24 July, 2024


Caste And Exclusion In Sinhala Buddhism

By Punya Perera

The “caste” talk is getting embarrassing. Caste is never spoken about in the open in Sri Lanka but is always present. There is no caste census or reservation. It is never mentioned in newspapers except in the marriage classifieds. But it most certainly determines who we marry, who we vote for and in which Buddhist temple we worship. In this essay I would like to highlight an alternate glimpse of hierarchy, caste and exclusion in Sri Lankan Buddhism.

Buddhism arose in the 5th century BC North India. It adapted to caste. Modern Buddhist scholarship indicates that 80% of the Buddhist Sangha or clergy in the time of the Buddha hailed from the Brahmana, Kshatriya and Vaishya castes. 40% of the Sangha at that time belonged to the Brahmana caste. The Buddhavamsa, a Pali language scripture part of the Theravada or Hinayana tradition, indicates that Gautama, the Buddha was born into the Kshatriya caste. The future Buddha, Maitreya will be born into the Brahmana caste. The three Buddhas prior to Gautama were Kakusanda, Konagamana and Kassapa, all of whom belonged to the Brahmana caste. The Lalitavistara, a 3rd century Buddhist scripture, explicitly mentions that a Buddha can only be born a Brahmana or Kshatriya and can never come from any of the “lower castes”. There was little room for those of humble birth, low origin and without lineage to be a Buddha.

Old Sinhala language religious documents such as the Pujavaliya, the Saddharmaratnavaliya, the Kadayimpoth, and the Niti Nighanduwa refer to an elaborately ordered caste hierarchy in Buddhist Sri Lanka. In the 2nd century BC, the famed Sinhala king Dutugemenu had a son by the name of Saliya. Saliya was exiled because he had married the outcaste girl Asokamala. In the 11th century AD, King Vijaybahu denied access to the lower Sinhala castes to venerate Buddha’s foot print at the summit of Sri Pada in central Sri Lanka. The lower castes were confined to a terrace much further down. King Nissanka Malla in the 12 century felt threatened by the dominant Sinhala caste, the Govigama. He warned them in stone inscriptions to never aspire to high office. Much later, the Siam Nikaya, the Buddhist Sangha in Sri Lanka, denied membership to those who were not of the Govigama caste. This forced the Karava, the Salagama and Durava castes to seek ordination in Myanmar. Many others converted to Christianity in protest.

The Practical Sinhala Dictionary published as late as 1983 by the Government of Sri Lanka referred to the caste divisions in Sinhala society where the Govi were declared high caste and others denied that characterization. This forced the Karava, Salagama and Durave caste petitioners to appeal to the Supreme Court to have the caste references deleted by judicial order, a ruling that was subsequently granted.

So what is caste in Sinhala Buddhism At the apex, one has the Govigama or agriculturalist land owning castes who account for roughly 50% of the Sinhalese population. All Sri Lankan Presidents and Prime Ministers with the exception of Ranasinghe Premadasa, belonged to this caste. Many had Anglican Christian antecedents like Bandaranaike, the founder of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party. He was born and buried an Anglican although he espoused a Buddhism and Sinhala nationalism to win the polls in 1956 even if his shrill demagoguery triggered a Tamil separatist response. Sri Lanka’s current President Mahinda Rajapakse is also from a prominent Govigama family. Sri Lanka’s elite families hail from this caste. They include the low-country Goonetillekes, the Jayewardenes, the Bandaranaikes, the Senanayakes, the Kotelawalas, the de Sarams, the de Liveras, the de-Tisseras, the Wijewardenes and so on. Then there were the up-country Kandyan Ratwattes (Sirimavo was one), the Meedeniyas, the Eknoligodas, the Dunuwilles, the Tennekoons, the Moonemalles, the Nugawelas, the Panabokkes and the Kobbekaduwas.

Many of the low-country Govigama elite embraced Anglicanism and rose the ranks of the colonial bureaucracy. They were the favoured and trusted lieutenants of English rule. With independence and the emergence of political Buddhism, many returned to Buddhism. Jayewardene, Kotelawala, Bandaranaike and Wickremasinghe were examples. The Govigama elite had collaborated with the colonial masters benefiting in terms of employment, education and land ownership. The Maha Mudaliyar Christofel de Saram and his son Johannes Hendrick were examples of the deracinated and Anglicized Govigama elite in the early 1800s. The de Sarams were the forebearers of the Jayewardenes.

Just below are the Karava or fishermen caste who dominate the maritime districts. The Karava account for roughly 10% of the Sinhala population. The Karava challenged Govigama power in the two Sinhala youth revolts of 1971 and 1987 led by the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP). The JVP was led by Rohana Wijeweera. The JVP appealed to the dispossessed and poor. While it did not articulate its ideology in terms of caste, its caste base was exclusively non Govigama. General Sarath Fonseka, who led the war successfully against the Tamil Tigers, was also of the Karava caste and ran for the position of President against Mahinda Rajapakse. He was jailed soon thereafter.

While many of the low country Govigama had become Anglican during colonial rule, about half of the Karave Sinhala population converted to Roman Catholicism. The Sinhala Karava western maritime belt of Puttalam, Chilaw, Wennapuwa, Negombo, Ja-Ela, Wattala, North Colombo, Moratuwa and to a lesser extent Panadura had become Catholic.The Sri Lankan navy has traditionally been a Karave preserve. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith is of the Sinhala Karava caste. Reports suggest that he is a strong contender for the papacy. He is seen as Asia’s candidate for that position next month.

The third caste of consequence was the Salagama or Cinnamon Peeler who accounted for roughly 5% of the Sinhala population. The veteran Sri Lankan politician C.P. de Silva belonged to his caste. He was denied the Prime Ministership in the 1960s. This forced him to abandon the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Nimal Siripala de Silva, another prominant Sinhala politician, also belongs to this caste.

The Durave or toddy tapper castes are related to the Ezhavas of Kerala or the Nadar or Tamil Nadu. Mangala Samaraweera, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, one time member of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party and fired by President Rajapakse belongs to the Durave caste.

Other significant castes includes the Wahumpura or jaggery makers, the Padu or palanquin bearers and the Beravas or drummers (from the South Indian root – parai). There were two Sinhala outcastes, the Rodiya and the Kinnaras or mat weavers. The Wahumpura, the Padu, the Berava and the Rodi joined the JVP youth revolt in large numbers. Wimal Weerawansa, staunch anti Tamil, belongs to the Berava caste.

The Portuguese arrived on our shores in 1505 AD. We were ruled by the Europeans for approximately 450 years. This dented the caste divisions in Sinhala society as did the left movement that was intellectually dominant between the 1930s and the 1950s prior to the emergence of a Buddhist nationalism.

However, caste remains a factor in marriage, in the nomination of party candidates for elections, and in the Buddhist Sangha. If any one were to read the marriage classifieds in the Sri Lankan media, one will be immediately struck by the caste requirements for a prospective Sinhala Buddhist bride or groom. In elections likewise, the caste composition of electorates is factored in by all major parties before a candidate is identified. Salagama candidates get appointed to seats in Balapitiya, Boosa and Rathgama while Karave candidates are nominated for Karave constituencies. But it is the Buddhist Sangha or clergy which traditionally had been most divided by caste.

The dominant Siam Nikaya was once exclusively confined to the Govigama caste and remains overwhelmingly Govigama. The Karava, Salagama and Durava castes obtained ordination in Myanmar setting up the Amarapura Nikaya. The Amarapura Nikaya is subdivided into 21 sub sects defined on caste lines. The Buddhist modernist Ramanya Nikaya sect rejected caste as a qualification for entry into the Sangha. Each of the three sects run their own temples. Karave Buddhists tend to patronize Buddhist temples belonging to their sub-sect of the Amarapura Nikaya. Buddhists belonging to other castes do likewise. In short, Sinhala Buddhism was ordered on the basis of caste.

Elections were held in 1911 for the Educated Ceylonese Seat in the colonial legislature. Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, a Tamil, ran against Sir Marcus Fernando, a Karava Sinhalese. The Govigama Sinhalese voted enmasse for Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan in order to deny Marcus Fernando a seat. They succeeded! But not all Sinhala Buddhists accepted the subjugation they had to endure as witnessed in the recent bloody JVP insurrections. It is estimated that 20,000 Sinhala youth were killed in 1971 and 60,000 were killed in 1989 as the military crushed the youth insurgencies. Most of the dead belonged to the non-Govigama castes.

A quote from the Mahavibhasa, a 2nd century Buddhist text would be appropriate. It mentions

‘What the Aryans say is the truth, what others say is not true. And why is this? The Aryan ones understand things as they are. The common folk do not understand. Furthermore, they are called Aryan truths because they are possessed by those who are conceived in the womb of an Aryan woman’.

This elitism is still present, although never articulated, amongst several Buddhists in Sri Lanka today.

*Punya Perera is a graduate in Political Science from the University of Peradeniya. She currently studies at the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine

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Latest comments

  • 7

    According to Punya, all the leaders of Sri Lanka were of a certain caste and are alright,except for R. Premadasa, who we all know is from the power hungry beastly killercaste – a horrible devilish beast.

  • 7

    What Keppetipola a good Kandyan? Didn’t the late James Rutnam addressing the Archaeological Society in Jaffna chuckle when he said how happy he was to see the Sinhalese celebrating somebody who was Tamil?

  • 2

    Sri lankan buddhism need to be reformed,caste is a hindu concept ,No other buddhist communities in any part of the world has such a system ,also certain mahavamsa articles regarding the visit of buddha to sri lanka are without evidence.

    • 4

      Mahavamsa is not a buddhist text,Tipitaka is the buddhist text. Mahavamsa is a chronicle of events with doubtful sources,just like the travel stories of marco polo.

  • 5

    As a recent convert to Buddhism, I was unfortunate to encounter some kind of hostility from a few persons in the temple I frequent in USA. When I discussed this with one or two of the priests, they merely mentioned the importance of family name in reserving honor in interacting with other Buddhist persons who come to the temple. They also included education and professional level to this.

    I remain still, a devout Buddhist, but am saddened that Buddhism in Sri Lanka has to contort to the culture of the sub-continent.

    • 8

      ramona therese fernando,
      The last 4 years always in denial of sinhala caste system- how come you can sleep lying is circle of friends too.

      “”I remain still, a devout Buddhist, but am saddened that Buddhism in Sri Lanka has to contort to the culture of the sub-continent. “”

      You mimic because you are from village like your ancestors- henry pooey in dark glasses trying an bankrupt putin october revolution or Kim Jung Un north korean Asia miracle- granny, granny said found the boat recently?? no more stamps/ Ha he enjoy obama and the deer in the park.

      westerners are nomadic culture and have class. Hillary want’s to be boston brahmin will she won’t she??
      primarily, celebrity is a media thing that creates business.
      Once a cheetah always a cheater but never a brave lion that is papadesi.

      Money can’t buy me love is true in european culture- see the rise of the far left.
      we are all born 1/2 tao and 1/2 confucius and the one who enjoys life is the one who has 1/2.

  • 1

    I thought I read an article recently in the Daily News saying that Buddhism in Sri Lanka, in tune with Buddhism from other lands, has no caste. I can’t find that article today.

    As a recent convert to Buddhism, I was unfortunate to encounter some kind of hostility from a few persons in the temple I frequent in USA. When I discussed this with one or two of the priests, they merely mentioned the importance of family name in reserving honor in interacting with other Buddhist persons who come to the temple. They also included education and professional level to this.

    I remain still, a devout Buddhist, but am saddened that Buddhism in Sri Lanka has to contort to the culture of the sub-continent.

    • 10

      ramona therese fernando

      “I remain still, a devout Buddhist, but am saddened that Buddhism in Sri Lanka has to contort to the culture of the sub-continent.”

      You are rest assured, unfortunately my ancestral island will remain as it is for the next 2,500 years, because it is ruled by Sinhala/Buddhists.

      In order to change the island from sub-continent culture first we will have to liberate Buddha’s teaching from Sinhala/Buddhists.

      I am working on it.

  • 1

    Native Vedda,
    I think in previous times it could have been a bit different. It was the Kandyan kingdom which first brought in the caste systems. Later on during the time of independence it was a response to the Tamils who scorned the disorganization of Sinhala society after independence (never minding that the Jaffna’s were of a small society structured by Hindu castes, whereas the Sinhalese were spread all over the island and of Buddhistic egalitarian society). Successive governments set up hierarchies in some effort to consolidate the Sinhala base – family trees and DNA structures were probed into. It was a wrong and cowardly move which pitted Sinhalese against each other resulting in Sinhalese blaming the Tamils for their inability to form cohesive society. The truth is, while the Tamils are comfortable with the Hindu tradition of castes, Sinhala psyche was sorely affected due to two millennia of pure Buddhistic tradition where caste was hardly ever a factor, except for some distinction between persons from differing regions having a stranger look and possibly smell (people were more animalistic those days).

    Now if the present regime was legitimate, one of the sons would marry a Dalit Tamil and convert her to Buddhism. Then I will believe.

    p.s. I would have imagined priests of any sort giving advice on keeping a calm mind, forgiving and forgetting, or to look at one’s own personal misdeeds. But no, the only advice given was that one was to remember one’s place in social hierarchy.

  • 1

    Found the article in the sunday observer :

  • 8

    Ramona Therese Fernando is incorrect. She’s obviously pained at the lack of egalitarianism in Sinhalese Buddhist society and tries to fudge the record. Its psychologically important to her given that she is a new convert to Buddhism.

    Buddhism has been hierarchical, exclusionary and violent in Sri Lanka since the Anuradhapura period when Dutu Gemunu banished his son Saliya for marrying an outcaste. It was prevalent in the Polonnaruwa period when Vijaybahu prevented the losses castes from praying at the peak of Sri Pada. Caste has had a 2,000 year history in Sri Lanka and is most prevalent today in the Buddhist clergy as Punya Perera points out. Further, the Buddhist scriptures that she quotes itself accommodates caste. Ramona Therese should admit the obvious rather than attempt to describe Tamil history that she is evidently unaware of! Sinhalese Buddhism is caste based.

  • 2

    Ananda, certainly not. Sri Lanka ‘s play at caste in ancient times was the natural need of the ruling classes to establish their superiority over the common masses (as it was and is done in all other places on earth with a ruling monarchy). It certainly was not the Hindued type of caste system and was more of a class system, with nothing rigidly established in religious scripts other than a possible speculation if the person was of a higher karma. It was indeed speculated by Buddha that birth traits which were conducive towards nirvana were a possible sign of better karma; they are yet not the fundamental points of Buddha’s teachings. These could include beauty (but not in the modern sensual terms), in wealth in terms of a life of less toil so what could follow the middle path more easily, and intelligence so one could better understand and follow Buddha’s teaching. The middle-path in all.

    As per Tamil history (especially the one in Jaffna), one only needs to know that their caste system worked very well in securing a well-balanced lifestyle for all (almost egalitarian in its concept as long as people accepted the castes they were born with). However, with the learning of Western texts, their structure came crashing down.

    Buddhism would not have withstood the millennia in Sri Lanka if not for its egalitarian concepts. It would have quickly reverted to Hinduism as in the sub-continent, considering the Hindus north of the country. However, with the advent of the Europeans, most of the coastal persons converted to Christianity. This was not due to the scorn of the Buddhism on fish-eating persons, as it is sometimes said(and hence them being placed in lower castes)- Buddha himself was not a strict vegetarian.This was due to the inquisition-type Portuguese who forced conversion on the people they conquered.

    • 9

      Ramona Theresa

      You are evidently not knowledgeable on Tamil history, Hinduism or for that matter Buddhism. Buddhism was hardly egalitarian in Sri Lanka. Egalitarianism is a modern concept. Look at the archeological excavations to see how the rice paddy surplus on account of the irrigation schemes were used to bolster the power of the Buddhist clergy. How did the peasants live? In thatched huts, sleeping on mats, with a spartan existence while so much was spent on the monastic establishments with gigantic stupas. Buddhism was exploitative, unequal, siphoned off economic resources to bolster the power of the religious priest hood. To call that egalitarianism is a misnomer. Punya’s article throws light on the Buddhist texts, not just on how it was practiced in Sri Lanka.

  • 8

    Buddhism supported an exploitative irrigation based unequal society in Sri Lanka where the monks lived in lavish splendour while the poor lived very simply barely eking a living as the archeological record. They probably ate millet or kurakkan, not even rice. Buddhism and caste fit well together in Sinhalese society.

  • 2

    Sri Lankan,

    Surely you can’t compare Sri Lankan Buddhism with e.g. the structure of the Catholic Church (which your description seems to be more fitting to)?

    Lankan Buddhist monasteries and stupas are very basic in structure and organization (except maybe for the more modern Dalada Maligawa in Kandy which has some elements of golden icons and intricate architecture). When I visited ancient Anuradhapura 3 years ago, I was struck by its innocence, charm and simplicity. It was a place of peace and meditation. In Lankan Buddhism, one sees nothing of the likes of the cathedrals of Europe, Taj Mahal of the Muslims or the over-decorated golden temples of the Hindus.

    However, whenever there is a monarchy, religious institutions get a boost in finances for patronage at the very best of the religious institutions, and also Sri Lanka certainly has had her fair share of serfdom. Environmental conditions have always kept Sri Lanka moderately comfortable for all her residents, and tranquil in her Buddhist faith – or at least till the advent of the European colonizers.

    Nowadays however, with a sudden surge of wealth (and in accordance with the way other countries have developed their religious architecture), a few grand looking temples have sprung up(but only a few). As for eating kurakkan, sleeping on floors, and living in thatched huts in olden times, that lifestyle was probably the most healthiest form of lifestyle ever.

  • 7

    Thank you for this very interesting article. As a longterm Buddhist practitioner, I was struck that sutras stating “that a Buddha can only be born a Brahmana or Kshatriya and can never come from any of the “lower castes”” may have been taken historically to support caste hierarchy in Sinhala Buddhism. This is similar to what has happened in some parts of the Buddhist world on the basis of sutric statements that a woman can never become a samyaksambuddha: there being born female is regarded as substandard and females are automatically seen as inferior to males on the basis of it. Similar too are sutric statements that the native land of a samyaksambuddha is always Jambudvipa (commonly understood to be India), but this does not seem to bother the non-Indian Buddhist males who look down on women!

    Siddhartha Gautama renounced contemporary caste-hierarchy in setting forth on his spiritual quest, and spiritual elitism assumed on the basis of caste is one of those customs that a stream-winner would recognise as spurious and delusive, but of course this does not alter that Shakyamuni Buddha was born male, kshatriyan and in ‘Jambudvipa’.

    However, another way to see reference to the birth-caste of future samyaksambuddhas is that, given the cupidity, enmity and stupidity of human-beings, the caste-system was expected to survive or return by the time of the next samyaksambuddha and that the one-upmanship supported in it is a typical expression of the aforesaid cupidity, enmity and stupidity. In such conditions, being born into a higher caste gives the native a better education and supportive start in life than being born into the difficulties and insecurity of a lower caste, and a soon-to-be-samyaksambuddha knows of these problems and of the affinities and/or prejudices of the higher-ups in society (whom, as a samyaksambuddha, he will need on his side to establish a longstanding spiritual dispensation), and decides to get born in a higher caste as his ‘best shot’. This should never be taken as a reason to uphold the pecking-order of the caste system!

    Similarly, another way to see reference to the birth-gender of future samyaksambuddhas is as a corollary of the social oppression that women were expected to continue suffering (or be returned to) in future and to the expected future prejudice against them (these also being expressions of the cupidity, enmity and stupidity of human-beings). In a future land similar to old India, oppression of women and prejudice against them (including by other women) would be conditions that would prevent founding a longstanding religious dispensation by a female; but again this should never be taken as a reason to continue deliberately the oppression and prejudice.

    Concerning the term “arya”, in Buddhist sutras this refers to those who have realised the spiritual stages of stream-winner, once-returner, non-returner and arhat. These stages on the transcendental path have nothing to do with a person’s gender, parentage, caste or nationality but know such forms, labels and concepts to be completely empty of self and self-nature. Suggesting that a person’s parentage confers the status of “aryan truth” on a statement appears either to be a mistranslation or another expression of cupidity, enmity and stupidity, but unfortunately I cannot find an online text of the full sastra.

    Part of the definition of a samyaksambuddha is that this kind of buddha founds a religious dispensation; but lacking conditions or indeed inclination to do this should not limit a person’s expectations of liberative insight.

    • 3

      “”should not limit a person’s expectations of liberative insight. “”

      You find Liberated nomadic women at International Society for Krishna Consciousness. they perform everything the ritual in sanskrit.

      It don’t come easy,
      You know it don’t come easy.
      Got to pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues,
      And you know it don’t come easy.
      You don’t have to shout or leap about,
      You can even play them easy.

  • 1

    Are you guys serious?? You people still believe that a caste can measure a person? Caste is literally what your ancestor used to do, Just cuz you grandfather was a fishermen doesnt mean you have to be one in todays world

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