Relevance of re- reading “Protestant Buddhism “
Posted on December 28th, 2018

Punsara Amarasinghe Institute of Law and Politics Sant Anna Scuola Superiore Pisa, Italy.

In the realm of sociology and cultural anthropology academia in Sri Lanka writings of Gananath Obeyesekere has been mainly confined to sociology department of University of Colombo or among few intellectuals who are exclusively working in English. None of his main writings have been translated into Sinhala or Tamil despite the fact that Obeyesekare is regarded as a doyen of his field cultural anthropology. A need to re-read Gananath Obeyesekare arises with the fact that how some Sri Lankan leading scholars have relied on his work as gospel truth to deconstruct the Sinhalese national identity and Buddhism. The famous phase Protestant Buddhism was coined by Obeyesekare and Richard Gombrich in their monumental work Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka” has become a common thesis prevalent among Sri Lankan university academics to construct their narratives on Buddhism and role of Buddhist monks in national politics. However Obeyesekere’s approach to describe the Buddhist resurgence took place in late 19th century in colonial Ceylon as an offshoot of the external influences came from Theosophical movement pioneers such as Col. Olcott and Madam Blavatsky has been vehemently criticized by the nationalist brigade in Sri Lanka. But in tracing the manner how they have viewed Obeyesekere and his writings, it becomes evident that the criticism comes from nationalist writers in Sri Lanka against Gananath Obeyasekere is essentially based on sentimental antagonism on the writer.  As an example one of forefront thinkers in modern Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology Nalin de Silva frequently attacks Gananath Obeyesekere as pseudo-intellectual driven by Greek Jewish Christian thinking. Nevertheless without being attached to any personal prejudices on the persona of Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere, I believe his idea of the Buddhist resurgence in Sri Lankan nationalist movement in pre independent and post-colonial context can be easily refuted in a pure academic ground.

One of basic contentions brought by both Obeysekere and Gombrich is that Buddhist resurgence in late 19th Century Ceylon was mainly attributed to the pioneering activities propounded by Col.Olcott, Madam Blavatsky and their theosophical activities in Ceylon. But in reality the religious debates occurred between Buddhists and Christians such as Panaduravadaya happened to the pivotal factor which compelled theosophists to reach Ceylon in search of Theravada Buddhism. Obeyesekere has depicted the influence infiltrated into Sinhalese society through theosophy activities as one of decisive moments helped the modernization process of Sinhala Buddhist monk. But this becomes a fallacy when closely examining the intellectual life style of Buddhist monks in 19th century Ceylon. For instance the key figure of Panadaura Vadaya Ven. Miggetuwatte Gunananda Thera was regarded as a well versed monk in both Buddhism and Christianity and Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera was another liberal  intellectual who played a prominent role in the Buddhist resurgence in late 19th century Ceylon.  On the other hand there is structural ambiguity of the Obeyeskere’s word Protestant Buddhism in its actual affinity with Weber’s idea of Protestant Ethics. Weber associated the “spirit of capitalism” with Protestant and in particular Calvinist theology. The religious doctrines of Calvinism preached a culture centered upon the calling Beruf” which stressed that individual’s salvation had been predetermined by God without the individual’s knowing. When it comes to the Sinhalese Buddhist resurgence under Dharmapala in early 20th century was a powerful narrative of local level resistance and a protest against the supposed threat of Christian encroachment under the guise of colonial hegemonies imposed on the natives in island. In formulating their phase Protestant Buddhism” in Sri Lanka authors Obeyesekere and Gombrich believed that there was a palpable commonality between Calvinist virtues and the message of Sinhalese Buddhist reformists despite its doctrinal difference. As an example Dharmapala being the key figure in Buddhist revival and Sinhalese nationalist ideology insisted the importance of individual hard work and self-reliance. However besides the surfaced similarities between the Buddhist virtues and Calvinist moral code, there is a fundamental difference between the two when one considers them in the light of their ultimate goal. In the eyes of protestant order the worldly activity or hard work was necessary to reach the salvation. In short hard work was considered to be an indicator for the salvation. On the contrary in Buddhist resurgence under Dharmapala the worldly activity did not guarantee Nibbana , instead of it Dharmapala stressed the if one should strive for the attaining Nibbana as the ultimate goal , he should impeded himself from earthly activities. He suggested that “those who wish to live the higher life to realize Nibbana should wear the yellow robe, and live in a monastery, and beg his food and not touch or ask for gold and silver” (Guruge 1965 ). The activism conducted by Buddhist monks eventually focused on renunciation of materialism and whereas Calvin moral code based on hard work tirelessly invoked ceaseless reproduction.

This situation clearly explains why it becomes doctrinally and practically wrong in comparing the Weber’s Protestant doctrine of labor with the Buddhist resurgence in Ceylon. Apart from that having examined Buddhism Transformed I can certainly claim that both Obeysekere and Gombrich have made an attempt to illustrate Sinhalese Buddhist monks as a force of aggression and their critique has further narrated the secular involvement of Buddhist monks in social welfare was mainly started by the influence of Theosophy movement and its activities in Ceylon. But in reality social involvement of Buddhist monks was not emerged out of the blue as it dates back to many centuries ago. Especially Obeyesekere has forgotten the tremendous role played by Buddhist monks before Theosophists arrived in Ceylon as a crucial social and political force. As an example in the first few decades of British rule in the island monks played a pivotal role in resisting the colonial rule.

In contrasting Weberian argument on Protestant ethics with Protestant Buddhism, Weber argued that the Protestant sects were the outcome of a Christianity that had been transformed through the Reformation by liberating itself from the influence of priesthood, which was called “process of laicization”. But in his struggle to revive the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist order, Dharmapala never tried to mar the significance of Buddhist monks.

All in all, the main comparison Obeyesekere and Gombrich attempted construct through their Protestant Buddhism as how Buddhist revival in Ceylon in late 19th and early 20th century was similar to the Calvinist moral order during Protestant reformation has been a fallacy. As I mentioned above the doctrinal difference between two movements and the way they were functioned have not been aptly analyzed by Obeyesekere and Gombrich, which is more akin to planting a tree in a unfit ground. The book written by Susantha Goonathilake Anthropologizing Sri Lanka: A Eurocentric Misadventure” is a book that has not been discussed widely in academia, yet it has answered several questions raised by Obeyeskere and Gombrich. In this text Goonathilake has pointed out how Theosophy movement of Olcott did not become a cause for local Buddhist revival as it belief on monotheism was later despised by Dharmapala and Sinhalese Buddhist monks. But the myth propounded by Obeyeskere and Gombrich carved the niche for modern day academia to disdain the Buddhist resurgence in Ceylon as an extreme nationalist force. History, Sociology and Political Science departments in University of Colombo have taken Protestant Buddhism as an overarching narrative to ascertain Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism and it is a pity that undergraduates studying at those departments are following this myth without knowing its substance.

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