21 October, 2021


Identity Politics Of Sri Lanka: A Perspective From The Buddhist Political Thought

By Jerome Cooray

Jerome Cooray

Introduction: A Buddhist Political Thought

Buddhism – both as a religion (faith) and philosophy – has existed in South Asia, South East Asia and Far East Asia for nearly two and half millennia. Same as Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism, Buddhism too has played a role in the political realm (Klyadesh, 2010); and it continues to play a major political role in the modern Sri Lanka, especially in identity politics (Little, 1999). But the study of Buddhist philosophy as a political thought/theory is relatively young work in progress and scholars have been extrapolating it from the existing canonical texts, mainly from the Tripitaka (Tipitaka/Pali Canon) (Mancall, 2010: 140 – 141).

Mancall (2010: 142) lists down four main current schools of Buddhist political thought;

(i) Sri Lankan and Burmese Nationalists Buddhism

(ii) The Kyoto School of Thought in Japan

(iii) The Thai School

(iv) The Bhutanese School

This short essay departs from the above classification and adopts its own classification as follows as it attempts to understand and analyze the identity politics of Sri Lanka.

(I) The Canonical Buddhist Political Thought based on the Tripitaka (hereafter the Canonical School). [Klaydesh (2010), Myint (2015), Moore (2015), Lam (2010), Palihawadana (2006)]

(II) The Mahavamsic Sinhala Buddhist Political Tradition (hereafter Mahavamsic School), that is based on the Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle / Tradition) and its sequel, Culavamsa (Lesser Chronicle/ Tradition) [ Obeyesekere (2006 and 2015), Roberts (2009), Gombrich (1971 and 1988), Tambiah (1976 and 1992)].

Identities/ Identity Politics: A Perspective from the Canonical School

In addressing the question of identities through Canonical Buddhist political thought one has to keep in mind that ‘ethnicity’ has never been a Canonical Buddhist concept (Mancall, 2010 : 142) and according to the Tipitaka humankind is biologically indivisible (Palihawadana, 2006: 68).

The Canonical School is based upon the doctrines of dependent origination (Mancall, 2010: 141), impermanence, and the theory of emptiness (Myint, 2015). The doctrine of dependent origination is relevant in addressing the questions of identity; according to this doctrine every individual is an intrinsically non – independent entity from nature; in other words, neither human being nor events posses an intrinsic reality or an independent existence; thus everything exists in relation to one another. Mancall sums up this as ‘nothing exists in and of itself but only in relation to, and as a consequence of, everything else that exists’ (Mancall, 2010:141).

Vasetta Sutta of the Pali Canon dictates that false opinions/ideologies (ditthi in Pali) cause humans to differentiate each other by birth; ‘a habitually held view becomes a latent tendency of the mind (ditth’anusaya) something invested with emotional content’ (Palihawadana, 2006:68); these views remain a long term in the memory and becomes mental habit. It is out of that habit one defines and attaches him/herself to notions such as my family, my clan, and my country in his/her consciousness. Humans, out of the unawareness of the fact they hold a misconception, habitually develops greed/possessive desires (kama in Pali) towards family, tribe and land. This makes one to develop ‘violent and excessive’ attachments to notions such as ‘my/our homeland’, ‘my/our people’ by separating others which fails them to see the natural indivisibility of the humankind. Therefore the Canonical School argues that ‘racial consciousness’ is a misconception rooted in the mind and put into habitual practice (Palihawadana, 2006).

Identity Politics in Mahavasmic School

The Mahavamsic School contrasts itself from the Canonical School. The Mahavamsa and Culaavmsa together form the chief literary source of the Sinhala Buddhist history of Sri Lanka. Arguably the Mahavamsa is the ‘charter’ that governs the Sinhala – Buddhist identity/nationalism/politics (Gombrich, 1988:141, Obeyesekere, 2006: 153).

According to this school, identities are primordial, given, and inherited naturally. The Sihaladipa/Lanka has been chosen and sanctified by the Buddha himself by visiting the island three times and expelled the barbaric Yakka people to make way for  ‘Vijaya and his clan’ who would begin the Sihala/Sinhala race ( Vaiamon : 2012). Sinhalese are a chosen people, their destiny is tied to the island and they have received a mandate from the Buddha, to be the custodians of the True Dharma and the guardians of the Sasana (Gombrich, 1988:139). The Mahavamsa creates a myth of origin to justify the sanctity of the Sinhalese, to prove that they are a new/ separate race. This myth includes incest, bestiality and patricide, which go against the very foundation and precepts of the Buddhism (Perinbanayagam, 2016).

The major point that Mahavasmic School deviates from Canonical Buddhism is when it advocates to take ‘exceptional measures’ to defend the Sasana ; in other words it authorizes to wage war. Dutta-Gamini-Abhaya (Dutugemunu) is Mahavamsa tradition’s hero, the ideal Buddhist warrior, who waged war against Elara – in the very words of Mahavamsa, Elara was a righteous Dravidian king, but a non – Buddhist ; hence Durugemunu’s war was to re-conquer the island for the Sasana (Obeyesekere, 2015). Neither Canonical Buddhism nor the Canonical Buddhist political tradition justifies the war or the use of military force (Paliahawada, 2006: 72 -3). Thus Dharma-Asoka of the Canonical Tradition renounces war in his remorse and embraces Buddhism; but in the Mahavamsic Tradition, Dutugamunu embraces war to defend Buddhism (Obeyesekere, 2015).

Critics of Mahavamsic Tradition are divided on the question that in Sinhala – Buddhist identity, which element might have taken the precedence (Sinhala or Buddhist?); Gombrich (1988:138)’s view is that both elements have been equal constituents of the identity; but Obeyesekere (2006:160) argues that it was the Buddhist element that took precedence till the end of 19th Century, when the Sinhala element took precedence : Roberts (2009) argue that the Sinhala element took precedence at least since the end of the 13th Century. This dissertation finds Obeyesekere’s argument more plausible due to two reasons. First reason is that, historically speaking, non Sinhala, but Buddhist kings have reigned in Sri Lanka, for example King Nissanka Malla of Polonnaruwa, was a Kalinga but a Buddhist, and it was he who declared that only a Buddhist should be the ruler of Sri Lanka (Strathern, 2007); this was also the case during the 18th century Kingdom of Kandy when four South Indian (Tamil or Telegu) Nayak kings reigned (Dewaraja, 1988). Second reason is related to author’s personal experience of witnessing the increased Sinhalization (Jayawardene, 2000) of author’s extended family members, who are non Buddhists, but some are strong Sinhala nationalists.

The activism of Anagarika Dharmpala and the academic and literature works of Walpola Rahula, Piyadasa Sirisena and W.A. De Silva formed and strengthened a strong Sinhala – Buddhist national identity [ Tamibah (1992: 6-8, 16), Gombrich (1988: 196), Robert (2009), Obeyesekere (2015)]. In speaking of O’Neil’s terminology on nation – building, it was a combination of two strategies, nostalgic and utopian (O’Neil, 2000:176). The proponents of the Mahavamsic School, spoke, wrote and preached nostalgically of a time when a pure Sinhala – Buddhist nation/kingdom existed in Sri Lanka; and of a utopia that those who wish to become residents of the island of Lanka should adhere and give prominence to a Sinhala-Buddhist identity.


In summary, the Mahavamsic School at present advocates, that the Sri Lankan identity is equal and based on the Sinhala Buddhist identity; and the boundaries of the Sasana is coterminous with the boundaries of the island both land and maritime, marked by sixteen Buddhist shrines (Gombrich, 1988:16) in the north, south, west, east and the centre of the island; therefore Sinhala – Buddhists are the owners of the island while others are tenants (Waduge, 2014) and the Sangha/Bikkhu (monks) have an inherited right to take part in active politics and precedence above lay politicians (Rahula, 1946).

In contrasts, the Canonical School advocates, that the Sasana is a universal body and cannot be confined to one race or land (Obeyesekere, 2006:143 and 148), equality of human beings and rejects racial divisions; promotes non – militaristic approaches to conflict resolution (Palihawadana, 2006); and advocates secular – republics, in which powers are devolved and the monks are refrained from taking part in the politics of the temporal realm (Lam:2010, Klyadesh:2010, Myint:2015, Moore: 2015).

*This is an extract from author’s dissertation for an MSc read at Royal Holloway, University of London titled ‘Maritime Security and the Securitization of a Post Civil War Sri Lankan Identity : Sinhala Buddhist Identity, Tamil Space and Historic Waters’.

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Latest comments

  • 5

    Jerome: FYI. There is a buddhist perspective of governing a kingdom. But, there is no such thing as Political thought. As soon as you take the word, politics, it is about power. Buddhist has nothing to do with power. On the other hand, if you wanted to learn about buddhist thought, the best would have been buddhist monks, Lamas (tibetan) and Zen Monks etc., when you start quoting with those literature which cam from Christians, it is simply misinterpretations. for example, I know a book came a well known Californian University about Women in Buddhism, they have lot of sadistic stuff. I know, how some Sri lankan scholars try to write buddhist books for the west. Those things are total crap. I know buddhist monks who completed their Ph D in the west. Because that gives some recognition in Sri lanka as they completed a Ph D in some western country. but, those theses and literature, believe are complete lies. I say, your thesis is worth nothing except you have a title. Western academics are also dumb. With respect to governing. Only two places, as far as I know, that Buddha talked are Dasa Raja dharma and the instructions that buddha gave to a Brahmin called Vassakara. Please get the help of a buddhist monk (rajakeeya panditha and Tripitake Dhari), they will teach you a lot. You have a certificate from a western university. that is all.

    • 2

      “Western acadamics are also dumb” ——–it would be more accurate to say that ‘they’ are stark ignorent about the ways of the East, History et al. Their thinking process is based upon their own Judao/Christian history and thought. That history is so full of violece, culminating in colonialism and slavery and in recent times the Holocaust and bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What of the devastation caused in Afganistan, Iraq , Libya and Syria? ‘They’ might know their own history. The problem is when they try to project their own historical thoughts upon us. Confering degrees to some gullible ‘orientals.’ is a joke.

      • 2


        “it would be more accurate to say that ‘they’ are stark ignorent about the ways of the East, History et al. Their thinking process is based upon their own Judao/Christian history and thought.”

        Well tell us what is your thinking process is based on?
        Mahawamsa? Anagarika’s Protestant Buddhism? The newly manufactures Sinhala/Buddhist fascism?

        “That history is so full of violece, culminating in colonialism and slavery and in recent times the Holocaust and bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

        Come on you aren’t you having a selective memory on violence?

        Let me jog my memory.
        1971, between 1987-1990, 30 years to 2015, ……………. numerous riots, 1915, 1958, 1960, 1961, 1977, 1983, …..

  • 4

    FYI: What Lord Buddha taught was, don’t trust what ever you here, whether it is crom the best of the scholars, books etc., Investigate, double check and then only believe. (Read Kalama Sutta) YOu can have a certificated, if you want to be educated scholar, it is completely different.

    • 0

      Jim softy the dimwit

      “(Read Kalama Sutta)”

      Have you? Why do you assume we haven’t?

  • 1

    The “Foot Note” says this is an extract from a dissertation submitted by the author to qualify for his MSc. Well other than what a multitude of authors have said about Buddhism, its’ practical approaches to day to day human involvements and their respective opinions , I do not see any of this particular author’s conclusions or observations in relation to the article’s subject headlined. Therefore could we have his considered personal conclusions derived from the quoted authors and most importantly his own submissions , so that the reader could make an assessment and enter into a dialogue. To be fair by the author, perhaps, there could be some more parts missing from this essay.

  • 1

    Then, The Buddha kicked out the Yakka and allowed Vijaya and his merrie band to flourish.
    Now, Mahinda, the Great Liberator, ousted the Tamils, to allow Gnanasara and reprobates free reign.
    Bauddha-Sinhala man has evolved to a higher plane.

    • 1

      Spring Koha

      The historians of this island believe the country had been a unitary state/empire throuh out its history and run by an all powerful Chakravatin.

      What is the matter with them?

      Kamalika Pieris never failed to mention it in her every typing.

  • 3

    Pre-historic Lanka to end of Terrorism –
    Dr. Sripali Vaiamon – 2012 –
    In earlier times Elu or Hela language would have been their common language. According to Sinhala scholar, the late Mr. Arisen Ahubudu, it has formed as thus. Siuv=four, and Hela= Sivuhela or Sihala, in Pali, Seehala, in Prakrit, Saianhala and in Sanskrit Sinhala.) Sinhala appeared in Sanskrit literature from about 1000 BC.

    Ravana – The Great King of Lanka –
    M. S. Purnalingam Pillai – 1928 –
    in the Ceylon histories that the name Sinhala originated with Sinha Bahu, the father of King Wijaya, who landed in Lanka 543 B. C. is not correct, because the name Sinhala is mentioned in the Mahabharata which was composed at least 700 years before the landing of Wijaya in Ceylon. You will find the name Sinhala in Sabha Parva p. 40, Gangs of the Sinhalas, Chap. 52, v. 30. ‘Chiefs of the Sinhalas and the aboriginal tribes of Lanka’, and in Vana Parva, p. 76, Chap. 51, vv. 22-6.

    Mahabharata: The great hall. Book two
    Paul Wilmot – 2006 – ‎
    85 siddha (siddha), 85, 89, 91 Sindhu (Sindhu), 95, 237, 413 Sinhala (Simhala),

    The Great Golden Sacrifice of the Mahabharata
    Maggi Lidchi Grassi – 2011 – ‎
    Sahadeva asked Ghatotkacha to invite Vibheeshana of Sinhala, the southern island of the Rajasuya. Ghatotkacha carried out his mission so successfully that he returned laden with gems from this rich island

    • 0


      “in the Ceylon histories that the name Sinhala originated with Sinha Bahu,”

      The name Battaramulla originated from Tamil words in fact in a Tamil settlement- Paththar Moolai- Goldsmith corner in Tamil.

  • 1

    In addition to state aided settlements of Sinhalese from south and armed forces in thousands, in the north and east of Srilanka to alter the demographic balance, acculturation/ assimilation of Tamils as planned and implemented from the time ofN Q Dias and Srimavo continue to take place without any hindrance. In a few years time a new history will be written by a new set of Sinhala Buddhists and sorry to say that your dissertation will be discarded by them.

    Remember Duttugamunu killed only one and a half Tamils and other Tamils nearing millions who got killed were treated as animals. Same applies to recent war hence present day Buddhists say that no enquiry is necessary for killing animals.

    Do you want to know who were one and a half Tamils killed at the recent war? Let the readers guess it.

  • 3

    Buddha observed the misery of poverty, suffering, the stupidity of superstition and human failings and laid the foundation of Buddhist Philosophy – the 101 of which had no boundary.
    Buddhism evolved as a religion later and in due course reintroduced all the ills of the then society back in. Political exploitation of Buddhism is a comparatively recent phenomenon and misinterpretation has set in – for example the justification of the genocide of Rohingyas by the Burman Buddhists.
    Jerome Cooray
    When you presented the talk, if some enlightened (sub-sub-sub-nirvana level) person suggested that Buddhism as a religion has no place in politics, what will your answer be?

  • 2

    JEromy Coorey: with respect to your statement that the “buddha sasana is a Universal body and does not own to one specific community or Country”, that is correct. but, you should be a Christian who doe snot understand what the Sinhala society (which is native to Sri lanka) is all about. Do you understand why Catholicism broke into christianity and Then christianity developed into over 40,000 denomination. Similarly, buddhism has the ability to intertwine with the culture and develop the specific culture. Because of that There is Sinhala buddhist civilization and culture. Mixing of buddha sasana and sinhala buddhist culture is complete ignorance from your side. the best way was from your side to live in that culture and study it. when you write it from out side it becomes just crap. So, please understand Buddha sasana and sinhal buddhist culture are two different things. If your thesis objective was how to get Sinhala buddhists, just FYI, Sinhala people died for it for over 2000 years I suppose. Please study Sinhala buddhist culture and buddhism and compare. Those who funded your thesis will not gain anything from it.

  • 3

    I think the objective of your thesis was to learn how to destroy the Sinhala buddhist civilization. All over the world that happened because buddhists are very laid back people. A Non-buddhist coming from Middle Eastern Judeo-christian or Islamic religious background never understand it. here you devide Mahavamsic Tradition and Canonical Tradition. I think you got it completely wrong. the best way to go and ask a monk what things are wrong in your these. Those days, most Buddhist monks from Nalanda University – student population is said to be 10,000. – used to come to sri lanka and in between their free times when they are not doing meditation they used to write books. So Mahavmsa is Such one book. If you talk about traditions, there is Mahavamsa, Thupavamsa, chula vamsa and there are many more. Canonoical means what buddha Said. It is like you have bible. Similar to that Pali Canon is what buddha said. I t has volumes. Only some monks are well versed in it. In Brief, you got it all wrong. YOu need to read buddhism and understand if you want to be an intellectual. Ask What is Daham Sonda Kawa in Sri lanka.

    • 1

      Jim the dumb,
      Daham Sonda Kawa in Sri Lanka? Is that the tradition of selling your wife and daughter to the Arabs?

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