SRI LANKA’S SINHALA BUDDHIST CULTURAL IDENTITY
Posted on November 25th, 2017

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

My motherland – whatever label you may wish to ascribe to it – Heladiva, Helabima, Sinhalay or Sri Lanka, has existed from ancient times, as a single political entity or an island nation, within the same natural oceanic borders. The boundaries of all ancient countries have undergone changes at different times in the past. In this respect, Sri Lanka may be considered as the oldest country in the world within the same national or political boundaries. Sri Lanka has existed within the same distinct island borders as an independent sovereign nation from as far back as the 6th century BCE or more than 2500 years. Ours is among very few countries in the world with an unbroken written history that goes back to more than 2500 years. This written history matches perfectly with foreign records and archaeological findings.

The Sinhala Buddhist culture is the national culture of Sri Lanka. It is one of the World’s oldest, continuous, unchanged cultures in existence and a culture that is unique to Sri Lanka. The island’s Buddhist culture has achieved an individuality and identity that distinguishes it from its neighbors. It is important to note that whatever cultural traits brought from India have undergone significant changes and independent growth, largely influenced by Buddhism which was formally introduced to the country in the 3rd century BCE. Then and now, what our motherland clearly projects are its Sinhala Buddhist imprint.

The strength of this cultural foundation was tested several times in the past, during periods of foreign invasion, devastation, and exploitation. But the nation stayed intact, withstanding threats, perils, and calamities, largely owing to the power and potency of its Sinhala Buddhist cultural foundation. It is the inspiration of this strong Buddhist foundation that is reflected in the lives of the people.

NATIONAL CULTURAL HERITAGE

The unique Sinhala Buddhist identity of our country began to take shape starting in the 3rd century BCE. This was reinforced with the development and widespread use of the proto-Sinhala language based on the Prakritic language used popularly in the numerous ancient lithic inscriptions found across our country. Starting in the 3rd century BCE, for as many as 15 centuries or for over 1500 years, Sinhala Buddhists almost exclusively inhabited our island. This period witnessed the development of a vast civilization based on a hydraulic agrarian system and a rich culture and a system of administration and governance, based on Buddhist norms and principles. This period saw the rise to power of many outstanding Sinhala Buddhist kings who ruled the country from the Capitol City Anuradhapura for some 1200 years and subsequently from the capitol Polonnaruwa for some 300 years until about the 13th century.  This 1500-year period in the country’s history can be considered, indisputably, as its golden age. During this period, there were violent invasions of our country by South Indian Tamil-speaking Dravidian mercenaries. Although some of these South Indians were able to dislodge the seat of Sinhala power for limited periods of time, they were eventually ousted, and the country was unified under the rule of Sinhala Buddhist monarchy. During their invasions and rule, the country was plundered of its wealth and much destruction was caused to priceless monuments of the country. The 700-year-old Sinhala Royal palace in the citadel of Anuradhapura was burnt down. Relic chambers of stupas were broke open and valuables including gold images enshrines in them were taken away. Often after plundering the treasures, they destroyed these historic structures for good. Perhaps the saddest of all was the destruction of Thuparamaya, the oldest monument in South Asia. This exquisite Buddhist monument housed the Buddha’s right-collar bone and the Alms-bowl. The Relic chamber of Thuparamaya was broke open to pay South Indian Tamil mercenaries. The crowning ornament on Thuparama was robbed and the great canopy over Thuparama, that protected it from bad weather, was smashed to get the priceless gems and golden decorations fixed on it.

In mid 10the century the Chola invaders looted Anuradhapura extensively. The huge domes- roofs decorated in gold and silver, and embedded with gems, built to cover the large Dagaba’s and to protect them from bad weather, were destroyed again. That Included the golden umbrellas over Mirisavetiya Dagaba, and Thuparamaya. The main library in the citadel, housing the sacred books, was maliciously burnt. Jethavanaramaya, the gigantic monument recorded in history as the third tallest structure of the world, was destroyed. Temple of the Tooth Relic in the citadel was destroyed. Golden doors were ripped off from buildings. The pride of the nation, skyscraper LovaMahapaya was maliciously destroyed completely. This was the 6th time it was destroyed by the Dravidian plunderers. This was the end of the city of Anuradhapura.

BUDDHISM

The Buddhist tradition in Sri Lanka is one of the oldest there is. The Sinhala people have been practicing Buddhism continuously, far longer than anyone else in the world. Buddhism has been and continues to be the basis or foundation of the country’s culture. for over 2300 years. All deeper aspects of the country’s culture are reflective of Buddhist ideology, principles, ethics, virtues, values, morality, traditions, customs, thoughts, temperament, attitudes, and way of life. Whatever new elements that have been absorbed into the culture at different times, were subject to appropriate modifications, adjustments, and adaptations to make them compatible with Buddhist principles and values. Buddhist principles were intertwined in these new additions although there may be exceptions which often are those elements which are in the process of being adapted to fit into the cultural norms of the country.

Buddhism is not a religion with a dogmatic canon. Buddhism functions not through crusades, but through tolerance, openness, and the persuasive power of its philosophical foundation. Tolerance and the enormous adaptability of Buddhism are qualities that have remained unchanged throughout its remarkable history.  Buddhism upholds everything worthy and meaningful. It promotes peace, peaceful coexistence, and democratic principles in governance. It promotes human rights, development of individual and community virtues and discipline in accordance with the pancha seela”. Non-violence and compassion towards all living beings has been the cornerstone of the national culture of Sri Lanka from early times. Peaceful cohabitation was promoted by Sinhala Buddhist kings from early times. Respect for the natural environment and sustainable and participatory development of resources and upheld in Buddhism. In addition, Buddhism strongly promotes tolerance of other faiths, religious and social harmony, and cordial relations with other nations

OLDEST BUDDHIST COUNTRY

Ours is the oldest Buddhist country in the world with Buddhism arriving in the island and establishing itself far and wide since 237 BCE, or about 2247 years ago. Buddhists across the world respect Sri Lanka as the country where pure Buddhism or Buddhist teachings in its original form prevails – the Theravada tradition. The significance of this should be seen in the light of the following background. Sri Lanka accounts for about a mere 1% of the estimated 1472 million total Buddhists population in the world. There are about 25 countries in the world with Buddhist populations. Of them, 17 accounts for a substantial number of Buddhists which qualifies them to be referred to as Buddhist countries. The 150 million Theravada Buddhists of the world are found
basically in six countries and Sri Lankan Buddhists account for about 10% of the total Theravada Buddhist population across the world. It is also noteworthy that the traditional Sri Lanka Buddhist flag has become the global Buddhist flag.

Despite invasions, threats, challenges, Buddhist culture did not disappear from our island, unlike in the case with several other countries. Today, over 70% of the total population of Sri Lanka is Buddhists. The simple and uncomplicated lifestyle promoted by our culture, is based on the five precepts of Buddhism. Their mind-set, temperament and attitude towards life are clearly reflective of Buddhist norms and values such as compassion, non-violence, tolerance, morality, and peaceful coexistence with other living beings and with nature.

BUDDHIST SITES, MONUMENTS, AND INSTITUTIONS

The outstanding imaginative and creative powers of the Sinhala people, their talents, skills, and foresight are well evident in what remains as marvels architecture, sculpture, art, literature, and other forms of visual culture, in irrigation technology displayed magnificently across the country as living evidence of an outstanding cultural heritage. The world recognition of the greatness of this unique Sinhala Buddhist culture is reflected by the UNESCO designating our ancient royal sites as World Heritage Sites – Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Mahanuwara (Kandy), Sigiriya and Dambulla, all built upon and strongly reflecting inspiration drawn from Buddhism. It is a fact that, if there is anything unequivocally worthwhile that our country can offer to the world today, it is the Buddha three visits of the Buddha at three different times in the past. During these times the Buddha set foot on 16 different places within our country which are still venerated as sacred sites. Dhamma and its outstanding culture and attitude towards life and its natural habitat.

Ours is the only country in the world that had the privilege of having some of the most venerated relics of the Buddha are found in Sri Lanka, including the Tooth relic, the right collar-bone and the Alms Bowl. Sri Lanka and Thailand are the countries with the largest collection of relics of the Buddha.

Oldest Institution in the world is Sri Lanka’s Sangha Sasana, which is still active and operational in our country.

The oldest recorded tree in the world – the Sri Maha Bodhi, is found in Sri Lanka.

Oldest Buddhist monuments, dagabos, architecture, sculpture, paintings, literature, poetry are found in our country

There is ample evidence that our ancient builders and planners were quite familiar with the principles of building construction or structural engineering. Some of their structures have lasted for over 1600 years

The Lovamahapaya is the world’s oldest skyscraper which is 145 feet high with 9 stories and 1000 rooms. The largest brick structures of the world are the ancient Buddhist dagabos of Sri Lanka such as the Jetavanaramaya, Abayagiriya, Ruvanweliseya, and Tissamaharamaya.  The Jetavanarama Stupa is about 400 feet high and is the largest brick structure in the world.

The oldest religious building/structure in Sri Lanka is the Thuparamaya stupa built by King Devanampiyatissa (307-267 BCE).

CULTURAL HERITAGE

Cultural heritage encompasses material culture, in the form of objects, structures, sites, as well as living (or expressive) culture as evidenced in forms such as music, crafts, performing arts, literature, oral tradition and language. Sculpture, architecture, paintings, and other forms of fine arts were used profusely in Sri Lanka from very early times to express Buddhist ideas and sentiment. The exceptionally rich heritage of visual arts of the Sinhala people of Sri Lanka extends to a period that exceeds 2300 years, from the 3rd century BCE to the 21st CE.  A spectacular collection of ancient sculpture, architecture and paintings adorns the island’s culture. They are conspicuous elements of the island’s Buddhist culture even today.

Culture is organic and evolving. There is however, cultural continuity from the past, through the present and into the future. Some cultural elements are preserved in an original or earlier state, whereas other cultural materials, elements and forms may have observed dynamic change, adaptation, and development with time and with exposure to other cultures, circumstances, and environments. The outcome of this dynamic change is often something unique but not necessarily completely new. However, it is peculiar to the culture concerned. It is an outcome which reflects a combination of elements of several cultures blended together but in keeping and compatible with the fundamentals of the long preserved cultural and social values of the culture. This outcome reflects a unique identity that is special to the culture. The evolution of the Buddha statue, the stupas of Sri Lanka, Buddhist paintings and the Sinhala language, are good examples.

SINHALA LANGUAGE

All salient aspects of our national culture – tangible and intangible, either grew or evolved within the borders of our country. Sinhala language and literature originated in Sri Lanka. Sinhala language in fact is the most important defining element of our nation’s culture and heritage, from historic times. The Sinhala language grew out of Indo-Aryan dialects and exists only in Sri Lanka and has its own distinguished literary tradition. Sinhala is one of the world’s oldest living languages.  There have been a wide range of languages in the world, particularly in Asia which lived and died without leaving evidence of their existence, because they were never written down. This is not the case with the Sinhala language. All other languages used in Sri Lanka originated in other countries.  It is significant to note that the overwhelming majority of people of Sri Lanka are distinguished by their language – Sinhala, which even today has a strong unifying effect in our motherland helping to reinforce the solidarity of our people as a unique cultural entity in the world. Almost all place names of the country from historic times, are in the Sinhala language – in the North, South, East, West and Central regions.

Indigenous national sovereignty of a country is an inalienable right based on profound justice. Sovereign national rights of Sri Lanka rests with the Sinhala people who are indigenous to this country, forming its dominant majority community for over 2500 years. Sri Lanka is the only national sovereign motherland of the Sinhala people. Their culture, way of life and their Sinhala language originated and developed in Sri Lanka.

Tamils, Muslims, and Malays are non-indigenous minority communities of Sri Lanka who settled in the island at different times in the past, coming from their own motherlands. The Tamils came from their motherland, the Tamilnadu where their culture and language originated. The Tamil nation of Tamilnadu is seven times bigger than Sri Lanka, where one must be a pure Tamil to hold any high official position. Wherever they live, the Tamils have their national heritage and aspirations protected within their nation – the Tamilnadu.  Any initiative that would dilute or threaten the national sovereignty of the Sinhala people is not only unjust but also illegal, and will not be acceptable to the Sinhala community.

Within any sovereign national country many non-indigenous minorities have settled down, but they do merge with the host nation into a single file. It is only by upholding the right of national sovereignty throughout the land that it will function without being violated. The granting of excessive rights to minorities in the form of alien-national rights of language, cultures and religions and exclusive ethnic areas will threaten a country’s sovereignty.

Hence, strict controls of immigration to a country are paramount in protecting its national sovereignty and territorial integrity – a basic human right of a nation of people ONLY in their indigenous national motherland.  Finally, high political positions in Sri Lanka including national leadership must be kept within the genuine Sri Lankan Hela nationals. It is noteworthy that for a high position in the Tamil Federal State of Tamil Nadu, first qualification is one must be a full-blooded Tamil.

Those settling down or have already settled down in host countries have a bounden duty to merge with the host nation into a single coherent nation of members.  It is basically, a state of mindset, not necessarily physical interaction. Within these host countries, human rights and civic rights of the host nation are what the settler minorities are entitled to and not the alien-national rights of the countries of their national origins they left behind for pastures anew. Their alien-national rights will shift to the private domain when in host countries and not to threaten the national sovereignty of the host countries either.

Sri Lanka wants all non-indigenous minorities of our nation such as the Tamils, Muslims, Moors and others of whatever label, to be a part of our Nation, to join the country’s mainstream, just the way how minority communities are expected to do in all countries of the world, especially in places like Canada, Australia, USA, UK, Norway and help to strengthen our nation founded on the noble principles of non-violence, tolerance, compassion, where peaceful co-habitation has been the cornerstone from historic times. Forgiving and forgetting” has been the attitude of our people, even to those who have harmed us repeatedly from historic times, because our people know that eventually justice and truth will prevail.

.Dr. Daya Hewapathirane

One Response to “SRI LANKA’S SINHALA BUDDHIST CULTURAL IDENTITY”

  1. Senerath Says:

    Thank you Sir, for this write up. I am crying as I type this comment which may not even appear until tommorw.
    This a very important document. it beautifully summarises the TRUTH. FALSE cannot go on winning forever. TRUTH shall prevail.
    You are suitable to the position of the President. All Presidents shall give an orth to follow what you have said.
    Our own fools follow political goon of various parties to satisfy their own greed, hatred and delusion than following Buddhism, which has created present situation. When my people realise they should respect their own culture than following western values or setting up unncessary laws to create unncessary barriers against natural economic develpment and growth or prevent bearing just an hollow pride with a banner ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ whilst carrying out deplorable very unBuddhist action, we should be able to achieve our goals.

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