Buddhism and War

Sri Lanka - a case study

Reclining Buddha

I've often wondered whether and to what extent religion mitigates violence. Sri Lankan history is a horrible tale of unnecessary bloodshed, especially the civil war that raged for 26 years from 1983 to 2009. Yet the Sinhalese ethnic majority is overwhelmingly Buddhist, and non-violence is the core precept of Buddhism as taught by the Buddha. It is worth noting that Sri Lanka is the 7th most religious country in the world, with 99% saying that religion is important in their daily life, according to a 2009 Gallup poll.

So did Buddhism assuage the conflict? Sadly, no. It has instead fanned the flames of violence and war. A Buddhist monk assassinated Prime Minister Bandaranaike in 1959 because of his intention to make concessions to the Tamils. Many Buddhist monks have strenuously opposed any compromise with the Tamils. There is even a group of monks, the Bodu Bala Sena, which has attacked Muslim and Christian communities since the war.

What interests me is not that Buddhists have rioted against, murdered and waged war on their compatriots. The same can be said about the members of every major religion. The focus of this article is the role played by the monks, men who see themselves as spiritual followers of the Buddha, the Compassionate One.

The Sinhalese Buddhist national chronicle, Mahavamsa, is a text from the fifth century CE, ie about a thousand years after the Buddha. It was written by Buddhist monks seeking to glorify Buddhism in Sri Lanka. It played a pivotal role in the creation of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism and militant Buddhism. The Mahavamsa states that Lord Buddha visited Sri Lanka to rid the island of the Yakkhas (depicted as the non-human inhabitants of the island), by striking "terror into their hearts" and driving them from their homeland, so that Buddhism would flourish on the island.

This myth has led to the widely held Sinhalese Buddhist belief that the country is exclusively the island of the Sinhalese and of Buddhism. Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists maintain that they are the Buddha's chosen people, and that the island of Sri Lanka is the Buddhist promised land. In fact, the Buddha did not visit Sri Lanka, as Buddhism arrived here in the 3rd century BC.

The Mahavamsa writes that the Buddhist warrior-king Dutthagamani, with his army and 500 Buddhist monks defeated the Tamil king Elara, who had come from South India and usurped power. When Duthagamani laments over the thousands he has killed, the enlightened disciples of Buddha who come to console him reply that no real sin has been committed, because he has only killed Tamil unbelievers who are no better than beasts.

Dutthagamani'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. Likewise, the Buddha's expulsion of the Yakkhas has been described as providing the warrant for the use of violence for the sake of Buddhism. It is in keeping with the general message of the Mahavamsa that the political unity of Sri Lanka under Buddhism requires the removal of uncooperative groups.

According to Neil DeVotta, 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 bases 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."

The colonial British brought in approximately a million Tamil speakers from India to work as tea plantation labour. They also established better schools in the northern, Tamil-majority part of the colony, and preferentially appointed Tamils to bureaucratic positions, angering the Sinhalese majority.

This was a common divide-and-rule tactic in European colonies that, together with the massive influx of Tamils, sowed the seeds of future ethnic strife.

Ever since independence in 1948, the government has discriminated against the Tamils, who form about 15% of the population. They have been denied educational and employment opportunities and their language has been suppressed.

The pogroms against the Tamils were not spontaneous outbursts of Sinhala rage but were initiated and organised by the government. The rioters were provided with electoral rolls, allowing them to identify Tamils. As a result, no Sinhalese shops or homes were torched.

The police and army stood by as Tamils were set on fire or hacked to death. In some cases they even participated in the killing. In a culture of impunity, none of the murderers was brought to justice.

The worst pogrom occurred in 1983, now referred to as "Black July". The rioting, arson and carnage were explained by the government as a spontaneous response to the ambush of Sinhalese soldiers, thirteen of whom were killed by the Tamil Tigers. In actual fact, the riots were carefully organised and began before the newspapers published news of the ambush.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 Tamils were killed and another 70,000 to 100,000 were forced into refugee camps. Two incidents from Black July illustrate the role of the monks in that most terrible pogrom.

Mobs were seen stopping buses to identify Tamil passengers, who were subsequently knifed, clubbed to death, or burned alive. One Norwegian tourist saw a mob set fire to a minibus with 20 people inside, killing them all. According to an eyewitness testimony of a victim who survived the riots, Buddhist monks were among the rioters. In his book, The Tragedy of Sri Lanka, William McGowan wrote:

"Two sisters, one eighteen and one eleven, were decapitated and raped, the latter 'until there was nothing left to violate and no volunteers could come forward,' after which she was burned. While all this was going on, a line of Buddhist monks appeared, arms flailing, their voices raised in a delirium of exhortation, summoning the Sinhalese to put all Tamils to death."

From the beginning of the civil war in 1983 to its end in May 2009, Buddhist monks were involved in politics and opposed negotiations, ceasefire agreements, or any devolution of power to Tamil minorities. Most supported a military solution to the conflict.

The civil war was a humanitarian catastrophe. It is estimated that 90,000 were killed and many atrocities were committed by both sides. There are credible claims that the Sri Lankan military killed 40,000 civilians in the final months.

An uncertain peace
Although the war ended after 26 years, in 2009, nothing has been made good. The Sinhalese rejoice in their victory and there seems to be zero willingness to face up to their culpability. In particular, the government refuses to heed the call of the UNHCR for an investigation of the last months of the war.

The anti-Muslim riots of 2014 were incited by the Bodu Bala Sena group of monks. At least four people were killed and hundreds were made homeless. Instead of arresting the leaders of the Bodu Bala Sena, the government tacitly encouraged Buddhist extremism. So much so, that moderate Buddhists are afraid to publicly criticise the radicals out of fear of being physically attacked.

The essential problem is that whereas Sri Lanka is a multi-cultural society, with Hindus, Muslims and Christians making up 30% of the population, the Buddhists do not accept this basic fact.

The future for non-Buddhists, especially Tamils, seems bleak. Amnesty International highlights continuing human rights abuses and a culture of impunity.

Is Sinhalese Buddhism even Buddhism?
Ever since Independence the Buddhist clergy have campaigned vigorously to make Sri Lanka an ethnocentric and theocratic state, seeking to suppress the rights of non-Buddhists, especially the Tamils. Buddhism in Sri Lanka has become a religion of Sinhala supremacism.

Most damning of all, the monks have pressured the government to wage war on the Tamils. The monks have been the spiritual motor of the genocide.

Buddhism in Sri Lanka has morphed into something that Gautama Buddha would not even recognise. His core messages of non-violence, compassion and universalism have been ignored. Not just ignored, but even reversed. Technically, the religion of the Sinhalese is Buddhism. While the trappings of Buddhism are there, the content is not.

The irony is that in their fanatical striving to protect and preserve Buddhism, the Sinhalese have destroyed the very essence of their religion.

Instead of mitigating ethnic strife, Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka inflamed conflicts and even pressed for a 'just' war. However, I doubt that such a dismal outcome is particular only to Buddhism in Sri Lanka. There are similar examples in the modern history of other major religions.

Sri Lankan history should not be seen as a condemnation of Buddhism, but only of the way that it has been perverted on the island. However, it has to be admitted that the record of Buddhist monks in some other Asian countries is also far from inspiring. It appears that once politics and religion become enmeshed only bad outcomes can be expected for both.

It seems to me that any religion will be interpreted according to the wishes of its adherents. They take from their religion what suits them. The Sinhalese Buddhists latched onto the war-mongering message of the Mahavamsa, while simultaneously choosing to ignore the central tenets preached by the Buddha. This reminds me of the Crusades, witch burnings and Inquisition, all of which were carried out in Christ's name. Yet Christ's message was to turn the other cheek.

My over-riding conclusion is that the ideals espoused by a religion are almost irrelevant when it comes to mitigating or preventing war. Moved by emotions such as pride, envy, resentment and fear, people will do what they are driven to do, regardless of the high ideals of their religion. What is more, they will find a way to justify their actions using their religion.

To an outsider, it is a paradox that a religion founded on non-violence became a vehicle for inciting butchery and war. To Sinhalese Buddhists, there is no paradox. They simply select the message they want from the ancient texts.

Tad Boniecki
May 2017

The above article glosses over the riots, pogroms, political movements and the civil war itself. The interested reader is referred to this article, which is a compressed version of the wikipedia entry.

The Eastern mind-set is a paradox to a Westerner. On the one hand, the Sinhalese are fanatical about maintaining the purity and integrity of their variant of Theravada Buddhism, yet on the other hand, their religion is already a de facto melding of Buddhism with Hinduism. Sinhalese Buddhists worship a number of Hindu deities, including Skanda (aka Murugan), Ganesh and Vishnu, as well as the Buddha.

The Buddha is so pure and far removed that he does not intervene in the affairs of the world. Instead, the Sinhalese Buddhists make offerings to Hindu deities and solicit their help for special purposes, especially in their day-to-day problems. For this reason, many Buddhist temples in the country have a Hindu annexe.

One of the most deeply entrenched beliefs among the Sinhala Buddhists is that Vishnu is the defender and protector of Sri Lanka. The Mahavamsa also mentions Skanda as a protector.

Home       IFAQ Home       Qs       Thinkers       Etc       Forum       Aphorisms       Puzzles       Humour       Poetry      Fiction       About