Buddhist fascism in Sri Lanka?

It sounds like an oxymoron, but it is starting to smell that way. The controversy over destruction of a mosque near the Golden Temple of Dambulla—a Buddhist cave-temple in central Sri Lanka which has been a pilgrimage destination since the third century, and is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site—bears echoes of the 1992 destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, India, which ultimately led to the Gujarat genocide. This May 2 report by Sudha Ramachandran for Asia Times (interspersed with our annotation) is pretty chilling:

Sri Lankan monks join rampaging mob
BANGALORE – Sri Lanka’s Muslim community is insecure and angry.

A mosque in the central town of Dambulla was attacked with petrol bombs and vandalized around 10 days ago by a mob led by radical Buddhist monks. To add insult to injury, the government has bowed to the mob’s demand and ordered the mosque’s demolition and relocation.

Muslims say the mosque is about 60 years old. The monks insist it was built after 1982 when the government declared the area to be a “Buddhist sacred area”. They allege that the mosque is an “illegal structure”.

Located about 150 kilometers northeast of the capital Colombo, Dambulla is a Buddhist pilgrim town. Trouble erupted when a mob of around 2,000 Sinhalese, including monks led by the mahanayaka (chief priest) of the Rangiri Dambula chapter, Inamaluwe Sumangala Thero, stormed the mosque and damaged it, disrupting ongoing Friday prayers. Television footage has captured the mob chanting derogatory and racist slogans. Monks can be seen going on a rampage, with one monk even disrobing and exposing himself.

They have threatened to demolish the mosque if the government doesn’t relocate it.

Within days of the violence and the warning, Prime Minister Disanayaka Mudiyanselage Jayaratne, who also heads the Ministry of Buddhist Sasana and Religious Affairs, announced the mosque’s relocation. Muslims have been “offered the choice of three alternate locations” to relocate the mosque, he said, adding that “steps are being taken to immediately shift the mosque”.

Muslim leaders have rejected the offer. “We will not agree to any compromise of taking land elsewhere,” Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader and Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem told reporters in Colombo. The SLMC is part of the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance.

The Muslim community has been protesting the violence and the government decision through demonstrations and shut-downs.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has refrained from reining in the Buddhist extremists in his government and outside hitherto, was outside the country when the attack in Dambulla took place. He has been silent on the matter since his return.

As we have noted, Sri Lanka’s Muslims have, not surprisingly, often been at odds with the Hindu Tamils. But now it appears both are feeling the pressure of Buddhist chauvinism…

Also in the crosshairs of the Dambulla monks is a Hindu temple in the area.

“There are 72 unauthorized constructions near the Dambulla Buddhist temple, including the mosque and a kovil [a Hindu temple in Tamil], which will be removed within six months,” a monk from Dambulla is reported to have said.

Buddhism is the religion of the majority of Sri Lankans. It is estimated that around 70% of the island’s population are Buddhist. Almost all Buddhists are Sinhalese. The religious minorities include Hindus (15%), who are mainly Tamil speaking, and Muslims (7.5%) and Christians (7.5%).

Although Buddhism advocates peace and tolerance, the way it is practiced by a fringe—albeit one that is growing and extremely powerful—is rather violent, fanatical and far from accommodative.

The Sinhala-Buddhists’ self-perception has three components. The first is that they belong to the “Aryan Sinhala race” (as distinct from the Tamil Dravidians) and that Sri Lanka is their homeland; the second is that they are defenders of the Buddhist faith, the mission of protecting Buddhism having been entrusted to them by Buddha himself; and the third is that Sri Lanka is the home for the Sinhala language. This self-perception has created a virulent form of Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism.

Now, this is a truly rich irony. Recall that it was the Hindu deity Ram (Rama) whose mythology was at issue in the Ayodhya controversy. In the Hindu epic the Ramayana, Rama is incarnate on earth (an avatar of the greater deity Vishnu), a prince of Ayodhya in northern India, who makes war on Lanka (contemporary Sri Lanka) to win back his captive wife Sita who had been abducted there by the island’s demon king Ravana. This story is believed to have roots in the exploits of a culture hero who carried the Aryan civilization south, conquering the Dravidian peoples who were represented in the epic as “demons.” Contemporary Hindu militants are also making a claim to another key site in the story—the purported remains of the Ram Setu land bridge linking India and Sri Lanka, said to have been built by Rama’s invading armies.

Sinhalese-Buddhist supremacists draw on the Mahavamsa, first written in the sixth century AD and revised thereafter in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries to justify Buddhism’s dominance in Sri Lanka and to bolster claims that the country is and has to be a Sinhala-Buddhist state. Much in the Mahavamsa consists of myths, but to many Sinhalese it is irrefutable history. It has created what is often described as the Mahavamsa mindset, a belief that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist land because the Mahavamsa says so.

The Mahavamsa mindset lies at the core of Sinhala-Buddhist hardline arguments that the island is “theirs” and religious and ethnic minorities are “guests”, who stay in Sri Lanka on the sufferance of the Sinhalese-Buddhists. Their continued stay here is on the condition of “good behavior”. As former chief of army staff, Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka, once said in an interview, the minorities must not “demand undue things”.

So while India’s Hindu fascists look to the Ramayana to justify their supremacy, Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese chauvinists look to the Mahavamsa. To make some historical sense of this—It seems that while the people of Lanka had adopted the Aryan cosmology (proto-Hinduism) back in the myth-shrouded era of Rama, they continued to speak their Dravidian language, and to “be” Tamils. As can be gleaned from the Mahavamsa and Lakdiva websites, an actual Aryan dynasty was only imposed when the Indian emperor Asoka dispatched his son Mahinda (also rendered Mahendra, and by some accounts Asoka’s brother) to rule the island, circa 268 BCE. While Tamil is a Dravidian tongue, the Ethnologue website informs us that the Sinhalese language Pali is an Indo-Aryan one, related to Hindi and Sanskrit. It is also the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism, much as Sanskrit is the liturgical language of Hinduism. Asoka famously established a Buddhist empire in India, although Hindu hegemony was re-established after his death, and Buddhist rule survived only in peripheral areas—Sri Lanka in the south; the Gandharan and Kushan states in the north (contemporary Afghanistan—the Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 were also a legacy of Asoka’s influence). So while glorification of an Aryan identity (with its obvious parallels to European fascism) is the domain of Hindu extremism in India, it is linked to Buddhist chauvinism in Sri Lanka. This becomes especially clear in the portrayal of Muslims in explicitly anti-Semitic terms…

Over the past 125 years or so, violence has been directed against the asinhala (un-Sinhala) and the abaudha (un-Buddhist). During colonial rule, Buddhist revivalists like Anagarika Dharmapala mobilized the masses not so much against the colonial regime but the Christian minority, their privileged position in society and political life, and their alleged misdeeds. In the early 20th century, it was the Muslims, who dominated business and trade, who came under fire from the Sinhalese-Buddhists.

In 1915, Dharmapala wrote: “The Muhammedans, an alien people… by Shylockian methods became prosperous like the Jews. The Sinhalese sons of the soil, whose ancestors for 2,358 years had shed rivers of blood to keep the country free from alien invaders are in the eyes of the British only vagabonds.”

Get it? The Sinhalese are “sons of the soil,” while the Muslims are “alien” and even “Shylockian.” Does this sound familiar?

Inflammatory writing in publications Dharmapala’s Sinhala Bauddhaya and Piyadasa Sirisena’s Sinhala Jathiya fueled anti-Muslim sentiment in the island and is believed to have culminated in the anti-Muslim riots that year.

Dharmapala hailed the anti-Muslim violence. “The peaceful Sinhalese have at last shown that they can no longer bear the insult of the alien,” he wrote. “The whole nation in one day has risen against the Moor [Muslims] people.”

The role of Buddhists in Sri Lankan politics grew substantially post-Independence especially in the decade of the 1950s, when the country was swept by a wave of Buddhist resurgence in the wake of the 2500th death anniversary of the Buddha.

It is in the Buddhist revivalism of this period that the beginnings of the conflictual relationship between the Sinhalese and Tamils can be traced. The role of political monks in obstructing a federal solution to the ethnic conflict, by unleashing violence if necessary became apparent in the 1950s. It would plunge Sri Lanka into bloody civil war.

The end of the civil war and the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009 triggered a tidal wave of Sinhalese-Buddhist triumphalism…. In the war-ravaged, Tamil-dominated Northern province this muscular assertion of the Sinhala Buddhist identity has manifested itself not only in increasing Sinhalization of signboards and village and street names but in a proliferation of Buddha statues and Buddhist temples.

A recent report by International Crisis Group (ICG) says that Buddhist temples are coming up near military installations but also “without permission on private land”. “New constructions” are coming up over destroyed Hindu temples.

“There are also fears,” the ICG report says, “that the government’s archaeological department, long under the influence of Sinhalese nationalists and heavily lobbied by influential Buddhist groups, would use ‘discovered’ ancient Buddhist sites in the north” to build new Buddhist temples there.

It is in the context of this Sinhalese-Buddhist triumphalism that the recent aggression against Muslims and other religious minorities and their places of worship must be seen.

In September last year, a mosque in Anuradhapura, an ancient Buddhist city and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization world heritage site, was demolished by a mob. The monk who led that attack told BBC that the mosque was built on land given to Sinhalese Buddhists 2,000 years ago; hence the attack.

Attacks on churches and priests have grown in post-war Sri Lanka too, with the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a party led by monks that is a part of the ruling coalition, justifying the violence by claiming that priests are luring Buddhists to Christianity.

Writer Ramachandran goes on to note the obvious analogy to Ayodha. She does, happily, see some differences:

The underlying issues and context of the attacks on the Dambulla mosque and the Babri masjid are not identical. The mobilization in Dambulla was local, unlike the country-wide campaign that preceded the Babri masjid’s demolition.

Still, Sri Lankans should be worried. The hate rhetoric articulated by the radical monks is uncannily similar to that mouthed by India’s proponents of Hindutva. The Dambulla incident could unleash emotions and events with far more serious consequences.

Divisions along caste and linguistic lines have defeated somewhat the Hindutva (literally Hinduness, an exclusivist ideology that aims at making India Hindu) agenda of India’s Hindu nationalists and extremists.

In Sri Lanka, although its society too is multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual, Sinhala-Buddhist radicals have been far more successful. The Sinhala-Buddhist identity is far stronger than the Hindu identity in India. Sinhala-Buddhist ideology has been institutionalized and the Buddhist nationalist ideology has wide acceptance among the Sinhalese.

Yet to recover from decades of civil war, Sri Lanka is lurching towards more bloodletting, this time along religious lines.

Definitely one to watch, and we wish this ugly affair had won more international coverage. That lovely reference to “Shylockian” Muslims is further evidence that, as we have long contended, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are genetically linked phenomena. This should give pause to Zionists who support Israel’s own political archaeology at the Temple Mount and Jewish holy sites on the West Bank. Not that we are holding our breath.

See our last post on Sri Lanka.

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  1. Stick together with minoiry
    Where were you all when sri lankan army and air force bombing shelling the hindu temples even one hinu temple destroy by monks in night time in sri lanka capital.
    Stop this nonsense muslim thought stick with majority will help them help and protection now Ltte war is over and the war turn to muslims. in 2009 none of the muslim leaders in sri lanka condemn the war or civilians in camps . now go around and come around face the tune. minority never become majority you should stick together with other minority. I hope you all leaned the lesson form Buddhist fascism

  2. Where these medias when
    Where these medias when churches and temples were destroy by these monksters in sri lanka ?
    Muslims thought stick with the majority is going to be safe hell no now your turn face the tune. It sound like I am racist no i am not I felt the pain when those things happened to Tamils non of the muslims voice out for Tamils . feel the pain and learned to stick with the minority to get your rights. don’t use the back doors it will slam in to your face

  3. The Sinhala-Buddhist identity
    A point about the place of Buddhism in Sri Lanka must be stressed before talking about Dambulla incident. After revolting against their last king Rajasinghe and handed over entire country to the British and accepted English King as their new sovereign in 1815, a mutual handing-over agreement included several clauses that articulate; ‘the ways and methods the new rulers must support and foster Buddhism’.

    Needless to say this is enshrined in the present constitution as well. And those clauses have been the basis of unwritten constitution of all Sri Lanka sovereigns since Devanam Piya Tissa of Lanka, contemporary of Emperor Asoka of India to the present day meaning throughout our 2500 year history. Proof for historical fostering of Buddhism by Sri Lanka Kings is amply evident from artefacts and monuments not just in neighbouring areas to this now troubled site but all over Sri Lanka.

    For one thing unlike Hindus in India, today’s Sinhala Buddhists over 70% of the population and they are not divided by cast, creed or race basis. For another, Sinhalese knew their history well.

    Pity Suda do not know that Wijaya is our ancestor and when he came to Lanka over 565BC it was Raksa, Deva, Naga and Yaksa and Deva that inhabited Lanka. And it was Wijaya’s half grandson (half Yaksa) Pandukabhaya that laid the foundation to evolve race called Sinhala by uniting and assimilating all those four races and later with many others. As a group, Hindus of India do not have a history like that. So do not compare them to Sinhalese.

    1. We didn’t say the Hindutva analogy…
      …was perfect. In fact, we acknowledged some differences. But we honestly fail to grasp the distinction you are drawing.

      Do you wish to try again?

      1. ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ heritage
        Bill Weinberg:

        I was going to drive two things here: For one, Sinhala Buddhists has a long history and they are united to look after their heritage. For another, that neither Buddhism nor Sinhala Buddhists has precedence what so ever of violence as Hindutva had brought about in India few years back. Since too long a comment would bore readers, I thought off unfolding the second point if arise a query like yours.

        Let me start like this: We have a mosque and a Hindu temple next to our Dalada Maligawa (most sacred place for Buddhists in Sri Lanka). This was there since during the time of the wily British and has being used daily by respective believers without any hindrance whatsoever up to date. Knowing the fact that Muslims do not allow other religious followers even near Mecca in Saudi, I cannot understand; of all the available places in Kandy, why Muslims decided to locate their mosque right next to the Temples where all those drums beat day and night. Is it a means to confront Sinhala Buddhists one day or is it a manipulation by the wily British, to prolong their stay Muslims must elaborate. But I can understand a Kovil being near the Temple for there are separate Hindu shrine room with their deities or idols in the midst of most Buddhist Temple premises all over the country. My point here is; the heading in this write-up “Buddhist fascism in Sri Lanka?” is indeed unfair or incorrect.

        Referring to the mosque now, I am not going to argue whether it been there for 6o years or less for I cannot prove it either way and it is not the point. One thing I can say is; it has no minarets, roof is cheep metal sheeted and entrance is from an alleyway and only 3 ft wide. Whether it was only a Muslim meeting place first or not it is evident that the dwelling has turned out to be a prayer place now. In the circumstances, I say, authorities that develop Buddhist sacred area to former glory should have removed it diplomatically with the consent of those Muslims that uses it now.

        If a land with proper road access to build new mosque was offered, any sane person would think Muslims would have considered it as a bonanza for Dambulla is neither a Mecca nor the structure in dispute is Kabba. But this is rather doubtful when think of the nature of Muslims and their history.

        We all know that Muslim Taliban dynamited and demolished 6th century statues known as Bamiyan Buddhas of Ghandara civilisation in now Afghanistan that UNESCO listed as world heritage saying its existence is an impediment to Islam and against Koran verses meaning Allah’s word. Talibans further declared they are just following Muhammad’s idol demolition as he did in his first fight at Badar in 624 AD. Indeed Taliban’s Muslim ancestors, the Moguls of India did not just stop at demolishing idols but destroyed all scriptures and smashed and burned all cultural and learning centres like Nalanda and had killed monks and driven Buddhism that endured for one thousand five hundred years since 550 BC out of India.

        Leaving all that aside this writer had gone on to accuse President Rajapaksa for not reining ‘Buddhist extremists’. I hope you will understand why I have explained our heritage and why we have to protect it.

        1. Sorry, still smells fascistic
          So the Muslims built the mosque there as as an intentional provocation? And the monks were therefore justified in attacking it? (Or forcing its removal in a “diplomatic” way?) Attacking mosques is somehow justified because the Taliban destroyed Buddhist relics?

          Sorry, not buying it.

          You know, we recently had a similar controversy here in my own city, New York. I have no problem saying that the folks who protested the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” were chauvinistic idiots. And some of ’em even smelled a little fascistic. Some of ’em, more than a little.

          On the accuracy tip, it is absurd to portray the Taliban as inheritors of the Moguls. For most of their reign, the Moguls were notoriously tolerant of Hindus, Buddhists and other non-Muslim faiths. Do a little research. Various online sources (Tanmoy, Shunya, Perspectives on Pan-Asianism) will tell you that Naranda university was destroyed circa 1200 by Bakhtiyar Khilji, an early Turkic invader. Now, what year was the Moghul dynasty established? Oh, that’s right, 1526.

          A little confused, are we?

            1. “Both Muslims”? Get outta here…
              No, you didn’t “only” have the date wrong! You were conflating a notoriously tolerant and multicultural Muslim dynasty (which lasted over 400 years) with a short-lived spasm of rule of by an extremoid hot-head. You’ve got to admit, that’s pretty pathetic.

              You know, in the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy, we had to call out Martin Peretz on an identical distortion—when he tried to conflate the tolerant and multicultural Caliphate of CĂłrdoba with the extremoid hot-heads of the Almohad dynasty in Spain. So we ask you the same question we asked him—Are you really that ignorant, or were you trying to pull a fast one, and hoping that others were too ignorant to notice? C’mon, tell us the truth.

              “Both were Muslims.” Yeah, like Dorothy Day and Torquemada were both Catholics! Like Martin Luther King and Jerry Falwell were both Baptists! Like Rosa Luxemburg and Pol Pot were both Marxists! Like Gandhi and Nathuram Godse (his right-wing assassin) were both Hindus! Or—more to the point—like Thich Nhat Hanh and the hot-heads who destroyed the Dambulla mosque are both Theravada Buddhists.

              Once again, get outta here…

              1. From Sri Lanka to Ground Zero
                And speaking of the “Ground Zero mosque” opponents… The blog Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion points out that the vile professional Islamophobe Pam Geller, who led the charge in that crusade, has had a friendly exchange of letters with a defender of the Dambulla mosque destruction in Sri Lanka. They form a nice little mutual admiration society…

  4. Another precedent
    “Buddhist Fascism” isn’t that much of an oxymoron–there were strong connections between Zen temples and Japanese militarism in the 1930s and WWII.

    1. Zen in wartime Japan
      I haven’t read it, but the Buddhist journal Tricycle airs some of the apparently considerable controversy around a book exploring this question, Zen at War by Brian Victoria. A few years ago, I did visit a Buddhist temple in Tokyo (of the Jodo or “Pure Land” sect, I believe, not Zen), which featured an exhibit on Japanese Buddhism in the war era. It portrayed reluctant collaboration (e.g. turning over temple bells to be melted down to make war material), with an appropriate sense of contrition. It also noted Buddhist dissent from Japan’s imperial aggression, before such became impossible. Victoria’s book does include a chapter, “Buddhist Resistance to Japanese Militarism.”

      It should also be noted that Shinto was far more integrated into the war propaganda system than Buddhism ever was.

  5. An excellent article.
    I am sympathetic to nationism and disagree with Bill’s idea that people aren’t entitled to be the judges of the members of their own societies, free of modern notions of citizenship and secularism.
    Having written that, this article gives a good view of what happens when people take nationism too seriously.
    The earth would be more stable as a set of many, small, closed societies, but we can’t move towards that right at this point, so toleration and continued building of our technical abilities should be the watch words.

    It’s plain that, whatever the claims of Muslim or Hindu encroachment on the sacred precinct at the center of this controversy, the Buddhist agitators are behaving in a criminal manner.
    The end result of their agitation will quite likely be the displacement of religious minorities (internally or externally) or even a pogrom.
    That’s simply much worse than the offended sensibilities of the Singhalese.

    1. Thanks, but…
      Glad to have an appreciative reader, but, first of all, most of the credit for this one goes to Sudha Ramachandran of Asia Times. I just provided some annotation.

      And, secondly, as in the last time you weighed in here, you feel the need to distance yourself from “modern notions of citizenship and secularism,” as if they were some imperialist conspiracy. Dude, have you ever heard of the paradoxical unity of opposites? Ethno- and religio-nationalism are merely the flipside of the same damn coin as the Globalist Borg. Don’t you get it? Looking to “closed societies” to protect us from the ravages of globalization is a dangerous illusion if ever there was one. Personally, I like open societies, and I will fight to keep the society I live in as open as possible—and, George Soros nothwithstanding, this also means resisting corporate globalization. The corporate monoculture just fuels the ethnic and religious fundamentalist backlash, which then serves as justification for expanding the monoculture through military means, as we have seen from the ex-Yugoslavia to Iraq to Libya, with Syria likely to be next. And (again, Soros nothwithstanding) globalization increasingly represents a corporate techno-security state, where freedom is also contracting. The two tendencies merely fuel each other. Which is why we (with the Zapatistas) call for “pluri-ethnic autonomy” as an alternative to both. We explored this question in greater depth here.