It’s intriguing to know that high ranked Buddhist priests themselves have called for the stoppage of saffron robed monks from getting involved in politics.
Just the other day the spokesperson for the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Weerakumara Dissanayake told the media that the party had taken a decision not to give nominations to priests and monks for the upcoming General Elections. He was quoted in newspapers saying that voters believe that monks have a noble duty to perform in priesthood, hence they shouldn’t plunge into politics.
The new thinking opposing monks entering politics is great, but whether the country’s history would alow that is a big question. While being a priest is a privilege we must also understand that Buddhism has dominated political and sociocultural discourses throughout a major part of Sri Lanka’s history. Starting from the days of the kings the practice of rulers taking advice from the clergy on social matters has continued for generations.
However something interesting that columnist for Daily FT Shyaman Jayasinghe once penned must be shared here. He has said in one of his literary pieces that though the pirivenas (schools that educated monks) serve as centres for learning the lay educated classes are way above in terms of knowledge when compared to what monks learn. Here he is talking in terms of theological studies and adds that ‘theology can’t yield knowledge about existential life’.
Writing pieces like this suggest that lawmakers must have an allround education and be firmly rooted in the materialist world. Such writings also suggest that lawmakers can neither be ascetics nor belong to the renounced order.
But there is a school of thought that monks have a right to guide laymen and even the ruling fraternity when ‘evil’ threatens ‘good’ in society. There have been eras when priests have bypassed rulers and directly influenced the masses to return to a religious way of life. Historic records show us that this is exactly what Anagarika Dharmapala did. He wore a saffron attire and promoted the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ way of life when the British influence in the island was making the native affluent classes stray away from their roots. He wasn’t even ordained as a monk during he early part of his life as philosopher and reformer, but the monk-like life gave him power. He was ordained as Ven. Devamitta Thera much later in life, after migrating to India.
"Being a priest is a privilege and we must understand that Buddhism has dominated political and sociocultural discourses throughout history starting from the days of the kings"
Monks clad in saffron robes possess clout and this is why politicians use them for their work. From the day Baddegama Samitha Thera entered parliament in 2001 there have been several other monks who enjoyed parliamentary privileges and power. We saw monks in parliament till very recently. For the record, in the year 2004 there were as many as nine Buddhist monks involved in active politics with party affiliations.
The subtle manner in which a monk nudges the ruling class took a turn for the worse when firebrand monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara started dictating terms to the regime; underscoring the fact that the Sinhalese formed the majority in this island nation and should be privileged.
There is a practice by Sri Lankans to invite Buddhist priests to conducted religious rituals; before laymen set about engaging in a special task and at funerals. This makes the saffron robed
If Sri Lankans want a classic example of how a monk must live they don’t have to focus their eyes that far. India houses a monk by the name of The Dalai Lama who gives us the best example of ‘impermanence’ in Buddhism. The once vibrant monk is old, but stands out for practising what he preaches. This religious leader of Tibet is powerless today and in exile. If this name is not big enough for Sri Lankans just consider that fact that he is the most popular Buddhist monk in the world.