Caste-based Differentiation in Sinhalese Society: Role of Buddhism and Democracy

Interesting EPW paper by Pradeep Peiris (University of Colombo) and Hasini Lecamwasam (University of Peradeniya).

The paper notes how caste system has developed in Sri Lanka ­”despite the near absence of the economic structures”:

In this paper, we made an effort to interrogate how caste-based differentiation persists amongst the Sinhalese community ­despite the near absence of the economic structures that initially warranted caste stratifications. We examined the role of two supposedly egalitarian social structures—Buddhism and democracy—in encouraging caste-based differentiation amongst members of the Sinhalese community. We argue that both ­institutions in their social and institutional practices, as an ­unintended by-product, contribute towards reproducing caste-based differentiation among Sri Lankans, particularly the Sinhalese.

Despite the philosophy of Buddhism espousing an egalita­rian parallel society, the socialisation and institutionalisation of Buddhism in Sri Lanka over many centuries has produced a form of religion that one may call “Sinhalese Buddhism,” which has not only been structured by feudal caste hierarchies and practices, but also become an agent of reproducing caste-based differentiation in Sinhalese society. The internalisation of caste as demonstrated in the self-­organisation of the laity on occasions such as bana, funerals, and traditional processions as well as the organisational logic of the Sangha, has reproduced caste ostensibly in the realm of rituals.

On the other hand, material practices such as caste-based hierarchical seating arrangements in some temples, division of labour in rituals, and sometimes the setting up of caste-designated temples also continue to structure the perceptions of devotees, resulting in what can be termed as “difference-producing mechanisms” in the guise of cultural and ritualistic practices. Thus, we argue that these practices of Sinhala Buddhism make silent but significant contributions to the reproduction of caste-based differentiation by transforming its means of sustenance from an economic to more of a cognitive basis.

Even though as a modern concept democracy promises equality, fraternity, and liberty, caste and caste-based differentiation have received new impetus especially in the practice of elections. We demonstrated how political parties, especially the two main parties, capitalise on caste divisions within Sinhalese electorates to expand their electoral bases. The patron-–client relationship, which has been the main electoral mobilising strategy since the introduction of universal adult franchise, has encouraged not only political parties but also voters to recognise caste as a powerful social cleavage. As such, one’s caste identity no longer only signifies recognition or stigma, but rather has become a means by which one could gain access to state resources through patronage networks. In that sense, caste-based differentiation has become a more “overt” practice in politics, as compared to the realm of Buddhism. This leads to the conclusion that caste-based differentiation not only ­implies reinforcing hierarchy but also countering hierarchy as well. As in Buddhism, however, in politics too caste is reproduced not only as external structures in electoral practices, but also as an internal cognitive structure of the voter, giving rise to a “social practice” within which votes make their electoral rationale.

Despite their ideological commitment to egalitarianism, therefore, these two powerful religio-cultural and political ins­truments—either as cognitive or material structures—structure and are structured by caste-based differentiation, thereby contributing to the latter’s reproduction in the Sinhalese ­community. As is true in the case of any “habitus,” these intersecting subjective and objective conditions continue to dictate the choices, practices, and judgments of those who ­belong in that system, to the effect that caste-based differen­tiation is reproduced despite the absence of its initial economic rationale.


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