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‘Sinhala Buddhism’ is worlds apart from the tolerant non-violent Buddhism of the Gautama Buddha

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Ordered disorder, planned caprice, And dehumanised humanity…”
Brecht (The Exception and the Rule)

That the ancient-city of Dambulla is not sundered by religious violence is thanks to the sense and sensibility of its ordinary inhabitants (of all faiths) and the security personnel on duty.

In Colombo 2 – pic by: Drs. Sarajevo

Had the people of Dambulla been as virulent as the anti-Mosque/anti-Kovil demonstrators, had the STF and police personnel been as supine as the government, a religious conflagration would have engulfed the area and beyond

Mobs have no sense; religious-frenzy is unconcerned about consequences. But governments need to count the cost of fanaticism, especially in a pluralist country which is yet to recover from the wounds of a 30 year war.

Holy Rosary (Infant Jesus) Church, Slave Island, Colombo 2 – pic courtesy of : Rogers- (

The manner in which the Rajapaksa administration responded to the Mad Men of Dambulla indicates that the self-destructively myopic mindset, which created a linguistic issue and facilitated its evolution into an ethnic war, flourishes still, in the highest echelons of the Lankan state.

The Dambulla fracas and the manner in which it was ‘solved’ reveal the deadly faultlines in Lankan polity and society. No Islamic or Hindu representative took part in the conclave which consisted of officials and Buddhist monks (including the ringleaders of the would-be-mob).

Such a blatantly unrepresentative and obviously prejudiced gathering could not be expected to come up with a just and fair solution and it did not. The decision to remove the mosque, the kovil and other ‘unauthorised’ structures placed the official seal of approval on the extremist demands of the demonstrators, thereby aligning the Lankan state with Sinhala-Buddhist fanaticism.

The mob-like demonstrators and the monks who were leading and inciting them represented the ugliest face of Sinhala supremacism – intolerant of other races and contemptuous of other religions. Sinhala-Buddhism is worlds apart from the tolerant and non-violent Buddhism of the Gautama Buddha.

The demonstrating monks and laypersons are the ideological kin of fanatics of all creeds, everywhere, from Christian fundamentalists in the US to Salafis in Saudi Arabia, from Hindu fanatics who admire the killer of Mahatma Gandhi to Jewish fundamentalists who spit on little Jewish girls because they ‘dress indecently’.

These fanatics, in their efforts to recreate their various – and mutually exclusive – heavens on this single earth, tear really-existing states apart and bring untold suffering upon people of all faiths and none. A pluralist country can survive only if it keeps such purveyors of destruction on a very tight leash.

A sensible government would have approached the Dambulla issue as a law-and-order problem and placed its resolution in the hands of the courts. After all, the dispute is not about such recondite matters as which religion is right or whose god is better.

The dispute is, at least outwardly, about such factually verifiable issues as how long the mosque and the kovil had been around, whether they are ‘unauthorised’ and if they are located in temple-land. Instead the regime succumbed to the demands of the would-be-rioters, and by doing so, created space for religious tension in Dambulla to simmer and gather force.

More dangerously, this execrable supineness might embolden other fanatics elsewhere; safe in the belief that the Rajapaksa state is behind them, they may demand the removal of this mosque, that church or the kovil over there…, turning reconciliation into a Sisyphean task.

Mosque on Kew Road, Colombo 2 – Pic by Drs. Sarajevo

The rhetoric of the Dambulla protestors indicate that the real issue is not the location of one little mosque and one tiny kovil but the nature and trajectory of post-war Sri Lanka. Is Sri Lanka a Sinhala supremacist country in which religious/racial minorities are not citizens with inalienable rights but aliens existing on sufferance?

Or is Sri Lanka a pluralist land in which all are citizens with equal rights?

Is the government building a Sinhala Peace or a Sri Lankan Peace?

Is our destination a Sinhala-supremacist Future or a Sri Lankan future?

As the Dambulla demonstrators moved from mosque to kovil, a thin middle-aged woman in a skirt and a blouse walked up to the Buddhist monk leading the would-be-mobsters and respectfully informed him that she had been worshipping at the kovil since childhood. The monk answered the woman with dismissive arrogance, threatening to destroy ‘unauthorised’ dwellings (including hers) and telling her to take her god and go elsewhere.

Then he made a comment which can be roughly translated as “Hell, crows are not just flying over our heads; they are trying to build nests” (“Yakko, me kakko oluwa udin yanawa witharak nevei kuudu wennath hadanawane”- Sirasa News First).

The inference is obvious; it encapsulates the mindset of the demonstrators and their ilk: these non Sinhala-Buddhist aliens are becoming uppity; they think our country is there country; they must be stopped.

Sivasubramiya kovil – Colombo 2 – pic by Drs Sarajevo

According to the Sinhala supremacist vision of Sri Lanka, any minority – including Sinhala Christians – are not co-owners of this country but its guests. We, Sinhala-Buddhists, see ourselves as gracious hosts who allowed these alien elements to come and settle down in ‘our’ country. But we also expect the ‘guests’ to remember that they are just that – guests.

Thus the right of any minority to live in Sri Lanka is a conditional one, determined by their conduct and their willingness to obey the various guidelines set by us (from Sinhala Only to no mosques/kovils/churches in sacred areas). This ‘hosts and guests’ mindset was responsible for every wrong turn we made in our dealings with Tamils. Abiding by it again will lead us not to peace and reconciliation but to a new, faith-based conflict.

The Rajapaksas do not hesitate to ignore, or even attack Buddhist monks, when they so desire. The Kandy night-races went ahead despite the public protests of a chief prelate, who, faced with a Rajapaksa whim, found himself as powerless as any Hindu or Muslim.

Wikileaks cables revealed that when leading prelates tried to hold a Sanga Council to oppose the incarceration of Gen. Fonseka, they faced bomb-threats and threats of orchestrated schisms (‘Government apologists retaliated by promising that 500 temples would be split off from the main Buddhist sects and re-aligned with a lesser-known sect from Rajapaksas’ home region in the south’).

The regime acceded to the demands of the Dambullla demonstrators not because it feared to cross Buddhist monks, but because on this issue it did not care to rein in the fanatics; and, perhaps, regarded the mosque/kovil demolition as a suitable quid-pro-quo between Sinhala supremacism and Rajapaksa supremacism.

Secularism is the ideal option for a multi-religious country; but if that is impossible – as it seems to be here – the next best option is treating all religions with some degree of even-handedness. This principle of basic fairness and natural justice was grossly violated in the manner the state responded to Dambulla fracas.

Is it that the Rajapaksas do not see the danger or underestimate it?

Or it is that true to the ‘hosts and guests’ conception of Sri Lanka they believe that minorities do not have inalienable rights and must adapt to the wishes of the majority?

Is that why an issue which could have been settled legally is being allowed to explode all over the polity and inject germs of religious disharmony into a far from robust society?

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