ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Role of Buddhism and Democracy

Caste-based Differentiation in Sinhalese Society

This paper interrogates as to how caste-based differentiation exists among the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka despite the near absence of the economic structures that initially underpinned the caste system. It looks at the role of Buddhism and democracy, two supposedly egalitarian institutions, in encouraging the perpetuation of caste-based differentiation among the Sinhalese. Such differentiation is not always reproduced in discriminatory terms, but rather—as in the case of democracy—as a bargaining tool of group identity that secures access to patronage goods and resources. In contrast, in the case of Buddhism, caste operates behind a veil of public denial and serves as a “filtering” function in ritualistic gatherings and the organisation of the Buddhist order.

It is hard to find scholarship on Sri Lankan politics and ­society that does not take caste into account in its analysis. Despite this being the case, caste among the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka “increasingly forms a ‘hidden identity’” (Silva 1999: 205) that nonetheless continues to dictate social interaction to a great extent (1990). After multiple encounters with this fluid, ambiguous, elusive and yet omnipresent social institution in our research exercises, we were encouraged to inquire into caste and its prevalence in modern society, particularly in relation to the Sinhalese.

For instance, consider the case of the annual Kandy “Esala Perehara” (a procession that takes place in August). It not only epitomises the practice of caste in Sinhalese society but also, if one looks at it closely, illustrates the nature of the transformation the practice of caste is undergoing at present. The Esala Perahera in Kandy is one of the oldest and grandest (now) Buddhist festivals in Sri Lanka, featuring dancers, jugglers, musicians, fire-breathers, and lavishly decorated elephants. Hundreds of performers take part in this pageant and specific caste groups are designated to perform specific roles. The following description by a Kandyan Govigama (farmer caste) peasant illustrates how caste-based differentiation persists, albeit behind a veil of public denial, despite the gradual weakening of the material existence of caste practices in Sinhalese society.

Nowadays some people of the Govigama caste also perform certain roles in the perahera that were traditionally assigned to people from lower caste groups. For example, some Govigama caste people now carry pandam (torches) in the perahera which was traditionally performed by people of a particular lower caste group. Those lower caste people are no longer willing to carry pandam in the perahera as they have achieved higher socio-economic status now. So now, poor individuals from other caste groups, including ones from the Govigama caste, have come forward to perform such duties for a fee. However, such people cover their faces with a cloth adding a new style to their dress code because of the fear that villagers would recognise them performing duties meant for lower castes.

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Updated On : 17th Aug, 2020

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