Sri Lanka: Weaponising Buddhism: Will the third wave be the last?

A current of reason, moderation, and tolerance always existed in modern Lankan Buddhism. But it was never the dominant one, for neither politicians nor the media had any use for it. Since it could not be manipulated for political power or commercial profit, it was sidelined. 

by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“One day, I was in Kelaniya with the thero of Misisawetiya. Then you (Mahinda Rajapaksa) came like a lion. Misiawetiya thero said, ‘Look there’s a lion coming.’ I said, ‘Not a lion. Mahinda Rajapaka is a culture. Mahinda Rajapkasa is a civilisation…”  Medagoda Abeytissa Thero (Lanka News Web – 24.8.2020)

Independent Lanka experienced three waves of weaponsation of Buddhism. The first was when SWRD Bandaranaike embraced the Buddhist Commission Report. DS Senanayake had refused, on constitutional grounds, a request by the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress to appoint a royal commission to study Buddhist grievances. The ACBC appointed its own commission in 1954. The Commission released its report in February 1956. SWRD Bandaranaike, who needed to defeat the UNP while outflanking a left strengthened by the successful Hartal, embraced the report. An overtly Sinhala-Buddhist election campaign ensued, with the Eksath Bikkhu Peramuna (United Bikkhu Front) playing a vanguard role. The MEP won (though its national average was only 39.5), SWRD Bandaranaike realised his heart’s desire of becoming prime minister, and was assassinated 3 years later by a monk.

The killing created a popular backlash against Sangha in general. In one of his political novels (Peraliya – Transformation), TB Illangaratne mentions that monks had to stop going in buses or on pindapatha for a while due to public opprobrium. The violent end to that first attempt at creating a nexus between religion and politics had somewhat of a sobering effect on the political class. Politicians would continue to use religion tactically but a major weaponisation of Buddhism would not happen for almost 45 years.

The second wave was unleashed early in the new millennium. Gangodawila Some Thero had begun his political preaching by targeting Lankan Muslims. When he was trounced by MHM Ashraff in their widely watched television debate, he shifted targets, focusing his fire on Christians/Catholics. His unexpected death, caused by exposure to Russian Winter, gave rise to a wave of hysterical grief and anger. A group of Sinhala-Buddhist extremists (led by Champika Ranawaka, with Udaya Gammanpila as his sidekick) saw an opportunity and moved in with aggressive determination. They renamed their party Sihala Urumaya as Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and donated it to the Sangha. A monk-only slate was nominated for the 2004 general election, with the promise of building a Dharma Rajya in six months. The new party scored only 5.97|% and fell into acrimonious squabbling almost before the election was over. A kidnapping drama and a parliamentary brawl were followed by a bomb attack on a musical show featuring Indian artistes in which several JHU stalwarts were implicated. Once again, public outrage at the party’s shenanigans reflected on all monks. For a while, party symbol hakgediya (conch shell) became a popular slang word for a monk. 

The third wave commenced post-Eelam War. The Rajapaksas needed a new enemy. After some attacks on churches, focus shifted to Muslims. The Bodu Bala Sena came into divisive life with the anti-Halal campaign. The Buddhist flag was flown alongside the national flag at the Independence Square. An actor playing historian gave the Rajapaksas a family tree linking them not just to hero-king Dutigemunu but also to the Buddha. 

The third wave crested during the 2019 presidential election, as monks became politically mobilised on an unprecedented scale. During the parliamentary election, the political/civic act of voting was turned explicitly into a religious act, bringing into play the Buddhist concepts of merit and demerit. The project to impose first an ethnic and then an ethno-religious state on a nation state has reached its apotheosis.

No other refuge

In another infamous first, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has appointed a Buddhist monk to the Human Rights Commission.

This week Fitch Ratings downgraded Lanka to CC, one notch away from bankruptcy. The economy contracted by 1.5% in the third quarter. The forex crisis and the fertiliser crisis, created by Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s hubristic ignorance, remain unresolved. Domestic gas continues to explode. Having forced the government to agree to pay 67million dollars for a ship of contaminated fertiliser, China is fishing in troubled waters, this time in the North. The Chinese Ambassador undertook a two day visit to Jaffna and Mannar, worshipping at Nallur kovil, bare bodied as tradition dictates, and distributing largesse to fishing communities at conflict with Tamilnadu fishermen poaching in Lankan waters. 

The Rajapaksas returned to power in 2019 at the head of a Saptha Maha Balavegaya, monks, physicians, teachers, peasants, workers, soldiers and youth. Within two years their support among five of those forces have plummeted, increasing their dependence on the military and the monks. For their own survival, the Rajapaksas must continue weaponising Buddhism. But the alliance between politicians and monks was never a marriage of equals. As Prof. HL Seneviratne pointed out in The Work of Kings, since the Lankan monks lack overarching and unifying social structures, “By its very nature the Sangha cannot be a power. It can only be a handmaid of power.” 

Violently racist and obscenity sprouting monk Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara is not the problem. He is merely a symptom. The problem is the weaponisation of Buddhism by the Rajapaksas in their political and dynastic interests. The egregious monk remains in position even after he threatened two fellow monks with lethal violence because the Rajapaksas need him. If he didn’t exist, the Family would have had to create him – which is quite possibly what they did in 2011/2012.

  Turkish scholar Mustafa Akoyal commenting on the ‘Ulema-state alliance’ dominant in most Islamic-majority countries points out that “many religious scholars are happy to justify autocratic rulers as long as the latter pose as defender of faith” (Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance). Similarly, the Rajapaksas are promoting and showcasing monks in the hope of maintaining their self-anointed status as the sole defenders of a Sinhala-Buddhist Sri Lanka. If anyone wants to see the danger of this path, they need to look no further than Pakistan. 

Sharia Law was introduced in Pakistan by a pro-American general who came to power in a military coup and began his rule by hanging his elected civilian predecessor after a spurious trial. As Eqbal Ahmed pointed out, “Zia “needed a constituency. He had none. He needed the support of a party. No party was willing to support him except Jamat-e-Islami which charged a fee: Islamisation of higher educational institutions. During the pro-Western government of Zia ul Haq physics professors could not be appointed if they could not name the wives of the Holy Prophet” (On Empire). The result of this bargain was a populace contaminated by the virus of religious extremism.  

In January 2011, Punjab governor Salman Taseer was gunned down by his own bodyguard. His crime was defending Aasia Bibi, an impoverished Christian woman accused of blasphemy (she was subsequently acquitted by the Pakistani Supreme Court). Mr. Taseer’s killer became an instant hero while clerics refused to perform the last rites for the victim (the cleric who eventually did so was forced to flee the country). When the killer appeared in court, some lawyers showered him with rose petals. He was convicted and hung. Today his tomb in the outskirts of Islamabad is a shrine teeming with worshippers.  

When religious killers are venerated, it encourages other religious killers. The Sialkot lynching might not have happened, if the murder of Salman Taseer (and many others) had given rise to a rational discussion and examination of blasphemy laws. Instead, a vocal minority of religious-extremists hogged the stage while the majority either consented in silence or hid their heads, Ostrich-fashion, hoping the problem would go away. The result was the strengthening of what Salman Taseer’s estranged son Aatish Taseer called “Pakistan’s parallel morality, a morality distorted by faith” (Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey through Islamic Lands). As we condemn the Sialkot lynching, let us remember that religious violence can sprout in other places too, when the social soil turns fertile. 

“Muslim people don’t love us… I say don’t go to those shops. Don’t eat or drink from those shops…. It is clear that they are a group who gave poison to our people, who tried to destroy our people… I think that the younger generation who eats (from them) will not have children in the future…. Also everyone knows what a doctor-gentleman did in Matale. Lakhs of our children were destroyed. These traitors should not be allowed to live free. Some upasakammas said they must be stoned to death (gal gahala maranna ona). I don’t say that. But that is what should be done… Laws and regulations won’t work.” This was not the BBS chief, but the most venerable Maha Nayaka of the Asgiriya Chapter in June 2019 ((https://youtu.be/P7AVLSm2I_Aset – Translation and emphasis mine). If such ideas are given a free pass, the next Sialkot might happen in Sri Lanka.

“Whoever dons the saffron robe with mind purged of all defilements, restrained and truthful, he indeed is worthy of the saffron robe.” So said the Buddha (Dhammapada -Yamaka Vagga). But when Buddhism is weaponised for political purposes, prominence is often given to those who are defiled, unrestrained, and untruthful, those who are unworthy of the saffron robe, according to what the Buddha taught. They become the public face of Buddhism, tainting it with their own reek. When history reckons with the lethal legacy of the Rajapaksas, the debasement of a great teaching may well head the list. 

Glimmers of Hope?

 Omicron is here, exposing Namal Rajapaksa’s claim of an app that can identify and stop the new strain from entering Sri Lanka for what it is – an idle boast totally devoid of facts. This is nothing new. Unreason and anti-factuality coloured the Rajapaksa response to the pandemic from the beginning. Instead of focusing on obtaining vaccine stocks, the Rajapaksas encouraged the public to place their faith in religious cures and mystical nostrums. For instance, in October 2020, PM Mahinda Rajapaksa was the chief guest at a week-long ceremony to chant Ratana Sutta at Abhayarama to save Sri Lanka from Corona. The second wave still came, soon followed by the deadly third one. 

In this context, a historical analysis of the practice of seeking supernatural protection from natural illnesses made by Prof. MMJ Marasinghe, former vice chancellor and head of the Department of Pali and Buddhist Studies in the Kelaniya University, makes interesting reading. “It is Buddhaghosa who claims in his commentary on the Ratana Sutta that it was first chanted by the Buddha to heal the city of Vesali of the devastating epidemic and affliction by non-humans. It must be noted here that Buddhaghosa’s claim of an epidemic is not supported by any other literary or historical source. Further, the Vajjian tribal oligarchy was an exemplary tribal state, too strong for the neighbouring Magadhan Emperor to wage war as clearly stated in the Maháparinibbána Sutta of the Dìigha NBikáya. Thus, the story of an epidemic is another of Buddhaghosa’s fairy tales used to make new rites and rituals acceptable by giving them religious sanction” (The Great Betrayal of Theravada Buddhism – Sri Lanka Guardian – 21.5.2014).

A current of reason, moderation, and tolerance always existed in modern Lankan Buddhism. But it was never the dominant one, for neither politicians nor the media had any use for it. Since it could not be manipulated for political power or commercial profit, it was sidelined. Another example of this moderate current is a series of discussions organised by the Rahula Centre and Galkande Dhammananda thero. Based on a contextual analysis of Buddhist texts (both primary and secondary), Uduwahara Ananda thero uses the Buddha’s words to provide a fascinating glimpse of a teaching that is liberal and progressive, one that possess a strangely modern sensibility. As the Rajapaksa rule sinks, dragging political Buddhism with it, a space might be created for the rational currents to gain greater visibility and play a bigger role in healing wounds made by successive efforts to imprison a pluralist Lanka in a mono-ethnic/religious mould. 

Politicians of whatever ilk will not be interested in such a positive change. The opposition dreams of making tactical use of religion in its own quest for power. For example, when Muruttetuwe Ananda Thero started to criticise the government, many presidential hopefuls, including Ranil Wickrmesinghe and Sajith Premadasa, hastened to Abhayarama. 

Against such blatant opportunism, the principled stand taken by a group of Colombo University students and academics provide a stark – and a hopeful – contrast. Management faculty student and staff refused to attend a convocation presided over by the university’s new chancellor, Muruttetuwe Ananda thero. Their refusal compelled university administration to change tradition. The VC awarded degree certificates relegating the robed chancellor to the role of a glorified onlooker. Such societal responses, firm and civilised, determined and non-violent, indicate the possibility, however slim, of a post-Rajapaksa future that is free of the worst Rajapaksa practices – starting with the weaponisation of Buddhism. 

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