayawardene government as ‘unreliable’, they began to follow a more independent course, particularly by establishing the MSV. While both the UNP and SLFP were prepared to use the monks, it was the JVP – the Sinhala based revolutionary party that raised their social role to a new intensity.
In the case of JVP there was no ambiguity regarding the monks’ role. Unlike senior monks who still recognized the need for both self-realization and the discharging of social responsibilities, JVP monks place a premium on their political role. The JVP sangha organization was the first grouping of monks to participate in a May day parade.
About a thousand young monks clad in their distinctive saffron red robes walked under the banner of the Socialist Bhikku Front. Recognizing their special role monks were positioned in the parade immediately behind the JVP top leadership. Later monks participated en masse in all JVP sponsored demonstrations.
After the signing of the Accord and the launching of the JVP insurrection the slogan ‘Motherland above all’ became the battle cry. University students adopted ‘Motherland first, degree second’ as their battle cry and began to boycott classes. Secondary school children amended the slogan to ‘Motherland first, school second’. While young monks presented their version: ‘Motherland first, Pirivena second’.
The 1980s then see the rapid politicization of the Sinhala sangha. What started as a trickle in the 1940s had now become a flood. All Sinhala-based political parties have established support organizations among the sangha. They compete for monks’ favours by offering material benefits – official residences, Mercedes Benz cars, trips abroad, state appointments and construction of temples.
Pirivenas and universities became recruitment centres of monks for different political parties. The ethnic conflict provided an opportunity for the monks to openly engage in social and political activity since it was presented as a problem of national concern. Any doubts regarding their proper role had to be suppressed in a time of crisis. This approach was taken to its logical extreme, as we shall see later in this essay, by the JVP which began to view the monk as another foot soldier in the revolutionary struggle.
MONKS AGAINST ‘CATHOLIC ACTION’
Another source of insecurity for the modern monk is the growth of rival religions. The SLFP is usually identified as a defender of Buddhism against the intrusions of other religions. It checked ‘Catholic action’ in the 1950s, took over denominational schools, evicted catholic nursing nuns, provided Buddhist preachers more time over national radio and secured employment in the higher echelons of the administration and armed services for more Buddhists. It also signaled out Buddhism for special status in its 1972 constitution.
The UNP, on the other hand, drawing more support from minorities, including a Roman Catholic block vote, is more suspect. The dragging out of the ethnic war led to the suspicion that the government was unwilling to go all out militarily against the Tamil guerrillas. These fears were compounded when publicity was given in Sinhala media to the involvement of the Catholic Church which provided shelter to the guerrillas, operating in Catholic-dominated areas like Mannar.
The trial of a Tamil priest Father Singaraiya[r] and other priests accused of aiding the guerrillas, the statements of Rev. Deogupillai, Bishop of Jaffna and the number of Catholics among the guerrillas were closely monitored by Buddhist monks.
Unlike the 1950s when Buddhist leaders complained of the influence of ‘Catholic action’ in the higher strata of government, the present threat is perceived from young Catholic priests who are adherents of ‘Liberation Theology’. They live with the poor and in the pursuit of their congregational tasks become a direct rival of the socially oriented monk.
What amounts to a case study of such an encounter is found in an article by Tiranagama Ratanasara, a well known Buddhist monk. Ratanasara describes his experiences with a ‘liberated’ Catholic priest in the Angunukolawewa village in the deep south. The priest lives in a poor man’s house and rides a bicycle. He teaches in the village school ‘where when he arrives the childen welcome him with joy’. He brings clothes, milk foods, medicine, and chicken coops to the village. Once a week a meeting of Christian youth are held. When a Buddhist temple is built the ‘father’ is the first to offer flowers. The article ends on a pessimistic note:
“Today, with Angunukolawewa as its headquarters about twenty villages in the area are being ‘developed’ by Catholics. This is a ‘religious hunt’ for poor rural people. Can all this lead to peace in the country?”
ON THE USE OF VIOLENCE
Though Buddhist doctrine prescribes ahimsa and Buddhist social practice bears its influence we see numerous instances of dilemmas created by this teaching. The tension between the needs of the Buddhist state and the prescriptions of the Dhamma is ever present in Buddhist societies. The classic instance is the dilemma of Dutugemunu.
The decision of Tamil youth to take to violence in their struggle for a separate state, the induction of Indian troops to the island, and the decision of the JVP to use ‘revolutionary violence’ created dilemmas – of varying degree – for Sinhala monks.
Let us examine their responses in each of these instances. In the case of the Sri Lankan, in effect Sinhala, army killing Tamil guerrillas the majority of monks supported it without serious reservation. [There were exceptions – (a) those who lived on the borderlands between Sinhala and Tamil areas organized as the Saama Bhikshu Padanama, (b) those who supported the Marxist oriented parties and (c) those associated with the Sarvodaya movement.
But they were small both in number and in influence.] Unlike the monk from Pulingurata who, according to the Mahavamsa attempted to salve the conscience of Dutugemunu by refusing to grant ‘human’ status to the slain Damilas, Sinhala monks attempted to resolve the dilemma by making a distinction between non-violent Tamil people and violent Tamil rebels. The Tamil argument that the Sinhalese are ‘racist’ is turned against them by highlighting the racial basis of Eelam. As Peter Schalk, analyzing the MSV manifests puts it, ‘Militancy is evident not only in the language (murdering Eelamism) and in its aggressive suspicion (conspiracies), but above all in that the text consciously turns the argument of being racist against the ‘conspirators’ who are credited with wanting to divide the country on a racial basis.’
This approach is given a Buddhist perspective in the Vinivida which contrasts racism engendered by colonialism with the experience of Asoka.
‘History has cursed us with colonialism which changed our historic path. Today our people are paying for this diversion in blood and bullets. Those who fight for barren earth are nothing but savages. Arhat Mahinda’s father, the King Asoka chose Dharma Vijaya because he realized the futility of fighting for land. It being so, we are compelled to characterize those who do not live together but quibble about historic homelands and thereby break up their motherland, as well as those who encourage them, as savages.’
The epithet ‘savage’ (mlecca) resonates with anti-Buddhist connotations in the Pali chronicles. For the monks there were immediate reasons for such a usage. They had special reason to fear Tamil attacks. Tamil guerrillas appear to have singled monks out for punishment. The temple at Nagadipa was attacked and Buddhist monks were evicted.
Others fled from temples in the North and East. Even those in the border areas were in danger. Tamil guerrillas injured and killed over a hundred worshippers at the Sacred Bo tree in Anuradhapura. An attack on the Temple of the Tooth was anticipated. A busload of monks, returning from a pilgrimage, were brutally murdered at Arantalawa, leading to a joint appeal to government by the Mahanayakes seeking military protection for the sangha. Maduluwave Sobhita writes of the insecurities of the sangha,
The characterization of Tamil rebels as ‘mleccas’ helped the monks to extend their patronage to the armed services. Military commanders, after assuming office, worshipped at the Temple of the Tooth and met the Mahanayakes of Asgiriya and Malvatta to obtain their blessings. Bodhi Pujas were held in leading temples to seek the blessings of gods in ensuring the safety and success of military personnel. Monks officiated at military functions and the central army cantonment at Panagoda saw the erection of an impressive ‘chaitya’(pagoda).
Though the induction of Indian troops (IPKF) helped Sinhalese troops first by enforcing a ceasefire, and later taking over the fight with the Tamil guerillas, Buddhist monks were reluctant to recognize this development as they strongly opposed the Indo-Lanka Accord. Also the terror tactics of the JVP prevented any favourable, or even objective, assessment of the Indian contribution. Thus the focus was placed on the misdemeanours of the Indians and their alleged continuing links with the guerillas. Maduluwewa Sobhita takes such an approach:
The violence which was unleashed in the South by the JVP, security forces and vigilante groups on the other hand, created major problems for the Sangha. While the monks could find a broad consensus in their views regarding Tamil separatists and the IPKF, the extension of violence to the South was traumatic.
We can examine this dilemma in terms of (a) the monks and the JVP, (b) the monks and the UNP regime, (c) differences in perception of violence in the Sangha hierarchy, and (d) the monks and the vigilantes or ‘death squads’.
THE MONKS AND THE JVP
The JVP is a revolutionary party which draws its membership from rural Sinhala youth. It has launched armed attacks on the state twice (1971 and 1987-89) without success. Obeyesekere’s observations regarding the social composition of the JVP in 1971 still holds good.
He concludes that,
Of all the Sri Lankan political parties, it was the JVP that set out deliberately to mobilize the monks as a vital support group. This decision reflected the party’s emphasis on youth, as opposed to the working class, as the motor of the Sri Lankan revolution. They looked upon universities as centres of recruitment.
For a variety of reasons, young Buddhist monks had come to constitute a significant proportion of the university population. The egalitarian, ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ ideology of the JVP appealed to the young monks. Referring to the 1971 insurgency, A.C. Alles states that Buddhist temples were used for concealment of arms and ammunition, as hiding places for members of the movement, and as outposts of the JVP. Members were posted to abandoned Buddhist temples to do propaganda work among villagers. The decision to launch an attack on the government forces in 1971 was taken in a Bhikku hostel of a university.
Though the monks did play an important role in 1971, it was in the late 1980s that they became crucial to the JVP. The JVP was proscribed by the government following the anti-Tamil riots of 1983. While the top leadership went ‘underground’ they maintained their strength through ‘front’ organizations. Three key ‘fronts’ of the JVP were (a) university and senior college students, (b) Buddhist monks and (c) women. Each of these ‘fronts’ had its distinctive constitution, office bearers, budget and publications.
Organization-wise the JVP had three departments. (a) Zonal organizations – the country was divided into five zones, i.e. (1) Western and Sabaragamuwa; (2) Central; (3) Rajarata; (4) Uva and Eastern; (5) South. Each of these ‘zones’ were subdivided into districts and subdistricts. Central committee members were in charge of each district, while each zone had two high level party leaders as political and military secretaries respectively. (b) National Committees on education, finance, military organization and propaganda, (c) Front organizations, i.e. the three mentioned earlier as well as ‘fronts’ for workers and youth.
If we take the monks organization for detailed scrutiny we find that each of the territorial divisions – zone, district and subdistrict, had a branch of the JVP Bhikku organization. Thus it could be called the most comprehensive ‘non-formal’ Sangha grouping outside the traditional Sangha hierarchy, based on Nikaya. The JVP organization was radical in that it cross cut Nikaya differences by establishing itself as a Tri-Nikayika (3-sect) organization throughout the country. Monks from all sects were free to join.
The importance attached by the JVP to its monks organization can be gauged by the fact that it was placed in charge of a top leader D.M. Ananda (alias Dissanayake Mudiyanselage Nandasena), generally reckoned to be the No. 3 in the JVP hierarchy, after the leader Rohana Wijeweera and General Secretary Upatissa Gamanayake. The following description of Ananda’s career highlights the various strands of support which gave the JVP its strength.
While the monks were deployed for JVP propaganda, they were particularly useful in agitation on special issues which tended to give the party a good image among the youth. Monks were in the forefront of agitation against the White Paper on Education, the privatization of the Medical College, Pirivena reform and the Indo-Lanka accord. They also participated in student agitation for higher payments to University scholarship holders, higher salaries for university teachers and other employees and for the holding of early general elections. Monks were also used as couriers and many temples and university Bhikku hostels were used as safe-houses.
However, JVP monks were confronted with a major dilemma when their party decided on the path of ‘revolutionary violence’. There is some ambiguity created deliberately by the JVP regarding the use of violence, particularly the assassination of political opponents and government officials. Wijeweera, the JVP leader, took up the position that the JVP did not engage in violence. That was the work of the Deshapremi Janatha Viyaparaya (DJV) which he said was
In reality the DJV carried out decisions of the political sections of the party taken at the appropriate national, zonal, divisional or sub-divisional level. This was known to the leaders of JVP Sangha organization, though it is quite likely that the general membership accepted the official party view. The JVP’s commitment to the DJV, however, was never in doubt.
How did the monks react? Here we must add another dimension to this question. While the DJV/JVP did carry out assassinations of its opponents, it claimed that it was only reacting to state violence.
It is correct that UNP ‘workers’ attacked the MSV during the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord leading the JVP/DJV towards counter-violence. Yet many of the organizations in the MSV began to rethink their positions once the JVP began to dominate the anti-Accord opposition and, more significantly, began using widespread terror and violence.
The major political organizations – SLFP, MEP and the Sinhala Bala Mandalaya – distanced themselves from the MSV. So did its chief monks, particularly the Mahanayake of Asgiriya, Palipane Chandananda. About this time the elections for President were announced.
The SLFP candidate Mrs Bandaranaike, issued her manifesto with the support of ethnic minorities in mind, the SLFP pledged to establish two provincial councils in the East – one for the Tamils and another for the Muslims. This raised a storm of protest.
The SLFP which opposed the creation of even a single provincial council in the East, when they were in the MSV, were now going even beyond the Accord by agreeing to create two provincial councils.
Gamini Iriyagolle, President of the Theosophical Society and a live wire of the MSV, openly repudiated the SLFP and threw his weight behind the UNP. Cyril Mathew, another MSV hero, went further. ‘A special hell’, he said, ‘should be invented for Mrs Bandaranaike and the SLFP for the betrayal of Sinhala Buddhists’.
The withdrawl of the senior monks from the SMV left the JVP monks in a quandary. They could not repudiate the violence of the JVP/DJV. On the other hand, their senior monks did not come to their rescue. In this situation the JVP monks reacted to the impasse in several ways:
(a) Allowed the JVP to assassinate senior monks who were supporters of the UNP or left parties.
(b) Pressured senior monks in their temples, regional organizations and Karaka Sabhawa’s to desist from supporting the UNP or SLFP.
(c) Criticized senior monks who did not support the JVP.
(d) Organized a national and international campaign against attacks on JVP monks.
The assassination of senior monks including Pohaddaramulle Pemaloka (patron, SLMP), Thambugala Sumanasiri, Vellatota Pannadassi and Kotikawatte Saddhatissa and many leading priests of regional areas, have been attributed to the DJV/JVP.
These monks had broken the rule imposed by the JVP/DJV that they should not lend support to parties which were in favour of the Accord. The Vinivida attempts to resolve this dilemma by suggesting to its readers that the JVP was not involved in these killings and drawing attention to state killings of young monks. This response became necessary as senior monks including those in the ‘non-violent’ sections of the MSV, openly condemned Pemaloka’s murder.
Though not visible to laymen, JVP monks were also exerting pressure on senior monks from both within and outside their traditional organization. JVP monks organized several satyagrahas and fasts at centres of Buddhist worship. A mass satyagraha was arranged near the Tample of the Tooth, a show of strength which was designed to impress the sangha establishment of Asgiriya and Malwatta.
Soon after this demonstration the highest decision making bodies (Karaka Sabha) of these two establishments passed resolutions condemning the Accord and seeking protection for the monks who had been taken into custody by armed services. When the JVP escalated their terror tactics, leading Buddhist monks were characterized as ‘traitors’ and sent ‘death threats’. As a result some left the island and others drastically curtailed their religious and social activities.
While pressure was being put on chief monks through Sangha Sabhas, a public campaign criticizing them for ‘inaction’ was also launched. Buddhist reformers from the time of Anagarika Dharmapala have been critical of ‘the sloth and lack of commitment’ of the Sangha leadership. Later on, reformist monks, who were sympathizers of socialist parties, criticized their chiefs for supporting the UNP in exchange for worldly benefits. This critical vocabulary (‘lazy, spittoon-filling monks’) was resurrected by pro-JVP monks to criticize their elders.
CRITIQUE OF THE SANGHA LEADERSHIP
In an essay in Vinivida, a young monk Kumbalgamuwe Dhammananda presents a critique of Sangha elders. He begins by broadly classifying these elders:
He then describes the functions of these Nayakas, which he claims are incorporated in their sannas or letters of appointment. These functions are:
However, says the writer,
Contrasting present sloth with the glorious heritage of a Bhikku, he says that in the past monks like Kudapola and Weliwita Sangaraja placed ‘the motherland first’ because ‘without a sovereign territory’, language, religion and culture cannot flourish. How then did the Nayakas lose sight of their mission?
According to the writer, British colonialists were responsible because they converted sangha or commonly owned property to private ownership of the chief monks, thereby making them selfish and ‘this worldly’. Thus the monk lost sight of his ‘patriotic tasks’ and became a seeker after money and property.
The monk who was previously engaged in yuga mehwara (historic task) of protecting the race and sasana now ‘began to waste his time in the law courts, litigating with teacher, fellow monk, and lay supporter in order to gain wealth, property and position’.
This decline had many consequences. Politicians have used monks for their own ends. The Catholic Church has conducted a subtle campaign to encourage Eelamism, discredit monks and convert Buddhists to their religion. This is due to the weakness of Sangha leadership fragmented on party, sect, caste, and parshava (groups within a Nikaya) lines. Learned monks, who obtain doctorates, prefer to go abroad to spread the message to foreigners while their own countrymen suffer.
The writer then comes to his immediate concern:
Next comes a broadside at the Nayakas:
The writer contrasts these selfish concerns with the commitment of young monks and concluded by inviting the seniors to relinquish their positions if they cannot fulfil their responsibilities.
MONKS AND ARMED OPPONENTS
When the armed services and vigilante groups launched an offensive against the JVP, young monks faced extreme danger. Unlike their party elders who had gone underground, monks who had spearheaded public agitation were easy targets. At this stage many of the senior monks, who had borne the brunt of radical attacks, like the one quoted earlier, were not willing to come to their rescue. By this time Mahanayake’s bete noir J.R. Jayawardene was out of power and his successor President R. Premadasa, was quite acceptable to them.
The Vinivida is indignant about chief monks who were quoted as saying: ‘young monks were more dangerous than the Northern Tamil terrorists’. According to this journal hundreds of monks were being tortured and killed by their armed opponents. JVP monks responded to this crisis in several ways.
Some surrendered, or criticized the JVP for misleading them and became supporters of the government. Their statements were given wide publicity in the media. Some others gave up robes or fled to other countries. It is likely that core supporters gave up robes and joined the JVP guerrillas who had retreated to jungle camps. There were many reports of the disappearance of monks, sightings of laymen with shaven heads and the discovery of discarded robes in public places.
The poetry and short stories published in journals like Vinivida, Ravaya, Vivarana and the largest circulation Sinhala newspaper Divayina depict the dilemmas of young monks who find their ‘holy cause’ defeated by violence. In all cases they remain silent on JVP violence and seek to focus attention on the victimization of innocents.
In a short story entitled A Brief Tale we meet a young monk, Mahinda. He is his chief monk’s favourite. Mahinda gets on very well with the village youths who, despite their difficulties, help the monks to repair the temple and string up coloured lights for Poson. When the villagers fail to contribute to temple charity, the chief monk loses his temper. Mahinda pasicifies him by explaining that their congregation is poor; yet they never fail to send food for the monks.
One day, the peace of the village temple is shattered. Mahinda’s father, a village carpenter, his eyes full of tears, conveys a fateful message:
The father falls at Mahinda’s feet in worship and goes looking for his other son. Mahinda, standing very still ‘like a rock statue’ sees in his mind’s eye his younger brother who had unselfishly taken over the burdens of helping his parents. Without the brother’s generosity he could not have become a monk. Mahinda’s reverie is broken by his friend Gunapala who comes with bad news.
‘I rowed your father across the river. Near the rubber estate there were a lot of people looking at a body which had washed up. Your father took one look at it and started wailing. It was Piyadasa Malli.’
‘Enough Gunapala. I cannot cry like my father. I had a hunch it would come to this. Do me a favour, please look after my father.’
The following morning Mahinda was gone. His robes were left behind. The chief priest said ‘Mahinda is a good person. He may have given up his robes. But he had gone to do good.’
This ending leaves the clear impression that Mahinda has joined the guerrillas. In a poem which has the same theme, the ending is more explicit. The monk sheds his robes, takes a T-56 submachine gun (the T-56 came to symbolize JVP military strength) and disappears into the night.
Most writings about the Sri Lankan crisis tend to describe the Sinhala Sangha as a monolithic organization having ‘clear cut’ views on ethnic and political issues. In reality it is not so. At the formal level there are the sangha’s institutional structures for the making of pronouncements. It is rare that they make pronouncements on public issues. Informally, monks participate in a variety of organizations with their own agendas for action. Charismatic leaders of the Sangha work to build coalitions of these organizations so that a common position can be articulated. They do not often succeed. Nor does the success of such coalition building depend entirely on the sangha. The strength and commitment of lay groups become crucial.
Second, we see that the notion of Sinhalese ‘custodianship’ of Buddhism is so strong that monks are willing to rationalize the use of violence against the ‘other’, even though it contravenes the basic tenets of Buddhism. The arguments and strategies adopted to resolve this dilemma favoured the domain of realpolitik. In this they were directly in line with the sangha we encounter in the Pali chronicles who link the fortunes of the Buddhist Church with the Sinhala state. Despite more than a century of ‘Protestant Buddhism’ its intellectual overlay was stripped as soon as the modern Sinhala ‘nation’ faced a real crisis.
Third, changes in Bhikku education, particularly in the Pirivenas and universities and changing patterns of recruitment to the Sangha (not analysed in this essay) are creating a new strata of radical socially committed monks. They, however, still operate within the traditional ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ axis. It was this strata which formed an important support group for the JVP. Their membership and influence is likely to increase.
Fourth, though the use of violence against the Tamils, the UNP and the Left was rationalized by the radical monks in terms of the needs of modern ‘realpolitik’, they attempted to draw on classic Buddhist textual concepts of the inviolability of the monks (anantachari papa karma) and an interpretation of social intervention (Bahujana hitaya) when they in turn were the subjects of state violence.
Fifth, the commitment to social revolution is so strong among radical monks that they were willing not only to condone the use of violence by the JVP, but also in many cases shed their robes and take up the gun. This phenomenon which has been noticeable in several contemporary Buddhist societies juxtaposes the radical monks persona, Buddhist ‘selflessness’ and new Buddhist interpretations of social intervention.
Sixth, we see the attempts of Sinhala monks to understand social reality in terms of Buddhist symbolism. When dealing with secular notions like ethnicity, democracy, revolution and violence, monks attempted to relate them to their culturally prescribed world of symbols. They go back to the examples of the monks – Wariyapola, Kudahapola etc. - who confronted state power. Communism is understood in terms of the Buddha’s prescription of communal living (absence of private property, sharing of alms, etc.) for the sangha. This leads to the continuous ‘oversimplification’ of complex contemporary issues.
Finally, in contrast to the conventional view of Sinhala monks as a confident, assertive power group within the national polity we find that they perceive themselves as a deprived, alienated group inadequately recognized by both political authorities and the Buddhist public. They believe that they are ‘used’ by politicians and unless better organized, would be out-manoeuvered by ‘foreign conspiratorial forces’ including Eelamists and Roman Catholics.
The intrusion of monks into the arena of revolutionary politics has resulted in a loss of their charisma. Monks are arrested, stripped of their robes, publicly humiliated and even killed by armed Sinhala Buddhists. This change in perception has been noted by the monks themselves.
This dwindling of social esteem of and for Buddhist monks may have long term implications for recruitment, education, influence, and the religious vocation of the Sinhala Sangha.
1. Vinivida 24, July 1989, p.6.
2. The Mahavamsa: trans. Wilhelm Geiger, Colombo. Govt. Information Department, 1950.
3. Mhv. 1.46.
4. A.C.Alles, The Trial of Walisinghe Harischandra and Others, Colombo, Lake House Investments Ltd., 1989.
5. Peter Schalk, ‘Unity’ and ‘Sovereignty’. Key concepts of a militant Buddhist organization in the present conflict in Sri Lanka. Temenos, 1989, pp. 55-82.
6. Schalk, 1989, pp. 64-71.
7. Vinivida 14, June 1988, pp. 2-6.
8. S.J. Tambiah, Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1986, pp. 28-33.
9. New York Times, 11 March 1990.
10. Vinivida 14, June 1988, p.1.
11. Vinivida 24, July 1989, pp. 9, 10.
12. Vinivida 13, May 1988, p. 14.
13. Michael Carrithers, The Forest Monks of Sri Lanka, Delhi, Oxford University [Press], 1983.
14. Vidyalankara Pirivena Centenary Volume, Colombo, Government Press, 1975, p. 61.
15. Vinivida 18, November 1988, p. 25.
16. Vinivida 18, November 1988, p. 11.
17. Vinivida 18, November 1988, p. 12.
18. Vinivida 18, November 1988, p. 26.
19. S.J. Tambiah, World Conqueror and World Renouncer, London, Cambridge University Press, 1976, p. 47.
20. Gananath Obeyesekere, Meditations on Conscience, Colombo, Social Scientists Association, 1988.
21. Vinivida 14, June 1988, p. 1.
22. Vinivida 13, May 1988, p. 15.
23. Vinivida 13, May 1988, p. 15.
24. C.A.Chandraprema, ‘Profiles of leaders’, in Island, 5 February 1990.
25. A.C.Alles, Insurgency 1971, Colombo, Colombo Apothecaries Ltd., 1976, p. 97.
26. Sri Lanka Sunday Times, 13 November 1988.
27. Wijeweera, Sri Lanka Sunday Times, 13 November 1988.
28. Vinivida 20, January-February 1989, p.7.
29. Vinivida 18, November 1988, p. 3.
30. Vinivida 18, November 1988, p. 4.
31. Vinivida 24, July 1988, p. 22.
32. Vinivida 24, July 1988, p. 17.
Review of ‘Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics and Violence in Sri Lanka’ by Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, University of Chicago Press, 1992, 203 pp. by Sachi Sri Kantha [courtesy: Tamil Nation, November 15, 1992] [see also Buddhism Betrayed? : Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka at Tamil Nation Library]
Can anyone guess the number of Buddhist monks (bhikkus) currently living in Sri Lanka? According to a statistic provided by Rene Gothoni, in the research article ‘Caste and kinship within Sinhalese Buddhist monasticism’ (which appeared in the book, South Asian Religion and Society, 1986), there were about 17,000 Buddhist monks in 1973.
Given that the bhikkus are not allowed to marry and raise families, the number of monks is solely dependent on the new recruits to the Order. Assuming that the number of new recruits to the Order remains almost equal to the number who leave the Order and those who die annually, one can infer that the number of bhikkus should remain static. So the current population of bhikkus in Sri Lanka should fall between 17,000 and 20,000. This number is predominantly distributed among the 5,000 – odd monasteries in the island. These monasteries are divided into three main sects, known in Sinhalese as nikayas. They are, according to Gothoni,
Gothoni also informed that the main difference between these three Nikayas is in the practical principles involved in recruiting the novices. Amarapura Nikaya and Ramanna Nikaya originated as a protest against the Siyam Nikaya’s established tradition of recruiting novices only from the Goyigama (cultivators) caste of Sinhalese.
The book in review tells the story of how bhikkus belonging to these three Nikayas have influenced the Sinhalese politics in Sri Lanka during the past century. The author of this book, S.J. Tambiah, is a professor of anthropology at Harvard University and curator of South Asian Ethnology at the Peabody Museum.
In the introduction, Tambiah writes, “What I propose to do is cover a whole century, say from the 1880s to the 1980s, focusing on the main landmarks and watersheds that figure in the story of how Buddhism as a collective and public religion was interwoven with the changing politics of the island and how that meshing contributed to ethnic conflicts, especially to various violent episodes such as civilian riots and insurrections.”
It was also written not for Sri Lankan specialists, but for “general readers, both inside and outside of academia.” The book begins with a brief chapter on the anti-Christian movement initiated by bhikkus such as Migettuwatte Gunananda and Hikkaduwe Sumangala in the mid-19th century and spearheaded by the Sinhala Buddhist lay activists like Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) and Piyadasa Sirisena, in the first two decades of this century.
1920s saw the emergence of the symbiotic relationship between the Sinhalese politician and the bhikku. In the 1920s, the trade union leader and politician A.E. Goonesinha had the support of radical monks Boose Dhammarakhita and Udakandawela Siri Saranankara, who contributed to Goonesinha’s political journal and addressed his various ‘strike meetings’. The pioneer labour leader gradually turned into a communal politician (to protect his political turf) by espousing hatred against the Indian labourers working in the Colombo municipality.
Old timers will remember that President Premadasa originally cut his political teeth under A.E. Goonesinha, before becoming an active UNP member. When the 1930s rolled in, the LSSP politicians blazed the Sri Lankan politics as ‘radical chics’ campaigning against the British imperialism by espousing Marxist-Trotskyist socialism.
They found support from bhikkus Udakandawela Siri Saranankara, Balangoda Ananda Maitreya and Naravila Dhamaratna. In the 1947 general election also, many of the radical monks supported the Leftist parties (LSSP and Communist Party). Walpola Rahula and Kallalelle Anandasagara explicitly campaigned for the LSSP candidate Edmund Samarakkody against the prospective prime minister D.S. Senanayake in his Mirigama constituency. This set the precedence for active courting of bhikkus by the newly formed SLFP.
The leader of SLFP, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, a born Catholic Christian, tried to outsmart his political opponents by pampering the egos of bhikkus such as Henpitagedera Gnanasiha and Buddharakkitha. He reached the pinnacle of power in 1956. But he met his tragic death in 1959, falling a victim at the hands of a bhikku Talduwe Somarama, who was set up by none other than the high priest of Kelaniya temple, Buddharakkitha (himself, a founder member of the SLFP).
How much money Buddharakkitha spent on the SLFP election campaigns to gain patronage came to limelight during the Bandaranaike murder trial. In the 1952 election, Buddharakkitha had spent, “50,000 to 60,000 rupees” supporting Wimala Wijewardene (the SLFP candidate) against J.R. Jayewardene for the Kelaniya constituency. Wijewardene lost that election. In the 1956 election, which propelled S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike to power, Buddharakkitha had spent “over 100,000 rupees on the SLFP election campaign” without deriving any material benefit from the elected politicians, which led to the murder of his patron. Due to the public revulsion of the involvement of monks in the murder of the prime minister, Tambiah observes that in the twin elections of 1960, “the monks were not by and large visible and active.”
The volatile and “political” monk of the 1960s was Henpitagedera Gnanasiha (belonging to the Ramanna Nikaya) who was purported to be involved in the unsuccessful 1966 coup against the UNP government. Tambiah informs us that, Gnanasiha began his career as a supporter of D.S. Senanayake, the first Ceylonese prime minister, and then switched his allegiance to S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. Following the death of the founder of the SLFP, though Gnanasiha “supported Mrs Bandaranaike, he fell out with her and was kept at a distance by the SLFP”.
Tambiah also describes the activities of four bhikkus who became popular and prominent in the 1970s and 1980s. These were,
(1) Madihe Pannasiha Thero (head monk of Vajiraramaya, Bambalapitiya; Amarapura Nikaya)
(2) Maduluwave Sobhita Thero (head monk of Naga Viharaya, Kotte)
(3) Palipane Chandananda Thero (head monk of Asgiriya chapter of Siyam Nikaya)
(4) Muruttetuve Ananda Thero (incumbent of Abhayaramaya, Narahenpita)
Madihe Pannasiha Thero first came to prominence as a member of the Betrayal of Buddhism (1956) report in which he identified himself as a ‘strong nationalist and a critic of the Roman Catholic Church and its activities.’ Since 1977, he had turned his guns against the Eelam liberation movement. The political patrons of other three bhikkus have been identified in the book. Sobhita Thero was initially sponsored by the UNP minister Ananda Tissa de Alwis, though he later switched his sympathies to the SLFP. He was the founder of the Sinhala Bala Mandalaya in 1982. The front cover of the book features an arresting oratorical posture of this monk.
Chandananda Thero of Kandy was also initially a supporter of the UNP minister E.L. Senanayake, and later he drifted towards Mrs. Bandaranaike. He was the founder of the Jatika Peramuna in 1985. Ananda Thero’s patron was again the UNP politician M.D.H. Jayewardene, who as minister of health, appointed the monk as chaplain to the Nurses Union. Tambiah observes that ultimately Ananda Thero’s sympathies ‘gravitated toward the radical but chauvinist rhetoric of the JVP’.
The author also has summarized the ethnic riots of 1915 (pp.7-8), 1958 (pp.51-57) and 1983 (pp.71-75). However the details of the 1977 ethnic riots, which followed the general election victory of the UNP, has been left out. Tambiah, while noting that, “for some 16 or 17 years, from 1960 to 1977, there were no anti-Tamil riots or any form of collective violence against ethnic minorities” suggests that this was due to the fact that “between 1960 and the early 1970s the aspirations and objectives of militant lay Buddhists and politically ardent Buddhist monks with regard to the restoration of Buddhism to a pre-eminent place had been largely addressed and fulfilled.”
One aspect which has not been covered in the book which I felt deserved inclusion was the positive contributions of some bhikkus to the Tamil culture. For instance, Hisselle Dhammaratna Thero was recognized Tamil scholar who contributed research papers at the International Tamil Research Conferences held in the 1960s and 1970s. Before being awarded a B.A. (Ceylon) degree in 1953, he passed the Tamil Pundit exam in 1946 and translated Tamil epics Silappadikaram and Manimekalai to the Sinhala language. In 1964, he also wrote a paper on the ‘Tamil influence on Sinhala’. A few other monks such as Hevanpola Ratnasara Thero have contributed their wisdom for communal harmony. These contributions in the non-political arena deserve equal recognition as well.
I also spotted a few factual errors in dates and names. These include the following: (1) In 1958 the proscribed extremist Sinhalese party is identified as ‘Janatha Vimukti Peramuna’ (p.55). Actually, its name was Jatika Vimukti Peramuna, led by K.M.P. Rajaratne. Janatha Vimukti Peramuna made its entry into the Sri Lankan political lexicon only in 1971. (2) J.R. Jayewardene was in power until 1988, not ‘until 1987’ as noted in p.63. (3) The unsuccessful coup in which Gnanasiha Thero participated took place in 1966, and not in ‘1964’ (p. 104).
In sum, Prof. Tambiah’s book is an important contribution to the Eelam and Sri Lankan political literature. Like a honey bee which gathers the honey from a multitude of flowers and produces a nourishing nutrient, Prof. Tambiah also has produced this work, based on the material previously presented by Urmila Phadnis, James Manor, Bruce Kapferer, Stephen Kemper, K.N.O. Dharmadasa, K.M. de Silva, Gananath Obeyesekere and Kumari Jayewardena.