By Prof. A.N.I. Ekanayaka
There is something intrinsically meaningless in the bare assertion “Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country” where the denial that it is a “Buddhist country” is obviously the most contentious part provoking bitter controversy.
However, on any detached analysis the debate whether Sri Lanka is or is not a Buddhist country seems a useless anti-intellectual exercise in futility, over an emotive line in which words are strung together axiomatically without proper definition.
Indeed, from a linguistic perspective the plain statement “Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country” sounds just as absurd and simplistic as saying that “Sri Lanka is a UNP country” just because, say a UNP government is in power, or that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala country just because a majority speak Sinhala, or a dark skinned country just because a majority happen to be dark skinned, or even that it is a naïve country just because most people seem to vote naively at elections!
There are, of course, numerous statements one could make about Sri Lanka that are objectively true. For example it would be entirely factual to state that Sri Lanka is a country where Buddhism IS the most popular religion. Equally and to put it differently it would be perfectly correct to state that Sri Lanka is a country where the vast majority of people identify thousand as Buddhists. It would also be a true statement of fact that Sri Lanka is a country that gives the foremost place to Buddhism in its Constitution.
One can go on and say things like Sri Lanka is a tropical country, Sri Lanka is an Asian country, Sri Lanka is a beautiful country, Sri Lanka is a small country, and so on and so forth. Such affirmations and many more besides can be made without fear of contradiction. Indeed their validity is self-evident.
By contrast the statement “Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country” has the connotation of a universal all-encompassing core characteristic that defines the nation.
To see Buddhism in that sense as an ingrained attribute that somehow envelopes underlies and permeates everything and everybody is irrational. A country as commonly understood is more than its inhabitants. Consequently, affirming that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country (if one takes the words at their face value) logically carries the implication that there is something intrinsically Buddhist about even the fields, rivers, forests, mountains, valleys, and beaches surrounding the island – which of course would be plainly absurd.
So, where words mean nothing without a clarification of terms the issue is what do people really mean when they insist that “Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country”? What underlying ideas assumptions and attitudes make people claim that “Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country”? What are people really saying when they make such a claim?
There may be several possibilities. Firstly, it is possible that when people say that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country it is just another way of saying that a large majority of the Sri Lankan population identify themselves as Buddhist- a simple demographic reality that no one in his right mind would deny. However, if that is all what is meant, those who insist that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country for that reason might not be so vehement and bitterly condemn those who would agree but put it differently, when the difference between them was purely semantic!
The second possibility underlying the statement that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country is the notion that there is a distinctly precious Buddhist culture which characterises and pervades society, underlies the Sri Lankan way of life and in some sense defines Sri Lanka. There might be some justification for saying that if only it were true. But it isn’t. What passes for Buddhist culture in Sri Lanka as epitomized by the lifestyle, attitudes, and mindset of its politicians priests, professionals, business classes and proletariat is the very antithesis of an authentic Buddhist culture inspired by the Dharma. On the contrary, it is a brutal dehumanized culture characterized by selfishness, greed, intolerance, lawlessness cronyism, and corruption pervading all echelons of society from top to bottom. Sri Lanka is a violent society where people have become mercenary and materialistic, where crime is covered up and justice is frequently denied, where petty jealousy and patronage rule, where mediocrity is exalted over excellence discouraging the best and rewarding the third rate, and where in public life the outward show is consistently at variance with the inward reality in countless ways. Is this the Sinhala Buddhist culture people have in mind when they say that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country? Indeed, to say that there is anything Buddhist in the Sinhala Buddhist culture of the day is to insult Buddhism.
The so-called island of Sinhala Buddhist culture is where doctors go on strike and make their patients suffer when they are not making millions in the medical expressway of the private sector, where lawyers rip off their clients in cases that may drag on for years, where the sordid culture of campus torture that destroys young lives has polluted universities for generations, where militant Buddhist monks are a law unto themselves, and where school teachers turned rapacious business tycoons trap millions of students in a bastard culture of mass tuition running parallel to formal school education. Such is the ground reality of the much-vaunted Sinhala Buddhist culture that people might mean when they say that “Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country”.
Those who are old enough will remember the historical expression of that culture in the universally acclaimed 1956 revolution which drove the Burghers as far as Australia, and at one stroke alienated the Tamil community with its narrow linguistic nationalism setting the stage for the 1958 anti-Tamil riots, the 1983 pogrom, two bloody badly botched Marxist revolutions and the 30-year war.
So, when people maintain that “Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country”, assuming a distinctive Buddhist culture that pervades society, they make a mockery of the pristine culture of true Buddhism, which if it ever existed in Sri Lanka disappeared a long time ago being replaced by a grotesque dangerous distortion that is better designated as “militant Sinhala Buddhist nationalism”. The hard reality is that what passes for a distinctive Sinhala Buddhist culture today is nothing more than the widespread sanctimonious humbug of false religion epitomized by manifold superstitions, interminable empty rituals, pantheistic worship, and all the vain ceremonial trappings and symbolism of religious formalism the chief beneficiaries of which are clergy who are enabled to lead a pampered, comfortable existence revered by high and low alike.
One is, therefore, left with the third and arguably most plausible underlying reason why most people might insist that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country. What they might actually mean is that Sri Lanka ‘belongs’ to the Sinhala Buddhists! When put like that the implications are alarming and it is no surprise that such an outrageous suggestion should be disguised in the more benign language of “Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country”. However the underlying perception in the depths of the heart is that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhala Buddhists.
Of course, religious and ethnic minorities are welcome to peacefully live and work as Sri Lankans provided they know their limits. They may even be treated with every kindness and consideration like the way we lavish attention on our pet cats and dogs provided they know their place in the overall scheme of things. But if they were to ever step out of line and resist submitting to the overarching paternalistic hegemony of Sinhala Buddhism they would need to be sharply chastised and brought to heel. Those are the terms.
Indeed, the sting in the controversial Article 9 of the Constitution that guarantees the foremost place to Buddhism is that for all the guarantees in Articles 10 and 14(1)(e) it will be naturally perceived by many as a way of saying that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhala Buddhists.
A perfect example of that unstated assumption is the way it is generally taken for granted that notwithstanding constitutional guarantees of equality it is unthinkable that anybody but a Sinhala Buddhist should be the President or Prime Minister. Not even the distinguished Lakshman Kadiragamar, who having rendered unique service to the nation’s war effort as foreign minister finally paid with his own life! Neither did he stand a chance in a society where what the vast majority of monks and millions who pay homage to them actually mean by saying that “Sri Lanka is a Buddhist Country” is that “Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhala Buddhists”! What somebody who provoked the recent controversy by having the guts to question this popular axiom did, was to touch the raw nerve of the frightening interface between what people say and what they really mean.