21st September 2023

The Revival of Buddhism Towards the end of the British Rule

Right from the beginning of British rule, Buddhists were able to enjoy more freedom than they had enjoyed under the rule of the Portuguese and then the Dutch. With this freedom, and along with the activities of the Protestant missionary movements enthusiastic Buddhist leaders realised that it was important to reinterpret Buddhism in order for it to survive. Commenting on one of the patterns adopted by the Buddhists, G.D.Bond has observed,

“Protestant Buddhism the response of the early reformers who began the revival by both reacting against and imitating Christianity………. ”

……This chapter examines those origins and focuses on the early period of the Buddhist resurgence in Sri Lanka. The hallmark of this period was the establishment of a form of Buddhism that Obeyesekere has labelled:

“ Protestant Buddhism” because it both (1) derived many of its viewpoints and organisational form from Protestantism and (2) represented a “protest against Christianity and its associated Western political dominance prior to independence. “ Protestant Buddhism, both because it mirrored Protestant Christianity and because it attempted to revive Buddhism and make it relevant to a new context, represented a reformist movement.”

This revival of Buddhism towards the end of British rule, both imitating and reacting against Christianity, can be identified in many popular practices that have remained integral aspects of Buddhism up to date. Towards the second half of the 19th century, Buddhists understood that within Christianity there are better-organised institutions than in Buddhism. With the revival of the evangelical movement in Europe, in Great Britain, missionaries began societies or institutions to propagate the Christian Gospel.

Among them was the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (S.P.G.) which began in 1840, and subsequently took a leading role in Sri Lanka. This society used the printed media to propagate the Christian Gospel by attacking the other religions in society. When Buddhists began the society called “Sarvagna Shashanavurdi Dayaka Dharma Samagama” (in Sinhala); it was an imitation of the above Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (S.P.G.). In 1862 this society established a printing press in Galle called “Lankaupakaraya”, which lasted until the year 1880. This printing press printed tracts or pamphlets to propagate Buddhism by attacking the life and doctrine of the Christian missionaries of that time.

In 1880, with the arrival of Henry Steel Olcott, the establishment of the Buddhist Theosophical Society (B. T. S.) as another institution was a result of the influence of the Christian missionary societies. For example. in the Buddhist Theosophical Society, Olcott prepared a Buddhist catechism using the structure of the Protestant Christian catechism. This was first published in 1881 in Sinhala and was mainly used in the schools started by the Buddhist Theosophical Society (B. T. S.). A few lines of this catechism are given below,

“Q. And what is that which is most valuable? A. To know the whole secret of man’s existence and destiny…..so that we may live in a way to ensures the greatest happiness and the least suffering for our fellow men and ourselves. “

The other important institutions that began with this trend are the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (Y. M. B. A.) in 1898 and the Mahabodhi Society begun by Anagarika Dharmapala in 1891. In the Y. M. B. A., as in the Christian equivalent such as the Y. M. C. A., scripture was given a prominent place; in this organisation, the reading of scripture and preaching on scripture was taken seriously. Accordingly in the Y.M.B.A., the preaching of Bana or the preaching of services on Poya days became a common feature. Similarly, the anglicised elite who got involved in these organisations started to read the Buddhist scriptures, namely the Tripitakas (especially a section of tripitaks called Dhammapada), more frequently than ever before.

The establishment of Buddhist schools and the Buddhist Sunday schools or Dhaham schools are further developments in Buddhist institutions which began in the context of the Christian missionary schools and Sunday schools in Sri Lanka. In this regard, the Theosophical society started by Henry Steel Olcott was able to establish 63 schools between 1886 and 1896. All of these schools were an imitation of missionary schools such as St. Thomas and St. Joseph that were begun by the Christian missionaries. Buddhists, when they founded Buddhist schools, named their schools after important persons and places in Buddhism instead of those of Christianity. Therefore Buddhist schools were given names such as Rahula, Mahamaya and Vishaka. Since these schools were established according to the model of Christian missionary schools, although they gave an outside Buddhist atmosphere, the upbringing and attitudes propagated by these schools were of Christian origin.

Marriage and death are two important life events in society. In Sri Lanka, irrespective of religious belief, these happenings are coloured with the customs and practices of the society. Within traditional Buddhism in Sri Lanka, the associated rituals are not performed inside the Buddhist temple. On the contrary, these rituals are important in the Christian Church, where they are carried out within the Church.

In the Christian Church marriage is considered as a sacrament and is called Holy Matrimony. The priests inside the church perform this ceremony, and it is a colourful and attractive ceremony. However, in Buddhism, the marriage ceremony is not performed inside the Buddhist temple. According to John Davy, polygamy was contrary to the religion of the Sinhalese, but in practice the situation was different. Regarding this John Davy has observed,

“Though concubinage and polygamy are contrary to their religion, both are indulged in by the Sinhalese, particularly the latter: and, it is remarkable, that in the Kandyan country, as in Tibet, a plurality of husband is much more common than Wives. One woman has frequently two husbands, and I have heard of one having as many as seven. This singular species of polygamy is not confined to any caste or rank; it is more or less general amongst the high and low, the rich and poor. The joint husbands are always brothers.”

On the same issue, Robert Knox who was a prisoner in Sri Lanka (Ceylon or Zeilon) in the 17th century has also observed,

“But their Marriages are but of little force or validity. For if they disagree and mislike one the other; they part without disgrace.…………… But Women and Men commonly wed four or five times before they can settle themselves to their contentation…………….. In this Countrey (Referring to Ceylon or Zeilon) each Man, even the greatest, hath but one Wife; but a Woman often has two Husbands. For it is lawful and common with them for two Brothers to keep house together with one Wife, and the Children do acknowledge and call both Fathers.”

Both these accounts show that, although the ideal understanding of marriage in the Sri Lankan Buddhist set-up was monogamy, in practice it was fluid. But in the Christian church it is stressed as a doctrine that one man can marry only one wife and vice versa, and that marriage is a lifelong partnership. A person is free to marry again only after the death of their marriage partner. The breaking of this doctrine, inside the Christian community, is a punishable offence. For instance, those who break with this doctrine are not given important positions within the Christian church.

During the colonial era, until 1868 only certain Christian denominations were given the authority to register marriage. Only in 1868 was a department established to register births, marriages and deaths as secular events without a religious affiliation. Until 1868 all Sri Lankans had to go to a church if they wished to register their marriage.

In this context Sri Lankans irrespective of their religion were influenced by the Christian understanding of monogamy, namely that married men and women should live together with their spouses until death separates them, and this gradually became an accepted norm in Sri Lanka.

Even the understanding of divorce gradually shifted in emphasis according to the Christian view of marriage. Regarding divorce, E. R. Leach has observed,

“Divorce may be effected as easily as common-law marriage. The couple simply separate and the marriage is at an end. One consequence of this simplicity is that is rare to come across any adult, either male or female, who does not admit to having been ‘married’ more than once. Individuals who have been ‘married’ five or six times are not thought in any way exceptional.”

In the Christian church, getting married more than once, while the former partner is still alive, and getting a divorce is an exceptional situation. Those people are looked down upon and not accepted as men or women of sound moral character. In the course of time, this Christian value gradually changed the effect of divorce in Sri Lankan society. Even today in Sri Lanka, those who are divorced are considered exceptional not only in the Christian community but in the other communities (especially in the Sinhala Buddhist community) as well.

At the same time, the marriage ceremonies in churches were more colourful, orderly and attractive than the ordinary Buddhist marriage ceremony that was held in the house of the bride. Even in 1862 for the registration of a marriage the Buddhists and people of other faiths had to go to a Christian Church. Against this background, the pro-Buddhist paper, “Lakmini”, requested the Government to appoint Buddhist registrars for the registration of the marriage of Buddhist people. The same paper promoted the poruva ceremony, which was a Hindu practice, to replace the sacrament of Christian marriage and to attract Buddhist people. Here it is very clear that the Buddhists behind this paper tried to react against the Christian marriage ceremony and made an effort to attract Buddhists to another way of marriage ceremony in accordance with the marriage ceremony of Christians .

Among the Buddhists in the coastal areas, there is found the practice of chanting Vesantara Jatakaya in the funeral houses. These coastal-area Buddhists witness the pasan or the chanting of the Passion story of Jesus by the Roman Catholics in those areas. Buddhists, seeing the example of these Roman Catholics, began the practice of chanting Vesantara Jatakaya in the funeral houses, which practice later became popular all over the island.

In the Buddhist revival, the other areas of challenge for Buddhists were the attractive music, drama and colourful ceremonies of the Christian church. In Christian worship and in other ceremonies music was used, along with instruments. In the Christian church, dramas were used to propagate the Christian Gospel, especially in the Roman Catholic Church.

During the season of Christmas Christians used to go carol-singing in bullock carts. This was a joyful occasion for Christians where they expressed their faith within society. Gradually Buddhist revivalists, imitating this practice of the Christians, began to sing Buddhist carols or Bhakthi gee during the season of Vesak to commemorate the birth, enlightenment and death of the Lord Buddha. It is believed that the first group of Buddhist carol singers were trained by an Anglican Priest called Laid Beater in 1886 according to a proposal of Henry Steel Olcott. Though in traditional Buddhism musical instruments such as the violin, tabla and serpina were not used, with the influence of Christianity not only music but even dramas were linked with the propagation of Buddhism and other Buddhist activities.

In the 19th century, Christianity was associated with the promoters of capitalism. This made the Christians rich and wealthy, and so they were able to build attractive buildings in prominent parts of the cities. Where there were Roman Catholics in the cities they put up statues of Jesus and of the saints. This practice influenced the Buddhists to keep statues of Buddha in prominent places in the cities. When a few Buddhists became rich in the capitalistic set-up they also helped to build attractive buildings for Buddhist activities.

The keeping of the pictures of Monk Seevali and the veneration of Buddhist statues within houses are also most probably practices that came into being among Buddhist revivalists under the influence of the Roman Catholic Christians in Sri Lanka, because traditional Buddhist statues of Buddha were kept in high and isolated places out of respect, and people went there to worship them. One of the most important persons who came under this sort of influence was Anagarika Dharmapala. Commenting on Anagarika Dharmapala and his influence on Sri Lankan society G. Obeyesekere has observed,

“He (Dharmapala) became a Protestant-Buddhist, a reformer of the Buddhist Church, infusing that institution with the Puritan values of Protestantism. All these had a tremendous influence on a group of people who were in a sense like Dharmapala himself, alienated from the traditional culture of the village, and from the politico-economic system controlled by the British and the English-educated elite of Colombo. Though his initial impact was on members of the alienated Sinhalese intelligentsia living in the village, he later had an impact on all Sinhala Buddhists.”

According to G. Obeyesekere these influences of Christianity (especially of Protestant Christianity) were powerful enough to create another form of Buddhism which became important for the survival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.