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Sri Lanka: Sinhala Buddhist nationalism

In a broad sense, Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is not a new phenomenon. On the contrary, it seems to be almost as old as the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

by Satyajith Andradi

A few days prior to the recent presidential election, in a piece published in these columns, I stated that the election would be a contest between the national bourgeoisie (i.e. indigenous capitalist class) and the comprador bourgeoisie (i.e. capitalist class looking after the interests of western capital), and that the former would receive wide support from the rural Sinhala Buddhist peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie and the working class, whilst the latter would be overwhelmingly supported by the ethnic and religious minorities, which constitute around 30% of the voting population and the numerically insignificant Colombo centric Anglicised elite. The national bourgeoisie convincingly won the presidential election. It did so mainly with the Sinhala vote. The ethnic and religious minorities – the Tamils and Muslim - overwhelmingly voted against it. The Sinhala Buddhists voted heavily for it. The Sinhala Catholic vote seems to have somewhat tilted towards it, most probably due the horrendous Easter Sunday terror attacks.


The national bourgeoisie – the indigenous capitalists, as the very term suggests, is a national entity, which cuts across ethnicities and religions. There are certainly indigenous capitalists amongst all ethnic and religious communities – Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Catholics, Hindus, Protestant Christians, etc. Then, how is it that the national bourgeoisie received only the support of the Sinhala Buddhists? The answer seems to lie in the professed ideology of the national bourgeoisie, viz. Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.

Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism of the Mahavamsa

In a broad sense, Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is not a new phenomenon. On the contrary, it seems to be almost as old as the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Its most classic form is found in the celebrated Pali chronicle, the Mahavamsa, composed in the sixth century AD by Mahanama, a Buddhist monk. The Sinhala Buddhist nationalism of the Mahavamsa is expressed in relation to the life and work of the chronicle’s supreme hero, king Dutugemunu (reign 161 BC -137 BC), who vanquished the foreign non – Buddhist Tamil king Elara and unified the country as a centralised Sinhala Buddhist kingdom, with the blessings and staunch support of the Maha Sanga – the Buddhist clergy. According to the Mahavamsa, the Tamils seemed to have been a foreign element, and thus not a part of the country’s body politic: the nation seemed to have consisted solely of Sinhalese, who are Buddhists: Dutugemunu’s accomplishment is the eviction of a hostile foreign power and the unification of the island’s sole nation – the Sinhala Buddhist nation. Accordingly, the Sinhala Buddhist nationalism of the Mahavamsa was inclusive.

Dutugemunu ruled from the ancient city of Anuradhapura. He inherited a city which already possessed the Thuparama dagoba and the tanks, Nuwara Wewa, Tissa Wewa and the Abaya Wewa: He built the great stupas, Mirisawetiya and Ruwanweliseya. The Anuradhapura civilization was a centralized hydraulic one, based on rice farming. Its agriculture was rooted on great irrigation works, such as tanks and canals. Needless to say, this called for a highly centralised state. It was a caste based society as opposed to a class based one. Its ruling elite consisted of the Kshatriya caste (the ancient warrior caste), guided by the Maha Sanga, which had replaced the Brahmin caste with the advent of Buddhism. Its political system was oriental despotism. The king was an absolute ruler.

The Sinhala Buddhist nationalism of the Mahavamsa was the ethos of the Anuradhapura civilization. It fitted perfectly well with the socio–economic realities of the times: It retained its relevance. The fact that the Anuradhapura civilization flourished for more than a thousand years, from the time of Dutugemunu, proves the point.

Decline and fall of the Sinhala Buddhist state

The Anuradhapura civilization collapsed in the last decades of the tenth century with the invasion and conquest of Sri Lanka by the Cholas of South India. The internal decay, due to infighting amongst Sinhala ruling factions, too, contributed to the fall of Anuradhapura. However, the Sinhala Buddhist state made a brilliant but relatively short-lived come back with the Polonnaruwa kingdom under Vijayabahu I (reign 1155 AD -1110 AD) and Parakramabahu the Great (reign 1153 AD – 1183 AD). However, the invasion of Magha of Kalinga (Reign 1215 AD – 1235 AD) irreparably reversed this resurgence. The great Sinhala Buddhist hydraulic civilization of Sri Lanka collapsed, and the Sinhalese abandoned the north central plains and migrated, en masse, to the south west and the central hills of the country. This paved the way for the significant migration to Sri lanka of Hindu Tamils from South India and Muslim traders from the Middle East and India. This was followed by the conquest of the island by western colonial powers, such as the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British, and the conversion of the natives to Roman Catholicism and Protestant Christianity. The island became multi ethnic, multi–lingual and multi–religious.

Development of Capitalism

Capitalism is arguably the most important legacies of the colonial powers. It was introduced mainly by the British. As a result, Sri Lanka was transformed from a caste-based society to a class-based one. Whilst the British imperialists retained the biggest stake in the economy – tea and rubber plantations an indigenous capitalist class also came into existence. This class gained prominence with the liquor industry, graphite mining, wholesale trade, and coconut plantation. It has recently moved into numerous other industries such as garments manufacturing and tourism. As already mentioned, this class is not restricted to Sinhala Buddhists. On the contrary, it also includes capitalist from other communities, such as Ceylon Tamil, Muslims, Indian Tamils, Christians, Hindus, etc.

National Bourgeoisie and Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism

Capitalism is certainly one of the most revolutionary phenomena in the history of mankind. It has always been disruptive and dynamic, unlike its predecessors, such as feudalism, oriental despotism and slavery. It has been very progressive in uprooting feudalism, oriental despotism, and American slavery. Further, it has brought about spectacular technological advancements, bourgeoisie democracy, mass production, human rights, rule of law, and civil rights. However, an intriguing feature of the capitalism and capitalist classes, is their tendency to adopt various forms of nationalism and imperialism to acquire political power. The adoption of a Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, very similar to that of the Mahavamsa, by the Sri Lankan national bourgeoisie since the 1950s is a clear case in point. But then, the Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism, which was inclusive in the historical context of the centralized monolithic Sinhala Buddhist body politic, has turned out to be exclusive and divisive in the context of a multi–ethnic, multi–religious and multi–lingual society of modern Sri Lanka. Why didn’t the post-Independence leaders of Sri Lanka’s fledging national bourgeoisie take a cue from the more inclusive nationalism, adopted by the Indian National Congress, led by Mahatma Gandhi, and Jawaharlal Nehru? Was it due to political myopia or outright opportunism or lack of imagination? Was it due to the availability of a seemingly ready-made, and historically sanctioned model in the form of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalism of Sri Lanka’s glorious past? Did the divide and rule policy, adopted by the British colonial masters, incapacitate the leaders from all communities to forge a new and inclusive nationalism which was in line with the deeper and broader socio-political realities? In the alternative, was it a deliberate move by the post–independence leaders to divide the people?

Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism and the marginalization of minorities

The results of the presidential election indicate that the Sinhala Buddhist nationalism of the national bourgeoisie is not acceptable to the minorities. This may have many medium and short term ramifications for the country. One such scenario would be where the marginalized ethno–religious minorities are, as in the case of Malaysia, driven to accept Sinhala Buddhist domination as a fait accompli.

This would be accompanied by considerable Sinhalization and Buddhistifiction of minorities. Given the size, influence and territorial possessions of minorities, this is very unlikely to happen without significant resistance. This would especially be applicable in the Tamil-dominated Northern Province, which is in close proximity to the Tamil-dominated South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. A positive outcome would be where the national bourgeoisie is driven to forge a new, inclusive national ethos acceptable to all communities, including the minorities. This would be an arduous task. Nonetheless, it is not an impossibility if the national bourgeoisie senses an existential threat resulting from not doing so. Another prospect would be where the marginalized minorities, which have been hitherto aligned with the bourgeois parties, join hands with the economically marginalized workers and poor peasants amongst the Sinhala Buddhists majority and forging an inclusive national ethos. This is bound to be a revolutionary left alternative. A very sad outcome would be the Balkanization of Sri Lanka – the break-up of the country into hostile states, by the big powers, such as China, Russia, United States, and India, taking advantage of the internal communal strife.

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