A good ruler should act impartially and should not be biased and discriminate between one particular group of subjects against another. (Cakkavatti Sihananda Sutta)
According to recent newspaper reports, the leader of Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) organisation Ven. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera has confirmed that his organisation will be dissolved after the next General Election. He said, “The spiritual power of the robes had finally defeated the extremist and anti-religious forces. After the General Election, there will be nothing for us to struggle for. We can get involved in our other work and help to work for the betterment of this Sinhala Buddhist country”
Two days after Ven. Gnanasara Thera’s statement, I had the opportunity of listening to a video talk given by Ven. Galkande Dhammananda Thero, Head of the Department of History, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Kelaniya. He said, “The main responsibility of Buddhist monks is to uplift the minds of their followers, and not to change Governments. That is not our mission and this is what Buddha has preached and showed by example. Even if they manage to install the best person to lead the country, nothing would be achieved unless the mindsets of the people are in developed status to understand the advice of the leader.”
Two contrasting viewpoints! However, it clearly displays as to what depth the religion (Buddhism in this instance) has dipped into the muddy political field in Sri Lanka.
The involvement of Buddhist monks in politics following independence in 1948, in effect, transformed Buddhism into a highly politicised religion
The relation between religion and politics continues to be an important theme in political philosophy in Sri Lanka, despite the emergent consensus on the right to freedom of conscience and on the need for some sort of separation between religion and state.
One reason for the importance of this topic is that religions often make strong claims on people’s allegiance, and universal religions make these claims on all people, rather than just a particular community.
Buddhism and politics
If we discuss the relationship between Buddhism and politics in Sri Lanka, we notice that it, too, has been and continues to be a complex one. Buddhist doctrine is not primarily concerned with political systems or even social reform, which are considered to be irrelevant to its final goal. But our history shows us that Buddhism has nonetheless been used to further political or sectarian goals, and some politicians have employed it as a vehicle to promote ethnically based nationalisms.
Notwithstanding the apolitical nature of its teachings, and despite the stereotype of a passivist, non-aggressive Dharma, it can be argued that the seeds of a political worldview exist in the Pali Canon, which all Buddhists acknowledge as a primary source.
Two of the most significant sutras dealing with what might loosely be described as political responsibility are the Cakkavattisihanada Sutta and the Agganna Sutta. These texts treat the origin and development of the state and the rights and duties of both ruler and citizen. The model society and polity they present fosters ethical conduct and embodies a strong social ideal, which then guides the principal objectives of the state.
The Agganna Sutta, in particular, urges equal rights and opportunities for all people simply as fellow members of humanity, irrespective of caste, race or religion. Based on these texts, one could argue that Buddhism places the ruling authority and the citizens with the responsibility to maintain economic and social equality. Whether these texts can be interpreted as constituting a fully-fledged political philosophy, however, is debatable; nonetheless they do suggest that the ruling authority must not impede human freedom, and that both individual citizens and the polity as a whole should be allowed to evolve and mature.
Based on these teachings, right throughout the history of Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks advised the rulers how to govern well; they warn the rulers about the dire consequences of administering poorly and cautioned them to avoid arrogance and ignoring the needs of the common people.
The new custodians who took control of managing Buddhism began to unfold a brand of new Buddhism with political patronage
Buddhist priests’ involvement in polity was only in the form of advices given to rulers and not direct participation in political field. Then things began to change in mid-19th century with the Buddhist revival, later known as Sinhala-Buddhist reawakening.
Along with that revival Buddhist leaders backed by powerful Buddhist monks became active in the movement for Independence and securing recognition of and its due place for Buddhism. In 1946, Rev. Walpola Rahula wrote a book titled Bhiksuvage Urumaya (The Heritage of the Bhikku). He maintained that monks could directly get involved in politics given their mandate to perform social service, and had done so since the time of the Buddha. The book was treated as doctrinal cover for monks engaging in politics.
The involvement of Buddhist monks in politics following independence in 1948, in effect, transformed Buddhism into a highly politicised religion. Buddhist monks-sponsored interest groups mushroomed and got involved themselves with active politics. They made demands like making Sinhala the official language and Buddhism the official religion.
In 1956, the Buddhist monks supported S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike to form the SLFP government. They actively participated in the election campaign. Thereafter, politicians began to seek the support of organised Buddhist groups to win elections. Similarly, Buddhist institutions too depend on the state, thus making the relationship a deeply symbiotic one. This relationship between the state and Buddhism was given special constitutional status with Buddhism being accorded the “foremost place.”
The new custodians who took control of managing Buddhism began to unfold a brand of new Buddhism with political patronage. From that time onwards political Buddhism has become a permanent feature of Sri Lanka’s democracy.
When the Government forces won the LTTE war, the victory offered a tremendous momentum to the growth of political Buddhism. Some Buddhist monks were involved in the war, not in the front, but actively conditioning the mindset of the politicians and Buddhist public.
A radical section of the sangha transformed this victory into an unshakable concept that Sri Lanka belongs to Sinhala Buddhists and that they are the sole owners of this island. The political Buddhism became a power to be reckon with. They were in a position to make or break Governments.
They believed Sri Lanka is the last citadel of Theravada Buddhism. This idea created ultra-fringe groups like the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), calling themselves guardians of Buddhism. They justified their hate campaigns against Muslims as legitimate actions to protect Buddhism. There were number of times when they went berserk. Their mask of religious justification attracted fair segment of the naive young population.
The organisation instilled fear and insecurity among innocent Buddhists that Buddhism is at risk of being overrun by other faiths. Therefore, the Buddhists must be ready to defend their religion with all their might and support to keep the Buddhist flag flying.
Leaders of other faiths
Not only Buddhism but Islam has also been politicised in Sri Lanka. Political Islam is aggressive, ruthless and totally unethical. According to moderate Islamic experts, the status quo with regards to the Islamic religious background and infrastructure which guided the fanatics to carry out the Easter Sunday carnage is still very much active. The reason is that the fundamentalist Islamic clergy organisations which control militant extremist Islamic terrorist movements are receiving high political patronage and support.
Even the Catholic Church, led by the Cardinal is the latest entrant to this religio-political drama. The outspoken Cardinal who continuously used the Easter tragedy for political purposes has now been joined by the Bishops Conference.
Our mixing religion with government and politics has been behind much of our own country’s disasters. Every single Government has failed to resist these radical and extremist religious organizations. Even though all Governments were aware about the possible damage these organisations might cause to the country’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious social fabric, they kept silent because those organisations were highly politicised.
Although religion has always played a vital and important role in our society, the greatest religious scholars were the ones who refused to have their ethical and moral dispositions determined by the needs of power. Instead, they served as a sort of check and balance to the policies of each government. They understood that when religious leaders play political roles, they corrupt both good governance and religious integrity. We need to recapture our past of the role of religious authority in the political affairs of society. If we learn anything from the past, from our own country and elsewhere, it should be that religion, reduced to political ideology, does little for one’s faith and even less for society. In principle, let the religion remain ready to offer political guidance and criticism, without seeking theocratic power or adherence to any type of dogmatic fundamentalism.