Satellite images of the Palk Strait, which separates the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu from the Jaffna peninsula in northern Sri Lanka, show a ghostly line linking the two. Below the water’s surface is a ridge of limestone that once formed an isthmus joining the landmasses. It is an apt image for the complex yet buried connections between the two provinces.

Since 1976, the Jaffna peninsula has witnessed a brutal civil war that has killed sixty-four thousand Sri Lankans and displaced over a million. On one side are the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—the LTTE, or “Tamil Tigers,” founded in 1976 to demand an independent homeland (later changed to a demand for autonomy) for the island’s mainly Hindu Tamil minority. On the other is the largely Buddhist Sinhalese majority, who insist that the country must remain intact—with nationalist bhikkhus (Buddhist monks) among the most vehement opponents of compromise. The Tigers’ name contrasts with the lion on Sri Lanka’s flag, which represents the Sinhalese people. The conflict has pitted not only Sinhalese against Tamils but also Buddhists against Hindus. In the past year, the precarious cease-fire agreed to in 2003 has unraveled after a new wave of attacks and reprisals.

Satellite image of Sri Lanka and the Palk Strait, Image by Angela King of geology.com using landsat data provided by NASA, Courtesy of geology.com
Satellite image of Sri Lanka and the Palk Strait, Image by Angela King of geology.com using landsat data provided by NASA, Courtesy of geology.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Across the strait, Tamil Nadu is home to camps housing forty thousand Tamil refugees. After centuries of conflict, many in the Indian state identify with the LTTE cause and mistrust the Sinhalese. And yet, as I discovered when I visited Tamil Nadu in the autumn of 2006, an unexpected rapprochement is developing between some Sinhalese and Tamils under the auspices of Buddhism itself.

Chennai (formerly Madras), in Tamil Nadu, is a bustling city at the forefront of India’s economic boom. A sign in the office of the city’s Mahabodhi Buddhist Temple reads “Silence Is Noble,” but on the evening I visited, silence seemed a distant aspiration. Loudspeakers blared the traditional Buddhist refuges and precepts, chanted in the nasal Sri Lankan style, while a television in the lobby showed international cricket—one activity that unites the Indian subcontinent. The shrine hall had been turned into a dormitory for dozens of elderly Sri Lankan pilgrims en route to the holy places of northern India, but many locals had also turned up for the evening dhamma talk. The temple was founded by Anagarika Dhammapala, a Sri Lankan who led a revival of Buddhism in his home country in the early twentieth century, and who established organizations aiming to do the same in India. Catering to Sri Lankan pilgrims has long been the temple’s main activity, but more and more Tamils are coming through its doors as Buddhism takes hold among natives of the state. Mahanama, the temple’s energetic “Bhikkhu in Charge,” told me that “every day there is growing interest in Buddhism.”

These new Tamil Buddhists are drawn from the most disadvantaged classes of Indian society, especially the dalits, the 15 percent of the Indian population deemed “untouchable” under the Hindu caste system. Such conversions are an India-wide phenomenon, but the roots of the movement in Tamil Nadu are especially deep. Influenced by Dhammapala, a low-caste writer and thinker named Iyothee Thass converted to Buddhism in 1902 along with a group of followers, anticipating the nationwide conversion movement started by the great dalit leader Dr. Ambedkar in the mid-twentieth century.  [For more on Ambedkar’s Buddhist movement, see Vishvapani’s “The Great Escape” on tricycle.com.] When Ambedkar’s works were translated into Tamil in the 1990s they found a receptive audience of readers, primed by their history to see Buddhism as a viable alternative. Ambedkar’s movement spread rapidly, and in recent years many leading Tamil dalits have become Buddhist.

Some Tamil Buddhists trace their roots deeper still. The ethnic conflict between Tamils and Sinhalese dates to the early years of the Christian era, and accounts of the wars between the two, which are found in the Sri Lankan epic The Mahavamsa, are part of the country’s national mythology. But up to the fourteenth century, Buddhism thrived in Tamil Nadu as well as in Sri Lanka. Monks traveled between the two provinces sharing texts and teachings, including those of the Mahayana, which once flourished in South India. Tamil Nadu was home to Dignaga, the leading exponent of Buddhist logic, and it was from here that Bodhidharma, the legendary founder of the Ch’an (Zen) school of Buddhism, departed on his long journey to China. When Buddhism was destroyed in its Indian homeland in the fourteenth century, many Tamil Buddhist texts were preserved in Sri Lankan monasteries. Iyothee Thass believed that dalits are descended from Buddhists who were made outcastes following the collapse of their religion.

Mahanama is excited, if a little bemused, by the growing Tamil interest in his temple, and the monks are struggling to meet the demand. “Many people come here every evening. We have a lecture, discussion, and meditation every day, and we also run a medical center. There are many other Buddhist groups in the state, and we work with them and hold a joint Wesak celebration each year.” Wesak is the Sinhalese name for the festival of the Buddha’s birthday, celebrated by Sri Lankans in May or June, depending on the lunar calendar. Mahanama is aware of the symbolic significance of Tamils and Sinhalese practicing Buddhism together. While most Sri Lankan monks are skeptical of the peace process with the LTTE, and some strongly oppose it, the Mahabodhi Society has been a keen supporter. Still, the Society represents a small minority of Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka itself, and its influence is outweighed by the main monastic groupings. In Tamil Nadu, where the very presence of Sinhalese Buddhists is politically sensitive, the Society is keen to stress its support for reconciliation in Sri Lanka but otherwise steers clear of controversy.

“We treat everyone the same: everyone wants liberation, and that is what Buddhism can offer,” says Mahanama. “There are no suspicions of Sinhalese people here. We are accepted because we help Tamils, otherwise we couldn’t stay.”

The possibility that links between Sinhalese and Tamil Buddhists may flourish once again in Tamil Nadu—and in turn help the two ethnic groups in Sri Lanka to reconcile—is a tantalizing but elusive one. The political agenda of the dalits themselves may present the biggest obstacle. Dalit attitudes toward both Sinhalese Buddhists and the Tamil Tigers are complex and varied, as I discovered when I met a group of leading Tamil dalit activists. Some activist dalits say that they’d like to help bring peace, but P. Rimawala, a dalit community leader, told me that many of the new Tamil Buddhists are wary of the Sinhalese monks.

“Many Tamils say that the Sri Lankans are betrayers of Buddhism,” Rimawala says. “Even though we have become Buddhists now, we can’t afford to be close to the Sri Lankan monks—people say we are engaging with our enemies.”

Dalit Buddhists balk at elements of Sri Lankan Buddhism that smack of Hinduism, such as the island’s temples to Vishnu, regarded as a protector of Sri Lanka. Some are also aware that the caste system is practiced in Sri Lanka too and that the island has its own “untouchables.” Above all, Sri Lankan monks are seen as oppressors of Tamils. As Rimawala commented, “The monks’ influence means that the ethnic conflict has been given a religious flavor.”

However, A. P. Vilinaho, a leading Tamil dalit author, told me, “The Sri Lankans aren’t our real enemies. Tamil caste people are the source of our problems.” While some dalit Buddhists in India identify with the LTTE, others associate the Tigers with the very caste Hindus who oppress them at home.

Walapadasa—a decisive, muscular man in his thirties—is a member of the Dalit Panthers, the radical dalit party modeled on America’s Black Panthers and based mainly in Tamil Nadu. Some party leaders have been vocal supporters, but Walapadasa has recently converted to Buddhism and regards the LTTE with suspicion. Walapadasa regularly visits camps housing Sri Lankan Tamil refugees (which are effectively closed to Western journalists), and reports that caste discrimination is rife: dalit refugees often receive inferior housing, education, and health care. Recently, the Panthers have started to speak to the camp dalits about conversion to Buddhism, regarding conversion as a key to the community’s assertiveness. When I asked whether caste Hindus would see this as a betrayal of the Tamil cause, Walapadasa’s reply indicated the Tamil dalits’ conflicting loyalties: “Buddhism teaches brotherhood, and that needs to start with equality among Tamils, not caste practice. The Tigers talk about freedom, but they don’t practice it among their own people because they are not opposed to caste.”

Despite the complexity of their relationships with Sinhalese arising from this combination of ethnic and caste issues, dalit radicals have voiced cautious interest in dialogue with Sri Lankan Buddhists. Rimawala told me, “There is hope because in Tamil Nadu we have opportunities to speak with Sri Lankans that are harder to find in Sri Lanka itself.” Back at the Mahabodhi Temple, Mahanama says, “We would like everyone to live together harmoniously. All religions teach peace; the problem is politics.” But when I put it to Mahanama that this stance does not fit easily with the vehement criticisms of Hinduism made by dalits, his reservations about his newly converted fellow Buddhists start to emerge. “Some dalits are converting to send a political message, but that is not real Buddhism. Some dalit people do want real Buddhism, but others just want to change society. Sometimes we try to get them to memorize Buddhist teachings, but they don’t remember anything.”

The dalit Buddhists who had accompanied me to the temple laughed when they heard this. “Many dalit people have no education, so they don’t think about learning things like that. They need to hear the Buddha’s teaching in a way that is relevant to their situation.”

The apolitical teaching of Chennai’s Sri Lankan monks is understandable, given their precarious position in Tamil Nadu, but the dalits’ interest in Buddhism is so deeply entwined with their desire for social change that any formulations of Buddhist teaching that fail to include this perspective are unlikely to engage them.

For the time being, Tamil Nadu’s dalit and Sinhalese Buddhists coexist uneasily, making only tentative approaches to the vexed issue of the Sri Lankan conflict. The potential for healing exists, but it will require a leap of imagination from members of one or both sides to translate potential into action. As Rimawala commented, speaking from the dalits’ side of the divide: “We know that Buddhism teaches harmony, but while there is oppression, struggle is inevitable. We should invite our enemies to join us in the struggle for social justice.

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