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Sri Lanka: Politics of Addiction

In Sri Lanka gullibility has become a national characteristic, something that unites us across racial, religious, class and other lines.

9 mins read
Buddhists monks in Colombo, Sri Lanka [ Photo: Xinhua]

“Not only our actions, but also our inactions, become our destiny.” ~ Heinrich Zimmer (The King and the Corpse)

This week marked the 14th anniversary of the ending of the long Eelam War.

This week also saw the re-emergence of BBS head-honcho Galgoda-Atte Gnanasara to save the nation from that enterprising entrepreneur-of-cloth, Pastor Jerome Fernando. Much verbal thundering was heard warning of a new religious war.

Later in the week, a bunch of Sinhala-Buddhist extremists crashed into a ceremony at the Borella Cemetery held in the memory of all the war-dead. They condemned the event as a commemoration of the Tigers, probably on the grounds that those Tamils who died in the war (especially in the Rajapaksas’ Humanitarian Operation with zero-civilian casualties) were Tigers, right down to babies and toddlers.

The week ended with another group of lay-and-monk warriors gathering by the Buddha statue outside the Fort Railway Station, pledging to protect rata, jathiya, and agama.

Fortunately, ordinary Lankans, immersed in the real struggle for economic survival, ignored these theatrics, turning what could have been explosions into damp squibs.

The ending of the long Eelam War brought neither peace nor prosperity even for the triumphant Sinhalese. The much awaited peace dividend was swallowed by a defence establishment that continued expanding. The Rajapaksas treated the entire Tamil population of the North and parts of the East like enemy aliens, locking up every man, woman, and child in open air prison camps called Welfare Villages (Indian and international pressure eventually compelled them to abandon this policy of mass incarceration). When the cry of the Undead Tiger failed to impress the South, the regime sought other enemies, flirting with ‘alien Christians’ before settling on ‘Encroaching Muslims’. The harvest of that toxic seeding was reaped in April 2019, three weeks short of the 10th anniversary of Eelam War’s ending.

The war was unnecessary, preventable. Every step towards it was motivated not by national necessity or even popular demand. The motive force was the hellish union between political opportunism and religio-racial extremism. As the events of the last week indicate, that union is far from dead and its current partners are waiting impatiently to return to political mainstream. Unchastened by our blood-soaked history, they want to repeat it.  

Until 1955-56, Lankan politics was cleavaged by class. That classic divide left little electoral space for SWRD Bandaranaike’s ambitions. His newly formed SLFP had challenged the UNP and lost in 1952. In the 1953 Hartal that shook the nation and forced a government to flee, he was an onlooker. The left had a real chance to form a government at the next election, especially if its fractured components could bring themselves to work together. Had Lanka taken that path, there would have been no Sinhala Only, no Sri riots of 1958, no Black July, and no 25-year war.

SWRD Bandaranaike was clever enough to know that in a political battlefield divided along class lines he couldn’t prevail and unscrupulous enough to adopt the noxious race+religion=nation equation as his signature policy. He accepted the Buddhist Commission report in toto. Monks formed Eksath Bhikshu Peramuna and engaged in house-to-house campaigning to ensure his victory.

Our tragedy is littered with paths not taken. The Buddha Jayanthi of 1956 could have been celebrated by focusing on what the Buddha taught, and by commencing a process of spiritual renaissance. Instead, under the guise of restoring Buddhism to its pre-colonial glory, Tripitaka was abandoned for Mahawamsa and the core Buddhist values of compassion, non-violence, and moderation replaced with hate, violence, and extremism.

The Buddhist Commission Report’s title was The Betrayal of Buddhism. The real betrayal had come from within, the work of monks and kings. A universalist teaching had been ghettoised into the exclusive preserve of a single race. A teaching that explicitly rejected caste has been distorted by embedding caste discrimination into its very heart. The Buddhist Commission report could have chartered a course to return debased Lankan Buddhism into what the Buddha taught by ridding it of the twin perversions of race and caste. Instead it ignored the division of a single monkhood into caste-based nikayas (a distortion created by a Kandyan king) and focused on entrenching the racial ghettoisation of Buddhism.

1956 might have become a year of true nation-building. Buddhism, cleansed of distortions, could have become a binding agent for a nascent Lankan nation. Instead, an unholy alliance of monks and politicians turned Buddhism into an agent of division. 67 years later, that spectre continues to haunt us.

Fiction and Unfiction

In January this year, an outcry was heard about a fake Temple of the Tooth being built in Pothuhera in Kurunegala by a man who called himself a Bodhisatva (a future Buddha – a tad like Prophet Jerome). People were donating money and jewellery to fund this edifice, the media claimed. Donations were pouring in from here and abroad. The prelates of Malwatte and Asgiriya together with the Diyawadana Nilame of the Temple of the Tooth wrote to the president seeking political intervention against this fakery. (Incidentally, the chief prelates of other two nikayas did not sign the letter as caste bars them from playing any role in rituals surrounding the tooth relic).

The facts were telling. An enterprising individual thought to build another Temple of the Tooth. There were enough Buddhists willing to believe his claim that once the edifice was complete, the tooth relic would come to him. The entire sorry tale demonstrates how far a rational teaching which accepts the law of cause-and-effect (hethu-pala-vadaya) had degenerated into a myth-ridden superstition in which relics could perform miracles and trees grant wishes. In this version of Buddhism, men are arrested for ‘insulting the Buddha’ (or his relics) while those who claim to be his robed-disciples violate his teachings on a daily basis.

The Buddha, in his final major sermon, set out the path for the sasana’s survival and expansion (https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.16.1-6.vaji.html). He mentioned seven conditions, seven further conditions, seven good qualities, seven factors of enlightenment, seven perceptions, and six further conditions. If monks adhere to these 41 stipulations, the sasana would flourish. He made no mention of state patronage, of his pristine teachings surviving only in an island called Lanka, of rituals or relics. His sole focus was on the conduct of the monks themselves. And in what passes for Buddhism in Sri Lanka today, almost every single one of those conditions are violated daily and in plain sight. Those violations are ignored while talking about them is being turned into a non-bailable crime.

In 2019, the writer Shakthika Sathkumara was arrested under the ICCPR and held without bail. The arrest was the outcome of a complaint made by a group of monks about a short story he wrote (Ardha – Half). The story is about life in a fictional monastery and contains a hint about the abuse of young monks by senior monks. According to a police spokesman, “A group of monks complained that the reference to homosexual activities among the clergy insulted Buddhism.”

Vinaya pitaka refers to sexual misconduct by monks and specifically lists the masturbation of one monk by another as a serious offence. The Buddha obviously understood that becoming ordained will not free a person from human desires. Only the stream-enterers would be free of such yearnings. Since there are no known stream-enterers in Sri Lanka, the kind of misconduct the Buddha made rules against is likely to be present here. The arrest of several monks for suspected child abuse (including sexual abuse) this year alone indicates that what Shakthika Sathkumara’s fiction alleges is present in real life. Unfortunately, in today’s religious universe, the crime is less offensive than talking about it.

A new trend among political monks is to refer to the saffron robe as ‘Arahat dajaya’ (the standard of enlightened monks). This new myth is a marker in the ongoing attempt to place monks above scrutiny and criticism. This is reminiscent of the kind of blind veneration and unthinking obedience rife in many parts of Catholic Europe until a few decades ago and is present in some Charismatic churches even today (in a remake of the Jonestown horror, the head of Good News International Church in Kenya persuaded his followers to die of starvation to meet Jesus fast. Many did. The pastor is alive and well and currently out on bail). Walter Benjamin in One Way Street, provides an example, something he experienced during a visit to Naples, Italy, in the 1920’s. “…a priest was drawn on a cart through the streets of Naples for indecent offenses. He was followed by a crowd hurling maledictions. At a corner a wedding procession appeared. The priest stands up and makes the sign of a blessing, and the cart’s pursuers fall onto their knees.” This is where we headed. A monk does not have to adhere to the teaching. All he has to do is to wear the robe, just as all that Neapolitan priest had to do was to make the sign of the cross.

Superstition can be dismissed as silly. But it stems from the same irrationality which accepts the perversion of a teaching based on compassion and loving kindness to all living beings into one which rewards the killing of unbelievers with heavenly bliss. It also opens the floodgates of stupidity, enabling such political machinations as the Kelani Cobra.

In the infamous Mahawamsa story which debuts the justification for a holy war there is a marker for a different path. In the story, King Dutugemunu is saddened by the human costs of his victory. “How shall there be any comfort for me….since by me was caused the slaughter of a great host numbering millions?” he laments. And the deaths he is mourning are not even of civilians in the enemy territory but of enemy combatants. The call of his conscience is closer to the Buddha’s teaching than the supposed advice given to him by monks. It would also provide a better path to a lasting peace, and a more effective counter to the triumphant return of politics of religio-racial addiction.

The Salvation Mania

In 2019, almost seven million Lankans ignored the evidence before their eyes and elected an economic ignoramus as president, believing that he could guide them to the promised land of development painlessly and fast.

Gullibility has become a national characteristic, something that unites us across racial, religious, class and other lines.

Pastor Jerome Fernando who calls himself a prophet and runs an extremely lucrative religious enterprise seems to epitome that specifically American construct: charismatic preacher who lords it over a fief and turns it into a profit-making venture. Such preachers embody in their teaching and practice the brashness of a certain strand of American capitalism and the anti-intellectual, anti-rational tendencies inherent in unadulterated Lutherism. Martin Luther rejected the concept of free will totally and advocated salvation via sola fide, faith alone. Fortunately for the world, Protestantism evolved into a more tolerant and rational faith due to active mediation by great humanists such as Philip Melanchthon. The American style charismatic preachers are outside this mainstream, advocating political and social stances that are often retrogressive. The role played by this outcrop of Protestantism in propping rightwing populist leaders from Trump to Bolsonaro is well-documented.

            Pastor Jerome can perhaps be best understood by looking at the former Pitiduwe Siridamma thero who reinvented himself as Arhat Sri Samanthabadra and built another excellent religio-commercial enterprise, Umandawa. The one is as much of a follower of Christ as the other is a disciple of the Buddha. Both – and others of their ilk – work on vulnerabilities of people in uncertain times, turning fear and ignorance into lucre.

On October 3rd, 2002 a group of American Evangelical pastors wrote a letter to President George W Bush supporting a war against Saddam Hussein. The ‘Land Letter’ (named after its prime mover, Pastor Richard D Land) gave seven reasons why an invasion of Iraq would be a ‘Just War’. When Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame) asked President Bush if he consulted his (far more intelligent) father before invading Iraq, the younger Bush replied, “He is the wrong father to appeal to for advice… There is a higher father I appeal to” (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/woodward-shares-war-secrets/). The world is still living with the horrors that ‘divinely-mandated’ war, each unnecessary death a living reminder of what happens when religious irrationality bleeds into political irrationality.

Pastor Jerome cannot insult the Buddha even if he tries to. The Buddha was accused of worse and to his face, and his response was that since he refused to accept the insults, they would return to the ones making them. The danger Pastor Jerome represents is the same danger political monks and other politically active religious figures represent (including the Catholic Cardinal). Their words and deeds further exacerbate societal gullibility and social irrationality, making another 2019 and national follies of that order far more likely. But the battle that must be waged with such purveyors of blind faith and unquestioning obedience has nothing to do with law and incarceration. It is a contestation of ideas and ideals over the kind of future we want for Sri Lanka. A secular country where faith is a private matter and every citizen is free to follow a religion – or not – cannot be built on persecution and intolerance.  

Tisaranee Gunasekara

The writer is a senior political commentator in Colombo.

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