NZASR Conference 2018, NZASR Conference 2015

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‘For the Serene Joy and Emotion of the Pious’: Buddhism, Politics and Violence in Post-War Sri Lanka
Bruno Marshall Shirley

Last modified: 2015-09-10


The literature on Buddhist violence in Sri Lanka has often identified its cause either as a corruption of ‘authentic’ Buddhism by the political interests of nationalists or as a logical and necessary extension of the Sinhalese Buddhist cosmology (Tambiah’s Buddhism Betrayed? [1992] and Kapferer’s Legends of People, Myths of State [1983] are examples of either extreme). I argue that this approach, taking religion as either the root cause of nationalist violence or a corrupted epiphenomenon to a nationalist agenda assumes a false dichotomy. According to this dichotomy ‘religion’ has a defined and proper sphere that is distinct from that of ‘secular’ issues and concerns, and any intrusion of religion into the public sphere is perceived to be abnormal, unwelcome, and potentially dangerous. I demonstrate the inadequacy of this approach for explaining the drivers behind Buddhist violence in Sri Lanka by examining the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Strength Army), a new Sinhalese nationalist movement that recently came to international prominence following anti-Muslim violence in 2014. I propose instead that considering the relationships between Buddhism, politics and violence in a framework of ‘identity’ will allow us to best overcome the secularist dichotomy and more adequately explain the perseverance of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism and its hostility towards minorities in the post-war era.


Buddhism; Bodu Bala Sena; Postsecularism; Sri Lanka