Colombo Telegraph

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

By 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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