Reviving Buddhism in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka

Reviving Buddhism in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka

By: Professor Karthigesu Sivathamby
That the young Ayothidas discovered Buddhism from his teacher in Coimbatore (Kongu Nadu), in the northwestern parts of Tamil Nadu gives us reasons to believe that Buddhist traditions were alive in the Tamil country well into the 19th century. Ayothidas established contact with Col. Olcott when he (Ayothidas) began his movement for converting Tamils to Buddhism. Ayothidas was becoming increasingly active in the movement for the advancement of the lower caste groups in Tamil Nadu. He started a paper called Oru Paise Thamilan (One Penny Tamil) in 1894. His writings attracted the attention of the Tamil scholars of the day. The activities and writings of Ayothidas are taken as the beginning of the rationalist movement of Tamil Nadu. Until recently it was generally believed that the rationalist movement started with E. V Ramasamy Naicker (Periyar), the founder of the Self Respect Movement.
The efforts of Ayothidas to get official recognition for his Buddhist activities and ceremonial blessings for his own conversion to Buddhist were realised when Col. Olcott brought him to Colombo in 1898. They first visited the chief incumbent of the Vidhyodhaya Pirivena, Ven. Rahula Thero. Thereafter, Ayothidas was taken to the Vidyalankara Pirivena and finally to Kandy for an audience with the Malwatte Nayaka Thero, the chief prelate of the highest order of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Here Ayothidas and his friends were officially received into the Buddhist fold i.e. their conversion to Buddhism received official sanction from the Malwatte chapter.
Newspaper reports of Ayothidas’s conversion claim it as the official Buddhist recognition of his movement for social justice. Historians who have worked on this subject use the term Tamil Buddhism to refer the Ayothidas’s movement. What is historically important is that Ayothidas’s movement for Tamil Buddhism precedes the much-publicised activities of Dr. B. R Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Indian Constitution. As one belonging to the underprivileged Mahar caste of Maharashtra, Dr. Ambedkar wanted downtrodden Indian castes to become Buddhists. He was not happy with Gandhi’s Harijan concept – Hari’s (God’s) Children – that sounded too patronising. Buddhism in the opinion of both Ayothidas and Ambedkar ensured social equality and assured them against Brahmin supremacy. The appeal to Buddhism was taken over by the rationalist movement and its offshoot, the Dravidian movement. Modern Tamil Nadu’s concept of Buddhism is synonymous with social equality. Thus it has gained great acceptance among the socially downtrodden Tamils. The Dalit movement in Tamil Nadu considers every Buddhist as their true friend in its fight against social inequalities.
It is a pity that the egalitarian aspect of Buddhism highly treasured by the Buddhist revivalist movements of Tamil Nadu and later of Maharashtra took no root in Sri Lanka. The answer to this lies in the fact that official Sri Lankan Buddhism is Sinhala Buddhism which focuses on its Sinhalaness and elevates it as its distinguishing characteristic, little realising that this Sinhalaness inevitably inveigled cast norms into the Sangha. These caste norms have no doubt come from Hinduism. But what is important and irrefutable is that this caste system with its own specificities is as much Sinhala as it is Hindu. For a student of Buddhism, especially of the way it was rediscovered in modern India, it is a stark fact that the Catholicity (universality and liberality) of Buddhism has been forgotten in Sri Lanka’s Buddhist revival.
One cannot hide the pain of mind a student of Tamil literature is bound to experience in the manner Buddhism was presented to the average Tamil people in Jaffna and Batticaloa. The Buddhist establishments in the Tamil towns never wanted to present Buddhism in Tamil to the Tamil people, a feature seen at least to some extent in the activities of the Maha Bodhi society of Madras. This society has published Tamil books on Buddhism. The society’s monograph Puththar Sarithtiram (History Buddha) is a brilliant introduction in Tamil to Lord Buddha and his teachings. I wonder whether any such publications have come out in Sri Lanka. On the contrary, the Buddhist temple and the Buddhist priest have been seen as Sinhalaising forces, very much like the Christian missionaries of the Portuguese and Dutch periods who were also viewed as part of state hegemony.
Lord Buddha would never have even thought of such a situation for he took his teachings to the people in their own languages.
We seek refuge in the Enlightened One

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