Do Thamil Buddhists  have a place in Lanka?


by K S Sivakumaran

Buddhaghosa, whose name means ‘The Buddha’s Voice’ was a South-Indian scholar-monk living in the 5th century CE who was invited to Sri Lanka by the prelates of the Mahàvihàra to write commentaries on the Tipitaka.

Dr Liyanage Amarakeerthi had reviewed a book by Prof Sunil Ariyaratne titled Demala Bauddhaya in Nethra Review published by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) Volume 11, Number 01. Its editor is Lanka born Canadian academic Prof Chelva Kanakanayagam.

I wish to say what the Sinhala people call "Demala" really refers to  "Thamil". The people who speak that language pronounce their language as "Thamil’ and not ‘Tamil’

We learn that Prof S A ‘was forced to live in South India, (meaning Thamilnadu) and he learned his Tamil’  there.  We also learn from  Dr L A  that Demala Sahitya Ithihasaya is another book by Sunil Ariyaratne. We are told that the latest book is " the only Sinhala language scholarly work in recent times on the Tamil contribution to Buddhist culture and Buddhism’s contribution to Tamil culture".

I think  Prof Tissa Kariyawasam in particular, among others,  has written in Sinhala about aspects of Thamil culture either in a lengthy essay or in other ways.

What Liyanage Amarakeerthi writes is interesting to note. He gives examples of schisms in our country. This is what he writes:

"In Sri Lanka, the word "Bauddha" (Buddhist) is often used with the adjective "Sinhala" as if to say that one has to be Sinhalese to be Buddhist and Buddhist to be Sinhalese. In popular nationalist rhetoric, the people described with those two words are taken to be the true creators of Buddhist culture in the island, regardless of the fact that some of the best classical Buddhist literary texts in Sinhala might have been written by authors who were not ethnically Sinhala"

Whether one agrees with Liyanage Amarakeerthi or not, one appreciates his stance as he tries to discern the facts without any parochialism.

Look at what he says:

"In popular discourse, every admirable aspect of Buddhist culture is attributed exclusively to ethnic Sinhalese as though being Sinhalese is a historical and ethical precondition for being Buddhist. But the history of Buddhist culture is a windfall story of cultural diversity and cosmopolitanism."

"For example, arguably the greatest pre-modern commentator on the Pali canon and the ‘founder’ of the Sri Lankan mode of Theravada Buddhism, Buddhagosha is believed to be a Tamil Buddhist monk. Even though his "Tamilness" may not have been as important as it is today, to recall this history is indeed important to us today."

" The book goes on to show that some other Tamil monks such as Buddhadatta and Dharmapala were instrumental in translating Sinhala commentaries on the Buddhist canon into Pali and writing commentaries on them – two important events that made Theravada texts accessible to Buddhists living outside of Sri Lanka who knew Pali, which was an "international" language at that time"

Amarakeerthi continues:

"Similarly, Ariyaratne shows how Buddhism has enriched Tamil literary culture and how as ethnically Tamil person can be a Buddhist writer –two things that we, both Sinhala and Tamil people, tend to forget in Sri Lanka. The author’s discussion of Silapadikaram and Manimekalai, two Tamil Buddhist classics, is quite revealing and informative for the contemporary Sinhalese reader"

Let me intervene for a moment. While   Manimekalai elucidates Buddhist philosophy, Silapadikaram has certain ideas of Jainism since the author Ilango was a Jain prince turned a sage. Madhavi in the latter epic figures in the former epic as it was her daughter Manimekalai who becomes a proponent of Buddhism.

Continuing his review Liyanage Amarakeerthi writes "Demala Bauddhaya is also a book on how Buddhism enriched modern Tamil literary culture...Some Buddhist values and the character of Bodhistavas and the Buddha have provided 20th century writers with a reservoir of metaphors and frames of reference to articulate themes related to modern South India.’

"All Dravidian states of modern South India have literature with implicit and explicit Buddhist aspects, and Ariyaratne has examples of such literature from the beginning to the end of the 20th century"

Amarakeerthi is also critical of Ariyaratne’s book for not taking into account some recent works on the subject or related subjects.

The reviewer mentions that two Sinhala intellectuals in the calibre of "Siran Deriniyagala and Sudharshan Seneviratne do not figure inn the book at all even  if they represent the most enlightened scholars on the "Sinhala" side of the divide."

Prof S A’s book is an admirable contribution despite certain failings contends the  reviewer.

Readers would find similar articles in the Nethra Review thought provoking even though presented inevitably in an academic fashion by academics.

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