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Home Newsletters So-Wide Space May 2011 - Suren

So-Wide Space May 2011 - Suren

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So-Wide Space May 2011
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Sinhala Sangha: Saints or Soldiers?
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Sinhala Sangha: Saints or Soldiers?

Suren Raghavan*

Paradoxical Paradigms

How can a Buddhist country be at war?  This is the question I will be asked in the first three minutes by almost anyone who comes to know my research project: be it in a university corridor or at a conference tea break, because to them it is unthinkable. At least two paradigmatic positions surface from this inevitably European question.

1.         The questioner knows what Buddhism is.

2.         And that ‘knowledge’ is antithetical to the idea of war /violence.

Often this is the kernel of the lay worldview of Buddhism, because the West is still struggling to understand Buddhism beyond the boundaries of the former British Empire. One should blame neither the questioner nor the colonial project for this. After all it was the Colonial British who discovered, interpreted and propagated the key Buddhist texts in their modern form (Franklin 2008, Harris 2006).

Paradise Poisoned?

A few decades ago it was the tea from the British managed plantations in Sri Lanka that acquired a global brand name as Ceylon tea. Sri Lanka was an ideal tropical state. But after 1948 that ‘garden paradise’ tourist image was replaced with coups, armed violence and a political terror campaign by separatist Tamil Tigers and the counter terror of the state. Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans who have become direct or indirect victims of violence in this protracted war have asked the same question: How is it possible that a country where 73 per cent of the population is daily practicing and comparatively knowledgeable about Theravāda Buddhism, could produce and sustain a culture of violence? The answers are complex and often differ widely, revealing deep gulfs between ideologies and interpretations.

Past is in Present

As is true of any protracted ethnonational conflict, the past politics of Sri Lanka are important for understanding the present (Kemper 1991). Indologists and historians agree that there are few modern states that have managed to record their past in the manner the island state of Sri Lanka has done. “The grand chronicle”’ the Mahāvaṃsa, believed to have begun its recording around the 5th C.E. in essence is a narrative of a state and its ethnic national survival struggle, written within a religious context. The heavy weight of such a long and ethnically historicized past in many ways governs  modern politics.The  Mahāvaṃsa conceptually idealizes the super ethnicity of the Sinhalas, the relationship of Sri Lanka to Buddha, and the warrior heroes who time and again defended this tiny island. Uniting all these factors is the epicentric institution of the Theravada Sangha of Sri Lanka. The Sangha in Lanka proudly claimed their heritage as the true defenders of the Jātiya, Āgama and Dēsaya (the ethnos, religion and land). The Sangha have had the privilege and cultural hegemony to influence the modern politics of Sri Lanka in her struggle to make peace or even war more than any other section of the society.

Research Project

My research interest is to ask how the majority of Sangha deal with their renouncer faith on the one hand and yet become intrinsically interwoven with political discourse and action even to the extent of justifying violence. I try to trace any historicized dynamic that travelled through time from the courts of the first kings to modern society by studying the waves of Sangha resistance and its modern manifestation. I particularize my study to analyze the activities of five key Sangha activists in the current context.I hypothesize that the modern multicultural-plurination structural discourse which is often promoted by western scholarship is regenerating an embedded ontological insecurity that is textualized and memorized. I argue, therefore, that we urgently need to discover/employ a non-western – if possible an intra-Theravadin -- deliberation with a new taxonomy to address the deep-seated anxieties of the Sinhala Sangha and their ‘Shrāvakas and Dāyakas’.

Suren Raghavan

School of Politics and IR, University of Kent.                                                                                           Visiting Research Fellow, Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies.


Selected Bibliography

Harris, Elizabeth, Theravada Buddhism and the British Encounter, (Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism), Routledge, 2006)

Franklin, J. Jeffrey, the Lotus and the Lion: Buddhism and the British Empire, by, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008

Kemper, Steven, The Presence of the Past, Cornell University Press New York 1991


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