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Buddhist Influences on Indian and SL Tamils- Past and Present

2016-11-25 00:22:33
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In a  article a few days ago, Dr. Nirmala Chandrahasan, a Consultant for the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR), had written on early Buddhist links between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. She, I believe, is the wife of Chandrahasan, a son of Chelvanayakam, founder of the Federal Party and like Chelvanayagam lives in Colombo. Colombo today is a very multicultural city, although the predominant language of discourse on the street is Sinhala in which Dr. Nirmala must be able to converse to some extent. I do not know whether she has religious beliefs but the fact that Chelvanayakam was a Christian and that she writes on Buddhist links points perhaps to a genuine interest in “reconciliation”.  


Although I may have briefly met him at his father’s house at Alfred House Gardens, I am not familiar with Chandrahasan. His brother Vaseeharan was my very close friend at Royal, in University and later after his divorce. I used to spend hours chatting with Vaseeharan at Chelvanayakam’s house where I occasionally stayed overnight and savoured Mrs. Chelvanayakam’s stringhoppers for breakfast. The Vaseeharan I knew did not share his father’s views and was dismissive of the white-clad politicians that would come to the house’s front office. And Vaseeharan (Vassa to his classmates) also had definite views on Chelvanayakam’s son-in-law and biographer A.J. Wilson at whose Peradeniya house Vassa and I once stayed. Vassa dismissed Wilson as an intellectual lightweight, perhaps youthful bravado. This was, however, not the political dismissal of Wilson I heard from a former colleague of his at Canada’s McGill University who said Wilson had worked on a secret CIA plan to Balkanise India (at the time nominally non-aligned, India had cosied up to the then Soviet Union). Who knows?  


What Dr. Nirmala writes is broadly true and I must add, well-known. In fact, I had referred to these links in my publications, including in a book on the Portuguese occupation of the country. Going further, a couple of decades ago, I wrote a popular article indicating that Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka over the centuries had changed their identities. There were migrants from South India who became Sinhalese and Portuguese commentators noted that although the King in Jaffna then was Tamil, the majority in the Peninsula were Sinhalese, albeit with a sizeable Tamil population. These Sinhalese in Jaffna eventually became Tamilised. To add to the confusion, in Dravidian Kerala, the Ezhavas the second numerous caste, believe they are Sinhalese migrants. These are ethnic origin stories but such stereotypes are better viewed, noting that Sri Lanka is in the middle of Indian Ocean traffic. There is evidence that our populations are genetically very mixed. This was the subject of a Royal Asiatic Society RASSL lecture which I hosted on current genetic research, but that study probably requires further confirmation. Dr. Nirmala refers to Buddhist sites in the North and East, implying that they were Tamil, many of these sites are well-known and referred to in  Sinhala literature. The 1917 RASSL expedition led by Paul Pieris to the Jaffna Peninsula found many Buddhist ruins including statues, identical in style to those in the Anuradhapura era including pillars with Sinhala words. 


These finds became the core of the Jaffna Museum but during the LTTE occupation were given fictional labels. One gem was in describing a Buddha footprint exhibit “Some state these are footprints of Vishnu [sic]. The Buddha along with Jesus Christ is sometimes considered an incarnation of Vishnu.” The sites where they are found are described in the Kandyan period Sinhala text ‘Nam Pothaa’, a guide to popular Buddhist sites at the time. Another LTTE gem was labelling through a huge hoarding the Buddhist site at the hot wells in Trincomalee as constructed by that mythical creature Ravana. However, the biggest item missing from Dr. Nirmala’s article is that Sri Lanka is the country with the longest Buddhist majority tradition, from the time of Asoka and so in the vein of Charles L. Allen, having a strong welfare template.  


Dr. Nirmala misses some other key facts from the past as well as the present. The great city Anuradhapura that the Tamil Buddhist scholars came to translate in the Sinhalese Buddhist commentaries, she records, were later destroyed and ransacked by the Cholas. The devastation was so total that Anuradhapura had to be abandoned and the monks and nuns had to hide or disrobe. Eventually Buddhism was restored only after the Cholas were defeated and Buddhist order reintroduced from then Myanmar.   


The Chola emblem of the snarling tiger was later adopted by Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka as their flag, a window to their aggressive mindset. Tamil separatists would later attack the Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura and the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, key symbols of the Sri Lankan Buddhist heritage. This could be because the separatist leadership was given by Christians, including Catholic priests who were photographed blessing the fictional map of a future Tamil Eelam. This fictional map was based on two sentences by an ignorant British visitor Cleghorn, who in 1879 stated that two nations, Tamil and Sinhala, had lived in Sri Lanka with the present boundaries since ancient times. His ignorance of history was so great that in the third sentence, he said the Sinhalese had arrived in the country from Siam!  


Dr. Nirmala also faults Anagarika Dharmapala for creating a Buddhism exclusive to the Sinhalese. She gives no firm reason but had probably lifted the idea from a book she quotes by one L.K. Devanda on Tamil Buddhism in Ancient South India and Sri Lanka. I googled around and checked international libraries but could not trace the book, although it appears in several popular articles written by locals. Dharmapala was a driven man who was most critical of the Sinhalese. He castigated our Bhikkhus as “indolent hounds, utterly indifferent to the people” who know “only how to fill their stomachs and to repeat Pali gathas” and whose “brains are atrophied” and are “drones”. He took the epithet Aryan then fashionable in European circles and introduced to him by the mystical Theosophists, a meaning different from the Buddhist term Arya. He included as Aryan also those from Madras as he denounced the education in Sri Lanka and asked young Sinhalese to go to Madras for better learning. Disgusted with Sri Lanka, he spent his last years in Bodh Gaya.  Starting with the late 19th century, Dharmapala was also instrumental in creating social awareness among Tamil Dalits of South India as recorded by recent writings of Indian Dalit Sociologists like Aloysius (Religion as Emancipatory Identity: a Buddhist Movement among Tamils under Colonialism). Dharmapala had Tamil Dalits organise themselves, brought them to Sri Lanka and asked them to reject the caste oppression 
in Hinduism.  


In the early 20th century, these Dalit Indian Tamil Buddhists under Dharmapala’s influence identified themselves as being originally Buddhists who had been put down by Brahmins. Indian Dalit Tamils set out to construct Buddhist temples, to conduct Buddhist events and publish books on Buddhism; one of these with an introduction by Dharmapala. When the Buddhist delegation from Sri Lanka attended the Indian National Congress, the Indian Tamil Dalit Appaduraiyar joined the Sri Lankan delegation to press for a resolution to transfer Bodh Gaya to the Buddhists. Ramasami Naickar (“Periyar”) spoke at the South Indian Buddhists’ Association and held Buddhism in high esteem. Yet, the rise of Periyar and his later sponsorship of the Dravidian movement in the 1930’s began to see the downgrading of Tamil Buddhism and its gradual replacement by a strident Tamil nationalism. The Indian Tamil masses initially mobilised by the Buddhists later became the foot soldiers of the new Tamil chauvinism. Just as the Dalits reinvented themselves as the original Buddhists, the new Dravidians began inventing new mythical narratives such as portraying Ravana as a hero and “Lemuria” as the lost land of Tamils. The various Dravidian political parties such as the DMK and its offshoots are the results of this movement. Their influence of Tamil exclusivity spilled over into Jaffna and led later to the ideological underpinnings of separatism. In Jaffna in the 1960’s, among the depressed castes, there was a Buddhist movement of protest which later was suppressed by the LTTE. As for Hindus during our civil war, many were converted to Christian fundamentalism as a shocked US Hindu leader who came to aid Hindus during the tsunami, told me.  


Reconciliation among those who have been alienated from each other through politics is necessary. But the road to that goal should not be based on changing geographical boundaries, changing genetic make-ups, changing ethnic identities or belief systems imposed by force or by bribes. There are many examples of success after a war. Considering that the LTTE looked to Hitler for their ideology (and LTTE ideology still persists in pockets), the closest example for us would be the de-nazification programme after World War II. Consequently, Germany today is very different to the time of Hitler. Relative peaceful coexistence exists, for example in cities like New York, or today’s London and for that matter in today’s Colombo. Today’s multicultural Colombo without artificial boundaries should be an obvious model for reconciliation.   


  Comments - 2

  • Missaka Friday, 25 November 2016 07:41

    I like the last para of your article.

    Reply : 1       3

    Priyantha Perera Mahahewage Friday, 25 November 2016 11:23

    Great reading. Thank you.

    Reply : 1       2

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