Buddhist Fundamentalism and Minority Identities in Sri Lanka
Eds., Tessa J. Bartholomeusz and Chandra R. De Silva,
State University of New York Press,
Albany, NY, 1998

Buddhist Fundamentalism is a series of essays edited by Prof. Bartholomeusz of Florida State University and Prof. de Silva of Old Dominion University in Virginia. 

The editors, in their introductory chapter, use the Fundamentalism Project of Marty, Appleby and others to describe fundamentalism as 1) a reliance on religion as a source of identity, 2) boundary setting that determines who belongs and who does not, 3) dramatic escatologies [stories which give meaning], and 4) the dramatization and mythologization of enemies (p.2) 

According to them, Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalism is different from other fundamentalisms in that there is no insistence on strict behavioral standards and believers do not form a coherent, readily identifiable group. Although there is no “sacred” text or scripture that serves as a blueprint for society, the authors argue that the mythohistorical tract, the Mahavamsa, carries canonical authority. Prof. Steven Kemper is quoted as saying that “the Mahavamsa has become the warrant for the interlocked beliefs that the island and its government have traditionally been Sinhala and Buddhist” (1991, p.2).

The editors emphasize that Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalism is “determined not only by historical tradition and ideology, but by politics as well... As our essayists argue, Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalism, used as a platform for politicians and patriots since the late nineteenth century, is concerned directly with power and dominance, especially dominance by the ethnic majority, the Sinhalese.”(p.8)

This book is concerned primarily with examining the fundamentalists’ Other - with the minority communities of the island and how their identities have been shaped by Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalism. (The ‘Other’ is that which a group uses to define its identity in opposition to. For instance, men define themselves in relation to women. The editors’ definition of minority seems to include minority Buddhist movements.)

Inexplicably, and this is the major weakness of the book, there is no discussion of the one minority - the Tamils of the NorthEast - which have refused to reach a subservient accommodation with Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalism. There is so little acknowledgement of this prominent exception that one is led to feel that these Tamils now live in another land in the minds of the authors and editors of the book.

George Bond of Northwestern University writes the second article in the book, “Conflicts of Identity and Interpretation in Buddhism: The Clash between the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement and the Government of Pres. Premadasa,” which is about two contrasting interpretations of Buddhism. He calls them both variations of Buddhist fundamentalism with one being ‘political’ and the other ‘socially engaged.’ The political strand emphasizes identity without requiring that the government follow or enact Buddhist values, while Sarvodaya emphasizes the primacy of values over identity.

Chandra de Silva, in “The Plurality of Buddhist Fundamentalism: An Inquiry into Views Among Buddhist Monks in Sri Lanka,” argues that “a) the variety of views relating to the ideal social and political order among Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka is often masked by the great concern for an appearance of a “unified” front; and b) the continuing tensions and contradictions between the Buddhist doctrinal tradition and twentieth-century nationalist ideology among Sinhala-Buddhist monks illustrates not only a different kind of fundamentalism, but also provides clues on strategies that might be adopted to foster greater tolerance.”(p.53) I guess there is not much tolerance and the author wishes there were more!

Oddvar Hollup of the Nordland Research Institute, Norway writes on “The Impact of Land Reforms, Rural Images, and Nationalist Ideology on Plantation Tamils.” He says that “Because the Sinhalas - the majority and politically dominant group - historically have failed to recognize (or at least have refused to consider) Sri Lanka a plural society in its implementation of a cultural policy and its definition of nationhood, the situation for Sri Lankan ethnic minorities generally has been one of negotiation and accommodation.”(p.74) This ‘generally,’ of course, contains one big exception, which is really not discussed in this book. Hollup analyses land reform of the tea plantations on which hill country Tamils work and ends with

“Land reform and the nationalization of the plantations in Sri Lanka must be analyzed in connection with the emergence of Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalist ideology and political patronage. The ideology, based on mytho-historical interpretations of the past, helped to create greater homogeneity by constructing a ‘singular identity’ among Sinhalas while at the same time excluding others. The past, in terms of the myths and legends of Sinhala-Buddhist chronicles, still plays an important role in the construction of national identity, supported by a fundamentalist ideology that conflates race, language, and religion. These interpretations of the past, when connected with rural images, representations of the estates, and construction of the Other, can be helpful in explaining the legislation of land reforms and the nationalization of the plantations.

Land reforms and nationalization of the plantations represent politically motivated means to build up electoral support, especially since the distribution of state resources has functioned as an important means of political patronage. The state, defined as a Sinhala-Buddhist one, became committed to support the Sinhala peasantry as a moral obligation. As a result, land reforms were conducted in the name of the peasantry by the landed elite, rather than springing from demands and discontent among the peasantry.” (p.84)

Pradeep Jegananthan, a postdoc at the University of Chicago, writes “In the Shadow of Violence: ‘Tamilness’ and the Anthropology of Identity in Southern Sri Lanka” about how Tamils in Colombo live in the constant expectation of violence and the coping mechanisms they have to deal with this which differ based on caste, economic status, place of origin, etc. He gives a detailed case study of 2 families who lived through the 1983 riots.

In “Sufi and Reformist Designs: Muslim Identity in Sri Lanka” Victor de Munck of the University of New York at New Paltz defines Islamic fundamentalism as “the construction of an Islamic/Muslim identity based on a ‘memory’ of a heroic Arabic past and an avowed ideological commitment to Islamic doctrinal practices and beliefs.”(p.110) de Munck hopes “to show how identity can be differentially interpreted.”(p.111) Based on fieldwork in a Muslim village in the Uva Bintenne, de Munck discusses how a new urban-based pan-Islamic fundamentalist identity seeks to subvert a more localized Sufi-Muslim identity. According to de Munck, in both Sinhala and Tamil contexts, the Muslim is defined as being subordinate and in an accommodating role in relation to the dominant Other, so it is satisfying to be identified with a larger, pan-Islamic world.

Tessa Bartholomeusz of Florida State University in “Sinhala Anglicans and Buddhism in Sri Lanka: When the ‘Other’ Becomes ‘You’ states that

“As Oddvar Hollup comments in his essay, language, race and ethnicity, rather than religion, as had been the case until recently, are the most important identity markers for Sinhalas and Tamils in contemporary Sri Lanka...In this chapter, I analyze at what point the majority of Sri Lankan Anglicans saw themselves as a separate religious community. In addition I explore why today they identify themselves with Sinhalas, rather than the British, despite the Sinhalas’ association with Buddhism. As we shall see, Sinhala Anglicans, much like other Sinhala groups, have been forced to show their loyalty to the nation through the revival of a shared ‘history,’ and language, rather than through religious affiliation.”(p.133)

She ends with “...the history of this convert group is best discussed in relation to the organization of state power in Sri Lanka. In short, in the present context, indigenization means Sinhalization, a movement toward empowerment.”(p.142)

In his chapter on “Catholic Identity and Global Forces in Sinhala Sri Lanka”, R.L. Stirrat of the University of Sussex argues “that an understanding of changing Sinhala-Catholic identity has to place it within the broad processes of ‘globalization,’ which involves not just a three centuries-old increasing interdependence of different parts of the world at an economic level, but also the more recent phenomenon of a growing sense of ‘global consciousness’ in which distinctions between the universal and the particular collapse.”(p.147)

In her second chapter Tessa Bartholomeusz writes on “Buddhist Burghers and Sinhala-Buddhist Fundamentalism” and how some Burghers have become Buddhists and some, especially A.E. Buultjens, have even played critical roles in the development of Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalism.

John Clifford Holt of Bowdoin College in Maine concludes the volume with “The Persistence of Political Buddhism,” a good portion of which is given over to Pres. Kumaratunge’s message on Vesak Day of May, 1997. Holt asks who are the Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalists and answers from his experience that they are ‘militant and politically motivated Buddhists of the more urbanized sections of the populace who are heirs to the type of puritanical religiosity fostered by an early twentieth-century reformer, the Anagarika Dharmapala, and that the fundamentalists are something of a minority, albeit a powerful minority.

“...our inquiries then seek not so much to identify specific social institutions, individual people, or a specific system of thought and practice, but rather focus upon the designation of a religious trait or propensity, a trait or propensity often articulated through exclusive and uncompromising claims to truth made on the basis of literalistic readings of sacred, authoritative texts containing powerful and idealistic mythic visions of the past. For the fundamentalistically inclined, this vision of the past is what also serves as a blueprint for the future and, as H.L. Seneviratne has noted in another place, has sometimes functioned as a rationalization for the perpetration of violence against or the political marginalization of others in the present. Being fundamentalistic, then, denotes a particular way in which some people claim their religiousness. But this is a type of religiousness that seems also subservient to militant and often intolerant political machinations. It tends to breed, for instance, fear (the ‘shadow’ hanging over Jeganathan’s Colombo Tamils), alienation (in Hollup’s Plantation Tamils), an acquiescent assimilation (in Bartholomeusz’ Anglicans and Burghers or Stirrat’s Roman Catholics) or a countering and correspondent fundamentalistic antipathy (in de Munck’s Sinhala Muslims) in other Sri Lankan communities.

From the essays comprising this volume, we have also learned that being fundamentalistic is also a particular way in which some people who are religious in the aforementioned regard are simultaneously political...

While it can be argued that not all ways of being religious, or more specifically not all ways of being Buddhist, are inherently political in nature, we can entertain the assertion that the quest for gaining or maintaining political power is intrinsic to Sinhala-Buddhist fundamentalist religiosity. Taking this one step further, I tend to conclude, on the basis of reviewing the previous essays of this volume, that political power is usually the primary aim for Sinhala Buddhists with the fundamentalist trait. In fact, it seems to be their hallmark.

Laying claim to this conclusion, however, does not mean that the dynamics of the current ethno-political conflict in Sri Lanka can be understood strictly along the lines of religious divides. While both Stirrat in his essay and Bartholomeusz and de Silva in the Introduction emphasize how religious and national identities were conflated in the colonial context of the late nineteenth century, virtually all the contributors to this volume recognize that language, race, and ethnicity [and class] are now just as important factors in generating social identity and alienation between communities in the present...That is, communal identity, let alone ethnic or national identity, is no longer necessarily coextensive with religion, In fact, being Sinhala or being Tamil is precisely what now divides virtually all Christian communities in Sri Lanka, especially the Roman Catholic.

What is primarily significant, then about contemporary fundamentalistic Buddhists is that, like their late nineteenth predecessors for whom religion and ethnicity were largely conflated, their Buddhism is intimately linked to political ideology… In the present, Buddhism is consciously invoked by politically motivated Sinhalas to advance their own empowerment (usually to the exclusion of other communities) or to rationalize their agendas for actions taken against other communities in post hoc fashion. In the former nineteenth-century instance, the revival of Buddhism contributed to the formation of a new national political consciousness; in the latter instance of the present, Buddhism becomes a powerful trope [figure of speech] for expressing a matured political ideology that may be more appropriately identified as communal (since it is not inclusive enough to be truly national for a multiethnic society). Not only is this political ideology that invokes Buddhism as a trope not really broad enough in conception to be truly national in scope, I would suspect, quite frankly, that it is not primarily religious either, especially since its avowed aims are not ultimately soteriological [theology dealing with salvation] in nature.

The traditional Sinhala adage that ‘the country exists for the sake of the religion,’ as a statement that formerly characterized the rationale for Buddhist kingship in Sri Lanka and other Theravada countries, would no longer seem to hold in relation to the aims of these political Buddhists. Rather, it may be more accurate to say that for fundamentalistic Sinhala Buddhists of the present, the religion exists for the sake of those aspiring to control the state. Buddhism is a trope of continuing powerful appeal in a world of political expediencies.

Having said that, it also needs to be emphasized that since the 1950s, politics among the Sinhala constituency has been dominated by just such appeals to Buddhism for the sake of legitimation and in the service of expediency. Since that time Buddhism has been afforded a special place in the nation’s series of constitutions with each new government stopping just short of declaring it, de facto, the official religion of the state. In practice, or de jure, it has functioned as such, at least publicly, for the Buddhists in power.” (pps.187-190)

“... That is the historicization of mythic images embedded in the Mahavamsa is continuously facilitated by the institutionalization or ritualization of national holidays celebrating landmark moments in the mythologized history of Sri Lanka’s Buddhism. As long as governments in Sri Lanka ritualistically promote Buddhist holidays as celebrations of national importance, pledge their resources and energies to the propagation of Buddhist ideals, and invoke Buddhist images of what constitutes a moral and just society, then we can continue to expect the idealization of the Buddhist past to be articulated as the blueprint for the nation’s present and future. That is, we can expect that that ritualistic invocation of mythic imagery will continue to serve and inform Sinhala-Buddhist political consciousness. In this regard, it is highly relevant to recall Donald Swearer’s observation (noted by de Silva) that ‘the primary “fundamentalism” extracted from the sacred “source texts” of Sri Lanka (the myths and legends) is properly speaking more reflective of, and at the service of, the nationalist rather than the Buddhist worldview.’

Swearer’s observation is an important one, for it signals what is, in fact, the basic dilemma faced by what de Silva has referred to as the more ‘benign’ orientation of the Sinhala-Buddhist community and perhaps by President Kumaratunga herself. It is a dilemma faced by Sri Lanka’s more secularized liberals as well. The dilemma is this: How to construct an inclusive nationalist discourse which recognizes the importance of a Buddhist historical past yet transcends its fundamentalistic myth and ritual function as a blueprint for the present and future. That is, How is it possible to transcend the sacred canopy of Buddhist nationalist discourse so that a new more inclusive discourse can recognize the diversity of Sri Lanka’s various communities? What’s at stake is the discovery of a new political vision for Sri Lanka’s future, one that is not simply dependent upon a pandering to ethnicity, language, and religion....

In the end, however, this may prove to be an overly idealistic sentiment, much too much to expect in a South Asian political climate which continues to be fragmented or totalized by appeals to religion and ethnicity. Sri Lanka is certainly not alone in this struggle. Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Maldives are essentially Islamic states, while India is witnessing a surging wave of Hindu fundamentalist politics. Whatever the future portends, more totalizing or fragmenting politics or not, religion, fundamentalistic or not, is certain to remain an important player in the dynamic.”(p.193-4)

Avis Sri Jayantha
for sangam Research