By 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’.