19 August, 2022


The “Olcottisation” Of Project Gotabaya

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

The theosophical movement, as the likes of Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekara have pointed out, was fixated on imitating the same colonialist hegemony its representatives were contending against. They derived considerably from the Protestant, Lutheran, and Wesleyan tradition, a given since many of them were educated at Wesleyan missionary schools (Olcott himself was a Presbyterian).

That the Buddhist Catechism was structured along the lines of Luther’s Small Catechism is therefore not surprising: in the absence of a strong bilingual and rooted bourgeoisie, it was left to the urban Buddhist elite to “salvage” Buddhism from the pirivena to the British curriculum. Inherently this transformation was hybrid, neither here nor there. As later events show, it couldn’t survive the Buddhist Commission of 1956, a document which was vilified by leading members of that same elite.

All that is history of course. But history is a reminder. It crops up, sometimes in gushes, sometimes in bits and pieces, and finds other channels of venting out the anomalies of the past. The fact that Olcott Buddhism died down in 1956 didn’t mean it couldn’t be resurrected. It was more or less a structural flaw in a well-intentioned revivalist program. And it has found a way of venting itself out today in the rift, vaguely discernible but very much present nevertheless, in our nationalist movement.

The Sinhala Only pamphleteers of 1956 found their leader in an incongruous figure. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was primarily a product of Western liberal humanism, though he was streets ahead of the Marxists and the Olcott Buddhists in trying to attain a Buddhist utopia. What he failed to realise, however, was that there are no Buddhist utopias. Buddhism has no place for a secular paradise. The Sinhala people have no place for a secular paradise. In Bandaranaike’s writings, copious as they are, one can infer a sensibility that rebels against this fundamental line of thinking.

His nationalism was largely derived from two sources: the Bengali renaissance and Western liberalism. Being neither a Tagore nor a Henry Wallace (whose exhortation of “the age of the common man” became a refrain in his program), however, he was to say the least an ideological parvenu to what transpired in 1956. Such an incongruity finds an equivalent today in Gotabaya Rajapaksa. With a caveat: Bandaranaike was the messiah figure for the Sinhala and Dharmapala Buddhists, while Rajapaksa represents a similar figure for the Protestant and Olcottised Buddhists.

Project Gotabaya isn’t a term I came up with: Hafeel Farisz coined it. In it one can infer the ideological self-contradictions at the heart of the professional nationalist electorate. This electorate continues to be sustained by the urban middle-class. It’s no surprise that one of the reasons for the rift in the Sihala Urumaya between the Champika Ranawaka and the S. L. Gunasekera factions was the series of victories gained by the former over the latter in areas such as Borella, Maharagama, Dehiwela, and Kotte, areas which housed the same young, professional, and middle-class electorate that would empower and back the later Hela Urumaya.

This class has essentially bifurcated now, between an Old Guard and a New Guard. The Old Guard comprises of the Hela Urumaya. The New Guard comprises of those who hedge their bets for 2020 on Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The reason for that is owing to the man’s popular image as a technocrat: in particular, his stint at the Urban Development Authority, the same Authority Ranawaka is in charge of now.

But Gotabaya Rajapaksa is as much the technocrat as his brothers, which isn’t saying much really. It’s a classic case of a movement being led by a man who’s ideologically distant from some of the tenets espoused by its representatives. In a similar vein, those who lead Project Gotabaya are not just distant from but also opposed to the other major faction in the nationalist movement (led by firebrands like Gevindu Cumaratunga, Elle Gunawansha Thera, and Manohara de Silva). The best way to draw up a contrast between these two is by resorting to the primary focus of each: while Project Gotabaya is centred more on economics, on numbers, the Cumaratunga-Gunawansha nexus (which includes the Jathika Sanwada Kawaya) is centred more on slogans, on protest symbols. Basically, it’s reason versus rhetoric.

Project Gotabaya is on that count an extrapolation of what Dayan Jayatilleka referred to as smart patriotism: the kind of patriotism that subsists on nationalism and internationalism (Dr Dayan compares it to Fidel Castro’s ideology: “Internationalism isn’t just a necessity… it’s a condition for survival”). Gevindu’s movement, on the other hand, is housed by the likes of Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekera. For obvious reasons, these two don’t see eye to eye. Not too difficult to figure out why.

The professional nationalists who back Rajapaksa are for the most renegades. They are also modernists. Unlike de Silva, Amarasekara, and Cumaratunga, they are not opposed to Western paradigms of development. They are against the UNP, but not the technocratic thrust that defines the UNP. In trying to “market” technocracy to the nationalist, they concomitantly reject and pander to populism: roughly the same ideological schizophrenia exhibited by the Olcott Buddhists. They openly spurn cosmopolitanism, but in spurning it they end up emulating it in a different way. In place of a figurehead like Razeen Sally (with his libertarian streak), to give just one example, they promote Howard Nicholas (with his Keynesian undertones).

Should we worry, however? I don’t think so. They are needed. Not because they will uplift the grassroots movement here, but because in acting as a Third Force between the regime and the anti-regime, they are serving a purpose: market the tools of the cosmopolitan to the nationalist. Which brings me to another point.

People have written on Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Some see in him a messiah. Others see in him an autocrat. The congruence of messiah figure and autocrat has led to the popular image of the man as a placid administrator, the kind of administrator Project Gotabaya conceptualises him as. The Jathika Chinthanaya, which houses Gevindu, is not interested in personalities like that. It is more interested in perpetuating ideas.

For me, this simultaneously personality-driven and idea-driven thrust of our nationalist resurgence is commendable and comforting. There can be clashes, there can be rifts, but owing to the lack of a cohesive grassroots campaign here, it’s consoling that one of our nationalist movements is campaigning from the premise that to combat the enemy, one must emulate what underpins the enemy.

By that I am not thinking of parties or people alone, of course. I am thinking about ideologies. Patently anti-democratic, anti-nationalist ideologies. All of them skewed against Sinhala Buddhists. If it takes a smart patriot (what does that make other patriots though, I wonder) to undo or question them, as citizens we theoretically shouldn’t be having problems. Are there problems in the first place? Strictly speaking, yes. But we shouldn’t be worrying about them. At least not now.

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Latest comments

  • 3

    A most intelligent and interesting article by this young cultural critic. One missing link though: Premadasa, who was described in a long essay by Prof Peter Schalk of Uppsala University as a Theosophical Society and Ashokan Buddhist.

  • 0

    I vividly recall reading an article by Prof. Nalin De S, wherein he calls the Buddhist schools established by the BTS as propagating “Galle Road Buddhism”.

  • 0

    Uditha, the excellent revaluations of Siri Gunasinghe on this site tell me that you might wish to explore the triangle of Olcott Buddhism-Sinhala Modernism–Sinhala Buddhist traditionalism, rather than limit yourself to the dichotomy of the first and third categories.

  • 1

    Just think what other Asian country could the uneducated uncultured laborer Rajapaksas have risen?
    Certainly none of the developed ones and it is hard to think of anything like them anywhere in Asia where generals or professionals are elected as rulers.
    They would not have risen here but for a stolen election by bribing the enemy to block votes for Ranil.
    Get their numerous trials finished then forget about their dreadful time in office.

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