It was disappointing for almost everyone in our country to hear of the tragedy that had occurred in Dambulla recently. What was even more disappointing however was to listen to the various versions of this occurrence based on the religious biases and prejudices of people.
‘The chauvinist Sinhalese mobs in robes have broken into our holy territory and destroyed it’ is the Muslim interpretation of events; On the other hand we hear ‘these people have secretly built a temple in our holy site, this is our Sinhala Buddhist country we cannot allow these people to contaminate it as they please’ in line with the Buddhist version of events. In attempting to analyze this sudden occurrence it is quite important to bear in mind the ‘Sri Lankan background’ in which they unfold in; it is an environment enmeshed with strict religiosity based on the so called ‘Sinhala Buddhist theory’. It is a religiosity which throughout history has been abused and manipulated by the political forces of our country in its quest to power.
In looking at the series of events in Dambulla, one needs to bear in mind that the population of the area is predominantly Buddhist, and that the other religious devotees our clearly an insignificant minority. The Muslim Mosque in the area is at the center of the dispute, where the Buddhist claim that it is an illegal construction not older than 2 years; a claim vehemently denied by the Muslim population who produce evidence of a 60 year old history to the mosque along with deeds and other documents of registration. The dispute was a regrettable event, where the heart of religious worship of a community was attacked and damaged by the majority community led by monks and laymen who chased away the worshippers attacked and demanded the mosque to be removed. No reasonable person can approve the events that took place, irrespective of the background to the dispute between the parties. But now the unfortunate had happened and we cannot go back in time to undo the damage done, wipe the tears shed or comfort the hearts broken; instead what can be done is to understand the roots of religious violence in Sri Lanka which leads to incidents such as these, and consider the implications and consequences of such a noxious trend.
The nature of Religious freedom of a country could always be explored from its constitution; and in terms of the Sri Lankan constitution it comes clear to us that this is a non secular state. This conclusion could be reached as section II of our constitution provides for the foremost place for Buddhism whilst entrusting the state an obligation to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, the same article goes on to imply that the rights of the other religions are safeguarded under the article’s 10 of ‘religious freedom’ and article 14 (1) on manifesting religion and worship. The immediate effect of a provision of this sort is that it circumscribes the rights of other religions in the country within a very rigid framework; for instance the articles 14 (1) could always be sanctioned by interpreting article 15 which provides for restrictions on fundamental rights based on the arguments of public security or public morality. The very nature of provisions such as these gives birth to feelings of insecurity amongst minority religious groups and a sense of superiority amongst the majority group. This sense of superiority could result in an unconscious need of dominating the ‘insignificant other’, a domination which could be manifested either within the legal and political structure or outside this structure by means of illegal violence. The attempt to introduce the “Anti Conversion Bill” in 2004 was an overt manifestation of such dominance within the legal-political structure of our country that was directed against the minority groups. And the most recent Dambulla incident too could be construed in this light as dominance crossing the legal boundaries of our country that was mounted against the minority and which was tolerated to a certain extent by the ruling elite of our country. It is important to note thereby that it is that national policy of our country which has paved way for such an environment of majority dominance against the minority who has been pre determined as ‘insignificant’. One may reasonably argue that these constitutional structures are not abnormal, as 70% of the population consists of Buddhist in this country. But I daresay it is far more important to safeguard peace and harmony in a country, than leaving room for ethno religious clashes. The example of the Constitution of India provides a classic example of a secular state, where despite the majority of Hindu’s, the constitution provides for equal guarantees to all communities thus displaying a genuine need for national integration.
The “role of the Sangha” is the other most important entity that needs to be understood, in face of the recent events. This role deserves a historical analysis, in comparison with the ideals of the Buddhist religion they represent. According to the Buddhist religion revered as the religion of compassion, the monk has a crucial role to play known as the ‘Moksha’ oriented path where they are to voyage in the direction of human salvation as preached by Lord Buddha. However the Sri Lankan Monk (known as the Sangha) have been very much integrated with societal life that they have played a role as a ‘non class entity’ directing the society in the path of social coherence (Gunasinghe, 1996). They dictate the commandments of religion as well as the commandments of daily social, economic and political life of the masses in Sinhala villages, thus becoming an important figure in the country’s social structure. The important feature that warrants attention here is that this role the Sangha plays in our society is contrary to the salvation oriented monk’s role as it is provided in traditional Buddhism. The influence of the Sangha into Sri Lankan society increased in a historical process since the 1950’s from a voice for the economically oppressed masses to become the “guardians of the nation” against all perceived potential threats to the country and religion. This growing power of the Sangha in the country today has enabled them to form a part of the ruling polity and direct the people of this country in accordance with the ideology they represent. The increasing power of the Sangha has in recent times not only been contrary to the Buddhist tenets but instead has resorted to violence in their quest to safeguard their religion and devotees. The covert role of the Sangha once displayed when evangelical churches were torched down, and now when the Sangha leading people against Muslim mosques are all illustrations of this growing unrestricted power vested upon them by Sri Lankan society.
The importance of religion in a country such as Sri Lanka has been continuously reiterated in society through the political process that endorses it. Meaning that the politicians and the ruling elite of our country have always been advocates of the predominant ‘Sinhala Buddhist ideology’, so much that it has even led to a common misconception in our society that a non Sinhala Buddhist person cannot become the president of the country, even though there is no constitutional restriction for the same whatsoever. The politicians of this country illustrate what Machiavelli provides for as the role of a ‘Prince’ (Foster, 1969); they use religion as an instrument of the state to further their political interests. This phenomenon has been prevalent throughout Sri Lankan history; when we look at the time where universal adult suffrage was introduced to our country, the political elite who were quite distant from the masses connected to them through the Buddhist clergy and the temple. Which were how, arrack renters and capitalist planters became the nationalist leaders of the people and the country. The process never stopped but continued the religiosity based on the ‘Sinhala Buddhist ideological construct’ was utilized by the ruling elite to seek public endorsement from the masses at their policy decisions, the best example I can think of in this regard is the Sangha role in the recent war effort of Sri Lanka who were successful in mobilizing a significant majority in the country in its favor. According to Machiavelli religion provides the vital function maintaining obedience through a cohesive ideology, according to him public obedience to state policy cannot be sought through law and punishment alone, instead a cohesive religious ideology would pave a perfect foundation to achieve this end. It is not my argument that religion and politics should not be intermixed, as it would be quite wrong to say so; as the ideal religious role is to impact society in line with the tenets of which it represent. This is what all religious leaders who lived on earth from Lord Buddha to Jesus Christ did; impacted society through the message of religion in the direction of peace, forgiveness and compassion. The question I raise in terms of present society is why religion is fast becoming the greatest divider of people by inflicting prejudice, hatred and violence totally contrary to the tenets in represent.
According to the American sociologist W. I Thomas, “Irrespective of a social situation being real or unreal, If people define it to be real, the social consequences of such turn out to be real”. The extent to which Buddhist Sangha and the ruling elite of the country had influenced the ordinary population could be understood in this light. The society of Sri Lanka has always been subservient to the ideology imposed upon them by the religio-political combination of the Sri Lankan religious and political elite. When the North East Tamils voiced their opinion in the 1950’s against the implications on the unreasonable language policy, they were silenced not by the Sangha, not by the rulers but by the people who acted under their direction. According to Newton Gunaratne, the Sri Lankans have what is called a ‘Nation Besieged Perspective’ it is some form of a phobia that the homogeneity of the Sinhala Buddhist authority would be threatened. This perspective has been exploited and abused by the ruling elite of our country with the aid of the Sangha at different points of history. When the Tamil problem escalated and violence was resorted to by a minority of terrorist in the north, this ‘nation besieged perspective’ was resorted to and violence was promulgated against the most harmless Tamil residents in the south destroying their houses, looting their property and killing all they could find. The same phenomenon was repeated in subtle forms against the Muslims when their merchants or traders posed a threat to the Sinhala businessmen, where such was interpreted in line with the ‘nation besieged perspective’ to inflict harm on them based on racial and religious grounds. It is natural for us to think that how the tenets of Buddhism has been forgotten in this context, as according to the words of the Buddha ‘In the sky, there is no distinction of east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true’ which answers all the questions surrounding our present social context.
The Dambulla incident would be forgotten in a few more days time, but is the damage done reparable? Would the Muslims who were subjected to violence and prejudice ever be able to build the lost faith on the Sinhala community. And what message do incidents of this nature give to the minorities of this country? Could the fear, mistrust and hatred that is inevitably generated in their minds ever help our nation to forge in the direction of national harmony, co existence or unity? As the Muslims of the Dambulla area recounted the happenings of that day, they all had to flee leaving even their rubber slippers behind to escape the violent mobs. And if this is the direction our nation is to voyage in, the day would not be far to come where we too would have to flee leaving everything behind in face of the incoming racial and religious extremism that is being propagated at unprecedented levels.
Foster, M. (1969). Masters of Political Thought. In Machiavelli. George G Harrap & Co Ltd.
Gunasinghe, N. (1996). Selected Essays of Newton Gunasinghe. In The symbolic role of the Sanhga. Social Scientist Association.
- Migara M. C Doss