Temple Properties, Monks and Politics

Render unto monks what’s theirs 

(Island Editorial)

It looks as if the yahapalana government were trying to gain control of temple assets while handing over public property to foreigners for a song. Some holier-than-thou politicians, who have incurred much public opprobrium for shielding a bunch of pro-government Treasury bond racketeers responsible for causing a huge loss to the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF), have embarked on a campaign to enforce financial discipline on Buddhist monks! Ironically, these grandees had no qualms about allowing the LTTE to extort money from civilians and run its own ‘banks’ in the North and the East about one and a half decades ago.


Buddhist monks are resisting an alleged government move to close part of the Dambulla Raja Maha Viharaya temporarily. This historical temple belongs to the Asgiriya Chapter, which has got under the skin of many a ruling politician, by rejecting the proposed Constitution. The government is all out to make the Asgiriya monks fall in line on the pretext of auditing the temple funds and conserving ancient murals. The late President J. R. Jayewardene put up a barbed wire fence across the Getambe Temple in a bid to frighten the intrepid monks resident there into submission for ruffling his feathers; the present regime is trying various other methods to achieve the same end in Dambulla. We are being made witness to a battle between the holy and the unholy!


This unfortunate situation has come about mainly because politicians have taken upon themselves tasks that are best left to Buddhist monks and vice versa. Politicians ought not to venture into what has traditionally been considered the preserve of the clergy. The yahapalana leaders seem to think they can bulldoze their way through simply because people have voted for them. It was a mistake for some members of the Maha Sangha to take to active politics and desecrate the saffron robe. In 2004, Buddhist monks were used by some ambitious, wily laymen who wrapped themselves in the flag, to win elections and savour power. Some monks through their blind plunge into politics caused the collapse of the socio-cultural bulwark which had helped Buddhist temples hold meddlesome political elements at bay. It behoves monks to remain above dirty politics the way the Buddha did. They may function as a pressure group with a mission to knock some sense into politicians anent crucial issues. They must not wallow in dirty politics together with laymen.


Questions being raised in some quarters about the revenue of big temples, no doubt, need answers though the current rulers have no moral right to question anyone else’s financial integrity. Some Buddhist temples exude opulence while many others are in penury as is common knowledge. It is incumbent upon the Mahanayake Theras to step in to ensure that part of the wealth of the affluent temples is used for the benefit of the less fortunate ones. Temples must not only manage their funds in a transparent manner but also be seen to be doing so. Financial probity is the best antidote to political interference.


Let the yahapalana politicians be urged to put their own house in order before asking others to account for their funds. The task of managing temple funds must not be left to politicians or their henchmen under any circumstances. The ruling politicians, who came to power, promising to grant relief to the public, keep submitting supplementary estimates in Parliament to the tune of billions of rupees to buy super luxury vehicles for ministers while disaster victims are crying out for relief. Given half a change these elements will steal even from temple tills to feather their nests.


President Maithripala Sirisena should prevail upon the government to stop its hostile campaign against temples and adopt the Licchavi method, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe often talks of, to sort out its differences with the Maha Sangha.