Basic Buddhism
Sangha and Politics in Sri Lanka
11/02/2010 10:40 (GMT+7)
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Sangha and Politics in Sri Lanka

  Ven. Omalpe Sobhita Thero

   President-Founder, Sri Bodhiraja Foundation, Sri Lanka

  The role of the Sangha in politics in Asia has always been a hugely debated one.  In the light of events in recent times, the “saffron revolution” has once again dominated the headlines.

  In 2004, a group of Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka, under the banner of Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) or National Heritage Party, were elected to the House of Parliament.  Such direct involvement of the Sangha in partisan politics stirred up debates on many fronts, with monks and laity in both camps.  The monks were accused of breaking the Vinaya rules as laid down by the Buddha.  Others criticized that monks should not be involved in secular affairs, especially the “dirty business” of Sri Lankan politics.  As one observer succinctly remarked, “How do the monks keep their saffron robes from becoming black in the cesspit of parliament?”

  To understand the monks’ engagement in politics, it is necessary to look at the historical context of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Since the introduction of Buddhism into Sri Lanka by Arahant Mahinda in the 3rd century BC, the Sangha and the state has been closely linked.  From the time of his landing at Mihintale to his demise, Arahant Mahinda enjoyed the royal patronage of King Devanampiya-Tissa and Buddhism became firmly established in Sri Lanka, home of the Sinhalese.  The Mahavamsa and Culavamsa, the Great Chronicles of Sri Lanka, depicted the island as the “promised land” for Buddhism (dhammadipa).  It is natural that the king of Ceylon should not only be a Buddhist, but entrusted with the protection of the “alms-bowl and the tooth relic of the Buddha”, a “defender of the faith”.

  Although there was little evidence in the Chronicles to suggest that monks wield direct political power, it is clear that they exercised considerable influence over matters of kingship as advisors, settling disputes between political leaders and even in the selection of successors to the throne.  The monk Godhagatta-Tissa was credited for the reconciliation between King Duttha-Gamani and his brother Tissa.  King Dhatusena was brought up and educated by a monk and King Sena II was supported by a group of monks in his treaty with King Mahinda.  By the 10th century, the powers of the Sangha were such that the coronation of a king required the approval of the Sangha.  In other words, a king who wanted to win the hearts of the people should first seek the sanction of the Sangha that held sway over the masses.  The ideas invoked in the Chronicles — Sri Lanka as the chosen land for Buddhism, the establishment of Buddhism as the state religion, the duty of the king to protect Buddhism, the interweaving of the destiny of Buddhism and the Sinhalese, the elevation of the Sangha above the state — all these became deeply entrenched in the Sri Lankan mindset to this day.

  As Sri Lanka’s first prime minister D. S. Senanayake declared in 1939, “Sinhalese are one blood and one nation.  We are a chosen people.  Buddha said that his religion would last for 5500 years.  That means that we, as the custodians of the Religion, shall last as long.”  Through the centuries, these ideas continue to underlie the actions and decisions of all stakeholders in the Sri Lankan polity.  The foreign powers from India and Europe that occupied Sri Lanka from time to time recognized the need to rein in or appease the guardians of Buddhism in their dominion.  Likewise, the fortunes of the Sangha rose or dipped with the waves of support or contempt accorded to Buddhism by the governing powers.

  In the 19th century, monks were in the forefront of the challenges against the colonial powers and the Christian missionaries.  When Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, the movements of nationalism and Buddhist revivalism provided impetus for many outspoken monks such as Angarika Dharmapala, Wadpola Rahūla, Mahide Pannasiha and Henpitagedera Gnanasiha to redefine and bolster the idea of the “political monk”.  Monks in unison, engaged in political activism, became a force to be reckoned with.  Even today, the wooing of the Sangha by those in power is a dominant feature in Sri Lanka politics. The blessings of the Maha Nayakas are sought by those in power to justify their political decisions, and win the support of the majority Buddhist population. 

  So why did the monks, who enjoy such a privileged status, felt the need to run for elections and be actively involved in politics?  Has not the Constitution of 1972, under Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike, granted Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly rendered it the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana?  There are many factors that one can attribute to in the monks participating in the 2004 elections. Perhaps the main driving force is reflected in the first Bill tabled by the monks in Parliament — the Bill against Unethical Conversion. The experiences of conversion, especially by Christian missionaries of the colonial era, had left many terrifying and painful memories in the minds of many Sri Lankans.  In addition, the civil war in Sri Lanka over the last two-decades has ravaged the country, creating much social instability and individual disorientation, and provided opportunities for some to undermine Buddhism.

  Increasingly, conversion in recent times has taken an alarmingly sinister overtone.  The most serious of the potential threats comes from a new wave of Christian evangelical churches that exploit the vulnerability of the poor rural population.  There is nothing wrong with genuine conversion.  The Buddha’s teachings have always emphasized tolerance towards other religions.  However, when conversion is carried out with the lure of material incentives or through forced coercion, and in its course subverts another religion, then it poses social and individual concerns.  The number of incidences of violent attacks on temples and churches further intensified the tension.  Despite repeated appeals by leading Buddhist monks and laity, the then government took no genuine effort to arrest the situation.  Mass protests and hunger strikes by some monks led to little progress.  In a country where more than 70% of the population is Buddhist, there was a sense of urgency and desperation among the Sangha.  The elections of 2004 provided an incisive opportunity for the monks to become part of the state’s decision-making machine as they realize that it is only in the corridors of power where they could most effectively push for changes in policies to safeguard Buddhism.

  The role of the Sangha in politics in Asia has always been a hugely debated one.  In the light of events in recent times, the “saffron revolution” has once again dominated the headlines.

  In 2004, a group of Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka, under the banner of Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) or National Heritage Party, were elected to the House of Parliament.  Such direct involvement of the Sangha in partisan politics stirred up debates on many fronts, with monks and laity in both camps.  The monks were accused of breaking the Vinaya rules as laid down by the Buddha.  Others criticized that monks should not be involved in secular affairs, especially the “dirty business” of Sri Lankan politics.  As one observer succinctly remarked, “How do the monks keep their saffron robes from becoming black in the cesspit of parliament?”

  To understand the monks’ engagement in politics, it is necessary to look at the historical context of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Since the introduction of Buddhism into Sri Lanka by Arahant Mahinda in the 3rd century BC, the Sangha and the state has been closely linked.  From the time of his landing at Mihintale to his demise, Arahant Mahinda enjoyed the royal patronage of King Devanampiya-Tissa and Buddhism became firmly established in Sri Lanka, home of the Sinhalese.  The Mahavamsa and Culavamsa, the Great Chronicles of Sri Lanka, depicted the island as the “promised land” for Buddhism (dhammadipa).  It is natural that the king of Ceylon should not only be a Buddhist, but entrusted with the protection of the “alms-bowl and the tooth relic of the Buddha”, a “defender of the faith”.

  Although there was little evidence in the Chronicles to suggest that monks wield direct political power, it is clear that they exercised considerable influence over matters of kingship as advisors, settling disputes between political leaders and even in the selection of successors to the throne.  The monk Godhagatta-Tissa was credited for the reconciliation between King Duttha-Gamani and his brother Tissa.  King Dhatusena was brought up and educated by a monk and King Sena II was supported by a group of monks in his treaty with King Mahinda.  By the 10th century, the powers of the Sangha were such that the coronation of a king required the approval of the Sangha.  In other words, a king who wanted to win the hearts of the people should first seek the sanction of the Sangha that held sway over the masses.  The ideas invoked in the Chronicles — Sri Lanka as the chosen land for Buddhism, the establishment of Buddhism as the state religion, the duty of the king to protect Buddhism, the interweaving of the destiny of Buddhism and the Sinhalese, the elevation of the Sangha above the state — all these became deeply entrenched in the Sri Lankan mindset to this day.

  As Sri Lanka’s first prime minister D. S. Senanayake declared in 1939, “Sinhalese are one blood and one nation.  We are a chosen people.  Buddha said that his religion would last for 5500 years.  That means that we, as the custodians of the Religion, shall last as long.”  Through the centuries, these ideas continue to underlie the actions and decisions of all stakeholders in the Sri Lankan polity.  The foreign powers from India and Europe that occupied Sri Lanka from time to time recognized the need to rein in or appease the guardians of Buddhism in their dominion.  Likewise, the fortunes of the Sangha rose or dipped with the waves of support or contempt accorded to Buddhism by the governing powers.

  In the 19th century, monks were in the forefront of the challenges against the colonial powers and the Christian missionaries.  When Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, the movements of nationalism and Buddhist revivalism provided impetus for many outspoken monks such as Angarika Dharmapala, Wadpola Rahūla, Mahide Pannasiha and Henpitagedera Gnanasiha to redefine and bolster the idea of the “political monk”.  Monks in unison, engaged in political activism, became a force to be reckoned with.  Even today, the wooing of the Sangha by those in power is a dominant feature in Sri Lanka politics. The blessings of the Maha Nayakas are sought by those in power to justify their political decisions, and win the support of the majority Buddhist population. 

  So why did the monks, who enjoy such a privileged status, felt the need to run for elections and be actively involved in politics?  Has not the Constitution of 1972, under Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike, granted Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly rendered it the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana?  There are many factors that one can attribute to in the monks participating in the 2004 elections. Perhaps the main driving force is reflected in the first Bill tabled by the monks in Parliament — the Bill against Unethical Conversion. The experiences of conversion, especially by Christian missionaries of the colonial era, had left many terrifying and painful memories in the minds of many Sri Lankans.  In addition, the civil war in Sri Lanka over the last two-decades has ravaged the country, creating much social instability and individual disorientation, and provided opportunities for some to undermine Buddhism.

  Increasingly, conversion in recent times has taken an alarmingly sinister overtone.  The most serious of the potential threats comes from a new wave of Christian evangelical churches that exploit the vulnerability of the poor rural population.  There is nothing wrong with genuine conversion.  The Buddha’s teachings have always emphasized tolerance towards other religions.  However, when conversion is carried out with the lure of material incentives or through forced coercion, and in its course subverts another religion, then it poses social and individual concerns.  The number of incidences of violent attacks on temples and churches further intensified the tension.  Despite repeated appeals by leading Buddhist monks and laity, the then government took no genuine effort to arrest the situation.  Mass protests and hunger strikes by some monks led to little progress.  In a country where more than 70% of the population is Buddhist, there was a sense of urgency and desperation among the Sangha.  The elections of 2004 provided an incisive opportunity for the monks to become part of the state’s decision-making machine as they realize that it is only in the corridors of power where they could most effectively push for changes in policies to safeguard Buddhism.

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