“Police have opened investigations into an attack on a Buddhist centre in Wanduramba, Galle, where tear gas was used to control crowds on Sunday evening,” says a news report published in a National news paper website on Monday last, going on to tell us that, “[t]he protest was launched against a group alleged to be practising Buddhism against the principles of the Theravadha Buddhism at the particular location. Buddhist monks and over 2,000 people took part in the protest.”
Other reports confirm the incident. Some months ago now, a mosque in Dambulla was attacked, once with a fire bomb, and then by a large group of civilians led by well known Buddhist monks from the temple there.
Are these incidents related or unrelated? And if so or not, are they expressions of an age old Sinhala Buddhist consciousness?
The two incidents have ideological differences from each other, and yet they also share similarities. A Facebook page that reproduces and (shares) carefully made Sinhala ‘posters’ gives me a clue to these logics: the Dambulla march and attack was about Buddhist sacred space, the Wanduramba matter about ‘false belief.’ And while these are both listed as matters of grave concern on yet another poster, they are listed separately. Their logics are different but interrelated, one is about the purity of space, the other about the ideological claims that are to be written, inscribed in that space.
Are these claims then, taken together, as interconnected, or separately, ancient? Have those who today claim the mantle of Sinhala Buddhism always been so ideologically inclined? Not in my view. This is not to discount the terror of intolerance, violence and war by covering it in a misty and glorious haze, suggesting that all was calm and kind, pious and loving, “then.”
But it is to point to important differences. Doctrinal disputes, about say, the Vinaya, were crucial to the debates between great monastic orders of the Mahavihara, the Jethawana and Abyegiri in the early medieval period of the island’s past. Often, it seems they were polite and erudite debates, conducted in traditions of scholary respect. Rarely, that is once in many centuries, a monastery may have been destroyed or pillaged on the orders of a King who found the loosers of such a debate to be heretics. Yet these debates, while no doubt logical and erudite, were not about a “truth” that was rational, verified by modern science, which inaugurates the distinction between contemporary Buddhism and its many, varied ancient forbearers. Modern debates are outcomes of resistance to missionary Christianity, that sought to cast Buddhism as irrational. Indeed, in was at Baddegama, in the very neighborhood of Wanduramba, that the first such debate between Buddhists and Christians took place. These debates were not directed at the Sovereign, as ancient debates were. That’s the second big difference; they were directed at ordinary people whose, ‘consciousness,’ was the battle ground of the arguments. “Consciousness,” as Sumanasiri Liyanage has pointed out recently, isn’t the same as ideology. It’s about what’s inside us. The concept is close cousins with “conscience,” a person’s moral core in the Christian sense. It can be argued that this is a modern, Protestant idea that is a rupture in Christian thought as well.
The idea of Scared Space which catalyzes the violence at Dambulla is also a modern idea; very much a product of colonial archaeological practice, which made hierarchically ordered, racially marked, monumental landscape for us. By the end of the ninetieth century, these colonially produced, museumised spaces were violently sacralized by Buddhist activists like Walisinghe Harischandra, who led direct agitation to purify Anuradhapura of ‘profanity’ in 1903.
What colonial Archaeology made, Sinhala Buddhist nationalism claimed as pure, sacred space for its pilgrims, in its battle for their consciousness.
I see the objections of the high priest of Dambulla to the Mosque and Kovil in the vicinity of his temple, as a replay of Harischandra-led making of modern consciousness, not as an ancient tradition. In fact, we have had multi faith sites of worship in this country for a long time; Katharagama is but one example of temple, Kovil and Mosque existing and interacting in the same space. But it’s not been subject to the archeological intensity that Dambulla has. Hence the obviousness of chronological temporality in once site, (hey, we are 1000 years older than you, my book says so!), to its difficulty in Kataragama or Adam’s Peak (who came first, Adam, Buddha or Murukan?).
The very idea of Sinhala Buddhist consciousness in modern. It doesn’t go back to the fifth century or sixth, an idea that really must be abandoned, because it’s silly. Yes, as modern citizens we are endowed with both a conscience and consciousness. Perhaps that’s ancient or perhaps not; I really don’t think it matters all that much. What does matter is the idea that to be authentic, to be faithful, and to be good, we have to be ‘pure,’ to the point of intolerance, angry to the point of direct violence against someone or something that is not ours.