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The Tale of a Monk and His Mercedes in Sri Lanka

In recent weeks, the story of a Buddhist monk member of parliament of Sri Lanka importing and selling a Mercedes Benz has provided much entertainment in a war-weary country. But beyond its spectacle value, the episode also tells us a lot about how politics and society are changing in Sri Lanka.

Letter from South Asia

The Tale of a Monk and His Mercedes in Sri Lanka

In recent weeks, the story of a Buddhist monk member of parliament of Sri Lanka importing and selling a Mercedes Benz has provided much entertainment in a war-weary country. But beyond its spectacle value, the episode also tells us a lot about how politics and society are changing in Sri Lanka.


midst stories of war, violence, state and counter-state terror that continue to add to Sri Lanka’s enduring legacy of despair, there are also stories to provide much needed public amusement and entertainment. Academic political commentators, including myself, often miss the nuances and implications of many of such entertainment stories, unless they take place in the realm of politics. But, politics has the character of being a specific form of mass entertainment. When we view politics through that frame, we might see it as a series of spectacles, the connecting logic of which is the aesthetics of amazement, bewilderment and disbelief. The appeal of politics in this age of MTV-inspired colour television, as NDTV and Zee TV seem to demonstrate everyday in a spirit of competition, lies in its capacity for bewilderment.

This is an amazing story in Sri Lanka about political corruption that stretches the limits of disbelief. As a corruption story, it is a saga of exceptional rarity because it involves Sri Lanka’s political party of Buddhist monks, which came to prominence a few years ago. To be precise, it is about an MP monk and his brand new car. It is not a chronicle about Zen and motorcycle riding, but a tale of a pious Buddhist monk and his Mercedes, almost like the parable in a new wave Korean film.

Bizarre Beginning

This episode had a bizarre beginning. A few weeks ago, a group of journalists had seen Sri Lanka’s leader of the opposition, Ranil Wickramasinghe, visiting a Buddhist temple in Colombo, in a brand new Mercedes Benz. The journalists had asked Wickramasinghe, who was the prime minister in 2002-03, when he had bought this glitzy new car. Wickramasinghe said he was not the owner of the car; it was given to him by a party supporter for his use. Wickramasinghe also revealed that the car had actually been initially imported by a leading MP monk of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (Sinhalese National Heritage Party or JHU) on a duty-free permit that the MPs were entitled to. The senior monk, according to Wickramasinghe, had sold the car to a supporter of his party, the United National Party (UNP). That person had in turn given the car to Wickramasinghe for his use.

The next day, the story was front page news in most of the newspapers in Colombo. They had also published the pictures of the luxury car. Wickramasinghe called a press conference that afternoon and disclosed more details about the deal. He claimed that the car had been “sold” by the monk for a few million rupees to his party supporter, who was a businessman, thereby making a profit and violating the government regulations on duty-free motor vehicles. In a tongue-in-cheek spirit, Wickramasinghe asked whether it was correct for this monk-cum-politician to use a Mercedes Benz instead of the Noble Eight-fold Path (‘Arya Ashtangika Marga’) advocated by the Buddha to travel towards the goal of nirvana. Wickramasinghe quite sarcastically invited the venerable monk to his office so that he could return the car to him.

The story took another turn the next day. The UNP, which is the main opposition party in parliament, claimed that the young businessman, who had bought the car from the MP, had been abducted by the security guards of a minister who happened to be the lay leader of the monk MP’s party. The following day, the businessman appeared at a police station in the outskirts of Colombo to make a statement that he was not abducted and that he had merely gone on a business tour. But the UNP claimed that the man was actually abducted in order to force him to hand over to the monk the original documents relating to the car transaction. When the abductors realised that the businessman did not have them in his possession they released him, but forced him to make the statement to the police denying the abduction story. As it transpired later, the original documents were with Wickramasinghe.

Role of Buddhist Party

The party of the Buddhist monks, the JHU, is an influential partner in the present coalition regime of president Mahinda Rajapakse. In the parliamentary elections held in April 2004 it fielded 130-odd candidates, all of whom were Buddhist monks. The JHU came to prominence in 2003 after the sudden death of Sri Lanka’s telegenic Buddhist preacher monk, Gangodawila Soma, who had like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in south India, a considerable following among the urban social strata. The fact that Soma suddenly died in Russia on a private visit to accept an honorary doctorate from a dubious private university in St Petersburg fuelled speculation among Buddhist nationalist circles in Colombo that the monk was deliberately killed as a part of a Christian conspiracy against Sinhalese Buddhists. The JHU saw the Christian conspiracy theory as an effective vehicle for the party with an extreme Sinhalese nation alist agenda to gain national prominence. Through its concerted and repetitive appeals to the feelings of insecurity among the Sinhalese Buddhists and effective tactics of mobilisation, the JHU attracted to its membership a large number of Buddhist monks as well as a following from among urban middle class strata. With its all-monk candidate list, the JHU ran its 2004 election campaign on two platforms: to protect the Sinhalese Buddhist interests and aspirations and to restore and safeguard morality in politics and public life. The monks who contested the elections and those who

Economic and Political Weekly September 8, 2007 became JHU MPs – there were nine of them in the 225-member Parliament – projected themselves as the guardian of the Sinhalese nation and public morality.

It is against this backdrop that the Mercedes Benz sale became a contro versial issue. The leader of the opposition called the party of the Buddhist monks an “association of impious monks” – a statement which the ruling party and the JHU seized in their counter attack. They described Wickramasinghe’s statement as an insult to the entire institution of the ‘Sangha’ (Buddhist monks) and an act of denigration of Buddhism. The JHU monks even organised a one-day satyagraha to protest against Wickramasinghe’s alleged anti-Buddhist statements. The JHU also filed a case in the courts against Wickramasinghe for criminally defaming their monk MP. Meanwhile, being an unusual source of entertainment for the war-weary Sri Lankan populace, this “Mercedes debate” occupied front pages of the newspapers and prime TV time for a few weeks.

Its mass entertainment value apart, there are some significant public issues involved in this Benz car controversy. The first is that it exposed how many Sri Lankan MPs have been using with impunity their duty-free vehicle concession for personal aggrandisement. Actually, the JHU leaders publicly defended the action of their monk MP by saying that quite a few MPs have been doing the same thing and there was nothing unusual in the JHU monk’s transaction. The JHU threatened to come out with a list of MPs who had sold their vehicles as well as vehicle permits. Although they never produced the list, it may have contained some names of both government and opposition MPs, including more names of JHU monk MPs themselves.

If the JHU’s claim that many MPs have been engaging in this practice for quite some time was true, then the Sri Lankan lawmakers have not only been making new laws; at least some of them have also been showing citizens of how to transgress the law without actually breaking it. And the JHU monk is one of the few Buddhist monks to admit, though reluctantly and in acute embarrassment, the principle that moral precepts and their violation are not mutually exclusive, but mutually constitutive elements of public behaviour.

Transgression of Rules

The second important issue that emerged in this episode is about the alleged transgression by this particular MP monk of rules which governed the behaviour of Buddhist monks. These disciplinary rules are called ‘vinaya’. The leader of the opposition in his public statements often emphasised that the JHU monk’s car transaction was a gross violation of the vinaya rules. Wickramasinghe obviously expected a public reaction of outrage. In letters to the editor columns in the newspapers, some Buddhists expressed their horror and indignation over what they saw as the conduct unbecoming of a “disciple of the Buddha” (‘Buddha puthra’). The true Buddha puthras, according to their reasoning, should not be buying and selling Mercedes Benz cars, but be leading a simple life of world-renouncers and following the Noble Eight-fold Path.

But this point about the authentic behaviour of Buddhist monks in a framework of a world-renouncer is actually a very problematic one, because the Sangha behaviour in general is shaped in a tradition of transgressing many key vinaya rules. The transgression has been taking place without publicly acknowledging that fact of transgression. The very fact that some monks contest elections and become MPs is itself a serious transgression of the Buddhist rules. Similarly, the JHU monk MPs have been advocating a military solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, actively opposing a negotiated political settlement with “terrorists”. This position is simply beyond the pale of the basic tenets of Buddhist ethics, let alone the vinaya rules. Many Buddhist monks actually lead a life of landlords, professionals, property-owners, soothsayers, medical practitioners, school teachers and heads of educational institutions while many others live the life of pauperism dependent on the support of poor peasants. Some Buddhists in Sri Lanka consider the pauper monks living in seclusion as the true Buddha puthras. But at the same time, the lay Buddhists are quite aware of the fact the Buddhist monks in general defy many vinaya rules.

Ranil Wickramasinghe himself is a patron of many Buddhist temples that do not necessarily adhere to the Noble Eightfold Path. In power, he may have used the state patronage and material resources to compensate for political services rendered to his party by some Buddhist monks. Thus, the lay politicians also maintain double standards when it comes to the political use of Buddhism and Buddhist monks. Even then the lay Buddhists explain it away by asserting that they continue to respect the “yellow robe of the Buddha” (‘Buddha cheevaraya’). There is a Durkheimean point here: in religious piety, sign is more important than the substance. This constitutes an essential ambivalence that the Buddhists maintain towards their monks who violate the vinaya rules as a matter of existence.

Precept and Practice

This ambivalence, or the contradiction between precept and practice, has attracted the attention of some of Sri Lanka’s leading cultural anthropologists – to name a few, Stanley Tambiah, Gananath Obeysekere, H L Seneviratne, and lately Ananda Abeyskera. To use Stanley Tambiah’s formulation in a less rigorous frame, Sri Lankan Buddhist monks have been both world renouncers and world conquerors at the same time. As novice monks, they leave the lay life and the worldly commitments associated with it in early childhood, but in the growing up process as members of an organised community they build up another world in which the distinction between the priestly life and the lay life is marked more by symbols than in substance. Monks, in fact, build as monks a new universe of attachments. For some of them, the nation and the state are cardinal objects of desire, as is clearly the case with JHU monks. Thus, the buying and selling of a Benz car can be construed as a statement of that essential ambivalence that actually constitutes contemporary Buddhist monkhood.

Even then, a question remains for JHU monks. It is a question about the contradiction between their public precepts and private practices in politics. They came to parliamentary politics in 2004 claiming to “clean up” public life, to restore public morality in politics and to transform Sri Lanka into a “Buddhist state” (‘Bauddha Rajyaya’). In all these claims, there was a very clear right-wing and Sinhala-Buddhist hegemonic agenda. The present war has given a new impetus to this rightwing drift.

Meanwhile, in the present Rajapakse administration in Colombo, the JHU and some of its lay and priestly leaders have been functioning as ideological counsellors and strategy advisors. They have been pushing the Rajapakse administration towards the outer edge of democratic governance. Ranil Wickramasinghe, being the leader of the opposition in parliament, perhaps took a calculated step to weaken the JHU’s political credibility in the country as a necessary intervention in this larger political context.



Economic and Political Weekly September 8, 2007

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