COLOMBO: Tamils are disputing the Sri Lankan government’s claim that there are 22, 254 Tamil Buddhists in the country.
Most Tamils feel that this is a gross exaggeration. The Minister of National Dialogue, Mano Ganeshan, told Express, that the claim might have been made “for propaganda purposes”, to show the dominant Sinhalese-Buddhists that significant inroads have already been made into the largely Hindu Tamil minority.
But the government’s claim is based on the 2012 census, says Mass Media Minister Gayantha Karunartilleke. He told parliament earlier this week, that there are 22,254 Tamil Buddhists in the island, 11 of whom are monks. The Tamil-majority Northern Province itself has 470 Tamil Buddhists. Karunatilleke further said that government plans to reopen a Buddhist religious school in Jaffna which was functioning till 2013 with 80 students.
The President of the Jaffna Tamil Buddhist Association, Ravikumar, confirmed that his association has 470 members. According to him, the bulk of the Tamil Buddhists are in the plantations of the Southern Sinhalese- majority province of Uva.
“Many of the Indian Origin Tamil plantation workers in Uva are Dalits. They became Buddhist because of India’s Dalit leader, B.R.Ambedkar,” Ravikumar told Express. He denied proselytism by local Sinhalese Buddhists. “The plantation workers get no benefit from conversion to Buddhism,” he pointed out.
But historian Prof.S.Pathmanathan ruled out the caste factor in conversion in the plantations. “Most of the plantation workers are Dalits, and yet, the overwhelming majority are still Hindus,” he said.
Indian Origin Tamil leader V.Puthirasigamani felt that visiting Buddhist temples might have been mistaken as “conversion”. He pointed out that in Lanka, Sinhalese Buddhists worship at Hindu temples and Hindus visit Buddhist Viharas without ever changing their faith.
The Jaffna Buddhist Association President Ravi Kumar himself admitted that many Tamils attend his programs not because they are Buddhists, but because they love Tamil literature which, in the past, was closely associated with Buddhism. The epics Manimekalai (6 th.Century AD) and Silapadikaram had Buddhist roots.
According to Prof.Pathmanathan, Tamil monks Buddhadutta (5th century AD) and Dharmapala had contributed immensely to Lankan Buddhism before Tamil Buddhism was absorbed by Hinduism around the 14 th.Century.