29 May, 2022


“We The People” & “They The Maha Sangha”

By Sarath De Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law.” 
- Thomas Paine -The Age of Reason

Recent events demonstrate that the saffron robe has now become the instrument of choice of an emerging ochlocracy – the refined term for mobocracy. In this land like no other, the ill-natured and the capricious outnumber the good natured and the cautious in politics of the street. Politics of the street in the age of digital communication gives them a head start that others cannot match.

A militant monk who delivered a homily on ‘Theravada Jurisprudence’ as he understood it was ordered to be remanded on charges of contempt of court by the Homagama magistrate. Three days after, our President solemnly reaffirmed that the government will always be guided by the advice of the Maha Sangha.

Seriously injured in a fall, this writer was in a meditative mood recalling the lyrics of John Lennon’s “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” It was in this pensive mind frame that I watched the antics of the militant monks at Homagama and then listened to the President making his pledge to the Maha Sangha at a ceremony on Jan. 29 at the Kotte Rajamaha Viharaya.

The buffoonery at Homagama was revolting. The Presidential pledge in Kotte was disturbing and to me a Buddhist by birth even frightening. Contained in it, is the possibility that the sovereignty of ‘we the people’ is subject to the decrees of ‘they the Maha Sangha’.

When the state takes the initiative to declare a decidedly specific allegiance to particular religion, it willy-nilly conveys a message of exclusion of other faiths. How can the government undertake to assure the equality of all citizens when it clearly prefers the faith of some or a majority of citizens? If it prefers the path to ‘Nirvana’ what does it propose for those who wish to settle for ‘heaven’ or simply repose till the trumpets?

There is no doubt that the President holds the Sangha in highest veneration. That is his private business. The Saffron robe is no longer a symbol of renunciation. It is an identity marker. It became the uniform of storm troopers at Homagama. In early January 2015, reverend Medagoda Abhayatissa described the 19th amendment as a betrayal of the nation. Do we need more arguments to demonstrate that the institution of the ‘ Maha Sangha’ as we know it in Sri Lanka is not a homogenous body?

Sri Lanka is not a theocracy. It is a secular democracy which is constitutionally required to give Buddhism the foremost place. Whose Buddhism receives the foremost place? The question is raised in the context of the present power struggle between the President and the former President for control of the SLFP.

The President should read ‘Bawatharnaya’ ‘[Passage across Samsarara] ‘by Martin Wickeremesinghe. In it, our great Sinhala literary colossus explains Siddartha’s quest. In the post script Martin Wickremesinghe says that a true appreciation of the life and message of the Buddha is only possible only by comprehending the social milieu in which he explored the emancipation of a people trapped in Brahmin practices of social exclusion and ‘thirascheena vidya’ – bestial beliefs systems. He goes on to explain how in later years the Brahamin beliefs of the super natural slowly but surely crawled back and subverted the teachings of the Buddha based on simple natural reason, expounded not in high flown Sanskrit but in the idioms of the common folk of the ‘Maghada Deshaya.’

In a lecture delivered at ‘Santiniketan’ on ‘The Contemporary Relevance of the Buddha’, the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen says it all in two lines. “Even now we can enjoy and learn from the ideas and arguments that the Buddha gave us twenty five hundred years ago. Our world may be very different from what the Buddha faced in the sixth century BC, but we can still benefit greatly from the reasoned approach to ethics, politics and social relations that Gauthma Buddha brought to the world of human understanding.

Here we have a problem. Neither Martin Wickremesinghe nor Amartya Sen dressed in Saffron garb- the all-important ‘Cheevaraya’. The President can be assured of the support of all minorities both religious and ethnic if he seeks the constitutional enactment of the Kalama Sutta – the Buddha’s charter of free inquiry – the one cannon that the Sangha fight shy of expounding – for it undermines their parochial authority over the pious and the devoted.

As Amartya Sen observes, the modern human development objectives such as longevity, education and removal of poverty has an uncanny closeness to the problems that had engaged the attention of young Buddha twenty five hundred years earlier. Martin Wickramasinghe voiced the same in 1973 at the age of eighty three and was reviled by many in the Sangha community with few exceptions.

What are the teachings of the Buddha that escape the grasp of the Sangha as they are constituted today? There are several that instantly occur to those who have grasped the message of the Buddha. Venerable Maduluwawe Sobhitha thero told us what they were. The importance of public reasoning and communication. The significance of human life, civility in politics and decent governance. Buddha rejected parochialism and preached a universal message of fairness and justice.

The institution of the Sangha has no special claim on infinite political wisdom. They do not speak for the voice less and the homeless. They do not speak for the poor and the oppressed.

Those members of the Sangha who claim to be Sinhala Buddhist Sangha have a demonstrated track record of arousing explosive passions within what they claim to be their exclusive traditions.

The contemporary ‘Sangha’ in our representative democracy are incapable of neutral political advice. Politics is all about influencing the way the electorate thinks.

None could underestimate the achievements of the Maithri-Ranil coalition in reestablishing democratic norms of governance. The democratic puzzle is to resolve the contours of rule by people and the rule of the people. A democratic government, if it wishes to remain as a government has to confront the excesses of democratic individualism.

The former President Mahinda Rajapaksa knows it well. A political analyst who does not hide his allegiance to the former president recently summed up the dilemma of the present administration in agonizingly accurate and excruciatingly explicit terms.

“Mahinda Rajapaksa is the legitimate, historic leader of Sinhala nationalism. Any sustainable constitutional reform needs him on board or benignly neutral, for Southern nationalist legitimacy. On the ground, he wields a de facto veto.”

Therein lies a tale. Martin Wickeremesinghe’s Bawathranaya is not about a Sinhala Siddaratha.

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Latest comments

  • 12

    Sarath De Alwis,

    Sri Lankan rogue political leaders hide behind the racist, misogynist Sanga religious bigots when it comes to restoring the rights of Tamils:

    This is the history since independence – from D S Senanayake to Sirisena.

    The other game is to hide and seek behind the racist opposition.

    Te international community should note the non-implementation the of the latest UN human rights resolution which was con-sponsored by Sri Lanka.

    This will clearly demonstrate to the world how untrustworthy Sri Lankan governments are even today.

    The UN should take appropriate steps to restore the legitimate democratic rights of Tamils and protect them from racist Sri Lankan regimes.

    • 6

      Sarath de Alwis

      RE: “We The People” & “They The Maha Sangha”


      “We The People” & “They The Maha Sangha”

      “We The People” & “They The Monks”

      “We The People” & “They The Priests”

      “We The People” & “They The Ulema”

      Where do the Scientists and Philosophers stand in this scheme?

      Revelation, Scripture, Brainwashing Vs. Reason

  • 10

    First question that popped into my mind when i saw the news about my3’s statement was- what happens when what the people want is different from what the sangha wants? who does the government follow, in that case? the mahanayakes are too terrified to stand up to people like the BBS and Gnaanasaara in case they’d lose their own power… And these are the people who we’re supposed to believe have the “best interests” of the people at heart? What happens when someone like Gnaane declares a crusade against some minority group (including the so-called “nightclub bauddhayo”)? Will the mahanaykes cower and hide and prevaricate, and ultimately approve it through tacit tolerance? Or will they actually have a spine to speak out?

    The rest of the world have already moved towards secularism and moved on. We’re moving backwards. Brilliant.

    The sooner people with the means leave the country to the braindead morons who approve of this kind of thing, the better. Let their imaginary gods and whatnot save the country from a complete lack of skilled labour, see what happens then.

    • 5

      i am not contesting the contents of the article. however countries moving to secularism is a myth

      UK clearly have bishops in house loard and national anthem says God saves the queen. Queen is also the head of Church of England nothing secular about it.

      USA dollar clearly states “In God we trust”.

      Israel is militant Jewish

      No need to talk about Arab countries

      China and Russia is said to be secular but grave concerns about human rights

      Its important to retain the necessary background for Buddhism to flourish if not there is no point in Sri Lanka

      • 8


        “Its important to retain the necessary background for Buddhism to flourish if not there is no point in Sri Lanka “

        Keep it secular, like in Turkey, and have the religions on the side, to keep the Monks, Priests and Ulema happy and Important.

        People can still continue to give “Dana”, take Sil, do Bodhi Poojas etc.

        However, no Sunday Night Sil and Monday Night Kills.

      • 1


        You misunderstand the secularism and Atheism. Further, agnostics are people who are not sure if a god is there or not. Probably they are more honest than theism or atheism. Secularism is not giving priority to the religion(any) in the government. It does not reject the religion.

        You question gains priority if America prints in its currency “In god we trust” then what is the case of the religions which does not believe in gods like the one, the Buddhist or Hindu Athvi-teese. They believe in something but not the existence of god. In fact there is reasonable number of Americans do not want “One nation Under God” and “In god we trust”. Because of the general nature of the tolerance, nobody had taken any serious action against them and had got rid of them.(This is in opposite for gun lobbyist; they powerful and will not allow the guns go away). Those who does not want those words are liberals, in nature not very aggressive on having put the things in their way. Their existence of those words is not an indication that American wants those desperately.

  • 4

    The Sangha has advised the President to release Ganasara and drop all charges against.
    There is a rumour he also advised to be lenient on the Rajapakses.
    There was some discussion how best to utilise the LTTE millions for the benefit of the Sangha.wink wink

  • 11

    well said. thanks. let us not find fault with the teachings of Siddartha Budda or Prophet Mohamed or the hindu Sages or Jesus Christ. It is the religions formed and led by human beings who have at times misled or misbehaved.I am a Christian. During the years when I was Prefect of studies and dean of theology at the National Seminary in Kandy, I went to the Maha Vihare to invite a Monk to come and teach Buddhism to our students preparing for the catholic priesthood. In Sri Lanka it is a sine qua non that we all should positively respect and appreciate the teachings of all four religions. And there is nothing wrong that the President and Govt. listen to the good advice of the Maha Sangha who lead the majority of the Population. It is up to the wisdom and goodness of the Maha Sangha to promote good will and understanding among all ethnic Groups and religions, especially at this juncture when we have a positive Vision of a united Nation of all living peacefully.

    • 12

      Fr S.J.Emmanuel, you say that “… there is nothing wrong that the President and Govt. listen(ing) to the good advice of the Maha Sangha who lead the majority of the Population”.

      But going from the actions and non-actions of the Sangha, who is to say that the “advice” they give the President will be “good”?

      You talk about their “wisdom and goodness”, but there are no examples of such qualities in our somnambulist ‘Sangha’. If you have any, I, for one, would be happy to hear them!

      In any event, the separation of ‘Church’ and ‘State’ is a generally accepted convention of any functioning democracy.

      And, as Sarath de Alwis asks, “When the state takes the initiative to declare a decidedly specific allegiance to particular religion, it willy-nilly conveys a message of exclusion of other faiths. How can the government undertake to assure the equality of all citizens when it clearly prefers the faith of some or a majority of citizens?”

  • 15

    Sarath De Alwis,

    A very educative sermon- Damma Desanawa, emphasizing the down to earth foundations of the Buddhist edifice. Prince Sidharha left the comforts of his palace, the power he had, a young wife achild, parents and his kin to meditate on suffering and its cause. He found answers that stand valid to this day. The political/ politicized monks amongst us have become the bearers of suffering today. Their goal for many, probably most monks today is not Buddhahood! That goal has been postponed to another birth or to a birth, after many more like what they have now. How sad!

    I sometimes wonder, whether the manner in which we portray the Buddha, as a well fed, well fleshed person with a moon face, makes the monks and laity not see the suffering and pain that Prince Sidhartha bore and how he suffered to find the truth.

    I have got a carving made of a thin Buddha seated in meditation with hollow cheeks and jutting ribs. It is hung in my home to remind me of the suffering and deprivation the Buddha underwent to understand the cause of suffering and seek remedies.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

    • 5

      It was the same with Prophet Muhammed (PBOH) when he left his home and his wife Lady Khadija (May Allah be pleased with her) and went up into the mountain called ‘Jabalun-Noor, and whilst meditating in the cave of Hira, received his enlightenment in the form of the first revelation of the Holy Quran. Millions from all over the world still climb this mountain even today and take in the awe inspiring view of the city below. It has been reserved an archaeological site with no changes to its original layout. He used to pray and meditate in a peaceful surrounding on the existence of a creator who has control over everything, his concern also extended to the well being of humanity, the causes of deprivation and suffering, and where do we go from here into afterlife, were some of his concerns. It was here that he received enlightenment with the first versus of the Holy Quran, through Angel Jibreel (Archangel Gabriel in English Bible). A lot of similarities.

      • 4


        Spin on brother. Whatever revelations the meditating Mohamed received the end result is bloodshed and more bloodshed. I am not talking about the bloodshed of the Western designed wars against Muslims but the bloodshed of Muslim brother against Muslim brother.

        All religions are steeped in bloodshed brother Marwan. I am not against Muslim bloodshed only. The Christian barbarism and the Hindu barbarism and now the Buddhist barbarism like what we see in Burma and saw at Aluthgama recently.

        The least we have to do with religion brother the less blood we will spill.

  • 2

    Strengthen the argument for a Tamil Separate State

    • 2


      A separate Tamil State will not free its citizenry of the evils of Tamil Hindu nationalism either. You can bet your bottom dollar that the leaders of the separate Tamil State will also consult the Swamis and will break coconuts in Pillayar kovils.

      Separating religion from politics is what should be called for and not for a separate state. If that happens all races will live with less conflict and more peace and less bloodshed. The President should consult the citizenry for advice and not the narrow minded, ignorant, myopic myth oriented crafty priests.

      • 2

        BBS Rep
        Breaking coconuts at temples and doing Pooja and receiving blessing from iyer is different from being guided on government policies by them.

        I am not advocating that Tamil separate state is the panacea. My message is these guys have not learnt anything in the last 30 years and driving the country into separatism

  • 12

    Monk hegemony has ruined the lives of the ordinary people in SL, so much that they cannot think independently and straight anymore without the involvement of these self seeking abbots. The people fail to recognize the fact that these monks are also fallible just as all humans are, and are spellbound by their oratorical talents, rather than base their respect the lifestyle they lead to follow as the best model to follow or to reject. They pay excessive obeisance to them like no other in forms of human worship. If not, it is even demanded from them ‘sivurata garu karapan’ is the famous term used to good effect. They fail to draw the line where their respect ends and where reality starts in terms of their demeanor, language used, behavior and respect towards authority. The country is going the way of these crazy monks, and God knows where this will end, while the rest of the world advances with time, we will still be in the doldrums.

    • 0

      For once I agree with you, only because you failed to mention that Prophet Mohamed and the Koran is the panacea for all ills.

  • 9

    Another excellent point of view from this writer.

    As he states, “There is no doubt that the President holds the Sangha in highest veneration. That is his private business”.

    It sure is – and many of us want no part of it!

    It also serves to demonstrate the lack of wisdom on the part of this man, in whom we had so much hope.

    • 0

      “It also serves to demonstrate the lack of wisdom on the part of this man, in whom we had so much hope.”

      It also serves to demonstrate the lack of wisdom on our part to pin so much hope on this man. After all he is only a Sinhala Buddhist chameleonic politician.

  • 4

    Thank you for your brave and excellent presentation Mr de Alwis.

  • 12

    Great piece Mr Sarath de Alwis.

    All credit to you and Ms Sharmini Serasinghe for taking the initiative to wean the state from the dependency on religions. This is the greatest service the Sri Lankan intelligentsia can do for the country.

    Sri Lanka will never become a modern, free and fair state for all its citizens if it isn’t secular.

    As you say, the practice/following of a religion is a private matter and has no right to be imposed on another.

    • 5

      “the practice/following of a religion is a private matter and has no right to be imposed on another.”

      Absolutely correct. Absolutely. Been thinking ansd saying so for years, even though none took notice! I am glad this has become the centre of discussion now!

      No developed country goes about imposing religion on others. Most of them do not have religion as a subject in schools.

      The Ministry of education should get involved in intellectually and diplomatically challenging pursuits such as this(and not distributing school uniforms etc!), and figure how to wean the schools from this practice. That would be tough, but it has to come, if we are to move towards a modern society.

      FURTHER, the promotion of this discussion among the intelligentsia during prime time on TV must be encouraged. The soap operas can wait till 10.00pm for airing.

      Teledramas during prime time is the best antidote to serious discussion and thinking. Governments have flourished and survived for years thanks to this distraction.

      Most countries who have banished religion from their curricula have far more decently behaved men and women in public. Just ask around, if you don’t believe me!

  • 2

    All that we need is a French Type revolution

  • 5

    The photograph in this Mountain Spring of an essay by Sarath de Alwis gives me the impression that President Sirisena is being led up to be ragged!
    Perhaps,it was only after this that he had made the declaration that the Government will always be guided by the advice of the Maha Sangha.
    History has a dirty habit of repeating itself!
    It was only after a severe rag SWRD tore up the Banda-Chelva Pact almost 60 years ago!

  • 0

    Sarath de Alwis said,

    “The Presidential pledge in Kotte was disturbing and to me a Buddhist by birth even frightening.”

    and for the Muslims and Tamils quite terrifying indeed.

  • 0

    Sarath, your John Lennon quote made me think of another song of his (‘Imagine’) that makes a whole lot of sense.

    The lyrics are reproduced for the benefit of those who have not heard it.

    Imagine there’s no heaven
    It’s easy if you try
    No hell below us
    Above us only sky
    Imagine all the people
    Living for today…

    Imagine there’s no countries
    It isn’t hard to do
    Nothing to kill or die for
    And no religion too
    Imagine all the people
    Living life in peace…

    You may say I’m a dreamer
    But I’m not the only one
    I hope someday you’ll join us
    And the world will be as one

    Imagine no possessions
    I wonder if you can
    No need for greed or hunger
    A brotherhood of man
    Imagine all the people
    Sharing all the world…

    You may say I’m a dreamer
    But I’m not the only one
    I hope someday you’ll join us
    And the world will live as one

  • 1

    A bit too pseudo intellectual for me ! Is there so much significance in what a president ( by default ) has to say ?

    There is nothing frightening in pledging to follow the leadership of the Sangha as it is today because it provides no leadership ! Furthermore these words are uttered by a politician who is increasingly displaying his “feet of clay”.

    Don’t you understand that this is simply a ploy to try and mitigate the backlash of locking away so many of the saffron robed rascals who try to pass muster and Buddhist monks ?

    The backlash when ( and not if) it comes, orchestrated by the Rajapakses’, will put the armed forces in an interesting dilemma…..

  • 0

    Well, Maha Sanga is bad or even could be worse. But the Mahindapala Sanga is worst or the most-worst! Somebody has to do something to e-lighten it. Why doesn’t anybody stuck some puttu kaddi in its throat to silence it. Then the Maha Sanga may go silent.

  • 0

    “The Presidential pledge in Kotte was disturbing and to me a Buddhist by birth even frightening. Contained in it, is the possibility that the sovereignty of ‘we the people’ is subject to the decrees of ‘they the Maha Sangha’.+

    Sirisena is a :

    fool jerk moron nitwit stupid twit blockhead bonehead cretin dimwit dork dumbbell dunce ignoramus imbecile kook muttonhead nincompoop ninny pinhead.

    Sarath de Alwis, if you expect Sirisena to act Presidential, just because he is an accidental president, you too fit into one or all of the above descriptions.

    Sorry, mate.

  • 2

    Why should one defend or protect the dhamma? Has it lost it power? Why can not it defend it self ? If any doctrine needs state patronage for its existence and needs to be forced on people to accept and follow same, It has to be a failed or a dead doctrine. It is time for people and media to start a open dialogue on religions. Except for religion , every other topic is debated. Why not we openly discuss the merits and benefits of every religion so that people will get a good understanding on what is good and bad. Its time to preach more on the Kalama sutta of Buddha.

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