Buddhist pilgrims at Nagadeepa, Jaffna which has both Buddhist and Hindu shrines. Photo from inside boat.
Contrary to popular belief, the Buddha did not visit Sri Lanka, was not Sinhalese and would not recognize what we call the Buddhist flag. He was an Indian, sorta, except at that time India didn’t exist. More than anything he was a human being. While Sri Lanka has done yeoman service in preserving Theravada Buddhism, a simple and practical form, it’s important to remember that Buddhism is a practice open to anyone.
At meditation retreats I’ve seen many ‘foreigners’ and even Christian monastics. Buddhism is practiced by Sri Lankan monks in Australia, the US and all over. Even a supposedly nationalistic monks like Soma Thero had his initial base in Australia. Another unsurprising surprise is that Tamils can be Buddhist, and that in the past, many more were.
DBS Jeyaraj repub’d an article on this subject citing a popular Tamil film running now.
The Tamil film “7aum Arivu”(the seventh sense)directed by AR Murugadoss is now running in cinemas and is a box office success.
The film is based on the story of Bodhidharmar who was supposedly a Tamil Buddhist born In Kanchipuram and a scion of the Pallava dynasty. While relating the tale of Bodhivarmar at the start the film goes on to portray the modern saga of a character purported to be a descendant of Bodhidharmar
The film has invoked interest among a large number of Tamils about their past history. Many were shocked when they learnt that Buddhism had flourished among Tamils in India and Sri Lanka in the past. (Tamil Buddhism in Ancient South India and Sri Lanka, DBS)
Tamils Were Buddhist
Not all Tamils obviously, but as Buddhism waxed (and waned) many in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka were Buddhist.
Even though today there are no Tamil Buddhists in Sri Lanka, the majority of the early Tamils of Sri Lanka (before the 10th century Chola invasion) were Buddhists. The ancient Buddhist remains in the North and East of Sri Lanka are the remnants left by the Tamil Buddhists and not anybody else. They are part of the heritage of Sri Lankan Tamils. Only the Buddhist temples, statues and structures build in the recent past and present in the North and East can be considered as Sinhala-Buddhist. (Tamil Buddhism in Ancient South India and Sri Lanka, via DBS)
I wouldn’t say that there are no Tamil Buddhists, there must be quite a few, but it’s not really a community. The whole dispute over statues and stuff, however, is ahistorical. Buddhism is common to both Sinhala and Tamil history.
Muslims Were Tamil
In another obvious shocker, many Tamil speaking Muslims are of Tamil descent. Sri Lankan Muslims call themselves Moor, but they’re obviously mixed with Arab traders, and quite thinly at that. Many Muslims are in fact anciently converted Tamils (or Sinhalese).
Sinhalese Practice Hinduism
The Buddha is actually quite unhelpful during illness, exams or other times when you need something. I mean, I find it extremely helpful for dealing, but not for obtaining results. The Buddha is an example for how to live, but he doesn’t answer prayers, or even claim to. At those times, many Sinhala Buddhists go to kovil. From bus driver to upper middle class, people keep and worship Hindu Gods.
My extended family once went for a religious ceremony in Anuradhapura (at Sri Maha Bodhi) conducted entirely by Hindu priests descended from a caste that came down hundreds of years ago. We gave offerings, smashed coconuts and did Hindu rituals within a very Buddhist ceremony.
Which Is To Say
Sri Lanka is a mixed island with mixed up perception, and religion is no exception. Like it or not, we are all inherently in each others backyards, kovils and lives, and have been for years immemorial. Thank goodness separatist projects have failed, because they don’t reflect that reality and reality would have to be ‘cleansed’ accordingly. As it is, reality is a mess, but we can slowly build a government and identity that reflects our shared spirit and culture.