[This post is by guest-writer Line Løvåsen].
Though Buddhism is known for its insistence on non-violence and compassion, there have been some Buddhist wars in history (Thompson 1988:102). I will discuss one of these: the conflict between Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka, which has recently come to an end with the victory of the government over the rebel Tamil Tigers.
Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948. The island has long known political and economic tensions between Buddhist Sinhalese and the minority of Hindu Tamils (Harris 2003:107). Increased Sinhalese nationalism and emerging Tamil separatism resulted in violence and war in the 1980s. Tens of thousands have since been killed in a brutal ethnic war (Seneviratne 2003:76).
The Sinhalese have justified the war and the use of violence by way of the teachings of Buddha. I will in post examine the role of religion in this conflict. By showing tensions between Buddhism and Sinhalese politics, I will argue that although the conflict is expressed and justified in religious terms, it is actually part of the state’s nationalistic agenda. I will also argue that this is a typical example of how poverty and a crisis of national identity are misused by a state in order to mobilize ethnic groups for conflict. To prove my argument, I begin by describing the Sinhalese view of the war. Then I examine general Buddhist principles against war, after which I outline Theravada Buddhism to see how the Sinhalese are able to manipulate the principles for their purposes. I then examine to what extent the Sinhalese actions fit the just war criteria. I will take into account other explanations of the conflict and I will discuss how Buddhism can contribute to a solution.
Background of the conflict in Sri Lanka
The Sinhalese, as Buddhists, were able to engage in mass killing because of the importance they attach to the Sinhalese identity. The perceived identity crisis, combined with economic problems, led to violence. Colonization and poverty first made the Sinhalese mobilize against the Christians. After decolonization, the new Sinhalese state instituted an official Sinhalese culture and language. This emerging ethnic nationalism was also directed against the Tamil minority. To understand Sinhalese ethnic pride, one has to turn to the vamsa texts of the Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism, where you find the Sri Lankan chronicle of Mahavamsa. Mahavamsa is said to link Sinhalas to the Island in two ways: Buddha came over and “chose” the land, and Buddhist scriptures were written here. Buddhism was adopted and restored by the ancient Kings, which is the justification for the association between the nation and the religion (Cheng 2007:182-183). This association is a driving factor behind ethnic nationalism (Tambiah 1992:39). Referring to the glory of former Kings is also used as a justification for war (Bartholomeusz 2002:5-7): one of the stories in Mahavamsa describes how a former Buddhist King, Dutthagamani, defeats Elara the Tamil King in a war to unify the island (Tambiah 1992:33). Such stories from Mahavamsa, where Sri Lanka is the Buddhist Promised Land and the King/government has a duty to protect the land and the religion, can easily justify war.
As mentioned, Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism started to develop in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century as an anti-Christian movement (Tambiah 1992:5). At that time, the Sinhalese and the Tamils stood together against the British. After some time, however, the Tamils started to feel uncomfortable with the Sinhalese dominance in politics (Tambiah 1992:9-10). After independence in 1948, Sri Lanka adopted a kind of secularism, but with a preference for Buddhism. The state felt a responsibility to foster Buddhism, and Buddhism was used to justify political power. Religion went from being a personal moral practice to a cultural and political possession. The incorporation of Buddhism into the state led to a perversion of Buddhist teaching and to hegemonic and exclusionary tendencies towards non-Bugghists (Tambiah 1992:59). The inconsistencies between Sinhalese politics and religion are examined more in the next sections. I begin by outlining the Buddhist view on war and violence.
Essential Buddhist principles on war and violence
Buddhism is known for its preaching of non-violence, or ahimsa. In the words of Buddha: do not harm neither others nor yourself, as everything is interrelated, and every action has a fruit. Moreover, as Gomez (1992:43-44) puts it, non-violence is linked to the notion of no-self, and that of the love of self. The principle of no-self means that you shall put yourself in the place of others before taking an action; “see the other as yourself” (Hahn 1987). According to Harris’ interpretation, not even a duty can mitigate these principles. A warrior has in mind hatred and anger, which, according to Buddhism, is the cause of suffering (Harris 2003:95).
According to Gomez (1992:44), Buddhism leaves the question of a just war unresolved, since Buddha’s words are: violence must not be met with violence (Bartholomeusz 2002:99). So, when can ahimsa be modified? When can the principles be broken? Does Theravada Buddhism, the dominant Buddhist tradition in Sri Lanka, provide the possibility of a just war? Theravada, the oldest Buddhist tradition, is characterized as having a lack of consistency, and being sensitive to contexts and therefore easier to manipulate (Harris 2003:94).
Harris (2003:95) sees three ways to justify war in Buddhist Sri Lanka; from texts, from utilitarian arguments for the greater good, and by contesting the notion that war has negative consequences. I will now give examples of these three justifications. Concerning the texts, I already mentioned the stories from Mahavamsa which can be used to justify war. But in the Theravada canon, Buddha also uses military vocabulary, which the Sinhalese use for justification. An example of military metaphor is how Buddha mentions how a virtuous person in war is better than a coward. The question though is: does he have to be taken literally, or is he using metaphors (the warrior being the spiritual warrior) (Harris:98-99).
Regarding the utilitarian argument, Bartholomeusz (2002:26-27) discusses how the Sinhalese have developed an ethical pluralism, and choose their ethics according to context. The first of the three ethics is the deontological, which emphasizes that the act of war is wrong whatever the consequences. The second is consequentalist, which Buddha preached: an act of war is wrong because of its consequences. The third is virtue ethics: being moral means not so much following rules, but having a virtuous and moral character and intentions (Bartholomeusz 2002:119). The focus here is clearly on utilitarian and virtue ethics. War is justified because it allows the state to protect its citizens from aggression and to prevent Buddhism from being destroyed (good consequences). Moreover, it is argued by Sinhalese that if the war is a state-duty, one’s mental state will not be damaged. The suffering, which is caused by hate and anger in the mind of the warrior (see above), is diminished when this warrior is simply an agent of the state carrying out orders. And guilt is relieved if one regrets killing (Bartholomeusz 2002:58). Hence, the virtue ethic is also salvaged.
When confronted with the opposition between all this, and ahimsa, the Sinhalese explanation is that “reality does not always alow for the Buddhist ideal” (Bartholomeusz 2002:40). Sinhalese also use the argument that their Buddhist religion is superior because of its non-violent values. However, this religion must be protected, because of its superiority (Bartholomeusz 2002:75). Thus the Sinhalas use violence to erode violence, blaming others for making them violent (Bartholomeusz 2002:74).
Explanations for the war
There is a debate between social scientists whether the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is a contemporary phenomenon or rooted in history. Seneviratne (2003:76-77) goes through textual and syncretistic Buddhism in order to determine whether the role of Buddhism in the war is a new or old phenomenon. Textual Buddhism is the scriptures of the Buddhist doctrine. This doctrine has, of course, been subject to different interpretations throughout time, causing some contradictory views and ideas. According to Seneviratne, the texts do not contain anything that could be a factor in the conflict of Sri Lanka.
Syncretistic Buddhism is the sum of beliefs and practices in Buddhist societies. These beliefs and practices produce a culturally unique Buddhism specific to each particular society. Here Seneviratne discusses how Buddhism has adapted to so many different cultures. In Sri Lanka, and especially postcolonial Sri Lanka, as we have seen, religion became entangled with politics, producing an interpretation of Buddhism that contributed to the conflict.
How can Buddhism contribute towards a peaceful solution and a new national consensus (assuming that the recent government victory didn’t solve the underlying problems)?
Seneviratne (2003:84-90) suggests the following elements of Buddhist doctrine: the principle of human effort (in contrast to the “divine assistance” in other religions), the denial of self, and Buddhism’s openness to all rather than to a chosen group (Buddhism is opposed to the caste system). He mentions religious tolerance in Sri Lanka as a “syncretic contribution”, giving examples of how Buddhism contains traces from Hinduism, something which will develop even further given the increased communication between the different religions on the island in recent decades. Here one should also highlight the fact that there has actually been a Buddhist tradition among Tamils. Economic development and business can also create bonds between people.
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