ASIAOPINIONPOLITICS

Tirupathi factor: Unbreakable symbol of Sri Lankan politician’s spiritual dependence of India

By Punsara Amarasinhe and Eshan Jayawardane

Man’s association with faith is the most inexplicable thing in the world which gives no clues of comprehending its very nature. Even the most powerful men in world history were known to be shaky and crumbled before the creed they ardently believed. In the annals of Roman history we find emperors like Hadrian who was extremely obsessed with Hellenic culture and his political decisions were more or less affected from the Greek soothsayers served in Roman imperial court. There are dozens of examples showing how oriental rulers were fascinated with their faith for foreign deities and oracles. Being a country located geographically closer to Indian mainland, Sri Lanka shares an enormous cultural and spiritual legacy from Indian civilization. Even though Sri Lankans tend to boast about their complete separate identity from India, it is a fact beyond dispute that the island’s political and cultural history is imbued with the influences gained from India.

Since the day Asoka sent his son Mahendra to spread the word of Buddhism to Sri Lanka in 3rdcentury BC, the greater influences came from India have made some profound impacts in island’s political map and the present form its impact is reflected from Sinhalese Buddhist politicians knack on visiting the spiritual shrines in India often. In that case, paying homage to God Vishnu’s incarnation Sri Venkateswara in ancient Tirumala Temple located in Tirupathi, Andhra Pradesh India by many politicians in Sri Lanka is an interesting phenomenon to observe as the this tradition has been survived in both main political parties in Sri Lanka. 

In tracing the recent history of number of official visits made by prominent Sri Lankan politicians to Tirupathi , it is evident how this spiritual mystic place has become a place of paramount importance to some key political characters in Sri Lanka. Starting from former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to current President Maitreepala Sirisena the veneration of Tiru temple always have been crucial before they made any important political decision. It was reported even when president Rajapaksa decided to go for presidential election in 2015 before his term legitimately reached its end, that his decision was shaped by the predictions he heard at Tirupathi from its soothsayers, but on the contrary the outcome of the presidential election in Sri Lanka sent president Rajapaksa home and neither Tirupathi temple non its soothsayers saved him from his unexpected political debacle. Ironically both current president in Sri Lanka and prime minister have visited this Hindu temple several times as devotees. Most recently Sri Lankan prime minister paid homage to Tirupathi after performing an aged old ritual called “Tulabharam” , which is a tradition where a devotee wishes to offer sugar, rice, jaggery or amount equivalent to the weight of his or her body.  Premier Ranil Wickramasinghe has known as a liberal minded statesman who is very much passionate in European liberal values, yet this kind of actions demonstrate the fact how spiritual belief in South Asian politics even in carving a mindset of a sophisticated liberal leader. 

The exact nature of Sri Lankan Sinhalese Buddhist mindset on its “Big Brother” India always remains an uncanny riddle as it is filled with love and hate. Sinhalese Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka always perceive India from a dualistic point of view. Throughout the history of the Island till Europeans arrived in 16thcentury , all the foreign invasions that stuck Sri Lanka had come from India and Sri Lanka’s ancient kings always had their bitter encounters with Chola empire in South India and many Sinhalese kings sought the assistance from Palllava and Pandawa’s in South India when Cholas attacked ancient Sinhalese kingdom of Anuradhapura. In post independent period both states faced their own socio-economic and political chaos, yet Indian influence on Sri Lankan grew stronger in parallel to how Tamil minority issue began to bloom in Sri Lanka’s politics. Many Sinhalese believed and still believe India was the architect behind planting the seeds of separatist ideology among Tamil minority and this antipathy reached its climax in 1987 when Sri Lankan president JR Jayawardene signed Indo- Lanka agreement with Indian premier Rajeev Gandhi, which caused uproar in Sinhalese society.

Despite having such antagonistic attitude towards India, it is rather strange how Sinhalese society in Sri Lanka venerates India from a different side, that has nourished mainly due to Buddhism which Sri Lankan preserves as the biggest gift they received from India and also the spiritual beliefs that have spread across Sri Lankan society such as worshiping deities and reading horoscopes have mainly ascended upon Sinhalese Buddhist sub consciousness from larger Indian influence. As a matter of fact Sri Lankan politicians’ utmost faith in worshiping Tirupathi is a continuation of this deep psychological attachment to India even though they have bitter enmities on Indian policy making on Sri Lanka. As an example, it was evident that former president of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa upheld a closer link with China which caused New Delhi to be suspicious about him and after his unexpected defeat at the hand of Maitripala Srisena who happened to be the common candidate of the joint opposition , Mr.Rajapaksa openly accused Indian intelligence RAW for planning his defeat in 2015 presidential elections, but his devotion on Indian spirituality has not yet been reduced as he still visits Tirupathi Temple and other holy places in India. 

In fact Sri Lanka’s nature as a cultural and spiritual parasite of Indian civilization is the most vitally important factor that always India can rely on expanding its influence whereas China being the recent involver lacks such a privilege to execute. In Using Joseph Nye’s Soft Power analogy , one can say Indian influence upon Sri Lanka’s politics and overall social structure is highly unlikely to be diminished in future albeit the ongoing Chinese involvement in Sri Lanka’s economy. It may not be an hyperbolic remark to state that Tirupathi ritual has gone beyond the stage of a mere cult worship by Sri Lankan politicians and India can proudly boast of it as a one practical diplomatic strategies in shaping the relations between two states. Being the regional power in South Asia India has used different approaches to keep its grip over other South Asian countries, For an example Nepal and Bhutan depend heavily on India as landlocked sates and their destines have always been imbued with India as their patron state. Sri Lanka’s aged long spiritual dependence of India always stands as a crucial factor in the relations between both countries and Tirpathi symbolizes its unbreakable rigor. 

Punsara Amarasinghe is a PhD Candidate in Public International Law at Institute of Law and Politics at Scuola Superiore Sant Anna in Pisa, Italy. He holds his LL.B from University of Colombo and LL.M from South Asian University, New Delhi India. He held a research fellowship at Faculty of Law, Higher School of Economics in Moscow and served as a guest lecturer at faculty of arts at University of Colombo. Eshan Jayawardne graduated from Delhi University in BA Sociology and holds his MA in International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He served as a visiting lecturer at faculty of social sciences at Sri Lanka Open University.

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