The rise of Amarapura

Published : 12:02 am  July 31, 2018 | No comments so far |  | 


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  • This school of thought discounts the Buddhist revival of the 19th century on the basis that it did not do away with the separation between the clergy and the laity
  • Secondly, the Amarapura Nikaya was the first sect to emerge from an entrepreneurial class
  • Even with the setting up of the Amarapura Nikaya, its primary objective was to reform the order in line with the historical antecedents of Buddhism


It’s a mistake to suggest that the British did away with feudal structures in the societies they colonised. Far from it. In societies advancing towards capitalism, as Marx correctly surmised, such archaic structures would give way to an industrial class, which is why and how the Tories yielded to the Whigs. Such a transformation didn’t come about in the colonies. The reason is obvious. The British didn’t want to be the catalyst for the sort of change that would empower a nationalist bourgeoisie in the countries they had conquered. The one link with the past that those countries had which would hold back such a transformation was those feudal structures. In India, Africa, and of course Sri Lanka, the conqueror resorted to them, and in resorting to them, he found the perfect way of keeping us locked in the past. Those who believe that feudalism is retrogressive would be surprised to learn that the British didn’t really combat it. Instead, they encouraged it. That was their game, after all. Divide and rule.   

I was thus a little wrong to suggest in my article on the Amarapura Nikaya (“Sketches from the South: A history of schisms”) that caste militancy figured in the politics of this country even before the arrival of the British. Prior to the annexation of Kandy, caste structures derived from one source; the whims of the kings. But while it’s true that these structures existed and had a decisive influence on the lives of the subjects of those kings, it’s nevertheless a fallacy to suggest that feudalism in Sri Lanka was the foundation of a harmonious utopia (which is what historians opposed to colonialism, particularly the romantic historians, contend). A more balanced and moderate reading of the processes which engulfed this country after the Kandyan annexation, especially in relation to the shifts in the Buddhist order, is called for. Since I stopped or paused in my earlier article at the point of the founding of the Amarapura Nikaya, what is now needed is an exploration into how that Nikaya itself fell victim, at least for a brief period of time, to the same caste politics that had earlier invaded the Siyam Nikaya.   

New sect inaugurated

To recap; in 1799, a contingent of monks from the Salagama caste, financed by a leading Salagama entrepreneur, Dines de Zoysa, and led by Ambagahapitiye Nanavimala, set off to Amarapura in Burma, where the new sect was inaugurated. They returned four years later. However, given that official recognition from the Colonial Office was not forthcoming, another monk, Ven. Kapugama Dhammakhanda Thera, financed by another Salagama entrepreneur, Adrian de Abrew, set off to Amarapura, to return two years later in 1809. By the time official recognition did come, through an Act of Appointment issued in 1825, Ven. Dhammakhanda Thera, nine years earlier, had renounced Buddhism and accepted Christianity. This is where we should resume.   

Historians and sociologists tend to view colonial Sri Lankan society in terms of a series of encounters between Govigama and Karava, or between the landowning aristocracy and the arrack renters. Consequently, the evolution of the Salagama as a distinct caste has been neglected in scholarship, with the result being that even such seminal works as Kumari Jayawardana’s Nobodies to Somebodies fails to account for the rise in Salagama consciousness during the Dutch occupation. This is a rather curious omission, and reasons for it are hard to find. Regardless of those reasons though, I believe that such an omission is unpardonable when assessing the divisions of the Buddhist order during the early decades of British rule. Since the Siyam Nikaya were adamant on not opening the Upasampada to members of outside castes, two upasampada ceremonies predating the Amarapura Nikaya were conducted in 1772 at the Thotagamuwa Raja Maha Viharaya in Thelwatte, Galle, and in 1798 at Tangalle.   

What was so significant about the Amarapura Nikaya, then? First and foremost, it marked the first time that a rebel sect had been inaugurated with the express consent of the powers at the time. It’s reasonable to assume that the British would have had a vested interest in segmenting the Buddhist order, in the hopes of fragmenting a belief that had already taken on a caste-ist character, but it is a mistake to think that such an act of segmentation would not have occurred without British intervention. Even without them, the pressures on the order from caste interests could not be withstood.   

Secondly, the Amarapura Nikaya was the first sect to emerge from an entrepreneurial class. Those who view colonial history in terms of a rift between Govigama and Karava fail to consider or omit altogether the fact that the Salagamas forged ahead as a “capitalist class” long before the Karavas began to prosper through the arrack rent. What this obviously necessitated was a shift in the way the new Buddhist order, built on the patronage of powerful Salagama headmen and entrepreneurs, especially with regard to its complete autonomy from a monarch, Sri Lankan or British. Given this autonomy, it had virtual carte blanche to move forward with a reformist agenda. In other words, as Prof. Kitsiri Malalgoda has argued in his book ‘Buddhism in Sinhalese Society’, “It successfully questioned for the first time the right of secular authorities to regulate the affairs of the order.”   

Changes in economic landscape

It was as reformist as it was sectarian, and like the Protestant Reformation in Europe, it coincided with changes in the economic landscape; the decline of the traditional elite (soon to morph into a landowning class courtesy of the British), and the rise of a new elite (though the Salagamas had more or less consolidated economic power before British rule).   

Where it differed from the reformist and sectarian movements in Christian Europe, however, was that it wasn’t inaugurated with the objective of establishing a religion and priesthood “for all”, i.e. for the peasantry. It was defined in relation to and against the Establishment, but this didn’t mean that it flirted with radicalism the way that, for instance, Thomas Müntzer did when he rebelled against both the Catholic Church and Martin Luther. In fact, as Regi Siriwardena argued in a reply to Kumari Jayawardana, it is difficult to ascertain whether the Buddhist priesthood in Sri Lanka ever produced the equivalent of a Müntzer or for that matter Martin Luther. Even with the setting up of the Amarapura Nikaya, its primary objective was to reform the order in line with the historical antecedents of Buddhism, as reflected (or refracted) through its tenets. “Where are the radical Buddhists?” Siriwardena once asked. It is a question which has invited both censure and praise, and has divided scholars over the decades.   

From one standpoint, it has been argued that Buddhism here was infected with the remnants of feudal society. This school of thought discounts the Buddhist revival of the 19th century on the basis that it did not do away with the separation between the clergy and the laity. Personally, I do not think that the contention that Buddhist radicalism as understood by Western scholars didn’t come about totally is reason enough to conclude that the Buddhist order sought to preserve feudal structures at whatever cost. This is where we must credit the Amarapura Nikaya, because for the first time in the history of the Buddhist order, it brought forth (as Professor Malalgoda observes) “closer cooperation between the monks and their devotees.” This had less to do with an overt objective by those monks to erase caste distinctions than with the fact of their own meagre historical condition; given that it had no royal patronage, the Amarapura Nikaya was compelled to rely on the lay devotee. As an anthropologist once wrote, moreover, this had an impact on the way even the Govigamas saw it: “I know many villagers of the Govigama caste who prefer to give alms to monks of the Amarapura or Ramanya Nikaya rather than those of the Siyam Nikaya because they believe that the former are less worldly.” Here, then, was a Buddhism that promised people salvation in this present birth, as opposed to the more conservative Buddhism which gained prominence among urban followers in the latter part of the 19th century.   

 Salvation, in other words, would come about through this birth and this world, not one’s next birth. It encouraged affirmative action and dissension, gave equal weight to prathipaththi (principles) and amisa pooja (making offerings), and encouraged a new spirit and culture of revivalism. It’s here that we see the seeds that were later sown by the Anagarika Dharmapala, with a monastic order that, while certainly not radical like its counterparts in the West, sought to combat the other-worldliness the domineering sects had encouraged in their devotees. What this resulted in was a sharp awareness of the need to oppose external forces which had harmed the faith, and the Amarapura Nikaya took this point to heart so much that one Christian missionary contended that it was “At present the most prominent in controversy, street preaching, and all that is aggressive.” But long before this anti-imperialist streak came about, the Amarapura Nikaya had to wade through decades of infighting; something I intend on exploring in my next piece on the subject.