By H.L. Seneviratne –
“Buddha’s disciples were never a horde of uncivilized beggars“~ Max Weber, The Religion of India
Starting with independence from British rule in 1948, mal governance in Sri Lanka has been steadily on the increase and practised by both major parties that came to power alternatively. Over time it has become pervasive and systemic, and has now infected the society’s underlying value system, bringing the society to the brink of disintegration known as “anomie” in the literature of sociology. This paper is an account of that dangerous decline and a call to the more progressive and ethically sensitive sections of the saṅgha of Sri Lanka to help the society regain its health by renouncing the Sinhala Buddhist worldview that is at the root of the problem, and living up to the noble teachings of their founder.
To begin with, we must recognize the distinction between Buddhism as a set of philosophical and ethical ideas, and Buddhism as it is popularly understood and practised by its adherents. We can call the first “Philosophical Buddhism” and the second “Cultural Buddhism”. Different Buddhist societies have different Cultural Buddhisms such as Sinhala Buddhism, Burmese Buddhism and Thai Buddhism. Philosophical Buddhism’s universalist ethical system makes it a potentially powerful influence in facilitating good governance and the rule of law. As reflected in the earliest Buddhist literature and the principles of governance allegedly followed by the paradigmatic Buddhist emperor Asoka, Philosophical Buddhism also includes a general outlook of urbanity, civility and modernity. Philosophical Buddhism thus defined is all good, but in contrast, Cultural Buddhism is a mixed bag of good and bad. The bad, if it gains the upper hand in any given society, can be detrimental to its happiness, prosperity and well being. In Sri Lanka, it is unfortunately the worldview of Sinhala Cultural Buddhism that has overwhelmingly taken hold over the society, to the near exclusion of Philosophical Buddhism. Our challenge therefore is to try and imbue the society with the universalist ethicality of Philosophical Buddhism, and its ethos of urbanity, civility and modernity; and, I am calling upon the more educated and dynamic sections of the saṅgha to accept that challenge, and give leadership to a social movement for meeting it.
In what follows, I try to show how Sinhala Cultural Buddhism’s worldview has functioned to the detriment of the society of Sri Lanka when the founding myth of its majority ethnic community was mistaken to be history, and its relation with the political exceeded the boundary of acceptability. This development, that we might call “politicization”, consisting at the broadest level the exploitation of sentiments of religion and ethnicity for political gain, gradually invaded the society as a whole, its myriad mutations infecting the value system on which the society’s health was anchored. The landmark event in which Sinhala Cultural Buddhism’s worldview effectively intervened in politics in a manner deleterious to the health of the society was the general election of 1956 when the then ruling United National Party (UNP), a party of western-acculturated upper class urban politicians was ousted by a party led by a more “nationalist” bloc of the same urban class, but widely supported by a rural middle class of the indigenous literati consisting of Buddhist monks, vernacular teachers and indigenous physicians. Since then it has been downhill for Sri Lanka as far as good governance, the rule of law, and general civility are concerned. The increasing hegemony of Sinhala Cultural Buddhism’s worldview over the society is the most damaging development of its mixed bag of good and bad, giving the bad a decisive upper hand.
Values and the Social Order
In their attempt to theorize orderly society, early modern social theorists like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, posited a primaeval society where no laws existed, and life was a “warre of every man against every man”. While this was fictional, these theorists were revealing a universal truth in what they next imagined — the intolerability of a lawless society and the resulting decision of the people to abide by a set of rules to be implemented by a ruler to whom they voluntarily gave obedience. This chain of events allegorically states the political fact that all societies, if they were to survive amidst the constant threat of a war of each against all, would need as their anchor a set of objectively existing rules, written or remembered. Such objective rules that bring order and predictability to day-to-day behaviour are based on an underlying broader a set of values that we might call their “spirit”. While in general these rules and their underlying values are specific to given societies, many are universal, like the injunction against taking of life, stealing and lying. Some of these values, like non-discrimination, equality and the rule of law, have been incorporated into modern international charters, and have become universal criteria of good governance.
It is not the case that every citizen obeys each of these rules all the time. Infringements are constantly committed, but their severity is variable. Some are less socially harmful than others, and bring about little or no punitive action, the more harmful bringing about appropriate punishment as prescribed by law. Each society has a process and an institutional framework by means of which infringements, light or serious, are adjudicated, punishment meted out, and conformity elicited. Such a process applies equally to all, and the whole apparatus is indeed a reflection and an assurance of good governance. In a healthy and well functioning social order, its value system is internalized in the routine process of socialization of the young, and the frequency of infractions is kept to a minimum or at least below a certain maximum. Given human fallibility such a minimum frequency would be considered unavoidable and normal for a given society. A healthy society has the capability to ensure for itself a state of social and moral equilibrium that maintains infractions at this “normal” level.
The Breakdown of Values and the Sinhala Buddhist Worldview
This healthy societal state is subject to change, which itself can be said to conform to a “normal” rate. That is, although a society may show, for example, a rise in the rate of theft or violent crime, that could be explicable in terms of some intervening variable like a shortage of essentials food items. Sometimes however, especially in times of rapid social change, a society might be confronted with a situation where infractions have not only risen above their normal rate, but assumed a life of their own, gradually spreading deep into every structure, institution and process of the social organism. This could lead to a vicious circle in which the violation of norms leads to a diminution of the value system, which in turn leads to further violation of norms. When a society reaches that state, a malaise has taken over the social body and restoring it to health would be a difficult task that would take time, and a great deal of effort, perseverance and commitment. Such restoration to normalcy would require holistic treatment of the illness, not ad hoc treatment of the symptoms.
A glance at any sphere of Sri Lankan society, the social, political, administrative, economic, religious, aesthetic or any other, makes it clear that Sri Lanka has descended to that unenviable state. This is a fact noticed and commented upon practically every day in the newspapers and other media. While there are varied proximate reasons for this anomic state, I contend that all such reasons have their origin in the worldview of Sinhala Cultural Buddhism. According to this worldview, classically expressed in the national chronicle Mahāvaṃsa, Sri Lanka belongs to its ethnic and religious majority, the Sinhala Buddhists. It has been foreseen by the Buddha that it is in Sri Lanka that his dharma would shine, making it the Dhammadipa, “the island of righteousness”.
It follows that good governance according this worldview has as its first responsibility the nourishment and protection of Buddhism. It is the particular destiny of the Sinhala ethnic group, symbolized by their Buddhist king, to carry out this responsibility. This responsibility and the implied exclusive ownership of the island by the majority Sinhala ethnic group is expressed in a myth of non violent ethnic cleansing attributed to the Buddha in which he miraculously draws near the shores of Sri Lanka a far away landmass, frightens the aboriginal (i.e., the non Sinhala) inhabitants into fleeing to it, and returns it, along with its cargo of aborigines, to its original geographic location, leaving the Sinhala Buddhists as the exclusive residents and owners of Sri Lanka. The chronicle elevates to wars fought for the protection and glory of Buddhism, what in fact would have been routine warfare of a typically pre modern, non-centralized polity with systemic instability as its normal organizational feature. Corresponding to the responsibility of nourishing and protecting Buddhism is the assurance that everything else that is important, like health, happiness and prosperity, follows automatically when Buddhism’s well being and longevity are assured, which makes it imperative that Buddhism should be protected at all cost. These relations link Buddhism irrevocably with not only the Sinhala ethnicity, but with kingship, the explicit reason for the existence of which is proclaimed to be the preservation of Buddhism. This also means that the polity, united under the ideal Buddhist king, the Wheel Rolling Emperor (cakravarti), is one and indivisible.
It is clear from the island’s socio-historical record that this is an overarching conception that in reality did not adversely effect the day today social relations between the ethnic and religious groups that jointly inhabited the island. Nor did it prevent the pragmatic acceptance of the constant flow of ethnic and religious outsiders, and their integration to the polity. Not that there was no conflict, but such conflicts were not ethnic or religious (even when so proclaimed) but arose from the systemically unstable nature of the pre-modern, non-centralized polity just mentioned. That did not mean the Sinhala Buddhist worldview withered away, but that within the reality of day-to-day social relations it had no relevance, and people of different ethnicities and religions interacted with each other freely, pragmatically and profitably.
The Sinhala Buddhist Worldview and the Modern State
This picture was to change with the arrival of the western colonial powers culminating with British rule lasting a century and a quarter. For the first time in its long history, Sri Lanka was effectively brought under one rule by the colonial government between 1796 and 1832, bringing about a modern state, defined in terms of a clear and effective boundary, centralization, and sovereignty (even though the sovereign was the colonial ruler). Starting in late 19th century, and paralleling the constitutionalist nationalist movement led by an urban, western educated and western acculturated elite, a nationalist movement of the urban Sinhala intelligentsia and middle classes led by the reformer Anagārika Dharmapāla (1864–1933) came into being that gave a new twist and a new life to the Sinhala Buddhist world view. The characteristics of the modern state, like bounded territory and sovereignty, especially when combined with representative government where majorities gain power, proved fertile ground for the myth bound Sinhala Buddhist world view to redefine itself as a guide for realistic political action in a manner it never did historically, contrary to the claims of its leaders and propagandists. What used to be an overarching myth came to be regarded as a historical fact. To state differently, instead of being an ornate piece of background décor, the Sinhala Buddhist worldview came out and situated itself at the centre of the political stage.
It took the Sinhala Buddhist worldview nearly a century to make that journey. The dominant indigenous political force throughout this period was the nationalist movement of the western acculturated urban elite whose major focus was the incremental acquisition of power in the form of representation in the legislative and executive bodies that evolved during the first decades of the 20th century. It was to this elite, the leadership of the United National Party (UNP), that power was transferred when independence arrived in 1948, as the culmination of the agitation for representation. As the new government set about governing the country, the elite that led it kept by and large intact the system of government they inherited from the British, and the values and institutions of political modernity and representative government like the rule of law, good governance, free speech, right of dissent, secularism and the separation of powers. This is not to say that this government was flawless. In an act of short term political gain, they passed into law a discriminatory piece of legislation that disenfranchised indentured Tamil labourers of Indian origin, the workforce that made possible the production of tea, the most valuable of the country’s economic assets at the time. Despite this and whatever else objectionable perpetrated by this government, it was qualitatively different from its successor governments. It kept intact the framework of modern democratic governance, in particular by ensuring secularism and the independence of the judiciary, the public service (including the police), the electoral process and freedom of the press. The story of Sri Lanka since the fall of this government in 1956 until now (2017) is a story of compromising that framework of modern democratic governance in turn by both major political parties. The most recent of these past governments, the Rājapakṣa regime ousted in 2015, was near mediaeval in its ethos, the ruler (the President) using the bureaucracy as if they were personal servants, and the country as if it were his fiefdom, as elaborated below. While a “good governance” government was elected in 2015, it has not been able so far to extricate itself from the national culture of mal governance, which tells us how deeply entrenched it is.
The Sinhala Buddhist Worldview: From 1956 to Rājapakṣa Era
The election in 1956 of the Mahajana Eksat Peramuṇa (United People’s Front, MEP) coalition replacing the United National Party (UNP) government was not just a political change. It was a shift in the value system that underlay political action. In contrast to the government just voted out of office, the newly elected coalition championed ethnicity, language, religion and “culture”, i.e., the ingredients of the Sinhala Buddhist worldview. The societal correlate of this worldview is hierarchy and ascriptive status. In contrast, that of Buddhism is equality: though not the same as our modern concept of equality, a family resemblance is clearly discernible in the openness of the ancient sangha to anyone willing to abide by its code of disciplinary rules (vinaya). To use the terms defined above, the government of the carriers of Sinhala Cultural Buddhism failed to imbibe Philosophical Buddhism’s modernity of values and outlook.
At the core of the Sinhala Buddhist worldview as appropriated by the indigenous elites who wished to topple the government of the western-acculturated elite was the strategy of appealing to the primordial sentiments of the Sinhala Buddhist majority. For this purpose they designed a platform whose main ingredients were the replacement of English with the majority language Sinhala as the official language, and giving recognition and material support for religion and “culture”. The electoral appeal of this platform was so powerful that the relatively secular and cosmopolitan UNP gradually accepted it, making it virtually the non-negotiable clause in the platforms of both major national parties. Thus the majority language Sinhala was enacted the “one official language” soon after the new government was elected in 1956. This bill, known as the Sinhala Only Act, was the single most potent factor in the dissolution of the emerging cosmopolitan value system, and thereby the prevention of the rise of a common Sri Lankan identity. The Sinhala Only Act and the accompanying replacement of English as the medium of instruction in schools tore the ethnic communities apart when the need of the hour was their united effort to build a nation of equal citizens with a common Sri Lankan identity. The contrast with Singapore could not be clearer, where a visionary and statesman-like leader continued to retain English both as state language and the medium of instruction despite his own belongingness to the majority Chinese community, thereby (in addition to other means) laying the foundation for a nation of equal citizens, and overcoming parochial considerations of ethnicity, religion and language.
The trend set in 1956, of replacing the modern cosmopolitan value system and the socio-political system based on it derived from the west that made Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) a functioning modern democracy, could not be reversed. Instead it proceeded relentlessly, gradually infecting the entire social organism. As observed already, there is no institution or area of work from menial labour to professional activity that has not been affected by it. The form it takes has been the increasing spread of bribery, corruption, and nepotism; the politicization of all institutions; fraud, inefficiency and unaccountability in everything; breakdown of the judiciary, the police and the administrative service; indiscipline at work, leisure, and on the roads; and more. It is a picture not far too different from the war of each against all imagined in the treatises of the early modern political philosophers mentioned at the beginning of this paper.
We can refer in passing to landmark instances when one more step was takes to dismantle the system of values that existed during late colonial rule and until the first decade after independence. We have already mentioned the disastrous Sinhala Only Act of 1956. While the 1956 government gave some degree of patronage to Buddhism, the fact that that was under the ministerial rubric of “cultural affairs”, kept intact the secularism of the state. The new constitution of 1972 gave official recognition to Buddhism by according it a “special place”. In 1988 the then ruling government went further by establishing a Ministry of Buddhism. While the state still technically remained secular, Buddhism became the de facto state religion, which compromised the principle of secularism, the modernity of the state, and the values and spirit of Buddhism itself.
The 1972 constitution includes other changes that, when reflected upon rationally and pragmatically, are nothing but blunders. Among these is the severing of the last link between Britain and Ceylon, the declaration that it is a republic rather than a monarchy under the ritual sovereignty of the Queen of England. Considering Sri Lanka’s historic propensity for indigenizing foreign dynasties, and the deep-seated monarchist sentiment among the people, retaining the monarchical form may have been of considerable symbolic use in forging a nation out of ethnic and religious diversity.
Other blunders of the 1972 constitution include the abolition of the right of appeal to the Privy Council, and the abrogation of the defence treaties between the two countries. The severance of these “last vestiges of imperialism”, and the post 1956 abandonment of English, may have been good political rhetoric but in a sober consideration, it would have been very much in the national interest for Sri Lanka to retain these “vestiges”. Among numerous other benefits, these vestigial relations would have facilitated both secondary and tertiary educational privileges in the UK for Sri Lanka’s gifted students. The high quality of education the country had achieved until the abandonment of English, along with its widespread availability through a system of “central schools”, would have enabled Sri Lanka to send its citizens for foreign employment as professionals rather than as menial workers as it does today. The right of appeal to the Privy Council would have acted as a deterrent to the assaults on the independence of the judiciary that commenced with the 1977 government, reaching horrendous heights during the last phase of the Rājapakṣa regime. The 1972 constitution also committed the blunder of changing the name of the country from “Ceylon” to “Sri Lanka”, claiming the latter to be the island’s “original” name. In fact the people never called their country “Sri Lanka” — they called it “Laṅkā” in Sinhala and “Ilangai” in Tamil. In pragmatic terms the change simply threw into the dustbin the island’s existing international name “Ceylon”, and with that, the high profile name recognition that had helped the island’s products overseas and its tourism.
To be continued …