Colombo Telegraph

Betraying Buddhism And Undermining Sri Lanka

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“If they come with sword, we answer with sword. If they come with kindness, we answer with kindness. Otherwise you cannot live in this world. Even Lord Buddha approved of this and said that you should not remain silent in the face of provocation…..” – Ven. Ellawala Medhananda, founder-leader, JHU ()[i]

In January 2014, Stanley J Tambiah – whose ‘Buddhism Betrayed?: Religion, Politics and Violence in Sri Lanka’ became a hate-symbol for people who rarely ventured beyond the first two words of its title – died.

That same month, the Pew Research ranked Sri Lanka among the 20 countries with the highest levels of religious hostilities in 2012[ii]. Sri Lanka’s Government Restrictions Index (which ‘measures government laws, policies and actions that restrict religious beliefs and practices’) increased from 5.4 in December 2011 to 5.9 in December 2012. Her Social Hostilities Index (which ‘measures acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organisations or groups in society’) jumped from 7.1 in December 2011 to 7.7 in December 2012.

That sudden spurt in anti-Muslim/Christian/Hindu violence happened with the behemothic advent of the BBS into the national scene. Today attacks on religious minorities have become a Lankan norm as extremist entities (JHU/BBS/Sinhala Ravaya/Ravana Balaya) try to outrank each other in inanity, irrationality and violent-intolerance, in a climate of official permissiveness and impunity.

In the teaching of Gautama Buddha there is no concept of holy war, no justification for promoting/protecting the Dhamma through force, violence or compulsion. Classical Buddhism accepts that violence is a part of statecraft; a Buddhist ruler may employ violence[iii]  but that violence is of the secular and not religious variety. The one who used political power to entrench himself was not the Buddha but Devadatta, who utilised King Ajasattha’s might to promote his ‘teaching’ and attack his opponents.

Given this crystal clear and unequivocal stance, Buddhism was (and continues to be) betrayed not by Prof. Tambiah but by those who use a teaching premised on ahimsa to justify war and violence.

According to the Buddha’s teaching the killing of any living being is a sin and those who commit such deeds have to suffer the consequences in this and subsequent births. The dilemma caused by this belief system to the Lankan kings is easy to imagine. They needed armies to protect their thrones and/or to extend their politico-geographical holdings. But if true Buddhism took root in the island, finding soldiers to fight their wars may have become next-to-impossible.

Sucharitha Gamlath, in his erudite biography of the Buddha, opines that a somewhat similar problem cropped up even during the Buddha’s lifetime. Quoting Mahavagga (Vinaya Pitakaya), Prof. Gamlath writes that a group of warriors serving in King Bimbisara’s army became concerned about the sins they were committing as a part of their military duties and decided to seek salvation in Buddhism. They abandoned their military service and obtained higher-ordination from Buddhist monks. This ‘act of insubordination’ angered the military chiefs who complained to the King. The King asked the judges about the appropriate punishment for those who ordain a person engaged in royal service. The judges pronounced that such persons deserve a tortuous death. Armed with this ‘verdict’ the King approached the Buddha and told him that if warriors are ordained as monks, non-Buddhist (‘heretical’) rulers might harass all monks.

It is reasonable to surmise that the Buddha would have seen through the King’s wily efforts to prevent the gradual denuding of his army and his power. It is also reasonable to surmise that the Buddha realised that rejecting the royal request would pit his teaching (and its adherents) against all secular powers. The King’s request was granted. Prof. Gamlath points out that even today, during the higher-ordination ceremony, the samanera monk is asked whether he is a ‘soldier of the king’ (na ci rajabato); higher-ordination is granted only after he replies in the negative (natthi Bhante)[iv].

What the Buddha did was to draw a clear line of demarcation between religion and secular power and accept that each should have its own set of values. It is instructive that the Buddha never asked his royal disciples to create Dharma Rajyas (any more than he asked them to use their armies to propagate Buddhism). In fact the only kind of governance which seemed to have met with his unqualified approval was the collective, consensual and quasi-democratic rule of the Vajjis[v].

None of these would have served the purpose of Lanka’s absolutist, warlike Kings. They needed a different type of Buddhism. That necessity coincided with the Mahavihare fraternity’s need for royal patronage against the rival Abhyagiriya. The Mahavamsa project was probably born out of the confluence of these twin needs. It is perhaps no accident that its author, Bhikkhu Mahanama, was the uncle of the reigning monarch, Datusena.

Sinhala-Buddhism (with its Consecration Myth, the Lebensraum Myth and the Sinless War Myth) was thus a result of a Faustian Bargain between politics and religion. Buddhism was distorted, debased and betrayed to provide the kings with a religious justification for their violent power-projects, in return for royal patronage and protection for Theravada Buddhism and the Mahavihara fraternity.

The myth of Dutugemunu’s conscience was used to bridge the epistemological divide between the Buddha’s teaching and Sinhala-Buddhism over the First Precept. Mahavamsa makes a clear distinction between ordinary monks (Bhikkhus) and those who had attained arhathood (arahants). Bhikkhus accompanied Dutugemunu’s armies; but the justification for killing unbelievers to protect Buddhism was delivered by arahants.

That anyone who justifies the breaking of the First Precept (on a humongous scale) cannot be an arahants would be obvious to any Buddhist. Still, the atrocious lie about Dutugemunu’s conscience continues to thrive, undisputed.

Mahanama’s Shadow

With a single story, the unscrupulously brilliant author of Mahavamsa created a nexus between war, race and religion and consecrated the task of protecting the faith as the raison d’être of kingship. Bhikkhu Mahanama’s ancient betrayal of Buddhism not only played a seminal role in creating the modern ethnic problem and in igniting the ongoing violence against religious minorities. It also enabled Mahinda Rajapaksa to win the Premier-stakes and, by extension, the presidency.

Mahavamsa, while admitting that Elara was a good and just ruler, indicates that killing him was Dutugemunu’s religious duty because only a Buddhist should rule Lanka. This ancient myth caused Lakshman Kadiragamar to lose the premiership to Mahinda Rajapaksa, a millennium later. Mr. Rajapaksa’s main advocate, the JHU, did not deny the outstanding abilities of Mr. Kadiragamar; following the Mahavamsa-tradition it merely argued that that the Prime Minister, who is just a heartbeat away from the presidency, should be a Buddhist[vi].

Future lost to the past; the primordial vanquished the modern. That ill-fated victory presaged the direction Sri Lanka was to take from then on.

According to the CPA’s survey, Democracy in Post-war Sri Lanka, in 2013, 59.7% of Sinhalese considered religion to be the most important component of their identity[vii]. The Rajapaksa plan of using Sinhala-Buddhism to promote their dynastic project thus rests on solid ground. Its success will happen at the cost of the Buddha’s teachings and the country’s future. But such considerations hardly mattered to Lanka’s rulers, ancient or modern.

[i] Rev. Medhananda, made this comment in an interview with ‘The Nation’ (22.7.2007) when he was asked, “As compensation for defamation you have requested Rs. 2.5 billion. Why such an exorbitant amount? Wouldn’t a public apology suffice?” Rev. Medhananda, who has been awarded the National Honour, ‘Puravidya Chakravarthi’ epitomises the sort of parochial archaeologist Prof. Tambiah had commented on. Committed to finding archaeological evidence in consonance with the Mahavamsa’s ‘mythohistory’ of Lanka, he works at discovering archaeological ‘proof’ of the Sinhala-Buddhist nature of the North and the East.


[iii] The Buddha’s main royal disciples waged several wars, including against each other, during his own lifetime.

[iv] Buddha Charithaya – Prof. Sucharitha Gamlath

[v] The Vajjis were said to have followed the Seven Imperishable Values: Collective rule; consensual rule; abiding by existing laws and avoiding the imposition of abnormal laws; respecting the elderly and following their advice; not molesting married or single women; honouring their traditional places of worship; and protecting and looking after arhants.

[vi] Mr. Kadiragarmar was expected to be nominated prime minister after the UPFA won the parliamentary election in 2004. He had the backing of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and the JVP. Educated, intelligent and articulate, he opposed the LTTE and defended national sovereignty; he associated with temples and monks and his second wife was both Sinhala and Buddhist. But in the end, none of these could outweigh Mahinda Rajapaksa’s birth and his willingness to use brute force. Mr. Rajapaksa who had been angling for the job for years as the indispensable stepping stone to the presidency organised for his supporters to come to Colombo and demonstrate outside the President’s residence. Unwilling to antagonise the hardline Buddhist lobby, the President caved in.



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