Unsustainable claims put forward by the Sinhalese and the Tamils on language, religion and ethnicity, have muddied Sri Lankan politics in the post-independence era.
The Sinhalese loudly proclaim that Buddhism is quintessentially and exclusively, a “Sinhala” religion. The Tamils, on the other hand, claim with equal vehemence, that they have always been unalloyed Hindus, who had never ever had anything to do with Buddhism, which they identify with “Sinhala hegemony.”
Sinhala-Buddhist radicals claim that Buddhist archaeological sites in the Tamil-dominated Northern and Eastern Provinces are relics of a Sinhala-Buddhist past over there, and therefore, the Sinhala’s ownership of those lands should be retrieved.
The Tamils, on the other hand, feel that these archaeological findings will go against their claim on the lands in question as they too identify Buddhist relics with the Sinhalese and see the discovery of such relics as a threat to their existence.
In some cases they have reportedly destroyed the relics forcing the government to think of ways of protecting them. In May 2020, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa formed a Presidential Task Force under the Defense Secretary to conduct a comprehensive survey of archaeological sites in the East and to take measures to protect them as several parties had voiced their concern regarding the destruction of historical monuments. Significantly, the Task Force was wholly Sinhala- Buddhist.
Dr. Gintota P.V. Somaratna, former Head of the Department of History and Political Science, University of Colombo, in his paper entitled: Tamil Buddhism in Sri Lanka argues that the Sinhala-Buddhists’ claim about these relics being “Sinhala” and the Tamils’ insecurity over the issue, are both unfounded if history is seen in the correct perspective.
The fact is that the majority of Tamils were also Buddhist in the past. Sinhalese Buddhism, as practiced had, and still has, many elements of Tamil Hinduism. Sri Lanka has always had a syncretic culture. Buddhists and Hindus had both peacefully co-existed and fought each other down the ages. In fact, there has never been a clear cut division between the two because beliefs and practices were shared.
For example, Lankan monarchs of Indian origin could practice Hinduism in private so long as they were nominally Buddhist and stoutly protected Buddhism in their realm. The Kandyan Kings of the Nayakar dynasty (1739-1815) were Hindus but they were accepted by the Sinhala-Buddhist majority because they protected Buddhism.
Historian K.M.de Silva says that prior to the advent of the British, there was hardly any evidence of ethno-religious tension. The historian of the Catholic church, V. Perniola, noted that in the Dutch period, there was no racial distinction between Sinhala and Tamils, only caste divisions. According to Dr.Somaratna, it was because of the introduction of the ten-yearly population census in 1871 and the institution of universal adult franchise in 1931, that ethnic identity began to be used to garner political support.
Buddhism in Sri Lanka was closely linked to Buddhism in Tamil Nadu, Dr.Somaratna points out. Buddhism flourished in Tamil Nadu in three phases: (1) between the 3 rd. and the 7 th. Centuries); (2) during Pallava rule (400 to 650 AD); and (3) in the Chola period (mid 9th to early14th century AD).
Asokan Rock Edicts II, V and XIII mention Kerala, Chola,Pandya and Chera kingdoms in Tamil Nadu apart from Tambapanni (Sri Lanka).These were places to which Emperor Asoka had sent Buddhist missions. A number of caves with inscriptions in the Brahmi script have been found in Madurai, Tiruchi, Tirunelveli, Tanjaur andseveral other districts in Tamil Nadu. The Brahmi script had come to South India through Asoka’s missionaries.
There is evidence that Mahinda Thera, the son of Emperor Asoka, spread the Dhamma in Tamil Nadu before his arrival in Sri Lanka. He had travelled by sea from a North Indian port and called at Kaveripattinam on the Tamil Nadu coast before heading for Dambakolapatuna or Jambukolapatuna (the modern Sambuthurai) in Jaffna. King Devanampiya Tissa’s delegation to the Mauryan court of Emperor Asoka (around 230 BC) had embarked from the port of Jambukolapatuna.
Among the greatest Pali scholars in Tamil Nadu were Buddhaghosa, Buddhadatta, and Dharmapala. The Chinese Buddhist monk-scholar, Hsuan Tsang, who visited India in 7th Century AD, describes Kanchipuram, the Pallava capital, as a flourishing city of Buddhists with over 100 Buddhist monasteries and over a thousand monks.
Interactions between the monks of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka are mentioned in the 2 nd. Century AD Tamil classic Manimekalai, authored by Seethalai Sathanar, a Buddhist. Protagonist Manimekalai’s request to the Chola king to convert prisons to places of piety with Buddhist monks is mentioned. Buddha‘s teachings on the compassionate way of life are presented.
Among other Tamil literary epics which show the influence of Buddhism are the Silappadhikaram, Valaiyapathi, Kundalakesi and Jivaka Cintamani . Tolkappiyam the earliest Tamil grammar (3rd century BC), was written by a Buddhist. A section of Tamils continued to patronize Buddhism well into the 10 th., Century. Dr.Somaratna points out that Hsuan Tsang recorded instances of Tamil Buddhist monks fleeing to Sri Lanka when they were worsted in religious debates and feared the repercussions of their rulers’ change of religion. The Chulavamsa states that in the 13th. Century King Parakramabahu VI of Dambadeniya (in North Western Province) brought down Buddhist monks and scriptures from the Chola country to resuscitate Buddhism in his kingdom.
The Mahavamsa is cited to show that several Buddhist Viharas existed in the Jaffna peninsula. Devanampiya Tissa himself built two Viharas close to Jambukolapatuna – the Tissamaha Vihara and the Pachina Vihara. Monks from Piyangudipa (Pungudutivu) participated in the meritorious acts of Dutthagamani. King Dhatusena (455-473 AD) restored the Mahanaga Vihara.
There are remains of Buddhist establishments datable to the early centuries of the Christian Era in Kandarodai, Vallipuram, Ponnalia, Makiyapini, Nilavarai, Uduvil, Nainativu, Punkuditivu, and Neduntivu in Jaffna. The Buddhist archaeological ruins found in Vallipuram near Velvettiturai show the historical presence of Buddhism in Jaffna. Kandarodai has very rich archaeological remains that point to early settlements. It was probably an emporium in the first centuries AD, Dr.Somaratna says.
In 1917, an administrator cum historian, Paul E. Pieris, identified the ruins as the ancient Kandarodai Vihara. This group of Dagobas situated close together at the site, served as a monastery for Buddhist monks. Pieris found remains of a shrine room, several Buddha images, coins, about 60 small and large stupas (pagodas), pieces of pinnacles of stupas, pieces of stone with imprints of the Buddha‘s foot, and tiles from the site. Black-Red ware Kandarodai potsherd with Tamil Brahmi scripts from 300 BC were excavated and Roman coins, early Pandyan coins, early Chera Dynasty coins were found.
Both Manimekalai and the Mahavamsa describe the Buddha settling a dispute between two Naga princes of Jaffna over a gem-set throne in Nainativu.
However, Dr.Somaratna rues that Sinhalese writers take these findings to be evidence of “Sinhalese” presence in the area on the assumption that all Buddhists in every period of time in Sri Lanka were Sinhalese. It is forgotten that the majority of Tamils were Buddhists at that time.
“The finding of Buddhist places in the Jaffna peninsula today has created tension in the minds of both Sinhalese and Tamils because of its political implications.”