Fighting Buddhists

I wrote recently of what often comes as a surprise to the western popular mind — chauvinistic Hindu governance and violence in India.  Equally surprising is the presence of such a spirit in Buddhism.  Just to the southwest of India, however, on the island of Sri Lanka, one finds exactly that — an aggressive Buddhist nationalism that has governed the island for decades in the name of Sri Lanka being a Buddhist homeland, much as Hindu nationalists view India as a Hindu homeland.  As in India, the dominant religion in Sri Lanka is a strong majority — 74% of the population is of the Sinhalese ethnic group, almost all of their members being Buddhists.  An insightful piece authored by Rohini Mohan was published on the latest manifestations of the phenomenon in this past Friday’s New York Times.  In Sri Lankan Buddhist nationalism, there is little separation of state and sangha (the 30,000 or so monks who make up the religious leadership), while, paralleling India, the state sharply excludes Tamil Hindus and Muslims in matters of education and language.  Sri Lankan monks fashioned a Buddhist nationalism in the late 19th century, in good part in reaction to British colonization and Christian missionaries.  After World War II, Buddhist nationalists emerged as politically dominant and have been so ever since.  Tamils fought back, engulfing the island in thirty years of civil war, ending finally in a victory for the Buddhist state in 2009.  Since then, the government has been inciting violence against Muslims and wrecking their mosques and promulgating a view of culture and history that enshrines Buddhist supremacy.  If this continues, writes Mohan, it will result in “more instability, ethnic polarization and suppression of dissent.”

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Daniel Philpott

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