3 December, 2022

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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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    Keep it relevant – CT
    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy
    https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

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      Excellent piece of work, Punya! Keep it up.
      Sinhala Buddhism is a curious animal – it reflects insular and uneducated Sinhala society and is used by the Rajapakse military dictatorship to do its dirty work. Today SInhala Buddhism is highly militarized and used by the military and the Rajapakse regime in their land grabbing activities in the north east.. The regime uses the military to steal land from the coastal Vedda communities and plants a Buddha statue to gloss violent crime and law breaking by those charged to make and maintain law..
      Today Sinhala Buddhism and a RACIST, UNEDUCATED, ARROGANT AND GREEDY SANGHA, a few exception, is the means for the Rajapakse Brotherhood to DIVIDE AND RULE LANKA – the Balu Sena being the most recent avatar!

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        Sri lanka is one of the nations with a high literacy rate,how can you say uneducated sinhala society,You are trying to tarnish a community,everything is yellow for a jaundised eye.

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          Sanath
          High literacy rate does not equate to education as you may aware. We collectively need to this soul searching to enable the future generation free from further bloodshed.

    • 2
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      Only those with nothing else to commend then, resort to Caste!

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    Thanks Ms Punya Perera for enlightening the hidden part of our Society. Casts systems demean and de-humanizes human beings. God created all equals. The one who belongs to a particular caste is not responsible, he has no choice of birth. A man or a woman should be judged not by his or birth but by his manners and behaviors. A high man can demean or become lower than a dog by misbehaving and doing things against the accepted the norms of the society eg getting involved business harmful to the people like dealing in drugs and liquor. A so called low caste man can elevate himself by being a man of good deeds and helping the other human beings. In the eyes of God, all human beings are equal.

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      Buddism has always attracted the ‘low castes’ & still do, most new converts (millions) are Dalits. Hindu Brahmans despised them & regained Hinduism in Hindustan, before most became serfs of the Muslims. Talking about Muslims, very few know that many Buddists from the mother country converted to Islam to regain some dignity.
      Our Buddist hypocracy should be brought out strongly to inform & enlighten at least the Buddist world. How long more can we defend apartheid or nazistic ideology?

      Govi as land ownning clss is silly as others did not live at sea
      All other castes lived on land and owned it, subject to a share of the crop (govi) or government service (others)

      Bathgama is a large caste, silly, how many palanquins were there to bear?

      Marxist movements are common Global movements, if there is natural leadership, got to recognize that, The common Marxist, class, economic, social & 3rd world issues were bigger, pitty if one caste could not feel the pulse, hence why the vast majority of all are yet low class, surviving on loans from ex-communists. If more peasants had revolted throughout history (not just in 1848) we would have been world dominating like little England.

      Whilst political elitism has been Govi dominated, social elitism is quite another story; cinema, theatre, music, literature, crafts, sports, etc.

      Fashion designers, confectioners, architects, shippers, craftmen, warriors, rights to spice or the seas, was the exclusive rights of some, profit making comodities, rewarded, some cases didnt have to toil & soil so much as the tillers…….our historical wonders are the result of the workmenship of them master craftsmen.

      Caste is ‘gode’ ideology, rural back waters, has very little room in the developed regions, mixed marriages are common, people are educated, dont wobble with envisiged insecurity, part of the modern world & a not entirely swollen on mud ‘n dung.

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        Manike, I so agree.

        Traditionally has been no real caste distinction in Sri Lanka compared to the Hindus. Hindu casts are supposed to be divinely established. Therefore when their main god Brahma created the universe and people (through evolution, or maybe more immediately by divine order), he placed them into casts from the very onset they were created. Or if they evolved, it was the right of the human think-tanks to place persons into a hierarchical structure.

        Buddha specifically disproved this most probably because He, in His enlightened wisdom, saw the true essence of mankind and realized that that the intelligence of the more evolved person was irrespective of caste, education, birth, IQ based on human reasoning, beauty , or wealth (or the connections and interactions these concepts might have with each other). However the desire with our Sinhala Buddhists to dabble with caste heritage has always been extremely seducing, and huge boost in the personal power quotient. This came to play in even greater proportions especially after independence (the demise of our country’s cohesiveness, unfortunately). How shameful then, do we look compared to the more progressive Europeans, for example, and the more benign Buddhists to the East of Sri Lanka.

        After Buddhism has been explained in its purest essence, many of the Sangha branch off into what they consider logical foot-paths to explain the “evolved” person. For example, too many Lankan intellectual persons here in the US are away from what they feel are lower level persons of their land (which is different from the feeling of wanting to be richer and more successful that most people who come to the US want – although most conclude that that is a natural consequence of being more evolved).

        Their demise off-of Sri Lanka is seen as the logical conclusion to their quest towards evolution. They have forgotten Nibbana, but are assured by priests that once the IQ is increased, so is their Nirvana-possibility. Good deeds translate into higher IQ-quotients they imply. So is beauty, wealth and caste lines they conclude. They do acknowledge Buddha’s word for it, but the speculation towards those possibilities is still remains. Thus purest essence of Buddhism is relegated to exactly what Buddha preached against. Maybe Buddha’s words could be further reinforced by the message of Christ : “ Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

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      Duh…

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    Punya Perera,

    If we had a thousand more youth like you, this country will be the heaven on earth. I see hope for this country through youth like you. Looking forward to reading similar articles from you in the future. Please write in Sinhala too.

    Dr. Rajasingham Narendran

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    It is interesting to note that the Buddha belonged to a high caste, but repudiated the caste system prevalent in India at the time, and actively elevated the position of outcasts.

    In Buddhist history, one finds that the Buddha had premeditated his arrival by examining the five great sights (pas maha balum) of which a high caste mother is one.

    Egalitarianism is largely practiced in progressive western countries, where social stratification does not include “caste” but does include “class” and wealth.

    Sri Lankans perhaps cling to something they feel can still add value to their existence, in place of intelligence, recognition or status conferred on merit.

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    Regarding:

    “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’”

    I have not read Mahavibhasa, but I note that in this quotation the word “Aryan” has been used in two different senses, and in the process the word has been misused to convey a political message.

    Now about the meanings, the Aryan who understand things as they are, according to Lord Buddha’s teachings, are meant to be the Arhats who had purified their minds, no clinging to mundane desires and materialism. Certainly they were people once belonged to common folks, as they had been biologically all the time. But by their achievements in mental development they were supposed to have existed at a higher plane than the commoners. It did not mean that they shunned the common folks. They lived side by side in the society and interacted with commoners; often it was the very common people who sustained the Aryans through life. Yet in terms of their ability to comprehend the state of nature, all conditional phenomenon as they were, those Aryan’s were unique.

    In the second part of the quotation, the 2nd century text (it is alleged) states that such an Aryan were conceived in the womb of an Aryan woman. If this reference to Aryan was meant to indicate that such a woman who gave birth to a Aryan saint was “lucky” indeed and had positive merits, then we may be able to some extent reconcile with that statement. However, I cannot accept the text that such a woman has to be Aryan (by birth and caste)to bear such a worthy child.

    Incidentally Aryans as referred to “human groups” is a racial group (as most readers probably learnt in school) and not a Sri Lankan caste, which the writer seemed to imply. If the “original test” indeed stated as quoted, then I am inclined to think that “it was piece of political writing by some literary person to promote their own political (I dare say, non-Aryan)agenda.

    In ancient times, as it is at present, rulers in power favored the writers to write favorable version of the story (or belief) that was beneficial to them; for example, Gota getting someone else to rewrite history in his favour, while the true national hero of winning the war was General Fonseka. Policians always corrupted the truth to their advantage using all sorts of agents (writers in this case).

    Therefore I conclude that the quotation from Mahavibhas has been corrupted for political (or social) reasons, and had been given a cloak of purity by mixing it with Aryans associated with Buddhism, the Buddhas sainltly disciples, that were defined in Buddhist scriptures.

    I round this off by stating (for the credit of women, as well as of Buddhism) that there had been women, according to the scripture, who had been very lowly commoners of low caste or ill reputed professions, who achieved mental enlightnment and became Aryans later in life. It is said that Lord Buddha, following the request of her aunt Maha Prajapathi, allowed women to be ordained in Sangha regardless of their caste of birth or profession.

    Buddhism has or never had a caste distinction or an exclusion due to birth or profession of any human. I refer to the Dhammapada verse,the birth does not define neither an untouchable nor a Brahmin. It is indeed his deeds that discriminates an untouchable from a Brahmin.

    If there is caste system in the Sri Lankan sangha order, it was a social and policial issue within the establishment and nothing to do with Buddhism.

  • 6
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    Interesting. There is some doubt if Prince Siddartha was Brahman, per se. Much of the doubts he had on the society around him appears to have a flavour that does not place Brahmins in good light. But he was
    millennia ahead in original thought. He had the courage to think and see outside the box, as it were. One of the first socialists in the world. His work to find the source of sorrow and help to overcome it continues.

    Modern education, thought, an egalitarian society etc will scoff at complexities arising from the accident of birth. As the Buddha himself said there are only two kinds of people – good and bad. One day the world will have to free itself from the clutches of this division of man. It does not look like it is today – because many of us, in the choice of partners for our children are trapped in the past.

    Punya’s paper is a useful and thought-provoking one that vaults across the racial barrier.

    Senguttuvan

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      Prince Siddhartha was a Kshatriyas by caste. He belonged to no caste once he attained enlightenment.

      Dr. Rajasingham. Narendran

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    I don’t know where Miss Punya Perera comes from but UNFORTUNATELY in my part of the Country Caste is spoken about and caste is a determining factor in more than a few, day to day activities.

    An appropriate paraphrasing of another of the Lord Buddha’s statements would be ” A Brahmin is judged by his actions and not his birth origins”.

    In that case we have a parliment full of the lowest of the low casts don’t we ?

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      Don the last line in your comment is good humour.

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    Punya,

    You have brought forth some important fact that is before our society. All human belief is that no caste or creed is before human love and human values. In today’s context, as from history, we have a divided society. As written above, Bonaparte, the writer is absolutely right, from ancient period we are politicized. If this concept is within the Maha Sangha, I am still confused how, we can move forward with the concept “All men are created and born equal”. All groups or movements, let it be any religion, shows their muscle power, it is because they want to prove that particular group is superior to any one. The problem is here, so as any region advocates let us learn to treat all humans ar equal and let us teach our future generations in our mother land that the Teachings should be to respect and honour the humans, elders, sick, the less fortunate etc. if we could envisage in this path, I am sure our motherland will be the most brightest spot on earth.

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    “The Buddha broke with the sacred writings of the Brahmins just as he broke with their doctrine. The four Vedas, the Brahmanas and the Upanishads were nothing to him.

    And further, he showed himself a free-thinker in opening his monastic Order even to members of the despised Sudra castes. To whatever caste a man belongs, he says in one of his discourses, if he live the true life of a momk, he can nevertheless reach perfection. Whethe the fire be kindled with costly wood, or with wood from a dog-trough. or from a pig-trough, or from a laundry- trough, or from a castor-oil tree:it has the same flame, the same brightness and the same power of illumination.

    But the Buddha’s broad-mindedness must not be understood in the sense of his having altogether declared himself for the abolition of caste distinctions. His opinions is that the monks alone, who are leaving behind them all earthly relationshios, are no longer subject to them. They are still valid for peoplewho remain in the ordinary life of the world.”

    (‘ Indian thought and its development ‘ by Albert Schweitzer, the Beacon Press, Boston, 1936. Chapter on ‘ the Buddha and His Teachings. Pages 93-94)

    Was the Buddha thinking of the four Varnas( Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra), which refer to individual natures, rather than rigid group classification of people into castes?

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

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    Very informative article Punya.

    All Sri Lankans need to learn about these things that are going on in our society. Despite it being the 21st century. We thought we had moved beyond this point. But, clearly we have not.

    My pesonal belief is that advertising caste in classified ads should be banned as discriminatory rubbish.

    Please publish in Sinhala and Tamil as well.

  • 6
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    Very interesting article. This should go to the village level. If you permit, I will translate it into Sinhala and published.

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    This is an insightful article that highlights the social dynamics at play in contemporary Sinhalese Buddhism.

    There is a Chinese saysing – ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom, a hundred schools of thought contend’. We need to have debate and discussion in Sri Lanka in a spirit of intellectual freedom.

    In that spirit, I would recommend the book ‘Buddhist Warfare’ edited by Professor Mark Jeurgensmeyer. That publication reveals how Buddhist organizations had used religious images and rhetoric through the centuries to support military conquest. In Thailand for instance, Buddhist soldiers today carry out their duties in the Muslim south under cover as fully ordained monks armed with guns.

    This reminded me on what happened in Sri Lanka in 1959 when Bandaranaike was assassinated by the Venerable Talduwa Somarama Thera, a Buddhist monk. The mastermind behind that assassination was the Venerable Buddharakhita Thera, Chief Priest of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara and driving force behind the Eksath Buddha Peramuna.

    More recently, in 2007, the Venerable Dunukewatte Sumana Thera of the Hataraliyadda Temple disrobed to join the Sinha Regiment and fight the Tamil Tigers.

    Interestingly, all three monks referred to belonged to the Siam Nikaya.

    Much of these factors are on account of social forces. Caste is a similar social dynamic that was mainstreamed in the Buddhist sangha as Punya Perera convincingly demonstrates.

    We need to be alert the social dynamic and Punya did a good job in reminding us of that.

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    This is no learned essay. This graduate’s who is obviously following post graduate studies in China sees things one sidedly. It is lower than a Tutorial by an undergrad in standard. I would have given it a “D ‘ grading at undergraduate tutorial class.

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      How learned you are? You must be an arrogant, caste-conscious, inhuman beast and racist like the rajapakshas. What is the other side, you mean? Can you elucidate? You will defend bloody cast-system. Are you an “Academician” or Decademician.

      Punya, I am a low caste layman but an honest fellow, I will give you A+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ Keep up you good work. Hats off to you

    • 0
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      For Us,
      You supposed to be a MAGICIAN With a CLOWN FACE ,
      NOT AN ACADEMICIAN.

      ARE you an ANOTHER JARAPASSA CLOWN.

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      Academician, see the wrong ‘D’ rating you gave the author put you down as ‘D’owncaste, don’t even accidentally press the wrong button, arrogance never works.

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    Prince Siddharta was a Khstriya in the Sakhya line is generally accepted. The question is whether his Khstriya clain comes within the
    Brahmin whole. I believe this question was also discussed in the Buddhist Symposium in Gottingen (Germany)by established scholars some years ago (1988?)

    “Siddhartha was born in a royal Hindu family. He was brought up by his mother’s younger sister, Maha Pajapati. By tradition, he is said to have been destined by birth to the life of a prince, and had three palaces built for him. Although more recent scholarship DOUBTS this status. King Śuddhodana, wishing for his son to be a great king, is said to have shielded him from religious teachings and from knowledge of human suffering”

    So there is much discussion in a subject that held sway nearly 2,700 years ago where records kept are sometimes ambigous. There is even debate as to where he was born – with scholars believing it is Kapilavastu, Lumbini (Nepal) or Kapileshwara (Orissa) Piprahwa (UP).
    Since he concentrated much on the negatives of Brahminism of his time, the argument he came from outside the Brahmin loop persists. On the other hand, those of kingly (or even Princely) stature at that time necessarily came from the Brahmin caste.

    Senguttuvan

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      As a Hindu, I would say that although a Khastriya by birth, Prince Siddartha had a a predominately Satvik nature- to a much greater extent than the best of the best amongst us. He was almost there when he was born and pursued it further further to become what he did.

      Dr. Rajasingham Narendran

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        The four Varnas are Brahmin ( the spritual ), Kshatriyas ( the brave), Vaishya ( the traders and manufactueres) and Sudra( the labour), in descending order with the Brahmins at the apex. This classification applies to human nature. Within the present caste classifications, the above Varnas ( colours) can be found.

        Dr. Rajasingham Narendran

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    I do not wish to dispute the comments of Academician. But I’d like to see the areas in Punya’s article he/she takes exception to. Unless this is done so he/she will find him/her exposed to the criticism of being extremely unfair to an educated youth who articulated his/her views on a contentious subject with admirable courage and clarity.

    Senguttuvan

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      Academician – March 8, 2013

      Agreed Senguthuwan. Instead of you hiding behind an assumed identity please come out and say your two cents worth so that CT readers can judge for themselves. You are envious and jealous; perhaps the reason for your nonsensical statement?

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    So, Low cast Sinhalese were colonized in Tamil Elam and High cast Sinhalese colonized in Kandy. Is that true?

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      Nobody has colonized any part of Sri Lanka but remnants of invaders had been left behind and settled in some parts of the country, and plantation workers too have settled in the highlands. The country has a good spectrum of ethnic groups that live in harmony, and freely moving around in previously sinhala dominant areas. But now, after the liberation of territory after wiping out the terrorist groups, everyone can move around wherever they want to be, total freedom.

      It is the politcians, both uneducated ones as well as those with high academic qualification,who are crazy for power that is ruining the ethnic harmony in our country.

  • 5
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    This is a good article.

    Victor Ivan in his publication ‘Revolt in the Temple’ mentions how the Buddhist revivalist movement had to find a foreigner like Colonel Olcott to lead the movement mainly because the Sinhala Buddhist leaders were unable to select a leader from among them due to overwhelming caste differences.

    After the insurrection of 1971, the Sirimavo government undertook a study of the caste background of the detainees. The government had recognized it as an uprising of the youth who did not belong to the Govigama caste. The Presidential Commission appointed to explore the causes of the second JVP insurrection also recognized the significant impact of caste in the South.

    Dr. Jayadeva Uyangoda in a series of articles titled ‘Inequality and Hierarchy’ in the Sinhala magazine Yukthia provides several examples where those scholars of lower caste background were subject to insult and humiliation in Sinhala academia.

    Dr. Bruce Mathews had written an eye opening article called ‘Tightening Social Cohesion and Excluding Others Amongst the Sinhalese’ in 2004. Its time now to examine whether the latest attacks on the Sri Lankan Muslim is part of this social consolidation of the otherwise quite fractured Sinhala polity.

    Lakruwan de Silva in February 2010 published an Op Ed in the Sunday Leader that questioned whether the Sarath Fonseka arrest had any caste overtones.

    This article needs to be translated into Sinhala. Perhaps Sam should do it.

    A minor correction on my comment above. I meant to say ‘Eksath Bhikku Peramuna’, not Eksath Buddha Peramuna.

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    You talked about all others but you didn’t say which cast are you being classified in to Punya Perera? and you spouse?

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    A TRULY INTERESTING ARTICLE, FOR HIGHLIHTIG WITH LIVING EXAMPLES OF SOME oF OUR LIVING AND NOT SO LONGO DEAD POLITICIANS, WE SUPPOSE WHO WILL NOT BE EMBARASED.IS PUNYA SURE OF THE SURNAMES SARAM TO BE GOIGAMA, IF FONSEKA IS NOT. TO WHAT CATEGORIES DO THE SURNAMES SUCH AS FERNANDO,PERIS, MEL,PERERA,SOYS(z)A,SALGADO,RODRIGO,ETC ETC BELONG SINCE THEY ARE NOT ORIGINAL SINHALA SURNAMES. NEVERTHELESS DO NOT ALL THESE VISIONS REDUCE TO MERE SPECULATIONS CONSIDERING THE BUDDHA’S UNIVERSAL PARADIGM ” NA SAJJA VASALO HOTHI, NA SAJJA HOTHI BRAHMANA. KAMMANA VASALO HOTHI, KAMMANA HOTHI BRHAMANA.

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    This is a useful read. I was not aware of the extent to which caste matters and mattered in the Sangha. I would like to know if BBS crosses all caste lines!

    As far as Buddhism per se goes, it does not matter one iota as it about the person, and his path towards ultimate release into Nirvana.

    Coming back into the SL political scene that has this undertone across all strata of society, most people were pushed out to join groups or other religions due to the caste issue, and so we know it is not good for national unity.

    While we accept that it still matters in marriage and elections, it is getting less so, with love marriages being caste blind.

    I believe MR definitely is a caste conscious elitist, who would never have incarcerated Fonseka if he was of the same caste. He basically looks down on anyone from other castes and would hate even to fight an election with a person of a lower caste as he feels that it is not an equal match.

    Funny though we in Sri Lanka are very selective in our caste as many take the fathers caste in mixed marriages, and one only need look at the Rajapakse Children, desperate to make a higher caste marriage by looking for a Kandyan when their Govigama credentials are questionable!

    The lower castes in the pecking order love to marry into higher, but more importantly wish to show that they are much more wealthy and flaunt their wealth a little more to show the higher castes that they can wallow in their paddy fields whilst they fly around in their helicopters! Just look at most of the Sinhala businessmen they have come from the lower castes whilst Chandrika in Mrs Bs government decimated the wealth of the Govigama up and low country by nationalizing their lands. Of course other casts also bought into land too and so suffered loss, but their businesses remained intact.

    It all leads to just a good read, if it wasn’t so serious.

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    This writer is bringing Siddhartha’s birth stories as recorded in later traditions. One really does not know what his birth status was. He was from a clan where brother/sister marriages were practiced, as was the case with Sakyas and Koliyas.Perhaps, they were tribal people outside the mainstream of Hindu society. This type of marriage custom is not a custom followed by so called Aryan language speaking Hindus
    Sakyas today are mostly jewellery workers in Nepal.

    Senguutavan is right in pointing to many learned discussions on that subject.
    As the Sinhalese society advanced (Or regressed?) ideas of castes entered it and even into the later Buddhist Nikayas.when Buddhism was introduced, all people includind brass workers, potters, and others joined the royalty without any distinction to make donations to the Sangha.
    What is more essential is to point out is that caste was not the essential element in Buddha’s attitude to the society and as reflected in his teachings. The writer of the article has missed the essential features of research that the sources used need to be subjected to close scrutiny before conclusions are based on them. He has also picked up an aberration in society to make a big story. This is why I down graded him as a researcher.
    He/she has made a great display of Siddharta’s birth stories to prove a point. This is where what Senguththavan said and Rajasingham says have some relevance.I repeat that what is more important is what Siddhartha/Buddha stood for. in pronouncing that birth does not accord any high/low status.he admitted ordinary folk including murderers, harlots, into his Order. The researcher should read texts like Petha Vatthu, Thera Gatha and Theri Gatha and not Buddhavamsa, one rarely heard of, to understand what sort of people were ordained and their real life experience.He/she need not have gone to China for that .He/She could have done it here in Sri Lanka.
    The problem is the writer is confused and is trying to show a link between Buddhism and caste from the days of Buddha. That is not being very clever.
    It is not the identity of a commentator which is important. Facts can speak for themselves.

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      Hi Academician, you appear to be a good researcher, but you kept silent didn’t dare to speak, but Punya, whatever she researched and came out with, said it in public it was interesting so readers are attracted: anyhow it is never too late for you to prove your worth, come out with your stuff and say it in public, let’s look at it.

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    There are some who changed the names to get English education, admissions to english schools. Desilvas, per eras too. Not all De Silvas.

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    I have no intention of offending the one who goes as Acamedician. But from his/her comments it appears to me his/her grading of Punya leaves room for much to be desired. Also, he/she seems to have missed the point Punya is in China to learn of their form of medicine – and not research into other subjects.

    Rgds/Senguttuvan

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    It is not fair and not necessary to look for the writer’s caste,as long as there is sense in what he/she writes.( @ Noble )
    It would have been useful to clarify the caste implications of the actions of the Kings mentioned, Dutugemunu, Nissanka Malla and Vijayabahu.
    May I also add that the description of certain castes as those of fishermen, cinnamon peelers and toddy tappers is disputed by some analysts.

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    I would respond to Academician’s rejoinder.

    The crux of the Buddha’s teaching may have made caste irrelevant within the Sasana but the Sangha in Sri Lanka today is divided on caste lines. Further, the Buddha was no Marxist revolutionary in that he did not over turn caste. He only made it less relevant within the Sasana as he had conceptualized it. Yet, there were numerous compromises with caste nomenclature within the original Pali and Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit canon as Punya points.

    She refers to the Buddha Vamsa which is part of the Tipitaka. She refers to the Lalista Vistara and the Mahabhasya. If 40% of the Sangha at the time of the Buddha belonged to the Brahmana caste, it reflected the social balance of power. If Mogallana and Sariputta, the most eminent disciplies of the Buddha (Aggasravaka) both were Brahmana, it once again reflected a social balance of power. Arhat Maha Kaccayana was another Brahmana and chief steward of the teachings of the Buddha.

    The last chapter of the Dhammapada is titled Brahmana Vagga. It is not about the Brahmana caste by birth but about the Arhat. Yet the very choice of describing an Arhat as a Brahmana is itself telling.

    Likewise the Mora Paritta describes the Buddha as a Brahmana – once again this is not a birth defined designation but again demonstrates the need to seek legitimation by using an old term.

    Let me end with a verse from the Brahmana vagga in the Dhammapada. It shows that while the Buddha may have made caste irrelevant within the Sasana he was not a Marxist revolutionary intent on overturning the system. It was a search for truth, not an effort to liberate the lower castes.

    Never would a Brahmana attack a Brahmana
    Nor would a Brahmana retaliate if attacked
    Who ever attacks a Brahmana is disgraced
    A Brahmana who retaliates is dishonored.

    Untouchability existed in Buddhist Japan and Buddhist Korea. In Korea, the Confucian revival under the Yi dynasty abolished untouchability and exiled Buddhist monks to the mountains. In Japan, the Meiji revival of Shintoism made attempts to abolish untouchability but failed. The Burakamin remain untouchables.

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    Congratulations Punya Perera for a very useful account of the caste phenomenon in Lanka. Buddhism, a universally appealing philosophy, succumbed to the social system of the Sinhalese structured on caste lines. Even the pre-Buddhistic relgious myths had been incorporated. Thus what we have in Lanka is not Buddhism but Sinhala Buddhism. There is a difference in that construction.
    Those who talk of a ‘pure Buddhism,’ in Lanka should realize they are talking nonsense

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    Punya Perera has written this article on an inflamotory subject as Caste by errotic reading and citing unacceptable historical authority.
    Durawa were never toddy tappers. They are the merchent class in Sri Lanka. You go along the costal belt and all the leading traders from
    Chilaw to Hambantota are Durawa caste.N.U.Jayawardena, who revolutionized our banking industry & first sri Lanka Head of the Central Bank is of Durawe stock. Munidasa Cumaratunga who brought
    forward the Sinhala literary renaissance is Durawa.Durawas owned Coconut estates and Kerela toddy tappers worked under them. It is the mixture of master and servant which regretably Punya Perera could not discern the inbetween difference which has led to distortion.

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      Punya, that means your research is flawed, please check it out and correct it wherever necessary, because you have touched on a very sensitive subject. I have several sinhala buddhist friends they’re very good people, I don’t know their caste nor am I interested in knowing as it is of no concern to me. The best among us are those who are righteous. any other labels we affix are not right.

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    Guruge,

    You make a good point on the Durave caste. N.U. Jayewardene, Munidasa Cumaratunge, Ariyaratne of Sarvodaya and the poetess Gajaman Nona were distinguished Durave. However, the Govigama do dismiss the Durave as toddy tappers. Whether they were or were not is a different matter but the Govigama perception has been dominant.

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    Responding to Mr Guruge’s comments, isn’t it in accord with reality
    NUJ and others quoted became merchants and so forth in the more recent centuries whereas the caste reality has been with us much too longer – perhaps far too longer.

    Senguttuvan

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    I am supposed to be a high rung’pure Kandyan,’ but if I get another life in Lanka I will marry a rodi woman. These young women have beautful figures and they are well curved. Who cares?

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      strange such words coming from Keppetipolas, God created mankind if someone is beautiful say it with beautiful words, don’t call names.

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