Midweek Review
Religion, culture, civilisation and domination – Part I

by Nalin de Silva
In response to an article by Mr. E. M. G. Edirisinghe, Mr. R. M. B. Senanayake in the Midweek Review of 23rd January 2002 states: "Culture is not the same as religion although some intellectuals who proclaim Sinhala Buddhist nationalism continues to treat them as the same. Dr. Nalin de Silva for example draws a distinction between those whom he calls Olcott Buddhists and Sinhala Buddhists proper." At the outset I must say that I am not an intellectual either in the western European or the Russian sense of the word. I am only an unemployed son of Sinhala school teachers, sometimes masquerading as a freelance journalist. I thought of myself as an intellectual sometime ago in my youth but with the passage of time I have been able to identify myself with the "non intellectuals". In fact, I do not think that there can be any intellectuals in Sinhala Buddhism, whom can be found only in Olcott Buddhism. The rise and fall of the western intellectual tradition from the time of Greeks through study of humanities in Firenze (Florence) in Italy during Renaissance and reformation of Luther and mainly Calvin to the present day various post-isms that include poststructuralism, postcolonialism and postmodernism, incorporating western science and technology also in the process has to be studied in depth from a Sinhala Buddhist or in general from a south Asian point of view and compared and contrasted with south Asian traditions. My first impression is that the western intellectual tradition reached the zenith in the early twentieth century and all these post-isms are either post mortem (I call them "pashchaththapavada" in Sinhala) of a tradition based on two valued formal logic, reality, objectivity, universality, rationalism, pragmatism etc., or at best criticisms from within as in postmodernism (white skins and black masks and white heads) or from outside as in postcolonialism by so-called third world intellectuals working either in the first world or in first world institutions in the third world (black skins and white masks and white heads again). All these intellectuals work within a white chinthanaya - yudev or Judaic Christian chinthanaya (white heads) and we in Jathika Chinthanaya have only brown skins and brown heads and no masks.

Contrary to what Mr. Senanayake thinks I have not treated the culture and the religion as the same. As western postmodernists would say it is his reading of the articles published under my name and we Sinhala (south Asian) Buddhists would have said it is his relative knowledge in his world and that his cognition of those articles is relative to his body of knowledge. The author of "Lovada Sangarava" has expressed this phenomenon beautifully in the words "thama thama nena pamaning dena gatha yuthu." To establish my claim that I have not treated the culture and religion as the same I wish to quote some passages from some of the recent articles by me in the Midweek Review. However, before that I wish to express few words on conversions in Buddhism. I have neither an intention or space in these columns to reply to Mr. Senanayake (This week I should have written on deproscription and suspension and on statements by the Ven. Mahanayake Thero of the Asgiriya chapter, an Olcott Buddhist who has previously gone to Vanni with the so-called inter religious peace brigade, but unfortunately I am prevented from doing so as I am forced to respond to comments on me by Mr. Senanayake.) and I hope Mr. Edirisinghe would do the needful. All that I want to emphasise is that the (Theravada) Buddhist tradition should not be looked at, using Christian concepts if one wants to understand the (Theravada) Buddhists and their culture. However, I must admit that the Olcott Buddhism is also responsible for the prevailing confusion.

In Theravada Buddhist tradition there are no missionaries or missions or conversions. The Buddha was not interested in converting people to Buddhism as such and strictly speaking even the use of word Buddhism is wrong to describe the Dhamma as told by the Buddha. The Buddhists, under the influence of Olcott Buddhism have been using words such as preaching in connection with Dhamma. However the ordinary Sinhala Buddhist (by the way I never spoke of a Sinhala Buddhism proper and I would come back to this later) would say "Bana Kiyanawa" and it is interesting to note that the word used here in connection with Dhamma is the same as the word used in connection with relating stories (kathandara kiyanawa). Preaching is a Christian concept that has been used by the English educated Olcott Buddhists to translate "Bana keema" into English. When a word is translated into another language in another culture those who are not familiar with the original tradition give that word the connotations in the language into which the word has been translated. It is the Budun Vadala Dhamma (vadala again means told and not preached) that the Bhikkus (for God’s or anybody’s sake they are not Buddhist priests) tell the Sinhala Buddhists. The Buddha told Dhamma due to his "mahakarunawa" for the "saththva" and not with intention of converting people. The best illustration in this regard is the case of Upali gahapthi who after listening to the Buddha wanted to become a "disciple". However, the Buddha advised him not to do so and continue with the "dana" given to the Nighanta Natha Puththa.

Buddha’s advice

The Buddha advised the Bhikkus in the words "charatha Bkikkave..... bahujana hithaya bahujana sukhaya" to go from place to place for the "welfare" of the people and not with the intentio of converting people to Buddhism. When Arhat Mahinda came to Sri Lanka he told the king Devanampiya Thissa that he came because of his "sympathy" (anukampava these words do not have one to one correspondence) for the king. (anukampaya jambudeepa idhagatha - came here from Jambuddeepa due to anukampava). It is unfotunate that the Arhat Mahinda’s visit to Sinhale has been translated as a mission. Further conversion as a Christian concept is alien to Theravada Buddhism. With respect to Dhamma the Buddha always said "Ehi Passiko" come and see for yourself. There is no compulsion what so ever and I myself who became a Marxist and an intellectual in my youth have come back and seen for myself what Dhamma is. Having said that on preaching, missions and conversions I will now quote from some of my recent articles in the Midweek Review to illustrate my views on religion, culture, civilisation, Sinhala Buddhism and Olcott Buddhism.

It is not too late for Tamil Hindus to realise their folly and work with Sinhalas to enrich the traditions and the unique culture that is found in this country. The Sinhalas whether Buddhists or Christian, the Tamils whether Hindus or Christians and the Muslims in this country have a common enemy to fight. That is nothing but western Christian (not in a religious sense but in a cultural sense) imperialism with its hegemony in culture including knowledge, economics and politics. Prabhakaran and the LTTE are the boys of the west and not the boys of Tamils as the Tamils once thought. (21st November 2001).

Buddhism unlike the other "world religions" does not admit a creator God. Some go to the extent of saying that Buddhism is not a religion as a religion talks of a God who created the world. To them Buddhism is a way of life and they refer to it as Dahamma. However, these people go by (lean on) some definition of religion created in the west whose intellectuals at one time probably wanted to show that some of us did not have a religion. Some Indians have also fallen into this trap and claim that Hinduism is a way of life. All religions talk of death and what happens after death. For some, after death there is eternal life, for some others it is eternal life in heaven or hell after the final judgement. (7th November 2001).

"In any event it could be said that in general, religions are concerned with (continuation of) life after death (of physical bodies) of sathva (men and women).


They teach (continuation of) life after death and also there are various rituals associated with them and "preach" some form of liberation. So not only Islam and Christianity but Buddhism and Hinduism are religions. Those who claim that Buddhism and Hinduism are not religions and are only ways of life are to my mind being misled by some western definition of religion and taken the cultural aspects of a religion to be the most important. Buddhism, especially Theravada Buddhism, from the beginning has always being a "local" religion(s). In that sense there is no Buddhism or Theravada Buddhist civilisation as such and always there have been Sinhala Buddhism, Thai or Siam Buddhism, Myanmar or Ramanna Buddhism etc. People like Toynbee when they say that there is no Theravada Buddhist civilisation or that the Theravada Buddhist civilisation has been fossilised they may be subconsciously thinking of this aspect of Theravada Buddhism. A civilisation first of all gives a sense of belonging to a large set of people and Theravada Buddhism is unable to provide the people with symbols and concepts to come together with some kind of bondage. It is not that Theravada Buddhist civilisation is fossilised but Theravada Buddhism cannot create a civilisation to begin with. It can only produce "local" cultures such as Sinhala Buddhism.

The above should not be taken as a criticism of Theravada Buddhism(s). I like Theravada Buddhism for what it is and we should not try to make a world religion or an intellectual religion out of Theravada Buddhism. When Arhat Mahinda came to Sri Lanka more than two thousand three hundred years ago what was introduced officially to this country was a Sinhala Buddhism...... Arhat Mahinda not only did not get rid of tree worshipping that was prevailing in this country at that time, but gave it a Buddhist touch by obtaining a branch of Sri Maha Bodhi for people to worship. The people on the other hand did not give up their pantheon of gods and instead made them Buddhist gods. Further they were able to accommodate any other god that came from India afterwards. What was established was a Sinhala Buddhism that would not have been found anywhere else in the world. I think the situation was no different in the other Theravada Buddhist countries.

However in the Sinhala Buddhism that was established in the time of Devanam Piyathissa the "war" was missing as most probably it was influenced by the Buddhism of the king Asoka of Bharat, the latter becoming a Buddhist after fighting a war and giving up war. In no time two horse traders who came from Bharat, probably from Sindh, captured Anuradhapura. Though king Asela was able to defeat the horse traders it was left to the king Dutugemunu to add "war" as a component of Sinhala Buddhism. In the process Sinhala Buddhism went through a kind of metamorphism. Post Dutugemunu Sinhala Buddhism was not the same as pre Dutugemunu Sinhala Buddhism and if not for the metamorphism that was introduced by the king Dutugemunu, most probably on the advice of Vihara Maha Devi, Sinhala Buddhism would have disappeared from this country long time ago." (11th November 2001). "Sinhala Buddhism introduced officially to this country went through a metamorphism during the time of king Dutugemunu and post Dutugemunu Sinhala (Theravada) Buddhism having undergone some modifications introduced by Buddhagosha Thero existed without much problem or challenge until Colonel Olcott and the Theosophists came to Sri Lanka in 1880. Though the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British had tried hard to suppress (post Dutugemunu) Sinhala Buddhism it was Colonel Olcott who managed to revise Sinhala Buddhism to such an extent that we may call the present day Sinhala Buddhism of most of the "Sinhala Buddhists", Olcott Buddhism..... Sinhala Buddhism from the very beginning has absorbed various concepts from other cultures. It is very probable that the religions of Nagas, Devas and especially Yakshas had number of gods either in the form of dead relatives (ne yakun) or some other "beings" and Sinhala Buddhism assimilated or absorbed all these gods into its culture. The Bodhi Vandana (worshiping of Bodhi) is nothing but assimilation of (Bharat) Buddhist concepts into Sinhala (Buddhist) culture. Not only the gods of the Nagas and the other tribes but even Vedic gods would have been absorbed to the Sinhala Buddhist culture. When these gods from other cultures, including those from Hindu culture later, (there was no Hinduism before Sankaracharya and Hinduism is seen by some as an amalgamation of Vedic religion, Buddhism and Jainism. Vedic religion with "yagas" and "homas" and animal sacrifices is different from Hinduism and some argue that the concept of Ahinsa was absorbed into Hinduism from Buddhism and Jainism.) were absorbed into the Sinhala Buddhist culture the Sinhala Buddhists wanted them to be (Sinhala) Buddhist gods. The gods thus absorbed were Buddhist gods after the assimilation and they (the gods)all worshiped Buddha. It was not a pantheon of Gods with Buddha at the head, as some western sociologists have pointed out, but a pantheon of gods that worshipped Buddha. It has to be emphasised contrary to what these western sociologists think, the Sinhala (Theravada) Buddhists, in general, did not consider the Buddha to be a god. For the Sinhala Buddhists the Buddha was only an "uththareethara" "human being" who had "lived" and attained Nibbana.


The god Vishnu is a case in point, with respect to assimilation. Vishnu in Vedic religion and Hinduism is a form of Brahman and in that sense an immortal being. But in Sinhala Buddhism the god Vishnu is neither immortal nor a form of Brahman. The god Vishnu in Sinhala Buddhism is a Sinhala Buddhist god and a bodhisathva. He is not immortal as in Hinduism and Vedic religion and would attain Nibbana in the future. Though the same name Vishnu is used the Sinhala Buddhist god Vishnu is different from the god Vishnu in Vedic religion and Hinduism. Similarly Buddha has been assimilated into the Hindu culture in the form of an avatar of the god Vishnu. Sinhala Theravada Buddhism has not only assimilated from Vedic and Hindu cultures but from Mahayana Buddhism as well. The Mahayana Bodhisathvas are quite different from Sinhala Buddhist Bodhisathvas. The Mahayana Bodhisathvas theoretically live indefinitely in Sukhavathi and other such abodes, and in a sense they are immortal. In fact certain Mahayana sects have made the Buddha also to be immortal. These concepts were most probably constructed as a response to an immortal Brahman but ultimately they had to give in to various forms of Hinduism that were developed later in Bharat. The above are examples for assimilations into one culture from a different culture and nobody could prevent these assimilations. What we have today is mainly an Olcott Buddhism. The politics is directed by Olcott Buddhism and not by Dutugemunu - Dharmapala Buddhism, except for brief periods of time, 1956 being one such moment. The Olcott Buddhists among the educated have turned out to be internationalists. International culture in this period is nothing but western culture and the educated Olcott Buddhists try to interpret Buddhism to the westerners. In the process they have created a so-called objective rational Buddhism that appeals to the west. This Buddhism is interpreted as the Buddhism when the so-called scholars talk of Buddhism betrayed. By Buddhism they mean this abstract imaginary Buddhism that exists in the minds of the educated Olcott Buddhists and probably the western Buddhists. They fail to understand that there is no Buddhism as such and that there are only Buddhisms." (5th December 2001).
(To be continued)