History of Buddhist Monks in Politics : On the path to enlightenment?

By Skandha Gunasekara

With the majority of Sri Lankans practising Buddhism, the involvement of bhikkus in politics and Parliament has raised concerns over entrenching nationalism and other similar impacts on Sri Lankan society in addition to questions of its morality.

While Buddhist orthodoxy seeks to promote the renunciation of all worldly concerns and attachments, there remains philosophical and theological latitude for bhikkus to justify their engagement in political activity, which they claim aims to lead society on a virtuous path.

Since Independence in Sri Lanka, the Buddhist clergy have been active in politics whenever they felt it appropriate – more so on issues related to the unitary state of the nation and the superiority of the Buddhist faith.

University of Colombo Department of History senior lecturer Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, who has researched extensively on post-colonial ethno-nationalism, speaking to The Sunday Morning, explained the inception of bhikku involvement in mainstream politics in Sri Lanka and its impact.

Dr. Dewasiri revealed that bhikku involvement in politics began around the 19th Century.

“Buddhism, especially the Sinhala version of Buddhism since the 19th Century, is closely linked with the modern political setting. Even though they didn’t come to Parliament as Members of Parliament, they have been active in electoral politics from the very beginning. For example, since the 1940s, Bhikkus were very much a part of the election campaigns.”

“In the 1947 election, a large contingency of bhikkus, particularly from the Widyalankara Sect, campaigned heavily for the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) while other bhikkus, who were supporting the United National Party (UNP), were critical of the Widyalankara monks. In 1956, bhikkus were one of the components of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) election campaign. It was actually the bhikkus who mobilised the forces that brought the MEP Government into power. Since then, they have been very active,” he said.

Temple politics

“Temple politics started long ago. It is hard to pinpoint the exact date, but if I were to point out a few turning points, I would say that in the early 19th Century there was a Buddhist revival. Initially, it was purely a religious movement, but then in the latter part of the 19th Century, it became more of a cultural political movement.

“By mid-20th Century, it had become closely connected to mainstream politics. Sociologists and anthropologists have analysed the Widyalankara movement at length.

“There is a very good study by H.A. Seneviratne from Virginia University, who in his book Work of Kings makes the distinction between the Widyodaya tradition and the Widyalankara tradition, based on the two major pirivenas.

“He argues that the Widyodaya is more into economic activities and social welfare and so on, whereas the Widyalanka Sect was more into mainstream politics, particularly radical politics. Therefore, the Widyalankara campaigned for the LSSP in the 1940s, so that is one important note in this timeline,” Dr. Dewasiri explained.

Decline and resurgence

Dr. Dewasiri noted that following the assassination of late Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, there was a sharp decline in bhikku political activity.

“The crucial turning point was in 1956 where the United Bhikku Front (Eksath Bhikshu Peramuna [EBP]) became a major campaigner for Bandaranaike’s election campaign. It was actually the United Bhikku Front who brought S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike to lead that campaign. Some scholars have pointed out that they tried to make Dudley Senanayake the leader of the campaign but he was a bit reluctant. After the 1952 election of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Bandaranaike thought that it was an ideal opportunity for him to make a significant comeback, which proved to be immensely successful. This was a very important landmark in bhikku politics. However, after Bandaranaike’s assassination, which involved two bhikkus (Mapitigama Buddharakkitha Thera and Talduwe Somarama Thera), it was a heavy blow to the bhikkus’ moral authority to be in politics.

The re-emergence of Buddhist clergy intervention in politics was compelled by the Indo-Lanka Accord in the 1990s, Dr. Dewasiri said.

“Bhikkus once again became prominent in politics in the 1980s in the campaign against the Indo-Lanka Accord. Then later in the 1990s, when the Chandrika Government brought this famous package, again we saw the involvement of bhikkus being very effective. That was the inception of the modern temple politics we observe today.”

Dr. Dewasiri further elaborated that towards the end of the 1990s, when the Chandrika Government was becoming less popular and the UNP was in a state of decline, there was a third political space which could not be mobilised directly by the SLFP or the UNP.

“It developed outside the two major parties. Here, the movement led by Patali Champika Ranawaka – Sihala Urumaya – was able to capitalise on that political space. Then, there was another wave of bhikku politics. The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) phenomenon is a culmination of that process and you may link it with what happened, since Gangodawila Soma Thera who, although was not active in mainstream politics, became a strong political commentator even through his religious sermons. Especially after his demise, there was politicisation and the core of the JHU – Champika Ranawaka and his group – made use of that development and they succeeded to a certain extent.

“At the April parliamentary election in 2004, the very same year they first entered Parliament, the JHU heavily campaigned for Mahinda Rajapaksa to be the Prime Ministerial candidate for the SLFP even though President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was contemplating nominating her Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar.”

The JHU was also instrumental in the Presidential campaign of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the following year in 2005.

“The political camp led by Mahinda Rajapaksa also heavily benefitted from what I call ‘temple politics’, where temples became a space for politics even in electoral politics. We saw this especially in their defeat at the 2015 election held on 8 January. In their recovery process, the temples played a massive role.”

Bhikkus entering politics

Dr. Dewasiri argued that it was an inevitable conclusion that the Buddhist clergy would seek Parliament membership after looking at the political involvement in post-colonial Sri Lanka.

“It was sort of a logical consequence of what happened because when one becomes politically active, entering Parliament is the ultimate objective. Those who are politically active come to the power centre; that is what engaging in modern politics means. One wants to enjoy political power and entering politics is one such way. So I don’t want to identify bhikkus who enter mainstream politics as classic Buddhist principles. They are very much a part of our social political culture. They make use of their religious activities and their place with regard to religious people, and benefit from that position.”

Rise of the Bodu Bala Sena

The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) was incepted in the years following the conclusion of the civil war with the leadership of Galagoda Aththe Gnanasaara Thera – who broke away from the JHU and held its first national convention in July 2012.

These self-styled and self-proclaimed guardians of Buddhism and the “true” Sinhala identity were the cause of much grief and suffering for ethnic and religious minority groups in the years that followed, with the 2014 Aluthgama riots being just such example.

Democracy – the only hope?

Taking an optimistic standpoint, Dr. Dewasiri pointed out that Sri Lanka’s current democratic political system would not allow the sustenance of political extremist fringe groups such as the BBS.

“There’s a difference between the situation in 2004, when the JHU bhikkus came into Parliament, and the situation now. The 2004 situation was a little dismantled and decentralised. Even groups like the BBS do not enjoy the same significance that they enjoyed a few years back. I have an optimistic attitude towards Sri Lankan democracy. Lankan democracy is a vibrant setting and it is not easy for one particular group to dominate. When one group tries to dominate, the other forces compete and that’s what happened even after 2004, particularly after the war ended.

“When the Rajapaksas tried to dominate, they were challenged, which led to their Government’s defeat in 2015. Now, there is a new political build as manifested in the last two elections – the presidential election and the general election – but there are still dissenting voices. In that sense, it is not easy to destroy the democratic setting of Sri Lanka. Even if religious extremism can emerge, they cannot continue and that’s what happened with groups like the BBS. Their sustainability is very short term.”

Nevertheless, JHU one-time member Ven. Dr. Omalpe Sobitha Thera called for the imposition of restrictions on bhikkus intervening in political matters.

The Thera said that the 2004 parliamentary election was the right moment in history for the bhikkus to enter Parliament and institute positive societal change.

“Due to historical needs, Bhikkus have performed various political duties in our country. One such instance was when the Bhikkus were first elected to Parliament to represent parliamentary seats.”

However, he asserted that present political bhikkus have failed in their service to the nation and thus, must refrain from politics.

“But (in the backdrop of) the current situation that has developed, it has become unnecessary for bhikkus to hold parliamentary seats. It has become clear that there must be some regulation in the involvement of bhikkus in politics, so there is no need for bhikkus to enter Parliament. They should limit themselves to advising and guiding the political leadership as a duty to the nation and its people. In the past, there was no need to impose any kind of ban on bhikkus engaging in politics as bhikkus acted responsibly. But looking at today’s circumstances, it looks like some prohibitions must be put in place as there is no need for bhikkus to represent political parties and enter Parliament.”

He said that one of the foremost reasons was the controversy the Our People Power Party (OPPP) was embroiled in following the 2020 parliamentary election.

“The main reason is the problems that have been caused by the OPPP. Their internal party issues have caused us to assert that bhikkus need not engage in mainstream politics at this point in time. In 2004, we saw bhikkus being elected for the first time. That was a decision of fate and history in accordance of the need of the time. They formed a powerful political force and were able to achieve many goals in a short period of time. But after those objectives were reached those mutual alliances broke away. The current situation is far different to that of 2004. It shows that we were right to enter Parliament in 2004, but the situation now does not call for such a requirement,” the Thera noted.

OPPP were able to secure a National List seat in the ninth Parliament but infighting has led to indecision on which candidate from their party would fill the parliamentary seat.

The day after the election results were announced, OPPP General Secretary Ven. Wedinigama Wimalatissa Thera submitted his own name to the Election Commission (EC) to fill their party’s National List seat.

However, soon after, Wimalatissa Thera went missing.

OPPP de facto Leader and member Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera charged that the Party’s General Secretary was in hiding and that the EC must take a decision on their National List seat.

“He is missing. Maybe the Government knows where Wimalatissa Thera is. The EC must inform us on how to proceed from here.”

As such, the fate of which lone Buddhist monk would enter the ninth Parliament is yet to be decided.

Ven. Narampanave Ananda Thera of the Asgiri Chapter told The Sunday Morning that bhikkus should not engage in mainstream politics.

“We have always maintained that bhikkus should not engage in mainstream party politics. Of course, bhikkus should play a role in advising the national leaders and the Government, but it should be done outside of mainstream politics.”

He said that groups such as the BBS have lost their way and are tarnishing the image of bhikkus.

“The BBS is a good example of straying after entering mainstream politics. They have now become redundant because of their ill-advised actions and have been shunned to the sidelines.”

He asserted that Parliament and mainstream politics were not suitable for the Buddhist clergy.

“It is unsuitable for bhikkus to engage in party politics and our Mahanayake has continuously said this. We have seen how those in Parliament behave even within the Parliament; so is that a place for Bhikkus? It clearly is not.”