Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka
By Richard Gombrich and Gananath Obeyesekere

Reviewed by Allen, Douglas

Philosophy East & West

V. 42, No. 2 (April 1992)
pp. 375-378

Copyright 1992 by University of Hawaii Press
Hawaii, USA

Reviewed book: Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka. By Richard Gombrich and Gananath Obeyesekere. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988. Pp. xvi + 484. $49.50.


    Oxford Indologist Richard Gombrich and Princeton anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere, two of the world's leading scholars on Theravada Buddhism, have written a very significant, challenging, and controversial book on the changing nature of Sinhala Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Although Buddhism Transformed was published in 1988, their research, based largely on their own personal interviews and perceptions of changes, was conducted for the most part in the 1960s and especially in the 1970s. This means that, with the exception of several sections near the end of the book, Buddhism transformed is not analyzed in terms of the tremendous transformations arising from the ethnic riots of 1983 and the Tamil-Sinhala civil war ever since.

    Especially noteworthy is the attempt by Gombrich and Obeyesekere to grasp recent changes in Sinhala Buddhism as directly related to rapid changes in Sri Lankan material and social life. While avoiding any oversimplified reductionistic causal explanation, they provide invaluable background information and analysis: on the destruction of traditional village community and identity; the emergence of new class formations; and rapidly escalating population, urbanization, educational opportunities, and unfulfilled expectations.

    The authors differentiate three forms of Sinhala Buddhist religion: traditional Buddhism -- the Theravada of the Buddha, the sangha, and the Pali Canon; "spirit religion," to which they devote almost half the book; and "Protestant Buddhism," to which they devote most of the second half. In the last few chapters, they show how the spirit religion and Protestant Buddhism have interacted and mixed recently in complex ways, with the spirit religion providing the major influences; they speculate on possibilities for new religious syntheses not unrelated to earlier developments in India's Hinduism.

    "Spirit religion," which is defined at one point as the non-Buddhist part of the religion of Sinhala Buddhists, is nothing new. Deities, such as the gods Visnu, Natha, Saman, Vibhisana, and Kataragama and the goddess Pattini, demons, and the manipulation of supernatural powers have long been a part of Sinhala Buddhism. Spirit religion deals not with Buddhist soteriology, the ultimate aim, but rather with mundane aims and worldly welfare.

    Emphasized is the tremendous recent growth of spirit religion, especially among the "lower" classes of the oppressed and suffering urban poor, where new "cult groups" provide a desperately needed sense of community. Detailed accounts are provided of the increasing prominence of three deities: Huniyam, Kali, and especially Kataragama. An outstanding characteristic of recent spirit religion, in contrast with the rational and humane traditional Buddhist emphasis on dispassionate awareness and control of desires and emotions, is the prevalence of the highly emotional, more traditionally Hindu bhakti religion, with its many contemporary Sri Lankan forms of "possession" and "ecstasy."

    "Protestant Buddhism, " a term previously coined by Obeyesekere, started in the late nineteenth century under the formative influence of Anagarika Dharmapala. It was strongly influenced by the "modern" values of the British colonialists, it incorporated the characteristics of Protestant Christianity, and at the same time it represented a modern Buddhist revival and protest against the privilege and domination by the British in general and Protestant Christian missionaries in particular.

    Unlike spirit religion, Protestant Buddhism appeals to the more privileged urban middle class and reflects the cultural values of a bourgeois Protestantism. In departing from traditional Theravada, it blurs the sharp dichotomy between the hierarchically dominant and indispensable monks and the subordinate laity, emphasizing the greater capacity of the individual to seek his or her own salvation without the need of intermediaries and traditional authorities. Within Protestant Buddhism, this has contributed to the laicization of much of the religion, the undermining of the status and role of the sangha, greater social egalitarianism, and the increased status of women (including the reemergence of monastic orders of nuns) -- but also greater social fragmentation and some rather bizarre new phenomena often described as Buddhist "fundamentalism" and claiming to be more authentically Buddhist than traditional Theravada.

    For those trained in the Pali Canon and Theravada, initial encounters with Sri Lankan Buddhism are usually perplexing and disconcerting. For example, Buddhist temples often seem to feature deities and practices one has previously been taught to classify as Hindu and non-Buddhist. Sinhalese justify all sorts of modern behavior by referring to teachings of the Buddha nowhere to be found in any scriptures and often directly contradicting scriptural doctrine.

    Buddhism Transformed is full of fascinating, detailed case studies of recent myths, rituals, leaders, and other developments that help us to make sense of these changes in Sinhala religion. One gains considerable understanding, for example, of the profound Tamil Hindu influences on Sinhala religion and the Sinhalicization of Tamil Hindu tantra and bhakti. In terms of the changing, desperate socioeconomic conditions and unmet needs, one begins to grasp why, say, the Buddha or even traditional Sinhala deities such as Visnu are "too distant" and "too moral," whereas deities, such as Kali and especially Kataragama with their "dark sides," have greater emotional appeal and can be related to magic, sorcery, and immediate worldly aims, including vengeance and other morally suspect motives.

    Case studies of new Sinhala religious developments are often presented as clear departures from traditional Theravada: Buddhist marriages and other rituals, clearly influenced by Christian models, and involving life-cycle events outside the traditional Buddhist domain; Sarvodaya models of development involving monks in worldly activities; lay leaders assuming religious leadership traditionally restricted to the sangha; and new religious leaders who are self-ordained, ordain others, and may be self-proclaimed Buddhas.

    Well-documented recent illustrations, such as the national popularity of the new "Bodhi puja" and the Buddhist appropriation of Kataragama, are related to specific socioeconomic, historical, and political changes. Within a Sinhalese Buddhist context, one sees how obviously new and recent phenomena are justified by claiming that they represent the "true," "original," uncorrupted, previously lost, or forgotten teachings of the Buddha; or how a Hindu myth of Kataragama is redefined, omitting traditionally Hindu features, adding new Buddhist features, and providing Sinhala ideological justifications.

    Buddhism Transformed is a controversial book. The authors are willing to take risks and offer their own judgments of religious changes, many of which they find a disturbing departure from a humane, ethical, and rational Buddhism, often offering desperate responses to devastating social and material conditions and often having dangerous economic, political, and ideological consequences. Their treatment of religious developments and individuals is at times very uneven; even bizarre worldly forms of spirit religion are often interpreted with considerable compassion for the plight of suffering Sinhalese Buddhists, while Ariyaratne and his Sarvodaya are treated with no generosity.

    Most controversial are dramatic claims, sweeping generalizations, and speculations found throughout the book. In a few places, Gombrich and Obeyesekere qualify their presentation, inserting a sentence to the effect that they have studied only a fraction of the religious phenomena, or that certain traditional phenomena continue to flourish, or that some leader such as "the Sun Buddha" has only a tiny following. But the overwhelming impression throughout is that the studied new cult groupings, practices, and leaders are in some way paradigmatic of widespread themes and trends, revealing significant changes in Sinhala Buddhism.

    To what extent are many of the case studies somewhat idiosynchronic and of limited influence, and to what extent do they reveal widespread changes in Sinhala religion? Have Obeyesekere and Gombrich overgeneralized from their largely Colombo-based studies and exaggerated the influence throughout Sri Lanka of an "urban" lifestyle and the almost total destruction of a traditional village life? To what extent have they overemphasized and overextended the influences of Protestant Buddhism and minimized the force of the more traditional Theravada in resisting, subverting, and redefining modern phenomena? To what extent do the extreme prevalence and specific forms of spirit religion, manifestations of gods, godlings, demons, magic, sorcery, possession, bhakti, tantra, and so forth represent a significant change, and to what extent were such phenomena an influential part of traditional Sinhala religion?

    Gombrich and Obeyesekere are certainly correct in claiming that Buddhism is going through significant transformations in Sri Lanka (and elsewhere) and that it is necessary to identify rapidly changing socioeconomic and political conditions in order to make sense of these religious changes. For those trained in philosophy, who usually analyze Buddhist philosophy in a very abstract, decontextualized manner, it is essential to grasp how radically different socioeconomic conditions have contributed to new suffering, needs, expectations, alienation, and frustration, and how new forms of Sinhala Buddhism have arisen from and responded to these new conditions.