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 Sinhalese Buddhist national chronicle Mahavamsa ('Great Chronicle'), composed in the sixth century CE by Buddhist monks, contains historical accounts and mythological stories that have played a significant role in shaping and strengthening Sinhalese Buddhist identity.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9] The Mahavamsa describes Gautama Buddha's three visits to Sri Lanka, during which he blesses and sanctifies the island, paving the way for his teachings to flourish there. The text also portrays the Buddha as instructing deities to protect the ancestors of the Sinhalese (Prince Vijaya and his followers from North India), enabling them to establish and propagate Buddhism in Sri Lanka.[10][11] These inspiring narratives have contributed to the deeply held Sinhalese Buddhist belief that Sri Lanka is Sihadipa (island of the Sinhalese) and Dhammadipa (the island chosen to preserve and propagate Buddhism), instilling a strong sense of religious and national identity.[12]


The Mahavamsa, a 6th century CE chronicle, has had a profound influence on Sinhalese Buddhist culture and identity. The text contains mythological accounts of the Buddha's visits to Sri Lanka, during which he is said to have sanctified the island as a haven for Buddhism and entrusted its protection to the Sinhalese people.[13]

The Mahavamsa also recounts the story of the Buddhist warrior king Dutugamunu and his battle against the Tamil king Elara to unite Sri Lanka under a Buddhist monarch. While the text depicts Elara as a good ruler, Dutugamunu's campaign is portrayed as necessary for the restoration and glory of Buddhism on the island.[14]

Scholars have noted that the Mahavamsa's narratives have contributed to a belief among some Sinhalese Buddhists that they are the Buddha's chosen people and that Sri Lanka is a sacred Buddhist land.[15][16] The text's depiction of the Buddha driving away Yakkhas, the island's non-human inhabitants, to establish Buddhism has been interpreted by some as providing justification for the use of violence in the name of religion and the removal of groups seen as uncooperative with Buddhist goals.[17] However, the Mahavamsa remains an important religious and cultural text that has helped to shape Sinhalese Buddhist identity over many centuries.

Contributions of Anagarika Dharmapala

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:

This bright, beautiful island was made into a Paradise by the Aryan Sinhalese before its destruction was brought about by the barbaric vandals. Its people did not know irreligion... Christianity and polytheism are responsible for the vulgar practices of killing animals, stealing, prostitution, licentiousness, lying and drunkenness... The ancient, historic, refined people, under the diabolism of vicious paganism, introduced by the British administrators, are now declining slowly away.[18]

He called upon the Sinhalese people to rise. He strongly protested consumption of alcohol, killing of cattle and promoted vegetarianism.[19]

Relationship with other religions in Sri Lanka

Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has a fractious relationship with other religious communities like Christians and Muslims,[20] with protests often being organised by Buddhist nationalist organisations against Christians in the governance of the country through movements like Catholic Action.[21] 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.[22] Also, D. B. S. Jeyaraj noted that both Sri Lankan Hindu nationalism and Buddhist nationalism rose as reactions to Christianity.[23] Hindu-Buddhist collaboration is growing more prevalent in Sri Lanka, with the rise of groups such as the Hindu-Buddhist Friendship Society.[24]

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.[25][26][27] However Evangelical Christians continue to be distrusted.[28]




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


See also


  1. ^ Gregg, Heather Selma (2014-01-01). The Path to Salvation: Religious Violence from the Crusades to Jihad. Potomac Books, Inc. p. 75. ISBN 9781612346601. 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.
  2. ^ Zwier, Lawrence J. (1998-01-01). Sri Lanka: War-torn Island. Lerner Publications. ISBN 9780822535508. The greatest importance of the Mahavamsa is not as history but as a symbol — and as a motivating force behind Sinhalese nationalism.
  3. ^ Grant, Patrick (2009-01-05). Buddhism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. SUNY Press. p. 51. ISBN 9780791493670. 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.
  4. ^ DeVotta 2007, p. 50.
  5. ^ Razak, Abdul; Imtiyaz, Mohamed (2010-03-09). "Politicization of Buddhism and Electoral Politics in Sri Lanka". Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network: 36. SSRN 1567618. 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. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  6. ^ Gier, Nicholas F. (2014-08-20). The Origins of Religious Violence: An Asian Perspective. Lexington Books. p. 47. ISBN 9780739192238. Buddhist nationalism has its roots in the Dipavamsa, Mahavamsa, and Culavamsa, texts unique to Sinhalese Buddhism.
  7. ^ O'Grady, John; May, John D'Arcy; Schüttke-Scherle, Peter (2007-01-01). Ecumenics from the Rim: Explorations in Honour of John D'Arcy May. LIT Verlag Münster. p. 371. ISBN 9783825806378. 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.
  8. ^ McGowan, William (2 August 2012). "Buddhists Behaving Badly". Foreign Affairs. Retrieved 2016-02-20. Militant Buddhism there has its roots in an ancient narrative called the Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle), which was composed by monks in the sixth century.
  9. ^ Sailendra Nath Sen (1999). Ancient Indian History and Civilization. New Age International. p. 91. ISBN 978-81-224-1198-0.
  10. ^ Deegalle 2006, p. 138.
  11. ^ Bartholomeusz 2005, p. 142.
  12. ^ DeVotta 2007, p. 6.
  13. ^ McGowan, William (2 August 2012). "Buddhists Behaving Badly". Foreign Affairs. Retrieved 2016-02-20. 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.
  14. ^ Grant, Patrick (2009-01-05). Buddhism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. SUNY Press. pp. 48–51. ISBN 9780791493670. 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.
  15. ^ DeVotta 2007, p. 8.
  16. ^ Bartholomeusz 2005, p. 20.
  17. ^ Bartholomeusz 2005, p. 50.
  18. ^ Guruge 1965:482
  19. ^ [dead link]
  20. ^ "Neo-fascism on the rise in Sri Lanka".
  21. ^ Sri Lankan Buddhist monks protest against proselytizing Christians AP Worldstream - January 22, 2004
  22. ^ Lanka Buddhists take on Church Daily Pioneer - June 9, 2009
  23. ^ Maheswaran threatens Tamil religious unity Archived 2009-03-04 at the Wayback Machine The Sunday Leader - January 18, 2004
  24. ^ Hindu-Buddhist Friendship Society soon Sunday Observer - May 30, 2004
  25. ^ "For Sri Lankan Buddhists, Card Malcolm Ranjith is a 'good leader'". Retrieved 7 August 2020.
  26. ^ "Archbishop rejects secularisation ideology". Retrieved 7 August 2020.
  27. ^ "Bodu Bala Sena Secretary General Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero Meets Catholic Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith for Discussions". 15 December 2017. Retrieved 7 August 2020.
  28. ^ "Sri Lanka: Bodu Bala Sena disrupts peace". Retrieved 2020-08-08.
  29. ^ "Bodu Bala Sena (BBS or Buddhist Power Force)".
  30. ^ The Rough Guide to Sri Lanka. 2018.