29 September, 2020

Blog

Is Ethnotionalism The Religion Of Sinhalas?

By Suren Rāghavan

Dr. Suren Rāghavan

Dr. Suren Rāghavan

Outside a modernist paradigm, I have always doubted that all forms of nationalisms–especially an ethnonationlism is the rigorous form of religion that was seen in the 20th Century. Because like in religions, nationalism demands unquestioned worship of the unknown past/divine origin, an overflowing emotion capable of blinding the immediate realities and a pride in some kind of mission of the ‘choseness’. What is once again seen on the streets ( and now even in court houses) of Lanka is a historicized display of the ‘presenting’ the past. Not just the near past but a textualized glorious distant past.of the hegemony of powerful Sinhala Sangha. Lanka has witnessed island wide intercommunial unrest on the basis of Sinhala nationalism as a pattern of recurrence. In 1883 it was Catholic-Buddhist clash, in 1915 a Sinhala-Muslim clash and in post independent times, 1956, 1978, 1983. Of course between these were the much lesser regional clashes and the 1971 and 1988-9 two up rises largely a Sinhala-Sinhala confrontation. For most part like religion, ethno nationalism is a privately held deep believe waiting to conquer the public space. And the inclusion and exclusion who is ‘us’ and who is the ‘other’ is as evangelical in thick nationalisms as seen in Lanka. For Lanka’s true nationalists like Prof Nalin Silva, it is not enough to be a Sinhala Buddhist to be a real Lankaputra. He does not consider president Sirisena, PM Wickremesinghe or even my colleague Dr Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri. Because they don’t subscribe to a thick monoethinc discourse. For Silva these are not true Sinhala Buddhists. Of course his list is ever narrowing to exclude the Sinhala Catholics, liberal moderates, those who believe in a universal cosmopolitanism and so on.

Looking from a comparative political prism, almost provocatively I have doubted if one can term the 20th Century Sinhala nationalism as a version of ‘Buddhist Zionism’ if such category could be identified. Now I can hear the fire breathing in most of my nationalist fellow citizens. However difficult it may be to fathom, the signs are so closely inter-reflective between ethno (religious) nationalism and Sinhala Buddhism. 
Mahāvamsa, the epic of the 5th century is the textual recodification of Dīpavamsa. Venerable Mahanāma of the Theravadian Mahavihāra begins saying his motivation is

That (Mahavamsa) which was compiled by the ancient (sages) was here too long drawn out and there too closely knit ; and contained many repetitions. Attend ye now to this (Mahavamsa) that is free from such faults, easy to understand and remember, arousing serene joy and emotion and handed down (Mhv 1:2-3)

Venerable’s intention is to put things right and present the history and it’s reasons from Buddhs’a time as authentic as possible. After which the entire narrative construction goes on to build three clear ideological positions. 1) Buddhism as the world redeemer, 2) The Buddha selects Lanka to be a land of his Dhamma,(of course after chasing the native Yakkas ‘near Mahiyanganathupa, When he struck terror to their hearts by rain, storm, darkness and so forth’ Mhv 1:25) and 3) Sihalas to be the true custodians of dhamma for

Thus the Master of boundless wisdom, looking to the salvation of Lanka in time to come, and knowing in that time the highest good for the hosts of asuras and nagas and so forth in Lanka, visited this fair island three times, he, the compassionate Enlightener of the world; therefore this isle, radiant with the light of truth, came to high honour among faithful believers. (Mhv 1:84)

Thus Sinhala nationalism and its ideological tangle of Rata, Jāthiya and Āgama neatly fits in to the generic nature of Zionism: A chosen people, dwelling in a promised land, holding the salvic path for humanity. Ethnicnationalism this way cross intrumentalizes a context specific religious practice. Pāli canonical Buddhism which arrived in Lanka, soon became the thick signifier of the Sinhala ethnic kind. In this regards instead of Buddhism influencing Sinhalas, their ethnic formation reshaped a kind of a unique Buddhism that will serve their ethnonationalist worldview. So far in our understanding Mahāvamsa stands as the thoroughgoing Sinhala elitist nationalist project that started from the 5th CE. The culmination of such reshaping of Buddhism was reached lastly in the 19th and 20th Centuries what scholars have named as a ‘Protestant Buddhism’ under American war veteran Henry Olcott and Anagārika Dharmapāla. Because it was a brand of Buddhism that will protest against the protestant missionary invasion of Lanka under the British on one hand, however nevertheless, will carry all the characteristics of the protestant Christianity in its social engagement on the other (Prothero 1995). It will help us to bear in mind that both the English and Sinhala translations of Mahāvamsa available by 1912 for the local trading middles class facilitated the political visualizing of the glorious past. The anxiety and insecurity that Sinhala nationalism has planted on Buddhism as generated a cosmion teleology, such entities bring forth a band of Sangha as political activists with in increasing militancy in their mandate with periodical waves. Powersharing to incorporate the political rights of the non-Sinhala parts of Lanka, has always triggered a deep seated fear and a violent reaction from the more viniferous section of the Sangha. One may argue that this is only a minority of activists Sangha. I am unwilling to buy such arguments anymore as it is exactly this minority of Sanghas who had held the democratic transition of Lanka at almost all recently attempts. So like in 1983 the silent majority means nothing or in fact a passive support to this ill-democratization process.

Inevitably there is newer and more organized operationalization of the Sangha politics in Sri Lanka one more time. Such resurgence of the Sangha mobilization is due to the possibility of a constitutional reform to political powersharing with the regions including the Tamils of the NE.

Any student of near political history of Lanka will not need further studies on how every time the discussion and attempt on any mode of powersharing was always defeated by the radical ethnonationalist Sangha If the present government does not learn the depth of these anxieties and patterns how the Sangha mobilized the opposition every time ( and for the unfortunate democratic deficit) succeeded , then even this attempt is a failure before even it begins. As always the SLFP led ultranationalists became the surrogate mother for such ill-democracy. Now that the Rajapaksas have taken diagonal positions, we are to expect a deep division of SLFP and an attempt to topple Maithri-Ranil rule. This is the pattern that history shows us. This time they may intrude into the sections of the military that is in fear of war crimes probe over some of their abysmal conduct in 2009.

On a much wider context one ought to ask why is that as a fundamental rule the radical section of Sangha always so militantly oppose any deliberative/participatory democracy in Lanka? I think among other scholars, I have answered this from the political nature of Sinhala Buddhist Cosmological Insecurity.

Liberal democracy modeled in some industrialized state as envisaged by some of the architects of the former (and even present) designs of constitutional change alone cannot answer the mytho-historical anxiety. For its part market based liberal democracy itself has often utterly failed to answer some of the basic aspirations of the most neglected sections of many society. Therefore the agitation to oppose a change that will not bring desired political cultural advancement and at the end the human liberty is justified. But I hardly doubt the current activist groups such the Sinha Le, or Bodu Bala Sena, (whose general secretary venerable Galagoda Atte Gnanasāra who has been arrested for anti-social behavior) are agitating because they desire a wider Lanka specific constitutional change that will usher a better consociational democracy. On the contrary they wish a Buddhtva that is similar to Zionism.

It is not enough for us to analyze the conditions why the Sangha historically behave this way. As responsible citizens, we are to explore answers without which we will be destined to lock ourselves in this illdemocracy forever. How can we negotiate with deep rooted Buddhism Zionism that is in operation?

Now I am encouraged to investigate if the arrival of Theravada Buddhism and its contextualized conformation as Sinhala Buddhism in the deep political psychology of the Sinhala mind, is in fact the biggest Indian colonization project that Lanka has not been able to redeem herself. From a postcolonial lens it seems recovering a preBuddhist social vision may have keys to unlock the deeply paradigmatic framework that Sinhala Buddhism has imposed on Lanka’s political discourse.

I think the Sinhala Buddhist academic and civic thinkers MUST lead this debate so urgently.

Reference



The Mahavamsa or the Great Chronicle of Ceylon translated into English by Wilhelm Geiger, Oxford University Press, 1912. (Published for the Pāli text society

Prothero, Stephen. “Henry Steel Olcott and” Protestant Buddhism”.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion (1995): 281-302.

*Dr. Suren Raghavan PhD, is a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies – University of Oxford and a visiting professor at St Paul University Ottawa. Sociology of Political Religions and Politics of Sinhala Buddhism in particular are his research interests. He can be reached at raghavansuren@gmai.com

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 3
    0

    Dr. Suren Rāghavan

    RE: Is Ethnotionalism The Religion Of Sinhalas?

    Did you mean Is Ethnotionalism The Religion Of Para-Sinhalas?

    May be. They do not want to admit that they are Paras from India.

    They are called Para-Sinhala, just like Para-Tamils o the Land of Native Veddah Aethho.

    [Edited out]

  • 2
    7

    How about different South Indian Tribes, nowa days called Castes, all of whom speak Tamil make a big fuss for Tamil language when they don’t talk Tamil or when they don’t have Tamil names ?

    • 2
      0

      Jim softy Coconut

      Tamilnadu now speaks Thanglish and you speak Singlish.

  • 2
    5

    How many clashes Tamils had among Tamila since 1815 ?

    Simply because they were from different castes and higher caste tobacco farmers did not like lower castes taking foot hold ?

    first talk about yourself.

    You got free education from Sri lanka mostly because of the generous south, now you come to criticize

  • 8
    0

    Sinhala Buddhism today is an insult to What the Buddha Taught. In other parts of the world Buddhism flourishes. UNBuddhism is what there is in Sri Lanka today.

    Buddhism in Lanka has been warped, twisted and militarized, and monetized by corrupt and criminal Politicians to divide, distract, confuse and rule the Sinhala masses.

    Buddhism is a Hollow Shell because the Mahanayaka’s have not protected the VINNAYA from abuse, consumerism, capitalism and racism.

    Gnanasara should not be called a Thera. He is an insult to all good theras. The Mahanayakas should as him to disrobe and hold him accountable for destroying the reputation of the Sasana and for spreading Hate Speech and Violence.

    • 0
      1

      What most of you guys don’t understand is Religion and civilization is not the same. civilization built from religion to carry it. However civilization has to do certain things which is not exactly supported by the religion. But it’s necessary for religions continuity. venerable Gnanasara called a thera or not. He represents the part of civilization who pushes the religion forward.

      • 2
        0

        Lakmal

        “He represents the part of civilization who pushes the religion forward.”

        If the saffron clad thug pushes his civilisation over the cliff it would be welcome by Buddhists, sooner the better.

        Could you tell us what you exactly mean by civilisation.

  • 4
    5

    Nothing is mentioned about the fear of South Indian invasion in the Sinhala psyche and that they are very conscious of the fact that Sinhalese are outnumbered by 6 to 1. That TAMIL Nadu is just 20 miles away.

    Politics across the Palk Strait any different? Just tell me the names of the political parties in TAMIL Nadu.

    Of recent origin is the fear of population explosion of the Muslims.

    What you see around is a confused, uncoordinated, chaotic reaction to these very stark realities.

    Purpose of this kind of analyses is to conceal and obfuscate, not to reveal and enlighten. Deliberate. Well calculated.

    Soma

    • 2
      2

      Good comment Soma.

      • 5
        1

        taraki

        “Good comment Soma.”

        Good bull from somass.

        Somaass types:

        “Sinhala psyche and that they are very conscious of the fact that Sinhalese are outnumbered by 6 to 1. That TAMIL Nadu is just 20 miles away.”

        “Of recent origin is the fear of population explosion of the Muslims.”

        I hear antipsychotic medication and cognitive behaviour therapy can help reduce distress in paranoid but cannot cure it completely. Well, Somass has to live with his paranoia for the rest of his life.

        I am worried.

        He might be a danger to himself or to the community.

        I suggest you take him to a Forest Monastery for treatment or to quarantine him. There are few good ones in this island, are near Pansiyagama, Mītirigala, Bovalavatta, Delgoḍa, Hindagala, ……..

        Please do stay with him.

        • 1
          3

          Native, not me, I am talking about other Sinhala people. I am the only Sinhalese who supports a federal unit for Noth and East. With a caveat though. It is not just for Hindu and Christian. It is for all Tamil speaking people irrespective of their religion or date of arrival. Cost of the 5 meter high wall must be borne by the International Community.

          Further, what you call paranoia is my indelible peice of memory of RW-VP (now forgotten by all Sinhalese ) pact which was ignored by the Tamil political class proving that they do not want anything in between.

          Your mission on CT is the same as that of this author. Cover up and obfuscate. To divert attention away from the elephant in the room.

          Soma

    • 1
      1

      Soma:- ‘TAMIL Nadu is just 20 miles away, and Sinhalese are outnumbered by 6 to 1’

      And this Government is talking about Building a Bridge to Tamil Nadu!

      Is it any wonder that the BBS led ‘Sinhala Buddhists’ are up in Arms!

  • 5
    8

    Yes indeed is Sri Lanka a chosen country and the Sinhalese, Buddha’s chosen people! And the Sinhalese, by most part (although there are point-percentage factions), are greatly into assimilation with other races that have come to their shores.

    Tamil Nadu is the bastion of Hinduism; Italy, the bastion of Catholicism; Saudi Arabia, the bastion of Islam; England, the bastion of Protestantism. They give leeway to other religions (not Saudi, though). But the moment another group tries to usurp their authority, they write it into the constitution asap e.g. England will write something like : when in England, one must speak and write in English…..and they’d throw something in about in god and the crown.

    Therefore, all Sri Lanka needs to do is declare formally that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist nation. And that everybody must learn to read and write in Sinhalese (even as 2nd language). That will end Buddhist priests embarrassing the religion.

    • 0
      0

      *……point-percentage factions that say otherwise.

    • 1
      1

      ramona therese fernando is talking about only the Sinhala speaking part of Sri Lanka and NOT the Tamil speaking part of Sri Lanka known to the Tamils as Tamil Eelam.

      • 0
        0

        They are a part of the Sinhala Buddhist spectrum, King Wala Gemba

        • 1
          0

          Ramona

          According to a leading psychiatrist 10% of Sri Lankans are affected with Bipolar disorder. No wonder this 10% are hyped with all sort of nonsense. Bipolars does not know the meaning of peace, calm and serenity. When bipolars are hyped they become violent and uncontrollable, you would have observed this in recent times.

    • 3
      0

      “Budhdha chosen people?”, which Buddha? A one born with sworn, love see blood flown on floor? As per your Mahavamsa/ Sorry, man/woman, the real buddha chose people who are intelligent,free of sins and material attachments, in short, an enlightened one, don’t spoil our buddha name and do disservice to his teaching please, if you can abide by!

  • 3
    3

    Ethnonationalism is the religion of the tamils, not the sinhalese

    • 2
      0

      Here go sterotyping Sach! i wonder whether Theara ganansara is tamil, and wonder more how he has got such audacity and authority in sinha-le ruled land!

  • 1
    3

    The new strategy of the LTTE to place a Tamil academic with a PHD at Oxford to criticise Sinhala Buddhist. And our Ponnayas joining in! Great!!!!

  • 2
    1

    Dear SOMA, TARAKI and HAMLET

    Yes indeed the presence and the past invasions of the Tamils and others from India makes a historicized and actual insecurity . That is what I have termed as
    “Sinhala Buddhist Cosmological Insecurity”. Because such physical insecurity has been inverted and made part of the Sinhala cosmology.

    You may benefit reading Prof Gananath Obeysekere’s work on this area.

  • 2
    0

    Mr. Suren raghavan,

    Ruling elites in every century found a way to fool masses to follow them, first irrelevant religious practices, then, king obedience, finally the nationalism and sovereignity after eigtheenth century. unforutanelt after free from colonial salvery, all the new asian countries try to establish an identity of superiority to erase out their past failures in slavery period, and thus come-up with fostering the new found ideology of nationalism.
    Corporates and arm trading units are very much behind who wants conflicts in every part of the world. political outfits across the globe supports these communities and provoke their own people.We are passing through nationalist sentiment era. However you shout rooftop, people wont realise the danger with it until another world war broken out

  • 2
    0

    Suren Raghavan,
    Thought provoking & timely analysis.
    I like the challenges you paused in the concluding para.
    After reading your analysis, with help of search engines retrieved Smart Patriotic SL citizen Roman Gun a rate’s sermon that was delivered at British Scholars Conference in Colombo few years back. GL Peris was in the video as one of the audience. Roman the T expert was blaming LTTE for all the political problems and killings in SL since 1948. He recommended lot of solutions for reconcilliation but not any devolution of power. He never mentioned about army occupied lands and when army is going to return these lands. In the same Web page I also found JR’S interview with a Journalist after 1983 and Shenali Waduge’s the real causes of 1983 riots.

    I hope smart patriot and citizen of SL T expert Rohan will read your article and come out with his proposed solution that SL could submit to UN.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 7 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.