3 December, 2022


The Government & The Clergy

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

The recent tariff hikes, particularly of electricity and water, have brought into sharp focus an underlying, though still growing, conflict between the State and the Buddhist clergy. Buddhist monks have vowed not to pay the revised bills, while the country’s Energy Minister, Kanchana Wijesekera, has stated that if they do not, power will be disconnected. The most vocal of these priests, Omalpe Sobitha Thera, a firebrand of the Jathika Hela Urumaya and now a critic of the Rajapaksas, has gone as far as to organise protests against these move.

Preferring a more diplomatic approach to the matter, the Mahanayakes of the three monastic sects – Siam, Amarapura, and Ramanya – have penned a letter to Ranil Wickremesinghe. The letter underlies the enormous importance, and relevance, of Buddhist temples to the country’s social and cultural life, pointing out that most people visit them in the afterhours and evenings when electricity is most needed. It requests for concessions on the new tariffs, stating that Buddhist temples are not in a position to absorb them. For his part the President has assured monks that the government will look into installing solar panels at temples.

These developments mark an interesting turnaround in the country’s politics. Buddhist monks – and Buddhist monasteries, especially the more powerful ones – have historically been seen as patrons of politicians and bureaucrats. This followers from what Buddhist monks claim to be their historical role, stemming from the part they played in the lives and politics of the country’s kings. Despite Sri Lanka turning from a hereditary monarchy to a constitutional republic, so the argument goes, monks have the right to intervene in politics. It goes without saying that they have succeeded in this aim, transforming into patron figures.

Liberal critics of the clergy imply that Buddhist monks wield disproportionate power today. Tenable as this argument is, given the enormous role these monks play in politics as active participants or not so passive bystanders, I would argue that their role in politics has been shaped by a fundamental contradiction between the influence they wield on public, specifically Sinhala middle-class, opinion, and their lack of economic power. This contradiction has never been seriously examined, largely because the stereotype of monks as political creatures has been easier to stick with. Yet it serves to explain not just their recent agitation against the new electricity tariffs, but also their changing relationship with the State.

The basis for Buddhist clerical fears and grievances is largely, and simply, historical: British colonialism. More so than Portuguese and Dutch colonialism, British rule sapped Buddhist monks and temples, through legal and ostensibly legitimate means, of the power they enjoyed in medieval Sri Lanka. As Kitsiri Malalgoda points out in Buddhism in Sinhalese Society, British land policies cut the Buddhist temple from the State, vesting temples lands in the hands of Chief Prelates. Left without a means of sustenance, these Prelates sought whatever way they could to sustain themselves. This not only fundamentally changed the character of the Buddhist clergy, but it also brought them closer to Sinhala Buddhist mass opinion, thus paving the way for their later entry into mass politics, particularly after 1931.

All this gets lost in narratives which frame Buddhist monks as political, authoritarian, and proto-fascist. The rhetoric of the monks themselves, such as that which openly invoke Hitler, has not done them any favour in this regard. They have mobilised bigotry and chauvinism of the worst sort, making their critics associate them with their worst excesses. Yet liberal accounts simplify them, suggesting that they are all-powerful and are important transmitters of majoritarian sentiment in the country. Yet no serious account has been made of that rift I highlighted earlier, though it reveals their complex character. My thesis here is simple: monks have enlarged their role in mass politics because of their lack of economic clout.

Of course, the monks themselves would give two simple reasons, or justifications, for their actions: that Sinhala Buddhists have no other place to go (“Where else can we call home?”), and that this is their rightful place (“This is our home!”) Yet like their liberal critics, these self-descriptions gloss over the economic aspects to their participation in politics. Contrary to popular opinion, Buddhist temples do not make up the bulk of the country’s lands: British colonial policies, following up from Portuguese policies, struck at the base of these temples, turning the Church, especially the Catholic and the Anglican, into one of the country’s largest landowners. Mass politics today has enabled monks to do what was not possible in the colonial era, namely to shape popular opinion. This, in effect, is their raison d’être.

I would contend that these contradictions are what feed into Sinhala middle-class fears and grievances as well. Sociologists and historians paint the Sinhala middle-class as a protean and often irrational social group. This is true, to a considerable extent. Yet to simply stick with such stereotypes, without examining the economic dimension to their fears and grievances, or for that matter without acknowledging that though the numerical majority they wield less power economically relative to other ethnic and social groups, would be to ignore certain factors that are indispensable to any proper analysis of class, ethnicity, and religion in any society. They are, to put it simply, a local majority lacking numbers elsewhere.

The net effect of these transformations, over the years, has been to turn the Buddhist clergy into a major beneficiary of State subsidies. It is this which has entrenched them, and in turn entrenched the State and determined its ideology. The Buddhist clergy of Sri Lanka is, in that sense, interesting if not intriguing: it shows that a clerical class belonging to the majority ethnic group of a country can assert political power while “suffering” from a lack of economic clout. This has been so powerful a contradiction that, under extreme conditions, such as the present crisis, it has turned a not insignificant section of the clergy away from a State once identified with their interests. The recent protests against the tariff hikes portends something far more pertinent for our time, and for all time. But scholars are yet to probe into it.

*The writer is an international relations analyst, columnist, and researcher who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 4

    The Government & The Clergy

    Government is making wrong decision and why ordinary people pay let Minister Recover some money from the proved one negligence electrical contract on past found blamed by COPE community then make temple and others to pay, Or use this money for solar power to light the temple and The minister recover from other way Politics is a great art. It convinces people to pay for what has been agitation against the electricity tariffs

    • 15

      Uditha Devapriya, ( prodigy of DJ) side stepped all current burning issues to address privileges and entitlements of clergy and them being denied those under British Colonialism. People do visit all hours hospitals and in many countries educational institutes (community colleges, libraries) function after hours for the working class. Don’t they deserve subsidized utility like those monks. ( temple, mosque, and church????) Uditha, did you see Ape Man Ganasara sitting right next to Saudi diplomat and gulping meals. Were you ever invited ??? Monks have enlarged their roles in mass / SB politics because of their economic clout, privileges, entitlement and SB government patronage. So much so they could get away with crime, corruption and abuse.

      • 13

        gorging on food sounds appropriate to Ape Man than gulping

        • 1

          Did the Ape Man eat as much as ‘civilized’ people?
          It will be interesting to study gluttony by region of the world.

          • 0

            “Did ApeMan eat as much free food as civilized people”?? You can call Ape and find out for yourself. Initiate that “interesting study” , at home provided you have adequate civilized sample.

    • 9

      “The recent tariff hikes, particularly of electricity and water, have brought into sharp focus an underlying, though still growing, conflict between the State and the Buddhist clergy”
      Whatever said and done, nobody but Ranil would have dared incur the wrath of the Buddhist clergy, that too while heading an ostensibly Pohottuwa government, which cannot be accused of being “anti-national”. Self-important Prima donnas like Sobhitha are in a quandary having backed the Rajapaksas to the hilt in the past, but hypocritically trying to distance themselves from the economic catastrophe they contributed to. Nor do they seem capable of understanding the suffering of ordinary people who have to pay inflated electricity bills while these pampered “monks” waste hundreds of thousands worth of subsidised electricity on decorative fripperies or even air conditioning.

  • 11

    The military is missing
    the-government-the-clergy- the military
    The clergy are complaining about energy bills – the Govt tells them yo install solar power
    The military is not complaining – they have unlimited supply of energy – and perhaps they live in more luxury than the clergy.

  • 8

    In Sri Lanka the Government all this while has been “By the Clergy”; “Of the Clergy” and “For the People” whether they like it or not.

    This must change from now onwards to be “By the People”; ” Of the People” and “For the People”. whether the clergy like it or not.

    • 13

      The Sri Lankan Clergies as superhumans they can lecture the government on all matters:
      International affairs
      Sports & Team selection on various teams
      Cabinet – read all Rajapaksas and their cronies should be in the govt
      Race relations – read racial hatred
      Archaeology – read land grabbing in the NE
      Shavendra Silva – he should be in charge of any thing and every thing in Sri Lanka
      please add if I have missed anything

    • 11

      “Sinhala Buddhists have no other place to go (“Where else can we call home?”), and that this is their rightful place (“This is our home!”) Yet like their”

      How about the minorities, basically saying if.its Muslims go to Saudi (that’s may be thug monk was so happy to mingle in the embassy)so if it’s Tamils go to India then,may be lot of us like that idea,but apparently they says we are citizens of dooming begers island it seems.
      So we are.not accommodated, only for SB only.but Gota says his home is US.
      How many of you all waiting to get US green cards.
      We all can dream of Singapore, but we will be next to Somalia,
      Plant ganja, make prostitution legal as well .we might loose the tourism to Kerala too.

  • 11

    I would like to ask all the Mahanayakes and the Buddhist Monks, especially the “Thug Ones” – what is more important – Pansalas being lit up or people having three meals a day?

    • 8

      Blaspheming Sinhala Buddhist monks should be humble and not attached to anything. fIRST THEy should ordain to be real good monks. I have not the least respect to sinhala monks today.
      Every time I come to Sri Lanka, when I see those temple owners unnecessarily lighting up the temple grounds, I think it is better than the rich people in Singapore. However, so far they have done so at the expense of others. That is our mirror image of ordinary Sri Lankans.
      However, our Pinguttars know that all Sinhalese are Pingollas and ask for anything. Prima donna Sobitha is the joker of the day. Uduvedhammananda, Medagoda Palhora are all marginalized now, but Samatbandha is a role model today.

    • 2

      Not 3 Bandu told them to cut down to 2

  • 18

    meaningless tosh , anyone using a utility for which the country is paying must pay his bills.This includes politicians and presidents , their power bills must be deducted from their salaries. Uditha is seeing various ideologies and philosophies among these monkey like people. The same way Old codger sees a brave and brilliant man in Ranil while we all see a cheap, unprincipled conman in Ranil

    • 5

      I read somewhere when Abdul Qulam was prez of Hindia his brother and siblings stayed in prez palace and looked after, soon they return he asked how much were spent on their stay and he draws his personal cheque for that expenses

  • 3

    I read somewhere when Abdul Qulam was prez of Hindia his brother and siblings stayed in prez palace and looked after, soon they return he asked how much were spent on their stay and he draws his personal cheque for that expenses

  • 8

    Ha Ha Ha any anti-Ranil comment makes old codgers finger go straight to thumbs down on his computer.

    Outside of this website, and particularly old codger, the whole country is thumbs down against Ranil !

    An absolute lunatic !

  • 2

    Fallacies like the Gamai Daagabai which have been deeply rooted in the majority have helped in the clergy, who are propagating a faith or whatever you may call it, that was documented almost seven hundred years later in a language different from the language it was initially supposed to have been preached in, dabbling in subjects they have no reasonable knowledge of. A good example is requesting someone to be a Hitler. Comes to mind what Sir John once said.
    If the clergy had the influence they profess they had, what on earth were they doing when the citizens were hunting harmless wildlife?. If they had an iota of an idea about politics, wonder what they are doing when our GDP is hurtling down or when that once presidential aspirant is bringing forward a most draconian piece of legislation which if implemented would turn the citizens of this country to mere zombies, and shell-shocked at that.

  • 2

    For how much longer are these acolytes going to profess colonial persecution for entitlement mentality to persist?

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