21 May, 2022


Governance On The “Advice Of The Mahasangha”: On President Sirisena’s Pledge

By H.L. Seneviratne

Prof. H.L. Seneviratne

Prof. H.L. Seneviratne

We frequently hear politicians declaring that they will follow the steps of the ancient kings who always ruled according to the advice of the Mahasangha. This is a vague generalization that has no historical or scientific validity.

When we look at our history we do not find a continuing centralized system either in the political domain or in the religious. In the political domain what we see is a constant power struggle, as seen in the frequency of violent succession, often by killing family members or close kin.

And, the political system was an oscillating one between a temporary centralization and its inevitable end in the break up of the system into warring groups. The story that we had a unitary (ekeeya) state in ancient times is a myth. We never had a unitary state until British rule unified the country. Indeed there was none anywhere in the world until the rise of the modern nation state starting about two centuries ago.

The religious domain was similar, and if any, even less centralized than the political domain, because, monks had no coercive power, and were totally dependent on the king for any centralization they had. Factions of monks competed to get the favour of the king, and our history is full of stories of kings purging the Sangha (called purification, sasana visodhana), at the instigation of the faction that got the favour of the king.

There was nothing called a unitary and monolithic “Mahasangha”. A non-existent thing cannot give advice. “Mahasangha” here simply means a faction of the monks. And any “advice” they gave was not a one way thing, like from a person who can advice to a person who needs advice. It was no more than participation in intrigue against the enemy factions.

Another meaning of “advising” is, goading the king to do the bidding of the monk faction for their benefit. This is a general feature of the feudal political order of pre-modern times when elites, both lay and monastic, formed factions and operated for their benefit, and supported whoever the king was who was willing to reciprocate.

What this means is that the picture in our “glorious ancient times” is the same as what we see today. There are groups of monks who get round groups of politicians and they try to get politicians to do what they want. These are two fold, (1) to get as much material benefits as they can get from the politicians, especially those in power, and (2) to established the hegemony of the Sinhala Buddhist majority, and discriminate against the minorities, the purpose of which is also gaining more and more wealth and status, and bolstering their egos with long titles.

One other relevant point is that when these people talk about the advice of the Mahasangha, what advice are they talking about? To advice, one must have knowledge in the first place. They must have knowledge, at least basic knowledge, about what a modern democracy is, what a modern economy is, what the modern international system is like, and so forth. In sum, they must have the basic knowledge that can qualify them to be modern cosmopolitan citizens. I do not believe there is one single monk, certainly none among the monks with whom our politicians interact, who would have the basic qualifications to give any meaningful advice.

Why should politicians need advice anyway, to do the job they are elected to do? If they need real advice, they can get it from qualified persons, like economists, biologists, engineers, lawyers and so forth.

Our monks have no such expertise. They can only talk platitudes and racist slogans. If we are to go by their advice, what we will end up having is an economically bankrupt, racist, ignorant, dictatorial society. The real story behind the talk about “advice” is to bring back such a society, that we had under the Rajapaksas. The more we keep the Mahasangha away from politics the better for the people.

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Latest comments

  • 5

    The bitter truth is that this country will never come out of its sunken state. Our leaders will spend the next 2500 years talking of their past 2500 years. Sorry state of affairs.

  • 1

    Cheating is the name of the game today. Inviting cleargy to various functions are only a ritual or an eye wash. As mentioned most priests are not knowledgeable to advice nor their advice are not honored by the politicians.
    We don’t have to go back in to history. and mingle with the cleargy to lag behind rest of the world. A person enters to priesthood after giving up all the materialistic things. We too must not drag for worldly affairs.
    We are already late to separate religion from the governance.

  • 2

    Would just like to know how many in this very vocal anti-Mahasangha crowd are Christians and/or Tamils….
    Some Sinhala Buddhists do not respect the Sangha hierarchy too and react in similar manner to these people. The issue is that the institutions have to be respected, and the Buddhist laity has to present the problems to the Buddhist institutional heads. If Buddhists go around criticising the Church/Pope/Archbishop of Canterbury et al. even with valid reason, one can imagine the uproar than would arise. It is the acceptance in silence by Buddhists that presents the Buddhist institutions as being without support even from their own flock, which is rather a shame for a country with a great civilisational heritage like Sri Lanka.

  • 1

    Professor H.L Seneviratne has offered us an insightful reading of the kinds of posturing that are assumed to represent the relation between the sangha and politics in an unbroken line of Sri Lankan history. In my view, what he says about the non-unitary state of the sangha (and the nation in general) has powerful implications for thinking about how the very idea of “tradition” works in the shifting historical relations between religion and politics in Sri Lanka. In particular, professor Seneviratne’s comments open up the space for reflecting on the “politics” of the monks who are (and perhaps have been in the past) distrustful of the politicians’ claims that they “follow the steps of the ancient kings who always ruled according to the advice of the Mahasangha.” But I suspect these are not monks who remain easily “visible” in the spaces of political discourse dominated by certain factions of monks (at least in modern times). Some of the monks, whose lives are governed and constrained by the obligations of scholarly vocations, for example, tend not to take such political posturing seriously. Some of the monks may readily admit that they are not qualified to give advice to politicians to run the country! I am of course not trying to determine the practices of the monastic community in Sri Lanka via the European medieval-humanist divisions between vita contempletiva and vita activa.
    My question is: How do we think about the lives and practices of monks vis-à-vis modern politics without trying to tell a (familiar) story that all monks are not “political” or we need “moderate” monks in Sri Lanka. In more or less complicated ways, this is the story that the late anthropologist S. J. Tambiah sought to narrate about religion and violence in modern Sri Lanka. The idea of the moderate, which is carelessly invoked in the current Western discussions about Islam and terrorism, is less helpful to understanding the how the relation between religion and politics works in shifting moments of time in a given tradition. So the idea of the non-unitary sangha that professor Seneviratne calls out attention to, not in an unbroken history, but in the genealogy of a tradition, can help us think why the relation between religion and politics is neither essentially produced in time nor irrelevant to our modern lives. Paying attention to tradition sets aside the concept of history that modern politicians (including our present President Sirisena) arrogate to themselves to invoke a unitary sense of temporal existence. As Professor Seneviratne rightly says, such history simply does not “exist.”

  • 0

    “what we will end up having is an economically bankrupt, racist, ignorant, dictatorial society.” We have already ended up with such since SWRD came to power. Nothing more – nothing less.

    BTW; good no nonsense article by Dr Seneviratne though hard to ingest by the multitude of deluded Sinha-le citizenry.

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