More than two millennia ago, India gave to Sri Lanka its greatest gift – the gift of the Dhamma. The ‘Doctrine of the Middle Path’ pronounced first by India’s greatest son, Gautama the Buddha at a Deer Park in Saranath and brought to this island by the son of the great Emperor Asoka. It changed [...]


Let the Buddha’s message radiate from Lanka!


More than two millennia ago, India gave to Sri Lanka its greatest gift – the gift of the Dhamma. The ‘Doctrine of the Middle Path’ pronounced first by India’s greatest son, Gautama the Buddha at a Deer Park in Saranath and brought to this island by the son of the great Emperor Asoka. It changed the lives of the island’s inhabitants for ever more, and this nation was to henceforth be known as the ‘Dhammadvipa’, the land of the Dhamma.
As time went by, Buddhism faded away from where it had originated. Foreign invaders burnt and destroyed ancient seats of learning like Nalanda and it took a British army engineer, Sir Alexander Cunningham to excavate the lost Buddhist civilisation in India marked by Asokan pillars and a Sri Lankan, Anagarika Dharmapala, at the latter part of the 19th century to revive Buddhism in the land of its birth.

Forming the Maha Bodhi Society of Bodh Gaya in 1891, Dharmapala galvanised Buddhists around the world, when half the world was colonised, to regain the sites associated with the life of the Buddha. Today, thousands of pilgrims visit the Holy Land of India and the Indian Government honoured the Sri Lankan by issuing a postage stamp to commemorate his 150th birth anniversary three years ago.

The visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Sri Lanka next week to participate in the celebrations to mark the United Nations International Day of Vesak is therefore significant, and for more reasons than one. Though heading a strong Hindutva Government, Modi himself has made an extra effort to reach out to Buddhists in India. He represents the constituency of Varanasi, which has a large Muslim and Hindu population; it is where the River Ganges flows and is in close proximity to Saranath.

Despite his party’s pro-Hindu posturing, Premier Modi is at pains to shed his reputation of yesteryear as a religious zealot and rather, portray himself as a moderate national leader, showing as he does, like the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, a great deal of affinity towards Buddhism.
Regrettably, his visit to Sri Lanka is being shrouded in some veils of controversy. Some political elements are preparing for a protest campaign, just as much as some Hindu extremists in India are protesting his visit for a Buddhist celebration. Premier Modi seems to be treading the ‘Middle Path’.

The controversy within this country is not entirely without reason. India’s foreign policy during the days of Indira Gandhi’s stewardship was one of unleashing the ‘Panikkar Doctrine’ (which advocated Sri Lanka being an autonomous unit within the Indian federation) and Indian expansionism back in the 1970s. This saw India change its policy of ‘pancha seela’ to direct intervention, changing the dynamics of regional politics. India ‘midwifed’ the birth of Bangladesh, nurtured terrorist groups in Sri Lanka and undermined parliaments in Nepal, eventually earning the wrath of all its neighbours.
As far as Sri Lanka was concerned, all the goodwill of centuries through the Buddhist links to India was blown away, as New Delhi at the time pursued its hegemonic foreign policy. The internal compulsions of coalition politics forced India to bend backwards to keep the southern state of Tamil Nadu content and allow the state’s politicians to dictate India’s Sri Lanka policy at the expense of good bilateral relations with its closest, oldest and dearest southern sovereign state.

Eventually, Ms. Gandhi’s son Rajiv was murdered on Tamil Nadu soil by the very group Indira’s India used to destabilise Sri Lanka. What you sow, you shall reap.One cannot, however, live in the past, as they say and countries too must move on. Former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, the one who in recent times was responsible for United Nations General Assembly Resolution 54/15 that paved the way for the UN’s recognition of the Day of Vesak – having got several non-Buddhist countries like Spain, the Philippines, Ukraine, India, Pakistan and the Maldives etc., to support the resolution, referred to relations with India as being of “irreversible excellence”.

The current leaders of both India and Sri Lanka seem keen to move forward, and re-establish those age-old bonds lost by India’s adventurist past where clearly Sri Lanka was the aggrieved party. That is a tall task for these leaders. It is not easy for the majority of Sri Lankans not to be suspicious of India, especially when Sri Lanka’s own northern politicians keep running to India for help on a regular basis and the former Government believes India had a role to play in its ouster in 2015.

The visits of Premier Modi and the newly democratic Nepal’s lady President, Bidhya Devi Bandani, must herald a new beginning of cooperation and partnership for the South Asian region. The regional grouping, SAARC has not had the desired impact on the livelihoods of the peoples of the eight countries that make up the association up until now.

As for the UN Day of Vesak celebrations, this is the first time Sri Lanka is hosting the event despite it being its former Foreign Minister who spearheaded the resolution. One can only hope these celebrations will not be limited to celebrations alone. The intellectual discourses that are to be part of these celebrations must lead to substantial follow-up action. In the past few weeks, we have pointed out the need for Sri Lanka to look towards the states of Western India for closer links, both in the Sinhala language and Buddhism as well as in strengthening economic links.
Sri Lanka is greatly respected in the Buddhist world for having preserved the sublime teachings of the Buddha in its purest form, despite centuries of foreign colonial rule. The country’s noble sons gave their lives to safeguard this heritage.

It is the bounden duty of the State to protect and foster Buddhism, both in Sri Lanka and overseas, for which it must have designated schools to train Dhammadutha (missionary) monks to articulate the Dhamma in foreign languages. Equally, it is the duty of the senior head monks of all the different Sects to bring about greater discipline among some sections of the Sangha (Order of Monks).

There has to be greater emphasis on Pirivena (monastic) education and less on monks attending regular universities and participating in unruly street demonstrations; many of them leaving the monkhood after obtaining their degrees leaving behind a bad name for the Sangha.
Let next week’s International Vesak celebrations be homage to the Buddha and his message of the Middle Path, non-violence, compassion and loving kindness to all beings, including animals.

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