Robed in anger

Buddhism in Lanka has turned radical, with a lack of sympathy for Muslims and Tamils

28-Hardline-Buddhism A different buddha: Hardline Buddhism is thought to have had its beginnings in Sri Lanka in the early 20th century | Photos Bhanu Prakash Chandra

AN AWE-INSPIRING sight greets you as you step out of Kandy railway station—an 88-foot-tall, white statue of the Buddha. It is 6km away from the railway station, atop the Bahirawa Kanda (Devil’s Hill) and shows the Buddha seated in the nirvana pose. A smaller golden-coloured statue of the Buddha sits below it. It has white lotuses and purple flowers etched on it; photos of the most important Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka flank it. Near the statues, a boy with a tonsured head, clad in a maroon robe, is folding a flag that represents the aura that is believed to have emanated from the Buddha when he attained enlightenment. The young monk touches the flag gently and seems to have been transported to a world of peace and tranquility.

As per our constitution, Buddhism should be given high priority. —Dilantha Withanage, spokesperson, Bodu Bala Sena
Though westerners suggest that you can have a secular state, in this part of the world, we cannot have a secular state. —Charitha Herath, senior lecturer at the University of Peradeniya

At the same time, near the President Secretariat in Colombo, burly monks dressed in robes similar to the boy’s were up in arms. The police were forced to use tear gas and water cannons to disperse the mob. These monks were part of the hardline Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organisation Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). They were demanding the release of their leader Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero (thero is the title for head priests). He had been sentenced to six years in jail on charges of intimidation; during the trial, the court had also held him in contempt.

“Our organisation supports the majority people in Sri Lanka,” says Dilantha Withanage, spokesperson of BBS. “As per our constitution, Buddhism should be given high priority.” A clause in the Sri Lankan constitution gives Buddhism “the foremost place” and charges the state with the duty to “protect and foster the Buddha Sasana”. In fact, Sri Lanka has a ministry of Buddha Sasana. Like the 88ft Buddha which dominates the Kandy skyline, Buddhism dominates the political and cultural discourse in Sri Lanka. Just a few months ago, President Maithiripala Sirisena, while commenting on communal violence, said hatred and violence bring shame to a “Buddhist country” like Sri Lanka. The hardline Buddhists want Sri Lanka to be a country of the Sinhalese, particularly the Sinhala Buddhists.

Hardline Buddhism is thought to have had its beginnings in Sri Lanka in the early 20th century, when Buddhist revivalist Anagarika Dharmapala said that colonialists had destroyed the Aryan Sinhalese paradise that was. He also said Sinhala Buddhists were the “sons of the soil” and that Muslims in Sri Lanka “thrived at the expense of the Sinhalese”. In 1959, the militant monks took an upper hand by assassinating then prime minister (of Ceylon) S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. Many reasons were attributed to the assassination, but the main issue is believed to be the government’s failure in ensuring the rights of the Sinhalese people.

Dilantha Withanage Dilantha Withanage

Unlike in India, where Buddhism was born, it is the majority religion in Sri Lanka. And its roots in the island country are perhaps stronger than in other countries where it is the majority religion, such as Thailand. Buddhism was introduced in Sri Lanka in the second century BCE by Mahinda, son of Emperor Ashoka. His sister Sanghamitra brought a sapling of the bodhi tree under which the Buddha had attained enlightenment and planted it in Anuradhapura, a major town around 200km from Colombo. The Tripitaka—the discourses of the Buddha—was written in the country in the first century. Only the compilation of the Theravada school of Buddhism survives in its entirety. The more conservative Theravada tradition is the one practised in Sri Lanka.

Charitha Herath, senior lecturer at the University of Peradeniya and former secretary of mass media and information, says he does not believe in the textual part of any religion, but, practically, Sri Lankan Buddhism has its own cultural approaches, practices, parameters and history. “Though westerners suggest that you can have a secular state, in this part of the world, we cannot have a secular state,” says Herath. As Yatawatte Dhammananda Thero, chief of the Bhairawa Kanda Buddhist Temple, Kandy, says: “Buddhism is the power of our country.” Over the years, Buddhism in Sri Lanka split into chapters. The chiefs of the chapters, called the mahanayake, are highly influential in determining the leadership in Colombo. The mahanayake of the Malwathu and Asgiri chapters, both in Kandy, are considered the most important chief monks in the country. What they say on the political situation in Sri Lanka often acts as advice to the political leaders. In February 2018, the two mahanayake urged the president, Sirisena, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, to resolve the political crisis that followed the local government elections (most local authorities were hung, leading to horse-trading).

Charitha Herath Charitha Herath

The Malwathu Chapter’s mahanayake, The Most Venerable Thibbotuwawe Sri Sumangala Thero, said the government had a responsibility to rule without creating confusion. The Asgiri Chapter’s mahanayake—The Most Venerable Warakkagoda Sri Gnanarathana Thero—said that he hoped the politicians would not undermine the mandate of the people. While the Malwathu Chapter is close to the corridors of power, irrespective of who is in power, the Asgiri Chapter, according to highly placed sources in Sri Lanka, is close to the Rajapaksas. In fact, the Asgiri mahanyake leads the prayer meetings in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s hometown, on every Poya day (lunar monthly Buddhist holiday; normally the full moon day).

While the sangha, the official Buddhist community, does not get involved in politics directly or even comment on political issues, most monks in Sri Lanka are known for their activism, from staging massive demonstrations to conducting marches. “Here, Buddhist practice is always based on the state apparatus,” says Herath. “This is why, in 1972, our constitution recognised Buddhism as heritage in this country. [In] our history, major roles [played by Buddhism] in development projects have a kind of hegemonic influence. [Involvement in] state affairs has been there from the Buddhist sangha. We have been trying to differentiate between hegemony and power.” After the clash between Buddhists and Muslims in Kandy and Ampara in April 2018, a nationalist Sinhala Buddhist mentality has set in, according to religious and political observers. The riots were triggered in part by various hate-filled Facebook posts by a nationalist Sinhala Buddhist group. It led to the death of one Muslim, apart from destruction of property. The clash was not the first. Muslims, mosques and Muslim-owned businesses have come under attack in 2014 and 2017 also. However, the majority of Buddhists do not even have sympathy for the Muslims. Nor for the Tamils.

“I like Buddhism,” says 13-year-old Kahatagasdialiye Dheera Nandha, a monk at the Malwathu Chapter. “My parents wanted me to be a monk. I have been here (at the Malwathu Chapter) for the past three years, learning about the Buddha and his teachings.” Dheera Nandha is currently learning Pali scriptures, Urdu and Sanskrit, along with other subjects. With him at the Malwathu Chapter, are around 450 boys learning the lessons of Buddhism, while their country is aflame with Buddhist rage.