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Towards a new realism, or why American interventionism fails



By Uditha Devapriya

In hindsight the interventionists got it wrong: they relied too much on the middle-classes, the civil societies, and the potential for permanent democracy in the countries they intervened in. After four years of entertaining doubts about interventionism, Condoleezza Rice argued, “A rising middle class also creates new centres of social power for political movements.” Today the middle-class in the Third World continues to grow and civil society continues to flourish. Yet democracy, apart from a roller-coaster ride of regime change which never seems to end and always produces electoral backlashes against it, has not. How come?

Charles Krauthammer called the US a “commercial republic.” If it is a commercial republic, it probably is the only one operating in a political system run by an oligarchy, maintained by an upper middle-class, tolerated by a lower middle-class, and suffered by a working class. In this it surpasses not only Athens, but also the European Powers.

What Clinton humanitarians and Bush realists failed to realise was that the rest of the world, barring Western Europe and South-East Asia, does not fit this description: we not only are averse to democracy maintained by a middle-class, we also don’t buy it. Joe Biden may write that “[t]he world does not organize itself” and that for 70 years the US “played a leading role in… animating the institutions that guide relations among nations.” Yet 70 years have ended in the present. Now is not 70 years back. Now is now. The world does not let one country, let alone one superpower, organise everything. The world does not wait.

In trying to intervene and imposing democracy, America hence strove to create an order in its image. “We’ll win hearts and minds”, ran the refrain when US forces pulled down Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square in April 2003. On the eve of the invasion a Congresswoman went on television and declared, “We’ll go in there, take out Saddam, destroy his army with clean surgical strikes, and everyone will think it’s great.” A year earlier, Dick Cheney made his case for regime change quoting Washington’s favourite Arab expert Fouad Ajami, who apparently believed Iraq would “erupt in joy in the same way the throngs in Kabul greeted the Americans.” But then the throngs didn’t greet the Americans in Kabul. They weren’t going to do so in Basra. What resulted from these interventions was an aberration.

US foreign policy has always been guided by national interest. Only once did it enjoy the status of a sole superpower, and that was between 1991 and 2001. Two camps surveying the world came up with two conclusions about the role of the US in the world order then: the end of history theorists and the clash of civilisations theorists.

The fall of the Soviet Union, which was less the work of Reagan Republicans and Thatcherite Conservatives than of Brezhnev’s entrenchment of the Nomenklatura and its contradictions with a supposedly egalitarian Communist state, was followed by ethno-nationalist-religious uprisings outside the West. Yet in the aftermath of Soviet collapse, the US gained supremacy. There was no one to challenge it. Not even Islamic fundamentalism.

The reaction in America was, as Charles Krauthammer put it, first of confusion, then of awe. Even so not all political pundits felt or believed that America should take over the rule of the world: the isolationists, or the paleoconservatives as they were to be called later, wanted out. But then this was not the time of the paleoconservatives: that would come a quarter century later with the Tea Party Movement, Steve Bannon, and Donald Trump.

In the meantime, civilisation-states propped up their struggle for regional hegemony with one another: Japanese and Chinese in East Asia, Buddhists and Hindus (or rather Sinhalese and Tamils: the clash of civilisations theorists always get it wrong with South Asia) in Sri Lanka. Yet in the absence of a counterweight, the US attempted to carpet the world with the kind of order it had wanted to impose for over half a century. What resulted was the suppression of nationalism on the one hand and the frothing of nationalist tensions on the other.

Accompanying all this was a shift to the neoliberal right by political parties associated with the left or the left-of-centre: the Democrats in the US, the Labourites in the UK, the Congress in India, and of course the SLFP in Sri Lanka. Underlying them was one simple, undeniable fact: for the first time since the beginning of it all, a disparity of power put one country at the helm of the world. “There is no comparison,” Paul Kennedy famously observed.

I’ve observed that American foreign policy has always been driven by national interest. It has also been driven by the need to promote national interest. Yet with Bill Clinton’s presidency there came an impasse: a dove on the Vietnam War who rejected Reagan’s neoconservatism yet embraced his promise of free markets, how was he to reconcile his anti-conservatism with the imperative to exert US strength abroad? The Clinton administration did this by looking at the world through a new lens: liberal interventionism.

On four occasions under Clinton, liberal interventionism resorted to military action: Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. How did Cold War doves turn into humanitarian hawks there? Simple, Krauthammer argued: they saw in these countries a cause for intervention “devoid of raw national interest.” In other words these were propelled by a call to promote US interests, but those interests weren’t national interests. They were more values than interests: they used the force of moral suasion, rather than the threat of war, to intervene.

The issue here was that while liberal interventionism operated on the premise of multilateral action, it didn’t need multilateralism to act. The truth was that US administrations, regardless of whoever was in power, could have gone there and bombed the living daylights out of an entire civilisation without requiring a by-your-leave from the UN or the EU. Reagan didn’t inform Margaret Thatcher of his intention to invade Grenada even at the tail-end of the Cold War, so why should Joe Biden defend the Chemical Weapons Convention on the grounds of the “moral suasion of the entire international community”?

Liberal interventionism, then as now, works best when one superpower rules them all. It does not work when two or more rising powers challenge the hegemony of the one superpower. It does not work when multilateral institutions are used by these rising powers to pre-empt the choices that the superpower has to make to impose its will upon us all. Thus it was perfectly suited to 1990s, when Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, and Kosovo could happen with consensus. It was ill-suited to the end of the 1990s and the 2000s, when tensions between civilisation-states no longer made “moral suasion” good enough grounds for US intervention.

What could a viable alternative be? Certainly not Kissingerian realism. Even realists had long abandoned Kissinger’s axioms about the irrelevance of morality in relations between nations. The world was too dangerous a place to try that out: unlike earlier, when nuclear powers banded themselves into either of the two main camps (Communist and capitalist, aligned and non-aligned), now they were left to their own devices. Indeed, the flip-side to US power over the world after the Cold War was the “nationalisation” of the nuclear programme: India and Pakistan now would use the bomb not in the backdrop of detente between the US and the USSR, but in the backdrop of clashes between Hindus and Muslims. Amorality was no longer a card on the table because no one dealt that card any more: while nation-states were guided by the force of authority, there was now a moral aspect to that authority.

Iraq would have wanted to bomb Israel to preserve its power, but it also would have wanted to do so because of Arab tensions with a Jewish settlement in their territory.

In other words, what worked for the world before 1939 – Wilsonian idealism – and the world before 1991 – Kissingerian realism – would not work for the world after 1991. Underlying this disjuncture between idealism and realism was another crucial one: between neoliberalism and neoconservatism. The two would meet in the Reagan presidency.

Under Reagan neoconservatism reared its head (mainly but not only) on the foreign policy front, and neoliberalism reared its head (mainly but not only) on the domestic economic front, promoting counterinsurgency in Latin America while cutting down the welfare state and also empowering the Christian Right and ballooning defence spending. It was a potpourri, and its relevance to post-Cold War US foreign policy lies in the fact that despite differences between the two, both tended to justify action with ideal: neoliberalism with its belief in free markets against government intervention, and neoconservatism with its championing of a traditional American order against internal threats and external enemies.

The neoconservatives found their home in the Bush II presidency. For a while, they grappled with what doctrine they could invoke to justify action. Then 9/11 happened. To validate US interventions in West Asia, the Bush troupe – Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Perle – all resorted to what Charles Krauthammer called “democratic realism.” It strove to balance the concerns of liberal interventionism with the imperatives of realism; in other words, “We will support democracy everywhere, but we will commit blood and treasure only in places where there is strategic necessity – meaning, places central to the larger war against the existential enemy, the enemy that poses a global mortal threat to freedom.”

To say that democratic realism squared the circle would be putting it mildly: in one stroke it assuaged the concerns of liberal interventionists, who didn’t want to impose order without a humanitarian rationale for it, while alienating the isolationists, who didn’t want the US to get involved in any order imposing project, period. What it did was to substitute values for power as the overriding principle of national interest, thereby distancing itself from the Morgenthau-Carr-Kennan-Kissinger school of international relations thought.

Francis Fukuyama criticised this new realism on the basis that it was aimed at a threat far removed from Soviet Communism.

To that Krauthammer retorted: “So what?” Islamists may not have had the means of “actualising their vision”, as Fukuyama claimed it didn’t, yet as Krauthammer observed, borrowing an analogy from Nazi Germany, Hitler did not have the means of actualising his goal of overrunning Europe when he marched into the Rhineland either. The argument was convincing, and it won over mild neoconservatives in the Bush II presidency. You see it crop up in Condoleezza Rice’s article, quoted above: she envisions an “American realism for a new world”, a fusion of power and principle. Instead of imposing our will upon them, she contends, an international order “that reflects our values” would be “the best guarantee of our enduring national interest.”

How prophetic those words were – not. 12 years later, we’re gorging on the leftovers of the Trump presidency, which in the popular consciousness of Republicans got the United States out of Iraq and Afghanistan, reduced its military obligations in Europe, steered the country from globalist-internationalists and democratic realists to America First, and got the job done in the economy. Were it not for the “China virus”, his supporters declare, Trump would have easily won, a point confirmed in less than expected Democratic victories even in states where they were expected to lead by wide margins.

If, for a brief moment at least, the paleoconservatives had their day in the US, it was because democratic realism, which combined the humanitarian ideals of the Clinton presidency with the neoconservatism of the Bush presidency, ended up promoting a variant of interventionism which could not really go or think beyond recreating the world in America’s image. In that sense one can say it differed in degree and not in substance from the Wilsonian idealism and the Kissingerian realism which it eschewed. Coming in the wake of the “unipolar moment” in human history, it could not survive China’s rise and Russia’s shift to the East, or the coming up of regional powers, unless it evolved a strategy of engagement with them.

America’s belief in messianism must end, not because it isn’t a superpower, but because it’s not the only major power. Therein lies the key difference between the bipolarity of the Cold War, the unipolarity of the 1990s, the nonpolarity of the early 2000s, and the multipolarity of now: this is a world which pits the US and China on a collision course with each other, with regional players siding with either side. Interventionism by the US, no matter how pure the intentions it exhibits to the world may be, will invariably end up as a failure because every country it intervenes in will oppose it. Thus the world, contrary to what President-elect Biden says, can and will organise itself, and it will do so to oppose any one power leading the race to sort everything out. Think of it as a more interlinked order in which Rome reigns in one corner and the Persians and Chinese reign in another. In that sense this is not a Cold War. It is hotter than any Cold War. And interventionism will only make it hotter. To prevent that from happening, the US needs a new doctrine. A new realism, for a new order.

The writer can be reached at

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Sat Mag

More than a doctrinal problem:The Buddha and his stepmother



Ambapalika offering a meal to the Buddha and his disciples, and donating a mango grove (British Library)

By Uditha Devapriya

The Buddha’s response to Mahaprajapati Gotami’s request for permission to enter the Buddha Sasana forms one of the more controversial episodes in the Buddhist pantheon. The story, as told in countless narratives and chronicles, essentially makes his acceptance of a female Buddhist or Bhikkuni order contingent on two things: his stepmother making the request twice, then traversing a distance of 150 miles with her followers in defiance of his response, and Ananda Thera’s pleas, which eventually convince the Buddha to change his mind.Viewed from a certain perspective, the episode stands out prominently in the Buddha’s life, for two reasons. Firstly, it marks the first time he makes an explicit pronouncement on the role of women within the Buddhist clergy. Secondly, it takes his Chief Attendant to resolve a paradox in that pronouncement: the Buddha doesn’t accept his stepmother’s request, yet he isn’t necessarily opposed to the ordination of Buddhist nuns.

Ananda Thera’s question is very clear on this point: he doesn’t mention specific names, but rather asks whether, in general, women are “capable of realising the state of a stream-winner, never-returner, and an arahant, when they have gone forth from home to the homeless state.” Only after receiving a positive response to his question does Ananda bring up the issue of the Buddha’s stepmother: “If then, Lord, [women] are capable of attaining Saintship, since Maha Pajapati Gotami has been of great service to the Exalted One… it were well, Lord, that women should be given permission …”

In other words, the appeal to personal ties follows from a philosophical question: if women are allowed in, then why not accept Gotami’s request? I find this highly fascinating, for two reasons. Firstly, Buddhist stories usually have the Buddha turn an encounter with a specific individual into a homily or a sermon: thus it is only upon engaging with Sunita that he makes a pronouncement on caste. Similarly, it is his encounter with Sigala that makes him expound his most significant sermon for the laity (the bourgeoisie?). The Dhammacakkana Pavattana Sutra, his first discourse, can in that sense be viewed as a response to the need to convince his first five disciples, residing at Sarnath, of his attainment of Enlightenment. The encounter with his stepmother turns this on its head: it is his philosophical position on a doctrinal issue – in this case, the ordination of women – that resolves the personal encounter.

Secondly, unlike the bulk of the Buddha stories in the Pali and Sinhalese Chronicles, here he changes his mind over a dilemma concerning the Sasana. However, he doesn’t really confess or admit that he was wrong over the issue. Instead, Ananda’s questioning compels him to remark that what holds true in general (women entering the Buddhist order) must hold true in the particular (Mahaprajapati Gotami and her followers entering the Buddhist order). Most crucially, the Buddha doesn’t reach this conclusion on his own: it takes Ananda Thera, his Chief Attendant no less, to help him take the proverbial leap.

To be sure, his encounter with Mahaprajapati Gotami episode is hardly the only one where the Buddha revises his positions and opinions. There is at least one other occasion where he does so: when his father, Suddhodhana, requests him to seek parental permission before ordaining children, and he agrees. This too is a response to a personal encounter: he converts his son, Rahula, without notifying his mother. What is unique about his encounter with his stepmother, however, is that it concerns a doctrinal issue: the question of allowing females into an order seen, until then, as an exclusively male preserve.

Having asked a number of ordinary Buddhists what they thought of this episode, I can only conclude that no one has any real answers to the issue as to why the Buddha had to be led into an ideological impasse for him to agree to admit Buddhist nuns, or Bhikkunis. The Buddha is generally acknowledged as farsighted and pragmatic. He is not one to revise his opinions, even on the request of a person so close as his Chief Attendant. Indeed, even after accommodating his stepmother’s request, he frankly tells Ananda that the admission of nuns would reduce the lifetime of the Dhamma from a thousand to five hundred years. This does not, however, belittle the fact that he accommodates them.

How do these ordinary Buddhists I talked with perceive and resolve this problem? One of them admitted that he had been grappling with it all his life, and that since his Daham Pasal days, he had been trying to find a satisfactory answer, to no avail. On the other hand, my mother, hardly the Daham Pasal going type, suggested that it shows that the Buddha, far from embodying an all-knowing ideal, had to rely on another person – his Chief Attendant – to reach a compromise over a difficult doctrinal issue. This is not an opinion shared by too many Buddhists, since it contradicts their view of the Buddha as infallible and beyond question, but it is shared by several ordinary laypeople I talked with.

In response to what many may see as the Buddha’s inborn prejudice against women – sexism, plain and simple – a leading Buddhist monk-writer has this to say.

“In making these comments, which may not generally be very palatable to womankind, the Buddha was not in any way making a wholesale condemnation of women but was only reckoning with the weaknesses of their sex.” (Venerable Narada Thera, “The Buddha and His Teachings”, Fourth Edition, 1988, Chapter 9, Page 156)

Narada Thera, however, is touching on only one aspect to this controversy. This aspect has been covered by a number of scholars, most prominently by Uma Chakravarti, who in an insightful essay (“Buddhism as a Discourse of Dissent: Class and Gender”) remarks that while the Buddha, in his volte-face over the question of female ordination, reveals his recognition, even acceptance, of women’s potential for salvation, by laying down eight rules, and making a rather pessimistic prediction regarding the Dhamma, he reflects the prejudices of his time, where women were expected to serve a subservient role to men.

Although Chakravarti doesn’t discuss it, the Buddha’s encounter with his former consort, Yashodhara Devi, tells us much about the times he hailed from. Bhikkhu Narada’s account tells us that Yashodhara, upon hearing that he had returned to Kapilavaththu, does not visit him herself, hoping that “the noble Lord Himself will come to my presence.”

When this eventually does happen – he enters her chamber and takes a seat – she goes to great lengths to reverence him, ordering her courtiers to wear yellow garments. When Siddhartha Gautama’s father Suddhodana informs his son of the extraordinary lengths to which she has gone to greet him, the Buddha merely replies, “not only in this last birth, O King, but in a previous birth, too, she protected me and was devoted and faithful to me.” He then goes on to relate the Candakinnara Jatakaya, in effect reiterating and re-emphasising values like loyalty and faithfulness that are seen as ‘becoming’ of women.Chakravarti’s argument is frankly disconcerting, but it is the most accurate from those that tackle this issue which I have read so far. While other scholars, like Kumari Jayawardena, trace Buddhism’s hostility to women, and to female activism, to the Buddhist Revival of the 19th century, in which a socially and culturally conservative (petty) bourgeoise took the lead, Chakravarti traces it to the Buddhist Chronicles that relate the Buddha’s life, as it was lived or is supposed to have been lived, themselves. My only critique of Chakravarti’s approach is that she makes no real attempt to relate those Chronicles – many of which, after all, were written after the Tatagatha’s passing away – to the context of their times.

Of course, one can hardly blame or single out the Buddha for these problems. In any case, the India of the Buddha’s time accepted gender and class oppositions. Moreover, it wasn’t just on issues concerning women where he was, to put it mildly, ambivalent. Even on the thorny issue of caste, he didn’t adopt a straightforward position: while he did condemn Brahmin caste structures, he also added that “by deed is one born a Brahmin”, thereby distancing himself from the kind of political critique of caste pioneered by, inter alia, Ambedkar. I suppose one can make the same case for liberation theologists: Christ, after all, did implore to render unto Caesar’s the things that were Caesar’s, a position liberation theologists would hardly adopt today.This aspect, as I mentioned earlier, has been covered. I am more interested in its doctrinal and philosophical dimensions. For the first and probably only time in his life, the Buddha is admitting to a theoretical lapse without really admitting to it. Perhaps to make up for his shortfall, the Buddha justifies his earlier position by attributing the decline of Buddhism – from a millennium to half a millennium – to the very gender he admits to the order. Even if that is not, according Narada Thera, a “wholesale condemnation of women”, we must admit that between the Buddha’s rejection of Gotami’s request, his acceptance after Ananda’s intervention, and his sober prognosis following his acceptance, there was an intellectual leap. I believe this issue needs to be investigated, more deeply.

(Uditha Devapriya is an international relations analyst, independent researcher, and columnist who can be reached at

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Sat Mag

The Man P. Rajanayagam was – Remembered by Nirmala Rajasingam



With the passing of Periyathamby Rajanayagam, another stalwart of the vintage days of left activism in Sri Lanka, is now gone. Rajanayagam was a trade unionist, human rights lawyer, journalist, writer and most importantly a life-long left political activist, to whom social justice, democracy and, with increasing authoritarianism, the right to dissent were consuming passions that he lived out daily until his health failed him in his 86th year. Born in Chunnakam, as the second child in a family of five, Raja’s political activism began at a young age, while he was studying at Skandavarodaya College, in Jaffna. In his teens, Raja joined the Youth League of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), often distributing LSSP publications, with his older brother, to their supporters. His teachers, N.S. Kandiah, and ‘Orator’ Subramaniam of the Jaffna Youth Congress fame were great mentors, who inculcated the spirit of egalitarianism in the young Rajanayagam. Raja entered the Ceylon clerical service when he finished school to support the family, financially. He threw himself into union activism, as a member of the GCSU, the most powerful union backed by the LSSP at that time. Raja soon became the editor of the union magazine The Red Tape, and its Tamil magazine Nava Uthayam.

From this time onwards Raja’s personal life was marked by the twists and turns of the history of the left movement. Raja graduated with a BSc degree from the University of London, as an external candidate, while still an active union representative. Soon after, he became a central committee member of the LSSP and published The Federal Party and the Tamil Speaking Peoples, an important document of the LSSP, for its campaign for the 1960 general election.Raja’s political career experienced a dramatic shift when the LSSP joined the SLFP, in a coalition government in 1964. In his 20s, Raja joined Bala Tampoe, Edmund Samarakody and many others, and helped found the LSSP- Revolutionary Party. The LSSP–R was now in control of the formidable Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU) and Raja became a central committee member of the LSSP–R. At this time, he passed his law exams with a first class, qualified as an attorney-at-law, and brought out the textbook titled Criminal Procedure in Sri Lanka, encouraged by his law lecturer, as there was a dearth of such textbooks.

Shunning lucrative practice in other areas, Raja naturally became a trade union lawyer. He was to be found in the Sri Lankan labour tribunals almost daily, defending workers, and published The Labour Tribunal Digest, summarising leading tribunal precedent cases that established important labour law principles.
When the 1971 JVP uprising was crushed by the coalition government, Raja also became a human rights advocate, representing newly incarcerated JVP leaders. He visited prisons in Jaffna, Bogambara and Welikade to meet Rohana Wijeweera, Gamanayake, Lionel Bopage, and others. He represented 13 of the top JVP leaders in the courts that were specially set up with no due process to deal with these ‘terrorist’ cases. His representation of JVP leaders came under scrutiny. His erstwhile left comrades were now in power with the coalition government and were prosecuting the JVP youth vigorously. In 1972, the Republican constitution was enacted, giving Buddhism a foremost place, and the members of the LSSP, and CP fully participated in this exercise. Raja, disillusioned by the developments within the mainstream left, and the corresponding rise in majoritarianism and the shrinking democratic space for alternative left forces, decided to take a break from politics and left for London in 1973.

Raja began work as a solicitor for the Bexley Heath local authority in Britain. Soon, Raja and other kindred souls set up the Ceylon Solidarity Movement. Raja wrote and published a pamphlet, The Island of Terror, based on his experiences of representing JVP detainees. From that time onwards Raja’s home became a welcoming place for many left activists who visited London from Sri Lanka, stayed with him, spoke at meetings, met parliamentarians and always paid the obligatory visit to Marx’s grave, all of which Raja organised. Rohana Wijeweera, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and even Mahinda Rajapakse has stayed in the home of Raja. When Mahinda Rajapakse went to Geneva to complain to the UNHRC about Sri Lanka’s human rights violations he was assisted by Raja.
When under the Jayewardene government the militarisation of the north and violent attacks against Tamils increased, Raja became drawn into yet another phase of his activist career, and was one of the leading figures in forming the Standing Conference of Tamils (SCOT) and its human rights arm in London. A smaller group within SCOT became the nucleus for the Tamil Times, an English language monthly magazine that was launched in 1981. The editorial responsibilities fell mainly on Raja’s shoulders. In the next 25 years or so, the Tamil Times emerged as the foremost voice of Sri Lankan Tamils living in the diaspora in the English language with N.S. Kandiah as its managing director. Its initial aims were to make a stand in support of the beleaguered Tamil community in Sri Lanka, and to keep the Sri Lankan diaspora communities around the globe abreast of developments.

In a few years, developments in Sri Lanka created a divergence of perspectives within the editorial group, where some supported militant Tamil nationalism unequivocally. Raja and others were perturbed by the intolerant nationalism, militarism, Tamil-on-Tamil violence and the crushing of dissent within the Tamil polity. Raja found the LTTE’s claim to be the sole representative of the Tamils abhorrent. By around 1987, the disagreement was settled in Raja’s favour, and he continued as the editor until January 2006. As Raja’s editorials became increasingly critical of armed violent actors, he was subjected to threats and intimidations. For a period, the Tamil Times was the only one of its kind, offering critical support to the Tamils in their quest for justice and democratic rights. It was read with interest for Raja’s editorials but not just by Tamils but also by various representatives of governments, members of the human rights fraternity, journalists and academics. The magazine was supported by subscriptions entirely and from across the globe.

Raja was also a pioneer and consistent advocate for Sri Lankan human rights in the UNHRC, spanning over two decades. He began this work as the representative of the human rights arm of SCOT to highlight the plight of the Tamils. He produced two publications, Law and Practice of Arbitrary Detention in Sri Lanka and Arbitrary Killings in Sri Lanka, which were based on various submissions he had made to the Human Rights Council. As his perspective gradually changed, he began to openly express his misgivings over the direction of the Tamil struggle, and raised questions about Tamil-on-Tamil violence at the UNHRC sessions. Between the prevarications of the Sri Lankan state on its human rights record and the deeply partisan and selective human rights accounts from Tamil nationalists, Raja often cut a lone figure in his commitment to truth-telling. Raja viewed the LTTE’s ascendancy, and its implications for the Tamil people with great trepidation. He was much affected by the many political killings of dissenters by the LTTE. Some were his friends.

I had the great fortune to be a fellow steering group member of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, (SLDF) with Raja from 2002 to 2009, during the peace process. It was a tightly knit group that campaigned for peace, democracy and justice. During these years Raja was a frequent visitor to my home. He would be up for robust political discussions that would begin at 6pm and end around 5am the next day. His involvement with SLDF was the last stint of activism in a long line of campaigns he had set up. Raja’s eloquence as a writer and public speaker, often trenchantly critical of armed actors, and the senseless violence of the civil war, endeared him to many within the dissenting Tamil community in London. He remained a towering figure of inspiration to many of us.
The Raja we all knew was a man of much warmth, compassion, humour, and political integrity. He loved engaging with people, especially activists, of all ages and backgrounds. This is what he found most pleasurable. When Raja’s wife of 25 years, Regina, died he had to start life again, but he sustained himself through writing, campaigning, befriending people and speaking truth.
(Nirmala Rajasingam is a Sri Lankan British national resident in London. A political activist and artiste, she was a close ally of P. Rajanayagam)

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Situating the woman in Buddhist Revival Female Buddhist education and the Buddhist Revival



By Uditha Devapriya

The Buddhist revivalists of the late 19th century placed great emphasis on female education. Colonel Olcott spoke of the need for Buddhist girls’ schools, claiming that “the mother” as “the first teacher.” This was echoed by Buddhist men who argued they wanted “companions who shall stand shoulder to shoulder with ourselves.”

The rise of a Sinhala Buddhist petty bourgeoisie, comprising of traders, merchants, teachers, and professionals, had a considerable say in the clamour for education for Buddhist women. As Kumari Jayawardena has observed, “there was much discussion on the need for educated Buddhist wives, presentable in bourgeois colonial society, as well as educated mothers who would reproduce… the next generation of Sinhala Buddhists.”

The clamour, in other words, was for the daughters of the Sinhala Buddhist bourgeoisie to stand on equal terms with their Christian and Westernised counterparts, the latter of whom had been either tutored at home or sent to missionary enclaves.Before delving into how schools for Buddhist girls came to be, though, it’s important to make a distinction between two kinds of education: monastic and secular. Female monastic education dates to the time of the Buddha, when, after much cajoling by his chief disciple Ananda, he permitted the establishment of a female Buddhist order.

As with every other philosophical-mundane dilemma, the question of women entering the sasanaya, transcending their traditionally defined roles as wives and mothers, was resolved in an ambiguous way: while the Buddha informed Ananda that there was room in the Order for nuns, he had earlier rejected his stepmother Mahaprajapati Gotami’s request for female ordination. Nevertheless, with his recognition of a female order, the Buddha foretold that his teachings would last so long as monks and nuns practised mindfulness.

Female monastic education came to Sri Lanka with the arrival of Sanghamitta in the third century BC and the ordination of Devanampiya Tissa’s queen, Anula. The Bhikkuni order lasted for 15 centuries, until the Chola invasions in the Anuradhapura period. Until that point, several strides would be made in the sisterhood, including the writing of the Theri Gatha (“Psalms of the Sisters”), a compendium of 522 gathas by 73 nuns dating to the sixth century BCE. At one level, these gathas contain strong feminist undercurrents.

Unfortunately, no attempt was made to revive the order after the fall of Anuradhapura. Not until the 19th century were such attempts made. This was largely due to the work of one woman, the first dasasil matha (“Ten Precept Nun”) of Sri Lanka, Sister Sudharmācārī (née Catherine de Alwis), and of a group of Bhikkus and dasasil mathas, who, in 1998, went on to initiate a Bhikkuni Order despite protests from the more conservative sections of the clergy. Regarding the latter, the efforts of Inamaluwe Sri Sumangala Thera of the Rangiri Dambulla Chapter of the Siyam Nikaya, who filed a case at the Human Rights Council arguing that the State should recognise Bhikkunis and their monasteries, must be noted.Secular education for Buddhist girls preceded the ordination of the dasasil mathas. As far as monastic schools went, no clear-cut distinction prevailed between religious and secular instruction, since monks were at the forefront of education. Here, however, a clear gender bias persisted: as Ananda Coomaraswamy has observed, monks oversaw education only for boys. Education for females thus remained a neglected affair.

As the very first British commentators on the country noted, “the greater part of men can read or write” (Cordimer), and education was confined chiefly to “the male part of the population” (Davy). Given that works like the Kavyasekara and the Selalihini Sandeshaya idealised women who stayed at home and played a subordinate role to their fathers and husbands, we can take the lack of interest in their education to have been culturally and religiously sanctioned, especially in the post-Kotte period. This contrasts with revisionist accounts, such as Sinhala Geheniya, which contended that in the pre-colonial phase Sinhala women had been elevated, if not honoured, by their male brethren.

The “debut of the bourgeois woman” (as Kumari Jayawardena has termed it) was a phenomenon unique to 19th century colonial society. Sri Lanka was no exception. While most elite schools cropped up after the government abandoned English education as per the recommendations of the Morgan Committee Report of 1870, female education had more or less picked up decades earlier in Jaffna, with the establishment of the American Ceylon Mission in 1816 and Uduvil Girls’ School in 1824.The latter establishment, which began with 22 students, became Asia’s first boarding school for girls. Set up as a counterpart to the Batticotta Seminary in Vadukoddai, its first principal happened to be a missionary from Connecticut, Harriet Winslow.

As with Sinhala society, however, Tamil society remained averse to the idea of female education. In that sense the success of the school (followed by establishments in Varany in 1834 and Nallur in 1841) owed much to how it reinforced traditional patterns (most girls hailed from the Vellala caste) while breaching them (the school allowed common dining between castes, upsetting not a few powerful families in the region).This paradox – of reinforcing traditionalism while breaching it – was seen in girls’ schools in other parts of the country as well. Moreover, while doing away with traditional practices, most of these schools kept intact the gender-class structures of colonial society, grooming women to be devoted mothers, daughters, and wives. Female education in the 19th century hence followed either of two paths: courses for ladylike pursuits, like music and needlework, and academic courses and professions, like medicine.

In 1881, for the first time, a girl sat for the Senior Cambridge Examination, while five girls sat for the Junior Cambridge Examination. The number would rise to 15 and 77 respectively at the turn of the new century. This was around the time when the women’s movement had begun picking up in England: the suffragette campaign officially commenced in the 1870s. This was also around the time when another movement picked up at home: the Buddhist revival. The contradiction embedded in colonial female education, between conservatism and emancipation for women, thus spilt over to Buddhist schools.Modern Sinhala Buddhist secular education, for women, began with the establishment of the Sanghamitta Girls’ School in 1891. According to Kumari Jayawardena, there were serious differences of opinion over the running of the school. When tensions between the two managers, Alfred Buultjens and Peter de Abrew, peaked, the principal, Marie Musaeus Higgins, left. Supported by de Abrew, she started her own school.

Meanwhile, Sanghamitta was relocated to Foster Lane (at a cost of more than Rs. 30 million today, according to Vinod Moonesinghe), and administered after 1898 by the Maha Bodhi Society, under Anagarika Dharmapala and the principalship of Miranda de Souza Canavarro. The school, run on Catholic lines (with a Buddhist sisterhood that conformed to Convent practices), was soon superseded by Musaeus College; the friendship between Dharmapala and Canavarro having deteriorated, it continued without the sisterhood. Notwithstanding these rifts and ruptures, its impact on Buddhist education was considerable.Gananath Obeyesekere’s and Richard Gombrich’s classification of Protestant Buddhism is not without its critics – read, in particular, Irving Johnson’s comprehensive critique, “The Buddha and the Puritan: Weberian Reflections on ‘Protestant Buddhism’” – but it explains, in part at least, the clamour for a larger role for the laity, the emphasis on hard work, and the “urbanisation” of Buddhism after the late 19th century.

This was felt in education as well, even in the domain of female education. An article in a Buddhist magazine in 1914 rejected traditional perceptions of women: “Our Sinhala men are still trying to confine us to the kitchen.” At the same time, the petty bourgeoisie, without whom the revival would not have happened, vehemently opposed the idea of a wider role for females: Piyadasa Sirisena’s diatribes against mixed marriages (“mishra vivaha”) and female activism lay bare this contradiction very clearly.Upward aspiring and conservative as they may have been, however, the revivalists couldn’t oppose the trend towards female education for long. Simply put, they wanted to educate their daughters. In that sense the founding of Visakha Vidyalaya, in 1917, marked a zenith in the history of female education, and not just Buddhist, in the country.

In her account of Selestina Dias, the founder of Visakha Vidyalaya, Manel Tampoe details the development of the school. By the time of her death, Dias had contributed Rs. 450,000 (nearly Rs. 500 million today). To celebrate its opening, “a sumptuous garden party” was held “to which those in high society flocked in gay attire.” Jayawardena has described it as “an important, though overdue, day for the Buddhist bourgeoisie.”

The first principal of Visakha Vidyalaya, Bernice T. Banning, a native of Providence, Rhode Island, and a graduate of Wisconsin University, served for a year before leaving for Madras “for the purpose of study and recreation, on behalf of the Theosophical Society.” Banning would be succeeded by several other foreign, non-Buddhist, women, including the great Clara Motwani. As Kumari Jayawardena has noted, it would take another 50 years for the school to employ its first Sinhala Buddhist principal, Hema Jayasinghe.

Uditha Devapriya is an international relations analyst, independent researcher, and columnist who can be reached at

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