Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism is a Sri Lankan political ideology which combines a focus upon Sinhalese culture and ethnicity (nationalism) with an emphasis upon Theravada Buddhism, which is the majority belief system of most of the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. It mostly revived in reaction to the colonisation of Sri Lanka by the British Empire and became increasingly assertive in the years following the independence of the country.
Sinhalese nationalism has generally been influenced by the contents of the Mahavamsa, the major Pali chronicle, written in the 6th century.
The mytho-historical accounts in the Sinhalese Buddhist national chronicle Mahavamsa ('Great Chronicle'), a text written in the sixth century CE by Buddhist monks to glorify Buddhism in Sri Lanka, have been influential in the creation of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism and militant Buddhism. The Mahavamsa states that Lord Buddha made three visits to Sri Lanka in which he rids the island of forces inimical to Buddhism and instructs deities to protect the ancestors of the Sinhalese (Prince Vijaya and his followers from North India) to enable the establishment and flourishing of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. This myth has led to the widely held Sinhalese Buddhist belief that the country is Sihadipa (island of the Sinhalese) and Dhammadipa (the island ennobled to preserve and propagate Buddhism).
Most of the myths regarding the history of Sri Lanka originate from the Mahavamsa. And so, Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists maintain that they are the Buddha's selected people, and that the island of Sri Lanka is the Buddhist promised land. The Mahavamsa also describes an account of the Sri Lankan Buddhist warrior king Dutugamunu, and his army, supported by up to 500 Buddhist monks, battling and defeating the Tamil king Elara and the army of Cholas, who had come from South India and usurped power in Anuradhapura (the island's capital at the time). When Dutugamunu laments over the thousands (Tamils) he has killed, the eight arhats (Buddha's enlightened disciples) who come to console him reply that no real sin has been committed by him because he has only killed Tamil unbelievers (Elara and his people) who are no better than beasts, then go on to say: "Thou wilt bring glory to the doctrine of the Buddha in manifold ways; therefore cast away care from the heart, O ruler of men." The Dutugamunu's campaign against king Elara was not to defeat injustice, as the Mahavamsa describes Elara as a good ruler, but to restore Buddhism through a united Sri Lanka under a Buddhist monarch, even by the use of violence. The Mahavamsa story about Buddha's visit to Sri Lanka where he (referred to as the "Conqueror") subdues forces inimical to Buddhism, the Yakkhas (depicted as the non-human inhabitants of the island), by striking "terror to their hearts" and driving them from their homeland, so that his doctrine should eventually "shine in glory," has been described as providing the warrant for the use of violence for the sake of Buddhism and as an account that is in keeping with the general message of the author that the political unity of Sri Lanka under Buddhism requires the removal of uncooperative and non-Sinhalese groups.
According to Neil DeVotta (an Associate Professor of Political Science), the mytho-history described in the Mahavamsa "justifies dehumanizing non-Sinhalese, if doing so is necessary to preserve, protect, and propagate the dhamma (Buddhist doctrine). Furthermore, it legitimizes a just war doctrine, provided that war is waged to protect Buddhism. Together with the Vijaya myth, it introduces the basis for the Sinhalese Buddhist belief that Lord Buddha designated the island of Sri Lanka as a repository for Theravada Buddhism. It claims the Sinhalese were the first humans to inhabit the island (as those who predated the Sinhalese were subhuman) and are thus the true "sons of the soil." Additionally, it institutes the belief that the island's kings were beholden to protect and foster Buddhism. All of these legacies have had ramifications for the trajectory of political Buddhism and Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism."
Anagarika Dharmapala was one of the leading contributors to the Buddhist revival of the 19th century that led to the creation of Buddhist institutions and Buddhist schools to match those of the Christian missionaries, and to the independence movement of the 20th century. He illustrated the first three points in a public speech:
He called upon the Sinhalese people to rise. He strongly protested consumption of alcohol, killing of cattle and promoted vegetarianism.
Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has a fractious relationship with other religious communities like Christians and Muslims, with protests often being organised by Buddhist nationalist organisations against Christians in the governance of the country through movements like Catholic Action. Relations between Buddhist nationalists and Hindus are more peaceful and friendly, with numerous Hindu figures, including Kandiah Neelakandan and T. Maheswaran working with Buddhist groups on the anti-conversion bill. Also, D. B. S. Jeyaraj noted that both Sri Lankan Hindu nationalism and Buddhist nationalism rose as reactions to Christianity. Hindu-Buddhist collaboration is growing more prevalent in Sri Lanka, with the rise of groups such as the Hindu-Buddhist Friendship Society.
In recent times the relationship between Sinhala Buddhist Nationalists and Sri Lankan Catholics have improved over several shared interests such as opposition to sterilisation and banning private tuition classes during religious holidays. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith also opposed secularism and supported Buddhism as state religion which received praise from Buddhist clergy. However Evangelical Christians continues to be distrusted.
|Logo||Name of movement||Country or region served||Ideology||Active?||Successor||Notes|
|Bodu Bala Sena||Sri Lanka
|Anti-liberalism||Yes||No||Led by Galagoda Atthe Gnasaara, far-right by position|
|Patriotic People's Front||Sri Lanka||Marxism||No (1989)||National People's Power||Armed wing of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna|
|Sinhala Ravaya||Sri Lanka||Anti-liberalism||Yes||No||Allied with Bodu Bala Sena|
|Sinhala National Force||Sri Lanka||Fundamentalism||Yes||No||Minor group|
|Ravana Balaya||Sri Lanka||Ravanism||Yes||No||Opposes Indian influence in Sri Lanka|
|Sinhalese Force||Sri Lanka||Ultranationalism||No (1950-1955)||No successor||Used Nazi salute to greet its leaders|
|Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna||Sri Lanka||Corporatism||No||Sihala Urumaya||Forced non-Sinhalese to leave Sinhalese areas|
the Mahavamsa is a combination of myth, history, lineage, religion, and politics. It later became a tool for the creation of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism and a document that determined the divine right of the Sinhalese to inhabit the island.
The greatest importance of the Mahavamsa is not as history but as a symbol — and as a motivating force behind Sinhalese nationalism.
As Heinz Bechert says, the key to modern Sinhala national identity lies in the linking of religion and the people in Sri Lanka's ancient chronicle tradition. As we see, according to the Mahavamsa, Sinhalas are specially chosen by the Buddha and their political unity guarantees the survival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, just as their political identity is guaranteed by their espousal of Buddhism.
The Sinhala-Buddhist worldview has been shaped and reshaped by the myths and the monkish chronicles such as the Mahavamsa, Culavamsa which underscore two crucial issues, the rightful heir of the state (Dhammadipa) and Sri Lanka as the repository of Buddhist message. Both these two issues have shaped the popular psyche and political discourses.
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Buddhist nationalism has its roots in the Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa, and Culavamsa, texts unique to Sinhalese Buddhism.
The ethnocentric character of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka, which provides the ideological basis for the present Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, has its roots in the construction of the identity of the Sinhala people as one chosen to safeguard Buddhism. Chosenness here is part of a historical consciousness, mainly supported by post-canonical Pali literature - especially, the Mahavamsa - which, in one of its clauses, justifies killing for the sake of religion.
Militant Buddhism there has its roots in an ancient narrative called the Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle), which was composed by monks in the sixth century.
The Sinhalese take this as a sign that they are the Buddha's chosen people, commanded to "preserve and protect" Buddhism in its most pristine form.
`From this deed arises no hindrance in thy way to heaven. Only one and a half human beings have been slain here by thee, O lord of men. The one had come unto the (three) refuges, the other had taken on himself the five precepts Unbelievers and men of evil life were the rest, not more to be esteemed than beasts. But as for thee, thou wilt bring glory to the doctrine of the Buddha in manifold ways; therefore cast away care from thy heart, O ruler of men!
The campaign against Elara is described at some length in the Mahavamsa, and it is clear that Dutthagamini does not move against Elara because the Tamil king was unjust, cruel, or tyrannical. The Mahavamsa points out that Elara was a good ruler, and, when he is killed, Dutthagamini has him cremated honorably, and erects a monument in his memory. In constructing the "Dutthagamini epic" as he does, Mahanama wants to make clear that the heroic task in hand is not the defeat of injustice but the restoration of Buddhism. The overthrow of the Tamil king is required first and foremost because Sri Lanka cannot be united unless the monarch is Buddhist. [...] The main point is the honor Dutthagamini brings "to the doctrine of the Buddha," and this greater good justifies the violence required to bring it about. [...] Mahanama's [author of the Mahavamsa] lesson for monarchs remains consistent: be as strong as you need to be to maintain the Buddhist state; be supportive of the Sangha and willing to defeat the enemy by force.