27 October, 2020

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Political Monks: Some Thoughts On The Kelaniya Declaration Of Independence 1947

By Sajeeva Samaranayake

Sajeeva Samaranayake

On the eve of the grant of dominion status to Ceylon by its colonial rulers, the British a group of Buddhist Monks took a dim view of the ‘freedom’ that was being negotiated. They decided to craft instead a unilateral declaration as members of the Sangha to set the record straight on the aspirations of this island for full freedom and the true and authentic sources of that freedom.

It is a matter of contention whether the monks who took this step were representative of the entire Sangha of the country. The biographers of JR JayawardeneKM De Silva and Howard Wriggins take the view that they were neither representative of the Sangha nor authorized by the Sangha to make this declaration. This is probably the reason for this act being termed a ‘revolt in the temple’ an expression that was used as the title of DC Vijayawardena’s book of the same name that came out in 1953.

Among these rebels were Ven. Walpola Rahula, Ven Bambarende Siri Seevali, Ven Kotahene Pannakitti and Ananda Sagara (who later disrobed and was MP for Horana from 1956-9 as Sagara Palansuriya.

What makes this political act significant is the readiness of these monks to speak for the rights of all the people of this country without fear or favour. There are still Buddhist Monks in Sri Lanka who speak this same language. We do not know how many, but we can only hope that more and more will come to own this declaration of high principles as a guide post and reference point in our continuing search for political adulthood. Buddhists in the island (conservatives and radicals) were divided over this Declaration in 1947, and there are no short cuts today either.

The Full Text 

THE KELANIYA DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE – JANUARY 6, 1947

Hail

The declaration of the Sangha of Sri lanka

Twenty five centuries ago, our forefathers established in Sri Lanka a state of Society, Free, Independent and Sovereign, in order to ensure to the people security of Life and Liberty on the one hand, and on the other the right as well as opportunity to seek and obtain happiness. A few centuries later the Sangha, the Treasurers of the eternal values proclaimed by the Buddha, became the Guardians of the Life and Liberty as well as the sponsors of the Well – being and Happiness of that Society.

Nations and civilisations are not eternal. They rise, flourish, decay and die. Nothing in this world can be regarded as eternal. There are values higher than cities and nations, and our country has always stood for these values. Mere material possessions are not the sine qua non of happiness. No measures or quantities of these can give that essential quality of happiness which constitutes the real dignity of mankind.

Four and a half centuries ago, ‘disturbers of the peace of mankind’ from the West not only challenged the right of the people of this Island to their way of life and liberty, but also attempted to introduce into it ideals other than those for which this country had always stood for. It is our glory that this country never had any dearth of men inspired with the spirit of Sri Lanka. These outstanding leaders of the nation accepted the challenge, and fierce struggles by the people against the foreigners ensued during three whole centuries.

Thereafter a section of the community, arrogating to themselves an authority that had not the sanction of the will of the nation, ceded the country to the last of the alien aggressors, who have since dominated over it to the loss of liberty and happiness of its people. Posterity, however cannot be deprived of the inherent rights which peoples acquire when they form themselves into a state of civilized society, by the act or acts, or Compact, or Convention entered into by any group of men in the near or remoter past. And the people who for 131 years have been denied their inherent rights are not content, today, to be fettered any longer or to remain under an alien yoke.

We, therefore, the Sangha of Sri Lanka, the Guardians of the Life and Liberty and Sponsors of the Well – being and Happiness of the people of this island, assembled on this hallowed spot sanctified by the feet of the Master, do hereby declare and publish, on behalf of the people, that Sri Lanka claims its right to be a Free and Independent Sovereign State, that it has resolved to absolve itself from all allegiance to any other Power, State or Crown, and that all political connection between it and any other State is hereby dissolved; and that as a Free and Independent Sovereign State it has full right to safeguard its Freedom and Independence, to contract alliances and do all other acts and things which Independent States may of right do.

For due recognition of the rectitude of our action and for support of the claim made under this declaration , we, the Sangha of Sri Lanka, hereby appeal to the conscience and sense of justice of all right thinking peoples of the world. And in hereby calling upon the good people of Sri Lanka, on whose behalf we make this declaration, unitedly and in courage and strong endeavour to see to it that its purpose is achieved in the fullest possible measure, we, the Sangha of Sri Lanka, on our part, pledge ourselves to associate with them in spirit as well as in action in that great and high resolve.

Declared on this auspicious anniversary of the Buddha’s first visit to Sri Lanka, Monday the Full Moon of Durutu, in the Year 2490 of the Buddhist Era in the new Gandhakuti (Fragrant Chamber) of the Sri Kalyani Raja Maha Vihara

[The declaration is extracted from Revolt in the Temple authored by DC Vijayawardhana.]

Commentary 

In voicing the collective aspiration of the nation for true independence and in asserting values that are ‘higher than cities and nations’ this declaration is clearly ahead of its time. It is more so today when the cancer of division has eaten into the Sangha itself. In so far as freedom contains a spiritual core, the Sangha, and indeed all men and women in robes in search of the truth are united with the people of this country in their quest for true peace and happiness.

The Buddha taught that liberation is the essential criterion of spiritual authenticity, not tradition or convention. The Sangha that gathered at Kelaniya on January 6, 1947 re-affirmed this. In doing so they transcended the traditional role of the Sangha as guardians and representatives of the majority – Sinhala Buddhists and spoke for a single nation – perhaps yet unborn but one which will surely materialize upon the same foundation of values asserted by them.

This was an act of creative disintegration – as opposed to blind conformity. For 133 years the stranglehold of the British Empire on virtually every aspect of life inCeylonhad been total. The educated English speaking Ceylonese were faithful British subjects for whom the constitutional, political and legal order established by Imperial Britain represented a self evident truth. Democracy, Rule of Law andIndependenceof the Judiciary represented modernity and the clear way forward. No reasonable man would quarrel with these forms even though they were fashioned in the West. For the venerable monks who gathered at Kelaniya the point of departure was more fundamental. They referred to

“… the inherent rights which peoples acquire when they form themselves into a state of civilized society, by the act or acts, or Compact, or Convention entered into by any group of men in the near or remoter past.”

In their view this Ancient Compact (also expressed by the term Maha Sammata or Great Consensus) made by our ancestors was inalienable. It follows that the transactions carried out between the Kandyan Chiefs of 1815 and the English Educated Elite of 1948 with the British had done nothing to disturb the continuity of this principle of freedom. These transactions were a mere interruption in the long march of history that the people of this island had undertaken.

Great pressures are exerted on individuals as well as whole societies today to conform to a particular model of politics, economics, culture and life. These pressures can be gross as well as subtle, naked as well as disguised. To make a stand against ‘the way things are done’ to dare to think differently and act differently is to revolt. The key to such strength of moral character lies in compassion or karuna, which transcends a passion for some with a passion for all. As Krishnamurti said in his book Why are you being educated?

That’s what you are being taught: to imitate, to conform, to fit into the pattern. And is that the end of life? Then you ask: ‘What shall we do? Is there something else? To find something totally different from all this, you have to have a great deal of intelligence. Intelligence is not knowledge. Knowledge gives you capacity, position, status, but knowledge is not love, knowledge is not compassion. It is only where there is love and compassion that there is intelligence, and that intelligence has nothing whatsoever to do with the cunning intelligence of thought.

Post independence Sri Lanka has seen at least 4 significant revolts. These were the revolution of 1956 and the revolution of 1977 both of which were state driven and the anti-state revolutions of JVP and LTTE. Enough has been written about these upheavals.

Yet very little has been written on the peaceful revolt staged in Kelaniya in 1947. It followed the tradition of the Buddha who was himself a gentle revolutionary who reacted and responded to the structural injustices of his day with precision and intelligence. The Kelaniya Declaration was an endeavour in this direction.

Inspiring, guiding, directing and supporting lay society towards freedom and happiness is quintessentially the role of the true Sangha. It only remains to add in the same breath that a Sangha which remains fettered by ties of race, religion or caste would only struggle to perform this noble task.

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Latest comments

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    Of course this can be viewed and interpreted in different ways, both outwardly and inwardly. It does not mention the status of minorities or those belonging to other faiths who have also lived here for centuries. Uniting one section of the community only does not guarantee happiness for all sections as we can see from recent events in this country.

    Although the author says that this is a forward thinking and an advanced declaration ahead of the times, it is itself retrogressive and conformist, binding the entire nation to a common ideology of 2500 years.

    Religon has its place but cannot be used to bind or restrict the freedom of people to think, analyse, decide on the way they wish to live in the modern world. Systems that cannot adapt to the challenges of the modern age will fall by the wayside as people become more independant, educated and knowledgable.

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    Thank you CT for publishing this eye opening Declaration.This type of research is useful for dismantling the myth that the Sangha is the protector of Sinhal Buddhists.Please give a Sinhala and Tamil translation.

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    Dear Safa

    please read it again. These were monks who were also influenced by socialist ideals. In the 1930’s EW Adikaram and Ven Balangoda Ananda Maitreya had an important discourse for joining Buddhist and socialist ideals.

    I agree that religions can either imprison us or liberate us. These monks seem to have opted for the latter. Of course they have read the historical context in a way that supports this with reference to a great compact or mahasammata. This is not to bind future generations to an ancient concept but to remind them of their legacy of freedom.

    If you seek to de-link the past completely or even erase it you give ammunition to the extremists. The historical context must be investigated critically and interpreted positively to suit modern needs. The back lash of 1956 showed how the neglect of local sentiments can be exploited by insincere politicians to gain political mileage. This does not mean you can throw away the historical context.

    nationalism and religion are good things – but it is half baked versions of both wich have destroyed this country

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      Dear Sajeeva

      I agree with you if the intent is as stated. Also I have no problem in extending favoured status to the Buddhist religon and Sinhalese race as this country is uniquely their motherland.

      This declaration is mainly with regard to the independence from the colonial rulers. It calls upon the ‘good people of Sri Lanka to see that the purpose of independence is achieved in fullest possible measure’. Whilst these terms are open to interpretation it is hoped that it is taken to include the minorities not just as visitors or vestiges of invasions but as full partners and citizens of the country enjoying the full protection and rights afforded by the state. It is noted that many minority leaders participated in the independence movement. What happened thereafter is the problem.

      The main declaration is as follows

      We, therefore, the Sangha of Sri Lanka, the Guardians of the Life and Liberty and Sponsors of the Well – being and Happiness of the people of this island, assembled on this hallowed spot sanctified by the feet of the Master, do hereby declare and publish, on behalf of the people, that Sri Lanka claims its right to be a Free and Independent Sovereign State, that it has resolved to absolve itself from all allegiance to any other Power, State or Crown, and that all political connection between it and any other State is hereby dissolved; and that as a Free and Independent Sovereign State it has full right to safeguard its Freedom and Independence, to contract alliances and do all other acts and things which Independent States may of right do.

      For due recognition of the rectitude of our action and for support of the claim made under this declaration , we, the Sangha of Sri Lanka, hereby appeal to the conscience and sense of justice of all right thinking peoples of the world. And in hereby calling upon the good people of Sri Lanka, on whose behalf we make this declaration, unitedly and in courage and strong endeavour to see to it that its purpose is achieved in the fullest possible measure, we, the Sangha of Sri Lanka, on our part, pledge ourselves to associate with them in spirit as well as in action in that great and high resolve.

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    The Declaration choses to deliberately ignore the fact there remained yet another people in the North-Eastern part of the Island in large numbers – of a different tongue, race and religion – who have been there just as long, or, arguably, longer still. But this reality cannot be submerged by the force of numbers of the whims and fancies of the political winds of the day.

    As to the comment “on this auspicious anniversary of the Buddha’s first visit to Sri Lanka…” We will let it pass, for the moment.
    It is for historians and archeologists to pronounce on this.

    Senguttuvan

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    The document at its beginning sounds like the preamble to the US constitution, high brow and visionary. What has since transpired is lamentable. Men who yet matter have become mice.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

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    As human beings we are all free and equal regardless of our race or religion. It is only when we are attached to some identity that we become fettered.

    What transpired after the declaration bears out the truth of attachment leading to self assertion leading to divisions, conflict and disaster.

    This declaration makes no reservation and claims no favours for the sinhalese or buddhists. Significantly they are not even mentioned!! In the same breath it does not seek to single out any group or citizens in any part of the island.

    The assertion of values that are ‘higher than cities or nations’ is clear enough ….

    How come that no one understood what Sunila Mendis understood?

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