Bodu Bala Senā and Buddhism’s militant face in Sri Lanka

Image courtesy Mirror website

One of the first things I had to do in the new year was to firmly remind my (Lankan) Facebook friends to avoid posting or tagging me to any anti-Muslim rhetoric that is growing in an organized manner.  A systemic and sequential anti-Muslim campaign is taking place in many parts of the island (as we observe now) largely mobilized by a Saṅgha led lay organization called Bodu Bala Senā – BBS (or Forces of Buddhist Power). While we are unaware of the legal status, finding sources and possible powerful political backing, their public face in a www site gives a glimpse of the structure and nature of this undoubtedly ‘Buddhist’ organization. My first reading of their public picture is impressive. They are well organized. More interactive/informative than many government websites. Modern, seem to seriously adhere and willing to stand for their socio-political beliefs irrespective of such beliefs and practices being Buddhist or not in its nature, modality and ambition. In many ways, this neatly fits into what Juergensmeyer had labeled as ‘e-mail ethnicity’.

What is the need for a well-organized outfit of this nature even after four years after the war? Why that is, BBS is on an anti-Muslim campaign? Is BBS only a standalone organization or it in fact, a symptom of a wider political undercurrent that developing in Lanka in the postwar context? Why does the Sinhala Saṅgha often find an ‘enemy’ they should defeat? This is a short reflection of the political sociology of Saṅgha resistance and their impact in contemporary Lanka. Towards the mixed and wider audience of GV, I keep this essay non-theoretical and leave open for further discourse.

Postwar Buddhist Politics

It is nearly four years ago that the modern state of Lanka recentralized her strong ethno-religious i.e. Sinhala-Buddhist structure. Its total defeat of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) – until then considered one of world’s most effective textbook terror political group- reaffirmed the political will of the Sinhala elites and their voters. For them, Lanka is and will remain a Sinhala-Buddhist state no matter the democratic/human cost or her ground demographic/historical reality as a multicultural island that survives on a dependent economy. There is no doubt that the Rajapaksa rule, unlike its predecessors steadfastly held the Sinhala determination to defeat the LTTE irrespective of some internal and occasional (often-marginal) international pressures.  Retrospectively, mobilizing such ‘just-war’ to safeguard the territorial integrity of the dhammadeepa and the sovereignty of the Sinhalas was made easy and possible by the Saṅgha.  The  uncompromised stand, activism and the rhetoric  of a minority of radicalized Sinhala (largely southern) Saṅgha as much as the passive support of majority of the Sangha fraternity across the island across the all major nikayas helped win the war in 2009. State of Lanka is yet to give the due honour of her unforgiving victory to the two most contributing entities: first, the just war chapters led by activists Sangha such as Athuraliyē Rathana, Bengamuwe Nālaka, Elle Gunawangse  and thousands other Saṅgha who demanded a military solution. Second: China- Lanka’s regional super power guardian. Recent World Bank report says that China has already invested/loaned up to 40 billion US $ to Lanka. While the accountability of such amount of funds has never been open in Lanka, at least China may be enjoying its aims in Lanka. However, it appears that the rulers have only fulfilled one expectation of the warrior-Saṅgha in defeating the LTTE. The wider ambition of (re)establishing an ethno-religious Sinhala-Buddhist state is pending or slower than their original hopes. It is this backdrop, within which a force of the ‘Buddhist Power’ (BBS) comes into demonstration.

Trans-localizing Buddhist politics

The intrinsically interwoven dialectical relationship between the Theravādin Saṅgha and their states is a well-researched and confirmed fact in power politics of South(east) Asia. Such dynamic is historicized by the deeply influencing Vaṃsa literature in Lanka. I have elsewhere added to such research to contextualize the modern Sangha-State nexus in Lanka.[1] The epiphenomenology of the post-LTTE Sinhala Saṅgha resistance and its political mobilization have inherited two historical factors. First, the political heritage of Saṅgha genealogy: from venerable Mahānāma of Mahāvihara, the first author of the Mahāvaṃsa to venerable Gaṅgoḍawila Sōma- the modern crusader of a semi-urban charismatic Buddhist evangelism- there remains a self-defined cosmological responsibility and an uncontested authority bestowed with Sangha to (re)define the Sinhala state. Late professor venerable Walpola Rāhula has articulated such continued political dynamic in his Bhikshuwakage Urumaya (භික්ෂුවගේ උරුමය) which is in its ninth edition and is considered the manifesto for modern Sangha politics. Second: the Sinhala Saṅgha have historically adopted, imported and exported an ethno-religious template of interpretation to understand and respond to the changes in their society. They have borrowed and localized concepts and modalities from other Theravādin contemporaries. When challenging the deeply colonized state in the 1800s they worked with the Burmese and Thai Saṅgha. An independent self-rule thesis was followed from their Bengali counterparts. Anagārika Dharmapāla while not a Saṅgha, deeply influenced to project a ‘protestant Buddhism’ creating the concept of ‘Sinhala-Bauddaya’. Dharmapāla with the help and advice of American war veteran Colonel Olcott borrowed his agitation and its models from the protestant Christian missionaries. Even the media based Buddhist evangelism done by venerable Sōma (and continued by others like the venerable Inamaluwe Śrī Suṃaṅgala of Rangiri vihara of Dambulla) is in the footprint of British/American religious preachers who exploit the public space via the modern media and worldwide internet. Ann Blackburn in her Locating Buddhism (2010) has investigated such history.  This trans-localizing process and its density depend on internalizing and cross -problematizing of the socio-political transformation around them. Such internalizing produces a set of ontological insecurities further deepened by forces such as the market based liberal democracy, its globalization of a western value schema, growth of newer religions (especially Pentecostal Christianity) or a set of new trader class like the Muslims in Lanka.  I have argued that the concepts such as minority rights and federalism have fallen victims of such Saṅgha internationalization that fuelled not only the just war thesis but also rejected the total discourse of federalism or power sharing and reserved the state to a recentralization. Such Saṅgha worldview has generated varied types of violent and non-violent responses. BBS appears to be a classic development in this context.

Building a Buddhatvā
Scholars agree that nation state formation in South Asia had taken on opposite direction to its development in Europe. In South Asia, the struggles for independent from long periods of colonization did not come with the aim to build an overarching state led by a civic society under one ethno-religious cultural identity. The multi-nation, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural nature of the South Asian societies prevented such uniformity and civic consciousness in their society. The post-colonial struggles for democracy in these states in South Asia bears witness to the fact that independent was perceived as an opportunity for a particular ethnic group than to the entire state. In Lanka, The Sinhalas considered independence to be their chance of majority rule. This is proved by the subsequent illdemocratic acts such the disfranchising of the Indian Tamil, language rule, supremacy of Buddhism and university entrance discriminations etc. On the other hand, the Tamils seemed to have dreamed of a largely autonomous, confederated or even an independent region for them after the colonial rule. Such unfulfilled diagonally opposing political ambitions and demands eventually led to the 30 years of civil war.

The Sinhala Saṅgha, in spiritual terms have renounced this world and are helping the others to find nirvāna. However, they have had a historical socio-political mandate too. That is building and maintaining a state in which the ethno-religious ideology of Sinhala Buddhism is at the center of political and social definition. Their textualized aim in the various Vaṃsa literature is political not religious, at least very different to what the Theravada teachings of the Pāli texts. This political Buddhism is designed and often projected against an identified ‘other’. For the Sinhala Saṅgha, Mahāyāna Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism, Christian missionaries, Islam, and the peoples of those faiths have often provided such otherness. Some have argued that the Sinhala Saṅgha agitation against the other and the political project of building a Buddhist state has taken the same path as its Hindu nationalist mobilization- the Hindutva. While there is a large body of literature on Hindutva, in Lanka the Saṅgha resistance politics is still under studied.  My own research had revealed the fact that many scholars (Gananatha Obeseykere, H. L. Seneviratne, S. J. Tambiah and many western academics) have investigated the Sinhala Saṅgha politics from an anthropological perspective than of political science lenses.

Modern political science is limited in explaining some of the transitional transformations happening in ethno-religious politics in societies like Lanka. The contemporary Western scholarship that claims a ‘return of religion’ (Appleby 2000, Juergensmeyer 2003) is not able to explain our conditions as religion never left our politics or us. So it is not a return but a reassert and a reminder how deeply religious our politics is. Limited scholarship in understanding religious politics of Lanka is also using popular western discourses such as (post)modernism (Abeysekara 2002, 2008). Are the resistance waves of Sangha politics in Lanka showing signs of a ‘Buddhist Zionism’? That is, beside the eschatological belief that the Sinhalas are a chosen race for the redemptive role of Buddhism, and Lanka is a Buddha’s land, a neo-militancy is attached to the urgent and if necessary a violent need to protect and defend the Buddhist  land. Historical evidence such as the Tamil/Hindu/Indian invasions as well the modern LTTE terror campaign neatly fitted into the idiosyncratically selected portions of Mahāvaṃsa and other such epics.  Such Buddhist Zionist interpretation naturally will search for every possible sign of the Mahavamsic prophecies to identify the ‘enemy’ of the dhamma and Sinhalas as its custodians. The Sinhala Saṅgha and their ultra-nationalist lay politics have  readily provided a long list of such ‘enemies’ from the colonial British to UN funded INGOs and to the Chief Justice of the supreme court in the recent days. Jonathan Fox, a world authority on ethno-religious violence has doubted that democracy cannot take root where the religious beliefs justify political violence at societal level. I suspect 1948 produced two such ‘Zionist’ states: one Israel- built on the Judeo-Christian faith and the other Sri Lanka- very surprisingly based on some interpretation of Buddhism. Defending the purity of their land in both these states is directly amount to defending their faiths. Israel expands into a Biblical boundary searching for the Promised Land, while Lanka holds the boundaries of the dhammadeepa cleansed and given by Buddha ,  its rule even temporarily with her own citizens who are the other. These societies and their religio-politics are constructed on a cosmion basis: That perceives their country as the physical metaphor of the eternal resting place and their contemporary political structure as representing the divine order. It is in this context they could see their political leaders as divinely appointed (or relatives of Buddha) and their army as sons of eternity engaged in a divine war of Armageddon. Venerable Elle Gunawangse’s 50 odd war-songs written, produced and distributed amongst the soldiers during the peak stage of the war textualized this.

It is in this context that an outfit like BBS whose raison d’eˆtre is against to the Muslim expansionism under a corrupt and unfair trade/economic system. It is statically true that the Muslims in Lanka have grown, numerically, economically and to a great extend politically. However, why should such growth be an actual or perceived threat to Sinhala Buddhism? What (in)actions of the wider Muslim community are generating such ontological fears in Sinhala mind especially as the Sangha interpreted them? One thing positive about BBS is that the organization is constantly calling for a reform within the entire Śāsana of the Sinhala Buddhism beginning from an accountability and wealth sharing of the Dalala maligawa and the Atamasthana. This is a historical call and if done a turning point in modern Sinhala Buddhism. Can the Muslims, Christians and the Hindus understand this Buddhist Zionism and deal with it without contributing to the natural desire for reactionary political violence? What is the role of the government and the cross ethnic civil society in fostering such urgent understanding? Such questions are at the fundamental level to avoid the growing mistrust, antagonism and rivalry that is amplified by BBS.  Southeast Asian Theravāda states such as Burma, Thailand and Laos had already developed some full-blown Buddhist-Muslim conflicts that are threating those states. Can Sinhala Buddhism afford to repeat a Buddhist-Muslim riot as happened a century ago in 1915?  Can the Saṅgha in Lanka not find a way to address and answer their fears and concerns in a more dialogical manner? What can the Muslim religio-political elites and their trading communities (not)do towards this?

Dr. Suren Raghavan is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Buddhist Studies of University of Oxford and teaches politics at University of Kent-Canterbury.


Appleby, R. Scott, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation, Rowman and Littlefield, Maryland, 2000

Abeysekara, Ananda, Colors of the Robe: Religion, Identity and Difference (Studies in Comparative Religion), University of South California Press, California, 2002

_______________, The Politics of Postsecular Religion: Mourning Secular Futures, Columbia University Press, 2008

Jonathan, Fox, Do democracies have a separation of Religion and State? Canadian Journal of Political Science / Volume 40 / Issue          01 / March 2007, pp 1-25

Juergensmeyer, Mark, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, Uuniversity of California Press; Third edition, 2003

[1] See: Raghavan, Suren, ‘Politics of Venerable Walpola Rahulā’, Oxford Journal of Buddhist Studies, and Raghavan, Suren (Re)Designing  Democracy with Sinhala Buddhism , Routledge London, 2013, (forthcoming)