The engagement of the Maha Sangha with the politics of society is a laudable demonstration of the role of spirituality actively contributing to the life of the community. It would be the same for any religion or for philosophical humanism.
Ever since the Arahat Mahinda chose to engage with the monarchy of the Anuradhapura Kingdom for purposes of proselytization on a mass scale, the Maha Sangha has been given the recognition of intellectual guides in social and political management. This, of course, follows the social custom, prevailing throughout humanity, of a consultative link between spiritual and political leadership in a community.
Furthermore, the Arahat’s own political lineage ensured that the historic event at Mihintalé also cemented close bilateral ties between Anuradhapura and the expanded Maghadha empire of Dharmashoka. Again, this strategy of soft power is a type of inter-state interaction common to geo-politics everywhere.
As history has shown, such religio-political interactions of benign intent and effect have, indeed, helped keep the peace in the neighibourhood. It is part of humanity’s civilized style of conduct of governance and inter-state relations.
Sadly, the mechanisms and practices pertaining to such religio-political dynamics within the Sri Lankan polities were among the valuable indigenous resources that were lost during the colonial intervention and its drastic re-configuring of the State on the island.
Today, Sri Lankan society is yet re-building after the colonial dislocations – muddling through internal rifts caused by colonialism and negotiating new political and social institutions. When the stresses of colonialism’s legacy burst into violent conflict, whether ethnic or class, our society strains to meet the challenge.
Creative responses and energies mobilized have enriched our political and social fabric from time to time – the agriculture development initiatives of the Senanayakes, the cultural revival by the Bandranaikes and, the social and economic reforms of succeeding political leaderships.
In all these instances, the Sangha, along with other religious community leaders, have been consulted by the governments of the time even if there are occasional episodes of disagreement prior to a final congruence of views.
Throughout the history of any society, however, there are instances of rifts between ecclesiastical leaders and the political. While clerics have conspired to overthrow rulers, likewise, political factions have manipulated the clergy, often whole ecclesiastical establishments, for their own ends.
Religious community leaders have been seduced by earthly ecclesiastical eminence to attempt to mislead their following. Or, they have been subject to the same worldly temptations of power, economic greed, ethnic supremacy fantasies or communalism and, plain lust.
In Sri Lanka’s post-colonial era, there have been many instances of religious community leaderships being backward in their responses to new social challenges. This mis-step is often the result of rapid social and political developments that leave traditional social institutions caught unawares and unprepared to cope with such changes in ways that would immediately inspire their following toward appropriate social behaviour.
At the same time, ecclesiastical leaders may unrealistically aspire to social eminence and privileges of a kind relevant to past ages.
Reform of the state via changes to the Constitution, especially, when it is primarily in response to cultural problems, is certainly an area of politics that should be of concern to all religious community leaderships. But, what are the tracks of ecclesiastical reactions to crucial political initiatives?
Does such response by ecclesiastical leaders relate to intellectual guidance with spiritual authority and inspiration? Does it inspire and promote intelligent negotiation, deliberation and creative resolution by political and social leaders?
Or, do the clergy play roles in legitimization of actual political actors and forces? Should they act or speak or preach in support of one side or the other? Should they dictate one political strategy and oppose another?
Can the clergy use their spiritual authority in direct support of a particular political strategy, leave aside an ideology? In the first place, do the clergy have the technical capacity for the hard political management and pragmatic decision-making that is usually done by experienced politicians?
Sri Lankans, steeped as they are in millennia–old traditions of religion and spirituality, will watch with great interest and discerning for the guidance offered by their religious community leaders regarding the on-going intense debates over the future of our State, and, the stability and prosperity of our society.
If political leaders responding to the crisis are hampered by their immediate constituency interests and hunger for power, the clerical leaderships, especially, the Sangha, being the predominant ecclesia, must show at least their transcendence from such worldly compulsions. The ecclesiastical leaders must offer guiding principles for politics, politicians and their communities.
At the same time, even more importantly, ecclesiastical example, in practice, must inspire the laity to follow the path of spirituality that strives to overcome social enmities, ethno-centric fantasies of exclusiveness or dominance, class and gender oppression and, all the other numerous human frailties.
The faithful want to be lifted out of the mire of oppression and greed that beset our island society. And they do not want those entrusted with spiritual guidance to squander their authority in political manoeuvres but, rather, to genuinely perform their role of providing intellectual and spiritual resources.