By Dr. Susantha Goonatilake A short time ago, two global exercises of soft power took place, one in Sri Lanka and the other in China. Soft power is the opposite of military power, and in the case of the Sri Lankan event, it was the projection of Buddhism. In this Buddhist, soft power exercise China [...]

Sunday Times 2

One-Belt, One-Road, one-Vesak


By Dr. Susantha Goonatilake

A short time ago, two global exercises of soft power took place, one in Sri Lanka and the other in China. Soft power is the opposite of military power, and in the case of the Sri Lankan event, it was the projection of Buddhism. In this Buddhist, soft power exercise China and India – both once strongly influenced by Buddhism – had also engaged in earlier. In the other recent event, it was the launch in China of the nearly one trillion dollars’ development programme, the “Belt and Road Initiative” (A.K.A. “One-Belt, One-Road”). Western observers called it the world’s largest development initiative, by far surpassing the Marshall Plan of the US which helped reconstruct Europe after World War II. Representatives and leaders of over 60 countries covering over 65% of the world’s population were participating. Our Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who had earlier objected to the Chinese-built Port City in Colombo attended the event. A major spoiler was India, which alone among major developing, several developed countries and major UN agencies, boycotted it. The Port City would be a spoiler for any Indian aggression as during the time of JR, India brought warships outside our port to force us sign an imposed Constitution. India does not have an ability to challenge China and the Port City could be our best defence. But that was not the case for the Hambantota port whose logic was, siphoning in ships passing by, but ships are yet to come. Mattala airport, a MR vanity project and his fortunately unrealised Commonwealth Games bid, far away from any urban settlements is today empty and will probably be for decades.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi being led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at the opening day of the symposium held at the BMICH, Colombo to commemorate UN Vesak Day.

The Sri Lanka event was the celebration of Vesak declared a UN event due to efforts among others of then Foreign Minister Kadirgamar. In my view, Kadirgamar was the best head of state we never had. That UN declaration also owed itself to then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon whose Korean family had a Buddhist background. But it was only the tip of a set of initiatives over the last 150 years of taking Buddhism to the world mainly by Sri Lankans. First were the Sri Lankan scholar monks who helped Westerners translate key Buddhist texts to European languages for the first time in the world. Some of the key translators were members of our Royal Asiatic Society RASSL like Rhys Davids. In addition, were, our then Buddhist activists like those who organised debates with the Christians and Anagarika Dharmapala who addressed the 1893 World Religions Parliament and later founded the International Buddhist movement. However, the Sri Lanka links with Buddhism as the only continuously Buddhist majority country in the world from the time of Asoka gave it a unique place both in Theravada as well as Mahayana. The British author Charles Allen has recorded how 19th-century translations of our chronicles gave India its early history and further, how Asoka organised the world’s first welfare state. That Asokan welfare template was continued through the ages in Sri Lanka, say in our irrigation systems culminating in our Buddhist monks in the 1940’s demanding free education. And statements of both the Buddha and Asoka allowed for the co-existence of other religions.

There were other more recent developments like the New York Mahathera Kurunegoda Piyatissa who brought together for Vesak all the Buddhist nations in New York to display their traditions. In later years through a suggestion from my wife there was a yearly lantern procession on a main New York street, lanterns provided by wealthy Koreans and Chinese. And over the last 30 years or so, elements of Buddhist behavioral practice like meditation – backed by research – had gone mainstream in the West.

Unfortunately, in the opposite direction, local-born anthropologists have carried the White Man’s Burden. Belying basic facts, they mischaracterised the Buddhist revival. Tambiah called Dharmapala “an uncharitable propagandist”. And without reading easily available material, Obeyesekera perversely called the Buddhist revival “Protestant Buddhism”. This was an unbelievable hoax because Olcott and Blavatsky, the carriers of Obeyesekera’s “Protestantism” hated Protestantism and came on bended intellectual knee to learn Sinhalese Buddhism. And it is this “Protestant” fiction that our uncritical anthropologists learn and teach and foreigners believe about our Buddhist revival, and so indirectly about current issues.

But whatever the prior background – early or new – we had not invited to our recent Vesak event as chief guests, rulers of Buddhist countries as in Southeast Asia who got Buddhism from us. Or from East Asia who again in the 5th century got from us, their nuns’-order. Or from further east who got aspects of their Tantric Buddhism in the circa 8th century through Amoghavajra from our Abhayagiri.

All these soft power exports to Asia from Sri Lanka mainly occurred through Anuradhapura and later Polonnaruwa. The importance of this ancient soft power for foreign relations for the modern period was such that when Burma got her Independence, the first country they wanted to have foreign relations with was us. But unfortunately, at that time our government was not interested in following these historical connections. Neither did the current or the previous government. MR visited and invited the Pope but not the Buddhist luminaries in Theravada countries. The then military leader of Myanmar and later the Princess of Thailand did visit the Dalada Maligawa and were received by MR. Both leaders at MR’s request were given two booklets on our connections with these countries and the author urged MR to connect with these countries. To no avail, but Kadirgamar would have definitely followed up. Strategic interests lost.

For Vesak, we did not invite any leaders from Buddhist countries. Our invitations went to two Hindu leaders, BJP’s Modi from India and Bhandari from Nepal. Modern “Hinduism” is a relatively recent amalgam but it was against its more basic tenets that the Buddha spoke. Shortly before BJP’s Modi visit, our government had invited the Indian Congress’s former minister Shashi Tharoor. He had written a book Pax Indica, reminiscent of the Pax Britannica through which Britain controlled her colonial world. In Tharoor’s book, India’s future would be as our controller, “a regional hegemon”. The Hindu newspaper commented that the book ignored “India’s intrusive manipulations” in Nepal, in Afghanistan and the support to the LTTE. Tharoor spoke in double tongue, so did Modi.

India’s Constitution regards Buddhism as only a part of Hinduism. This, despite Ambedkar the leader of the Dalits (“untouchable” caste) and the principal author of that Constitution declaring, “I was born a Hindu but will not die a Hindu”. In 1956, Ambedkar converted to Buddhism. But very much earlier, Anagaraika Dharmapala had formed the Maha Bodhi Society to reclaim the Buddhist heritage of India from Hinduism.
Hindu influences had come to us after the fall of the ancient cities especially during the Kotte period. A strong critic of such influences was the 15th-century monk Vidagama Maithree. It was under Vidagama’s tutelage that the last package of our Buddhism went once again to Myanmar in 1423, just before the Portuguese destruction. Vidagama attacked Hindu gods, ridiculed Hindus for considering fire as a god (Agni), laughed at Isvara, the head of the Hindu pantheon, and condemned Vishnu calling belief in him fiction. Of special note, he ridiculed the Ramayana.

The Royal Asiatic Society RASSL hearing that a man an official in our tourist authorities was manufacturing the Ramayana as truth, organised a conference. Although invited, the official did not attend. More alarming was that one of the allies of the tourist authority, a lorry driver was disfiguring inscriptions to depict this Ramayana fairytale. Advocating as truth, the Ramayana is as dangerous to the country’s sovereignty as the LTTE’s fictional traditional homelands. Maybe it is because of this mindset, that our tourist authorities are not promoting our ancient cities as much as do countries like Cambodia and now, Myanmar their sites. Perhaps because of this, the participants of the recent Vesak event were not taken to Anuradhapura but to Kandy, roughly the same time for travel because of huge congestion on the Colombo-Kandy road. A contrast was the leaders of the recent G7 meeting who had their group photograph in front of Roman ruins. And unfortunately, the current Maha Bodhi Society seems to accept Hindu mythology as, in the RASSL conference, they defended promoting the Ramayana. Dharmapala would have been alarmed.

India, irrespective of her ruling party, is the only country to have interfered militarily in our country, a contrast to China. Nepal’s new Constitution was forced on it by Modi’s India after the landlocked country was blockaded for three months, and Nepal had to give in. The BJP is led by Hindu fundamentalists, mostly Brahmins and are disliked by Dalit ‘Untouchables’. Modi in his recent visit, warned our own leaders that we should change our Constitution to fit into Indian wishes. Addressing the Parliament on his last visit, he similarly interfered in our internal affairs. And when Modi on his current visit went to our hill country he reminded Indian Tamils who are mostly Dalits of MGR. MGR was born in our hill country and later led the Indian separatist DMK while his party supported separatism in our country. The Indian Dalit freedom movement was started in South India with branches in Sri Lanka by Anagarika Dharmapala but later it turned into the racist and separatist Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Ambedkar’s North Indian based Dalit movement started much later. And for our part, we have yet to properly strategise our interests – whatever the ruling party.

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