Sinhalese culture and Theravada Buddhism have inseparable link

By Kelum Bandara

TW cannot agree with the learned Doctor’s view that Buddhists (whatever their race) venerating/ worshiping Hindu Gods or any other God for that matter cannot be helped since it is their culture.  It is against Budha’s preaching. Buddhism to its (TW’s) understanding is based on Psychology and Philosophy with emphasis on meditation and rejects outright the concept of God in whatever form.   His claim of venerating multiple gods (like Ganesha, Pattini, Saraswathi, etc.) was part and parcel of Sinhala Buddhists does not hold water. 
  • Sinister attempts underway to dilute it

  • Inborn duty cast upon us to protect it

  • Sinhalese are accommodative of other cultures more than anyone

Leading medical teacher Dr. Channa Jayasumana, attached to Rajarata University who has done extensive studies about history, says the Sinhalese protected Theravada Buddhism more than anyone. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, Dr. Jayasumana said there were sinister attempts to dilute the Sinhala Buddhist identity. He shared the following:

Q There are attempts to identify Buddhism away from the Sinhala culture. In your view, how do you see its uniqueness?

Actually, Buddhism, wherever it is, is absorbed into different cultures. In our set up, it is absorbed into the Sinhala culture. Basically, the Sinhala culture is inbuilt within this island.

There are perceptions that the Sinhalese came from elsewhere in present day India. However, our finding is that, it was built in this island during the period of King Pandukabhaya. The advent of Buddhism occurred during the time of King Devanampiyatissa. Arahat Mahinda Thera introduced the basic tenets of Buddhism in the 3rd century CE. It was well assimilated into the Sinhala culture. The main stream of the Sinhala culture is Hela culture. With the infusion of certain cultural Phenomena from northern India (Dambadiva) and south India, the Sinhala culture was born. At the same time, from the very beginning, the Sinhalese believed that they were the protectors and guardians of Buddhism as their religion. None of any other nation or ethnic group could make such a claim. There is an inborn duty cast upon us. That is the uniqueness of this culture.

Q Along with this culture, there exist some other beliefs which are not Buddhist in the real context. But, they are identified as parts of the Sinhala Buddhist culture. We perform rituals in Kataragama. We believe in deity called ‘Patthini’. How do you view it?

That is why I said, Buddhism was absorbed into the existing culture. Even before the introduction of the Buddhist doctrine, we believed in certain divinities. For example, in the Mahawamsa, it is said locals worshipped certain divine figures during the reign of King Pandukabhaya. It is not one-God worship as pronounced in some other religions. Even before the introduction of Buddhism we believed in Sansara Chakra (the concept of rebirth). These beliefs that existed were not abandoned in their entirety after the introduction of Buddhism. What really happened was Buddhism was assimilated to the existing culture. It means we have had a rich, fertile culture to absorb deep philosophical teachings of Gauthama Buddha. Later certain deities and rituals specially from South India were absorbed in to Sinhala Buddhist culture. For example, the Sinhala Buddhists believe in some Hindu divinities. In Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, Ganesh is worshipped as a God. Many Sinhalese venerate God Skanda as Kataragama Deviyo.

Originally, the Kataragama Deviyo was a Sinhalese God named Mahasena. It is found on an inscription near Kirivehera. Some Sinhalese kings, after their deaths, were deified. Goddess Patthini was introduced to Sri Lanka from Malayalam Desha during the reign of King Gajaba in the 2nd century CE. It is well absorbed into the Sinhalese culture. Nawagumwa is seen as the place of Goddess Patthini according to the Sinhalese belief today. We have a very profuse culture. We have been liberal and creative in that context making way for absorption of different beliefs into ours.

Q There is an allegation that the Sinhalese, possessive of their culture, are trying to maintain its hegemony even denying the rights of other communities. How do you respond?

It is a myth created by some elements. The best example is the Veddah community. The Buddha visited Mahiyangana and had a discussion with Yakka tribe. Some Yakka leaders agreed with the Buddha but others denied indoctrination. Descendants of the individuals who have not agreed with the Buddha are still living in several places close to Mahiyangana in the name of Veddah. They have been living with the Sinhalese for 25 centuries without having any problem. We never imposed our will on them. We never tried to imbibe their culture. We have never destroyed their identity. Over the last 25 centuries, they lived in harmony with us. It is the best example to show that we are a nation with great tolerance of other beliefs and cultures. None of the nations, ethnic groups has this unique example. We will never harm any other ethnic group. Further, it was the Sinhala Buddhist King Senarath who settled Muslim merchants (who originally lived in the western coastal line) in different places in present day Kandy district and Eastern province during 1600s when they were attacked by the Catholic Portuguese invaders. In few decades time, Protestant Dutch invaders attacked Catholics in the western coastal line. Then again it is the same Sinhala Buddhist Kings who protected Catholics from Protestant attackers.

Q In different forums, you have spoken of attempts to dilute the Sinhala Buddhist culture. What are your views on this?

It basically happened with the introduction of the western education system. The western education system is based on the Protestant cultural background.

They believe in one God. We do not believe in it. We are the followers of Buddhist philosophy. We believe in the existence of multiple divinities or gods. However, we are not following any of these gods. With the introduction of western tradition, education and knowledge system, there was a virtual influence on us to abandon our beliefs on existence of multiple gods (deva) and other non-human, non-animal living beings (amanushya, naga, brahma). Instead, they introduced their single God in a different manner. For example, in science, there is a God. That God does not appear nor is visualized in a simple manner. If you go deep into western science, we can see their God. This is a kind of cultural imperialism. At school and university level, we were taught about it. We tend to accept it as an objective reality. We leave behind our values. In the name of science, we have fallen in to a new belief. The ultimate result is the dilution of Sinhala Buddhist culture.

Q What would be the end result if the culture is diluted in this manner?

In simple words, it would result in the vanishing of Theravada Buddhism in another 100 years’ time. There are only five Theravada Buddhist countries – Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Unlike in Sri Lanka, in four other countries, Buddhism has a shallow connection with the culture concerned. Basically, Theravada Buddhism is protected by the royal kings in those countries. Recently, Thailand lost the royal patronage with the death of king Bhumibol Adulyadej. The successor is a weak and unpopular character. For instance, I had a discussion with the Buddhist intellectuals in Thailand. They were in fear whether they would lose Theravada Buddhism within the next few decades.

They have had a triangular relationship – the King, society and the Buddhist monks (Maha Sangha). When one is detached, things would fall apart. Although we lost our royal system of governance in 1815, we were able to protect Theravada Buddhism. The link between Buddhism and society are so intertwined that the culture survived despite the absence of royal patronage. That is the strength of Sinhala Buddhist culture. If this is loosened, we would lose Buddhism. Probably, Theravada Buddhism would vanish from the earth. That is why we should foster Sinhala Buddhist culture. Theravada Buddhism is protected by the Sinhalese; It would be protected by them in future. I am confident we can do it. We believe in Buddha’s words. He said, “Buddhism will last on this earth for 5000 years. We are halfway through now.”

Q How do you compare and contrast ideas emanating from the concept of modernism with Buddhist approaches?

In the name of modernism, what had happened in 15th and 16th centuries in Europe is the introduction of one-God concept leaving the concept of multiple Gods. They believe in one God. According to our interpretation it is the Maradivya puthra or the most powerful worldly God. His intention is to help people for worldly, materialistic developments.

With the introduction of this new philosophy in Europe, it was spread throughout the world in the name of Protestantism, science, modern art and culture. It is the spreading of Maradivya puthra’s power. In other words, it is the western political, economic and cultural imperialism. It is basically a project against Buddhism. If you analyse the events that occurred over the last five centuries in the name of modernization, the end result is the disappearance of Buddhism from the earth. When this new philosophy was raised, there was a parallel philosophical approach brought out in the name of Marxism. It is a pseudo approach to address deficiencies of modernism. Why do I say this is a pseudo approach? Because Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist way of life is the alternative to the modernization; It has answers to all the problems created by modernism. Marxism appeared as an alternative to modernism but it has never been successful anywhere in the world. It helped Maradivya puthra to conceal Buddhist philosophy as an answer to modernism. Not only that, Marxism is directly responsible for the destroyal of Buddhism in certain regions. What had happened in Vietnam? We lost Buddhism to Marxism in the South-East Asian region.

(No only did it destroy Buddhism but the Abrahamic religions, too – Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Example: Central Asian republics (Unbekhstan, Khazakistan, Azerbaijan, Kyrigistan and  Turkmenistan under Soviet Regime and Albania, Bosnia and even Turkey in Europe -TW)

Q You are an academic, teaching and practising western medicine. How do you look at the traditional knowledge on medicine?

Actually, we have had a great tradition of medicine based on Buddhist teachings. We have had a great knowledge system. It is basically dependent on spiritual development. Certain Veda Mahaththayas (Village Physicians) are spiritually developed persons. They could even communicate with certain invisible forces. Those Buddhist divinities helped these Veda Mahaththayas to give relief to patients in various ways. That is the epistemology of Sinhala medicine. With the introduction of western education, those were neglected and even insulted. The Sinhala Veda Mahaththaya is ignored. Simultaneously, our spiritual development is down. We had very good orthopaedic and ophthalmic treatment. Similarly we had good treatment for those affected by poisoning (Visha Vedakama). Still, we have a few such good persons with spiritual development who can communicate with invisible spirits and gain knowledge. Those are the people who successfully treat cancer patients and those down with chronic kidney diseases etc. When it comes to these two diseases, western medicine can only manage them; not effect the total cure. In our system we can do the total cure.

We are doing a study with a Sinhala Veda Mahaththaya in Rajarata. He is successfully treating chronic kidney disease in agricultural communities. The result shows amazing developments of patients suffering from the disease. We can objectively see it. In the western method, it cannot be done. This treatment is basically linked with Buddhist teaching and practices. In western medicine, we only address the physical body, but in the Buddhist method it heals both – the body and soul. Whereas the soul is totally neglected in the western method.