Sangha and State

An Examination of Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism in Post-Colonial Sri Lanka

by Hannah Clare Durham, Bard College, USA, May 2015

Sangha and State An Examination of Sinhalese-Buddhist Nationalism


While spending a semester studying in Sri Lanka, I became acutely aware of the post civil war issues that were being sorted out by the state. Daily newspapers displayed updates on new infrastructural developments and efforts to rebuild the areas of the island that had been destroyed by warfare. There were also many articles that presented the opinions of leading Sinhalese and Tamil politicians regarding political and social approaches to dealing with the aftermath of the conflict, which is often portrayed as being aggravated by hostilities between ethnic groups. In my attempt to understand the best way to move forward from the twenty-six year war, I sought to know more about the actual issues fueling the antagonisms between Tamil and Sinhala parties.

The beginning of the war between the Sinhalese-majority government and Tamil separatists was marked by an eruption of violence in 1983. Though specific recent events served as a catalyst, the tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamil populations were fueled by the propagation of ethnonationalist rhetoric for over a century. Both Sinhala and Tamil populations integrated various characteristics of their respective ancestral historical narratives into the presentation of their political views. However, the role of religion and combined religious and ethnic identities, namely the Sinhala and Buddhist identity, is not clearly defined and is often misrepresented.

The portrayal of the conflict in Western media often gives the impression that the antagonisms are based in a divide between different religious communities. However, the basic dichotomy of Sinhala-Tamil or Buddhist-Hindu does not accurately represent the issues that influenced the violence. Euro-American news reports about Sri Lanka often depict the seemingly-ironic image of a violent Buddhist monk protesting or participating in an attack on a Hindu temple, or Tamil community. Since the end of the civil war, political monks have turned their attention to the island’s Muslim minority population. During the summer of 2014, there was significant media coverage of monks participating in attacks on Islamic institutions. I wished to investigate this idea of the violent, extremist monk, and understand the motive behind the attacks on non-Buddhist institutions and people. The monk held a significant, multi-faceted role in precolonial society according to Sinhalese-Buddhist history. Monks, or bhikkhus in Sinhala, have been continuously revered and have held influence among the lay population. Thus, to what extent does the image of the politically-active monk contribute to the categorization of this conflict as ‘religious’? Why do bhikkhus get involved in politics? What are they asserting, or defending? These initial questions prompted me to consider the role of the monk and of Buddhism as a larger institution in the history of Sri Lankan society.

When identifying the influences of anti-Tamil attitudes throughout the decades leading up to the civil war, one must account for the post-colonial anxiety faced by the Sri Lankan state after the country gained independence in 1948. Finally free from the oppression of the enforced rule by a foreign power, Sri Lanka quickly had to make the transition into being a sovereign nation-state. The country needed demonstrate its ability to keep pace with the modern world and to assert a distinct national identity. However, the fact that the island’s population was not homogenous – linguistically, ethnically, or religiously, made this challenging. As the Sinhalese were the largest ethnic group and carried a historical claim to the island, a Sinhalese nationalist ideology was advocated as the ‘Sri Lankan’ identity.

The emphasis on Sinhalese identity became an evident priority for the first several prime ministers of Sri Lanka, however, Buddhism, which is inextricable from Sinhalese identity, was not given such priority. Thus, the sangha was confronted with a sense of instability that influenced a rush to ally themselves with individuals and parties that held, or had substantial promise of securing, political authority. This initiated a debate of whether bhikkhus should be involved in politics. The decade following the departure of the British saw the emergence of bhikkhu groups concerned with protecting the clergy’s agenda and its civil and political rights, as well as ensuring the furtherance of Buddhism.

The development of the relationship between politically-engaged monks and Sinhalese nationalist politicians can be attributed, in part, to the threatening secularity signified by the Western-style government that was implemented during colonialism and continued to be used in the newly sovereign nation. It must be understood that the rise of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism and the re-establishment of bhikkhu participation in the political realm was influenced by the country’s experience under British colonial rule. Moreover, examining the effects of British colonial rule and the pressures that continued to be exerted on the country even after the departure of the colonizers requires an examination of ideas such as ‘modernity’, ‘globalization’, and ‘Western’. Often ‘modernity’ is imagined as an undefined, fluid agent that spreads across the world, exerting pressure on communities to adopt particular goals that emphasize productivity, effectiveness, and accumulation of wealth and encourage a constant effort towards achieving these goals. It should not be assumed that the standards imposed by ‘modernity’ and ‘globalization,’ and the values that stimulate the development of nationalist ideologies necessarily exist in opposition. It has been argued that there is in fact a link between the effects of the structures and ideas introduced by modernity, and the development of nationalist ideologies.1 Thus, Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism is not necessarily a defense against the influence or demands of the modern world, rather particular aspects of systems that have been made the global standard supported the construction and maintenance of an ethno-religious national identity. The assertion of a distinct Sri Lankan Sinhalese-Buddhist identity by politicians, monks, and laypeople is not simply a blatant, bigoted opposition to groups that simply do not align with the proclaimed majority identity. It does indicate the struggle of a nation, aware of the economic and political necessity of being a part of an international community, demonstrating its ability to adhere to the global expectations of a nation-state while not sacrificing its values, traditions, and sense of self.

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