Sri Lanka: The Sacred and the Profane

Unquestioning obedience to religious orthodoxies is not the Buddha’s way. It is a tactic used by political and religious leaders for their own ends.

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

“A tangle within, a tangle without…” ~ Jata Sutta – Samyutta Nikaya

In July 2020, Indika Rathnayake, a non-theistic online activist, was summoned to the Organised Crimes Prevention Police Division and questioned for three hours. ‘Propagating fictitious ideas’was his organised crime. The monk-director of the Buddhist Information Centre had complained about Mr. Rathnayake’s facebook posts claiming that Buddhism originated from Jainism. Why a police division set up to prevent ‘organised crime’should take such a complaint seriously is not even a question in Sri Lanka.

Mr. Rathnayake was fortunate; he got off with a warning not to speculate about the origins of Buddhism. Unlike that unnamed 43-year-old woman who was arrested less than three months later for insulting Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, thereby ‘sowing discord among Buddhists and Christians.’

According to Pew Research, 40% of world’s countries and territories have blasphemy laws, including Sri Lanka. Our blasphemy laws were bequeathed to us by the British. Britain abolished its own blasphemy laws in 2008. We still cling to ours and resort to them more than ever before.

The irony is obvious. The concept of blasphemy is alien to the Buddha’s teaching. His attitude to verbal abuse, including the vilest slander, is well known, Akkosa Sutta being an excellent case point. A Brahmin called Akkosa Bharadvaja scolds the Buddha in “foul and harsh words.” The Buddha waits until the tirade is over and asks what Akkosa does when he has visitors. Akkosa says he offers refreshments. The Buddha asks what happens to those refreshments if the visitors refuse them. Akkosa says then they will return to him. Says the Buddha, “You are abusing us who do not abuse, you are angry with us who do not get angry, you are quarrelling with us who do not quarrel. All this of yours we do not accept. You alone, Brahman, get it back; all this, Brahman, belongs to you.” He then explains, that when someone “returns the abuse, the quarrelling, anger in kind, it is called ‘associating with each other and exchanging mutually. This association and mutual exchange we do not engage in.” (https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn07/sn07.002.budd.html)

            The British-introduced blasphemy laws seemed to have been observed more in the breach for close to a century. Until the early 1970’s there seemed to have existed in the island an environment conducive to free thinking, debate, and dissent. The response to myth-busting activities by Prof. Abraham T Kovoor, Prof. Carlo Fonseka, and the Rationalist Association indicate a public relatively open minded even about age-old superstitions, such as fire-walking associated with God Kataragama.

Was it this prevalence of critical thinking and writing which made the United Front government introduce blasphemy into its infamous Press Council Law of 1973? Section 15 criminalises any newspaper writing of ‘profane matter’ intending to “insult any religion or founder of any religion…any deity or saint venerated by followers of any religion” (http://www.commonlii.org/lk/legis/num_act/slpcl5o1973298/s15.html). This leap into legal backwardness, this attempt to criminalise free thinking was done by a government which is still considered left and progressive!

In 2000, journalist Manjula Wediwardana was arrested subsequent to a complaint by a Catholic priest that his soon-to-be-published book insulted the Virgin Mary. This was when the reign of the Rajapaksas was not even a blip on the horizon and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was the president. In 2000, he got bail. Today he wouldn’t have, because he would have been arrested under the ICCRP, like Shakthika Sathkumara.

In Sri Lanka, a law that was crafted to prevent discrimination and injustice is being used selectively to promote both. The infamously famous Sammantha Badda thero has openly claimed that the Tooth Relic is really a porcine tooth (දන්ත ධාතුව කියන්නේ ඌරු දතක් – Samantha Badda – YouTube). Nothing has happened to him. But You Tuber Sepal Amarasinghe is in remand custody for insulting the Tooth Relic.

The charges against Mr. Sathkumara were dropped in Feb 2021 (after he spent months in remand custody). Was it because there was no legal possibility of the charges being maintained? Is the ICCRP being weaponised to intimidate those who anger political or religious authorities? In the absence of a legal pushback, will the ICCRP become a tool to stifle any public conversation about Buddhism and Buddhist monks, just as blasphemy laws were in Christian Europe once and are in most of the Muslim world even now?

Who insults the Buddha?

            In cash-strapped Sri Lanka, farce abounds. This month, news broke about a fake Dalada Maligawa being constructed in Kurunegala, using money and jewellery donated by devotees. The heads of Malwatta and Asgiriya chapters and the Diyawadana Nilame were roused into righteous indignation by the news. The latter wrote to the President demanding action. The President ordered the IGP to take action. Mervyn Silva too ordered the police to take action, after visiting the site.

            Had the fake Dalada Maligawa begun its religious services, would those too have been limited to monks of one caste, as religious services in the real one are?

At the 2019 launch of Chinese Academy of History, President Xi Jinping emphasised the need for “history research with Chinese characteristics”. In Sri Lanka, we seem to have a Buddhism with ethnic and caste characteristics. These distortions were created by two key historical corruptions of the Buddha’s teachings. The first was Bhikku Mahanama’s insertion of the concept of just and holy war into a teaching which was based on compassion towards all living beings. Mahawansa’s claim that there’s no sin in killing non-Buddhists in a war to protect Buddhism has seeped deeper into Sinhala consciousness than Buddha’s First Precept.

The second perversion happened in the 18th Century when a Kandyan king decreed that higher ordination be limited to members of the Govigama caste. The story is told, approvingly, in Mandarampura Puwatha by Labugama Lankananda Thero. By the time the second Nayak king, Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe, was crowned, Buddhism had degenerated and higher ordination had ended. The King (with the corporation of the Dutch) brought higher ordination rites from Siam (Thailand). For about a decade, ordination in Malwatta and Asgiriya chapters was open to everyone. Then the King saw that certain monks from oppressed castes (hina janaya) paid obeisance to upper caste lay persons of wealth and power. The king then prohibited higher ordination to anyone outside the Govigama caste.

If this ‘origin story’ was true, the correct action would have been to de-robe the offending monks; not introducing caste into a caste-less religion. When non-Govigama monks in the maritime provinces banded together and established the Amarapura nikaya by bringing higher ordination rites from Burma, the Kandyan king banned it. Fortunately his writ didn’t run very far and the attempt to turn monkhood into the exclusive preserve of one caste failed. Had the Kandyan king vanquished the British instead of the other way around, we would have had a Sinhala-Govigama Buddhism! And many an exemplary monk would have been lost to the Sasana, like Miggetuwatte Gunananda thero of the Amarapura nikaya.

As Prof Richard Gombrich points out, Buddha’s teaching on the irrelevancy of caste in caste-ridden India and the opening of monkhood for everyone including those from the most depressed and despised communities caused “a substantial change in the intellectual climate” (Theravada Buddhism: A social history from ancient Benares to modern Colombo). The 18th century introduction of caste into monkhood caused a retrogressive counter-change and split the monkhood along caste lines. Wasn’t that a greater insult to the Buddha than Shakthika Sathkumara’s story or Sepal Amarasinghe’s intemperate remarks?

No religion is a hermetically sealed space. Every religious teaching is affected and changed by the times it lives in and has lived through. For example, according to Prof MMJ Marasinghe, former head of the Department of Buddhist Studies at the Kelaniya University, many of the rituals considered essential to Buddhism came into vogue in the tenth century during the reign of King Sena III – such as offering food and garments to Buddha statues. The story of Ananda Bodi comes not in the original Kalingabodhi Jathaka Pali but in Buddhagosha’s pali commentary. The belief that Ratana Sutta was first chanted by the Buddha to heal the city of Vesali of the Three Terrors was another Buddhagosha add-on, Prof. Marasinghe claims. He cites these as evidence of new rites and rituals being introduced into Buddhism. Once the translation into pali project was completed, the original Sinhala commentaries by Arhat Mahinda were burnt, probably to hide the alien nature of the new practices, he claims (Budu Dahama saha Buddhagama).

The influx of nobles and Brahmins from South India during the Kandyan Kingdom would have played a role in creating the necessary religious and societal consensus for the introduction of caste into Buddhism. Hinduism might not be the only influence in shaping ritual practices. According to John Davy, “I was once present in the Sanctum of the principle temple in Kandy during the whole ceremony of the evening service; what I saw strongly reminded me of the ceremonial high mass of the Roman Catholic Church” (An Account of the interior of Ceylon and of its inhabitants: With travels in that Island).

Not even religious teachings are immune to impermanence and change. The danger is when law is used to criminalise questioning and dissenting from prevailing orthodoxies. At the rate Buddhism in Sri Lanka is retrogressing, heresy and apostasy might follow blasphemy as high crimes, as they were in Christianity once and are in Islam now.

A world of unreason

            The Panadura Debate was a series of six debates which commenced in Baddegama and ended in Panadura. The participants were Buddhist monks and Protestant clergy. The debates seemed to have been both erudite and accessible, exhibitions of scriptural knowledge and rhetorical skills. Both parties cooperated to ensure that the encounters were peaceful and orderly. Once the final debate ended, the British editor of Ceylon Times, John Cooper, published an account of it highly complementary to the Buddhist side. That account introduced Buddhism to many a Westerner and was instrumental in Henry Steel Olcott arriving on these shores.

In his forward to Prof Wimal Abeyasundara’s 1991 book on the Panadura debate, President Ranasinghe Premadasa said, “The most valuable lesson we could learn from the debtate is the peaceful way of settling disputes” (https://www.dailymirror.lk/News-Features/Ven-Migettuwatte-Gunananda-Thera-and-Birth-of-Buddhist-Revival-Movement-years-ago/131-150546). He was right. Unfortunately, that habit no longer prevails in the religious sphere. Today, the way of settling religious disputes is not intelligent and rational debate but verbal and physical violence and/or repressive laws.

            75 years into independence, our minds are more enslaved, our conduct more servile, our intellectual climate more anti-intellectual. In our first national election (the parliamentary poll of 1947), secular left parties performed remarkably well, despite the UNP’s incendiary slogans about communist-threat to Buddhism and the left leaders’ refusal to engage in exhibitionist religious rituals. Today, no politician can get past the first hurdle if he/she is unwilling to worship at some shrine.  

Perhaps Carlo Fonseka’s debunking of the fire-walking myth was the last hurrah of those freer times. Prof. Fonseka organised a fire-walking demonstration as part of the September 1970 exhibition at the Medical College. He and a group of doctors, technicians, and students walked over a fire of 750faranheit after eating pork and drinking arrack. Among those present was Arthur C Clark (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H2gAvTp_rak).

In response to numerous public challenges, including from monks, the deputy minister of cultural affairs of the UF government and NU Jayawardane, Prof Fonseka agreed to another demonstration. This was conducted on Feb 8th 1971 (poya day) at the Kataragama Devale in Attidiya. After its successful conclusion, ordinary people, including in far-off villages, conducted similar non-sacred fire-walking experiments.

Today, politicians and monks would have complained to the police and Prof Fonseka would have been arrested and held under the ICCRP for months, sans bail. His Catholic origins would have been held against him. Profs Kovoor and Clark would have been hounded out, one for being an Indian agent and the other a Western conspirator colluding to destroy pure Buddhism (not to mention the Sinhala).

            The consequences of our mental regression as a nation have been dire. The effect of the Kelani Cobra drama needs no belabouring. Would a majority of Sinhala voters have accepted Gotabaya Rajapaksa as Our Hero who Works in 1947 or even 1952? The Buddha, when he was indisposed, turned not to pirith chanting but to a human physician, Jeevaka, for relief and cure. In Kucchivikara-vattu of Mahavagga, when the Buddha comes across a monk neglected by other monks due to dysentery, he washed and treated the sick monk. In Sri Lanka, supposedly the sole refuge of pure Buddhism, the Rajapaksa government promoted the chanting of pirith and divine potions as counter to Covid-19. There was hardly any public dissent. We are happier with divine saviours as we are with human ones.

            Unquestioning obedience to religious orthodoxies is not the Buddha’s way. It is a tactic used by political and religious leaders for their own ends. Critical thinking is discouraged and penalised, not to save rata, jathiya, agama, but to protect vested political, economic, and religious interests. The next time, any politician places a hand on heart and promises to die to protect Buddhism, we should remember yesterday’s picture of Shiranthi Rajapaksa in a hijab attending a women’s conference in Iran. If that iconic image doesn’t make us think twice about the irrational path we have trod for 75 years, nothing will.  

Tisaranee Gunasekara

The writer is a senior political commentator in Colombo.

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