Beyond collective egos: Our relational grounds of belonging and faith. -A reply to Sajeeva Samaranayake.
Posted on May 6th, 2013

Mario Perera, Kadawata

 In my opinion, this article (24 Apr, 2013 Sajeeva Samaranayake Colombo, Religion and faith) is an attempt to put India in the spotlight as the founder and sustainer of the Sinhalese Buddhist civilization, more specifically of Sinhalese-ness and Buddhist-ness.. The article comes at a time when the Sri Lanka-India relationship is plummeting to a new low mainly due to the Sri Lanka Tamil and Tamil Nadu factors. If the idea is to restore some equilibrium in that relationship then the attempt is acceptable. What however, seems to me as unacceptable, is the selective erroneous interpretation of history to that end.

 The author writes: “For the Sinhala Buddhist today, regaining identity and faith is necessarily bound up with reclaiming a lost inheritance. This inheritance is our cultural relationship with India or Maha Bharata which shaped and moulded our broad sense of “Sinhalese-ness” and “Buddhist-ness” for 16 centuries through a line of 134 monarchs up to Vijayabahu I (1055-1110 AD).”

 Indeed for the Sinhala Buddhist today, retaining identity and faith is necessarily bound up with reclaiming a lost inheritance. That this inheritance recalls to mind our cultural relationship with India or Maha Bharata is also true. But the sentence that follows claiming that that relationship: “shaped and molded our broad sense of “Sinhalese-ness” and “Buddhist-ness” for 16 centuries”, is not a historical corollary.

 The Sinhalese nation was brought into being with a definite purpose which is the protection of the Sasana identifiable with the Sangha. The reply of Arahat Mahinda to King Devanampiyatissa is the ultimate light on the subject. He said: the birth of a son in Lanka of Lankan parents who becomes a monk in Lanka, studies the Vinaya in Lanka, and expounds it in Lanka. Only then would the roots of the Sasana be deep set. The Sri Lankan Bhikkhu Sasana began when Arahat Mahinda arrived in the Island and ordained as a bhikkhu the Sinhala youth Maha Aritta. The purpose of Sinhalese-ness is not living in the shade of India at whatever be the cost, but the protection of the Sasana identifiable with Sangha. That Sasana did not originate the day of Arahat Mahinda’s arrival but on the day a son of Lanka became a monk in Lanka, studied and expounded the Vinaya in Lanka. Like the Bodhi tree, Buddhism was planted on local soil, nourished by that very same soil, cared for by local hands, mainly the Sangha.

 What also came from India was unparalleled death and destruction of that precious heritage. The authors himself puts this on record: “Within 30 years of his (Vijayabahu’s) death rajarata lay in ruins, destroyed by a usurper from Kalinga (modern day Orissa State in India) named Magha who ruled for 19 years from 1215 and brought a proud society to its knees. Lanka never recovered from the multiple losses that took place around this period. But traumatized and shaken by the terror of Magha a new breed of Sinhalese who re-grouped in Dambadeniya set their faces against this cultural relationship. As the centuries wore on the old sense of respect, connection and solidarity became more and more distant.

 He then adds: and the centre of Sinhalese culture moved from East to West “”…” or remained suspended without finding a home in either.” The center of Sinhalese culture was always Lanka and not a hypothetical EAST. Furthermore that it MOVED to the West is also fallacious. It never moved to the West. Also that culture always had a home, mother Lanka, and never remained suspended anywhere. It certainly did rub shoulders and benefit by western influences, but it never moved to the West as the author implies. It will be remembered that the eyes of the West really turned towards Buddhism after the Panadura Debate which was the exclusive effort of the Sinhala Sangha.

 There are other statements of the author that cannot go unchallenged. He writes: “In the First Century BC the Buddha’s path of freedom was converted to a religion of the book with the codification of the pali canon.” The Buddhist teachings enhanced by commentaries were put down into writing due to dire historical necessities. Uninterrupted South Indian invasions made existence impossible for the Sangha. The codification of the pali canon was a necessity for the survival of Buddhism which depended entirely on the survival of the Sangha. which was in total disarray due to Indian invasions. It was to safeguard the authenticity of the doctrine that the original language or its closest approximation was used. It was for the same end that the monks perpetuated the learning of pali at great personal sacrifices, and not to show off their erudition. Naturally being the only ones who knew pali, the doctrine had to be expounded with reference to the pali canon. The author’s conclusion that “the word of the Buddha the Dhamma and Sangha became the preserve of scholars and priests rather than the living example and striving of practitioners and wandering mendicant monks” is a vast subject and exceeds the scope of this reply. What the author conveniently forgets is the role of history as “ƒ”¹…”magistra vitae’.The Sinhalese Buddhist civilization did not sprout in a day. It is still flourishing after 2600 years precisely due to the lives and labours of the Sangha. Undermining them is a denial of history.

 The author goes on to say “Buddha located the sangha outside society and established small groups of monks who would share close personal relations and perform their bi-weekly uposatha ceremony reciting the code of discipline within their common sima. Most importantly these monks would be a “ƒ”¹…”state within’ who would not share any racial or caste identities with their lay supporters. The Sinhalese located the Sangha within society with a great measure of economic security. They would follow the secular state in creating a hierarchical organization.”

 Once again what is at issue is the misconception or self induced blindness of the author to the weight of ever unfolding history. Just look at how Jesus lived as a vagabond ascetic and how the Pope lives. The King, the Sangha and the Village formed the trilogy on which the Sinhala civilization was built. What has survived of the trio is only the Sangha. The Sinhalese was always a besieged nation, hemmed in by the Indians from one side and from the West on the other side. If the monks opted to live under Bo trees, what would have become of teachings of the Buddha? The author goes into ecstasy over what he considers as the Indian input in creating and fostering Buddhist-ness and Sinhalese-ness. Has he ever brought his mind to bear on what happened to Asoka’s Buddhism and Buddhist-ness on that very Indian soil. It simply got wiped away. So the Indian link with Buddhist-ness is a blatant LIE.  All India did was what Asoka the Buddhist Emperor of India did, that is, transplant the doctrine and provide Lanka with the best known relics of the Buddha. What grew out of that historical and circumscribed concern was a Buddhist-ness and a Sinhalese-ness that has nothing to do with India but which are mainly the creation of the Sinhalese Sangha.

 The author writes: “Gandhi came closer to Buddha’s message of peace and compassion than any Sinhala Buddhist has in centuries. Other Asians who trod his path “”…” Dalai Lama of Tibet, Aung San Sukyi of Burma and Thich Nhat Hanh of Vietnam have raised a standard that infused politics and social work with sanity and intelligence in an age of great arrogance, insanity and greed for power and money. An American preacher called Martin Luther King and the South African Nelson Mandela were all inspired by Gandhi’s creed of non violence.” He does not mention that Gandhi’s efforts came to naught with the division of India, and the he died a violent death. So did Martin Luther King whose dream is apparently still on its way to realization with millions of blacks living below the poverty line and in ghettos. As for Mandela he spent 27 years in prison aborted in his attempt to create an armed insurrection. Dali Lanma lives in exile and Aung San Sukyi is only a figure head in the Burmese parliament.

 The authors declares that: The original and most powerful relationship (of Lanka) was with “ƒ”¹…”India’ “”…” and this influenced the Sinhala and Buddhist identities both positively and negatively” This influenced the Sinhala and Buddhist identities both positively and negatively”¦! Can a Sinhalese with even a rudimentary knowledge of Lanka’s history express such unconditional thoughts? The sweeping statement that India influenced the Sinhala and Buddhist identity is sheer nonsense. Without going back to the mists of time, just think of Tamil separatism and the death and destruction it caused this country. Has the author forgotten India’s role in the 30 year agony this country went through? What they were undermining and trying to destroy was exactly the Sinhalese-ness and the Buddhist-ness which the author attributes to Indian benevolence.

 The author write: There is no permanent “ƒ”¹…”Sinhala’ or “ƒ”¹…”Buddhist’ identity to be found, whether we look at the past or present “”…” and there will not be such an identity in future. REALLY? Well well”¦ He further states: “The attributes and qualities of identity have always been defined relationally and contextually.” Obviously both religion and nationality, even ethnicity, are relational and contextual. As regards the Sinhalese and Buddhism the Mahavamsa places the relational and contextual in their correct perspectives. According to Mahawamsa the Buddha, on his deathbed, told the Chief among deities, Sakka, “Vijaya, son of king Sihabahu, is come to Lanka”¦.. In Lanka, O lord of gods, will my religion be established; therefore carefully protect him with his followers and Lanka”. Lanka therefore is the land of Lord Buddha’s religion and the land of the Sinhalese, It is the land of both Buddhist-ness and Sinhalese-ness. You may call it myth or whatever but that living message is ingrained in the core of the Sinhala nation, so much so that its vilification by Ponnambalam in Nawalapitiya provoked the first ever race riots of our modern history. He went so fare as to call the Sinhalese “ƒ”¹…”a hybrid race of mongrels’ and himself a “ƒ”¹…”proud Dravidian’. Tragically for him the hybrid race of mongrels turned the proud Dravidians over on their backs on the Nandikadal Lagoon.

 Yes, there is a Buddhist identity, just as there is a Hindu, Catholic, and Muslin identity. Furthermore the Buddhist identity is enshrined in our very Constitution. Has the author been to a place of worship of his religious denomination whatever it may be? Do not people flock to Hindu temples, to Catholic and Christian churches, to Muslim mosques and the Buddhist temples? They do so in fearless assertion of their religious identities. As long as the sentiment “ƒ”¹…”I am’ exists within us we will always remain a complex of identities. The author would do well to listen to Amaradeva’s patriotic song: “ƒ”¹…”sasana vasanaturu, nivan dakina turu, ran ketha hela lak derane yali ipathinnata, hetu vasana vewa, hetu vasana. It is the ardent yearning of every Sinhalese Buddhist to be born and reborn in Lanka and retain his Buddhist-ness and  Sinhalese-ness. “In Lanka, O lord of gods, will my religion be established; therefore carefully protect him with his followers and Lanka”.

The author is trying to deny to the Sinhalese what the Tamils preach from the mountain tops? Did not the infamous S.J.Emmanuel, leader of the GTF (whom Catholics still call “ƒ”¹…”father’) publicly and repeatedly affirm with the full connivance of the entire Catholic hierarchy, that he was a Tamil before becoming a Catholic? What does the author think of the “ƒ”¹…”diaspora’ Tamils? They are caught up in a “ƒ”¹…”Tamilnet’, aren’t they?

There are other aberrations to be commented on. He writes: “Again, while Buddhist revivalism in the 19th century followed a Christian protestant format with a controlled adversarial spirit the post war Buddhist activism of BBS seems to be taking the intolerant Islamic model of Arabian countries as its guiding model. Taking on the fundamental attributes of those whom we hate, resist and oppose seems to be the fate of all oppositional warriors in the end.”

What model did Duttu Gemunu rely on when he led his armies against the usurper Elara? Was it Protestant or Muslim? That Buddhist revivalism followed a Christian protestant format is the superficial assessment of the historical truth. That format was only for Western consumption. Neither the monks nor the overwhelming majority of Sinhalese had recourse to such models. The author could research for himself as to why Anagarika Dharmapala fell off with Olcott. It was precisely over this so called “ƒ”¹…”format’. Indeed the Venerable Miguettuwatte Gunananda adopted the same “ƒ”¹…”format’ as his Christian pastor opponent during the Panadura debate which goes to show that monks can “ƒ”¹…”rise to the occasion’. As for the BBS, they are in the traditional role of Sri Lanka monks who will not leave a stone unturned to ensure that Sri Lanka remains the land of the Sinhalese and the Buddhists, where all others can live and cohabit together as they now do and have ever done, as long as they remember the basic irrevocable attributes of the land they call their home.

There are many other naƒÆ’†’¯ve attempts to make India shine in Lankan eyes. Why does the author not impress Tamil Nadu with those “ƒ”¹…”historical relationships’ between India and Sri Lanka? They might desist from hammering our monks and pilgrims who only want to visit Bodhi Gaya, the holiest of holies of Buddhism. Does not our Buddhism and Buddhist-ness (leaving aside our Sinhalese-ness) owe their existence and continuance to the gracious patronage of India, as the author opines? It is unfortunate that India does not realize what appears to be dogma for the Sinhalese author.

 Indeed I too dream of a day when as W.S.Senior prophesized, all nations would be blended and the voice of strife be dumb: when all would rise to a single bugle and march to a single drum. But as for now, and as the French say: c’est pas demain la veille (its not tomorrow the eve).

 Mario Perera

Kadawata

2 Responses to “Beyond collective egos: Our relational grounds of belonging and faith. -A reply to Sajeeva Samaranayake.”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    I’m amazed by Mario’s knowledge.

    A little historical perspective to Sajeeva Samaranayake’s article.

    Sri Lanka’s relation with Buddha goes beyond Asoka and “India”. The Enlightened One visited the island thrice preaching locals and regional rulers. Visits by previous Buddhas are also well documented. Though it is true the Sasana was established following the deeds of Asoka, India never produced another Asoka and it never will.

    Lankan Buddhism intertwined with preexisting beliefs. This is why there are four devales in most ancient Buddhist shrines symbolising four main ancient gods of the Sinhalese. India’s most popular gods Siva, Krishna, Ganesh, Luxmi, Durga, Parvathi are not among them which clearly seperates Indian beliefs from Lankan pre-Buddhist beliefs.

    It is absurd to claim Sinhala or Sinhala-ness came from India. If so, India must have it left. Sinhala, the nation, the culture and the language predates Asoka. Elu is a little known language that evolved into Sinhala. There never was language replacement. It was evolution. Sinhala is an Indo-Aryan family language. Despite the name, it has no “Indian” origin. All South Asian countries have Indo-Aryan linguistic majorities (India 80%, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan 100%, Sri Lanka 75%). There are no exceptions. It means Indo-Aryan languages including Sinhala belonged to the region and they originated concurrently.

  2. Sunil Vijayapala Says:

    a fitting reply to a fool. by the way Mahabharata was present day Nepal, where Buddha was born.
    I remember decades ago when I was at vidyodaya, (re-named with a despicable name) there was a clash between those who were a bit extremist on culture values and the rest. one fool who is a lawyer now went on stage and uttered ‘attha wasayen Sinhala culture kiyala ekaka naa’ he rightly received a big ‘hoowak’. we first need to apologise to hela people for the unjust we, Kshatriyas and pandavas did from north india, even before we attack dravidians. of course Buddhism was the gift we gave to hela people who had a proud culture and a civilization far more advanced than jambudeepa (india). sinha race and helas formed the Sinhala identity, which up to today is in tact, contrary to popular belief.
    however, the Christians and catholics don’t give a damn about sinha+hela Buddhist culture, nor the tamilians give a damn about our culture they look upto south india and the muslims look upto pakistan and aren’t much worried if buddhism exists in lankadeepa or not, especially the dreaded wahaabis. this new breed of murderous English speaking intellectuals in sri lanka with western values are worst perpetrators of our identity.

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