Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Sketches from the South: A history of schisms


The history of the Buddhist clergy, in this country, has largely been a history of schisms, splits, and amalgamations. Over the decades and centuries, several important points have been inferred with respect to this (at one level) inevitable historical process. First and foremost among them, that the breakdown of Buddhist sects in response to growing caste militancy was a consequence, and not cause, of the political games played by the British after their conquests. Insignificant though this may be, it is nevertheless important in that people tend to paint a rosy picture of caste-ism while forgetting that the rifts between the different castes were exacerbated once the Colonial Office realised it could harness them to its advantage. As scholars have noted, regardless of their political persuasions, caste-ism, while not rampant in Sri Lanka as it was in India, eventually found its way to the political process. Caste politics was not unheard of before the advent of the British, but it was institutionalised after it. To a considerable extent, this was reflected in the history of the Buddhist sects, and to an even more considerable extent, the battle over caste in the order was played out between Kandy (the hill country) and the South (the low country).

In contrast to the conservative, tightly knit Siyam Nikaya, which spread out to the Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters, the Amarapura Nikaya, which was an offshoot of the caste militancy that grew after the Kandyan Kingdom was annexed, was a fairly loose confederation. As with all such tightly knit sects, however, the Siyam Nikaya was bound to give way to the policies of intruders, in this case the British, whose (deliberately) ambivalent responses to the practices of the Nikaya have been recorded by historians elsewhere. While a copious recounting of those responses and their historical route is hardly the point of this essay, perhaps a brief, cursory look might enable readers to appreciate how the dominance of one sect had to give way to the dissemination of other sects over the centuries. The timeline relevant to this cursory look, incidentally, spans from 1815, the year of annexation, to 1848, the year of the Matale Rebellion.

When the annexation was complete, assurances were made by the Colonial Office that steps would be taken to preserve the privileges of the traditional elite, which obviously included the monastic orders. Until then, the politics of the Kandyan Kingdom had followed a largely cyclical process, encompassing shifting loyalties and shifts in the regime (particularly, it can be said, after the Nayakkars began their reign). But with the advent of the outsider, this was destined to be succeeded by a largely linear process, in which that outsider, the conqueror, managed to concentrate hitherto traditional privileges within his vast bureaucracy. The traditional elite, naturally anxious to preserve those privileges, sought to preserve them through religion. It was in this context that the Siyam Nikaya was guaranteed the continuation of its practices, in part through the much vilified, controversial Kandyan Convention. No less a person than the then Governor of Ceylon, Robert Brownrigg, visited and placated the nervous monks at the Malwatte and Asgiriya with assurances that “the protection and security promised to their religion would never be wanting.” John D’Oyly, Chief Translator and later Baronet of Kandy, made similar assurances and entreaties to the kapuralas of the four devales in Kandy (Kataragama, Pattini, Vishnu, and Natha). The two promised to undertake three practices which had been the duty of the King: providing food to the temples from the Maha Gabadawa, holding the pageant of the Tooth Relic in Kandy, and maintaining the Dalada Maligawa.

Of the three, the first is the most interesting, since the adherence to and the abrogation of its practice is for me a good indicator of how the Colonial Office affirmed, and later derogated from, the practices of the traditional Kandyan elite. It took several decades for the British to abscond from taking part in the ceremonies of traditional society in India, and that was a consequence of the Mutiny, which took place in 1857. In other words, it took an entire Mutiny to turn the British away from Indian life and culture. In Sri Lanka, by contrast, only 17 years were needed for them to renege on their promises regarding that life and culture; by 1832, contrary to the provisions in the Convention, the Colonial Office had elected to do away with the provision of food to the monks, and instead replaced it with a scheme whereby an annual stipend of 310 pounds (or about 30,000 pounds, when adjusted for inflation) would be paid to the temples. This was an uneasy proposition from the start, and was doomed to stall. It did stall 15 years later, in 1847, when after a campaign against it led by the Legislative Council (which argued that to fund Buddhist monks would be to force a Christian legislature to support heathenism), it was shelved off in favour of a meagre land ownership scheme to benefit the monks. As no proper arrangements were made for the management of these lands, however, some of them would pass into alien hands. This same process, of representations to the effect of preserving traditional privileges giving way to their retraction, can be seen even in the way the British “took to” the pageant and the maintenance of the Maligawa.

By no means did the rebel sects emerge purely because of the activities of the British. Long before Pilimathalawa’s and Eheliyapola’s defections, long before the Chieftains decided to side with the British in a bid to oust the King, those rebel sects were quickly coming up. Their emergence was conditioned by the regions they originated from. In the hill country, the dominant caste was Govigama; in the outer fringes and the low country, the dominant castes were Salagama, Karava, and Durawa, and in that particular order. The Siyam Nikaya yielded to the pressures this conundrum necessitated, and years after its founding by Welivita Saranankara, it yielded to the dominant caste. Upasampada was restricted to this caste (which was not dominant in the low country, or along the coastal belt). This was true especially when considering how power was distributed in the bureaucracy, prior to the British annexation, between the different castes: while in Kandy the non-Govigama castes had their own headmen, the departments to which they were attached for the performance of their duties were overseen by Govigama chieftains.

These discrepancies, unaddressed for years and decades, had to spill over. They did spill over in 1799 with the founding of the Amarapura Nikaya, which had its biggest following in the South among various groups, ranging from those who felt marginalised by the policies of the Siyam Nikaya to those who were tied to British interests and thus wanted to “affirm” breakaway factions (in the secular or non-secular realm) which were free from the control of the former Kandyan Kingdom. This was tied to the fact that, while certainly not free from the shackles of colonialism, the South was freer than the hill country and Colombo, and was thus more open to a revolt in the Buddhist order. (In fact open support was given to the revolt by local headmen, many of whom had repudiated Buddhism and professed Christianity to become part of the bureaucracy.) But while two upasampada ceremonies had been conducted, in 1772 (at the Thotagamuwa Viharaya in Thelwatte) and in 1798 (at Tangalle), these were not endorsed by the conservative monastic elite (which in 1764 conspired to restrict ordination to Govigama; Sitinamaluwe Dhammajoti was the last non-Govigama monk to receive his upasampada at the hands of the Siyam Nikaya). In 1799, therefore, Ambagahapitiya Nanavimala, a Salagama monk who resided in Welithara (a Salagama stronghold), went to Burma with a contingent of five samaneras and three lay devotees. They stopped at Amarapura, where they were duly ordained in 1800, and from where they returned in 1803 to inaugurate the new sect at Balapitiya. This was the Amarapura Nikaya, and their trek to Burma was financed by a leading entrepreneur from the region, Dines de Zoysa Jayatilaka Sirivardana, most likely an ancestor of Cyril de Zoysa, who would lead the Buddhist revival in the 20th century.

But for this sect to get formal recognition, it needed a stamp of approval from the British in the Maritime Provinces. This could only come about through the efforts of an ally monk, and that monk, also from the Salagama caste, was Kapugama Dhammakhanda. He enjoyed the patronage of the chief headman of his village, Adrian de Abrew, who like de Zoysa was an ancestor of a prominent Buddhist lay revivalist (Peter de Abrew, the founder of Museaus College). Kapugama organised an expedition to Burma on his own account, and in 1807, with the patronage of de Abrew, he set off, to return two years later. Curiously enough, however, while the objective of the expedition was to gain recognition for the new Nikaya, the certificate of confirmation given to him by the monks at Burma did not make reference to the sect; that would come about in 1825 (a decade after the annexation of Kandy) with an official Act of Appointment given to Nanavimala Thera. (The British had commenced the practice of issuing written Acts of Appointment a few years before.) The reason why Kapugama himself was not handed the Act was simple: in 1816, he rejected Buddhism and became a Christian. But this act of departure, symbolic though it was, did not, as events later showed, prevent the rise of ideological clashes within the Amarapura Nikaya itself.