It is true that the British stole many archaeological treasures including ola leaf manuscripts of inestimable value from Sri Lanka. At least some of them are being preserved in British libraries and museums.
by Rohana R. Wasala
A Youtube video (uploaded December 27, 2022) with the alarmist caption බුදුන් ඉපදුණු මේ ලංකාවට සිදු වු අපරාදෙ අපිත් දැන ගනිමුද (Let’s be aware of the enormity of the injustice perpetrated on Sri Lanka where the Buddha was born) captured my attention this morning (January 1, 2023), both because of the sensationalism of the title and its association with the popular youtuber Harindra Jayalal who presents its content as an important news bulletin from a so-called ‘We Rectify Our History’ organization (presumably based in the UK). Five days after uploading, the video has got about 8,500 views, and only 301 subscribers. Though Harindra Jayalal presents it as a newsflash under ‘Breaking News’, the maker of the video is someone who chooses to obscure their identity by describing it as a DANAPALA VIDEO. While watching the video, though, I felt that Harindra himself made this video as a strong believer in the controversial new hypothesis that the Buddha was born in Sri Lanka. But again, I thought ‘could a person like Harindra subscribe to such an improbable concoction’? In terms of my experience, Harindra is far too rational, educated, cultured and knowledgeable to embrace such a harebrained ideology. I believe that he is too honest to prostitute his journalism for mercenary ends.
|Colonial Architecture, Jaffna, Northern Province, Sri Lanka, Asia [ Photo: westend61.de]|
Lucidity, idiomaticity, and precision of expression characterize Harindra Jayalal’s Sinhala. Such linguistic elegance is not common among ordinary Sinhala language Youtubers. His professionalism and sophistication as a journalist are hard to match. However, the emphatic positive tone of voice that he adopts right through to the end of the presentation cannot be due to any real personal commitment to the authenticity of the ‘Buddha was born in Sri Lanka’ claim. Instead, by lending his patronage to this video, he may be helping out a struggling new youtuber through his own established fame. Yet, Harindra seems to be here overdoing his generosity because, his apparent espousal of that extremely anti-national heresy, might only provide some justification for the insidious process of cultural genocide that is being carried out, unknown to most ordinary Sri Lankans of diverse ethnicities, against the country’s innocent Sinhala Buddhist majority, something that has been going for decades now.
Be that as it may, according to this ‘news flash’, “…. The Ariya Kammattahna Sanvidhanaya/Ariya Kammattahna Organization led by a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk named Ariyamagga, resident in Europe, is going to sue the British government. He has taken steps to institute legal action against government officials who served during British colonial times. He charges that Britain has distorted historical information relating to the subcontinent of India and that his fundamental rights are being violated by officials serving today in their place by intentionally failing to rectify those distortions. ……. The case names the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth affairs, the State Secretary for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports, Secretary of State for Tourism Zones and National Heritage, and the Secretary of State for Education as respondents……the court action will go ahead as the violations are continuing……”. (This is from the opening of the spoken text of the video as roughly translated by me from Sinhala as other relevant parts of the same spoken script found in the rest of this essay; details such as names of ministries may not exactly tally with the real ones. – RRW)
The ‘We Rectify Our History’ organization argues that Britain has violated provisions of various legal statutes that it cites such as Britain’s 1998 Human Rights Act, the 1988 Copyrights, Designs, and Patents Act, and the 1907 Hague Convention. It demands that at least certified photocopies of the ancient ola leaf books stashed away in British libraries and museums be made available (to it on behalf of Sri Lankans) free of charge without reserving copyrights and that steps be taken to provide funds for new archaeological excavations needed to correct those (deliberately introduced) errors in our country’s history.
The plaintiff organization pleads that (the British government) acknowledge that the school education system established under the colonial administration disseminated for public consumption false information without any foundation in Sri Lankans’ (collective) national and religious identity, and also that (the British government) tender an apology to the general public of the world for the crimes committed.
In Sri Lanka’s ancient chronicles, Buddhist literature and even in colloquial parlance in Buddhist religious contexts today the name Jambudipa (Pali) or Dambadiva (Sinhala) refers to the subcontinent of India. But according to the ‘Buddha was born in Sri Lanka’ theorists, Jambudeepa was in the eastern part of Sri Lanka (if we imagine the map of the country as vertically divided with a line into east and west). A central claim made in the aforementioned plea for justice is that the true location of the Jambudipa where the founder of Theravada Buddhism, Gotama Samana, was born and lived and the locations of its cities and Buddhist holy sites were conspiratorially concealed from the world and that these venues were substituted by those in India by deliberately altering the maps of Sri Lanka and India. This is alleged to have misled the Theravada Buddhist adherents and deprived them of their right to know the truth about their spiritual master. (By ‘Theravada Buddhists’ the petitioner ‘We Rectify Our History’ organization means Sinhalese Buddhists.) What does it aim to achieve for them by asserting the following harmful falsehood?
“Having been misled (by false information) as explained above, the Buddhists of today mistake Hindu and Jain holy places to be Buddhist ones and go to worship at them. This is a tragic state of affairs” according to the plaint. But we know it is not. What is there tragic about it, even if the alleged fraudulent deed actually happened? On the contrary, it would be a happy state of affairs. Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists have much in common (tolerance, nonviolence, compassion, humility, mind culture, inner search for truth, etc.) and have no problem visiting each other’s shrines without being challenged as impure infidels or non-believers. Community of basics makes for intercommunal peace and peaceful coexistence, as has always been the case in Sri Lanka between Hindus and Buddhists. However, this ludicrous complaint lets the cat out of the bag.
The ‘Buddha was born in Sri Lanka’ idea is obviously a piece of fiction carefully thought up by some evil minded individual or group to confuse the credulous unsophisticated, grievously ill informed (embarrassingly large) section of the Sinhalese Buddhist community about their religion as well as their history for some political and/or religious advantage. Those who stand to gain by this may be having a field day at present. They must be laughing their heads off in private at the silliness of those Buddhists who have swallowed this and other similar fabrications (such as the mythical Ravana being their progenitor) hook line and sinker.
Believers in the ‘Buddha was born in Sri Lanka’ myth might be induced to sever even their sentimental links with places that they correctly believed to be historic Buddhist places of worship in Sri Lanka later built over by invaders. The misguided adherents of the fiction will forget the Sacred Buddha Gaya/Bodh Gaya in India, which our indefatigable Anagarika Dharmapala did much to reclaim for the world Buddhists as he knew it was his historic responsibility as a ‘Sinhale’ Buddhist to do so. (This is because after the missionary Mahinda Thera introduced Theravada Buddhism to Sri Lanka, its scriptures that had been until then transmitted orally was committed to writing there in the 1st century BCE and was preserved for posterity, making the island the repository of Theravada Buddhism. By the end of the 19th century CE, Buddhism had almost entirely disappeared from India due to Muslim invasions and anti-Buddhism Hinduist influence.) Dharmapala met with limited success, no doubt, but it was a great achievement, even an epoch making one, considering his smallness when pitted against the powerful opponents he had to face in that Hindu dominated religious environment during the British Raj at the turn of the 20th century. Anagarika Dharmapala, in association with activists like journalist and poet Sir Edwin Arnold from the British intelligentsia, laid the foundation for the current Buddhist revival in India. Today India is rediscovering and restoring its lost Buddhist heritage, for example in the form of rebuilding the ancient Buddhist monastic University of Nalanda (427-1197 CE) burned down by Muslim invaders in the 12th century. This made it possible for Prime Minister Modi to shout out to the world not long ago: “India gave to the world the Buddha, not yuddha (war)”. India honoured Anagarika Dharmapala by issuing a postage stamp commemorating him in 2014.
I came across a book written in Sinhala about this ‘Buddha was born in Sri Lanka’ argument. Its title translates as “Evidence to prove that the land of the Buddhas is none other than this ‘Heladiva’ or Sri Lanka: Debunking myths” (2018) by a writer named S. Ariyaratne. It is full of information drawn from authentic sources, but garbled by him through misinterpretation. The book contains a lot of interesting but, scientifically unauthenticated details both about the dhamma and history, but without any serious supporting evidence or rational elucidation. In some instances Ariyaratne quotes from the Mahavansa, which he seems to modify in his interpretation to suit his thesis that the Buddha was born, lived, and died in Sri Lanka. One example: in Mudaliyar L.C. Wijesinghe’s translation (1889) of the Mahavansa the last verse of Chapter VI is as follows: “This prince named Vijaya, who had then attained the wisdom of experience, landed in the division Tambapanni of this land Lanka, on the day that the successor (of former Buddhas) reclined in the arbour of the two delightful sal trees, to attain nibbana”. Ariyaratne interprets the same Pali verse in Sinhala; his version can be rendered into English thus: “Prince Vijaya of steady wisdom arrived the day that the Tathagata lay down to attain nibbana (in the shade) between two sal trees in Lanka or Tamraparni whose branches were intertwined” (Page 210 of Ariyaratne’s book).
Between pages 112-132, Ariyaratne looks at Anagarika Dharmapala’s work in India from his own uninformed jaundiced point of view. His unconvincing, idiosyncratic argument is that the Lankan Buddhist missionary, misled by the suddas (Whites/Europeans), mistakenly identified Bodh Gaya in India as the birthplace of the Buddha, but that towards the end of his life, he showed signs that he realized his mistake. But it is only an unsubstantiated assumption on Ariyaratne’s part. He points out that the Bodhi tree found there is not the Bodhi tree under which ascetic Gotama attained enlightenment, which should true for the original probably disappeared during foreign invasions. He thinks Alexander Cunningham (the pioneer of what later became the Archaeological Survey of India) planted the extant Bodhi tree in 1870. Concerning this he mentions ‘Relighting the Lamp’ by Australian monk Bhante S. Dhammika (no stranger to English language newspaper readers in Sri Lanka). But Ariyaratne doesn’t seem to have carefully read what he makes reference to. Actually, ‘Relighting the Lamp’ is only the last (or 4th) section of that monk’s 241 page book ‘The Navel of the Earth: The History and Significance of Bodh Gaya’ (BPS, Kandy, 1996)’ between pp. 119-171. In that part of the book, Bhante Dhammika has included a fairly detailed account of Dharmapala’s legitimate heroic struggle to acquire the sacred place for Buddhists. Dharmapala played a key role in ‘relighting the lamp’ in India.
Bhante Shravasti Dhammika outlines the historical importance of Bodh Gaya in his preface to ‘The Navel of the Earth…..’:
“…..Bodh Gayā’s historical significance is due to it having a longer and more complete history than almost any other place in the subcontinent, a history supplemented by epigraphical and literary sources from China and Tibet, Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Nor is this history merely an outline of events or a list of doubtful dates, as so often encountered in the study of India’s past. Rather, it includes detailed descriptions of Bodh Gayā’s now vanished temples and shrines, accounts of the elaborate ceremonies and doctrinal disputes that once took place there, and even details of how time was kept in its monasteries. This history is also made more interesting by the participation of some of Asia’s greatest personalities, from Asoka to Curzon, from Xuanzang to Anāgārika Dharmapāla…..”
The book also supplies information about the conspicuous presence of Buddhist monks from Simhale (Sri Lanka) and the construction of religious buildings in Jambudipa including Bodh Gaya under Sinhalese royal patronage. In the 4th century, Sinhalese king Meghavanne (304-332 CE) built a special monastery at the place of Buddha’s Enlightenment – the Bodh Gaya Monastery. It survived there for a millennium, functioning as a major monastic university complex. It operated along with two other Buddhist universities,the famous Nalanda and Vikramashila monastic universities, which came into existence later.
The author of “The Navel of the Earth…” is an extremely more reliable authority on the history of the Buddha’s birthplace than Ariyaratne. In fact, the erudite Bhante S. Dhammika, who is additionally an alumnus of the Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies, University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka, has devoted many years of his life for researching the subject, even traveling on foot where Buddha walked across that part of north India to and fro, preaching his message. He has written and published over a dozen books. A book by Bhante Dhammika published last year (2022) is ‘Lumbini’, which gives a short history of Lumbini “the first of the four major holy places of Buddhism, being where the person who was born to become Buddha was born”.
The truth is that, in my opinion, Ariyaratne is not at all worthy of comparison with Bhante Dhammika in this context. He has had no worthwhile academic training in either Buddhism or the history of Buddhism, not to speak about anything else that is ancillary such as the secular history of Sri Lanka and India. What may be taken as an autobiographical note on pp. 12-14 of Ariyaratne’s book mentioned above says that he was born in a small impoverished village in Nivitigala in 1972. At age 14, he was admitted to the Sangha order as a novice. He studied at a pirivena in Ratnapura, where he became a kind of loner allegedly trying to learn the dhamma in an unorthodox way, which meant that he read material outside the prescribed syllabuses. Disgusted with the Sangha order at age 19 (i.e., before higher ordination), he disrobed, and became a layman again, reverting to his birth name Ariyaratne. But he claims that he continued his search in which he followed in the footsteps of such ‘Arya utuman’ (Arhants) as the infamous and totally ignorant Waharaka (Abhayarathanalankara) and Meewanapalane (Siri Dhammalankara)!! Meewanapalane has been officially excommunicated by the Malwatte Nikaya, but he continues to preach to a dwindled audience. Waharaka died in 2017 and his death was described as ‘Parinibbana’!, a term used only in the case of the passing away of an Arhant, most usually in referring to the death of the Buddha. It is an abomination to abuse that terminology to apply to the death of a sinful fake Arhant. (There is a great possibility, nay probability, that these are plants intended to destroy the Buddha Sasanaya, which is the breath and being of our over 2500 year old Lankan/Heladiva civilization. Those who bristle at this, please listen to the advice of the Buddha in the Kalama Sutta, and independently find out their hollowness by studying samples of their preachings.)
Ariyamagga Thera who is the main motivator of the ‘We Rectify Our History’ project as well as the leader of the so-called Ariya Kammattahna Organization may belong to the same group of rogues in robes. (I googled the name Ariyamagga Thero, but failed to find any monk by that name or an organization he heads, except the name in Sinhala characters ‘Pujya K. Ariyamagga’.) The theme ‘We Rectify Our History’ probably comes from Ariyaratne’s book, p. 116, where the author writes “Let’s rectify mistakes in our history by ourselves”. Isn’t it possible that some eccentric uneducated zealots have also been recruited or are simply being used as ownerless donkeys by the prime movers of a global conspiracy against the Sinhalese and their Buddhist culture?
It is true that the British stole many archaeological treasures including ola leaf manuscripts of inestimable value from Sri Lanka. At least some of them are being preserved in British libraries and museums. They are waiting to be reclaimed by us through proper channels. This is not the time to get them, as we can understand, given the debilitating economic and political difficulties Sri Lanka is experiencing. This task should actually be left to present and future young generations. Ariyamagga’s silly move could be a preemptive strike meant to foil such an attempt being made by young Sri Lankans even before it is initiated.
Harindra’s video ends with a glowing eulogy to Ariyamagga: “The intrepid step that this monk has taken, daring Britain’s ‘White Crown’ is a courageous and heroic move made against the British Empire by a citizen of Sihale ever since the defeat of the (armed) liberation struggle of Uva Wellassa of 1818”. I hear the chuckle of the conspirators behind this mock tribute to Pujya K. Ariyamagga. (END)
Rohana R. Wasala retired from government service and is a regular columnist for Sri Lanka Guardian.