By Vijitha Yapa 

The demand by various Buddhist organisations as well as individual monks for the release of Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, who was imprisoned for contempt of court, is an egregious example of Theravada doctrine being ignored by those who are supposed to protect and propagate it.

If there are cries to free those who have been found guilty by a court of law, what hope is there for the rule of law to survive?

Buddhist monks march in the streets as part of student protests, defy laws about housing elephants without necessary permits and even talk about the need for a Hitler in local politics.

Buddhism is supposed to be practised in Sri Lanka for 5,000 years but at the halfway stage, our future looks bleak. And we don’t see protests by Hindu priests, Muslim Mullahs or Catholic and Christian clergy.

In this context, Suren Raghavan’s book on Buddhist monks, and the politics of Sri Lanka’s civil war and ethno-religious nationalism of the sangha, must be read. He talks about democratic decomposition… and the smell is nauseating.

The latest news is about the proposed constitution, which no one has seen or read as it’s seemingly an abstract idea that hasn’t seen the light of day. Though writing long before the constitutional controversy, the author of this book feels that talk of power sharing was what fuelled the very conflict it was meant to pacify.

Federalism is a procedural arrangement that enables government to function effectively when societies are fragmented or divided. The chances of any type of federal structure materialising in Sri Lanka are bleak when viewed through sunglasses – because only the dark side of society is seen.

A country that destroyed the might of a rebel group in 2009 and did not take the urgent steps of reconciliation is stranded, amidst a flutter of yellow robes, searching for an elusive peace.

Raghavan says that ignorance and wilful rejection of the role of the sangha in Sri Lanka by many Western promoters of peace not only destabilised a once possible negotiated settlement but also deepened the violent crisis.

Interpretations of history often supersede contemporary social and political debates, and tend to conceal the political motivations fuelling them. Raghavan adds that both dominant ethnic identities became preoccupied with the search for legitimacy in their own history and this was pursued at the expense of the other’s legitimacy.

The author traces the history and influence of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and believes that he was the third personification of the Sinhalese-Buddhist consciousness of modern Ceylon.

Anagarika Dharmapala called for a spiritual recovery, and Ven. Walpola Rahula Thero (author of Bhikshuvage Urumaya) provided the intellectual and theoretical context. Then Bandaranaike introduced two key ideas into the public consciousness – ethnic superiority of the Sinhalese people and the blessed nature of ‘Lanka’ where the Buddha once walked.

As for the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which brought forth militant Buddhist monks in its 1971 insurrection, the author suggests that the revolt intended to restore a more radical Sinhalese-Buddhist social order. He says that 94 percent of the cadre were Sinhalese-Buddhist while four percent were Sinhalese-Catholics. No mention is made of the remaining two percent.

While noting that King Dutugemunu is the hero of Sinhalese-Buddhist monks, he points out that to achieve victory over the Tamil King Elara, Dutugemunu had to defeat 32 kings over 15 years! As in Sri Lanka, many Theravada Buddhist countries like Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos are experiencing protracted conflict relating to the definition of statehood.

It is the paradox that lies in the attitude of the sangha to democratic values and their politics – which defends the sovereignty of the land with
its ethnic and Theravada faiths – that intrigues him. He believes the thinking has produced a Sinhalatva ideology, which considers the Sinhalese people as the only ethnic group with a political claim to the land.

To him, the sangha are political fundamentalists who idealise a certain version of society codified in the Mahavamsa. But they aren’t religious fundamentalists because they do not adhere to any original religious text to justify their actions.

The analysis of three members of the sangha and their actions helps understand why federalism fuelled the sangha’s hostility instead of providing a solution. The author believes that to the sangha, federalism is not only a matter of war and peace or form of neocolonialism, but an attempt by the enemies of Sinhalese-Buddhists to hijack and divert the course of cosmic history.