TO MY MIND…. Part 2
Posted on December 3rd, 2022

KAMALIKA PIERIS

To my mind, said one writer, the most important question to be resolved is whether this Country is to be regarded as a Sinhala Buddhist State where all the other ethnic, religious groups are treated as guests, or as a multi- ethnic- multi-religious, secular country where all citizens have equal rights.

The above statement contains the following key words ‘Sinhala, ‘Buddhist’, ‘state’, ‘secular’  ‘ethnic’,’ religion’ ‘multi- ethnic/multi-religious’ ‘citizens’ and  ‘rights’ . The first essay looked at the words ‘Sinhala ‘and Buddhism. ‘This essay looks at the words ‘State’ and ‘Secular’.

SINHALA STATE

Sri Lanka became a sovereign state very early on, probably before king Devanampiyatissa (250-210 BC). Devanampiyatissa was able to initiate a dialogue with king Dharmasoka of India. Dharmasoka reciprocated by sending him coronation robes. This shows that the Sri Lanka monarchy was well established by then. King Dharmasoka would not have sent coronation robes to a kinglet or kingling.

 Coningham, (2017) excavating in the ramparts at Anuradhapura, said he   had found evidence of urbanization dating to long before Asoka” of 3rd century BC. The earliest levels of the site (c. 800 BC) showed an extensive intra-island network of trade and exchange, he said.

Devanampiyatissa’s brother, left Anuradhapura and set up his own kingdom in Ruhuna. Kavantissa and Dutugemunu are descended from him. There was also the Kajaragama rulers. They too were connected to Anuradhapura. They had been invited for Devanampiyatissa’s coronation. Dutugemunu (161-137 BC) consolidated the Sinhala kingdom. He brought Ruhuna and Kajaragama kingdoms, and any other kingdoms that were there, under Anuradhapura and ruled from Anuradhapura.  

There followed a long list of Sinhala kings starting approximately 250 BC and ending in 1815 (with some gaps). This is a rare instance of royal continuity and one that Sri Lanka can be justly proud of.

The continuity of the monarchy was secured by creating a double line of succession to the throne. The king’s sons or the king’s brothers   could inherit the throne. It was usually the eldest

brother or eldest son. There were also the ‘brother kings’, where several brothers held power together. However, some heirs refused to take the throne and handed over to the next in line.

When dynasties died out, they were quickly replaced by new ones. Rival kingdoms did appear, occasionally, but the rival rulers were high up in the line of succession and they eventually succeeded to the throne. The kings were not permitted to rule arbitrarily, they had to rule according to tradition (pera sirit). The king was advised by a Kings Council.

It has been stated that the island was united only under  four  kings,  They were Dutugemunu,( Anuradhapura ) Parakrama bahu1, ( Polonnaruwa )Parakrama Bahu VI  (Kotte), I have forgotten the name of the fourth. We are not told how they united the country or how united the country was.

It would not have been possible for a country to get unified, then fragmented, then unified, then fragmented four times, with such huge time intervals in between, unless there was some sort of central government in existence throughout,    with local government running alongside. The ‘unifying ‘kings would then have simply tapped into this administration,   and ‘unified’ the country. They had ascended by succession, so this was readily available to them.

The Sinhala state was a strong, all island monarchical state, which flourished in the ancient and medieval periods, successfully resisting all foreign invasions. Popular writings speak of the fall” of the Anuradhapura kingdom, ‘fall’ of the Polonnaruwa kingdom and so on. That is incorrect. The Sinhala state did not fall”, it relocated. The populationprobably moved   with each change of capital, leaving a segment behind.

The first capital of the Sinhala state was Anuradhapura. Anuradhapura was the capital city from Devanampiyatissa (250-210 BC) to Mahinda V (982-1029).This is a period of 1400 years. Not many capitals can show such a long period of dominance. The capital then moved to Polonnaruwa, thereafter Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Kurunegala, Gampola and Kotte. The move downwards from Anuradhapura to Kotte was because the international trade routes had changed direction and ships were now sailing past, below the island.

The Sinhala capital moved upwards to Udarata during the occupation by Portuguese and Dutch. Udarata was protected by hills which were difficult to access. If not for the Portuguese and the Dutch the capital would not have moved to such an inaccessible location, it would, I think, have moved further southwards from Kotte to a permanent location in the ‘deep south’.

The Sinhala state   functioned strongly during the Portuguese and Dutch occupations too. The Udarata kingdom was huge, far greater than the area occupied by the Portuguese and the Dutch. So was the Sitawaka kingdom which was the interim kingdom before Udarata. 

Trincomalee and Batticaloa in the east and Kalpitiya in the west were under Udarata. The Udarata kingdom was bounded by Jaffna in the north and by Matara in the south. The  southern border was a porous one, and there was much secret traffic in and out of Udarata.

The Portuguese and Dutch possessions were confined to a limited number of korales in the south west. The Dutch possessions were less than the Portuguese possessions since Rajasinha II grabbed some of it while the Portuguese and Dutch were fighting. This further expanded the Udarata kingdom and reduced the foreign holding.

Historians trained in European history, with no knowledge of Asian history, let alone ancient Sri Lanka history, argue that the modern state came into existence only after the Westphalia agreement of 1648. Westphalia was a landmark treaty for Europe, not Asia.  Asian states had a different history. They were sovereign states long before Europe went Westphalian.

The ancient Sinhala state possessed all four characteristics of a modern sovereign state: a defined territory, a settled population, a central government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. (Montevideo).

Ancient Sri Lanka had a defined territory, the island. It had a settled population. There was always a central   government with a capital city. There were plenty of relations with other states. Devanampiyatissa made contact with Dharmasoka, head of the Maurya Empire in India. There is evidence that every Chinese dynasty, with the exception of one, I believe, had diplomatic relations with Sri Lanka .The coins of one dynasty have not been found in Sri Lanka.

There were trade ties with Burma and Iran. A Sinhala princess was sent to Cambodia for marriage in the time of Parakrama bahu I. During Portuguese rule, Aceh, a kingdom in Indonesia, sent a mission asking for a Sinhala princess in marriage. Udarata said it could provide a bride.

Sri Lanka was a sovereign state till 1815, then it went under British rule till 1948 and regained its independence in 1948.This means that in its long history, Sri Lanka has lost its independence only for 150 years.

 The country that became independent   in 1948 was not a brand new nation, as historians trained in the west  seem to think. It was  Sinhaladvipa once again, with  the same  sovereign borders,  a settled population which  included descendants of the former Sinhala state as well as new  immigrants,  a central government  , international standing   as before and   a historical memory which went way back to Dutugemunu. The form of government however, was new, Parliament instead of king.

SECULAR STATE.

The non-Buddhists in Sri Lanka  have a deep animosity to Buddhism . There  is much jealousy and resentment among them regarding the special place given to Buddhism in the Constitution. They wish to remove this provision and  use the argument of a  secular state to do so.

A secular state is  a state which is officially neutral in matters of  religion.  A country whose government is devoted to secularism even if its people favor one religion over another can be considered a secular country. So can a country in which both the government and the people accept all forms of belief and non-belief equally, said analysts.

But  absence of an established state religion does not mean that a state is completely secular. Some states that describe themselves as secular have laws that benefit one religion, they added.

The Sri Lanka Constitution did not  make Buddhism  the state religion. In 2004, when Jathika Hela Urumaya proposed a constitutional amendment  to make Buddhism the state religion, Supreme Court rejected it.

But Article 9 of Chapter 2,  states “The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place, and accordingly, it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana.” 

This clause was  not based on any desire to prop up Buddhism where  other religions were   jostling for position. The clause reflects the  historical position of Buddhism. In ancient  Sri Lanka  Buddhism  had the status of an official religion  and  had greatly benefited from royal support. Thanks to this, Sri Lanka became known  for its high standard of Buddhism .Buddhists want this historic role to be recognized in the Constitution and  also  for the state to start once again to  patronize Buddhism .

Sri Lanka is not the only Buddhist country that recognizes Buddhism .Thailand  openly supports Buddhism . Section 9 of the Thai constitution (2007) states, “The King is a Buddhist and Upholder of religions”, section 79 says The State shall patronize and protect Buddhism as the religion observed by most Thais for a long period of time. In Thailand too, there have been calls by Buddhists to make Buddhism  the country’s state religion, but the government has turned down these requests.

The Constitution of India, declares India to be a secular state with no state religion but  India pays special attention to Hinduism. Article 48 of Indian constitution, prohibits the slaughter of cows . Pakistan is more direct.  The name of the country is Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

There are at least two western countries which are definitely not  secular. Britain   has a state religion, the Church of England and the king of England is head of the Church. The Swiss Constitution  begins ‘ in the name of the Almighty God’ and 24 of the 26 cantons support  the Catholic Church or the Swiss Reformed Church,  started by Switzerland’s own Zwingli. Religion is accommodated in other ways too. The   President of USA   took his oaths, placing his hand on the Bible.

 The Anuradhapura kingdom, I am told by indignant local historians, has been described as a theocratic state, by a foreign researcher. From the little I managed to read on the issue,  the author simply means an organic system in which local monastic centers played the role of towns acting as foci of economic, political and spiritual power”. He appears to know very little about the monastic system in Rajarata. The use of the word ‘theocratic’ is unfortunate.

 The word theocracy originates from the Greek word meaning “the rule of God”.  A theocratic state is one  which believes in one God and  is ruled by its religious leaders.  Iran is the best known example today.

It is difficult to see any  Buddhist  country turning theocratic. Buddhism is concerned with control of the individual mind, not in controlling the  collective mind. The Buddhist philosophy  is bent on  showing you how to get out of this world, not how to run it. Further,  Buddhism   does not believe in an almighty God and   it does not  feature a religious leader who  issues mandatory orders.(Continued)

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