Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka

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Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka
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In this study, a social and cultural anthropologist and a specialist in the study of religion pool their talents to examine recent changes in popular religion in Sri Lanka. As the Sinhalas themselves perceive it, Buddhism proper has always shared the religious arena with a spirit religion. While Buddhism concerns salvation, the spirit of religion focuses on worldly welfare. Buddhism Transformed describes and analyzes the changes that have profoundly altered the character of the Sinhala religion in both areas. This is the first book to record systematically the cultural impact of the deterioration in how the "other half" lives in Sri Lanka. After Sri Lankan independence in 1948, health care advanced and literacy became universal, but the economy was unable to meet the rising expectations of the exploding population. People became poorer and more mobile, and the village community began to disappear. As new stresses in Sri Lankan society create new psychological needs, changes have occurred in what the authors call Protestant Buddhism (Buddhism formed under Protestant influence after the British conquest). In the spirit cults, morally less scrupulous gods have become prominent, and more people seek and value altered states of consciousness. Finally, the authors suggest that developments that seem startling in Sri Lanka are not unprecedented in the religious history of India.

About the Author

Richard Gombrich is a Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University and a Fellow of Balliol College. Gananath Obeyesekere is a Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University.

"This is a highly readable and immensely important book. There is a wealth of new data here, mainly oral accounts of changing religious perceptions and practices from people in Sri Lanka that are fascinating and significant. In developing their interpretations of this material, the authors offer clear, intriguing accounts that do not oversimplify the often quite complex patterns that emerge. They manage, in the process, to produce one of the most interesting marriages of analyses of religion and society (and at times, history and politics) to emerge in South Asian Studies (and, I suspect, beyond) for many years."


the two authors of this book have for many years been interested in the history ad anthropology of Buddhism, especially in the Theravada Buddhism practised in Sri Lanka. Collaboration between an anthropologist sympathetic to history and Indology and an Indologist sympathetic to anthropology is hardly strange nowadays. But we must add that we have long been friends and that we undertook this book as a result of our friendship. Though socialized in different ways, we not only have intellectual interests in common but also share a deep respect for the Buddhist doctrinal tradition and sympathy for its various embodiments in Sri Lankan history and village society. There is no senior or Junior authorship to this volume and we take joint responsibility for the whole of it. Like good social and cultural anthropologists, we have both done our stint of fieldwork in villages. But unlike many of our tribe, we rapidly became dissatisfied with those horizons. In modern times political and economic power has more and more become centralized in Colombo-not a big city by contemporary Asian standards, but the home of social classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, who are quite alien to the traditional agrarian society in which most Sinhalas have practised Buddhism for over two millennia. Ideas and values have been diffusing from Colombo to the towns, from the towns to the villages, till almost everyone has been in some measure affected. We became interested in the historical background of the new middle-class and working-class variants of Sinhala Buddhist religion, and while we were pursuing these interests even more startling facts kept forcing themselves on our attention. We owe a special debt of gratitude to Mr Godwin Samararatne, a true kalyana-mitra, for having directed our attention to some of them. Though we collected the bulk of the data ourselves, we are also grateful to two research assistants: Mr Lionel Gunasekara not only helped collect the data we asked for (mainly for Chapters 2 and 3) but also exercised his initiative most fruitfully; and Mr N. Shanmugalingam translated Tamil material for us since neither of us knows Tamil. We are also grateful to the Virginia and Richard Stewart Lectureship Committee for inviting one of us (Richard Gombrich) to visit Princeton in the fall of 1986. This effectively gave us the opportunity to complete this book. We must also thank Margaret Case of the Princeton University Press for her friendship and the tolerance she exhibited when our manuscript inadvertently began to break the bounds of decent size! Finally our thanks and gratitude to Mrs. Pauline Caulk for typing with the skill of a craftsman and the patience of a saint.

Circumstances have made the compilation of this book all too sporadic. Most of the fieldwork for it was done in the 1970s, along with that for Medusa's Hair. Our plan was and remains that the two books should to some degree complement each other, Medusa's Hair deals with its material from the angle of the individual, this book uses instead a broader historical and social perspective. Having agreed in 1976 to write the book together, we nearly completed a first draft in 1978 and 1979. Medusa's Hair, benefiting from single authorship, was then finished and published. Meanwhile, our paths diverged for several years: one of us was working in Princeton, the other in Oxford; we both had other commitments and were unable to coordinate leaves or visits to Sri Lanka. We managed to get back together in 1985. Since then we have added most of Chapters 4,7,11 and 12 and revised the rest. We have not entirely refrained from adding points right up to the time when the book went to press; on the other hand, some sections preserve an ethnographic present that dates back ten years and more. Had we kept revising, the book would never have appeared. We have tried to ensure that nothing is lost by the temporal inconsistency. At the same time, we are acutely aware that as we write the most important fact about Sri Lanka is the ethnic conflict that he escalated into a civil war since 1983. This year (1987) a "peace accord" was signed between India and Sir Lanka in the hope of terminating the civil war. This book almost totally ignores these events: we do not mention the civil war in our account of socioeconomic concerns and only touch on it (in Chapters 11 and 12) in our account of religion. The ethnic riots of 1983 and the angry Sinhala reaction after the peace accord produced, among other things, a new brand of political monks. In 1983 monks actively incited laity to acts of violence; in 1987 they actually burned buses and government property. The Sinhala lay opinion that they were mostly youthful revolutionaries disguised as monks is poor consolation since monks belonging to the established fraternities were also involved. Violence has taken root in the heart of the Buddhist establishment. But we believe that even if the experience of terrorism and war has made the Sinhala religion take a new turn, that itself will not be intelligible without awareness of the earlier developments that we document and analyze here. And if this book appears, somewhat unfashionably, to be full of detailed (and colourful) facts, we would reply, "Theories date rapidly, but documents, like diamonds, are forever."

Here is a brief chart to guide the reader over the sea of our ethnography. In Part One we summarize the main features of Sinhala Buddhism as traditionally practised and show how they relate to the doctrine of the scriptures. This background is intended to equip the reader for our discussion of the changes in the two parts of the religion of Sinhala Buddhists- the spirit religion, which deals with this life, and Buddhism in the strict sense, which is concerned mainly with salvation. We also adumbrate the general direction of these changes. Part Two is devoted to the spirit religion, especially in and around Colombo. We focus on the loss of community and the development of surrogate kin groups which we label "cult groups"; on the conversion of demonic beings of village religion into divine beings for city dwellers; and on the legitimation of changes in the spirit religion at Kataragama, the great pilgrimage centre at the southeast corner of the island to which most of our subjects repair at least once a year. No discussion of the Sinhala spirit religion can omit Kataragama, for it is here that Hindu theistic devotion is reworked and appropriated by Sinhalas, not only into their spirit religion but also indirectly into the more austere tradition of Buddhism.

Part Three deals with the recent evolution of that Buddhism. We begin with the religious reform movement of the last nineteenth century, which we label "Protestant Buddhism." We illustrate this new strain of Buddhism through the ideas of its first great Sinhala protagonist, Anagarika Dharmapala, who may be said to be for modern Sinhala Buddhism what Kataragama is for the spirit religion. Protestant Buddhism formulated a new set of values for the new bourgeoisie. It began to undermine the hierarchies on which Sinhala Buddhism clergy and laity (Anagarika was in fact a role halfway between, introduced to Buddhism by Dharmapala) and the corresponding distinction between things pertaining to salvation and things of this world. We illustrate the results of this new value orientation in Chapter 7, which presents Sarvodaya, a recent movement for socio-economic from that consciously follows Dharmapala's lead and the unself-conscious creation of a Buddhist wedding ceremony on the Christian model. The latter upsets the traditional hierarchy of values in the ritual sphere just as Sarvodaya does in the economic sphere: traditionally monks did not work, and the Buddha had nothing to do with marriage. Chapter 8 then deals with the revival of monasticism for women. This is connected to the improved education and rising, but often frustrated, expectations of Sinhala women.

The nun's movement is largely a middle-class phenomenon and a part of the Protestant Buddhist revival. But the end of Chapter 8 is the first point at which our two main currents of change begin to mingle: a few nuns are mixing up their Buddhism with the spirit religion. To delve deeper into such syncretism, we turn from institutions to individuals. First, we devote a chapter to a pillar of the Buddhist establishment, a venerable monk who not only has connections with and views on protestant Buddhism but also is obsessed with a concomitant phenomenon, astrology. His remarkable views owe nothing to Hindu theism or the spirit religion; but we can trace those influences in the still more remarkable views and activities of the three small Buddhist movements, all outside the pale of the established monastic order, which occupy Chapter 10. These movements, which we examine mainly through their leaders, also illustrate how protestant tendencies, taken to extremes, lead to the fragmentation of religious authority. Though these radical movements are small, most of their members are educated and some occupy influential positions, notable as educators.

In the last part of the book, we broach the question: towards a new synthesis? Chapters 11 and 12 present cases in which the changes in the Sinhala spirit religion have also affected Buddhism. The Bodhi puja, a recently invented Buddhist ritual, is infused with a devotional spirit. Contrary to the intention of the spirit religion and on the other being used to express Sinhala political solidarity. This political strain comes out even more strongly in the new myths being developed at Kataragama to claim the shrine as exclusively Sinhala cultural property and to assert that its god is not Hindu but pure Buddhist. In our final chapter, we place the recent changes in the context of the religious history of greater India in order to peer into the future. What we think is unlikely to change is the identification of the Sinhala people as Theravada Buddhists, meaning that they will not turn to Mahayana and that the Buddha will continue to reign supreme as the only guide toward spiritual liberation. Religion is so much affected by social and political conditions, which we cannot predict, that we hesitate to go further; but we conclude by showing that even if the rise of Hinduistic devotion leads to what from the traditional Theravadin point of view look like inconsistencies and contradictions, Indian religion has been here before.

We make no claim that this book, long though it is, is in any way exhaustive. On the contrary, we feel we have uncovered only a fraction of what is going on, and we hope to stimulate others to do research and find more, not only in Sri Lanka but also in other Theravadin societies. But we are also aware that our data will probably make the book controversial in Sri Lanka. We hope that it will not merely interest Sri Lankan intellectuals, but worry them because we find some of the transformations we record troubling in their departure from the rational and humane tradition of Buddhism. For the same reason, we would like t see the book translated into Sinhala. Meanwhile, we hope that this English edition may interest not only our academic colleagues and their students, but a wider public too. The issues raised by our narratives are not only intellectual and not only local; they concern many of the problems of living in the world today.


The co-author R. Gombirch and G. Obeysekere, have written previous independent works of note on the Buddhism of Sri Lanka. Their collaboration that has resulted in this long volume goes back to Sri Lanka fieldwork in the 1970s. The opus is a precious tour of what Buddhism is, and how it is practised in present-day Sri Lanka. The author dwells on the departures from orthodoxy. Among the topics exposed is the spirit religion of Sinhala Buddhists, involving what is called possession, which enhances the prestige of the possessed person, whether man or woman, including their earning power. There are also attempts to cure individuals usually women when possessed by evil spirits, for example, by substituting a good spirit. The authors explain that family conflicts were a major reason for client visits to shrines run by priests, less on account of illness.

The work describes the Hindu-Buddhist cult as a tKataragama, including the annual fire walking, which claimed to renew the power of the fire walkers; and a rather large chapter (no.12) is devoted to the topic. Chapter 6 on Protestant Buddhism goes into the impact of the English and the role of Dharmapala and his relation with the Theosophists, with the treatment continuing into Chapter 7, which includes the marriage ceremony.

Chapter 8 on the resurgence of nuns, after their order had disappeared probably in the late 10th century, clarifies that these modern ones are not nuns in the old sense of the Bhiksuni ceremony, but nuns in the sense that they behave as such, the rules for which being presented in an Appendix. Chapters 9, 10, and 11 deal with several Buddhist leaders, to show contemporary examples of practitioners of meditation, spirit possession and how pujas are performed by priests for their clients.

Surely this is a remarkable coverage of contemporary Buddhism in Sri Lanka.-Alex Wayman


Preface ix
A Note on Terminology xv
Part One
A New Religious Orientation
1. The Subject Defined 3
The Contemporary Religion of Sinhala Buddhists 3
Traditional Sinhala Buddhism 15
Important Departures from Tradition 29
Part Two
Changes in the Spirit Religion
2. Re-creating Community: Cult Groups of the Spirit Religion 67
3. Social Change and the Deities 96
Changes in the Pantheon 96
From Demon to Divinity: The Rise of Huniyam in Urban Religion 112
4. Kali, the Punitive Mother 133
5. Kataragama, a Center of Hindu-Buddhist Syncretism 163
Part Three
Buddhist Developments
6. Protestant Buddhism 202
7. The Creation of Tradition 241
A Buddhist Model of Development? 243
Buddhist Marriage 255
8. The Contemporary Resurgence of Nuns 274
Appendix 297
9. The Venerable Balangoda Ananda Maitreya: Theosophy and Astrology 299
10. Three Buddhist Leaders 314
Meditation and Possession: The Case of the Pereras 314
Uttama Sadhu, the self-ordained Buddha 325
The Sun Buddha 353
Part Four
Toward a New Synthesis?
11. The Bodhi Puja 384
12. Sinhala Firewalkers and the Buddhist Appropriation of Katrgama 411
13. Conclusion 455
Bibliography 465
Index 475

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