by Luis Granados
Now that the glow has died down from the Dalai Lama’s US tour, we can take a closer look at how the great “religion of peace” he represents operates when in power. Our travels take us to Sri Lanka, where political Buddhism has been in the ascendant for over half a century. Sri Lanka has been getting lots of press attention lately, for war crimes committed during the campaign for Buddhist dominance that was brilliantly concluded in 2009.
In the closing phase of a armed conflict that began in earnest in 1983, the majority Sinhalese appear to have resorted to genocide to break the back of Tamil resistance. According to Human Rights Watch, civilian neighborhoods were shelled systematically, with hospitals a particular target. After the final climactic battle, several thousand prisoners were stripped naked and then shot. We know this because there is actual video footage of the slaughter, apparently taken by a Sri Lankan soldier. The video shows, among other things, the naked body of a young woman with a blood-spattered face identified as “Isaippriya,” a news reader with the Tamil television station. A dozen other men and women, some with hands tied behind their backs, lay dead beside her. The Sri Lankan government says the video is a fake; the special investigator appointed by the United Nations says otherwise.
Why all the killing, and what does Buddhism have to do with it?
The British occupied the island of Ceylon in 1796, and allowed Christian missionaries the freedom to operate schools and sell their particular brand of God expertise. This did not sit well with the Buddhist clergy; throughout the 19th century, periodic revolts against British rule were associated with Buddhist irritation over Christian proselytizing.
After Sri Lanka achieved independence from Britain in 1948, Buddhist God experts began clamoring for a crackdown on Christian missionaries. In the tumultuous election campaign of 1956, the Buddhist clergy was out in full force, and succeeded in installing a government that fully revamped the island’s education system, replacing most of the Christian schools with government-run schools to brainwash children with Buddhism rather than Christianity.
The prime minister elected in 1956, Solomon Bandaranaike, had more issues to deal with than schools, however. The island’s population was approximately 70% Sinhalese, who were overwhelmingly Buddhist. The remainder, known as the Tamils, were divided fairly evenly among Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. The Buddhist majority had already begun using its political strength to push the Tamils around, by kicking many of them off the voter rolls on the grounds that they were descendants of “guest workers,” and thus not truly Sri Lankan.
Bandaranaike was willing to give the Buddhists most of what they wanted, but he couldn’t see the wisdom of condemning such a large proportion of the population to be a permanent underclass. Thus, he entered into a deal with Tamil leaders over the terms of a “devolution” of power arrangement, in which the Tamil-majority territories in the northeastern portion of the island would enjoy significant local autonomy on matters such as language, while remaining under the aegis of the central government. The resulting deal was not dissimilar to the relation between the federal government and the states in this country, or the devolution of local power to Scotland that has occurred in the United Kingdom.
This calm, rational solution left the Buddhist clergy who had supported Bandaranaike apoplectic. They shrieked; they marched; they rioted. They warned their followers that Tamil local autonomy would “lead to the total annihilation of the Sinhalese race.” Dozens of monks marched to Bandaranaike’s home, plunked themselves down, and refused to budge until the pact was rescinded.
Forced to choose between the 70% who had supported him and the 30% who hadn’t, Bandaranaike caved in, drove to a radio station, and reneged on the agreement he had just proudly announced. This placated some of the monks, but apparently not all of them. In 1959, a monk named Talduwe Somarama, at the behest of the head of one of Sri Lanka’s leading Buddhist temples, visited Bandaranaike at his home, pulled out a revolver, and murdered him.
Why did the Buddhist monks give a damn about what language was spoken in a corner of their island? Their reasoning parallels that of Jewish (and some Christian) God experts who insist that God gave the Jews a promised land in the book of Genesis, and that God will only be happy if the Jews are allowed unfettered control over that land. According to Sri Lankan Buddhist experts, the Buddha himself visited their island and proclaimed that it belonged to his followers forever. A Buddhist scripture called the Mahavamsa has the Buddha visiting Ceylon three times, where he terrorized those unwilling to follow him: “[The Buddha] struck terror to their hearts by rain, storm, darkness and so forth … Then, when he had destroyed their terror and had spread his rug of skin … the Conqueror, sitting there, made the rug to spread wide, while burning flame surrounded it.” On his deathbed, the Buddha is said to have pointed across the Bay of Bengal and proclaimed “In Lanka, O Lord of Gods, shall my religion be established and flourish.” The year 1956 was especially significant because it marked not only the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s death, but the legendary original settlement of Sri Lanka by a band of his followers.
The Mahavamsa goes on to describe a great Buddhist warrior king, Dutthagamani, who in the 2nd century BC conquered all of Sri Lanka for Buddhism, slaughtering Tamils as he found them. Modern scholarship actually portrays Dutthagamani as cooperating with some Tamil tribes against other Buddhist tribes, but nuances like that are lost on the monks. The part they focus on is Dutthagamani’s deathbed scene, where he expresses remorse at all the slaughter he caused, but is reassured by a gaggle of Buddhist saints that he had killed only one and a half people worth fretting about. All the rest were “unbelievers and men of evil life.” As a monk wrote in 1957, “Dutthagamani conquered by the sword and united the land without dividing it among our enemies [i.e., the Tamils] and established Sinhala and Buddhism as the state language and religion.” Following in Dutthagamani’s footsteps is exactly what the monks urged on the government in the 20th century.
Next week: Buddhist hegemony leads to war.