Private: Buddhist Politics and Political Buddhism: Diverse Paths in Modern India and Sri Lanka

Text of the Iqbal Narayan Memorial lecture  delivered at the Center for South Asian Studies, University of Rajasthan Jaipur, on November 11, 2016

Let me begin by expressing my sincere thanks to Professor Karori Singh and Professor Shahsi Upadhyay for inviting me to deliver the 12th Iqbal Narain Memorial Lecture. A Pioneer in setting up the South Asia Studies Center at the University of Rajasthan at Jaipur, Professor Narain has been a leading political scientist in India. His research covered a range of themes that included decentralization, development, local government, public policy and political change in Rajasthan in particular and India in general. He made a national contribution as an academic administrative leader as well when he gave leadership to three universities, Rajasthan, Benares Hindu and North-Eastern, as the Vice Chancellor. He was also Member Secretary of the Indian Council of Social Science Research. I feel humbled by this opportunity to participate in this occasion of paying tribute to the memory of such an eminent scholar and academic leader.

It is also my pleasure to recall my own association with the South Asia Studies Center. When I was a young student, I came to know about the research programmes carried out by this Center and the work of scholars who had conducted their research on Sri Lanka. Professor Lucy Jacob did her research on the identity crisis of Sri Lankan Muslims. Professor Olive Peacock’s research was on the Sri Lankan Burgher community. Then Professor Karori Singh conducted research on Sri Lanka’s land reform programmes. There was also regular academic exchange between Sri Lankan and Jaipur academics. My first visit to the Centre was in 1985 when I was still a doctoral student. Professor Ram Kanth was the Director at that time I had the privilege of enjoying his friendship and hospitality. I still recall with gratitude the valuable advice he gave me on my doctoral research.  This is my third Visit to the South Asia Studies Center. I am grateful to Professor Karori Singh who has very kindly facilitated this visit. The topic of my talk today is a tribute to the South Asian spirit that the Center has pioneered in India in social science scholarship.

May I begin by saying that there is hardly any comparison in the historical and social processes of different countries in the social science scholarship in South Asia. Rarely have scholars ventured into terrains beyond what have been marked by the modern nation state boundaries. The theme of my talk today is animated by the idea that inter-societal comparison across state borders would yield interesting and perhaps fresh insights into themes that we have earlier studied in country-specific inquiries. For example, India and Sri Lanka, despite the enormity of contrasts in the sheers geographical size of the two countries, provide thematic contrasts that are worth social scientific inquiry. One such thematic contrast I have been working on during the past three months suggests the following problematic: strong institutionalization of political democracy and weak institutionalization of societal democracy can be seen as a core contradictory characteristic in the post-colonial political change in India. Sri Lanka presents a somewhat different picture. Strong institutionalization of political democracy has been paralleled with weak institutionalization of ethnic democracy and almost total neglect of societal democracy. Why this paradox? How has it come into being? What have been its consequences?

The terms “institutionalization of political democracy” refers to the consolidation of institutions, values and practices of liberal, parliamentary and representative democracy backed by a broad social consensus, legitimacy and popular support. On the other hand, “societal democracy” in the Indian, Sri Lankan, and broadly South Asian, contexts could mean achieving social equality among citizens as individuals as well as communities against the institutions, practices and cultures of exclusion, oppression and marginalization based on caste and social group distinctions and differentiation. As a political idea, it differs from the social democracy of Western Europe. Societal democracy is specifically South Asian in the sense that it envisages eradication of caste-based social, economic, political and cultural inequalities. Ethnic democracy in its minimalist sense refers to political equality and equal citizenship, which is constitutionalized and available without institutional obstacles, for ethnic and cultural minorities within a nation-state.  It is basically a liberal, constitutionalist public good. As a political vision, societal democracy goes beyond liberal constitutionalism. It helps to deepen the egalitarian agenda of social democracy and links itself with the civic republican values of inclusive citizenship.

Societal democracy is not a conceptual category in circulation among social scientists. It is usually used in a general sense with no specific conceptual meaning. However, it has the potential to be developed as a concept that can encapsulate the social struggles for equality that have marked the political and social history of entire South Asia throughout the past two to three centuries. Aspirations for equality expressed through various forms of resistance against caste domination and oppression has been one of the most dynamic modern democratic desires in South Asia. These struggles have advanced social egalitarian arguments that have also deepened the programme of modern democracy in a substantial way.

For example, the goal of societal democracy seems to have acquired a specific significance in the struggles for democracy in India, beginning in the second half of the 19th century. In fact, there is a specific story of the post-1857 political transformation of colonial India through indigenous resistance and mobilization for equality and equal citizenship for the larger goal of social emancipation. It begins with the struggle for societal democracy by the marginalized caste communities in Southern and Western regions of India – regions that constitute the modern Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Maharashtra. The beginning of the mobilization for political democracy in the colonial India occurred somewhat later and it eventually succeeded in subsuming under its banner the societal democratic project as well (Aloysius, 1997). An interesting facet of the story of the struggle for societal democracy in colonial and even post-colonial India is the advancement of the goals of social equality and justice under the egalitarian religio-ethical banner of Buddhism (Omvedt, 2003; Zelliot, 1979, Aloysius, 1998). As a Sri Lankan who is trying to understand the island’s contemporary political challenges from a South Asian perspective, I find this Indian experience fascinating, illuminating and therefore warranting comparative inquiry. My lecture today is a first step in the direction of understanding Sri Lankan politics through the insights that can be gained through such a comparative reflection.

The role of Buddhism in social and political transformation in late colonial as well as post-colonial India and Sri Lanka is a theme that continues to attract scholarly attention. The expanding body of academic and activist literature on the dalit politics in India is so vast and varied that it even constitutes a corpus of alternative social science and political knowledge and analysis. A central theme running through that literature is the claim that modern Buddhism in India constitutes a radical and radically new social ontology, pointing to a vision for social and political reconstruction.

Capturing this scholarly sentiment, an anthology of writings on Ambedkar’s contribution published in 2004 carried the title Reconstructing the World: B. R. Ambedkar and Buddhism in India (Jondhale and Beltz, 2004).  The idea of social emancipation is at the core of that secular, this worldly vision advanced by activist Indian Buddhists. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, whose 125th Birth Anniversary was celebrated early this year, and Iyothee Thass of the Tamil South are the key thinkers who are credited with constructing the social emancipationist Buddhist ontology. A sharp contrast with Sri Lanka’s modern Buddhist movement can be immediately discerned when we juxtapose the title of this book on Baba Saheb Ambedkar with a new book just appeared on the foremost modern Sri Lankan Buddhist thinker and activist, Anagarika Dharmapala. It is The Lion’s Roar: Anagarika Dharmapala and the Making of Modern Buddhism (Amunugama, 2016). Lion, by the way, is the identity emblem of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-Buddhist nationhood.  Amunugama’s invocation of the lion and its roar is not a mere employment of a literary devise for rhetorical effect. The figure of the lion is an ethno-nationalist discursive trope. The titles of these two books indeed reveal, juxtapose and contrast the diverse political trajectories of the modern Buddhist movements in India and Sri Lanka.

In Sri Lanka, the renewed scholarly interest in the resurgence of Buddhism as a response to the encounter with colonialism is shown in the recent publication of another work on Anagarika Dharmapala’s life and work. It is Steven Kemper’s Rescued from the Nation: Anagarika Dharmapala and the Buddhist World, published by the Chicago University Press. It appeared last year (2015).  Amunugama’s Lion’s Roar, to which we have already made reference, has just been published, in July this year (2016), in Colombo. Both are substantial work of scholarship in depth and length, the first running into 719 pages and the latter to 503 pages. Both seek to provide, through new research and interpretation, fresh insights into the life, times and contribution of the most important individual around whose thought and action a good part of the story of Sri Lanka’s modern history is actually woven.  As I will suggest later in this talk, these new inquiries are also limited in scope for want of comparative perspectives.

If Thass and Ambedkar are credited with re-interpreting Buddhism for the Indian society, which originated in North India twenty six centuries ago, Dharmapala is remembered for reviving and regenerating Theravada Buddhism as a major religio-intellectual force in Sri Lanka as well as India against the backdrop of its decline and decay. Some Indian neo-Buddhists who are followers of Baba Saheb Ambedkar even consider Anagarika Dharmapala as a Bodhisatva (‘a future Buddha’) and the second Dharmasoka of India.   Both Dharmapala and Ambedkar lived and worked in South Asia more or less as distant contemporaries.  Both were products of the Theosophical and Orientalist Buddhist revival in Asia. Dharmapala was of course the senior of the two. He was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1864, and died as a Buddhist monk in 1933 at Saranath where the Buddha himself passed away.

Ambedkar was junior to Dharmapala by twenty-seven years. He was born in a rural village in Madya Pradesh, Western India in 1891, and died in 1956 in Delhi. Ambedkar became a Buddhist only six months before his death, in a mass conversion ceremony. Yet, as his biographies show, Ambedkar’s interest in the social emancipatory potential of the Buddha’s teaching goes back to his early youth, to his high school days.  He made the famous proclamation in 1939 that he would not die a Hindu. It showed that long before he publicly embraced Buddhism, Ambedkar had settled emotional and intellectual accounts with Hinduism and begun moving towards Buddhism.

Meanwhile, Anagarika Dharmapala lived in India for forty years in his adult life leading India’s Buddhist revivalist movement. Yet, there are no records of these two most important Buddhist lay figures of modern Asia either meeting or exchanging correspondence. Ambedkar was perhaps too young to be personally in touch with Dharmapala. Ambedkar returned to India in 1923 and ten years later Dharmapala passed away.  However, there was no record to indicate that the two had met.  There are no records either to suggest that Ambedkar was particularly inspired by any of Dharmapala’s interpretations of the Buddha’s doctrine. Ambedkar may have had some contacts with the Mahabodhi Society, but they don’t seem to be very pleasant ones, as we will see later.

Of course, Anagarika Dharmapala had much closer contacts with Pandith Iyothee Thass of Madras.  It is quite interesting that Dharmapala wrote the “Introduction” to Lakshmi S. Narasu’s influential book The Essence of Buddhism when it was first published in Madras in 1907. Though not a Buddhist himself, Dr. Narasu’s many writings on Buddhism – he was a Professor of Physics at Madras Christian College – had inspired Thass in his Buddhist activism.   Ambedkar wrote the “Introduction” to the book’s third edition in 1948. Iyothee Thass, who can be considered as the first modern Tamil Indian to re-interpret Buddhism in order to inaugurate Buddhist social activism of the Panchama and Paraya Dalit communities in Southern India, does not seem to have had any influence on Dharmapala’s thinking or activism in India.  The fact that these two giants of Buddhist intellectuals, — both were contemporaries with a history of interaction, — had no mutual intellectual influence is no historical accident too. In this talk, my aim is to explore what this absence means in a larger historical – political sense.

I like to explore this puzzle by asking a somewhat provocative question: What does the absence of direct links between Dharmapala on the one hand and Iyothee Thass and Ambedkar on the other mean in symbolic terms? Does it mean that as exemplars of modern Buddhism they travelled along two paths that were moving along two different directions with no possibility of meeting?  Finding an answer to this question calls for a comparative study of how modern Indian and Sri Lankan Buddhists and their key theorists encountered, negotiated and settled accounts with colonialism, traditional religions, social structures, social and cultural practices and of course dominant ideologies. Such a comparative study has not yet appeared in the rich terrain of South Asian scholarship.

Looking at it through a comparative lens, it is not difficult to point out that the modern Indian and Sri Lankan Buddhists have constructed the paths of their own projects of modernity differently – Indian Dalit Buddhist through social reconstruction and the Sri Lankan Buddhists through cultural reconstruction. This distinction has also given specific character to the ways in which the Indian Buddhists, who happened to be mostly Dalits, and the Sri Lankan Buddhists have related themselves to modern democracy – the Indian Buddhists centre-staging the societal question and their Sri Lankan counterparts the nationalist question.

At this point, we may also note that these contrasting goals constitute one of the most visible, yet unexplored, comparisons between the political engagement of Indian and Sri Lankan Buddhists during the 19th and 20th centuries. This contrast can be seen, as I have already suggested, in the centrality accorded to the social question in Indian Buddhist politics and to the cultural question in Sri Lankan Buddhist politics. In other words, while modern Indian Buddhists have given primacy to the question of social equality/social justice, modern Sri Lankan Buddhists have given primacy to the question of the nation and national sovereignty.  While Indian Buddhists approached the political via the social (‘social – political’), Sri Lankan Buddhists entered the political through the national (‘national-political’).

This contrast also constitutes and defines the different ways in which these Buddhist communities have encountered and responded to modern democracy.  Understanding these contrasts can also help us to make sense of the fact that there is very little, if any , intellectual engagement between the Indian and Sri Lankan Buddhists, despite the fact that a Sri Lankan Buddhist in the early 20th century played a key role in reviving the glory of Buddhism in India. This has been so despite that fact that a number of Indian scholars, who later became intellectual giants in India, had learned Pali and Buddhism at monastery schools in Sri Lanka during the first half of the 20th century. Jagdish Kashyap, Mahapandith Rahul Sanskrityayan, D. D. Kosambi and Sathischandra Vidyabhushana are the four most prominent of them. They do not seem to have facilitated any dialogue between Sri Lanka Buddhists and the Indian Dalit Buddhists. They seem to have remained basically Mahabodhi Buddhists with no direct social or intellectual engagement with subaltern Buddhist movements in India. Mahabodhi Buddhists in a way refrained from reinterpreting the Buddha’s teachings in a social emancipatory sense as Thass and Ambedkar did. While Dharmapala highlighted the dimension of other-worldly emancipation as found in Buddha’s teachings, Thass and Ambedkar brought the dimension of secular, this-worldly emancipation as the central concern of Buddhist ethical commitment. In doing so, Ambedkar even went to the extent of rejecting one of the core concepts of the Buddha’s teaching as found in the Pali cannon, the Four Noble Truths, or Chathurarya Sathyaya.  No Sri Lankan Buddhist would have dared to undertake such a radically heterodox and revisionist project.

Indian Buddhist Revival and the Social Question

Specificities between the Indian and Sri Lankan Buddhist histories have had a remarkable continuity. While Buddhism emerged in India during the sixth century BC as a social and philosophical protest against the established religio-social order, the Buddhist history that began in Sri Lanka during the third century BC had been closely associated with the state and the ruling class.  While Buddhism almost totally disappeared from India after several centuries of vibrant intellectual, philosophical and cultural existence, the virtually unbroken longevity of the Sri Lankan Buddhist history was ensured by two contrasting factors. The first is the continuity of its close association with the state, the ruling class and subsequently with monastic landlordism in pre-colonial agrarian society. The second, as Max Weber first noted and now elaborated by a number of contemporary scholars (for example, Gunawardana, 1979; Gombrich and Obeyesekere, 1988), is the successful and parallel transformation of Buddhism into a religion of the peasantry, from being an ideology and religious culture of the state and the landed elite. It developed a twin logic of social existence for itself at the level of the state as well as the masses. It was indeed a propitious combination which ensured the enduring continuity of Buddhism negotiating internal warfare, foreign invasions, political uncertainties, rise and fall of kingdoms, European colonialism and various shifts in the modes of production and social structures.  The colonial transformation and Christian challenge weakened Buddhism’s primacy as a religious doctrine as well as a social force, but it bounced back with renewed vigour during the 19th century, amidst internal dissent and protest within the Sangha community (Malalgoda, 1976). The neglect of the social and the emphasis on the national-political has a relatively long continuity, from the mid-19th century to the present.

This specificity of the modern Sinhala Buddhist movements becomes visible only when it is juxtaposed with the Indian Buddhist movements of Phule, Iyothee Thass and Ambedkar.  The research efforts of G. Aloysius are useful for us to get a clear sense of how the South Indian Buddhist movement, with which Sri Lanka’s Buddhist revivalists – Colonel Olcott, Madam Blavatsky and Anagarika Dharmapala — had some close initial contacts – emerged itself out of the social question of caste oppression.  The Sakya Buddhist Society which Iyothee Thass started in Madras in 1898 after his visit to Colombo to meet Sri Lankan Buddhist leaders, inaugurated what Aloysius has correctly described as a subaltern social movement of panchama and paraiah and other extremely marginalized caste communities in Southern India.

The Dharmapala Project

Although devoid of a social agenda, Anagarika Dharmapala’s interventions were influential and effective as well as enormously interesting in terms of intellectual and cultural history of both modern India and Sri Lanka. Dharmapala’s project consisted of, and was constituted by, two contradictory but mutually constitutive dualities. The first is the advocacy of ethical universalism abroad and ethno particularism at home. The second is the priority accorded to the idea of national unity for the Sinhalese community in Sri Lanka, Buddhism being advanced as its defining identity marker, totally oblivious to the question of social equality. Dharmapala’s ethnic particularism is the harbinger of Sri Lanka’s post-colonial Sinhalese nationalism. It was constructed on an ideology that militantly opposed European colonialism and Christianity as well as ethnic minorities such as Tamils, Muslims and Malayalis (Jayawardena, 1972). Dharmapala was the first spokesperson of this ethno-particularist ideology in Sri Lanka. Indeed, the twentieth century Sinhalese nationalism’s terms of political imagination, debate and vision still remain what Dharmapala defined during the 1890s. In that sense, what Dharmapala pioneered more than eleven decades ago was an enduring ethno-nationalist ontology –- a comprehensive world – view — composed of the following constitutive components: (a) a critique of European colonialism, (b) rejection of Christianity, (c) hostility towards ethnic and religious minorities, (d) conflation of the historical fate of the Sinhalese race and Buddhism, (e) Buddhist religiosity providing a collective identity for the imagined community of the Sinhalese nation, and (f) a majoritarian political vision for the emerging nation-state.

Buddhist Ethical Universalism

Dharmapala’s understanding and the projection of the teachings of the Buddha as the foundation for a new Buddhist universal ethic were largely shaped by his exposure to Christianity, Theosophism, the Brahmo Samaj-Ramakrishna-Vivekananda culture of Bengal and the Japanese Buddhist movements. It is important to note that he was the first Sri Lankan Buddhist intellectual, after Dharmasoka, to have developed a dual universalist mission – philosophical and ethical — to Theravada Buddhism. The initial inspiration for the universalist possibility of Buddhism may have developed as a reaction to the Christian project of civilizing the world which he encountered first hand as a young student in a Christian missionary school in Colombo. He also grew up at a time when the Christian clergymen and Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka were engaging in open public controversies debating their claims about the cross cultural relevance of the teachings of their respective religions. Christianity obviously had a global mission and Dharmapala was quite intimately familiar with it since he had studied in Christian missionary schools. While Buddhist monks of the generation senior to him engaged themselves in public debates with Christian clergymen, Dharmapala took the Buddhist critic one step further by presenting Buddhism as a universalist alternative to global Christianity, and to a lesser extent Hinduism and Islam.  Dharmapala’s repeated emphasis of “love” and “compassion” (karuna and maithriya) as the foremost personal qualities of the Buddha as well as the core ethical values advanced in his teachings are no doubt a part of his effort to establish an ethical alterative commitment to the Christian notion of ‘love.’

In universalizing the Buddhist moral alternative, Dharmapala was directly inspired and influenced by the Theosophical movement of Colonel Henry Olcott and Madam Blavatsky who were in Sri Lanka during the 1880s to 1890s.  The theosophists were relentless critics of Christianity. They initially found in the Theravada Buddhism of Sri Lanka a universalist challenge to Christian global project. When Dharmapala parted company with the theosophists in 1896, he had already been introduced by Olcott and Blavatsky to the globalist, or at least Pan-Asianist, imaginations of the Japanese Buddhist sects as well (Kemper, 2015).

The fact that the main source of Dharmapala’s intellectual exposure to the Buddhist cannon was the European orientalist scholarship is equally significant in making sense of his commitment to re-interpreting Buddhism as a universalist ethic of humanistic, scientific and philosophically profound doctrinal appeal. It was the European orientalists, who, during the early 19th century, constructed and investigated Buddhism as a “major world religion” (Almond, 1998). Dharmapala’s writings on Buddhism clearly show that he was not very conversant with the Buddhist cannon in Pali and indeed quite comfortable with its English translations, published by the Pali Text Society in London.

The speech Dharmapala made at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 in Chicago, at the relatively young age of  twenty-nine, encapsulates this Buddhist universalism abroad, designed specifically to a global audience. Appealing for ‘human brotherhood,’ Dharmapala asserted that the “fundamental teachings of the Buddha” were a message of “universal love and sympathy with all mankind and with all animal life” and “the usefulness of life is emphasized for the sake of doing good to self and to humanity (in Guruge, 1991:8 -9). The historical mission of the Buddha has been universalist in spirit: “The Buddha’s teachings were scientific, profoundly philosophical and they were intended to “guide humanity in the right path” (1991: 9).  One could find “[i]n the religion of  Buddha a comprehensive system of  ethics, and a transcendental metaphysics embracing a sublime psychology. To the simpleminded it offers a code of morality, to the earnest student a system of pure thought. But the basic doctrine is self-purification of man. Spiritual progress is impossible for him who does not lead a life of purity and compassion” (Guruge, 1991: 8).

In order to substantiate the universalist relevance of Buddhism to the modern world, particularly the Western world, Dharmapala invoked the contemporary Western scholarship on Buddhism – particularly the writings of Sir Edwin Arnold, Dr. Oldenburg, and Dr. Rhys Davis. Dharmapala’s Chicago speech has a unique historical significance. It was the first exposition of the universalist relevance of Buddhism made before a Western audience by a Theravada missionary. In doing so, Dharmapala constructed a ‘modern’ version of Theravada Buddhism that was meant to appeal to the educated Western lay society. In that effort, he emphasized three points, one about the Buddha and two about his teachings: the Buddha was most compassionate, full of love and kindness; his teachings were rational as well as tolerant in modern Western standards and they had profound psychological and philosophical depth.

Now, Dharmapala’s paradox is that the ideas that he developed in relation to the contemporary problems of the Sri Lankan society and ardently propagated with inexhaustible passion were not as intellectualized as the form of modernized Buddhism that he disseminated abroad. In modern social science language, they can be described as narrowly ethnic chauvinistic. In fact, many of his academic critics have characterized them as such. They were angry, counter-orientalist outbursts that smack of both racism and cultural parochialism. His essays, lecture texts and diaries are replete with examples. To illustrate this point, let is take his celebrated essay “Message to the Young Men of Ceylon,” which he wrote in Calcutta and published as a pamphlet in 1922. Dharmapala mixed the universalist appeal of Buddhist philosophy and ethics intended for the world with a religio-nationalist argument for militant particularism of the nation. Describing the condition of Sri Lanka prevailed at the time –the 1920s — as a “crisis of a stupendous kind,” he warned that “a terrible catastrophe” was approaching. Posing to the nation “the question of to be or not to be,” Dharmapala appealed to the youth of Ceylon:

 “We have to ransack the literature of the science of patriotism to learn to act as patriots should for the preservation of our nation, our literature, our land, and our most glorious religion, at whose source our fore-fathers drank deep for nearly seventy generations, which had preserved their vitality to fight against the foes since the time of our heroic and patriot king, the righteous Dutthagamini, who with the help of his mother and his patriotic followers, and blessed by the association of the Bikkhu Sangha, reinvigorated and revitalized the nation, 161 years before the birth of Jesus Christ whose followers, from the West came to our blessed land, 1505 years after the Nativity, and laid waste our fertile lands bringing ruin and desolation, from whose effects the country is still suffering” (in Guruge: 501).

Dharmapala’s pamphlet contained the key ideas of patriotism he propagated in Sri Lanka throughout his career since the 1890s and they constituted the conceptual core of twentieth century Sinhala nationalist ideology.  The particularist ideas, intended to arouse the patriotic feelings among the Sinhalese and build a sense of national unity, were propagated in Sinhalese through his lectures, sermons and the Sinhala Bauddhaya (The Sinhalese Buddhist), a Sinhalese newspaper which he edited and published,. He was an indefatigable missionary in both the religious and secular sense of the word, spending his time, energy, and family wealth with a uniquely exemplary life of commitment, sacrifice and selflessness, emulating the example of the Buddha himself. The unending emotional, intellectual and emotional energy that he seemed to have sustained till his death at the age of sixty –nine appears to have emanated from two unequivocal commitments – the first to Buddhism and the Buddha, and the second to the Sinhalese nation and Sri Lanka, ‘the land of the Sinhalese.’ His Indian counterparts, Jyotirao Phule, Iyothee Thass and Baba Saheb Ambedkar too demonstrated the possession of an equal degree of energy and commitment, but with a different take on the Buddha and his teachings. In the next section of my talk, I will be commenting on this this contrast.

One of the striking absences in Dharmapala’s relatively long activist life in India – for four long decades – was contacts with the dalit Buddhist movements, or even Dalit movements in general. When he first came to India, in 1891, it was to Madras in the company of Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky. He was by then a theosophical Buddhist. This was the time when the dalit Buddhist movements in Southern India, under the leadership of Iyothee Thass had been active. There were initial close contacts with the Adyar Theosophical Society and the Dalit Buddhists whose leader was Iyothee Thass. Thass and P. Krishnaswami, another Tamil Dalit Buddhist leader of the Sakya Buddhist Society of Madras, even visited Sri Lanka in 1898 to meet the Sri Lankan Buddhist leaders. They were given pan sil (Five Precepts) by Hikkaduwe Sumangala Maha Thera at the Vidyodaya Pirivena. They met many Sinhalese Buddhists and even visited Kandy to pay homage to the Temple of the Tooth (Aloysius, 1998:50-58). A branch of Mahabodhi Society was inaugurated in Madras in 1900.  Against this backdrop, one would have expected close cooperation and solidarity between Sinhalese and Tamil Buddhist movements. That did not happen. Aloysius observes that the activities of the Sakya Buddhist Society and the Mahabodhi society “were distinct and their relationship was not always cordial as years went by” (Aloysius, 1998: 58).

Why did a close working relationship between the Mahabodhi society of Sinhalese Buddhists and the Sakya Buddhist Society of Tamil Buddhists not develop into one of close cooperation and collaboration to advance the Dalit Buddhist struggle for social emancipation? At present, we do not have enough empirical evidence available in secondary sources to come to a firm conclusion. However, we can advance a fairly plausible hypothesis: Probably, the Mahabodhi Society under Anagarika Dharmapala’s leadership was not very keen to work in close solidarity with the dalit Buddhist movement that worked to directly challenge the Brahmanic domination of Indian Hindu society.

Sangharakshita, who has written most adulatory biographies of both Dharmapala and Ambedkar, does not mention a meeting, or even, correspondence, between the two foremost Buddhist intellectuals of the twentieth century South Asia. Nor is there any information available about a warm relationship between Anagarika and any of the Dalit leaders in India. Instead, Anagarika’s diaries, letters, essays, studies and most sympathetic biographies of him are full of details about his close personal friendships as well as working relationships with the Indian elite, who were mostly Brahmins or upper caste and class in their social origins. In Calcutta where he lived most of his life and had his headquarters, Dharmapala not only worked closely with the urban Badralok elite, but also was extremely comfortable in their company. Sangharakshita in his biographical essay of Ambedkar makes an interesting revelation of the social, or class, nature of Anagarika Dharmapala’s Mahabodhi movement. At their first meeting at Ambedkar’s Bombay residence, Ambedkar showed a little resentment when Sangharakshita introduced himself as having being associated with the Mahabodhi Society of Calcutta. To quote Sangharakshita:

 “… Ambedkar seated himself behind his desk and, after we exchanged usual amenities, fixed me with an unfriendly stare, and demanded belligerently, “why does your Mahabodhi Society have a Bengali Brahmin for its President?” The word Brahmin was not only emphasized but was pronounced with such contempt and scorn that the whole Brahmin caste, as well as any organization so misguided as to have a Brahmin for its president, was at once consigned to a kind of moral dustbin. Realizing that Ambedkar took me for one of the Bhikkhus (mostly Sinhalese) who ran the Mahabodhi Society’s various pilgrim – centres, I hastened to make my position clear. It was not my Mahabodhi Society, I explained” (Sangharakshita, 1986, emphasis in the original).

Sangharakshita further explained that he was not a member of the Mahabodhi Society, and one of the reasons for why he did not belong to it was that “it has a Brahmin for its President as well as a Governing body that was dominated by Caste Hindus who had no real interest in Buddhism” (Sangharakshita, 1986).

The Mahabodhi Buddhist movement’s isolation from the Indian Dalit Buddhist movement was not an accident. It reflects one of the key contradictions of the Sri Lankan Buddhist movement of which the Mahabodhi movement was an offshoot. Unlike the Indian dalit Buddhist movements, the Sri Lankan Buddhist movement of the 19th century emerged out of the cultural assertion of some sections of the upper caste and intermediate caste elites of the Sinhalese society. Their adversary was primarily the Christianity and to a lesser extent the British colonial administration.  It is in fact correct that the historiography, both nationalist and academic, of the 19th and 20th century Buddhist movement in Sri Lanka does not describe it as a reform movement. The preferred terminology includes Buddhist ‘revival’ and ‘renaissance.’ A brief look at the history and the sociology of the 19th century Sinhalese Buddhist movement would enable us to connect with Sangharakshita’s telling insight.

Sri Lanka’s Modern Buddhism: Social Roots and Political Goals

The organizational and doctrinal composition of modern Sinhalese Buddhism seems to have evolved through a series of developments that occurred primarily during the 18th and 19th centuries and partly during the first half of the twentieth century. The main components of this process have been the following:

  • Revival of the Sangha organization and reintroduction of higher ordination during the 18th century in the Kandyan kingdom, under the patronage of the Kandyan kings and through the cooperation extended by the Buddhist Sangha and the royalty of Thailand (Siyam). The regeneration of the Buddhist Sangha order in Sri Lanka was thus accompanied with the re-construction of the triple alliance between the state/royalty, the Sangha leadership, and the lay elite. The continuity of this triple alliance relationship in new forms under both colonial and post-colonial conditions was to define the secular role of modern Buddhism in Sri Lanka, primarily in relation to (i) cultural hegemony at the expense of its potential social reformist goals, and (ii) appropriation of the nation-state particularism ignoring ethical universalism.
  • The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries also marked the beginning of organizational reforms of the Sinhalese Sangha society, with the emergence of the Amarapura and Ramanna fraternities to challenge the ecclesiastical authority of the Up-country based and upper caste Siyam fraternity (Malalgoda,, 1976). These two new Sangha fraternities embodied the dynamics of the emerging caste conflict in the colonial Sinhalese society that was passing through a rapid process of transformation. Although the Amarapura fraternity was established in 1802 as an open rebellion against the authority of the govigama upper-caste-based Siyam fraternity in the Kandyan Upcountry, it did not represent the subaltern or extremely marginalized caste communities in Sinhalese society. In fact, there were three caste communities that formed the social core of the Amarapura fraternity, the karawa, salagama and durawa (Malalgoda, 1976). They were intermediate castes, and the elites of these castes were beneficiaries of colonial capitalism. They were in competition with the traditional landholding elite of the dominant govigama caste community of the Kandyan Upcountry. If there was any sense of social protest and rebellion associated with the Sri Lanka’s modern Buddhist movement, it was as a very limited one. The conflict between the Kandyan landholding feudal elite and the emerging merchant class in the low country coastal belt took the form of a battle within Buddhist society for societal democratization of the Sangha organization.  It manifested itself only in relation to the establishment of the Amarapura fraternity of Buddhist monks by the new elite of the karawa, durawa and salagama intermediate caste communities of the low country coastal belt. The inter-elite competition between the Buddhist Sangha organization could hardly transform itself into a social emancipatory Buddhist movement in Sri Lanka.
  • The conflict between the Christian / Catholic churches and Buddhists and the public controversies between the two groups marked the beginning of an assertive Buddhist civil society which later developed into what has been termed in Sri Lankan modern historiography as anti-colonial nationalism. Because of its religious origins, Sinhalese nationalism developed primarily as a culturalist resistance to colonialism with no social or political reform content. The revival, spread and consolidation of Buddhism, as opposed to Christianity, as the foremost philosophical and moral doctrine identified with the identity of the Sinhalese nation, remained at the core of this culturalist nationalism until the 1960s. The period after the early 1950s saw the gradual emergence of ethnic Tamils as the replacement of Christianity as the ‘other’ in Sinhalese nationalist imagination.
  • The Theosophical and Orientalist interventions in resurrecting Buddhism focused only on the doctrinal essence of Buddhism, with no attention whatsoever on the social role of Buddhism in specific conditions of colonialism. The kind of Buddhism that the Mahabodhi Society popularized in India and Sri Lanka has been derived essentially from its Orientalist and Theosophical frameworks, with exclusive focus on the doctrinal — metaphysical, other-worldly and moral – content of the Buddha’s teachings. As it has happened throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this strand of modern Buddhism had no potential for, or even an interest, in a social emancipatory hermeneutical turn. The latter had to spring from two dissenting strands, the dalit Buddhist movement in India and the Left – socialist Buddhist radicalism in Sri Lanka.

This background will enable us to return to our comparative theme with which we began our discussion: why is it that the Indian Buddhist revival give rise to a social emancipatory Buddhist hermeneutic and the Sri Lankan Buddhist movement did not. The answer that emerges from the discussion so far is that Sri Lankan Buddhist revival was a culturalist movement led by a coalition of intermediate, and not subaltern, caste and class elites. The energies of this culturalist movement, which viewed Buddhism essentially as a cultural source of collective identity, were invested in shaping the historical process of modern nation-making during the colonial rule, and state-making, after independence. Historically, the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries also constituted the early phase of the modern nation-state formation globally. That is why the Buddhist culturalist movement in Sinhalese society eventually constituted the core of the twentieth century Sinhalese nationalist project for the making of the nation-state. The latter during the 1940s further developed into a project of nation-state making, transforming the Buddhism-based cultural identity of the nation into the emblem of modern, post-colonial state.   The 1940s and the 1950s were the time during which Sri Lanka’s Buddhist cultural politics progressed into political Buddhism, that was intensely concerned with the question of state power. Not being a subalternist movement during any phase of its evolution, Sri Lanka’s Buddhist revivalism could produce only a political Buddhism, a Buddhism that was expected to serve the interests of the Sinhalese nationalist struggles for state power. During its post-colonial phase, Sri Lanka’s Buddhist nationalism became preoccupied exclusively with political questions of the nation, the state, and sovereignty. Questions of social equality, social justice and social emancipation were beyond the pale of the agenda of the nation, the state, and sovereignty.

Sri Lanka’s political Buddhism then stands in sharp contrast with India’s Buddhist politics. The latter saw Buddhism as providing an intellectual and ethical framework for social equality.  In its most politicized form, as represented in Ambedkar’s navayana Buddhism, it advanced a vision and practice of social reconstruction against Brahmanism of Hindu India. The defeat of Ambedkar’s constitutionalist experiment tried out during the years 1946-1952 led interestingly to the reinforcement of the argument for social reconstruction, and not to its negation.

Five decades after Ambedkar’s death, the social emancipatory project of India’s dalit Buddhism seems to have been approaching a crisis of a sort. This crisis seems to be derived from multiple sources. The emergence of a political class within the dalit communities, intensely committed to the goals of political power, has already blunted the sharp edge that the dalit resistance politics possessed for decades. Dalit politics is also facing the risk of being appropriated by upper caste and dominant political elites. There is also the tendency of a de-politicized form of Navayana Buddhism being accepted by the emerging dalit sub-elites. Ambedkar’s Buddhism in India seems to be caught up in an intellectual and political impasse. Perhaps we are witnessing the possible retreat of Dalit Buddhist politics in India.  It is showing signs of becoming more radical than what Ambedkar may have envisioned. The signs are also that Dalit Buddhist politics in its radicalizing journey might even shed its Buddhist identity, thereby pushing the Buddhist identity to the personal realm.


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