By H.L.D. Mahindapala –
Regurgitating the anti-Sinhala-Buddhist propaganda, first injected into the political mainstream by G. G. Ponnambalam, in 1939 at Navalapitiya, has been the forte of the one-eyed theoretician, H. L. Seneviratne. (HLS). He has made a career out of his “Sinhala-Buddhist World View”, to use his fanciful lingo, which is nothing but another derogatory term for Ponnambalam’s “Mahavamsa mentality”. The primary task of an academic, in addition to teaching, is to conduct objective research in order to shine a light on hidden / unknown aspects for societies to find a way out of crises in which they are stuck. But there isn’t single bit of empirical evidence or insight in his latest anti-Sinhala-Buddhist article, published in two parts in Colombo Telegraph, that throws any new light into the Sri Lankan past or the future. However, he comes out with an idea which he considers to be revolutionary. He is telling the Sangha that the time has come to stage a revolution to reverse the historical forces of “1956” and replace it with the pristine principles of pure Buddhism. Obviously, this Professori can’t be from this planet. Even a Bambalawatte school boy would dismiss another “Sangha Revolution” as a fiddle-faddle fantasy that could sprout only in a vacuous head floating in the Andromeda clouds.
He is virtually asking the Sangha to take over and dismantle the society that Sinhala-Buddhist culture had built over the centuries and revitalise it with the Philosophical ethics of Buddhism. On the surface of it there seems to be some merit in it. But how realistic is it? Not only Buddhists, all religionists in various parts of the world yearn to restore the pristine purity of their religions. Various millenarian movements have arisen in Europe and the East to take their societies back to the so-called “golden age” when everything was so pure and ethical, as imagined by the reformists. So the available historical evidence, both at home and abroad, confirm that HLS’s theories are not only pie-in-the-sky shibboleth but also old as Sri Pada. He has nothing new to say for anyone to find their way out from the current plight. This is the fundamental flaw in HLS’s articles and books. He is either rehashing anti-Sinhala-Buddhist racism first launched by Ponnamabalam in the thirties, or trying to create “Yellow Revolutions” and take the nation back to that lotus-eating land which never existed except in his pipe dreams.
He says: “In Sri Lanka, it is unfortunately the worldview of Sinhala Cultural Buddhism that has overwhelmingly taken hold over the society, to the near exclusion of Philosophical Buddhism. Our challenge therefore is to try and imbue the society with the universalist ethicality of Philosophical Buddhism, and its ethos of urbanity, civility and modernity; and, I am calling upon the more educated and dynamic sections of the saṅgha to accept that challenge, and give leadership to a social movement for meeting it.” I don’t think even Buddha during his time managed to “imbue the society with the universalist ethicality of Philosophical Buddhism, and its ethos of urbanity, civility and modernity.” So HLS is just whistling in the wind when he calls on the dynamic wing of the sangha to reform the Sinhala-Buddhist civilisation to suit his fancies. If Buddha couldn’t do it how does he think that some modern day monks could do the impossible?
Take the example of Buddha himself. After he attained Enlightenment, Buddha, contrary to popular belief, did not retire into the forests to meditate, cut off from society. He spent the better part of his life moving with kings, courtiers, merchants, intellectuals of the day, other religionists, ordinary folk and, on one occasion, he even auctioned the corpse of a prostitute, doing a zen-type of demonstration to show the way out of worldly illusions and suffering. It is, indeed, fair to ask how much of the ethics of Buddhist philosophy was Buddha able to inculcate into his society? To “imbue the society with the universalist ethicality of Philosophical Buddhism” is a big ask which only a super human being may be – I repeat, “may be” – able to achieve in some distant time, far, far away from our time in some utopian land. I don’t think even Christ can change society even if he comes the Second Time. If he couldn’t do it the first time, as the Son of God – a divine force who sacrificed his life to save mankind — I can’t see how he can do it the second time. And I say this not to belittle Him but seriously, questioning the ability of any worldly / divine force to change the everlasting and unalterable clash of dialectics which are at the core of history, moving across the open-ended time and space providing erratic history to choose many options. Let alone the lay society driven by secular forces, how many sangha societies have been “imbued with the universalist ethicality of Philosophical Buddhism”? So when HLS talks of “imbue(ing) the society with the universalist ethicality of Philosophical Buddhism” he is talking through his hat.
Even if he relies on his Western models of “philosopher-kings” (Plato) he will not be able to find a fitting example to justify his claim to take Sri Lanka back to his ideal state. In fact, Bertram Russell blamed Plato for breeding fascist dictators with his notion of “philosopher-kings” who assumed that they knew what was best for society. He condemned the Platonic concept of “philosopher-king” for producing Hitlers and Mussolinis – the all-knowing “philosophers” with power to prescribe recipes for their ideals which turn out to be nightmares for their victims.
But why go that far when we can test the theories of HLS with the living examples? Let’s take the case of Sobitha Thero, the ideal moral model that would be considered by him as a fit and proper agent to lead his proposed “Sangha rebellion”. The Thero’s political agenda was, I believe, to enthrone the best tenets of ethical Buddhism. The “venassa” (difference) that was proposed by the Thera was to return to the pure Buddhistic principles. His ethical leadership, which was marketed as an alternative to the devalued Rajapaksa regime, became the dynamic Buddhist force that invigorated the Yahapalanaya movement to reach its peak in January 8, 2015. HLS also adds that Ranil wrote a book on Buddhism preaching “political bana” that would transform society and bring it in line with Buddhist ideals. In the end, only Arjuna Mahendran and his son-in-law, managed to attain the political nirvana promised in Ranil’s bana. In his article HLS admits that the movement led by Sobitha Thero has been a failure. So why is HLS floating the idea of another “Sangha revolution” which is most likely to end up in the lottery funds of the Foreign Ministry?
If he has any common sense he would know that his proposed “Yellow Revolution” is never going to take off the ground. It is going to be like the revolution that was promised by the local Marxist. It never came in the form they expected. What came out of their Marxist theories was a gang of fascist criminals dressed up in fake Marxist-Leninist clothes. To this day the rag-tag remnants of the JVP “philosopher-kings”, some of whom are domiciled in bourgeois havens abroad, pose as defenders of human rights and champions of the oppressed working class and minorities, glossing over their criminal operations that violated the basic tenets in the UN Charter.
It was, of course, the most bizarre revolution in the history of Marxism. Marx predicted that the workers will be in the vanguard of the revolution. But the lumpen Marxists in the JVP led a bunch of schoolboys who were assigned to capture Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaiake, dead or alive. And, the climax of the JVP revolution came when the leaders abandoned the boys and fled, seeking refuge under a bed in a Buddhist temple in Panadura. Ain’t it hilarious that our misguided revolutionaries find refuge ultimately in Buddhist temples which they had earlier condemned as evil obstructionists to progress and communal harmony? HLS too follows this line. He, of course, is hoping for a direct Revolt in the Temple. He condemns the Sinhala-Buddhists as the main cause for the failure of good governance since “1956” and then, in the same breath, he urges the dynamic monks to lead a revolution against the rest of the Sinhala-Buddhists. There is, no doubt, an urgent need for change, radical change. But are the Buddhist monks the vehicle for that change?
In his proposed revolution HLS wants the Sangha to be in the vanguard. And then what? Can he guarantee that it won’t end up like Champika Ranawaka’s “Buddhist revolution” that is progressively going to pieces? In any case, how many Buddhist revolutions does he want? Also how many Buddhist monks can he corral to overturn the biggest Buddhist revolution of “1956”? In all this there isn’t a shred of evidence to prove that our Professor is capable of producing viable, rational, or even a moral proposal to save the day. As far as it is visible, HLS’s latest theoretical concoction is as inane as his plastic smile that spreads right across his face, from ear to ear, as if he is posing for an ad designed to sell toothpaste.
Besides, reading through his text one finds an irreconcilable contradiction. HLS who is seeking a Sangha revolution to restore Buddhist ethics is, in the same breath, harking back to the colonial past as the idyllic haven which was destroyed by the Sinhala-Buddhist Revolution of “1956”. He is indeed horrified that “1956” had occurred, overthrowing the English-speaking elite left behind by the colonial masters. They were the entrenched elite in the private, public and social sectors protecting, preserving and perpetuating the colonial legacy to the last hole in golf. Apparently, the task he sets in his proposed revolution now is for the Sangha to take the nation back to the pre-“1956” era.
The task of all Afro-Asian nationalist leaders in the post-colonial period was to adjust the historical imbalances that deprived the oppressed indigenes their rightful place in history. But this inevitable historical trend has put HLS into a catatonic state. Why? Because he believes that the old colonial order had served the nation better than anything that came after “1956” – his bete noir. According to his judgement, anything tainted with Sinhala-Buddhism has ruined the nation. His alternative is to return to neo-colonialism which would take us back to “the good old days” of the British when everything was to his colonial taste. In essence, his argument boils down to simply this: the English-speaking minority (6%), who wielded power through the English medium (the kaduwa), had done a good job of work and their rule should have been perpetuated even though such a rule would have forced the vast mass of the people who had lost their heritage and their bearings to endure the indignities of colonialism and its alien culture for a lengthy period in the post-independent era governed by pukka brown sahibs.
He is shedding buckets of tears, crying that post-1956 forces had removed the right of appeal to the Privy Council, not kept English as the third language as in Singapore, removed Section 29 of the Soulbury Constitution, not adhered to colonial type of law and order which would have continued to serve the colonial interest at all costs etc. All this is music to the ears of those who continue to believe that there would have been salvation if we continued to live in the British colonial hot house, without releasing the grass root forces that were moving subterraneously from the19th century and surfaced ineluctably in “1956”. The seismic movement of “1956” threw the English-speaking brown sahibs off balance. It was a period of transition. The old world was dying and the new world was struggling to be born.
The primary task in this period of transition was to restore the just claims of the people whose rightful place in history was robbed by the colonial masters. The inequities and injustices of imperialism had to be adjusted. The victims of colonial history had a right to regain their lost heritage and place. Though late, voices are raised now in the ex-colonies by the victims of colonialism demanding compensation. But HLS, who came from the village, is hailing the colonial masters who burnt their homes, destroyed their crops, massacred all those above 18, denied their basic dignities and whipped his ancestors into line as white messiahs sent to save the native Sri Lankans. HLS refuses to accept that the villagers who had to bear the burden of imperialism for nearly five centuries, had a right to reclaim their history, their language and their religion.
The task of managing the period of transition between two worlds fell on the shoulders of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. The entire Westernised elite in all communities, together with the English-speaking Vellala elite in the public service and professions ganged up against Bandaranaike. It is the power of the Westernised English-speaking elite that resisted the historic forces led by Bandaranaike. They demonised him. HLS continues to blame the post-Bandaranaike period as if all history began with Bandaranaike. He argues that everything went wrong after the advent of Bandaranaike. Condemning the post-Bandaranaike period he yearns for the pre-Bandaranaike norms maintained by the colonial masters. His cultural cringe to be a white man makes him another “coconut” – brown outside white inside. The post-Bandaranaike period is so repugnant to him that if he had H. G. Well’s Time Machine he would not hesitate to take a quick ride, back in time, to the pre-Bandaranaike period and lock himself inside it to live in it forever.
He is disappointed that history has failed to fulfil his wishes. He is against open-ended history advancing on its own terms, leaving the ideological weirdos to stew in their own theoretical juices. His mission on earth is to root out “Sinhala-Buddhist World View”, through a revolution led by the Sangha, Then – Hey Presto! – Sri Lanka could solve all its problems, including Bond scandal, corruption, inefficiencies, ethnic issues, constitutional problems, foreign exchange, unemployment, floods, droughts, mountains of garbage, you name it. Pah!
Theorising without taking into consideration the ground realities only makes him a hollow man with his headpiece filled with straw which even the mad cows won’t eat.
To be continued….