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History, Opinion, Politics, religion

History, Historiography And The “Sinhala-Buddhists

By Pradeep Jeganathan

Dr.Pradeep Jeganathan

Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri is right to point out in his recent essay, “History after the War: Challenges for Post War Reconciliation,” that “[t]here is an important factor that gives an extra advantage to the (sic) Sinhala-Buddhist historical consciousness. The historical narrative that is linked with the latter is generally compatible with the dominant paradigm of the modern historical scholarship in Sri Lanka.”

Yet, he is either unable or unwilling to make this “important factor” itself a topic for inquiry and in failing to do so, he inevitably then freezes this “Sinhala-Buddhist historical consciousness” within an ahistorical black hole. According to Dewasiri’s chronology, by the 6th Century AD, “for reasons that are not clear,” — there had crystallized the “dhammadipa” idea, that has been a constant since. This then, raises the inevitable question: If the problem itself has no historical contours, indeed if nothing changed in “Sinhala-Buddhist historical consciousness” for 1600 years, how would any kind of attempt “to build an alternative discourse of history” be anything “more than a naïve academic pursuit” that almost by definition cannot dislodge or even address the problem itself?

Surely, the already existing critical literature must be worked through first? On my reading, it is apparent that there are three key vamsa texts in questions which span a period of some 600 years –the early 4th Century Dipavamsa, the 5th century Mahavamsa (Mv; which is in some ways a re-working of the Dipavamsa) and the 10th or 11th Century Vamsatthappakasini, (VAP; which is a re-articulation and elaboration of the Mv.) Indeed, there is an argument made in different ways in these texts, with different intensities and emphases, that the violent conquest of Lanka and the defeat and banishment of the Yakkshas by the Buddha, on his first (mythical) visit to Lanka, is legitimate, so making legitimate violence against unconvertible unbelievers, very much in the mold of some manifestations of the faiths of Abraham (i.e., Judaism, Christianity and Islam).

Indeed, there is an argument made in different ways in these texts, with different intensities and emphases, that the violent conquest of Lanka and the defeat and banishment of the Yakkshas by the Buddha, on his first (mythical) visit to Lanka, is legitimate, so making legitimate violence against unconvertible unbelievers, very much in the mold of some manifestations of the faiths of Abraham

Furthermore the VAP, and associated inscriptional claims that can be dated as simultaneous with that text, argues that claims upon the throne of Lanka that maintains that the legitimacy of rule over the island depends upon being a direct descendant of the Buddha through family lineage, on the one hand, and being the bodhisattva or in other words an heir to the lineage of the Buddha through the Sasana, on the other. Yet these are but particular arguments about faith and rule, the Sasana and kingship.

There is clear historical evidence that shows that the claims of the VAP of the Mahavihara were made against claims of Abhayagirivihara monks who argued for a different kind of Sasana, Dhamma and Vinaya – there was a multitude of sophisticated ways of being a Buddhist throughout the first millennia in the Sri Lankan city of Anuradhapura. What’s at stake there, are complicated interpretations of Buddhism that position the Buddha in relation to Siva, who we may understand as a Hindu God. The Mahavihara interpretation of Buddhism, which is both exclusivist and violent was not always ascendant, indeed at times the Abhayagirivihara interpretations were dominant. They have not been preserved so we cannot read them today, but I repeat there is plenty of evidence that they indeed existed and were important.

Dewasiri’s conflation of Sinhala and Buddhist here, into the now common and very modern concatenation Sinhala-Buddhist is even more surprising. In fact, central to Gunwardene’s argument in the booklet Dewasiri cites is his opposition to this view, as it is of course, in his early and classic paper, “The people of the Lion.” “Sinhala” referred to a set of inhabitants within the island, certainly not all of them, in the 10th Century. In fact, the dynastic claims of Sri Lanka’s medieval kings, from Sena the 1st to Parakramabahu the 1st contradict the idea that their lineage is that of the lion slayer, Sinhabahu; it is rather that of Sudodhana and Amithodana, father and uncle of the Buddha. In fact, Nissankamalla who ruled after Parakramabahu wasn’t Sinhala, but Kalinga, and he was very clear about it, given his fondness for inscriptions. But he was certainly a Buddhist, and in the Mahavihara sense of it. Magha, who is credited with finally destroying the civilization of the North Central Province, which was undergirded by the dense, inter-connected and most technically advanced irrigation system in the entire pre modern world was also Kalinga.

After what is called the decline of Polonnaruwa, and by the 13th Century there were indeed Tamil, Hindu kings who ruled in Jaffna. Yet in the middle of 15th century Sapumal adopted son of Parakramabahu the 6th, conquered the kingdom of Jaffna. He wasn’t Sinhala though, his origins are arguable but he may have been Tamil; he also built the great Temple at Nallur.

A century or so later, we find that Rajasinha the 1st, the great Lion of Sithawake, who fought the Portuguese to a standstill more than once, took to Saivism, and yet was king of a southern kingdom. Not every legitimate ruler of southern Lanka was a Buddhist in early modern times. Yet also it is not historically accurate to say that the Kings of Jaffna ruled the east, certainly even a cursory glance at Dutch records and the doings of Rajasinha the 2nd will tell you, that the Kings of the Kanda Uda Pas Rate, (the five countries on top of the mountains) were also the overlords of Batticoloa and Trincomalee.

The Nayakkara kings who inherited the throne of the Kanda Uda Pas Rate, or what is now called the Kandyan Kingdom didn’t consider themselves Sinhala either. They were Telugu but spoke Tamil. But ruled as Buddhists leading an important revival Sasana and enabling the return of the higher ordination from Thailand leading to the founding what still to this day is called the Siam (Thai) Maha Nikaya which includes the chapters of Malwatte and Asgiriya. But in those days the Buddhist nobility did not always even write in Sinhala; in fact, Ehelapola, a key Minister of Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, who would have indeed considered himself Sinhala and Buddhist signed the Kandyan Convention of 1815, in Tamil script, after he had helped depose his Tamil speaking King.

Indeed, as I have argued at length in previous work, the very idea that all of this island is rightfully Sinhala-Buddhist is a very recent idea. It is traceable to Geroge Turnor’s (and Edward Upham’s) colonial misunderstandings of the particular, parochial claims made by the Mahavamsa and the Vamsattappakasini, which they then universalized and associated with simultaneous readings of monumental remains in the North Central Province seen through this foggy lens; the acceptance of Turnour’s work as ‘true’ authorized its continuation throughout the nineteenth century. This is where what Dewasiri correctly identifies as the “dominant paradigm of the modern historical scholarship in Sri Lanka” comes from. He is quite mistaken though, in seeming to assume, that this just the “ideology of the Post-Colonial Sri Lanka state.”

On the contrary the very idea that Sri Lanka is made of discreet, competing communities of Sinhala, Tamil and Mohemedan is very much a colonial idea; first mooted in Colebrokke Camaron Reforms of 1833, which simultaneous with the misappropriation of Mahavamsa and the Vamsatthappaksini for a parochial European debate about the chronology of South Asian Kings. The idea that the Sinhala need a Sinhala representative and the that Tamils need a Tamil one, that the ‘Moors’ need a ‘Moor’ one is a colonial idea, a rupture in the human history of this island, that had seen settled, civilized human habitation for over 15, 000 years. This idea then, to repeat, was folded into the idea culled from a misreading of the Mahavamsa that history of this island is a series of battles between Sinhala Buddists and Tamil Hindus. There is no historicity to this, what so ever.

We really must abandon this idea, that we are in grip of a 6th century Sinhala-Buddhist historical consiousness; this is a recent, colonial construction.Treating products of colonial interventions as a timeless essence adds to our difficulties, not allowing for the necessary plurality of imaginings of Lanka’s history to emerge in present times.

You can read Dr.Pradeep Jeganathan‘s wrtings @ www.pjeganathan.org



30 thoughts on “History, Historiography And The “Sinhala-Buddhists

  1. Some cannot digest the historic facts. Insted they fabricate history or change the context.

    Posted by pr | March 5, 2012, 1:53 am
  2. then what about that a lion fuck a women in a cave thing? Is that all made up?

    Posted by Bodinayaka | March 5, 2012, 2:24 am
  3. The idea that the Sinhala need a Sinhala representative and the that Tamils need a Tamil one, that the ‘Moors’ need a ‘Moor’ one is a colonial idea, a rupture in the human history of this island, that had seen settled, civilized human habitation for over 15, 000 years.

    Posted by js | March 5, 2012, 3:22 am
    • JS says:

      ” island, that had seen settled, civilized human habitation for over 15, 000 years.”

      Its true. However, Sri Lankans have been evolving towards homo sapiens ever since Vijaya set foot in the island.

      Posted by Native Vedda | March 8, 2012, 11:47 pm
  4. Bodinayaka yes, biologically is not possible is it? But myths are true in that they have social/historical significance. my point is that the “Mahavamsa” are particular, parochial arguments about sovereigns and politics. At times like editorials of the Sunday Observer say. Some times, like editorials of the Sunday leader.

    Posted by Dr. Pradeep Jeganathan | March 5, 2012, 4:04 am
  5. Dear Dr. Pradeep Jeganathan,
    I found this article on Sri Lankan without Borders face book page and found it very interesting. With regard to history I have read many articles. The actual fact is, our history is highly controversial. Don’t you think that the Mahavamsa what we have today (discovered by the British) is not the actual version but is modified by someone?

    I have read very interesting but highly controversial articles on Sri Lankan history in DBS Jeyaraj’s website recently written by one JL Devananda. The reader comments on his articles are even more interesting. The links to those articles are as follows:


    Posted by L.U.L. Arulprakash | March 5, 2012, 5:46 am
  6. Hey man,where’s this history stuff leading us to?I can’t fathom head nor tails.Is this some kind of lesson in history?In that case i might as well keep my trap shut because i am so week in history.May be i am paying the price for cutting history classes in school.But still going through this post,i smell a rat.Is it leading us to that elusive pipe dream Ealam or about human rights,war crimes,reconciliation etc?Or is it going to lead us to the unfortunate early departure of that wonderful human being “Velu” whom we miss so much?

    Posted by Max Silva | March 5, 2012, 6:48 am
  7. Along with Ranil.

    Posted by Max Silva | March 6, 2012, 7:26 am
  8. Very interesting article. The question is who is a sinhalese Buddhist and who is a Tamil.Hindu. Sinhalese and sri lankan Tamils have the same genetic make up we are both a mixed up race. Secondly who is a sinhala buddhist. Sinhala buddhist worships Buddha and all hindu gods as seen in every temple. Buddha is the 9th avatar of Krishna in hinduism. Essentialy a Sinhalese is a hindu buddhist and a tamil is a buddhist hindu. Hinduism and Buddhism are two prulastic religeons which can be practised together. Essentialy this division was created by the british to rule us . we have swallowed it hook line and sinker. Essentialy both sinhalese and tamils except the recent immigrants are the same people except one is sinhala speaking and the other is tamil speaking.

    Posted by J Goonetilleke | March 7, 2012, 1:03 am
  9. Dear Pradeep
    I had the opportunity to read one more scholarly article of yours after a long time. very interesting analysis.

    Posted by varatharajan | March 7, 2012, 5:30 am
  10. The basic trap is generalization and conceptualization. certain things ended long time ago but the illusion has continued. It seems that the doctrine of impermanence has no application to sinhala buddhism!!

    Please check this out

    Posted by sajeeva samaranayake | March 7, 2012, 7:31 am
  11. Sinhala-Buddhism has not produced a single genius in 2500 years. Not a single Euler, or Mozart, or Ramanujan, or Viswanathan Anand. Thus, Sinhala-Buddhism can be described as mediocre at best.

    Posted by Observer | March 7, 2012, 8:52 am
  12. very interesting .goahead.reveal Rajasingha of Sithawaka s” anty buddhist activities and relationship with Aritta Keewendu.

    Posted by Jayaweera Dissanayake | March 7, 2012, 1:45 pm
  13. Observer I think the way of comparison is not very helpful.

    It is I feel important to understand one thing –

    In India Buddhism was a religion and language of protest and reform. This tradition has continued in India even though institutionalized Buddhism died out. this however did not mean that Indians ever forgot Buddha or underestimated their greatest sramana or truth seeker

    In Sri lanka Buddhism became a part of the ancient state and society – an aspect of the establishment and status quo. It has always been at the top of the societal pyramid – on the side of power rather than powerlessness.

    Real Buddhism on the other hand sides with the powerless – in you and me and in others. In fact dukkha means we are all very vulnerable and somehow lost…. So acknowledging this powerlessness is very much a part of being buddhist in substance. It is quite different to saying – ah Buddhism is the foremost religion here because 75% of the population is nominally Buddhist. Buddha himself stated very clearly that you are not brahmin by birth. This applies to all sinhala buddhists – they do not become Buddhist simply by birth or ritual or tradition. Buddha expected the self to be renounced. this may not be easy – but no true religion is.

    Posted by sajeeva samaranayake | March 7, 2012, 2:16 pm
    • There are numerous theories – political, economics related, scientific – which leads one to question the utility of Buddhism. For example, one could argue like the philosopher Hegel, that war is inevitable, if the State is to survive. In fact, Hegel goes so far as to say that without war, a State will actually stagnate and die out. In many instances, war has led to accelerated development of numerous technologies, which in the longer term have been beneficial for the larger society. But if war is inevitable (since it is an essential part of history), then so too is violence. On the other hand, this contradicts one of the fundamental precepts of Buddhism, so-called nonviolence. On the economics side, inequality is inevitable due to the perpetual existence of scarcity. Such inequality leads to disparities in income, education, access to medical care, etc, the sum total of which leads us to conclude that a classless society, such as Marx, and perhaps the Buddha – envisioned – is impossible. Buddhism shies away from these disparities, whereas capitalism tries to rationalize them – scarcity actually forces individuals to cooperate (ironically, for selfish reasons), the end result of which is that some individuals are able to maximize well-being while others lose out. There is a very sound Darwinian argument that also supports this line of reasoning: the stronger species survive, while the weaker ones die out. A species does not prolong its survival by becoming cognizant of its limitations and extending its hand to its enemies in defeat. The final piece of the puzzle is science. Here we see that science can also address the problem of scarcity. For example, the agricultural methods employed by developed nations are enough to produce a yield that is sufficient to feed the entire world population many times over.
      I think you can see my argument now. Buddhism is ultimately nihilistic (accepting that nothing is permanent) and too simplistic to cope with the challenges posed by the modern world. Donning a robe and living in a colony of like-minded individuals may work for those in the colony, but what about the rest of society? I would say that a society’s survival in the modern world is now contingent upon forming a viable political philosophical (Buddhism is apolitical and so does not meet the challenge), replacing the notion of suffering with scarcity, and using ideas from economics and science to address the scarcity question. Morality is of course useful, and does not fail in this regard, but to extract the entire body of essential morals from Buddhism is a Herculean task. The task could be accomplished much easier with a simpler philosophy, such as Judeo-Christianity. Although the State itself should remain secular.

      Posted by Observer | March 7, 2012, 5:39 pm
      • Given that the law today is in fact secular and well established, there is no reason to extract an essential morality from any religion, be it Buddhism or Judeo-Christianity. When morality is applied along religious lines we end up with the Crusades, the Holocaust (regardless of the fact that you dismiss it as unimportant because “only” Jews were killed), and Black July. You say that Buddhism has produced no genius; but neither has it produced a great barbarism the way Christianity and Islam has. Morality in SL is drawn from many sources, and religiosity itself is equated with morality; so that the average Sri Lankan cares less what another’s religion is as long as he has a religion; a lack of religion being a clear negative. So we can take it that society today is encumbered with religion, and doesn’t need it as a source of morality anymore. So the less religion as a society, the better for all.

        Posted by David Blacker | March 8, 2012, 12:30 pm
  14. People also forget that most royals of the time (other than Mayadune and the Hindu Rajasinghe mentiomed above) were atracted to Catholicism,…….
    like worrior general turned king Don John Vimala Darmasurya, royal queen & wife Mahabandige Dona Catherina Kusuma Devi, Don Juan Darmapala, Don Jao Periya Pandar, Don Philip Yamasinhe Bandara……………regents such as Antonio Baretto Kuruwita rala…

    Posted by Rajaguru | March 7, 2012, 6:13 pm
  15. Buddism, Hiduism, Tamil, Sinhala all foreign
    Forms of Shamaism, Hinduism may have existed before
    Poor native Vedha has suffered severy at the hands of these invaders
    Now into big-talk and racist ideology

    Posted by Rajaguru | March 7, 2012, 6:18 pm
  16. comments are valued; thank you. I will be writing yet another essay on this topic soon.

    Posted by Dr. Pradeep Jeganathan | March 7, 2012, 7:26 pm
  17. Devasiri and Jaganathan similar (Geroge Turnor, Edward Upham), Devasiri focus on us (here and now), Jaganthan extends it to colonial times.

    At the core we carry the ‘Aryan supremacy’ ideology
    We cant blame the 3 recent colonial powers,
    We have a more original form
    Young Adolph modified this in recent history

    At the heart of our Buddism is division
    Where rice mud is superior to pot mud
    Thus, some others resort to more extreme Buddism
    Subtle competition, love hate, seeking escape/acceptance/worth
    The result, funnel it towards a common percieved enimy; religious/language minorites
    A similar may be said of Hinduism

    Excuse culture, historial nostalgia and false utophia
    If our ways are better we would not change
    Hence colonial toilet manarisms rarely adopted
    The animalistic us & them culture is a biological reality
    Colonialisms most lasting legacy; give us the excuse to remain blaming them


    Posted by DSDSF | March 8, 2012, 1:23 am
  18. DAVID BLACKER says:

    “You say that Buddhism has produced no genius; but neither has it produced a great barbarism the way Christianity and Islam has. ”

    Last time when I checked facts, China, Japan, Korea, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnnam and Sri Lanka have been populated mainly by Buddhists.

    Cambodia killed 2.5 millions of its own people under Polpot.

    Japan before the end of WWII did commit crime against humanity all over South East Asia..

    Vietnam killed its own Buddhists in the South as well as in the North.

    Sri Lanka proud to portray itself as a Sinhala Buddhist country had killed nearly 300,000 of its own people since 5th April 1971.

    Where does the morality come from?

    Posted by Native Vedda | March 8, 2012, 11:38 pm
    • “Where does the morality come from?”

      Good question. Did Pol Pot and his Khemer Rouge draw their morality from Buddhism or communism? Did Japan draw its imperial strategy from Buddhism? Did the Viet Cong kill the Vietnamese Buddhists because the former were following Buddhist precepts or communist ones? Did the 300,000 Sri Lankan deaths occur as result of morality drawn from Buddhism; were the JVP following the Buddha; were the Tigers following the Buddha?

      Native Veddha, it is important to first understand the discussion before joining it.

      Posted by David Blacker | March 9, 2012, 7:22 am
  19. Observer

    We can speculate using theories how nihilistic, negative and impractical Buddhism is. But how can you comment on a product without using it? Especially if people like hegel themselves have not used Buddhism….. The source you need to look at is an increasing amount of people especially in the west who are using Buddhism in a purely utilitarian way without any of the cultural baggage that most asians carry re our religion.

    I am not challenging your right to comment – only pointing out the weakness of this particular argument – so this is not below the belt or personal

    Point 2 – David B

    “Given that the law today is in fact secular and well established, there is no reason to extract an essential morality from any religion”

    This is interesting esp. when we try to apply it in the local context today. In ancient society the most effective source of discipline was personal example. when societies became more complex and urbanized personal example was strengthened with impersonal law. What we overlook is that the administration of impersonal law is still in the hands of human beings whose standards continue to be shaped by all societal influences including religious ones.

    so the disconnect you try to draw may not hold in the real world???

    Posted by sajeeva samaranayake | March 9, 2012, 6:00 am
    • Sajeeva, there is nothing wrong in being personally influenced by one’s religion; but as a society we should not draw morality from religion anymore. That morality has been drawn sufficiently to provide us with a system of law. The law today isn’t based on religion — so it is not illegal anymore to commit adultery, or to eat meat, or to wear a condom, etc. We must now, as a society, move on from a morality based on religion.

      Posted by David Blacker | March 9, 2012, 7:27 am
    • Hello Sajeeva,

      The German thinkers (perhaps not Hegel) were well aware of Buddhism and Hinduism. Nietzsche, in particular, believed Buddhism to be superior to Christianity, although he considered Hinduism to be superior to both given the caste system. The Nobel Prize winner Schrodinger was an ardent Vedantist. Einstein was fond of the Bhagavad Gita. Even Hitler considered the Indians to the “lost Aryans.” In any event, my argument is that Buddhism is not practical, however much you apply it. Competition (which Buddhism shies away from) is at the heart of nature; one can even see it at the microscopic level, e.g. genetics. This is why Capitalism is the dominant economic system, in comparison to say, Marxism. The success of capitalism, naturally, lies in the fact that it allows for inequality.

      There are some religions/philosophies that, compared to Buddhism, are more compatible with capitalism. Part of this is simply due to history. For example, Judeo-Christianity is compatible with capitalism because the Jews were merchants for thousands of years, and a great deal of Christianity has been heavily influenced by Judaic thinking. Another reason is simplicity. One would need an entire lifetime to fully comprehend Hinduism/Buddhism.

      Now, I said Buddhism is not practical: by that I mean, is there an economic theory that is compatible with it. Similarly, is there a political or scientific theory. At the end of the day, it is some obscure mythology which only a few monks are able to fully grasp.

      Posted by Observer | March 10, 2012, 9:51 pm
  20. Have a look at this David – my definition of what we can call a higher secularism which does not reject but builds on religious values. In the movement from subjective to objective and we both agree that this movement is essential – do we step up on the same ladder or kick it away leaving us without any foothold?

    “Secularism is in fact a higher level of spirituality from which different religions, ethical and humanist approaches are viewed without fear or favour and with appreciation for their functional and objective value for humanity. In this way secularism bridges the divide between narrow partisan religious thinking (that often spars with an equally intolerant anti-religiosity) and tolerant religiousness – a pluralism which all the major humanist and religious teachers have promoted.”

    Posted by sajeeva samaranayake | March 10, 2012, 8:05 am
  21. Thank you Observer – your points were noted.

    Buddhism WAS an obscure mythology perhaps when the Germans and missionaries came across this teaching in the 19th century. But you and I occupy the 21st century and so much, so much water has flowed under the water.

    Buddhist principles of non violence and mind training have been applied in politics – Dalai lama, Thich naht hanh of vietnam and aung san sukyi – you can read the lady and the peacock by peter popham – an excellent account of buddhist activism in Burma. If you have noticed Burma is now shifting. At the conventional level Gandhi may be called a Hindu but his methods drew from jainism, buddhism, hinduism etc – in fact most self realized individuals defy definition and labeling.

    The work of schumacher – small is beautiful – has a chapter on buddhist economics and you must read our own AT Ariyaratne – what was sarvodaya movement based on?

    The other leading theorist and researcher who has developed Buddhist principles is Johan Galtung the Norwegian father of peace research. He sets out 3 conditions that buddhists work for which bring them into close collaboration with social justice activists

    1. basic needs for all
    2. individual freedom
    3. decentralization and small groups and communities not dominated by powerful centralized entities

    Buddhist principles do not dictate a particular political or economic theory but they will work to moderate any system from going to extremes. In the secular world it is very realistic and operates to promote internal changes rather than external structuring like marxism

    today there is a very advanced engaged buddhist movement around the globe – very creative – open to collaboration, inviting scientific insights and fusing ancient wisdom with modern knowledge. In fact it has moved completely out of those traditional spaces to deal with modern challenges. Look at the work of Ken wilber for example in america – this guy is known as the Einstein of consciousness….

    Buddhism, even in sri lanka has challenged the existing economic order with alternatives like sarvodaya.

    any religion can be grasped with commitment – even buddhism my friend…..

    Posted by sajeeva samaranayake | March 12, 2012, 5:07 pm

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