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Tracing Visnu Through Sri Lankan Politics and Culture

visnu book

Story posted June 02, 2005

Visnu, a deity renowned within Hindu religious culture, is among the most ubiquitous images in Sri Lankan Buddhist art, culture and literature. For the Sinhala Buddhists of Sri Lanka, he is a symbol of divine justice, protector of kings, defender of prosperity, and a power who counteracts the sorcery of malevolence.

Visnu's power is still strong in this island nation where two-thirds of the population are Buddhists. Yet, little has been studied or written about his presence in Sinhala Buddhist culture, which is the single-oldest continuing practice of Buddhism in the world.

This transformation of a Hindu god into a Buddhist deity fascinated Bowdoin Religion Department Chair John Holt, who in 1999 began a five-year quest to examine Visnu's place in over a millennium of Sri Lankan culture. The result of his research is a groundbreaking book, The Buddhist Visnu: Religious Transformation, Politics, and Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).

Increasingly, the worship of Visnu is a site for political and class tensions between the Sinhala educated urban elite and the rural majority.

Holt traces the cult of Visnu through one thousand years of Sri Lankan political and religious life, gleaning references from oral myths, inscriptions, narrative literature, sculpture, poetry - and even television. Ultimately, he lands readers in modern-day Sri Lanka, where he visits a myriad of rural shrines and amasses dozens of hours of taped interviews with monks and villagers variously praying to, or possessed by, Visnu.

Holt's exploration becomes the backdrop for a wide-reaching study of the interplay between religion and politics, a subject of pointed relevance given the current 20-year civil war that has divided Sri Lanka into rival groups of Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims.

It was politics that originally prompted the assimilation of the Hindu Visnu into Sinhala Buddhism. In the 10th century, northern Sri Lanka was invaded by the Cola empire of south India (precursors of many present-day Tamil Hindus).

"It was a catastrophic destruction for the Sinhalas," says Holt. "The centuries-old infrastructure of Buddhist monastic landlordism was destroyed while the Colas established their new capital in the heart of Sri Lanka."

A century later, however, the Sinhalese Buddhists regrouped and were able to displace the Colas. Such overthrows rarely are smooth, notes Holt, and require of leaders creative strategies to subordinate others to their ideological regimes.

Holt discusses Visnu
"The veneration of Visnu in Sri Lanka is evidence of a remarkable ability, over many centuries, to reiterate and reinvent culture as other ethnicities have been absorbed into their own," says Holt.

"There were so many mercenaries from India in the country at that time that the Sinhala kings needed to find ways to legitimate rule within this variegated constituency," says Holt. "So within a series of inscriptions, we begin to read about kings who are laying claim not only to being the next Buddha-in-the-making, but being avatars of Visnu as well. Simultaneously, we also see how elements of Saiva and Sakta (goddess) Hinduism are also being absorbed within popular Sinhala Buddhist religious culture."

This was an assimilation that took place over centuries, and is one that continues to take place today. Holt traces its development through previously uncharted primary sources - through architecture, royal land grants, poetry, song, and perhaps most tellingly, through the supplications and prayers of common people seeking healing and justice from this very responsive deity.

"The transformed Hindu gods of Sinhalese Buddhist religious culture are not creator or savior gods, as they are in Hinduism," notes Holt. "They are but products of karmic retribution, having achieved their statuses and power on the basis of their past good works of compassion. They are understood to be willing to help people who genuinely need and deserve help. They are a profound symbol of hope for people."

The ancient and continuing practice of Buddhism that exists in Sri Lanka today is a far cry from what Holt describes as the "Barnes and Noble" or "12 steps to spiritual health" variety of Buddhism that is popular in the West. "It is, rather, a religious culture based on an economy of moral consciousness that is highly ritually inflected. It is also as much of a social and political identity as it is a personal religious quest."

Visnu in temple
Statue of Visnu at a cave in Dambulla, Sri Lanka. John Holt photo.

Today, shrines to Visnu can be found in many of Sri Lanka's traditional rural villages. During field work from 1999 to 2002, Holt visited dozens of these shrines, particularly in the up-country or highland region of Kandy. He interviewed monks, shrine priests, healers and worshipers alike, translating, among other things, their first-person accounts of possession, healing, and visitation by the god Visnu.

One older woman from a village near Kandy, Anula Rajapakse, described her "possession" by Visnu over several visits with Holt:

"I started going into trances. I started to act as a sooth-sayer. Many exorcists were brought but no one could explain what or why this happened to me. I started predicting through the power of Visnu ... Because Visnu was born out of fire, he likes fire. Hence when I am in disti [trance], I can do anything with fire without getting burnt ...."

Interestingly, during a period of controlled observation at the main Visnu shrine in Kandy, Holt recorded that of the 1,058 devotees who visited, 705 were female, "indicating that the cult of Visnu in particular, and probably the cult of the deities in general, is sustained predominantly by women in Sri Lanka."

Increasingly, the worship of Visnu is a site for political and class tensions between the Sinhala educated urban elite and the rural majority, says Holt. At the heart of the conflict is a growing nationalist movement to expunge foreign ethnic and religious influences, propagated in large measure by the charismatic TV monk, Gangodawila Soma Thera, or "Ven. Soma."

The late Ven. Soma rose to prominence in the 1980s, becoming famous for "his biting criticism of Buddhist laity who worship deities, especially those gods of Hindu origins," writes Holt.

Holt argues that Ven. Soma's quest to expel Visnu from Buddhist culture in order to purify the religion and protect it from outside influences is a thinly veiled political response to a perceived Tamil threat of dominance in general.

"Nationalist monks have come into great political prominence. Orange is no longer simply a color connoting Buddhist monasticism."

"What seems to be a religious argument is really masking a thoroughly politically grounded agenda, though sometimes it is impossible to separate one from the other," says Holt, adding, "These nationalist monks have come into great political prominence. Nine of them were elected to Parliament last spring. Orange is no longer simply a color connoting Buddhist monasticism."

Holt says the Buddhist nationalist movement is especially troubling given the longstanding tradition of assimilation in Sinhala Buddhism:

"The veneration of Visnu in Sri Lanka is evidence of a remarkable ability, over many centuries, to reiterate and reinvent culture as other ethnicities have been absorbed into their own," says Holt. "In contemporary Sri Lanka, however, some people seem to have forgotten about that as trenches between communities have been dug."

In the conclusion to his book, he writes:

"...Sinhala Buddhist religious culture has been the site of many remarkable cultural crosscurrents and metamorphoses, owing to the pressures of political forces throughout its history. Consequently, one of the legacies of its past, and one of the realities of its present, is that it remains an evolving socio-cultural mosaic. How Buddhist Sri Lankans respond to that legacy remains a pressing political question of the day."

Holt is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of the Humanities in Religion and Asian Studies. He founded the Inter-collegiate Sri Lanka Education (ISLE) Program for a consortium of private, liberal-arts colleges and was the first chair of Bowdoin's Asian Studies Program.

He is the author of seven books, including Buddha in the Crown (NY:Oxford Univ.Press, 1991), for which he was awarded an American Academic Book Award for Excellence. In 2002, he was the recipient of an Honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka.

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