Sinhala Buddhist Cultural Legacy
Posted on January 6th, 2020

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane   

Sinhala is the ethnic group native to Sri Lanka, forming the mainstream or the dominant indigenous community of the island for more than 2500 years. In fact, Sri Lanka is the only national sovereign motherland of the Sinhala people. Their culture, way of life and their Sinhala language originated and developed in Sri Lanka. Therefore, inevitably, the sovereign national rights of Sri Lanka rests with the Sinhala people who form the original dominant community of this country. Tamils, Muslims, and Malays are non-indigenous minority settler communities of Sri Lanka who settled in the island at different times in the past, coming from their own homelands or motherlands.

Accuracy of Historic Record

A good part of the long history of the island, has been recorded or written by its own people in an unbroken continuous manner. This written history goes back to over 2500 years and is described chronologically, in detail, in the ancient chronicles Deepavansa (3rd-4th century CE), Mahavamsa (6th century CE), Chulavamsa, besides the Rajavaliya, Pujavaliya, Dhatuvamsaya, Elu-Attanagaluvamsaya, Elu-Bodhivamsaya, Maha Bodhivamsaya, Thupavamsaya, Daladavamsaya and Viharavamsaya. This written history is supported by archaeological evidence, and reports of foreign travelers of ancient times. Among archaeological evidence substantiating recorded historic information are rock inscriptions. The written history of Sri Lanka is regarded as the second-most remarkable recorded history in existence of an ancient and cultured civilization. It is second only to the records maintained by the Shang dynasty of Chinese emperors. The historical chronicles narrate in detail the history of the country since the arrival of Buddhism in 237 BCE or 3rd century BCE or about 2246 years ago.

These historic sources provide information on Sinhala Buddhist Kings who rescued the Sinhala race, the island and Buddhism from marauding Tamil armies of powerful South Indian Dravidian kingdoms. Also about its benevolent rulers who performed deeds of piety, who made the country self-sufficient in rice by way of irrigation engineering, promoted Ayurveda medicine and medical practice, build Buddhist temples, stupas and reigned with efforts to follow Dasaraja Dharma – the tenfold righteous path of a king. The accuracy of this historical record of ancient Sri Lanka is generally accepted by means of other numerous local and Indian edicts such as the  rock edicts of Indian Emperor Asoka and records of the Fa Hien the Chinese pilgrim monk, Roman historian Pliny and several others who have already been referred to. Also, by means of inscriptions, historical works, and literary works as well as by way of ruins, renovated historical and Buddhist monuments, ancient yet sophisticated irrigation networks, which extend the lifeline to date.

Traditional Name of the Island Nation

Sri Lanka is not the traditional name of the island. In ancient times, the island was referred to in many names but all implied that it is the land of the Sinhala. It was called Sinhaladveepa, Sivuhelaya, Heladiva, Heladveepa, Helabima, Seylan, Taprobane (by Greeks for the ancient name Tambapanni), Thunsinhale, Sinhale, Ceylon and Sri Lanka. Buddhist scholars of ancient times referred to the island as Dhammadveepa or the island of Buddhism. Fa-Hien’s (400 CE) writings & those of Xuan Zang and other ancient Chinese records refer to Sri Lanka as Simhala, Sinhaladipa or land of the Sinhalas. Ptolemy (2nd century) although calls the island Taprobane, referred to inhabitants of the island as ‘Salai’. Sinhale (or Sinhalay) has been the legitimate historical name, for many centuries in the past, until about the early 19th century when the people of the island were subject to European colonialism.  It was at this time that the name Sinhale was corrupted by the British as Ceylon. It was 44 years after gaining political independence from the British, in 1972, that the name Sri Lanka was imposed on the island.  It should be noted that in the Sinhala version of the Udarata Givisuma” or the so-called Kandyan Convention of 1815, by which the country fell into the hands of the British, the island is referred to as Sinhale. Excluding the roughly 150 years of British colonial rule, when the island was under colonial rule, Sri Lanka has existed as an independent sovereign nation for about 2500 years. In fact, it is, one of the oldest countries in the world within its present borders. The boundaries of most countries have changed in the past.   

Oldest Buddhist Country in The World

As much as 70% of the total population of Sri Lanka are Buddhists. Sri Lanka is the oldest Buddhist country in the world, where Buddhism was the dominant religion since 237 BCE or for more than 2250 years. It is noteworthy that until about the 16th century, about 99% of the population of the island were Buddhists. In other words, for some 1800 years, Sri Lanka was an exclusively Buddhist country with almost the entire population being Buddhist. In terms of area and Buddhist population, Sri Lanka, is among the smallest of the 30 traditionally Buddhist countries in the world, which consist of substantial Buddhist populations. Also, it is the smallest among the six Theravada Buddhist countries, namely – Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and India. Although small in area and population, Sri Lanka is by no means ‘small’ in terms of its global significance as a Buddhist country. It has been the country where Buddhist teachings have been preserved in its original form or the Theravada tradition, for over 2200 years. Buddhists across the world respect Sri Lanka as the country where pure Buddhism prevails. It is the traditional Sri Lanka Buddhist flag that has become the acknowledged global Buddhist flag in recent years. It was the recent initiative of Sri Lanka that led the United Nations, to celebrate Vesak as an important global event.

Non-Violence and Peaceful Co-Existence

The Buddhist way of life is based fundamentally on non-violence and peaceful co-existence with others irrespective of ethnic, religious, and other differences. For some 2500 years, the Sinhala people were organized in terms of their royalty, nobility, spiritual hierarchy, their Kingdoms and Royal Capitals, and their irrigation-based farming system.  Buddhist values are geared at developing a social ethic which, would contribute to co-existence, mutual understanding, co-operation, and total harmony. To strengthen impartiality, people are advised not to succumb to biases and prejudices not to give in to attachment, hatred, fear, confusion, but to rise above them and do what is righteous. This concept of righteousness, which is designated by the term ‘Dhamma’ in fact, provides the firm foundation for the whole of Buddhist culture. The general admonition is to do what is righteous (Dhamma) and avoid what is unrighteous (adhamma). On this basis, all that is beneficial to oneself and others is considered meritorious (Punna) and wholesome (Kusala) and their opposites as demeritorious (Papa) and unwholesome (akusala). As the Dhammapada (Stanza No.183) says: Not to do any evil, to cultivate good, to purify one’s mind – this is the Teaching of the Buddha. It is on this basic teaching that Buddhist values are developed, lives are molded, and social relations are cultivated. This explains why Buddhist culture attempts to nurture in the people a feeling for others, to mutually share with others moments of happiness and joy, to show respect to elders, to care for parents to attend on the sick and destitute, to honour and respect those who are deserving, to treat guests and visitors with friendliness and affection.

Sinhala Buddhist National Culture 

Sri Lanka’s identity as a nation is based on the Sinhala Buddhist culture and the Sinhala language which is the defining element of Sinhala culture. Buddhist norms and principles form the corner stones of this unique culture. With the arrival and spread of Buddhism in the island, there came an era of unsurpassed attainments and achievements in the country.The island’s civilization has achieved an individuality and identity of its own that distinguishes it from its neighbors.

All salient aspects of our national culture – tangible and intangible, either grew or evolved within the borders of our country. Sinhala language and literature originated in Sri Lanka. Sinhala language in fact is the most important defining element of our nation’s culture and heritage, from historic times. The Sinhala language grew out of Indo-Aryan dialects and exists only in Sri Lanka and has its own distinguished literary tradition. Sinhala is one of the world’s oldest living languages.  There have been a wide range of languages in the world, particularly in Asia which lived and died without leaving evidence of their existence, because they were never written down. This is not the case with the Sinhala language. All other languages used in Sri Lanka originated in other countries.  It is significant to note that the overwhelming majority of people of Sri Lanka are distinguished by their language – Sinhala, which even today has a strong unifying effect in our motherland helping to reinforce the solidarity of our people as a unique cultural entity in the world. Almost all place names of the country from historic times, are in the Sinhala language – in the North, South, East, West and Central regions.

Rich Cultural Heritage

Cultural heritage encompasses material culture, in the form of objects, structures, sites, architecture, sculpture, paintings, and other forms of fine arts, as well as living (or expressive) culture in the form of language, literature, customs, traditions, rituals, ceremonies, and festivals, performing arts, music and so on. These unique forms of cultural expression provide this country with its distinct national identity. They are the living evidence of the outstanding cultural heritage of this nation. It was Buddhism that fashioned lifestyles, fostered the arts, and inspired the nation’s architecture, sculpture, paintings, and other fine arts. It led to the creation of stupes (pagodas), temples, monasteries, statues, and a fascinating diversity of aesthetically pleasing artistic ventures and cultural activities.  It is important to note that all salient aspects of the national culture – tangible and intangible, either grew or evolved within the borders of Sri Lanka. This includes the Sinhala language and literature which originated in the island. 

The exceptionally rich heritage of visual arts of the Sinhala Buddhist people of Sri Lanka, extends to a period that exceeds 2300 years, from the 3rd century BCE to the 21st CE.  The Sinhala Buddhist culture is one of the World’s oldest, continuous, unchanged cultures in existence.  It is one of world’s important and exemplary cultures in existence. It is a civilization unique to Sri Lanka alone.  The simple and uncomplicated lifestyle promoted by Buddhist culture, is based on the five basic precepts of Buddhism. Non-violence, compassion, tolerance, morality, and peaceful coexistence with others and with nature are the cornerstones of Buddhist culture. 

                                                                                                                                     Despite foreign invasions, threats and various forms of challenges and atrocities, Buddhist culture has remained intact in the island, unlike the case with many ancient cultures in most other countries in the world.  Throughout most of its history, Sinhala kings and Buddhist institution of monks, played a major role in the development and maintenance of Buddhist culture and institutions in the island. The world recognition of the greatness of this unique Sinhala Buddhist culture is reflected by the UNESCO designating ancient sites, including the ancient royal capitals of the Sinhala people such – Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Mahanuwara (Kandy), Sigiriya and Dambulla as World Heritage Sites. Ancient irrigation system developed by the Sinhala kings is still operational and is considered as – Engineering marvels. The earthen and stone dams and reservoirs systems the canal network and related water control and management structures and techniques show the skills of the ancient Sinhala people.

The Hela or Sinhala Nation 

There is only one nation in this island of Sri Lanka or Sinhale. A ‘Nation’ is a self-identifying group of people who share a common history, a common language, a common culture and most importantly a homeland. In other words, a nation is the most persistent alliance or organization of three main social components -people-culture- territory. Culture can be defined as the system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviors, and artifacts that the members of society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning.  In a broader sense, a subculture is any group within a larger complex culture who has interests that vary from those of the mainstream culture. In a more specific sense, it is a group with a distinct style and identity. Even though it is obvious that there are large number of subcultures within any given national culture, People live and think in ways that form finite patterns that can be mutually constructed through a constant process of social interaction. The country’s predominant culture is Sinhala Buddhist. Over the centuries, both Hindus and Buddhists have co-existed well despite occasional politically motivated power struggles. One should not be confusing the issue of citizens’ rights with that of a nation’s identity.

There were Tamils or Dravidians in Sri Lanka for several centuries in the past, most of them assimilated and appreciated the Sinhala Buddhist culture until the Europeans arrived and took control of our nation. Although we let them into our land and offered them hospitality, in return they acted to undermine our country, the Buddhist religion, and tried to destroy our culture and thereby break the harmony in our society. With the adoption of a policy of ‘divide and rule’ by the British, it has been a continuing saga against Sinhala people, especially the Buddhists. To serve their serf interests, the British were largely responsible for germinating mistrust among the various ethnic groups and among our own people.

Tamils cannot have a “right of self-determination” in Sri Lanka because the homeland of the Tamil nation is Tamil Nadu, and not Sri Lanka or ‘Sinhale’ as the island was known in early times. Only the Sinhala nation has the right to self-determination in Sinhale’. The real objective behind all this talk of a “Tamil Nation and Tamils’ Right to Self-Determination” (which even the Indian Constitution does not recognize) is to make way for the racist Tamil LTTE dream of creating a Greater Tamil Eelam linking Sri Lanka’s North and East with Tamil Nadu. The Tamils came from their motherland, the Tamilnadu where their culture and language originated. The Tamil nation of Tamilnadu is seven times bigger than Sri Lanka, where one needs to be a pure Tamil to hold any high official position. Tamils have their national heritage and aspirations protected within Tamilnadu. 

Violation of National Interests  

Hela nationals will not tolerate any community or person who whilst living in the Hela Nation and considering it their home, deliberately misusing such privilege by scheming and adopting violent and extreme actions or contributing to such actions violating the sovereignty, dignity, and territorial integrity of the Sinhala Nation. This includes the ridiculously false and unfounded claims made by Tamil and Muslim leaders in pursuit of carving out ethnic or religious enclaves within the Sinhala Nation, merely because some of them had lived in some specific places in the country for extended periods of time. Persons with such self-serving objectives and attitudes are traitors of the Nation and should be tolerated under any circumstances. There is no place in the Hela Nation for such traitors, double crossers, renegades, turncoats, collaborators of enemies, criminals and terrorists, conspirators, connivers, schemers and emissaries, spies, secret agents, undercover agents, and double agents of the enemies of the Sinhala Nation.

Maintaining the foremost place for Buddhism and protecting and fostering the Buddha Sasana should be essential components of any Constitution of Sri Lanka. The unitary character of the country and the supremacy of the Parliament should always be maintained thereby preventing any form of separatism including federalism or administrative units based on Race, Religion or Language. Police should operate within the entire territory of Sri Lanka under the direction and control of Inspector General of Police who is the head of Sri Lanka Police Force. State land must always be vested with the Republic of Sri Lanka. The Parliament should have full control over public Finance and no institution should be permitted to receive funds from any foreign source, without the approval of the President or the Cabinet of Ministers. 

In Sri Lanka, the granting of excessive rights to minorities in the form of alien-national rights of language and culture, land rights and police powers and so on, and thereby eventually enabling them to form separate ethnic enclaves in different parts of the island should not be permitted under any circumstances.  Such action as evident today, will be strongly resisted by the nation’s patriotic forces, including Buddhist monks who have from historic times been in the forefront in promoting and protecting the Sinhala Buddhist culture of the island. These patriotic forces will not tolerate any disintegration of the national sovereignty, the cultural integrity, and the long-established territorial integrity of the country. There has been serious deprivation of the legitimate rights of the Sinhala Buddhists, in recent times.  In Sri Lanka, many Bhikkhus have entered the political arena to ensure the protection of Buddhist heritage, the Buddha Sasana and Buddhist values which undermined and subject to threats in recent times. Their main motive is to safeguard the national heritage and culture and thereby to secure the rights of the Sinhala Buddhists.

Merge with the Host Nation

Those settling down or have already settled down in host countries have a bounden duty to merge with the host nation into a single coherent nation of members.  It is basically, a state of mindset, not necessarily physical interaction. Within these host countries, human rights and civic rights of the host nation are what the settler minorities are entitled to and not the alien-national rights of the countries of their national origins they left behind for pastures anew. Their alien-national rights will shift to the private domain when in host countries and not to threaten the national sovereignty of the host countries either.

Sri Lanka wants all non-indigenous minorities of our nation such as the Tamils, Muslims, Moors and others of whatever label, to be a part of our Nation, to join the country’s mainstream, just the way how minority communities are expected to do in all countries of the world, especially in places like Canada, Australia, USA, UK, Norway and help to strengthen our nation founded on the noble principles of non-violence, tolerance, compassion, where peaceful co-habitation has been the cornerstone from historic times. Forgiving and forgetting” has been the attitude of our people, even to those who have harmed us repeatedly from historic times, because our people know that eventually justice and truth will prevail.

Initiatives of Bhikkhus as Traditional Leaders

Our Bhikkhus, the traditional leaders of the nation, should necessarily be in the forefront in movements aimed at protecting and promoting the Buddha Sasana and important national interests, especially when they are under threat.  Many Bhikkhus have voluntarily made their choice to take an open public stand on issues surrounding Buddhism and Buddhist culture which is the greatest treasure that our country could offer to the world, to humanity. Our Bhikkhus have become a thorn in the flesh of racists, religious extremists, the recent breed of inter-faith dialogue facilitators, those in the ethnic and human rights businesses and above all those who are funded or backed by extremist foreign anti-Sinhala or anti-Buddhist elements. 

Why should anyone feel uncomfortable when Bhikkhus, the traditional spiritual leaders of our country, take the initiative and provide necessary leadership to protect the greatest wealth of this nation – our Buddhist cultural heritage. Like anyone else, under a democratic system, Bhikkhus are eligible to exercise their rights, including political rights. Those who object to the initiative taken by our Bhikkhus appear to be those with ulterior motives, having their own self-interests and opposed to the strengthening and consolidation of Buddhist culture in this country. They in fact are resorting to devious unwholesome activities that are contrary to Buddhist norms and principles which have been preserved and promoted for thousands of years in this country, by the large majority of its inhabitants. These undesirable elements may be feeling uncomfortable about recent changes in the country, especially with the emergence of a political leadership that is representative of the aspirations of the mainstream Sinhala Buddhist community of the island. The recent election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the President of Sri Lanka, with the overwhelming support of the Sinhala, the dominant community of the island, can be considered as a definite positive development in the country.

                                                                                                                                                     Sinhala Buddhist Leadership

The forthcoming parliamentary election provides the opportunity for people to elect such upright, capable and patriotic individuals to work for the welfare of the country, and for the consolidation of the Sinhala Buddhist cultural legacy of the nation. Genuine and practicing Buddhists of our country, or in general, those who strictly follow the Five Precepts, should be more actively involved in politics either directly or indirectly. Most of the ills of our nation’s political life could be attributed to the absence or withdrawal of genuine Buddhists from the nation’s political arena and the domain of the media where they could be quite influential in bringing about necessary changes in public opinion of issues that are of national importance. Genuine Buddhists have a duty by the nation, which is founded on Buddhist principles, to be fully involved and participating in organizations working for the welfare of the nation. This is particularly relevant today because our nation is severely threatened at present by diverse negative forces both local and foreign.

It is the Buddhist perspective to public life and decision-making, that is most needed today, especially in the country’s political domain and administration. We need compassionate politicians and professionals with unselfish and mindful interest in the welfare of the country. This alone can bring about needed positive changes in public life which has been for decades, infected with dishonesty, crime, and corruption. The impact and influence of genuine, selfless patriotic Buddhist leaders, can make a big difference. They can help to generate a wholesome political culture, that is characterized by Buddhist approaches and attitudes and a truly Buddhist atmosphere, conducive to the development of a healthy political climate in our nation, so that all nationals will benefit irrespective of their diverse origins and cultural-religious inclinations.  

Politics in fact is simply about deciding how to live together peaceably while bringing together the wide variety of perspectives available in the human realm. It is something necessary and something creative.  Politics is part of our life. If we regard all life as sacred and politics is a part of life, then politics must be sacred. Politics is not an inherently unclean and base activity. It becomes dirty in the way that everything else becomes dirty. That is, through lack of attention, through lack of mindfulness, through ego, all of which resulting in greed, hatred, and delusion. The best kind of politics can take the profound viewpoints and virtues of spiritual practice and apply them in the public realm. Buddhism can be of fundamental help in this regard. If we do not bring spiritual virtues to the public arena, we are destined to both a selfish kind of spirituality and a selfish kind of government, devoid of vision and meaning. It is time that increasingly of our genuine and practicing Buddhists entered the political arena in various influential capacities.

Socially Engaged Buddhism

Buddhism has always been engaged in various socio-political contexts. The idea of interdependence is widely associated with Buddhism. Buddhism is the religion of Human Ecology. Engaging in the lives of others through compassion, sacrifice and service is the worthy spiritual path that the contemporary world needs to observe.  Buddhists need to expand our approach or shift somewhat away from those traditional customs that excessively promote monasticism and individual salvation. They should become more socially engaged and be more concerned about service to the community, the human habitat, and the environment in general. Buddhists need to broaden their spiritual practices to include both family and community and the social and environmental concerns of the broader world. We need to be better able to identify and understand social hardships, misery, and perils, and can do something tangible to relieve them.  It is time that we as Buddhists involve ourselves in an organized manner, become socially engaged and apply Buddhism to matters of everyday life, individual work, family, politics, and the community.  It needs to be a direct application of Buddhist principles and concepts to the overall development of our motherland, to the varied social, economic, and political issues that have implications for the short and long term welfare and development of our motherland, the only country of the Sinhala community.             

Dr. Daya Hewapathirane    

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