18 May, 2024


Power Of Organized Religion

By Sarath de Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

“All men are my children… I seek the same things for all men” (Kalinga Edicts)

Since third century BCE, this land has been culturally Buddhist. It was Accommodative and inclusive. In post-civil war Sri Lanka, organized Buddhism a new phenomenon encouraged by a regime bent on turning its electoral appeal for winning the war in to a more durable Self-Aggrandizing power project, there emerged an organized movement that is bent on turning what is culturally Buddhist in to a politically Buddhist land.

The unexpected electoral defeat of their patron has given it a new incentive of combining their power grab with the restoration of the old order.

Organized religion is a potent force. It impacts public opinion faster because countering its offensive is extremely difficult and delicate because of the sanctity of the Saffron armour they wear in combat! Institutional authority nurtured by tradition allows them a distinct niche in the public square, Perceived spiritual wisdom not subject to scrutiny by the faithful gives them an arbitrary prerogative that intimidates, seduces and coopts the politician.

The clerical consortium that describes itself as the voice of ‘Maha Sangha’ opposing constitutional reforms is a classic example of ‘organized religion’. It is engaged in politics in the guise of religious duty.

They have tremendous clout. They command attention. Their muscle is explained by expressions of pronounced diffidence – ‘Apey Hamuduruwane’ and mandatory obeisance ‘ Wandaneeya Pujaneeya’ that lay leaders are compelled to use in our democratic discourse.

In contrast the mock veneration by the previous autocrat was pure theatre. The chemistry of ‘untrammeled authority’ and the ‘spiritual halo’ of monks, gave the despot a ‘weapon of mass maneuvering’. He coopted ‘organized religion’ as a minor shareholder in his venture, entitled to dividends but no seat on the family dominated apex board. His designated enforcer ensured priestly compliance.

Religion deals with problems of human life. Organized religion is about regulating human behaviour.

Organized religion is a formal structure engaged in defining and advancing a specific world vision as conceived by its core membership. It goes beyond a a world view and is closer to the German expression ‘weltanschauung’ which means a contemplation of the world that adds up to an ideology.

Organized religion has the advantage of championing a political agenda claiming moral and spiritual high ground. Lay rivals challenge them at their peril.

Organized religion is necessarily driven to a tyrannical undemocratic path due to its organic tilt to dogma as opposed to dialogue.

The argument that organized religion does not represent the true religion does not work. It presupposes a rational society which we are not. Organized religion does not want a rational society. They don’t need to. They are permanent squatters in the public square.

The ‘Maha Sangha’ is a vertically constructed, horizontally administered agency. It is focused on organizational continuity, ability to control material resources, political primacy in that order.

‘Organized Buddhism rejects federalism. It seeks a unitary state. It disapproves existing provincial councils and opposes any widening of their powers. ‘Nirvana’, ‘Samsara’ and Siddhartha’s Renunciation are on the backburner. Why? Because it is a totalizing hegemonic project.

Only a dimwit would dispute the claim that Sri Lanka is culturally Buddhist. It has been culturally Buddhist, ethnically diverse and societally plural since the time of kings.

When the 1972 Constitution committed the Republic of Sri Lanka to accord ‘the foremost place’, Bolshevik Leninist Trotskyite Colvin R De Silva its principal architect was merely conceding that this island has been culturally Buddhist since the advent of Buddhism.

The Scholar and Savant Ananda Coomaraswamy , in his forward to   his book published in 1908 “Medieval Sinhalese Art: Being a Monograph on Medieval Sinhalese Arts and Crafts, mainly as surviving in the eighteenth century, with an account of the structure of Society and the status of Craftsmen” makes this reveling observation .

“Medieval Sinhala Art was the art of a people for whom husbandry was the most honorable of all occupations, amongst whom the landless man was a nobody, and whose ploughmen spoke as elegantly as courtiers. It was a religious art, and so a popular art. It was also essentially a national art; the craftsmen forming an integral part of the Civil Service, were rewarded with grants of state land, no less than soldiers and husbandmen. It was art of the people whose kings were ‘one with the religion and the people’ – perhaps the most significant phrase in that magnificent chronical Mahavamsa… “ (emphasis mine)

He sums up the tragic impact of British, It has been fatal to the arts and the nations ethos. It has caused the destruction of the organization of state craftsmen. It “has driven the village weaver from his loom, the craftsmen from his tools, the ploughman from his songs and has divorced art from labour”.

The British divorced spiritual pursuits from the monastic life infusing them with a mercantile spirit making them adroit performers in politics of pageantry. The custody of the ultimate symbol of sovereignty- the sacred tooth relic and observance of complex rituals associated with it was the responsibility of the king. His compliance of these traditions was pivotal to his legitimacy.

The new sovereign – empress Victoria was in London. The custodial care of the sacred tooth relic and the responsibility for observance of rituals was passed on to the two monastic establishments. Elite priest hood took over official worship of the tooth relic.

In return, the British, legitimized their vast land holdings by granting titles to temples that enjoyed royal patronage in the form of ‘viharagam’. The temple occupants under the new dispensation made them family fiefdoms passing their property to ordained blood relations and in some instance to their direct progeny. A particularly powerful monk ended up assuming control of several well-endowed temples. It was a thriving business in real estate.

The two monasteries became corporates. Politics of pageantry became their entrée to corridors of colonial power. They practiced their new vocation with a vengeance.

Ordinary people worshiped in their temples and under the Village Bo tree, They prayed for aid and protection from the sacred tooth relic in the Maligawa accessible only to the nobility lay and ordained. The caste system that underpinned an accommodating economic order where the privileged observed social graces that implied benign authority, now transformed itself in to a rigid exclusionary social order. The elite landowning class of priests were far-removed from the compassionate monk in the village temple.

In ‘Rituals of the Kandyan State’ Professor H.L. Seneviratne describes the rituals at the Temple of the Tooth Relic as ‘cultural devices used by kings to reaffirm and re-legitimize their authority.’

Our kings did not rule by divine right. Hence, proper observance of tradition and rituals of the Scared Tooth Relic was critical to the legitimacy of the King.

Sovereignty today rests with ‘we the people’ and not with’ them, the feudal remnants of a bygone age. That they happen to be in Saffron robes minding rituals and pageantry in Kandy is of relevance to where sovereignty is vested in the republic.

In notes to the reader in ‘The Doomed King’ Professor Gananath Obeyesekere writes ‘An independent Kandyan kingdom was a threat to imperial aspirations and it was inevitable that Kandy would be eventually incorporated in to the burgeoning empire. The king was in this sense doomed and it is this personal and cultural tragedy that I explore in the book.”

What is unfolding today is also a tragedy in Kandy. It is calculated movement bent on converting time tested Buddhist culture that held our plural polity together from the time of kings in to a hegemonic political Buddhism under our Republic.

Is the successor to the autocrat a doomed President? It depends on his resolve and nerve to halt the clerical circus.? Is this a requiem for an infant democracy? I wish it isn’t.

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Latest comments

  • 5

    This writer must understand for whatever the reason or whatever the circumstances the “Religion” called Buddhism managed and administered by the Buddhist Clergy, whether organized or not bear for the present, an irrevocable dominance in the larger society of the country. The immediate past history of that “Dominance” was brought about by the CHANGE spearheaded by Late Ven. Sobhitha Thero in 2015 January. Were it not for his direct involvement and the combined forces under his directions, we would not have had a “Common Candidate” to CHALLENGE the “DESPOT” who wanted to rule this country with an iron fist. But what happened thereafter? All those who came to establish themselves in power FORGOT what that VISIBLE FORCE could mean and do. So no wander the “Mighty ” although defeated, made the correct judgment on the prevailing “Neglect” and “Disregard” of that “Safforon Clad” force and went around the country mustering that “Visible Force”. to his advantage. Unfortunately for the country and the people the Ven. Sobitha too passed away at a very critical time. With that untimely death, all the people who took advantage of his efforts completely forgot what that “Safforon Clad” Leader’s aspirations were and went about practicing their accustomed style of Politics. Now having gone in the wrong path and behaving in an egocentric life style and still not realizing the dangers for the country and for themselves, continue to stampede that “FORCE” that has to be “Managed” in the most ” Political Sensible” manner. Therefor, as at present, I do not think the “Powers That Are Be” are handling the situation appropriately. That “NEGLECT” and “IGNORANCE” would be to the ADVANTAGE of the “MIGHTY” the country got rid of with the direct participation of that one time :Saffaron Clothed” led force.

    • 3

      Douglas old chap

      I do agree with your analysis up to a point.
      As you look into the events leading up to the elections though Ven. Sobhitha Thero’s role was important, the changes his leadership brought remains cosmetic. It remains cosmetic simply because he wanted to be a one issue candidate.

      The country has been suffering from racism, bigotry, large elements of fascism, ………………….. kleptocracy, impunity, nepotism, ………… dishonesty, … absence of open and honest intellectual exchanges, ………………… mass amnesia, ………… well since mid 1950s.

      As one who does not accept/agree with all those evil forces which continue to hold sway over this island’s fate, where would you start the cleaning up process? The country needs not only to modernise but restructure every aspect of its institutions. A liberal constitution is a good starting point.

    • 0

      Douglas. Please stand corrected.These yakkas had been in the fore front of politics through centuries First known – ie what I know today- is the killing of Elara which was murder, pushed by the Yakka of this religion.The description of the socalled battle said to be in the Mahawanse is all fibs.They do not match reality.
      They were c lass one womanisers Sigiriya frescos is proof of that.
      Thanks to Late Mr.L.H.Mettananda I got used to reading Newspapers.From 1954 my obswervation had been that these yakkas are blood sucking pwerethayas who suck the blood of the Sinhala Buddhists…

  • 2

    what the hell are you trying to say?

  • 3

    Sarath DE ALWAIS: Is this an attempt by Jackal Opposition to subjugate the Sanga Karaka Sabhava ?. I heard Jackal opposition is funded by Mahinda Rajapakse. It is fight to the deqath. Ranil wockramsinghe alsp prepared by emptying the bank Because, the west doe snt have money even though they like their people in powerful positions.

  • 2

    I think you got it all wrong mate……..
    What is happening in Srilanka at the moment is the preparation of the grounds to execute a grand scheme, organized by the UNP which was in the Opposition for two decades……….
    These are the same people who tried to give Federalism to Piraharapan in the 90s………
    It is the Buddhist Monks who saved the country then , from Dr Ranil & Mr Pirahaparn’s Federalism……
    These are the same Monks who encouraged and gave leadership to the Sinhala Armed Forces to liberate the Country from Tamil Terrorists. at a great cost , in human lives in particular…….
    With the current SLFP Leader selling the souls of the great majority of the inhabitant population to the same Dr Ranil and Mr Pirahaparan’s Followers , Supporters and the Financiers, there is no Politician or Political Force with the power and the resources to save the nation from Dr Ranil’s Constitution….
    Which is in fact is the same Federalism which has been sugar coated as this New Constitution……..
    The guts of it is to give North to Vella Tamils and the East to share between Vellas and the Wahabis… to keep the Muslims happy..
    And make room for the Vellala Party to acquire the East going forward…..
    It is well and good for the UNP …
    But what about Dr Ranil’s other bits in the Constitution, which is aimed at destroying the centralized, Government Services which have been set in place by the previous rulers to help the great majority at least to some fair extent………
    Education in Mother Tongue , Free University Education, Free National Health Services Subsidised Transport, , Job Opportunities and Good Schools even in the onetime Villages under the old UNP rule….
    The educated deshapremi Monks have realized what this Dr Ranil’s New Trick is….
    It was explicitly evident in the latest Communique from the Asgiriya Karaka Sabawa..
    Which Dr Ranil tried to tear into pieces by quoting his mate from Malwatta who now receive advice on Buddhism and Sinhala Buddhists Welfare , from the NGO bosses ……..

    • 1

      Sumanasekara: There is federalism in Sri lanka. but, foreign countries need Sri lankan Lands and ports. The beest thing to do that is use Minorities both muslims and Tamils. This problem is every where in Asia bashing buddhists and using minorities to get separate shanty states. So, it looks SARATH DE ALWIS got some project money to bash buddhist prelates and the Sangha karaka sabhawa. Becuse NGOs have to make monks scared to them and humiliated. If not mext part of the scheme that is Ranil’s elecoral restructuring can not be carried out. Constitution about buddhism domination and soveregnity is crap. buddhists monks warned, threatned, jailed…… while muslims continue their thereatenings. WE do not have sovereignity as the Athul Kesep and Indian embassy runs the country. See how Avamangla finance minister brings money to the country via various charity programs. All for what ?. check who funds those and their requests for reformations. I think, the newst member for that is Rajitha Senarathne. CBK and Ranil are doing that in hiding.

    • 0

      Sumane you are mad.

  • 2

    Sarath de Alwis, you are demented and are unable to see the truth. Did you know that the Queen woman is the ‘Supreme Governor’ of the syphilitic Church of England and the present oath makes the monarch the ‘Defender of the Faith’ – Christianity. But you have a belly ache about our monks playing an advisory role to the government. Stop boot licking and gain some vision by converting to Buddhism. Only that can make your mind free from the syphilitic bond British colonialism created.

  • 5

    Monks have lost focus today:
    1 Monks want to get on to company boards and control PLCs (Lanka Hospitals)
    2 Monks want to lead trade unions ( Nurses Union)
    3 Monks want to protect the corrupt ( LITRO chairman was hiding in a temple before he was arrested )
    4 Monks want to enter parliament and enjoy the perks ( Hela Urumaya)
    5 Monks want to be active in politics (Abhayaramaya)
    6 Monks wants to be engaged in business, antiques and construction ( Gangaramaya )
    7 Monks simply protest to look after them selves ( Kandalama Hotel protests)
    8 Monks steal elephants ( case currently on)
    9 Monks fight for real estate and leadership ( post Ven Sobitha Thera / Naga Vihara)
    10 Monks simply love their BENZ, Land Cruisers and BMWs and the iPhones

    10,000 temples and 30,000 monks in the country and need a mechanism to guide them. They have simply lost their way!!
    Hundreds of court cases against monks today for land encroachment, thuggery, intimidation, murder, misappropriation, rape etc etc
    Hope the so called Chief Priests and Maha Nayake Priests will wake up one day!!!

    child abuse cases against Christian Priests as well.

    Politicians have ensured that the country has gone to the dogs. They use religion and monks for political purposes. It may not be too long that you have to get permission from monks before the budget speech is tabled in parliament. Chief priests have no control over the young Mavericks.

    We have no hope.!!!

    • 1

      Jagath Fernando;
      Add one thing: vast majority of monks, like catholic priests, are child molesters and should be brought to books!

  • 5

    Why not classify “Buddhist Prieshood” as a recognized Profession rather than what it is intended to be(Vocation in the religious sense).Perhaps then we could accept and try to live with what is happening now and being debated upon dragging Race and Culture along

  • 7

    An excellent write-up, Mr.Alwis, but you are preaching to brainwashed sheep, as you can see by the quality of many comments.
    Most people see their religion as being central to their existence, and the clergy as above criticism. This of course is cleverly arranged by the clergy themselves to facilitate survival. This applies to all religions, but is particularly stifling in Buddhism. It is said to be a deadly sin to openly criticize monks who use foul language, live in luxury, handle vast amounts of money, carry/use deadly weapons, engage in sexual activity,etc.
    Last week there was a symptomatic article in “Ceylon Today” trying to “prove ” that Talduwe Somarama did not kill SWRD. This is part of the insidious whitewashing of the Sangha.
    Until the people themselves rise up and throw the pretenders out, as in France and Russia, we are doomed to a future of ignorance and superstition. Not quite what the Buddha taught.

  • 4

    When the saffron robed force under Ven. Sobhitha was serving the agenda of Sarath De Alwises, the saffron robed force was their darling. It seems not any more……suddenly the saffron robed force has become the villain……..What happened? What went wrong yahaplanista gentlemen and women?

    • 3


      “When the saffron robed force under Ven. Sobhitha was serving the agenda of Sarath De Alwises, the saffron robed force was their darling.”

      Did Ven. Sobhitha terrorise the people with his saffron robed force? Why didn’t Dr Gota the smart patriot deal with him militarily and vanquish his saffron robed force?

      ” What went wrong yahaplanista gentlemen and women?”

      The old crooks took over the new crooks. Are you still awaiting for your share of dividend from old crooks?

      • 1


        Did Malwathu, Asgiri and other nikayas terrorise the people? Their statements reflect the views of their disciples. Fools attack Buddhist prelates without addressing the basic issues and concerns that have been raised again and again.

        There is a statement from your darling RW saying that the MPs are making statements about the constitution without knowing the facts!! Doesn’t it say all (the tongue doesn’t lie even when the mouth does)? Doesn’t it say the subversive way RW+MS+CBK gang try to impose a separatist constitution? If MPs don’t know the content can the public trust such a process?

        What you try to cover under your amude are slipping through bro……………

    • 1

      Well said…..

  • 7

    This is one of best article about Budhist religion and its role in Sri Lanka…We salute the writer for this brave writer. Today; we need this type of self criticising writers when religion is hijacked by politics.what a good and impartial writing is this ?
    This is an objective piece of writing …
    He is not bias for anyone but the writer has courage to tell the truth as it is ?
    He is very much concerned about using religion for political gains ..
    Sri Lanka is a peaceful country and we have seen blood bath ..
    So many youth were killed .
    JVP insurgency killed many..
    LTTE insurgency killed many..
    Now people feel freedom and peace..
    Prosperity of Sri Lanka need it..
    So; this article is written to promote peace ..

  • 0

    Sinhalese majority do not find that their opinion is molded by the Sanga, rather Sangha is giving expression to it. They (the Sangha) are their representative force that counter balance the external threats to their heritage and identify. The best strategy of these forces is isolate them into the inner sanctum of the temple and confine them to the book. unconsciousy brainwashed writers like Sarath Alwis are lending their talented efforts for this purpose.

  • 2

    somass ji

    “They (the Sangha) are their representative force that counter balance the external threats to their heritage and identify”

    Indeed they fought the Hindians tooth and nail. The Hindians found the Saffron army formidable. The IPKF packed its bags, tanks and artillery even before one monk committed self-immolation.

    The Grant Dukes of Sangha or the God fathers of crooks have contributed nothing but constant trouble. They should be looking after the moral and spiritual well being of the laity and not looking forward to the new model of Merc or BMW.

  • 1

    If Buddhism is an organized religion, it should not have promoted racism. As far as the great According to the great Buddhist Dalai Lama ‘kindness is religion’ which is organized. The author says Organized Buddhism rejects Federalism. This is absurd. Federalism is not separation, but an expansion of democracy where all citizens will enjoy equal rights without discrimination. When Dalai Lama says ‘kindness is my religion’ it also implies equal rights and should not have prmoted racism. In Sri Lanka are the Buddhists or the Maha Sangha following this practice? What then is the power of organized Buddhism? .
    It is a fact that Buddhism is branch of Hinduism or it can be properly becalled a refined Hinduism. In a way it is indebted to Hinduism. Buddhism has a founder or were formulated by individuals like other other religions – like Jesus Christ for Christianity, Abraham for Judaism, Mohammed for Islam, Guru Nanak for Sikhism, Confucius for Confucianism, Siddartha Gautama for Buddhism). But Hinduism has no founder. Other religions are organized but Hinduism cannot be considered or described as an organized religion. The origin of Hinduism is shrouded with mystery. Hinduism was in existence from time immemorial and is indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, which has been a breeding ground for spirituality from all directions of the country. India also gave birth to Buddhism. Finally while other religions have their respective prescribed text books or scriptures, Hinduism do not have a prescribed text book. Hinduism is a collection of revelations by the ancient sages at intermittent periods. Hinduism does not have a unified system of beliefs encoded in declaration of faith or a creed, but is rather an umbrella term comprising the plurality of religious phenomena originating and based on the Vedic traditions. Hence the sages or Rishis were considered as the revered pioneers of Hinduism. Therefore, Hinduism has become a religion of revelations. Hinduism is unique because it is based on Righteousness. However, the concept of Righteousness appears to have been misunderstood by the Brahmin class). Generally, Hinduism is defined as a religious tradition. According to Dr.S.Radhakrishnan, Hinduism is not just a faith, but is related to the union of reason and intuition. This is the beauty of Hinduism. Buddhism and Hinduism have co-existed like different flowers in a garden. There is nothing to state that any religion is greater than the other.

  • 0

    Native Veda: From Douglas old chap: I like that term “old chap”. Thank you. No doubt we need a New Constitution. Unfortunately all hopes for it are fast moving away, mainly because of the LOSS of CREDIBILITY of the prime movers viz the President and the Prime Minister. However, we do not yet have a “DRAFT” of a New Constitution to talk of; yet even if it comes out the environment created is not going to win a Peoples’ Mandate due to the huge “SUSPICION” and LOSS OF CREDIBILITY grown on the Government Leaders and the Ministers. But please enjoy the comments of the biggest “Pandit” of Constitution making Prof. GLP , who many times tried to bring in “Pokuru Rajaya” i.e “Union of S/L” talking of and campaigning against a “Unitary State” (undivided) S/L.

  • 1

    Sarath de Alwis’ statement that Sri Lanka has been “culturally Buddhist” since ancient times is fully consistent with the scholarly consensus in the history and sociology of Buddhism. This was a tolerant and accommodative civil religion where the Sangha was accorded a ceremonial position of honour and respect by all communities that constituted the citizenry of the kingdom. This was part of a traditional world-view that considered religion to be integral to the physical sustenance of the society.

    We should not confuse this with the aggressive assertion of a section of the Sangha, particularly since the “sanga, veda, guru” electoral victory in 1956, for more and more self aggrandizement and power over the masses, using religion and ethnicity as an opiate. Ever since 1956 and its disastrous “Sinhala Only” policy this new and aggressive Sangha has been the main enemy of the people, standing between them and a just and fair arrangement of power sharing with the minorities.

    This is what the Asgiriya monks are doing today, in their bid to stop the enactment of a new constitution. In this we must respectfully appreciate the truly Buddhist stand taken by the Venerable Mahanayaka of Malvatta who has publicly expressed confidence that accommodating the minorities does not harm the majority.

  • 0

    THis is a very perceptive and thought provoking article which addresses some of the complexities of the society we live in. Ours is a very backward society for sure, and unless this is understood and corrected first, the leaders are wasting their time talking of economic resurgence in a country that is 300 years behind date in its thinking.

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