Groundviews

Beyond collective egos: Our relational grounds of belonging and faith

While racial hatred burns, with fires so ably lit by the ignorant on both sides of Palk Straits, there is another source of energy – hidden from view but none the less real – that burns deep inside.

For the Sinhala Buddhist today, regaining identity and faith is necessarily bound up with reclaiming a lost inheritance. This inheritance is our cultural relationship with India or Maha Bharata which shaped and moulded our broad sense of “Sinhalese-ness” and “Buddhist-ness” for 16 centuries through a line of 134 monarchs up to Vijayabahu I (1055-1110 AD).

But Vijayabahu liberated a dying state. His brilliant nephew Parakramabahu (1153-1186 AD) represented a glorious end to a glorious culture. More importantly for us – he also represented an abandoned and failed beginning of a new culture that might have been. The physical remains of this abandonment can be seen at the Demala Maha Seya in Polonnaruva and the Suthigara Chaitya in Dedigama – ambitious works that Parakramabahu commenced but could not complete. His vision of a strong centralized state and strong economy – modernized to move with changing times, was not shared or realized by any of the kings who succeeded him. Within 30 years of his death rajarata lay in ruins, destroyed by a usurper from Kalinga (modern day Orissa State in India) named Magha who ruled for 19 years from 1215 and brought a proud society to its knees. Lanka never recovered from the multiple losses that took place around this period. What were these great losses?

  1. Loss of the rajarata irrigation culture – and a way of life organized around tanks
  2. Loss of the function of Abhayagiri Viharaya which connected local Buddhists with India and other progressive minded Buddhist centres around Asia
  3. Loss of the Order of Buddhist Nuns, loss of the meditation tradition and critical tradition in Buddhism
  4. Loss of social cohesion reflected in
    • the weakening of village democracies especially in the south after the three devastating campaigns of Parakramabahu. This turned the island into an authoritarian, top down system with weak communities, competing regional systems and a central government that from British times derived legitimacy through force and not consent; and
    • a growing alienation between a cosmopolitan elite and common people; as Martin Wickramasinghe said ‘from about the 12th century our rulers and the educated urban minority lost their cultural independence and became imitators of Sanskrit culture.’
  5. Loss of depth in culture accompanied by the loss of the Buddhist critical tradition and independence of thought which led to a slavish culture of imitation of foreigners from the Portugese to the British and beyond. This inability to separate form from substance meant that no effective cross cultural exchange or learning would take place except at the most superficial level. In modern times the idea of human rights has received the same superficial treatment in Sri Lanka.
  6. Gradual loss of economic sovereignty and with it political autonomy to manage our own affairs without external interference

In this way a cycle that originated with the brutal Kalinga campaign of Emperor Asoka ended with a royal connection with the same land fostered by the House of Vijayabahu in Polonnaruva – bringing home to the Lankans the Buddha’s teaching on impermanence. The principal challenge that faced them at the spiritual level was to let go of the past and begin afresh.

As the Wikipedia write up on Kalinga Magha comments:

“The bitter memory of Magha’s invasion also tainted the previously close relationship between the Sinhalese and the Chola, Chera and Pandya inhabitants of southern India. Whereas the great families of Rajarata had invariably been polity-spanning clans, with extensive intermarriage between Indian and Sri Lankan branches, the royal families of the Middle Ages became more distinctive and recognisably Sinhalese in the modern sense of the word. This is not to say however that south Indian influence in Sri Lankan politics ended altogether – witness the Nayakkar dynasty of Kandy. However the age of the great, Indo-Lankan clans like the Moriya and Lambakanna was over.

Native authority over Sri Lanka, already in decline before Magha’s invasion, never fully recovered from the invasion; the next three centuries were marked by near-anarchy. This period of Sri Lanka’s history ended only with the arrival of a foe that would eventually subsume both the great empires of south India and the kingdoms of Sri Lanka under its authority – the forces of colonial Europe.”

Geographically an island, culturally we shared a larger space and a deep underlying unity with India in the growth period of Sinhalese culture in the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva Kingdoms. But traumatized and shaken by the terror of Magha a new breed of Sinhalese who re-grouped in Dambadeniya set their faces against this cultural relationship. As the centuries wore on the old sense of respect, connection and solidarity became more and more distant and the centre of Sinhalese culture moved from East to West – or remained suspended without finding a home in either.

The cultural shift from cooperative to adversarial religion became a prominent feature of the relations with the westerner starting with the Portugese. Race, religion and caste became more and more rigid and inflexible categories – a process that reached its zenith in the Kandyan Highlands where the Sinhalese would stage their last stand in defence of their ancient culture and civilization.

Modern monument to the 16th century defeat of Portugese at Mulleriya Wela] From Dambadeniya to Colombo military victories did not necessarily lead to peace.

The shift of our cultural centre from East towards the West commenced long years ago within the Sangha itself. In the First Century BC the Buddha’s path of freedom was converted to a religion of the book with the codification of the pali canon. This was accompanied by an election upon a great debate between meditating rag robe wearers (pamsukulikas) and preaching village monks (dhammakathikas) won by the latter that learning and not practice is the essential foundation of the Sasana in Lanka. With this great deviation from the word of the Buddha the Dhamma and Sangha became the preserve of scholars and priests rather than the living example and striving of practitioners and wandering mendicant monks.

Buddha located the sangha (note – in lower case) outside society and established small groups of monks who would share close personal relations and perform their bi-weekly uposatha ceremony reciting the code of discipline within their common sima. Most importantly these monks would be a ‘state within’ who would not share any racial or caste identities with their lay supporters. The Sinhalese located the Sangha within society with a great measure of economic security. They would follow the secular state in creating a hierarchical organization. Has the bi-weekly uposatha observance – the cardinal tenet in vinaya (also referred to as vinaya pohoya karma), disappeared from monastic practice in Sri Lanka? This is an inquiry that must penetrate the smoke screen set up with the popular slogan ‘piliwethin pelagesemu’.

Historically the Buddhist priests became fully integrated monastic landlords at the hierarchical apex of a feudal caste based society. They would thus exercise power and influence and enjoy wealth behind a spiritual facade like any conventional western Christian Church.

The Buddhist ego that emerged from the encounter with western colonialism was based on such an external and worldly foundation. When Anagarika Dharmapala began his fearless crusade to revive Buddhism in Lanka in the 19th century and also moved to regain Buddhagaya for the Buddhists this same separate ego became a point of discord and division with ‘Hindu’ India.

Thus Jinarajadasa – one of the early Lankan Theosophists who remained true to its eclectic spirit said:

“Speaking frankly to the young generation, who are doing much work today, I would like to mention one profound cause for my dissatisfaction when I tried to do something for Buddhism and for Ceylon. It is the complete mental separation which exists between Ceylon and the great tradition of India. Anyone who has had even a glimpse into Hindu traditions knows at once that all that is of real significance in Sinhalese civilization is closely linked to Hindu civilization, if not fully derived from it … All those who consider themselves intelligent Buddhists – particularly the leading priests – never seemed to realize that it was scarcely possible to understand any Buddhist philosophical term without a thorough knowledge of the Hindu philosophies of the time of the Lord Buddha.”

Similar ideas were expressed by Ananda Coomaraswamy. But the vast majority of Sinhala Buddhists remained indifferent to this ‘great tradition’ of India.

And in an interview with Anagarika Dharmapala reproduced in the 1892 Journal of the Maha Bodhi Society the Thai Prince Dhamrong cautioned him in the following terms:

“Mr. Dharmapala,” the Prince said, “Buddhism is not brick and mortar; you may spend a lac of rupees in buying up the sacred temple, but before you do that, you ought to prepare the way for the dissemination of the moral truths of Buddhism. Later on, you may direct your attention to the Temple…By all means carry on your good work, and try to work in harmony with the Hindus. Concentrate your efforts on the diffusion of knowledge, for that constitutes Buddhism. The British government is taking care of the temple, and it could not be in better hands. I have watched with interest your movement and no better work could be done. I saw the High Priest Sumangala in Ceylon, and I may say that I have hardly met so good a priest.”  [Emphasis added]

Thus today Sri Lanka remains fundamentally alienated from her Indian roots – unable to achieve harmony with the source energies of spirituality that sprang from its fertile soil. Our fingers grasp greedily for Indian rupees, blind to the face and significance of Gandhi that adorn them.

Gandhi came closer to Buddha’s message of peace and compassion than any Sinhala Buddhist has in centuries. Other Asians who trod his path – Dalai Lama of Tibet, Aung San Sukyi of Burma and Thich Nhat Hanh of Vietnam have raised a standard that infused politics and social work with sanity and intelligence in an age of great arrogance, insanity and greed for power and money. An American preacher called Martin Luther King and the South African Nelson Mandela were all inspired by Gandhi’s creed of non violence.

 

Indian rupee notes adorned by a single human face symbolizing the spiritual inheritance of India

In other words his message has now transcended the narrow confines of race, religion and country. To the ordinary Sri Lankan trapped by these divisions these ‘international icons’ may seem very distant ideals.

In fact they are not. The only reserve these non violent leaders tapped was the depth of their own humanity. Our transition from childhood to adulthood can mark us with permanent scars when experience deprives us of our innocence. This happens to all of us and we become reckless and cynical and short sighted and forsake happiness in our search for happiness. History can help us understand how ideas were shaped by circumstances and how those ideas went on to shape people – how they identified themselves and related to others. These are all shifting sands that we must negotiate with skill if past mistakes are not to be repeated.

Tamils in Sri Lanka committed moral suicide when they embraced racism. The Sinhalese followed suit. Two deaths don’t add up to a victory for anyone. We await the re-birth of innocence and gentleness that helps us to re-connect and appreciate each other socially and culturally. Unknown to many of us our political perspectives are shaped by two great men who strode the world stage in the 20th century – Gandhi and Churchill. The latter was a humanist who rejected religion and he found it impossible to relate to or have sympathy with the quaint Indian naked fakir. But at the end of his life when Gandhi was no more he uttered his greatest insight into their relationship (as narrated by Arthur Herman)

“When I was subaltern the Indian did not seem to me equal to the white man,” Churchill recalled in 1952. It was an attitude that, he had belatedly come to realize, had hurt the Raj.

Then he said something unlike anything he had ever said about India: “if we had made friends with them and taken them into our lives instead of restricting our intercourse to the political field, things might have been very different.” That regretful musing was a final landmark on a long journey. The opening that Gandhi had wanted had finally appeared – but too late for either of them.

The same lesson that Prabhakaran learned – that military power confers only a temporary and limited advantage against a bigger adversary must now be learned by Sri Lanka as well. True safety and prosperity lies in a genuine friendship of respect and mutual appreciation with our neighbour. This warmth must be shared between peoples of both countries both rich and poor. Where this foundation is absent neither clever politics nor clever diplomacy will be of any avail.

There is no permanent ‘Sinhala’ or ‘Buddhist’ identity to be found, whether we look at the past or present – and there will not be such an identity in future. The attributes and qualities of identity have always been defined relationally and contextually. The original and most powerful relationship was with ‘India’ – and this influenced the Sinhala and Buddhist identities both positively and negatively. With the arrival of ‘Europeans’ we found the same mixed bag, subject however to the condition that by the ‘Kandyan Period’ the negatives outweighed the positives. The most recent interaction of the state has been with insurgency and terrorism and we should not be surprised to see the fallout of these interactions on human relations and human identity. Again, while Buddhist revivalism in the 19th century followed a Christian protestant format with a controlled adversarial spirit the post war Buddhist activism of BBS seems to be taking the intolerant Islamic model of Arabian countries as its guiding model. Taking on the fundamental attributes of those whom we hate, resist and oppose seems to be the fate of all oppositional warriors in the end….

For the ‘Sinhalese’, ‘Tamils’ and ‘Muslims’ for whom identity still remains a matter of importance in negotiating a sense of meaning the challenge is to realize there is only sharing, rather than separate existences – with sharing negatives or positives being the sole choice.

To sum up we can unite with the other in conflict and share our negatives. Or we can unite in peace and share our positives. Like an onion, identity goes on an on, with an “I” in the middle – but that I is empty and contains nothing. Ultimately there are no countries or nations either – just dominant ideas and influences that keep changing from time to time. This is my understanding of the truth of anatta. Not knowing this we take what is transient as permanent; and what is suffering as happiness. In the name of patriotism and religion, all that we are celebrating is naked egoism. The whole world can see this even as the ego deceives us – as it is wont to do, that we are basically ok.

As we all stagnate (together) in this quagmire of our own making, Buddha (the pure and awakened mind) is waiting… and of course we must pull ourselves out. There will be no divine intervention.