By 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.