Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka 
Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah 
University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1992. 
238 pp. $14.95 (paperback).  



In the desperation sweeping our world today, religion plays an increasing role in civil conflict. Yet the case of Sri Lanka seems particularly, tragically puzzling. For this is Dhammadvipa, isle of the dharma, home of teachings that enshrine nonviolence. And here civil war has raged for the last decade, and here, determined to preserve their Buddhist culture against the Hindu Tamils of the land, Buddhist monks have encouraged and participated in the violence.

What happened to Buddhism in Sri Lanka that civil war could be waged on its behalf? This study by S. J. Tambiah helps us understand. A professor of anthropology at Harvard University, noted for out­standing scholarship on the religion and society of his native Sri Lanka, Tambiah examines how “Buddhism, as a ‘religion’ espoused by Sri Lankans of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has contributed to the current ethnic conflict and collective violence in Sri Lanka,” and how that contribution has in turn changed the “shape of Buddhism itself as a lived reality.”

Tambiah draws his title from The Betrayal of Buddhism, a fateful document issued in 1956 by the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress, de­tailing how hostile external forces, Tamil and colonial, had undermined the dharma. The history he presents makes clear that any betrayal is internal to the sangha itself, and consists in the rise and role of Sinhalese Buddhist nation­alism. For the last 120 years, influential monk-scholars have identified the dharma with the history and destiny of the Sinhala people (some seventy percent of a population of now eighteen million), whom they portray as heirs of a glorious past that once unified the whole island, and as the beleaguered protectors of the most ancient and purest form of the dharma. They give prominence to the mythic histories of the Mahavamsa and similar semi-­canonical scriptures of the fourth to sixth centuries C.E., the ones that exalted heroic Sinhalese strug­gles against savage Tamils. Actually, for the most part, the Tamils and Sinhalese lived in relative harmony, until British colonial rule bred divisiveness through policies that favored the Tamil minority.

In the Buddhist revival of the late nineteenth century, in which the American Buddhist theosophist Henry Olcott, and Anagarika Dhamapala, eloquent founder of the Maha Bodhi Society, played key roles, Sinhalese resurgence was directed against the colonial and Christian missionary presence. It took on an increasingly anti-Tamil character with the advent of independence. The Sinhalese Buddhist majority passed laws giving primacy to their language and religion, and established quotas limiting Tamil access to universities. Their political parties vied with each other in displays of Buddhist piety—and still do today. The morning paper rarely appears without a photo story of the presi­dent offering alms to the sangha or inaugurating a new temple.

Efforts in the early eighties to avoid secession and civil war by granting some regional autonomy to Tamils were consistently block­ed by politically powerful monks. When large-scale riots and then terrorism broke out, the rhetoric of these sangha leaders led many monks to take an active part in the violence. Now that Sinhalese killing is largely confined to military campaigns against pockets of Tamil Tigers, who still battle for the creation of an independent Tamil state (Eelam), the role of the monks is limited to bestowing blessings upon government troops.

How has this tragic role affected Sinhalese Buddhism itself? Tambiah suggests that in its militancy it has become a kind of fetish, progressively denuded of either doctrinal meaning or social program. Buddhism in its “fetishized form, as espoused by certain groups, seems to … function as a mobilizer of volatile masses, and as an instigator of spurts of violence.”

Sinhalese chauvinism does not characterize all Sri Lankan Buddhism. As Tambiah acknow­ledges, there are monks who find, in scriptures more ancient than the Mahavamsa, teachings that promote a pluralistic society. I know this to be true from my years with the Sarvodaya Movement, where monks and lay people in community development programs take inspiration from the dharma to work across ethnic and religious lines, often putting themselves at risk of attack from right-wing Buddhists. Tambiah does not portray this other face of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, for his focus is on the rise and character of Sinhalese nationalism. And the story he tells is important to all who would bring religious values into the political arena. It is a cautionary tale, revealing what can happen when we seek in religion a ground for security or privilege or self-righteousness.

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