By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“In the middle was Fear….glaring backwards with eyes like fire….upon it burned upon it burned Tumult and Murder and Slaughter…” – Hesiod (Shield of Heracles)
Why should there be a Buddhist temple in Kenya?
Neither Sinhalese nor Buddhists have a historical-footprint in East Africa. Yet there is a Buddhist temple in Nairobi, a Theravada one, with a Sinhala monk in charge of it. The temple was built by Sinhala-Buddhist expatriate workers and President Rajapaksa visited it, on his recent visit to Kenya.
Kenyans do not seem to feel threatened by this creation of an alien place of worship in their country by non-Kenyans; there are no reports of Kenyan patriots expressing their outrage with fire or stones.
The presence of a Buddhist temple in Kenya illustrates the reality of the modern world. Apart from Saudi Arabia and perhaps Afghanistan, there are no religiously monolithic countries in today’s world. The advancement of knowledge and science has opened-up the globe, enabling the religious to propagate their faiths in lands unknown to (and unimagined by) their ‘all-seeing’ founders. When people travel and relocate, they take their faiths with them. Most countries do not feel threatened when expatriates observe and propagate their own religions. In every country there are a minority of ethno-religious fundamentalists who see in such very human conduct alien invasions of inestimable danger, but, fortunately for Sinhala-Buddhists living voluntarily away from their thrice-blessed motherland, sane governments and societies keep these lunatic fringes firmly on the fringe.
Hypocrisy is a defect congenital to extremism; Sinhala-Buddhist extremists are no exception to this general rule. They see absolutely nothing wrong in propagating Buddhism, building temples or converting foreigners everywhere in the world while clamouring to deny the same basic rights to non-Buddhists in Sri Lanka.
Sinhala-Buddhists generally believe that they are a tolerant breed with an unblemished live-and-let-live historical record. The extremists see this as a weakness while the ordinary decent majority are proud of it. The historical truth is not so unequivocal, as indicated by the fate of non-Theravada Buddhism in Lanka.
Non-Theravada Buddhism flourished in ancient Lanka for three centuries: “The epigraphical, artistic, symbolic and liturgical artefacts so far found provide ample evidence for the prevalence of Mahayana in ancient Sri Lanka….from the eighth to eleventh centuries.”[i] Abhayagiriya, the main seat of non-Theravada Buddhism became a centre of learning renowned in Asia and perhaps beyond. When Fa-hien’s visited Abhayagiriya, and not Maha Vihara, had the custody of the Tooth Relic.[ii]
The Theravada monks in Maha Vihara considered the Mahayana and/or Vajrayana monks in Abhayagiriya as heretics. During their long struggle for dominance, both sects used royal patronage to advance their own cause and undermine the other’s. According to available records[iii], the first act of religious persecution was commenced by King Voharika Tissa, a supporter of Maha Vihara; books were burnt and the ‘sinful priests’ disgraced. King Gotabhaya took this religious persecution a step further by “branding the bodies of 60 monks of Abhayagiri Vihara who took vaitulyavada”[iv]
Abhaygiriya monks retaliated during the reign of Mahasen; Maha Vihara was persecuted in turn and abandoned for nine years.
The long power-struggle ended in a historical defeat for Mahayana and/or Vajrayana Buddhism when King Parakramabahu ‘unified’ the sects under Theravada dominance. That unification, by royal decree, closed Lankan doors to non-Theravada Buddhism (and thereby to the habit of intra-religious debate) completely. The fact that Lankan civilisation, apart from a few spurts, settled into a declining trajectory soon after may have been coincidental – or not; globally civilisations which focused their energies on suppressing heresies and succeeded in doing so tended to fall into stagnation and ruin, from Rome onwards. Historically there seems to be a strong correlation between religious tolerance and material progress.
It is that anti-tolerant and anti-pluralist model of unification of King Parakramabahu’s that Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists and their Rajapaksas masters are trying to impose on 21st Century Sri Lanka.
Where Irrationals Rule
Extremism is not the sole birthright of any one religion, race or entity. In Ceylon, Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism, founded on the Mahawamsa mindset and Anagarika Dharmapala’s Aryan-myth, flourished when Vellupillai Pirapaharan was a mere boy, wholly occupied by killing birds with his catapult.
Mahawamsa, with its consecration, living space (Lebensraum) and sinless war myths, is the Bible/Koran of Sinhala-Buddhism. Mahawamsa celebrated when Buddhist books were burnt, Buddhist centres of learning destroyed and Buddhist monks exiled, in the name of defeating ‘heretics’. Thus Mahawamsa enabled Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism in our times to develop its own version of ‘The Clash of Civilisations’, which pits ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ Sri Lanka against the ‘Christian, Islamic and Hindu worlds’.
In this version, Lankan history is an unending struggle to prevent alien races/religions/cultures from taking over this sole-home of Sinhalese and sole-refuge of pure Buddhism. Consequently when minorities try to follow/propagate their religions in Sri Lanka as Sinhala-Buddhists do in many other lands, they are seen as enemy aliens, fifth columnists conspiring with unbelievers to undermine Sinhala-Buddhist nature of Sri Lanka. And since minorities cannot be displaced geographically in this day and age without risking the dangerous charge of ethnic-cleansing, they need to be confined to their ‘rightful’ place politically. The unity of the country is dependent on the resulting hierarchy, if necessary through violent means.
Politics of exclusion, born of this worldview, became the bane of post-Independence Ceylon/Sri Lanka. It prevented the creation of a Lankan identity and led to the long Eelam war. Post-war, it is paving a path not to peace but to new conflicts, minor and major.
The mutually necessary marriage of Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism with Rajapaksa-supremacism has turned the wish-list of the irrationals on the lunatic fringe into the official policy of Sri Lanka. The dominant view holds that the long Eelam War happened because the Tamils forgot their status as permanent guests and made unfair demands on the ever-patient and endlessly generous Sinhalese. A political solution is considered undesirable because it would undermine the natural hierarchical order, paving the way for the destruction of the land, the race and the religion.
A nation/people can avoid a danger only if its existence is acknowledged.
Extremism is more than a political error; it is a psychological habit which is addictive and unbreakable, even when its ill effects are manifest. No race or religion is immune to it. Religious extremism and intolerance have been historic memes in Lanka as much as elsewhere. Our ignorance of that past reality cannot but impede our politico-psychological resistance to the toxic ideas propagated by Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists with the full cognizance and support of their Rajapaksa masters.
As historical evidence, from Justinian’s Heresy Laws through the Crusades right down to the Taliban, proves, religious intolerance is destructive and self-destructive. It addles critical faculties, fills the mind with fear and pits neighbours, friends and even family members against each other. Any country which succumbs to its deadly lure becomes an unliveable land.
“We will not walk in fear one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason”: the words with which Edward J Murrow publicly challenged Senator Mccarthy [v] should be our individual and collective response to our own fanatics; and to the Rajapaksa plan to use minority-phobia to install dynastic rule.
[i] A Search for Mahayana in Sri Lanka – Mahinda Deegalle – Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies – Vol. 22 NO. 2
[ii] A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, Being an account by the Chinese Monk Fa-Hien on his travels in India and Ceylon (AD399-414) in search of the Buddhist Books of Discipline – James Legge
[iii] For example Mahawamsa and Nikayasangraha
[iv] Three Mountains and Seven Rivers – edited by Musashi Tachikawa, Shoun Hino and Toshihiro Wada :