By 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org