Thoughts on modes of development: the Sinhala-Buddhist civilization in Sri Lanka

ImageAmong the living, organic civilizations in the world today, the Sinhala-Buddhist civilization in Sri Lanka is perhaps the second oldest after the Chinese civilization. It is certainly the second longest, after the Chinese, to have an unbroken written history (of over 2500 years). When I say ‘living, organic’ I say it as opposed to ‘archaeological’ civilizations (Indus Valley, Egypt, Mesopotamia) which have no direct relationship to the people living in those areas now other than as a matter of archaeological interest. Contrary to archaeological civilizations, a continuum can be traced in the ‘living, organic’ civilizations from antiquity to the present.

 The Sinhala-Buddhist civilization in Sri Lanka began around the 3rd century B.C. when the Arahant Mahinda, son of Emperor Asoka, brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka. While many scholars point to the awareness of Buddhism among Sri Lankans as well as the presence of Buddhists in Sri Lanka by then[1], it is reasonable to suggest that the symbiotic relationship between the Sinhala people and the Buddhist religion began around this time. Since then, until the advent of colonialism and European modernity, the Sinhala people built their civilization based on the central tenets of their faith. Within this world-view evolved a magnificent hydraulic civilization with its temples, palaces[2], Sinhala medicine, farming, martial arts, poetry, dancing, music etc.

 As we look today at the ruins of modernist development and global capitalism, as it continues to sink in that unmitigated greed and consumerism can only exacerbate our crises[3], as postmodernist critique of reductionism, materialism and universalism enables us to seek out new models based on our culture and ethos, it is worthwhile looking at the Buddhist approach to development and how it can help us carve out a more holistic and integrated approach to life and progress.

 At the root of this world-view is the Buddhist concept of man and his relation to his external world. While we will look in detail at the Buddhist concept of man in the next blog, the fundamentals of this world-view are summarized below:

 i.                    Man cannot be extricated from his surroundings and considered for special treatment. The trees, animals and birds have an equal right as human beings to the world. In short, a holistic approach to the world.

ii.                  The current generation is merely a caretaker for future generations.

iii.                The present life should be lived to facilitate a future life of renunciation and attainment of Nirvana – the summum bonum of Buddhism.

iv.                Concept of time and events as cyclical instead of linear.

v.                  Progress and development in lay life means progress in economy and spirituality together, avoiding extremes such as over-indulgence in sensory pleasures as well as excessive physical and/or mental suffering. Tilting towards either constitutes an imbalance.

vi.                Fostering a sense of cooperation as opposed to competition among people as the basis of social cohesion.

vii.              The idea of the king being righteous in accordance with the Dhamma.[4]

viii.            The social structure being triangular with the king, clergy and people sharing its 3 corners. The clergy acts as an advisor to the king and the people.

These tenets formed the bedrock of the Sinhala-Buddhist civilization in Sri Lanka of yesteryear. In the next blog, we shall look at the Buddhist concept of man.




[1] The chronicle Mahavamsa states that Lord Buddha visited Sri Lanka 3 times during his lifetime to preach the Dhamma. If correct, it is inconceivable that there would be no Buddhists in Sri Lanka after the visits.

[2] The engineering ingenuity of these dams, tanks, canals, temples , palaces etc. is marvelled at by today’s engineers

[3] economic, environmental, social or other

[4] Devo vassatu kalena

Sassa sampatti hetuca

Phito bhavatu lokoca

Raja bhavatu dhammiko


May the rains fall in due season;

may there be a rich harvest;

may the world prosper;

May the ruler be righteous.




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