Is a Dharmishta society rooted in indigenous religious values the necessary basis for social progress in Sri Lanka?
Posted on January 26th, 2012

R Chandrasoma

In a recent review of Mr S L Gunasekara’s book on nepotism and other sins widely prevalent in Sri Lanka, the renowned author Mr Gunadasa Amerasekara makes an impassioned plea for a return to the norms and practices of the Lanka of historic times when religion (Buddhism )dominated the lives of its its exemplary citizens. There is a widespread belief among the religious that we are living in a “ƒ”¹…”Kali Yuga’ or Age of Vice that precedes the Eastern version of Armageddon. It is the favourite theme of religious preachers who unctuously warn sinners that the day is short and the impending punishment dire. Suppose we cast off the pretence of acting as the harbinger of celestial warnings and look at the contemporary world with honest eyes, can we say that our fellow-beings are morally inferior to our forebears of yesteryear?

Objective studies show that we score far higher than our recent  ancestors on the following counts “”…”

  1. Killing of enemies and offenders of all kinds is far less common now. A mere hundred years ago a woman could be hanged for petty theft in England. In Ancient Sri Lanka, knocking off the head of a person who wrongs a nobleman was accepted as “ƒ”¹…”dharmishta’ as it was a means of preserving the natural order of precedence in society. The right to kill offenders was supposedly sacrosant and all persons of substance carried weapons.
  2. Torture was accepted as the natural “ƒ”¹…”reaction’ to the contumacy of criminals. The religious belief was that “ƒ”¹…”moral action and reaction’ are equal and opposite “”…” meanining that heinous crime must be met by condign punishment. The punishment of sinners in the four hells was taken as the model for operations in the human sphere.
  3. Women were the victims in a divison of labour that assigned the noble tasks to men while the females bore children and served their Lord and Master.
  4. Children had no rights “”…” they were routinely beaten both at home and at school “”…” if, indeed. schooling was possible.
  5. Society had levels and distinctions that were inherited. No amount of genius or hard work sufficed to cross social barriers. In the form of the hereditary caste system, the poor were denied rights and privileges supposedly on the basis of their past Karma.
  6. Lying and cheating were regarded as a form of astute diplomacy. The ruling noblemen developed this to a fine art while the poor did so to escape the censure of the overlord. The King was above the moral law and his dictates had an arbitrariness that astonishes us today. The people served by being abjectly servile.
  7. It is true that there were “ƒ”¹…”sabhas’ where the people met the hereditary leaders but it was mostly to announce decisions and to enforce a specious consensus. The history of the Kandyan Kingdom is an illustration of this chicanery “”…” a history of shameful intrigue, blatant anti-nationalism and double-deals with the White-skinned foreigner. We have no authentic history of what happened in the late Anuradhapura period and in the period after the fall of the Polonnaruwa Kingdom but enough is known to suggest murderous power-struggles in a supposed Buddhist country. Inviting traditional enemies of the native race and religion to bolster one royal party against another was the cause of the terminal decline of the Sinhala nation. This lugubrious history is no model for emulation by those living today.
  8. In the hands of the monks and the nobility, the austere and lofty religion of the Buddha transformed into a ritual-formulary religion that assured a   place in a better world for those solicitous of the Sangha and the religious establishment. Most Kings practiced Buddhism as a public duty while astrologers, soothsayers and Brahaminical advisors formed an “ƒ”¹…”inner force’ for spiritual protection.
  9. To say that “ƒ”¹…”the old ways are better’ ignores the fact that science and technology have radically transformed the way we look at the world and how we interact with our fellow-beings. It is not possible to be a “ƒ”¹…”noble savage’ or a “ƒ”¹…”saint of the backwoods’ without rejecting the those advances that have made life as we know it possible. A reformed morality must be build on a new way of living that honours the past but refuses to accept its archaisms as the prototype for the new age.
  10. Since there are many kinds of people on our planet with many faiths and diverse life-styles, it would be folly indeed to hark back to a past that is totally out of joint with the living present. That these fellow-travellers on our Planet are part of a common humanity compels us to accept reforms that were not part of our accustomed heritage. Our living culture – now and in the future “”…” will be dominated by the great world outside.

In presenting the case for “ƒ”¹…”modernism’ it is important to realize that the world we currently live in is fractured and imperfect. Wars have killed millions, gross inequalities result in millions starving and the pristine natural environment is being destroyed on a scle never seen before. Human greed and selfishness continue unabated. These are  horrendous defects but they appear to be remediable and any movement to a better world can only come from their progressive removal “”…” not be a return to a past that has fitful periods of glory but is mostly sin and shadow.

9 Responses to “Is a Dharmishta society rooted in indigenous religious values the necessary basis for social progress in Sri Lanka?”

  1. Bodhi Says:

    Thank you very much for this lucidly written article. There are many people who think that “all you need to do is to follow the Dhamma”, or that “it was very just and law-abiding during ancient times”. Such views are held by people who do not know much about religion, history or justice.

    Most ‘knee-jerk’ human actions are controlled by the autonomous nervous system which are NOT under the control of our volitions, or consciousness. However, such actions can be improved and learned to be pro-social rather than anti-social by the way you are brought up. Thus the increase in education that has occurred since the invention of printing, then modern universal schooling, free education in Sri lanka etc., as well as social welfare measures that have accrued to us due to developments in technology have helped to create a more gentle and humane world.

    However, personal beliefs (religion) and ethics can also play a role in regard a small part of our volitions which are under our control. What is important to understand is that MOST of our actions are NOT under our direct control, but mediated by the subjective unconscious.

    Whe you see a friend, you decide to shake his hand. In fact, nothing is further from the truth. When the image of the friend arrives in the brain, the brain does all the analysis, decides to shake the hand, and even begins to raise the hand. It is ONLY AFTER THAT, that the conscious mind is INFORMED that you are going to shake the hand of your friend!

    So morality and justice are largely stored in the autonomous nervous system, and they have little to do with “Dharmishta society”.

  2. Lorenzo Says:


    However, we must copy the good from past glorious periods.

    “Killing of enemies and SERIOUS offenders of all kinds is far less common now.”

    Yes. Now it is the oppositte. Enemies and serious offenders kill people instead! And get away,

    Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

    Killing enemies of the unitary nation is ALWAYS GOOD AND NOBLE. We should at least copy this from the past. 11,000 terrorists were released to the society. They will do what they know best – terrorism. How naive to think otherwise?

    We never killed captives in war. But why take them captive?

  3. brahamin Says:

    It is true that education and the need to cooperate to do various things together (farming, running companies, trade)
    make people better. However, our capacity to do good, as well as bad, increases as our knowledge (science and engineering) grows. Thus we can, as in Hiroshima, destroy whole cities in a short moment. The Americans can put napalam and burn people alive, and shower claymore mines into cambodia that will take another 25 years to de-mine. So, something/ethics has to tell people what choices are to be made in their actions.

  4. Ben_silva Says:

    Good article by Chandrasoma. Ethics and morality are vital for the working of an orderly society Ethics have been taught in the past by Buddhist schools. Christian schools also taught ethics as Christian values. Ethics and morality are important to all humans and could be taught at school and at home. Ethics and morality, could be taught as part of the curriculum, without attaching the baggage of religion. Already Doctors and Professional engineers have to study ethical guidelines.
    The problem with any religion is it clouds thinking and introduce bias. With Buddhism, religion attaches unproven myths such as Nirvana, rebirth and sansare.
    We can learn from history. The ‘Dharma’ societies, in the silk route, have been wiped out Dharma societies such as in Tibet are very poor, not competitive or taken over by stronger nations. It is important to realise that we live in a competitive world and society. An Indian head of a school said ‘ outside world is like a war zone’ and the school prepares them to survive in the outside world. He has put the situation in a nut shell. If we do not understand the nature of the real world and merely blindly follow Dharma, then we will have the same fate is Nalanda Buddhists. It is vital to understand the true nature of the world we live in (like a war zone)rather than be blinded by religion and follow ‘Dharma‘.
    It is dangerous to turn the clock back and instead we should learn and evolve.
    Unfortunately, many religion followers, could be Muslims, Buddhists, Christians are blinded by religion which may cloud their thinking. There are over 40 religions in the world, all claiming that their religion is the truth.
    The economic system we have, ie the Capitalist system could be modified so that all stakeholders benefit. Surviving in the real world will require development of appropriate skills and not just ‘Dharma’

  5. Nimal Says:

    I couldn’t agree more.Dharma alone will not save but must be guided by reason,justice and respect for science and the laws that therein.Also give a serious thought to countries that have achieved economic success and how they have done it.Such countries respect the freedoms of it’s people buttressed by the honest and transparent administrations that is complimented by a independent judiciary and honest law enforcement.Therefore no amount of Dharma or religion could contribute to our well being if the fundamentals I mentioned above are absent.

  6. mjaya Says:

    Mr. Chandrasoma has highlighted some factual points on how we have progressed as a society. I agree with all of them except with (3) “Women were the victims in a divison of labour that assigned the noble tasks to men while the females bore children and served their Lord and Master.”. Our society wasn’t misogynistic (no Gonibilla dress to be more precise). In a household always the mother came first “Gedara Budun Amma”.

    In the past, there wasn’t a concept of “day care” so this was the only practical way to overcome this was for the women to work near the home looking after the children and for the men to work the fields. Often the women would work the fields once the children were big enough to look after themselves.

    There is no such thing as a “golden age in the past” but we can always learn from the past. One example is military strategy. King Dutugemunu started his campaign from the east and then moved to the north. We did the same thing in the recent defeat of the LTTE, freed the eastern province and then kicked the LTTE out of the north. Another lesson we have failed to get from the past is self sufficiency. King Datusena said “water is my wealth” because self sufficiency is a necessity for a strong nation.

  7. mjaya Says:

    The ethics taught in Buddhism are no different from most of the ethics that western society has come up with in recent times. Buddhist ethics are based upon principles like all living beings with a conscious like to live and taking oneself as an example to not harm others. Western ethics are based upon social norms, that is why there are numerous dilemmas in western ethics when it comes to things like animal experiments and “humane” slaughter.

    Buddhism does not have anything against becoming rich (as long as the wealth gained isn’t unlawful). As Mahinda Wijesinghe has highlighted in his article the Zoroastrians of Iran also died in rivers of blood due to the Islamic invasion which went rampant through the silk route (for more examples pls. refer to Ratnapala’s article “Christian School of Buddhism – Nibbana is Extinction!”). The Sinhalese people have the necessary skills for competition or else we would not have survived for 2500 years (kicking out invaders of course until the betrayal of 1815 – again traitors like Judas can be found everywhere).

    Similar to Tibet are the Red Indians who were not Buddhist and Theravada Buddhist Thailand was one of the few countries in Asia not to be colonized.

    The Sinhalese do have certain non-Buddhist practices. We have progressed out of some of them like the caste system. We need to progress out of the horoscope mindset but benign cultural practices like the Kandy Perahera and Thovil should be preserved.

  8. Naram Says:

    Mr Chandrasoma seems to lump together everything that happened in feudal societies as part of the ‘Dharmishta’ by which I reckon Buddhist societies. While Buddha’s teachings still remai the most adnanced form of self analysis the social norms of human societies do not differ much whether in the East or the West. The Brahamin Chanakya Kautilya is said to have developed a system of statecraft that brought Ashoka’s grand dad to power unifuying great part of what is now India. The tactics adopted by rulers of Sri Lanka owe much to that school of thought. There were regular streams of Indian GUrus who brought in various beliefs Pattini, Mahasen, Kalukumara to name a few. I know people who go to get Nandi Vakyam on themselves read.
    In Buddha’s time there was large scale hunting for pleasure, massive animal Ashwa Yaga one type as an offering to Gods to end droughts, ppolygamy, prostitution both at a low level and at highlevel as the episodes of Kinchi damsel, Magandiashow. Buddha’s teachings were directed at developing humanism and individuals and less at combating various forms of oppresssion but in personal dealings he treated everyone equal rich or poor high or low caste.

    THe Buddhist society of Kandy period had many Hindu practices and it was the quest for royal blood that brought in Vaduga caste – Nayakkers to Kandy. A coup to kill the Nayakker king Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe, who was believed to be harbouring Hindu beliefs inside and replace him with a prince of Siamese royal family in the 1750s was found out and even the most respected Sangaraja Weliwita Saranankara at the time was banished from Kandy for a period .

    The social infrastructure, free education, health services become affordable to societies with the growth of economy and if the working classes are organised the trend will be to have a better distribution – a feature you do not see in the Western societies today. Sadly the same trend is seen in India, Sri Lanka, THailand or China too.

  9. Christie Says:

    The way I understand Buddhism is that it is not a relegion of beleifs.

    It has laid certain principles for the lay people that are commonsense.

    The religion in itself is not allowed to interfere with the dya to day life of lay people.

    It has no initiation practices like most other relegions.

    You are responsible for what you do.

    What ever happened to people of the island they always fought for their Buddhism.

    the only people in the british Empire to get a guarantee from the British that they will protect Buddhism.

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