Posted on July 26th, 2017

Sugath Samarasinghe

(I sent the attached article as a reply to an article on this subject by a Prof. Fernando, to the Island newspaper. But it was not published)

This is an attempt to explain the question raised by Prof. Laksiri Fernando in his article titled Is there a Sangha State behind the state” that appeared in ‘The Island’ of 10th July. The straight answer is, yes, there is. It has been here in this country for the last 2300 years, other than during the last 400 years, when it did not go away but was made to take back seat, for survival. The Professor is right when he says, It has reappeared after a long slumber”.  This is how it derives its legitimacy and justification to exist and continue in this country.  This ‘state behind the state’ was revived in 1972 under the Republican Constitution. In fact even prior to that, immediately following the so called ‘silent revolution’ in 1956, SWRD who ushered the ape Aanduwa” took his Cabinet of Ministers to the Kelani Viharaya for their swearing in before the Buddha and Sangha.

This tradition commenced the day that Ven. arahant Mahinda Thero told King Devanam Piya Tissa something to the effect O great king, birds of the air and the beasts have as equal a right to live and any part of the land as thou; the land belongs to the people and all living beings ; thou art only the guardian of it.” . This is  2 millennia ago before the West ever dreamt of any idea of Fundamental Rights. This thought was based on the universal concept of Metta. From that day onwards the Sangha had been the guiding light to the kings in their political thought and governance, through Buddhist thinking, in this country. From it flowed the fundamental ideal political philosophy of Dasaraja dharma which evolved the most stringent concept of Chakkvatthi Raja whose required qualities have been described in the Buddhist texts. It is this thought that Emperor Asoka of India through his Asokan Edicts, tried to live up to that Buddhist ideal of kingship. It is thought that many Sinhala Kings at least of the Anuradhapura Period that ran into 1500 years, tried to emulate this idea. One is reminded of King Buddhadasa the great physician king who introduced to the world, the idea of hospital system for organized cure of the diseased and accordingly built many hospitals in countrywide the remnants of some are still extant. In fact under the tradition of Sangha admonition there developed the idea of ‘Dharmista’ governance that was adopted by the subsequent kings. That is why the Buddhist monks chant at the end of Pirith chantings Raja bhavathu dhammiko” May the kings become dharmistha”, the most extreme case being that of  Sirisangabo who offered not only his kingship but also his head tooon a platter, to satisfy the ambition of his contender. Thus, this country which was then internationally known as Seehaladweepa also came to be known alternatively as Dhammadeepa.  In fact it is with this ‘Dharmista governance‘idea that President JRJ deluded the people of this country in 1977, fraudulently saying that he would re-usher that ideal state! And, after 2000 years too people fell for it! People fell for it again in 2015 this time, for the same product differently brand named as Yahapalanaya. Why? Because the idea is embedded in their ethos deep within.

Anyhow the Sangha continued to be advisors to the Kings right through. They were reported to have been advising the kings on Dhamma and Artha. The Dhamma here did not confine itself to Buddha Dhamma alone. Dhamma also meant here the ways of the world. Artha was statecraft politics and economics. Their advice was called ‘Anusana’ and not like Papal edicts issued from the ‘Buddhist Church’ as such. However it is not always that the kings listened to the admonitions of the Sangha. There have been several such known  instances in our history. The great king Mahasen who was tutored by a Mahayana Bhikkhu in his youth, turned against the Mahavihara Bhikkhu fraternity, killed them and drove away the others, burnt all their Buddhist texts, as he supported the Mahayana Bhikkhus of Abhayagirivihara. Then, king Rajasinghe I became incensed with the Sangha when they told him that there was escape for him from the sinful Kamma of patricide, he drove away the Sangha from Sitawaka and embraced Hinduism. Quite recently it was that JRJ who was incensed at the chief monk of the Getambe Temple who disapproved some of his actions, got a  barbed wire fence erected round the temple to the consternation of the people!

Then also the Sangha intervened in the bitter feud between the two brothers Dutugemunu and Tissa who fought each other, and saved Tissa who sought refuge at Dematamal viharaya. The important thing here is that the Sangha never took sides. On the other hand, the Sangha accompanied Dutugemeunu when he marched on Elara to capture Anuradhapura. And before setting out on his campaign Dutugemunu declared that his endeavor was not due to his ambition for kingship but to restore Buddha sasana to its pristine glory. Again, it is reported that at least one of his generals entered the sasana as a monk after the war was over. When the king was later assailed by a great guilt that he had to kill so many people in his war effort, the Sangha tried hard to console him. He was however lucky that the UNHRC was then not in place at that time to take him before an international court! These ideas nevertheless illustrate how the Sangha and the politics of this country was intertwined like gahata pottha wage” as they say in Sinhala, to mean inextricable ‘like the bark and the tree’.

On the other hand, when the Sangha hit bad times the kings came to their rescue. Because serving the Sangha meant serving the sasana. Thus in the time of Parakramabahu III of Dambadeniya when the Sangha hit the rock bottom, at their request the king helped them to rescue themselves to promulgate what was called Dambadeni Kathikawatha, for the Sangha to abide by. Similarly when the Sangha was found to have deteriorated in the seventeen hundreds under Portuguese and Dutch assault, Ven. Saranankara Thero requested King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe for assistance to bring back higher ordination from Siam (present Thailand). He saw to it that it was done with the assistance of the Dutch Governor. This much maligned Siyiam Nikaya does not give higher ordination to members of the so called low castes, is known to be practiced on the injunction of the king as such members were found to be uncomfortable when the king worshiped them. So the tradition continues whether we like it or not. This indicates that the king had lower his crown to the Sangha  However the good outcome of this discrimination is that the outraged Southern monks proceeded to Burma (Myanmar) and brought higher ordination for themselves from Ramanna and Amarapura leading to the establishment of these two Nikayas in the mid-18th century. The Bhikkhus of these two Nikayas turned out to be aggressive in ushering the religious and cultural awakening among the Sinhalese Buddhists who were demoralized and demotivated under the Western and Christian cultural and political assault after the fall of the Sinhala kingdom since 1815, when it came to a point that the Buddhists were looked down upon as ‘natives’ and were ashamed to claim that they were Buddhists. The growth of these two new Nikayas eventually led to the emerging of the two significant centers of Buddhist learning, Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Pirivenas which awakened the Buddhist monks to new learning re-enhancing their confidence to reclaim their political role to lead the country towards independence movement. It was these Pirivenas that produced erudite monk like Ven. Dr. Walpola Rahula who wrote a book named Bhikshuwakage Urumaya – redefining the role of the Bhikkhu to reclaim their place in the socio-political arena and the need to return to their original role as the ‘shadow government’ at a time when the English educated middle class thought the place of the Buddhist Monks was in their temples, peacefully practicing their religion. It is the remnants of this kind of thinking among them that question whether is a ‘state behind the state’ in this country.

The institution of the Sangha, evolved through the centuries to further crystalize the Sinhala political thought to the development of ideas such as that a person who would aspire to be king in this country should be a Buddhist. This is like it is a constitutional requirement in Norway that whoever becomes king in that country should be a Christian. This idea continued throughout history until the last kings who were Wadugas. Though they by birth were Hindus had to embrace Buddhism to become king. We do not need to go that far. After Universal Franchise, most political leaders whose parents had become Christians to get to positions of influence under the Colonial rulers had to revert to Buddhism  like J.R. Jayawardene and S.W.R.D. Bandaranayake who aspired to come to the political top, after Independence. In fact, Keerthisri Rajasinghe who experienced a lot of hostility from the people for the fact that he was not Sinhalese despite being Buddhist, had to do a lot promoting Buddhism, in order to win over the people’s support politically.

Then, after the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha was brought to this country from Kalinga, the idea developed further over the years that whoever who had the right to become king in this country should have under his possession the Sacred Tooth Relic. This was considered the right to kingship. When under threat of a foreign attack especially since Portuguese times, the first thing that the king did was to hide away was the Tooth Relic the symbol of kingship. They always had a contingency plan in place for this eventuality and a code name for this secret operation. Thus, our last king Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe too, no sooner than he heard that the British were approaching Mahanuwara to capture him, had the Tooth Relic dispatched secretly to Kithulpe Dalada Gaman Maligawa to be under the eye of a trusted Buddhist monk. After capturing the king, the British launched a protracted operation to trace the Dalalda to complete their conquest.

In the Buddhist literature the Buddhist society is composed of 4 elements viz., Bhikkhu, Bhikkhuni, Upasaka, and Upasika. (Bhikkhus, Bhikkhunis, Laymen and Laywomen). They are dependent on each other for their survival and progress, in fact for the very survival of Buddha sasana. For instance Buddhism disappeared in India despite being the Buddha’s homeland because this social organization collapsed there. The same thing is now happening in Bangladesh. So when any component of this organization is threatened, the other component/s have to do their utmost to protect. This time the monkhood, the Sangha, has come forward because they think that a grave threat has emerged. For, if the unitary existence of the country is threatened, the Buddhist community is threatened. And when the Community is threatened, the very existence of the Sangha is threatened. When that happens, the entire Buddhist social structure would collapse. Then the support base of the Sangha would disappear. When that happens, the Buddha sasana will disappear from this country as it happened in India. This is why the alarm bells are ringing like temple bell, the Gantharas. May be this is what Ven. Galaboda Atthe does in his own way.

This is the self-evolved reciprocity concept on which the Sinhala Buddhist (Sinhala Buddhagama) revolves. It is the same in the case of Thai Buddhism and Burmese Buddhism. In fact, these three cultures too are mutually supportive as explained above. For instance Buddhist meditative feature had disappeared from Sri Lanka during the hard times of 400 years of colonialism. This technique was brought back here in the Buddha Jayanthi year in 1956, as a special gift from Myanmar after the last Buddha Jaynthi Convention there. The cultural features of Sinhala Buddhism is described by Prof. J.B. Dissanayake for the benefit of the modern generation and the future in a book titled ‘Sinhala Buddhagama’.

When the Kandyan Kingdom was finally ceded to the British, by the Kandyan chiefs and the Sangha, there was apprehension that this system may be endangered. This is why the Sangha insisted that a clause in the Kandyan Convention be inserted before they placed their signatures, to the effect that the new rulers should undertake to ensure the continued protection of the Buddha Sasana and the administrative systems of the Kandyan Provinces which would ensure their continuance. This provision was not contained in the Soulbury Constitution drawn by Dr. Ivor Jennings which was enjoined to the then compliant local leaders. However, since the republican constitutions of 1972 and 1978, this provision was brought back as Article 9 which in effect enabled resumption of the status quo which in effect recognized the right of the Sangha to advise the governments as done over the centuries. This may be the reason why all heads of state and those appointed to highest positions of the government make it a point to pay homage at the Sri Maha Bodhi at Anuradhapura and visit the Mahanuwara first to worship at the Dalada Maligawa like the kings of old and to obtain blessings of the Sangha at the Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters. This is because the Sinhala people always looked up to the Sangha as the Guardian Gods of the nation and religion. They were expected by the unwritten constitution of this country like in England, that it was the duty of the Guardian Gods to intervene in the face of a threat to the nation. It may be recalled that when the ‘Eelam war IV’ was being fought by the soldiers of the Nation the monks chanted continuous Pirith on the Maluwa of the Ruwanveli Seya day and night, seeking Buddha’s blessing for all people involved in the war effort. It may be the same situation now that a grave danger to the nation has emerged by way of safety of the unitary character of the state and the traditional prime status accorded to Buddhism over the centuries is apprehended that the Asgiriya Monks had decided to voice their concern to those involved in running the state. It is because of their above mentioned legitimacy by written and unwritten law that their voice made such waves countrywide, that made people like Prof. Fernando raise the question, Is there a ‘Sangha State’ behind the state?”

One couldn’t blame the Professor’s ignorance because the Sangha was forced to be in hibernation during the British times who introduced to us a written constitution drafted by them when in fact we already had a centuries old tried and tested unwritten constitution in this country, like in their own country. Even during their period of hibernation, the Buddhist monks were always behind the resistance to the colonial rule and were behind the two main Rebellions of 1818 and 1848 and also other movements throughout the 19th century. A high point of their campaign was that of the revivalist endeavour of Ven. Migettuwatte Gunanada Thero who defeated the Christian Priests in the Great Panadura Debate that really sparked off the Buddhist National revival that continues to date and future, judging by the current happenings. Then when the status of Buddhism was threatened during the time of Ms. Chandrika Kumaratunga, a Buddhist Monks’ front came up to challenge the then government. They succeeded in their effort, but when the monks realized that their direct participation in the legislature was not their role, they withdrew to their temples to continue with their religious pursuits and the conventional role of the Buddhist monks and now re-appeared in the form of the Asgiriya monks’ intervention. There may be much critism on the conduct of the monks and questions are asked on their Sila itself. In a corrupt society where all norms of decency is undermined one could not expect Bhikkhus who come from the same corrupt environment to be different. Yet the wonder is that we still have among them a significant number who are silwath and are seriously engaged in the practice of Buddhist norms, leading the people on the religious path.

Prof. Fernando states in his final paragraph that I am almost a Buddhist in my thinking but not a Sinhala Buddhist” etc. Being almost a Buddhist” will not help him to gain the full benefit of being a follower of the Buddhist path. He appears to be not a Sinhala Buddhist but an intellectual Buddhist at the most. Prof. Nalin de Silva describes such types as ‘Olcott Buddhists’. This kind of intellectual Buddhists, mostly read and try to understand Buddhism in English language which is written to fit the Western way of thinking. They find it difficult to grasp the spirit of Buddha’s  teachings. Buddhism could not be grasped through intellect alone but through developing insight. He needs to cultivate Saddha” for that. The problem of the likes of Prof. Fernando is that they look upon what they think is Buddhism with some intellectual conceit. He would take to it only if it measures upto his self-conceived expectation. If it doesn’t he would look down upon the Dhamma and its followers. One needs a lot of humility to be able to access the Dhamma.


Another significant aspect of this matter is that it was the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha Tehra who conceived the idea of re-brand Marketing ‘Yahapalanaya’ and led the political campaign which toppled the Rajapakse regime. When a strong support mobilized behind the monk’s leadership, the Sinhala Buddhists did not question his right to do so instead of confining himself to the practice of Dhamma and meditation, because they recognized that he was exercising his role as ‘a state behind a state’. But isn’t it strange that at that time the likes of Prof. Fernando did not raise the question whether a concept of ‘state behind a state’ was functioning here instead of the Sangha confining itself to the temples? Thus isn’t this sheer hypocrisy?


  1. Dilrook Says:

    With 220 MPs rejecting the Maha Sangha position, the allegation is wrong. Only 5 MPs heeded the call of the Maha Sangha that a new constitution is not needed. The Constitutional Assembly continues with 220 MPs.

  2. Christie Says:

    We Sinhalese are not different to Bhutanese.

    The Hinduthwa and the Indian Empire is very powerful. We all bark at the wrong tree while we the Sinhalese are getting wiped out by India, Indian Empire, Indian Colonial Parasites and Indian vermin.

  3. Fran Diaz Says:

    History will record that the Maha Sangha were correct to say that Sri Lanka does not need a new Constitution.

  4. SA Kumar Says:

    Sugath Samarasinghe- Very intellectual article .
    Very prov to be Mother Lankan (Chignkal Theevu)

  5. Ananda-USA Says:

    The gist of this article is that the relationship between the Sinhala people and the Maha Sangha is a SYMBIOTIC one; one will not survive without the other.

    The Sinhala warrior, courageous in battle, but quick to anger and even quicker to regret, will not survive without the moderation of his inherent urges by the Maha Sangha.

    Likewise, the Buddhist Upasakaya schooled in non-violence will not survive the assaults of our common enemies without the protection provided by the Sinhala warrior.

    In this way, the Sinhala Buddhist has the opportunity to the leverage the best of both aspects of our dual personality, and to achieve true greatness as a determined people travelling along the midle path.

    As the ancient Greeks had said “Pan metron ariston” which means “In all things, moderation is best”.

    Speaking for myself, I have chosen FIRST and FOREMOST to be a a Sinhala Warrior, and a Buddhist Upasakaya a long way SECOND!

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