Presidential swearing in at Ruwanveli Maha Saeya, Anuradhapura: Lest its symbolism is misread by rabid antinationalist racists
Posted on November 27th, 2019

By Rohana R. Wasala 

I love my country. I am proud of my country. I have a vision concerning my country. I appeal to all Sri Lankans to join together in building a prosperous land for posterity”  declared Gotabhaya Rajapaksa on being sworn in as the seventh executive president of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka near the Ruwanveli Mahasaeya at Anuradhapura on November 18, 2019. After assuming duties at the presidential secretariat in Colombo on the following day, he made this FB entry: ‘I am now the President of all Sri Lankans, whether they voted for me or not and irrespective of their ethnicity or religious beliefs. Elections are now over and I need the support of all Sri Lankans to build a prosperous and harmonious nation where all can live with respect and dignity’. 

Gotabhaya is a man of few words, he means what he says; he is a near perfect exemplar of the Buddhist ideal of acting according to what one preaches. As president he will not renege on his election promises. This is something that his past performance, both as a military officer for two decades (1971-1992), a lieutenant colonel by the time he voluntarily left the army, and as a civilian government functionary – defence secretary – for ten years under war winning former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, his older brother (2005-14), has already borne out. He doesn’t mince his words when he speaks out about important but unpalatable truths. During his campaigning, he urgently called upon the Tamil and Muslim minorities to trust him, vote for him, and be partners to the certain historic victory that he was going to score on behalf of all Sri Lankans. The election results made it clear that his appeal had largely fallen on deaf ears. Gotabhaya said that the level of compliance with his request fell short of what was expected. He referred to this fact on the occasion of his taking oaths, and remarked that although he knew he could win by relying on Sinhalese votes alone he requested the minorities to participate in the victory by voting for him. And he repeated his appeal for cooperation from the two minority communities in the future for nation building. 

The new executive president was sworn in at the historic Ruwanveli Maha Saeya in Anuradhapura under the gaze of a statue of king Dutugaemunu (161-137 BCE), the builder of that edifice. The symbolic significance of this event cannot be lost on the fair-minded and patriotic Sri Lankans who are aware of the 2500 year long recorded history of the majority community, the indegenous Sinhalese of the island nation. Sinhalay (Ceylon), now called Sri Lanka, is the homeland of the Sinhalese; there is no other land or country that they can call their homeland (The word ‘homeland’ here means a particular people’s or nation’s native land). But in the context of widely prevailing distortions of the history of the Sinhalese in their island home, introduced by racially biased fake historians, this swearing in ceremony is bound to be misinterpreted to the disadvantage of all Sri Lankans, particularly the majority Sinhalese. Such misreadings of the historic proceeding, the taking of oaths by Gotabhaya before the Maha Stupa and the statue of the  king Dutugaemunu, are likely to be attempted by strategically ‘concerned’ outsiders having various designs on the island, which is located on a geopolitically most sensitive point in the region. 

Chapter XXV (25) of the Mahavamsa or the Great Chronicle of the 5th century CE records the main purpose of Dutugaemunu’s military campaign against the Chola invader king Elara of Anuradhapura (205-161 BCE). (The source text used here is the 1889 English version of the Pali original compiled in two parts by Mudliyar L.C.  Wijesingha as an imperial government commission; the first part of the work where Chapter 25 occurs was translated by George Turnour in 1836, and was annotated and emended by Wijesingha in 1889.) Before beginning his campaign, king Duttha Gamani (Dutugaemunu) went to Tissa Vihara at Mahagama (cf. modern Tissamaharama viharaya, Magampura international airport, etc., in the Hambantota district in southern Sri Lanka), reverentially bowed down to the monks, and said, I am about to cross the river for the restoration of our religion” and asked for some monks to be allotted for our spiritual protection. Their accompanying us will afford both protection and the presence of ministers of religion (which will be) equivalent to the observance of the services of our religion”. So, five hundred monks were assigned, and the king left, accompanied by them.  

The five hundred ‘ministers of the faith’ (i.e., monks or bhikkhus) were to attend the king in the campaign ‘as a self-imposed penance’, which Wijesingha elucidates as ‘punishment for breaches of discipline’. It is important to understand the term ‘penance’ in this Buddhist, non-Christian, context. The author of the Mahavamsa was a Buddhist monk, and he didn’t actually want to glorify war as it involved violence and killing. He depicts Dutugaemunu as being contrite when he has committed such acts, though these are unavoidable in war. The presence of the monks kept him reminded of the justness of his cause and helped him take part in religious practices and rituals to keep his conscience clear. At one point in his march from Mahagama to Anuradhapura, Dutugaemunu had occasion to remark: This enterprise of mine is not for the purpose of acquiring the pomp and advantage of royalty. This undertaking has always had for its object the re-establishment of the religion of the supreme Buddha”.

Eleven chapters of the Mahavamsa (Chapters XXII to XXXII) are devoted to Duttha Gamani,the victor over invaders and re-unifier of the divided country, and  the builder of the Maha Stupa/Maha Chetiya or the Ruwanveli Maha Saeya (completed by his successor king Saddha Tissa, Gamani’s younger brother, two or three years after his death in 137 BCE) . In the long narrative covered in these chapters, we are treated to balanced accounts of friend and foe alike. Usurper king Elara receives just praise for his righteous rule. However, perhaps in his desire to emphasize the heroic stature of prince Dutugaemunu, the Mahavamsa author represents his father king Kavantissa as a pacifist who constantly dissuaded his sons Gamani and Tissa, particularly, the first, the more rebellious elder of the two, from challenging the foreign usurper Elara at Anuradhapura, allegedly fearing for their physical safety. But now we know that the father king was actually preparing for war against Elara, but did not like the adolescent brashness of Gamani. He had assigned the responsibility of looking after the food security of the people to Tissa, and went about amassing the necessary forces. Gamani ran away from his father and remained in hiding in the Malaya country for a time. He returned home to Mahagama on his father’s unexpected death, and after a brief armed encounter with his younger brother over succession, which was settled by the intervention of the monks, and before setting off on his campaign march to Anuradhapura, ‘sent back Tissa (to Digavapi)  to superintend the agricultural works in progress. He similarly employed himself also, calling out the people by the beat of drums’. 

On this (that is, on the two brothers being thus reconciled through the mediation of the monks), Mahanama Thera reflects philosophically: ‘Thus good men being sensible that violent resentment, engendered hastily by many and various means, is pernicious; what wise man would fail to entertain amicable sentiments towards others?’ 

The Mahavamsa author Mahanama Thera was an erudite Buddhist monk. In fact, he was a royal in robes, for he was king Dhatusena of Anuradhapura (c. 460-478 CE)’s maternal uncle and teacher. Dhatusena spent his childhood as a novice monk living and learning under the care of Thera Mahanama, who obviously groomed him for assuming kingship at the opportune time, for at that time, the island was under foreign invasion. Dhatusena turned warrior, made war on and defeated the south Indian Damila usurpers Parinda, Khudda Parinda (sons of Pandu who had died after five years on the throne), Dathiya, and Pithiya, and ‘entirely extirpated the damilas who had been the devastators of the island by their various stratagems – by having erected twenty-one forts, and incessantly waged war in the land; and re-established peace in the country, and happiness among its inhabitants. He restored the religion also, which had been set aside by the foreigners, to its former ascendency’. So, king Dhatusena repeated the heroic deed that king Dutugaemunu had done six hundred years before. He also did a lot for the economic wellbeing of the nation through his massive Kalawewa reservoir project and numerous other enterprises. But he did something more: he had his uncle Mahanama Thera compose the Mahavamsa in order to charter the course of history since the arrival of legendary prince Vijaya from the Vanga (modern Bengal region) country in India and the later introduction of Buddhism  as recorded in earlier works and as transmitted in oral tradition and preserve it for posterity.

Again, about six hundred years after Dhatusena, as described in Chapters 57-60 contained in Part II of the Mahavamsa (continued as Culavamsa), prince Kirti (born around 1039 CE), son of ‘the Great Lord’ Moggallana and princess Lokita of Rohana, who became sub-king in that southern part of the kingdom of Lanka, as a tender teenager, having subdued his enemies there, fought many battles against powerful south Indian Chola invaders ruling at Pulatthi (Polonnaruwa) and finally became king over the whole country as Vijaya Bahu (the First) in 1055 and ruled till his death in 1110 CE. As usual since the time of king Devanampiyatissa (307-297 BCE) when Buddhism was introduced to the country under royal patronage, at this time too ‘the princes of Lanka……. .continued to defend the country and the religion of the land’ through the counsel of the Order (i.e., the Maha Sanga). ‘Thus did Vijaya Bahu, the ruler of men, hold the reins of government without any fear in his hands for fifty and five years more; and when he had had improved the religion of the land and the country…….sore distressed by the wicked …..(Chola invaders), he ascended up to heaven as if to behold the great reward arising from his good deeds on earth’. 

From the hallowed precincts of our magnificent past as recorded in the Mahavamsa (continued down the ages to date as a royal/state enterprise) let’s return to the present. 

With the decisive electoral victory of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa Sri Lanka has just emerged from the worst, the strongest, recent threats to its existence as a sovereign nation with a glorious history that none in the world can surpass in spite of its tiny geographical size or its political, economic and military insignificance. But Sri Lanka’s pivotal importance as the repository of pristine Buddhism, which, whether it is explicitly acknowledged or not, has already automatically become (perhaps) the single indispensable non-religious ethico-philosophical refuge for the human species, who appear to be lost

 …. on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night”

as Maththew Arnold, the 19th century visionary English poet put it.

 We, the Sinhalese, have from time immemorial been patriots, lovers or supporters of the country, or nationalists, but never racists (those who love or support their own race to the exclusion or disadvantage of other races) or, as followers of the Buddha dhamma, we have never been religious fanatics (those who believe that, as only their religion is true, all other religions are false, and that all those who profess other faiths are inferior to themselves, and are in need of being converted, or deserve harassment and even physical elimination). We have been passionately patriotic; throughout our long history, we have fought victoriously, shedding much blood defending our country from various foreign invaders attracted by its strategically important location and its natural resources. Today, however, we are being represented to the outside world by inimical forces in various manifestations as rabid Sinhalese racists and violent Buddhist fanatics, whereas the truth is the exact opposite: We are actually victims of others’ essentially politically motivated racism and religious intolerance. Over the past seven decades of independence, we have been intensely persecuted by Tamil racism, and since recently, by Islamic extremism. But this statement must be immediate qualified with the following: it cannot be believed that this religious fanaticism and racial discrimination against the Sinhalese, particularly against the Buddhist majority among them, is shared by the majority of the Tamil and Muslim minority communities. But such passions are aroused among innocent Tamils and Muslims by a handful political opportunists among them to win their votes at elections. Externally, our cry for justice is not heard, because our voice is drowned out by the bullying noises of the enemies who outnumber us a hundredfold.

We may breathe a sigh of relief now that Sri Lanka is being placed in safe hands with Gotabhaya at the helm. He will look after the security of the unitary Sri Lankan state in all its aspects (economy, law and order, civil administration, and all other conceivable departments) in the face of threats from separatist zombies and Islamic terrorists still lurking in the shadows, neither of whom has any legitimate issue to settle with the Sinhalese Buddhist majority community. Gotabhaya has pledged to complete implementing all the development proposals contained in his meticulously drafted election manifesto within his five year term. It is the citizens’ responsibility to extend their full cooperation to him without being distracted by the machinations of political, moral, and physical decrepits  who have agreed to sell out the land and resources of the country, and to divide and destroy the nation in order to savour power at least in their dying years. 

Beginning with the immediate ending of the state of anarchy that has been prevalent for the past five years, the change envisaged by patriots on this occasion will involve, not only regaining the postwar momentum of growth reached during the 2009-2014 period and restoring the safe and secure background that made such development possible, but also, even more vitally, eliminating threats to the continued existence of the unitary state that our ancient and modern heroes guided by the Guardians of the Nation, the Maha Sangha, have delivered to us. 

Swearing in at the sacred Ruwanveli Maha Saeya that is so deeply steeped in history shows the seriousness with which Gotabhaya views his epoch-making mission of saving the country of which all fair-minded and patriotic Sri Lankans must be justly proud.

A point of view offered for critical reception.

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