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Sri Lankan Tamil Struggle

Chapter 12: Consolidation of Nationalisms (Part 2)

by T. Sabaratnam, October 18, 2010
A journalist who reported Sri Lankan ethnic crisis for over 50 years

The impact of the debate was phenomenal, Locally it was the major force behind re-establishing the identity and pride of Sinhala Buddhists. Internationally, it was instrumental in creating awareness about Buddha Dhamma in the West.

Gunananda Thera Period

The origin of Sinhala- Buddhist nationalism can be traced to the time of Ellala’s rule and I have traced it in the first two chapters of this series. This nationalism grew as an anti- Tamil and anti- Hindu movement till the beginning of Portuguese rule. After that it gradually acquired an anti- Christian complexion due to religious conversion activities of the Christian missionaries. As I indicated in the last chapter the environment conducive for the revival of Sinhala- Buddhist nationalism emerged by 1850.  


Gunananda Thera

The urge to resist the missionary onslaught surfaced during the beginning of the 1850s among energetic and educated Buddhist monks. They were hurt by the pamphlet titled Kristiani Prajriapti which meant 'Evidence and Doctrine of Christianity' published in 1849 by Rev. D.J. Gogerly of the Wesleyan Mission. He reprinted the pamphlet in 1853 and 1856. Then he came out with an enlarged edition of the pamphlet which bore the sub-title, Proof that Buddhism is not a True Religion. That book was a challenge to the Buddhists and the bhikkus (Buddhist monks) accepted the challenge. They needed a press to print their response and an organization to back them.

The first Buddhist printing press was established in Galle in July 1862, 12 years after Navalar opened his press. It was named Lankopakara Press. The press was established on the initiative of Ven. Bulatgama Sumana Thero, of Paramananda Vihara, Galwadugpda.  Two more Buddhist printing presses were opened in the next two years. They were: Lakvikrama press in 1863, and Lanka Abinawa Visruta Press in 1864.

The organization to meet the Christian challenge was formed in 1862. It was named Sarvajna Sasanabhivrddidayaka Dharma Samagama (‘Society for the Propagation of Buddhism.). This society published Mohittivatee Gunanda Thero’s pamphlets: Kristiyani Vada Mardanaya (1862-63) and Samyak Darsanaya (1863-64) which answered Gogerly’s criticisms about Buddhism. The pamphlets were printed at the Galle Lampopakara Press. The press also printed and published Hikkaduwa Sri Sumanagala Thero’s works, Bauddha Vaksaraya (1863), Sumati Samgrahya (1864) and Labdhi Tulava (1864-65). The Weslyan missionaries responded with their publications Bauddha Vakya Khandanaya (1863) and Satya Dvajaya (1863-64). Gunaananda Thera replied to the Christian missionaries through journals like ‘Satya Margaya’, 'Satya Prakashanaya’, ‘Lakmini Kirula’, 'Christiani Wada Vighataniya’, and ‘Reversa’ and through several pamphlets.

Ven. Gunaananda appeared on the scene in 1860. He was born at Migettuwatta (Mohottiwatta) in Balapitiya in the Galle District on February 9, 1823 to a Buddhist family. From his early childhood he had a close relationship with a Catholic priest who was residing in a nearby church. This relationship gave him the opportunity to read the Bible and study Christianity. He came into contact with some Bhikkhus of the nearby temples. He went to the Kumara Maha Viharaya in Dodanduwa and stayed there for some time. He was ordained a Bhikkhu by the Chief incumbent of the temple, Ven. Thelikada Sonuttara Thera. While staying in the temple, he acquired proficiency in oriental languages and Buddhism.

One day while he was reading the magazine ‘Bauddha Sahodaraya’, Ven. Gunananda Thera came to know that in Colombo city Buddhist monks were teased by Christians. He was greatly disturbed, so went to Colombo and resided in Deepaduttaaramaya in Kotahena. While he was there he started to deliver talks countering Christian arguments against Buddhism. He was shown the pamphlet ‘Christian Pragnapthi’ published by Rev. Gogerly.

By that time the Sinhala language press had emerged. Ven. Gunanada Thera made use of it to publish the two pamphlets he wrote to counter Rev. Gogerly’s criticisms. He was also instrumental in the formation of the Society for the Propagation of Buddhism. He toured the villages preaching the doctrine and the message of Buddhism and telling the people who flocked to hear his masterly oratory not to be deceived by the Christian propaganda. He told them that Buddhism was the true religion and declared that he was prepared to debate with the Christian pastors and prove it.

Ven. Gunananda Thera threw his challenge to the Christian preachers following a debate that was on between a young Buddhist monk named Sumangala of a Viharaya in Baddegama and a Christian priest. The debate known as the Baddegama debate was conducted through the exchange of articles in February 1865. A face-to-face confrontation between a Buddhist monk and a Christian priest occurred the next year at a temple in the Satara Korale. It was on the Creator, the Redeemer and Eternal Heaven.

Ven. Gunananda’s challenge was first ignored by the Christians but since it had received wide publicity in the press they accepted it. The first debate known as the Gampola debate was held June 1871 with Ven. Gunananda Thera and Pandit Batuwantudave for the Buddhists and Rev. Charles Carter and his team for the Christians. The next debate was held in 1872 and was known as the Liyanagemulla debate.

These debates culminated in the famous debate held at Panadura from August 26 to 28, 1873. It was the result of a sermon delivered by Rev. David Silva on June 12, 1873 on the teachings of the Buddha with reference to the human soul. On June 19 Buddhists denounced that sermon as untrue and a debate was initiated by the Christians.

The Christians were represented by able debaters: Revs. David Silva, S. Langdon, Principal of Richmond College. S. Tab, S. Cauls, C. Jayasinghe, F. Rodrigo, the catechist Sirimanne, Mudliyar de Soysa, Dunupola Nilame among others. On the Buddhist side were: Ven. Gunananda Thera, Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, Waskaduwe Sri Subhuti Thera, Potuwila Indrajoti Thera, Koggala Sangatissa Thera, Talhena Amaramoli and  Mulleriyawe Gunaratana.

The debate ranged from the nature of God, the Soul and resurrection on the one hand, to the concept of Karma, Rebirth, Nirvana and the principle of Paticca – Sumuppada or dependent origination. Rev. Gunananda Thera’s powerful reasoning and convincing eloquence annihilated his opponents.

The debate was held on a block of land called Dombagahawatta situated a little away from the Rankot Vihara, belonging to P. Jeramis Dias, a wealthy and prominent Buddhist in Panadura. He met the expenses. Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda’s statue stands there today.

The Editor of The Ceylon Times John Cooper sent senior staff member Edward Perera to cover the debate and published his report prominently. The Ceylon Times also translated the proceedings into English and published a booklet under the title ‘Buddhism and Christianity face to face’. It sold in thousands.

The impact of the debate was phenomenal, Locally it was the major force behind re-establishing the identity and pride of Sinhala Buddhists. Internationally, it was instrumental in creating awareness about Buddha Dhamma in the West.

Cooper gave a copy of the booklet to an American scholar named Dr. Peebles, a member of the American Theosophical Society when he came to Sri Lanka. Peebles took the booklet to America and published it with an introduction explaining the circumstances in which the debate was held. He gave a copy to Colonel Henry Steele Olcott, the founder of the Theosophical Society. That booklet interested Olcott in Buddhism. With the arrival of Sir Henry Steele Olcott on May 16, 1880 the Buddhist revival movement got a dynamic leader.

Ven. Gunananda’s period of 1860-1880 is regarded the first phase of Buddhist revival. During that period Buddhist activists were motivated to challenge and contain the religious propagation activities of the Christian missionaries.

Ven. Gunananda’s period coincided with the second phase of Navalar’s revival movement. Navalar confronted the Christian missionaries during 1849-1860 and during the next 19 years he laid the foundation for the emergence of linguistic nationalism which involved the entire Tamil community in the world. He spent six years (1864-1870) in Tamil Nadu for that purpose.

Navalar took steps to consolidate the Hindu revival with his scheme to open Saiva Schools in every village and strengthened the school movement by publishing textbooks. He also started the process of bringing the Christians into the mainstream of Tamil nationalism by encouraging Christian scholars like C.W. Thamotharampillai to discover and publish Tamil classical literature which gave the Tamils the sense of pride.   

The opening of Buddhist schools, writing of text books in Sinhala and the emergence of Sinhala scholarship had to wait for the second phase of Buddhist revival which began with the arrival of Colonel Henry Steel Olcott on May 16, 1880. I will point out in the next chapter yet another factor that differentiated Hindu and Buddhist revivalisms. Legislative Council members of the Tamil community were mainly Hindus and the Sinhalese were represented by Anglicized Christians.

Henry Steel Olcott

Henry Steel Olcott was born in 1832 into a pious Presbyterian household in Orange, New Jersey. After a short stint at what is now New York University, Olcott went west toward the frontier in search of youthful adventures. In Ohio, at the age of twenty, he became a convert to spiritualism. Soon he championed a host of other causes, including antislavery, agricultural reform, women’s rights, cremation, and temperance. He worked for a time as an experimental farmer, served a stint in the Army, and even worked as an investigator on the special commission charged with scrutinizing President Lincoln’s assassination. But he eventually returned to New York City, where he supported himself as a journalist and insurance lawyer.

In 1874, while covering reports of spirits materializing at a farmhouse in Chittenden, Vermont, he struck up a friendship with Russian occultist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. One year later, he and Blavatsky co-founded the Theosophical Society, an organization that played a major role in introducing the ancient wisdom of the east to Americans.

Olcott and Blavatsky established the Theosophical Society in India in 1879 and visited Sri Lanka the next year. Their fame had already spread in Sri Lanka. Ven. Gunananda had translated into Sinhalese his anti- Christian pamphlets and distributed them.

Madame Blavatsky and Rev. Sumangala

Henry Steel Olcott and Ven. Sumangala Thera

Olcott and Blavatsky arrived in Colombo on May 16, 1880. They were given a royal welcome: A huge crowd that assembled at the harbour welcomed him chanting Sadhu! Sadhu!. Olcott was accorded a  reception, on May 25, at the Wijananda Monastery in Galle, Olcott and Blavatsky took pancil before the Buddha statue and became lay Buddhists. During that visit which lasted till July that year Olcott met Ven. Gunananda and Ven. Hikkaduve Sumangala and several other monks and important lay people.

Olcott established the Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS) on June 17, 1880, which campaigned to educate Buddhist children in the English medium, a privilege exclusively enjoyed by Christian children attending missionary schools at the time, most of which were conducted by the Christian clergy.

Olcott visited Sri Lanka for the second time in April 1881. Together with Ven. Gunananda he toured the western province for eight months in a bullock cart of his own design. Villagers flocked to see his bullock cart and to hear his anti- Christian speeches. He sold merit cards and solicited subscriptions to support his National Education Fund, which he set up to fund the BTS project to open Buddhist schools to give the Buddhist children an English education. He also distributed the anti-Christian and pro-Buddhist tracts he published.

Olcott wrote and published The Buddhist Catechism, a handbook which gave the basic principles of Buddhism in a question and answer format, on July 24, 1881. It was also translated into Sinhalese. The handbook which is still in use has gone through 40 editions and was translated into over 20 languages. It resembles Catechism of the Catholics and the Protestants in form. Navalar had adopted that form when he wrote Saiva Vina Vidai and Ilakana Vina Vidai about 30 years earlier. In Ilakana Vina Vidai he gave the basics of the grammar of the Tamil language.

The First Chapter of Olcott's handbook was titled The Life of Buddha. It starts:

Question: What religion is yours?

Answer: Buddhism

Question: What is Buddhism?

Answer: It is a body of teachings given out by the great personage known as the Buddha.

Question: Is Buddhism the best name for these teachings?

Answer: No; that is only a western term: the best for it is Bauddha Dharma.

Question: Would you call a person a Buddhist who has merely been born of Buddhist parents?

Answer:  Certainly not. A Buddhist is one who not only professes belief in the Buddha as the noblest of Teachers, in the Doctrine preached by Him, and in the brotherhood of Arhats, but practices his Precepts in daily life.

Olcott returned to America by the end of 1881 but rushed back to Sri Lanka on July 18, 1882, for his third tour. Two reasons prompted his return. Firstly, he discovered that the BTS was lifeless and Buddhist revival was at a standstill. He found that of the 13,000 rupees pledged to the National Education Fund, only 100 rupees had been collected. Secondly, a contingent of Roman Catholic missionaries had converted a well near a Buddhist pilgrimage site into a Lourdes-like healing shrine. Olcott feared that would draw the Buddhists into Catholicism.

Olcott pleaded for a monk to step forward and perform healingsin the name of Lord Buddha. But when no monk came forward, he decided to return and do the work himself.  

Olcott’s first healing occurred on August 29, 1882. A man with a totally paralyzed arm and partially disabled leg approached him after a lecture and asked him to cure his disability. Olcott used his powers of mesmerism and treated him. His condition improved and from then he transformed his lecture tours into healing missions. Olcott publicly attributed his healings to the Buddha. Privately he credited the German physician Franz Mesmer. Olcott returned to America at the end of 1882.

The Buddhist-Christian riot that occurred on Easter Sunday, March 25, 1883, in Kotahena, a Catholic stronghold of Colombo, solidified Olcott’s role as a leader of the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival movement. On that day a Buddhist procession marched through the streets on the way to Ven. Gunananda’s newly decorated Deepaduttama Vihara, where a new Buddha statue was to be dedicated. When the procession approached a Roman Catholic cathedral located a few hundred yards from the temple, the cathedral bell was tolled, The bells of the other Catholic churches in the area were also rung. On hearing the bells ring over a thousand men poured on to the street and attacked the procession. A man was killed and forty others were injured during the 3-hour brawl.

Buddhists demanded the police to taken action against the Catholic attackers. Police arrested a few persons but released them saying there was no evidence to produce them before the court. Buddhists petitioned to the Governor to appoint a commission of inquiry. A commission of inquiry was appointed and while the Governor's Riots Commission was investigating the clash Catholics and Buddhists took each other to court. Numerous cases were filed, but authorities eventually dropped all charges claiming lack of reliable evidence.

When it become clear that the Catholics would not be tried a group of Buddhist monks and laypeople cabled Olcott to return to Ceylon. He arrived on January 27, 1884 with G.W. Leadbeater and organized a Buddhist Defense Committee, which elected him an honorary member and authorized him to travel to London as its representative to negotiate with the Colonial Office and plead for redress.

Before he left for London, a group of high-ranking Buddhist monks gave Olcott a solemn farewell ceremony and authorized him to function as a Buddhist missionary. Olcott reached London in April 1884 and met the British colonial officials including Lord Derbys to whom he handed a memo which made six requests. The requests he made were: (1) Catholics accused of instigating the riot be brought to trial; (2) Buddhists be guaranteed the right to exercise their religion freely; (3) Vesak the full moon day, be declared a public holiday; (4) all restrictions against the use of tom-toms and other musical instruments in religious processions be removed; (5) Buddhist registrars be appointed; and (6)  the question of Buddhist temporalities (the control of Buddhist properties by monks) be resolved.

Buddhist Flag

The Buddhist Flag

The colonial office granted two of Olcott’s six requests. It agreed in December 1884 to permit the use of tom-toms and other musical instruments in religious processions; and on April 28, 1885, it declared Vesak an official holiday.

Olcott was instrumental in the creation of the Buddhist flag. It was jointly designed by Olcott and J.R. de Silva. It was accepted as the International Buddhist Flag by the 1952 World Buddhist Congress.

Olcott’s contribution to the Buddhist revival movement was mainly as its organizer and articulator. It was Olcott who agitated for Buddhist civil rights, and who gave the revival its organizational shape by founding voluntary associations, publishing and distributing tracts, and, most important, establishing schools.

When Olcott returned in January 1884 he came with G,W, Leadbeater who with A.R. Buultjens and Bowels Dally organized the administration of the Buddhist schools. The Theosophical Society was instrumental in bringing about an educational network which helped Buddhists to withstand the challenge from the Christian missionaries.

The Theosophical Society built several Buddhist schools in Sri Lanka, most notably Ananda College, Colombo, Dharmarajah College, Kandy, Mahinda College, Galle and Maliyadeva College, Kurunegalle.

By 1898 there were 103 B.T.S. schools in Sri Lanka, many of them modeled on mission schools and some equal to the best of them in providing a modern English education to Buddhist children. These children were trained for administrative, professional, and mercantile positions under the colonial regime.

Olcott died in 1907 while he was in India. But the resurgence of Buddhist nationalism should not be judged solely as his effort. His labours, like that of Navalar, released the latent energies of the Buddhist people. The hectic race that took place during Olcott’s period provides a good indication of the activities of the Christians and the Buddhists of that period.

The Buddhists and Christians tried to secure dominance during the entire period of Buddhist revival. Buddhist monks including Walane Siddhartha, Migettuwatte Gunanada and Hikkaduwe Sumangala launched ten periodicals during this time, which was countered by thirteen new Christian publications in addition to those still in print. Buddhists eventually rivalled the Christian press by the last quarter of the 19th century, producing nineteen new publications between 1888-1900.

While the religio-centric press gained momentum, so did the secular Sinhala press, which produced twelve new publications focusing on literary and scholastic interests, and five others focusing on the welfare of the Sinhala people. The period also saw the birth of three periodicals devoted to traditional Ayurveda medicine – Vaidya Sastralankaraya (1894) and Vaidyadhara Sangarava (1896); and astrology – Vidyadipika and three others on Pali– the language of Buddhist text. These show that the Buddhist revival was also deeply rooted among the Sinhala people.

Unlike among the Tamils there was no serious effort by the Christians to get into mainstream Buddhist nationalism and give it a linguistic character. The only effort in that direction was made by James D’ Alwis in 1853.  D’ Alwis was a Christian and he translated the Sinhala grammar book into English and wrote a 253-page introduction in which he pleaded that the Sinhala language should be given its due place. With his death his plea was ignored. Thus by the end of the 19th Century the revival that took place in the south remained primarily religious.

Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism

I traced in the last chapter the historical development of Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism. It started as an anti-Christian, Hindu revival and acquired during the last quarter of the 19th Century a linguistic character. That was due to the discovery of the antiquity of the Tamil race and literature; the discovery of the Sangam literature and civilization. That common inheritance of the Tamil people became the hallmark of the entire Tamil people wherever they lived.

The Sri Lankan Tamil people, though part and parcel of the Tamil Linguistic Nationalism, had developed, since the time of Ellala, an identity of their own. Prof. Karthigesu Sivathamby, in his work Being a Tamil and Sri Lankan (page 101) says,

The Sri Lankan Tamils (are) a group of people with definite traits and characteristics that distinguish them socio-culturally and anthropologically from other such groups…

Sri Lankan Tamils are conscious that they have developed a distinct and separate identity of their own. The formation of that identity is due to the Sinhala claim that the Tamils are invaders and foreigners. Mahavamsa, which the Sinhala people believe as the authentic history of Sri Lanka, calls the Sinhalese as the sons of the soil and protectors of Theravada Buddhism. They believe that they were destined to preserve Sri Lanka as a Sinhala Buddhist country.

Mahavamsa contains an account which tells that Dutthagamanai repented the killing of Ellala in a duel and that he was consoled by the Buddhist priests who told him the killing of invaders was on par with the killing of "sinners and wild beasts."

Tamils have reacted to such a mental attitude by claiming that they were not invaders or foreigners but were indigenous people of the country. I have dealt with this controversy in detail in the first two chapters of this series. The Sinhala position that Sri Lanka belonged to them is referred to as 'a Mahavamsa mindset' by the Tamils. Former LTTE leader Velupillai Pirapaharan justified his armed revolt saying that the Sinhalese would never grant the Tamil people their rights unless wrested by force.

In his 2005 Hero's Day speech Pirapaharan referred to this attitude of the Sinhalese as 'ideological blindness' and a 'Mahavamsa mental structure' which is unable to provide the space required for any solution of the Tamil problem. He said,

The Sinhala nation continues to be entrapped in the Mahavamsa mindset, in that mythical ideology. The Sinhalese people are still caught up in the legendary fiction that the island of Sri Lanka is a divine gift to Theravada Buddhism, a holy land entitled to the Sinhala race. The Sinhala nation has not redeemed itself from this mythological idea that is buried deep and has become fossilized in their collective conscience. It is because of this ideological blindness the Sinhalese people and their political and religious leaders are unable to grasp the authentic history of the island and the social realities prevailing here.

As Sivathamy says Sri Lankan Tamils are very much concerned with the maintenance and fostering of their identity as Sri Lankan Tamils and are keen in transmitting their traditions to their younger generation wherever they live. A major feature of the feeling of oneness of the Sri Lankan Tamil community is that it cuts across religious barriers.

Sri Lankan Tamil identity rests on the feeling that Sri Lanka is their motherland. Sivathamby puts it effectively in these words:

It needs emphasis that that the bedrock of Sri Lankan Tamil identity is the feeling that this island is the community’s motherland. And that fact, namely its geography and history have shaped the cultural traditions of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Their feeling that they belong to this island and nowhere else. And they are proud of it.

Sri Lankan Tamils, it should be noted, assert their separate identity not only to differentiate themselves from the Sinhalese but also to distinguish themselves from the Tamils of Tamil Nadu. The Sri Lankan Tamil dialect is distinctly different from the Indian Tamil dialect. In religion, Sri Lankan Tamils uphold Saivaite traditions in preference to Brahminic Vadanta traditions. Sri Lankan Tamils call their religion Saivaism and not Hinduism. In social organization, literature, dramatic forms and all other walks of life Sri Lankan Tamils maintain their distinct identity.

Thus Sri Lankan Tamils are motivated by the linguistic nationalism of the Tamil people and the sub-nationalism or regional nationalism of the Sri Lankan Tamils. If any of these - being a Tamil and being a Sri Lankan - is endangered Sri Lankan Tamils feel threatened. Threat to their Tamil language and the threat to their sense of belonging to Sri Lanka were the factors that led to the Sri Lankan Tamil struggle.     

By the end of the 19th century there were two nationalisms in Sri Lanka, the Tamil and Buddhist nationalisms. They grew in parallel even during the first quarter of the 20th century. Then they clashed. The roots of the clash can be traced to the last quarter of the 19th Century. Those roots can be traced to education, economic growth, population and political development.

(Next week: Clash of Nationalisms)



Chapter 1: The Context

Chapter 2: Origins of Racial Conflict

Chapter 3: Emergence of Racial Consciousness

Chapter 4: Birth of the Tamil State

Chapter 5: Tamils Lose Sovereignty

Chapter 6: Birth of a Unitary State

Chapter 7: Emergence of Nationalisms

Chapter 8: Growth of Nationalisms

Chapter 9: Religious Revival

Chapter 10: Parallel Growth of Nationalisms

Chapter 11: Consolidation of Nationalisms

Chapter 12: Consolidation of Nationalisms (Part 2)

Chapter 13: Clash of Nationalisms


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