By Suren Rāghavan –
Venerable Galagoḍaattē Gñanasāra of Bodu Bala Senā (BBS) has become the single most recalcitrant Saṅgha demanding attention to a different kind Buddhism in Lanka. His out of control anger, fistfights, ruthless and full of filth public speeches are internationalized through the social media. He perhaps is a symbol of a new brand of Saṅgha militancy that is tolerated if not sponsored/manipulated by the powerful and confrontational sections of the ruling regime. BBS has systematically targeted all sections of the society that could give an alternative interpretation to modern Lanka and her democratic struggles. During the war, leading members of present BBS stood against any negotiated settlement. They launched a violent anti –NGO campaign. After the end of the conflict under a triumphalist regime, BBS openly targeted, disrupted and aimed to destroy the fragile multi-ethnic societal fabric. Their anti-conversion, anti UN, and anti-halal agitations proved that the state ideology in some form wishes such ethnocentrism. Ven. Gñanasāra has gone on public record asking every Buddhist to be a member of the ‘unofficial Buddhist police force’ and that all Buddhist affairs to be brought under the army and Defense Ministry.
It is an intriguing yet fearful development that renouncer Saṅgha are becoming soldiers of socio- political militancy as never seen before. Like in days leading to the tragic pogrom against the Tamils in 1983, and in the context that gave birth to 88-89 violent up-rise, the Sinhala intellectuals and the influential Maha Nāyakas have decide to become observer than to intervene. History records that both those points of our recent political despondency, the involved Saṅgha damaged and disgraced the sāsana irreparably. Is BBS a forerunner for an army in the yellow robes as we have unfortunately witnessed in other Theravāda states such as Burma and Thailand? We sincerely hope not because a very fragile democracy that is belligerent by a three decades of war and now under an authoritarian regime, is the ideal condition for a religious fundamentalist ground swell.
Saṅgha and the State
Saṅgha rebellion against the state and its apparatus is not a new issue in Lanka. The Saṅgha/State nexus has worked as a cross legitimization process and such tradition is well historicized. Mahāvaṃsa narrates how worrier king Duṭṭhagamaṇī did what all Sinhala kings should, within the historiographical presupposition. He listened, acted and used (and of course disposed) the Saṅgha to mobilize against anything that is a threat to the Sinhala people – perceived or actual. For this reason even modern learned Saṅgha like Venerable Walpola Rāhula, some 20 centuries later named Duṭṭhagāmiṇi as ‘ undoubtedly the greatest national hero of Buddhist Ceylon’ (Rāhula 1956:79). To some scholars Mahāvaṃsa may not
be the actual history for its subjective ethnoreligious agenda. Irrespective of such position, in Lankan realpolitik, there is no other text that influences and command unchallenged respect and following as this does. Thus, the Mahāvaṃsaīkā model lays the conceptual framework for all Saṅgha and their socio- political engagements. During the late 19th century leading to the independence and certainly during the post independent elitist struggle for political power, the Sinhalas have used the Saṅgha and their rhetoric to mobilize such Buddhatvā, promising the recovery of an organic Sinhala Buddhism as done by SWRD through his Sinhala Maha Sabah in the 50s (Manor 1989). Later JRJ reproduced such consciousness through his ‘Dharmishta Rājjya’ mythology and even spoke of removing the Daladā to the new capital named after him (Perera 1992).Unfortunately the result of such ethnoreligious power centric mobilization of Saṅgha with narrower politics ended in disasters. SWRD became the victim of the first Saṅgha assassination and JRJ retired as president leaving behind a conflict during which more than 1000 Saṅgha were killed, wounded, arrested, and disrobed.
Observers agree that Lanka has fallen into a ‘One Party’ (or rather one family) system under the present regime. Dominant alternative political forces in the south such as the United National Party (UNP) and the Janatā Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) are in political wilderness, deep inner-fights and above all have failed to offer an alternative and viable discourse under which the polity could be reorganized. The Tamil National Alliance, which proves a formidable force in the north, has never been a national party and at least they do not show such ability/interest (yet). It is in this context of vacuum that BBS aims to catapult itself as the symbolic power of the Sinhala Buddhist ethnoreligious consciousness. Those Sinhalas such as Champika Ranawaka of Jātika Hela Urumaya and the aggressive defense secretary Ghōtabaya Rajapaksa, who time and again have displayed their desires to become the next national level leader seems to either benefit or enjoy the path that BBS is paving, on which they bank their political future. Because, after ideology, after ethnic nationalism, religion seems to be the most available avenue for those politicians who seek power without accountability by passing democracy.
In the post-Berlin wall world, religious discourse in public and political sphere sprang around the globe. Initially they were interpreted as a natural reaction to the Western type nation state- nationalism challenged by the harshness of the globalization process. Mark Juergensmeyer (1990) argued that the incompatible assimilative nature of the civic nationalist project in ethnically diverse societies started blazing as religious polity under the weight of globalization that is altering their centuries old social foundations. But in parallel Martin Marty and Scott Appleby in their six volume editions on Fundamentalism (1993-2004) pointed that irrespective of origins, nature and the historical context all religions – including Theravāda Buddhism, has shown organic fundamentalist facets. The tendency to assume that certain religions especially Islam and Judaism are more violent, took center stage after 9/11. Contrarily we believe that there is enough historical/textual evidence to argue that all institutionalized religions, Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism (all schools) and the new age cult type religions- have used violence as a means of engagement with the ‘other’. The story differs only because the amount of research and analysis done on certain religions such as Sinhala Buddhism or the shorter histories some faiths share.
It is a sociological and psychological fact that Sinhalas especially the Saṅgha are looking for a point of pride after three decades of humiliation under a homegrown – Tamil armed rebellion led by a school dropout. LTTE not only came close to dividing the state, it was at near success in permanently dismantling the majoritarian hegemonic mind-set of the Sinhala polity. Sinhalas as a regional and global minority, take pride in their steadfast resilient to hold Lanka as a Sinhala majority Buddhist state even after some 450 years of harsh European colonization. What the LTTE – with its terror politics-tried to change was not merely the unitary nature of Lanka but also the historicized Sinhala Buddhist ethnoreligious national pride. Saṅgha as direct recipients and beneficiaries in overcoming such ontological insecurities have become the natural champions of a new order that will not only wipe such shame but also reestablish an overarching control.
We do not think that Saṅgha politics is in essence a negative factor. In fact, elsewhere we have strongly argued that the failure of the peace process in Lanka was due to the shortsighted ‘Norwegian’ model of approach in disregarding and expelling the Saṅgha from the center politics of peacebuilding. For a sustainable democratic recovery, the active inclusion of Saṅgha into the mainstream political discourse is fundamental and is a necessary precondition. However, the manner in which the BBS led Saṅgha forcing to win such place in national politics is more than worrying. The news of Venerable Gñanasāra forcible attempt to disrupt a Human Rights exhibition during the CHOGM summit that involved some relatives of war victims from Jaffna and his subsequent protest opposite the Sirikotha – the national headquarters of the UNP is unsurprisingly typical of BBS tactics. What dismays us is the news of the key UNP leaders coming out and begging forgiveness from the Venerable for allowing and arranging such a HR exhibition and vow to support BBS in their efforts to build a true Buddhist society.
UNP with all its flows and blood soaked past is the alternative ruling party in this country. Unlike the SLFP, this party has had a history of greater room for minority accommodation in its ideology and political executions. Even while its first leader D. S. Senanayake disfranchised nearly a million Tamils and UNP strong man JRJ led an ethnic cleansing project in 1983, to-date a great portion of its voter bank constitutes the Tamils, Muslims and Catholics. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is said to be a dictator without internal democracy and unable to lead the party even to a regional victory losing all last 19 elections. Yet even his archrivals and critics will not be able to establish that is he a racist or does not regard the minorities. On the contrary the damaging profile of Wickremesinghe amongst the Sinhala nationalists is that he is pro – minority. Then it is disturbing to learn the dismantling stand for democracy within the UNP ranks in the face of a rather (un)Buddhist Saṅgha militancy.
Fearless Saṅgha in a pure Buddhist land
BBS in many ways borrows global and regional religious militancy facets. Like many anti West Islamic groups, it is modern in its operations. It uses all available modern communication and organization strategies. BBS is said to organize their sudden public confrontation agitations/attacks on selected targets with short notice using sms and facebook chat rooms to avoid any opposition from the police or public. It has a daily updating website in which it offers at least 12 aims of the organization that including establishment of a Bhikkhuni/Meheni Sāsana and modernizing the Saṅgha education system. These are truly progressive on the face it. BBS when it became public first, even demanded a transparent wealth sharing process from the very rich Ata Maha Śtana to support rural young Saṅgha. Such Sāsana Shodhana process is essential and long due. However, such aims seem mere textual than actual. Its claim of contributing to a casteless, beyond region, educated , full of Vinaya and Sīla Saṅgha society has become a mere PR façade. BBS seems to take a different interpretation to every known fact of such discipline and the 227 Pātimokkha code of conduct of the Theravāda Saṅgha. BBS strategies are based on two premises. First is historically reasonable – this is that Saṅgha sāsana represents a fundamental, important role in reshaping the socio-politics of the Sinhalas and by that contribution, they have access to a sensitive public opinion. However, the second is a more construct and fanciful projection: namely that Political Saṅgha particularly militantly active Saṅgha have for centuries played a patriotic role in defending Buddhism in Lanka from internal and well external enemies. Such construction is not only un- Buddhist but ahistorical. In Laṅkan there were no solider monks like in Japan or China or soldier Sadhus of Indian (Vaishnava) Hinduism. The Sinhala Saṅgha who advised / supported struggled against foreign invasions in noncombatant way were very limited compared to the large number of Saṅgha who in numerous ways contributed to the preserving of the Theravādin tradition. It is the work of Väliviṭa Saraṇaṃkara under Kīrti Sri Rājasiṃha that revived a fallen Buddhism in Lanka, not the militant tactics of his contemporary Vibävé who led the Wellaśsa rebellion under a forged identity as prince Doraisāmi (De Silva 2005). It is Venerable Hikkaḍuvē Sri Suṃaṅgala who painstakingly constructed an intellectual position for the Saṅgha reform and education under the British rule that revitalized the Pirivena education which had disappeared over a hundred years. It is the learned and eloquent debates of Migeṭṭuvattē Guṇānanda, at Pānadura that answered Christian public challenges on Theravādin abhidharma. History hardly talks of militant Saṅgha if one can find them, how they contributed to the preserving and developing the Sāsana. Instead, it is the tradition of Saṅgha who generation after generation complied, interpreted, popularized and publicly defended the faith by extremely academic, intellectual and dialectical process that protected Buddhism in Lanka.
In post –independent politics major parties are guilty of using ethnicity, religion and religious symbols to harness their vote blocks. MEP, JVP, SLFP, UNP even the traditional leftist parties have used the Saṅgha as voter attraction. My preliminary research shows that there are at least five waves of Saṅgha activism under direct political party affiliation in the recent history of Lanka. 1) D.S. Senanayake /Walpola Rāhula combination running to the independence, 2) S.W.R.D./ Māpitigama Buddharakkhita, 3) JRJ/Davamottawë Amarawaņsa, 4) Mahinda /JHU ( especially Älle Gunawaņsa and Aturaliyē Ratana) and the historical development of an all Saṅgha party as JHU, 5) BBS/Rāvaṇa Balaya/ Sinhala Rāvaya/ with unknown but speculated affiliations with Ghōtabaya Rajapakse. As in the ancient history, at each of this junctures, politicians who used the Saṅgha soon became intolerant of them for they either demanded or forced them to do too much. These short-lived marriages have always ended in bitter divorce and damage. One could say that using Saṅgha for political ends is like walking on fire, you may have faith but the probability of being burnt is higher.
Notwithstanding nothing in the forgoing should take away the monumental influence and the directional role the Saṅgha had played in Lanka. However, the significant fact in Sinhala Buddhism is not the Saṅgha/polity cross legitimizations but how such developments are accepted or even encouraged by the faithful Buddhist lay communities knowing these affiliations are contrary to the Saṅgha vinaya. Walpola Rāhula’s justification for a newer Bhikkshuwage Urumaya (1948) is kind of a modern Mahāvaṃsa for many Saṅgha, who possibly even would not bother to read the intellectual and Vinaya challenge to Rāhula by Venerable Henpitagedara Gñanavāra through his ‘Bhiskuwage Urumaya Kumakda? Or Pävidi Waga saha Sasun Maga by Venerable Yakkaḍuvē Pragñārāma. (See SL. Seneviratne – The Works of the Kings ( Chapter four) for a full discussion here) Because in Sinhala Buddhism ethnicity precedes spirituality. Nevertheless, in a post CHOGM context where Lanka received international attention on her poor Human Rights record that may now be used as unquestionable evidence for an UN led inquiry, the actions of BBS and its leaders are just deconstructing all what the moderate Sinhala Buddhist had desired after the war- A peaceful democracy with economic progress. Then again, democracy and development are not ontogenetic processes. They need be planned, cultivated, preserved and developed. Not only every Sinhala Buddhist supporting the militant path of BBS, but who is silently enjoying or tolerating, will be responsible for the deep damages it promises to deliver. The news of UNP leadership begging forgiveness from militant BBS/Gñanasāra does not only betrays the hope of democratic recovery but also encourages and energizes a destructive trajectory for Sinhala Buddhism.
*Dr. Suren Rāghavan is a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies – Wolfson College University of Oxford. His new book Buddhist Monks and the Politics of Lanka’s Civil War is scheduled to be published by Equinox- UK in summer 2014
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