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Buddhism betrayed or bolstered?

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Thousands of Buddhist flags flutter in the island today. If North and Brownrigg had their way, the scenario may have been different.


The Whites, converts to a religion born on Asian soil more proximate to Europe did many things to Buddhism as threatening its existence betraying it using education as a tool against it and of course helping it by making Buddhism militant and instilling into its lethargy a strength to fight back while temporarily liquidating the Upekka (equanimity) and tolerance. Further some Europeans and Americans actually helped its survival and propagated it.

As the area covered by such a topic could be vast only flashes of relevant events will be given in this article. Here is the first dramatic flash when Frederick North, first British Governor of the Littoral made his speech at the Galle Assembly in 1799.


Parish schools

“If the plans introduced by the Dutch were quietly pursued, there is good reason to believe that the whole Cingalese nation might be converted”. What were these plans? There were plans regarding the Parish schools of the Dutch that approximated to State schools where births and deaths and lands too were registered, the school head acting as registrar and getting an additional income too by the ancillary activity. The curriculum of these Parish schools comprised the 3 Rs. reading, writing and rithmetic. Reading the X’tian scriptures, writing the X’tian scriptures. Sadly for them arithmetic went its own way.


Naturally such schools were the breeding ground for converts that made North cry at Galle at their abeyance during the political turmoil following the change over of administration from the Dutch to the British trailed by the early military regime of the British, before the Treaty of Amiens. North and Browinrigg were two of the more extremist Governors who wished to see Buddhism totally exterminated from the island. No Vesak flags would flutter in thousands on Poya Days if they had their way.


Already two strands of schools were emerging, one for offspring of affluent families using the langauge of the conqueror and the other, the State schools (earlier the Parish schools) that catered to the majority of the children who came from socially disadvantaged families. Language used was Swabasha since the scriptures had to reach them in their own native tongue.

Thus, almost strangely the initial threat to Buddhism came from these schools. Then came the betrayal, via the Kandyan convention with Brownrigg laughing up his sleeve as he framed conditions not to violate the religion of the Boodoo. To William Wilberforce fuming in England that a primitive religion full of superstitions was being aided and abetted by a Christian State, Brownrigg wrote this placating and treacherous letter.

School books

“I look forward with anxious hope to the time when after a mutual confidence has been commenced between the British Government and our Kandyan subjects a better system of education and an effective introduction of the Gospel will produce the downfall of Buddhist superstitions.” Not content with this type of underhand diplomacy he got some chief incumbents of temples in the South disrobed on the offer of titles and land tracts in Colombo. And here is a quote from Prof. J.E. Jayasuriya how school books themselves were manipulated.

“School books were as much an instrument of conversion as of education. The Christian Vernacular Education Society had produced a series of school books.


The books were considered by scholars of the Sinhala language to be defective on grounds of the language, idea and orthography, while the Buddhists and Hindus pointed out the books spoke of their religions in a derogatory tone.

It was proposed that the Government should produce a series of school books but the Christian Vernacular Eduction Society objected to this proposal.” The system of excluding from Government appointments non-Christians too naturally ended up by bolstering the exuberant conversion process. Begun by the Dutch it continued during the North period and went onto Maitland’s period who declared that he followed the line of his predecessor of appointing of office persons uniformly believed to be of the Christian faith.

This pathetic state of affairs whereby the Buddhists were lured to give up their age old faith by promises of plums of office’ a British Governor relishes thus. “And it is remarkable that however the Buddhists or Hindus may themselves revolt from the pious attempts of missionary conversion so desirous are they of improving their young families that they gladly send them to the Weslyan schools and freely permit them to learn the first rudiments of [[Wikipedia:Christianity|Christianity]].

Christian literature was disseminated throughout the island and this literature was printed at State expense and circulated too at State expense. The Governor was the patron of the Bible Society and the Society’s literature before it acquired its printing press was printed by the Government Press.

Generous Government loans had been given to the Bible Society which did not confine itself to advertising [[Wikipedia:Christianity|Christianity]], but went on to abuse Buddhism. One tract issued by them is said to have contained 47 questions to point out the absurdities of Buddhism.

Thus things were really bleak even upto the sixth or seventh decade of the 19th century for the return journey of the island to its own identity, tinctured by Buddhism. Thus things were really bleak even upto the sixth or seventh decade of the 19th century for the return journey of the island to its own identity, tinctured by Buddhism. Anyway on the great Themagul day marked by the birth day, enlightenment and passing away of the Thathagatha, the writer does not wish to rake up a frenzy of hatred against a segment of the world’s population ie, the Whites. Some of them later went out of their way to help Buddhism.

Amongst them is Governor Robert Charmers, a student of Buddhism and Pali who even translated and published Suttas at his own expense but a strange set of circumstances led him to imprison the prominent Buddhist leaders of the times, finally leading to his recall.


Tolerance of Buddhism was actually begun by the second British Governor himself. Maitland gets criticis ed by Rev. Buchanan, a sort of official or unofficial custodian of education in the littoral, which changes his policy later. Here is Buchanan.

“From want of protestant instruction, the secession to the Roman communion and the idolatry of Buddhism is as might be expected very great.” This implies that there had been an exodus of schoolchildren to [[Wikipedia:Christianity|Christianity]], which Buchanan wants reversed via schools themselves. Catching them young seems to be the policy. In fact Torrington declares, “Education is the best preparation for conversion to [[Wikipedia:Christianity|Christianity]]” and here is Tenent, the famous administrator cum writer who sang, “Hallelujah!” to Lanka’s glory and beauty and civilisation.

“The conjoint influence of education and preaching not conducted as independent operations but as subsidiary, co-operative and military sustaining” while from Madras the Bishop sends this injunction.


“The youth of the island must be trained up in a knowledge of the revelation......Holy scripture should be read and historically explained in every school. Following facts should be taught in all the schools, the time, character and attribute of God, the immortality of the Soul.”

Needless to say tables have turned. During the early colonial days, Buddhist children who did not attend school on the Vesak Poya were punished.

Today, it is a double public holiday. After the Buddhist Defence Committee was formed Vesak was made a public holiday. Following the pattern laid by Colonel Olcott (who carried the Defence Committee grants to England subsequent to Kotahena riots of 1883) in the BTS schools and the prestigious Buddhist schools designed on the pattern of public schools. The school day begins with chanting of Pansil. An almost 90 per cent Buddhist atmosphere pervades in the State schools of Lanka today. At one period of colonial history, some Buddhists were ashamed to declare that they are of that faith.

Light of Asia

The colonial masters had seen to that Monks were known as Ganinnanses and insulted by Colombo brats as they went around with their bowls, building of temples within the city was discouraged and a correspondent to the Observer found drum beating at processions so irritating to the civilised ears that he suggests banning them in the city (which ban really got carried out later) while the Observer itself is reported to have had some hard words against Edwin Arnold who wrote the beautiful Light of Asia in homage to the Buddha. Today, Buddhists are just proud to belong to this great faith. Many ascribe the catalyst for this transformation to the White man an American by name Colonel Olcott who was helped by fire-brand monks as Mohittiwatte Gunananda. Venerable prelates as Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala and great icons like Anagarika Dharmapala helped in the movement later.

The West itself is more enlightened.