By Siri Gamage –
Writing about the mal governance in Sri Lanka since independence by both major parties, H L Seneviratne, my former teacher in Sociology and anthropology at Peradeniya university, has compiled an erudite two part essay that includes a critique, diagnosis as well as a solution by way of a Sangha rebellion – bringing distant memories about a few failed rebellions in the country against the political establishment (Colombo Telegraph 15–16 June 2017). Seneviratne has however kept away from commenting on these politically motivated rebellions of the past. Instead he focuses on a religious rebellion of a sort to be led by more educated and cosmopolitan Buddhist monks while citing examples of past activist Buddhist monks and Anagarika Dharmapala –though the name of Maduluwave Sobhita is absent in his articulation. His reasoning is based on an argument that he has espoused through his own writings for sometime but the idea of Sangha rebellion seems to be a recent addition perhaps due to the dire situation in the country resulting from the crisis in value system, which has been politicised.
He claims that the mal governance has ‘infected the society’s underlying value system’ to the extent of the society becoming disintegrated and calls on the more progressive and ethically sensitive sections of the Sangha to help the society to regain its health. To do so, in his view they have to renounce the Sinhala Buddhist World View – root of the problem. To avoid confusion and wasted counter arguments, readers need to understand the features and boundaries of this World View in terms of Seneviratne’s articulations. He makes a distinction between Buddhism as a set of philosophical and ethical ideas on one hand and Buddhism as it is popularly understood and practiced by the adherents on the other. The latter he labels as ‘a cultural Buddhism’ similar to Burmese or Thai Buddhism all of which have received notoriety due to the violence enacted toward ethnic minorities instead of non-violence.
In Seneviratne’s view, for good governance and the rule of law what is helpful is philosophical Buddhism’s universal ethical system. Philosophical Buddhism includes a general outlook of urbanity, civility and modernity. He argues that ‘it is unfortunately the worldview of Sinhala cultural Buddhism that has overwhelmingly taken hold over the society’. As in the past, such an argument is bound to generate reactions from those who follow ritualistically oriented popular Buddhism rather than Philosophical Buddhism. However, given the nature of critical commentary about what is wrong with Sri Lanka’s governance, political system, ruling class behavior, hierarchical arrogance, failure of institutions that had been put in place around the time of independence to maintain liberal democracy and indeed the potential for inter ethnic violence led by radicalised religious figures, it is important to understand Seneviratne’s argument, articulation and the deep meaning. To do so, we have to dissect his economic and political arguments also, which are found in the latter parts of his essay.
Seneviratne shows how the consumerist oriented open economic system and changes in the political culture affected the value system culminating in corruption, suppression of dissent, black money, the mafia etc. He argues ‘that the crisis in governance in Sri Lanka is a symptom of a malaise that has infected the underlying system of values that a healthy society needs as its moral anchor’. According to Seneviratne, contemporary Sangha activism in lay society was born in ethno nationalist sentiment – an essential part of Sinhala Buddhist worldview. He argues that ‘To make the civility and urbanity of Buddhism an integral part of the innermost thought processes of the individual’ ethics need to be elevated over the ritual. He advocates an ethos of tolerance, inclusivity,urbanity,civility and modernity. To achieve this transformation and to reverse the society’s inner degeneration, a Buddhist reformation is necessary. The author highlights the importance of a reformed educational program to achieve these goals and the necessary shift or transformation and create equilibrium in society. I might add that it is also necessary to further examine what these inclusive values and ethics are, how the ritualistic popular Buddhism and its corresponding World View have undermined them, and how Educated and cosmopolitan Buddhist monks can advance the cause that Seneviratne maps out with lay support?
Though the main argument and its rationale in the essay are powerful and not easy to dismiss epistemically and against the empirical evidence from the country’s post independence history plus contemporary politico economic drama enacted by the upper echelons of society, from a critical perspective several questions can be raised for further dialogue.
1. How far a rebellion of the educated and cosmopolitan Sangha aimed at reviving the society’s value system based on philosophical Buddhism and ethics can be a solution to what is essentially a political and to some extent an economic problem?
2. Even if this rebellion results in socialising the younger generation to the value and ethical system suitable for good governance as proposed, how to change the values, ethics and attitudes plus more importantly the behavior of current generation whose members are at the helm of various secular hierarchies following Sinhala Buddhist World View which the author thinks is the root cause of problems today?
3. Do these rebellious monks need and organisational mechanism to achieve the transformation required? What would that be like?
4. If the primary cause of mal governance is the fact that the ‘nationalist block’ gained power since 1956 over the Western acculturated upper class represented by UNP as well as the exploitation of nationality and religion for political gain, what should the rebellious monks do to reverse the course in addition to advocating the merits of the value system based on philosophical Buddhism?
5. How to achieve changes in the corrupt political culture without the formation of a Council of concerned citizens (may include rebellious monks) with a radical political programme?
Seneviratne’s is a functionalist and idealist view aimed at a ‘social and moral equilibrium’ in society that may or may not be achieved through reformation of the value system alone. Sri Lankan sociologists and anthropologists who succeeded Seneviratne and his contemporaries since the early 70s have been accustomed to teach, advocate and utilise more progressive and even radical forms of sociological and anthropological theories that tend to better articulate the workings of competing interests, modes of production, conceptions of power and hierarchy and classes among other contributory factors. Even in the sociological writings emerging from the global south recently, there is a strong criticism of the functionalist theory and its assumptions, eg.post colonial theory, subaltern theory, Southern theory. While Seneviratne’s arguments and articulations are in line with the best academic traditions of Sociology and anthropology and well intentioned, they will be subject to further scrutiny by the sociology and anthropology tribes in time to come. But I am circumspect about this possibility due to the fact that many contemporary sociologists and anthropologists in the country find themselves unable to move beyond the Sinhala Buddhist World View that Seneviratne finds faults with.
Finally, when Seneviratne uses Sinhala Buddhist culture as a uniform concept to characterise the politicised, ritualistic or corrupt varieties, it often generates unnecessary and emotional reactions from its adherents for good reasons. Thus one has to wonder whether there is a more benign stream within Sinhala Buddhist culture that is inclusive, ethical, non violent, and even cosmopolitan. My reading is that the large majority of adherents to this form of Buddhism and culture are not antagonistic to ethnic minorities, despise the mal governance and lavish lifestyles of the ruling class, the unequal social, political and economic hierarchies, politicisation of the liberal democratic traditions and institutions. They are frustrated with the failure of governance and institutions that do not meet their day-to-day needs equally as the literati or intellectuals who adopt a critical stance. They despise ‘the poor feeds the rich syndrome’ that has afflicted most developing societies also. Therefore, Seneviratne needs to rethink whether the majority adherents of Sinhala Buddhist worldview and culture should not be the collaborators of Sangha rebellion that he speaks about rather than their enemies?