Boduhela and Jesuhela:
a Conflict in the Hela Heritage?
by Victor Gunasekara
The Hela movement is a relatively late development in neo-Sinhala
commencing only in the twentieth century. By this time the neo-Sinhala
movement was several centuries old and had branched off in several
directions. To appreciate the broader neo-Sinhala movement and the
subsequent Hela development we have to place them in the broad context
of the decline of the Sinhalas during the last few centuries. One
of the main divisions between the Helas of today is between the Buddhist
helas (whom I will refer to as Boduhelas) and the Christian helas
(whom I will refer to as the Jesuhelas) It will be argued that despite
some differences there is a great deal of similarity between the Boduhelas
and the Jesuhelas. Both represent aspects of the decline of classical
Lankan values. Today this decline has brought Lanka into the very
verge of disintegration with anti-national elements poised to exercise
power to an extent even greater than had occurred during the Colonial
We have to date the emergence of the neo-Sinhala mentality to the
early sixteenth century, which coincides with the arrival of the Portuguese
in Lanka. The most distinguishing characteristics of the neo-Sinhalas,
and the one they differed greatly from the classical Sinhalas, is
their racism. The Buddhist philosophy which nurtured the classical
Sinhalas, and indeed all Lankans in ancient times, was essentially
non-racist, cosmopolitan, non-xenophobic and international. However
racism was endemic to the European conquerors who invaded Lanka and
other Asian countries. Most of the European wars before the period
of colonization were largely ethnic wars inspired by racial considerations.
Christianity which became the religion of Europe was in its inception
in the Judaic religion (which Jesus never repudiated) was essentially
a racist religion of the "chosen people". When Christianity
spread to the Gentiles the "chosen people" came to be identified
with Christians. This did not detract from its racist character even
though it was a religion-based "racism" that we have to
speak of rather than a strictly ethnic-based one.
In the colonial era the Europeans carried their deadly mixture of
racism and religionism into the colonized areas. Of all the colonized
people, who had a developed civilization before colonization, it was
with the neo-Sinhalas that the Western colonialists had their greatest
success. The proportion of Sinhalas who absorbed the Christian religion
was greater than that of any of any other subjugated nation with a
civilized history. In the early period of Portuguese rule many
of the Sinhala aristocrats converted to Catholicism and thus joined
the "chosen" people. At this time the bulk of the ordinary
Sinhalas still maintained their classical values. However with the
expansion of the class of affluent Sinhalas the neo-Sinhala mentality
began its inexorable spread to more and more sections of the Sinhalas.
In this early period the neo-Sinhala ideology was adopted almost exclusively
by the converted Sinhala Christians. We can consider them the true
progenitors of the Jesuhelas of today. But before long the Boduhelas
too absorbed many of their values though not strictly converting to
Christianity. Instead they vulgarized Buddhism obliterating some of
its fundamental differences with Christianity.
The Notion of Hela
We might begin by enquiring why the helas came to adopt this name. There
is absolutely no etymological basis for this appellation. Many people
think that it is an abbreviation of 'Sinhala' by taking only the last
two syllables of this word. However this makes no sense. 'Sinhala' itself
is itself a compaction of two words 'Sinha' and 'le' meaning 'lion'
and 'killing', so meaning the 'killer of the lion'. This is an allusion
to the legend of Vijayabahu the parricide who killed the lion who allegedly
sired him. There is no etymological sense in taking the last syllable
of 'sinha' and combining it with a different verbal noun.
Some people think that Hela comes from the word 'elu' which has sometimes
been used to denote a vernacular derived from the classical Sinhala
language. The Sinhala language owed much to Sanskrit, Pali and other
Indian languages and 'elu' was an attempt to weed the Sinhala language
of sanskritisms. However this linguistic reform did not produce a
great literature comparable to the classical Sinhala. If Hela is indeed
derived from Elu its followers should properly be termed 'Helu' which
at least shows that they are bereft of any kind of covering! However
modern Helas do not like to be called Helus so we will have to discount
the Elu connection. This leaves the origin of the word unexplained.
Some helas, particularly those who have migrated to the UK, use the
term 'Sinhela'. This seems etymologically an even greater monstrosity.
While we can take the 'hela' part to mean what it says what does the
'sin' refer to except perhaps the "original sin" of the
Helas! These Helas are also in favour of abandoning the classical
name of the country as Lanka in favour of something like Heladiva.
Even though the term Hela is a recent concoction we may use it retrospectively
as a convenient term to designate what we have termed 'neoSinhala'.
In this sense the helas go back to the birth of the neo-Sinhala movement
under Portuguese influence. The present writer has referred to the
spread of the hela mentality amongst the Sinhalas as the 'helanisation'
of the Sinhalas. This helanisation movement has been unfortunately
one of the most successful movements in Sinhala history. It has brought
the Sinhala people veritably to their knees.
We must now consider the two components of the hela movement.
The Jesuhelas are those helas who flocked to the Christian banner
hoisted for the first time in Sri Lanka by the Portuguese invaders.
The Jesuhelas were originally all Catholics and despite several centuries
of Protestant rule the Catholics still account for the overwhelming
bulk of modern-day Jesuhelas. To this the Catholic Jesuhelas have
actually to thank the Boduhelas. However in the modern context the
difference between Catholic and Protestant is of little importance.
We shall treat all hela Christians as Jesuhelas.
Sometimes a distinction is made between fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist
Christians. But as far as the Jesuhelas are concerned they are all
fundamentalist in the sense that they adhere to the most literal form
of Christianity. They are today even more enthusiastic Christians
than even the white missionaries who converted them (or their forebears)
in the first place. They in turn have become missionaries engaged
in evangelical work in several countries outside of Sri Lanka (as
well as within it).
A good idea of the mentality of the Jesuhelas can be gained by studying
the activity of those Jesuhelas who have migrated to Western countries.
Here they are the most enthusiastic members of church congregations.
In fact many Christian churches in Western countries will not be able
to function (due to the declining interest in Christianity amongst
the native population) but for the influx of Christian migrants from
Asian countries. Of all such migrants the Jesuhelas are perhaps the
In Sri Lanka very few Jesuhelas have abandoned their Christian faith
even though their forebears who first embraced this religion did so
for unethical reasons. Far from bringing the Jesuhelas back to the
Buddhist fold the Sinhalas are hard put to prevent more Buddhists
from joining the Jesuhelas.
Along with the betrayal of the classical Lankan values the Boduhelas
have also betrayed their Buddhist heritage. The Buddhism they observe
is a far cry from the dhamma that the Buddha Gotama preached. In fact
the arahants of old would be astonished if they were to observe what
the Boduhelas are doing today in the name of Buddhism. We may begin
by examining a few of the practices which are really innovations (or
burrowing from other religions) which are passed off as authentic
Buddhism. We cannot go into the full range of the devotional practices
of the Boduhelas, but the following seven aspects should be familiar
to all Sri Lankan Buddhists:
(1) The Puja
The Buddha Puja has become the central devotional activity of the
Boduhelas. This consists of an offering of food (rice, curries, fruit,
cakes, etc.) before a statue of the Buddha and asking the Buddha to
have compassion on the devotees and partake of what is offered. If
the puja is done after mid-day the items offered will usually include
fruit juice, mineral water or tea.
What these devotees do not seem to understand is that Gotama had
reached the state of nibbana "without remainder" (anupaadisesa
nibbaana.m). In that state he cannot partake of these mundane food
offered to him! The puja concept was imported into Buddhism from Hinduism.
It has nothing to do with the teaching of Gotama.
There is some similarity with the Christian communion. Here bread
and wine are consecrated to the Deity are consumed by the devotees
in honour of their "Lord". What the Boduhelas seem to
be doing is to imitate the devotional acts of their Jesuhela compatriots
by making some changes to the Christian ritual. There is also some
similarity with the Hindu practice of prasadam. Whether this practice
came from Christianity or Hinduism it has little to do with the Buddha's
(2) Relic Worship
The worship of relics have been elevated into a major devotional activity
by the Boduhelas. The relics are said to be the remains of the Buddha
after his cremation some 2500 years ago. Usually when a person is
cremated any unburnt material is very small and we are told that in
the Buddha's case this small quantity was divided into several portions
many leaving the human realm altogether. Many relics were lost in
the destruction of Buddhist stupas in India during the past thousand
years. So how the Bodhuhelas of today manage to produce the large
amount of "relics" that they worship in various places,
some even in Western countries, is something of a mystery. To explain
this away they have even concocted the story that these relics magically
There is nothing in the Buddha's teaching which requires relic worship.
The Dhammapada says that a dead body is like a log to be cast aside,
not something to be venerated even if it is supposed to be the remains
of the Tathagata.
The Catholics are also noted for relic worship. The items they worship
are related to Jesus or the Christian "saints". The hoax
of the shroud of Jesus is well known. So this is something that the
Boduhelas and the Jesuhelas have in common even though neither religion
seem to have endorsed the practice.
(3) Bo-Tree Worship
This is also a major activity of the Boduhelas. The basis for this
seems to be the respect the Buddha showed to his "Tree of Enlightenment"
in the weeks after the sambodhi. But the Buddha put it behind him
after this initial respect. In fact during the last 43 years of his
life he never returned to Uruvelaa (as Buddha Gaya was known in his
time). The Buddha never asked any of his followers to worship Bo-trees.
The Bodhi-puja is considered particularly important if a relative
falls ill. Then the devotees pour bucket loads of milk at the root
of the Bodhi. Milk is animal fat and is harmful to vegetation, so
actually they may be killing the tree.
There does not seem to be support for this practice from the Jesuhelas.
Jesus is said to have cursed the fig tree. The Bo-tree belongs to
the fig tree family, so Jesus may be considered as cursing the bo-tree.
Certainly the Jesuhelas hold this practice of their Boduhela cousins
with great disdain.
(4) Transference of Merit
Passing merit to deceased relatives is a major part of Boduhela practice.
Once again this practice was unknown to the Buddha. According to the
Buddha merit can only be done by oneself. In fact if we allow the
transfer of karma it makes a mockery of this teaching of the Buddha.
This practice however is greatly promoted by monks.
The practice of passing merit to devas is also peculiar. The devas
are supposed to have done a lot of good karma to be reborn in the
deva realms. So they should be having a greater accumulation of merit
than those who offer more merit to them. If the purpose of merit transference
is to equalize the distribution of merit then it is the devas who
should be giving merit to humans, not vice versa.
The Christians are also known to pray to deceased persons so that
they may fare better at their "day of judgment". Some sects
like the Mormons make elaborate genealogies of dead people in order
to confer on them the blessings of Christianity. The continuance of
the practice of merit transfer may be in imitation of this Jesuhela
practice, even though its origins may be pre-Christian coming from
some Mahayana practices.
(5) Pirit Chanting with Thread and Water
Boduhelas are great supporters of the practice of pirit chanting even
if they do not understand what is chanted. It is said that there is
some support for this in the Commentaries which claim that the Buddha
recommended it to overcome a plague in the city of Vaisaali. However
there is no mention of thread and water which have become essential
components of modern pirit chanting.
Jesuhelas are also noted for reading sections of their holy scriptures
and some orders of monks require a communal reading. This has some
similarity to the Boduhela practice. Also holy water is used extensively
in Catholic ritual. The Christians are noted for the communal singing
of hymns. The Boduhelas have also copied this in the bhaktigeeta they
sing communally, appropriately in the hela language.
(6) Rite and Ritual
Christianity is a religion of "rite and ritual" and Jesuhelas
feel that these rites have to be conducted by duly ordained priests.
Buddhism considers rite and ritual (siilabbata paraamaasa) actually
as an impediment. But Boduhelas have obliterated this distinction
and transformed their Buddhism into a system of worship and ritual..
(7) The Political Monkhood
This is the latest development and one which the Boduhelas have burrowed
from their Jesuhela cousins. Jesus called himself the "King of
the Jews" an indiscretion that earned him the death sentence
for treason from the Romans. This idea of holy Kingship was perpetuated
by the Popes who came to exercise temporal power. Gradually due to
the progress of what historians call the "Enlightenment"
the political power of the clerics were trimmed.
The modern Boduhelas have moved in the opposite direction of giving
their monks a political power they had abjured when they "went
forth" in the dispensation of Gotama. The heroes of the modern
Hela supporters are clerics like Paisley, Tutu, Cardinal Sin, Makarios,
etc. In SL the Catholic Bishops have come out in support of the political
monks even as they deny this role to their own priests. The latter
position may be because the Christians are in a minority and lay Christians
like Ranil Wickremesighe are doing a good job for them..
There are several other aspects of the Boduhelas that link them to
the thinking of the Jesuhelas which we do not have the space to explore.
What it does show is that these two arms of the Hela movement present
a threat not only to the territorial integrity of Lanka but also to
its Buddhist heritage.
Christianity cannot be effectively fought unless we go back to the
teaching of the Buddha.
Royal Patronage of the Helas
In Sri Lanka both sections of the Hela movement can claim royal patronage
The patron of the Jesuhelas is Don Juan Pandar (alias Dharmapala)
the King of Kotte, while the patron of the Boduhelas is Don Juan of
Austria (alias Konappu Bandara), the King of Senkadagala. These
are the two greatest traitors to Lanka in its entire history of Kingship
spanning two millennia. They are the only baptized Christians to have
worn the crown of the Sinhalas, and thereby desecrated it.
The first named Don Juan not only became a faithful lackey of the
Portuguese but also bequeathed his Kingdom to the King of Portugal,
a bequest which was solemnly ratified in the Malwana convention. He
spend that last decades of his pathetic like virtually like a prisoner
of the Portuguese in their fort in Colombo.
The second Don Juan (Konappu Bandara) had an even more notorious
career. Unlike Dharmapala who is not known to have actively participated
in the atrocities of the Portuguese Konappu was an active and willing
participant. He exercised his sword against many Sinhala Buddhists
joining Portuguese expeditions sent to ravage Buddhist temples in
the West and South of Sri Lanka. His defection from the Portuguese
was done to escape the punishment he would have suffered at the hands
of the Portuguese if he had returned to Colombo with a record of failure
in the military expedition of Gomez de Souza. With Konappu the shadow
of the Cross fell on the Udarata which had managed to ward it off
until his assumption of power. Konappu introduced his misconceived
notion of "tolerance" under which the Catholics were later
protected from the vengeance of the Dutch..
It is an indication of the depth to which the modern helas have descended
that they are actively engaged in promoting these two traitors as
heroes of the Sinhala nation.
The Current Situation
Sri Lanka is now placed in a critical situation. It is faced with
two threats, one from the LTTE and the other from a resurgent Christianity.
Actually even the LTTE threat is a Christian threat not only because
most of the LTTE leaders are Christians but also because of the support
they receive from Jesuhelas like the Christian clerics and bishops.
In the contest between Boduhelas and Jesuhelas for the leadership
of the hela movement the Boduhelas seem to be losing. The Jesuhelas
are rapidly appropriating all the symbols of the Boduhela. They
have adopted Sinhala terminology for their priests and even modern
churches are built in the style of traditional Buddhist temples. Sinhala
translations of the Bible are written in the hela (or elu) language
and often use Buddhist terms to translate Christian concepts. Ignorant
people may well mistake them for Buddhist sutras. We have shown that
in their religious practice there is a close similarity between the
Boduhela and the Jesuhela. Recent leaders in the propagation of Hela
values like Solomon Bandaranaike are Christian converts of doubtful
sincerity. Many lay leaders of the hela political parties are said
to be Christians.
The Jesuhelas will actually welcome the disintegration of Lanka and
few of their leaders have spoken against it. The Boduhelas have joined
the current "Peace movement" in droves and they constitute
the most ardent of this breed of peaceniks. As reasonable person will
realize the peace process is simply a surrender process. The Boduhela
opposition to the peace process is purely rhetoric and designed to
A confluence between Boduhela and Jesuhela under the Hela banner
will be as great a threat to Lanka as is the terrorist insurgency
of the LTTE. We know that the LTTE insurgency has now been given respectability
by the Helas despite the worldwide campaign against terrorism. Will
the two branches of the Hela movement unite under an alien banner
and provide as greater a threat as is now provided by the LTTE?
[Use the back arrow of the browser to return]
 The process may actually have commenced in the period before the
arrival of Western colonizers. The gradual drift of the capital of
the nation from Anuradhapura to Kotte marked various stages in the
decline of Lanka. But it needed the arrival of the Portuguese and
the Christian religion to provide neo-Sinhala with a distinct ideology.
 Philippines was the only Asian country to be completely Christianized
during the period of classic colonialism. But before the colonial
occupation the Philippines had a very backward cannibalistic culture.
It was not surprising that the Christians had success there as they
had with other primitive peoples like those of the South Pacific.
The people of Lanka had a glorious civilization behind them, so Christian
success there is something that can be explained only by the neo-Sinhala
 The historic name of the country was simply 'Lanka'. This was
the name by which the country was introduced to Vijaya some 2500 years
ago, and is clearly a pre-Vijayan name. In the current official name
of 'Sri Lanka' the epithet 'Sri' has been placed before the traditional
name for which there is absolutely no justification. In these CCs
we shall use the official name of Sri Lanka to denote the current
context but shall refer to the traditional name of Lanka when the
context so demands.
 It is curious that despite their enthusiasm for their religion
the Christian authorities in their countries of emigration have not
allowed them to form a Sinhala (for Hela) church unlike the Chinese
Christians who have been allowed to form Chinese Christian churches.
Despite this the Jesuhelas follow the white Christians tamely.
 In fact the Christians think that the bread and wine are magically
turned into the flesh and blood of Jesus! This is a remnant of the
cannibalism that underlies this central act of Christian worship.
It is interesting to note that the first Sinhalas who observed the
newly arrived Portuguese reported that they consumed blood.
 There has been no explanation why Konappu chose Austria as part
of his baptismal name. Perhaps the village he was born in had a similar
sounding name. But clearly the man had no knowledge of European political
geography. (The only place Konappu visited outside Lanka was Goa).
 We are told that a statue is planned to be erected in the memory
of Konappu, while exhibitions on him have been planned by Boduhela
expats in Canada!
 It has been claimed that there is group led by two people simply
called 'Siriwardena' and 'Swarna' (the full names have not been revealed)
advocating either a Christian version of Buddhism or a Buddhist version
of Christianity. It must be reiterated that Buddhism and Christianity
stand in complete opposition to each other. That is why the mutual
rapprochement that has been going on between Boduhelas and Jesuhelas,
simply because they are both aspects of the same Hela movement must
be strongly deprecated. It is hoped that this CC will go some way
in refuting this mutual accommodation between these two branches of
the Hela movement.