Boduhela and Jesuhela:
a Conflict in the Hela Heritage?

by Victor Gunasekara

The Hela movement is a relatively late development in neo-Sinhala commencing only in the twentieth century. By this time the neo-Sinhala movement was several centuries old and had branched off in several directions. To appreciate the broader neo-Sinhala movement and the subsequent Hela development we have to place them in the broad context of the decline of the Sinhalas during the last few centuries. One of the main divisions between the Helas of today is between the Buddhist helas (whom I will refer to as Boduhelas) and the Christian helas (whom I will refer to as the Jesuhelas) It will be argued that despite some differences there is a great deal of similarity between the Boduhelas and the Jesuhelas. Both represent aspects of the decline of classical Lankan values. Today this decline has brought Lanka into the very verge of disintegration with anti-national elements poised to exercise power to an extent even greater than had occurred during the Colonial period.

We have to date the emergence of the neo-Sinhala mentality to the early sixteenth century, which coincides with the arrival of the Portuguese in Lanka.[1] The most distinguishing characteristics of the neo-Sinhalas, and the one they differed greatly from the classical Sinhalas, is their racism. The Buddhist philosophy which nurtured the classical Sinhalas, and indeed all Lankans in ancient times, was essentially non-racist, cosmopolitan, non-xenophobic and international. However racism was endemic to the European conquerors who invaded Lanka and other Asian countries. Most of the European wars before the period of colonization were largely ethnic wars inspired by racial considerations. Christianity which became the religion of Europe was in its inception in the Judaic religion (which Jesus never repudiated) was essentially a racist religion of the "chosen people". When Christianity spread to the Gentiles the "chosen people" came to be identified with Christians. This did not detract from its racist character even though it was a religion-based "racism" that we have to speak of rather than a strictly ethnic-based one.

In the colonial era the Europeans carried their deadly mixture of racism and religionism into the colonized areas. Of all the colonized people, who had a developed civilization before colonization, it was with the neo-Sinhalas that the Western colonialists had their greatest success. The proportion of Sinhalas who absorbed the Christian religion was greater than that of any of any other subjugated nation with a civilized history.[2] In the early period of Portuguese rule many of the Sinhala aristocrats converted to Catholicism and thus joined the "chosen" people. At this time the bulk of the ordinary Sinhalas still maintained their classical values. However with the expansion of the class of affluent Sinhalas the neo-Sinhala mentality began its inexorable spread to more and more sections of the Sinhalas. In this early period the neo-Sinhala ideology was adopted almost exclusively by the converted Sinhala Christians. We can consider them the true progenitors of the Jesuhelas of today. But before long the Boduhelas too absorbed many of their values though not strictly converting to Christianity. Instead they vulgarized Buddhism obliterating some of its fundamental differences with Christianity.

The Notion of Hela
We might begin by enquiring why the helas came to adopt this name. There is absolutely no etymological basis for this appellation. Many people think that it is an abbreviation of 'Sinhala' by taking only the last two syllables of this word. However this makes no sense. 'Sinhala' itself is itself a compaction of two words 'Sinha' and 'le' meaning 'lion' and 'killing', so meaning the 'killer of the lion'. This is an allusion to the legend of Vijayabahu the parricide who killed the lion who allegedly sired him. There is no etymological sense in taking the last syllable of 'sinha' and combining it with a different verbal noun.

Some people think that Hela comes from the word 'elu' which has sometimes been used to denote a vernacular derived from the classical Sinhala language. The Sinhala language owed much to Sanskrit, Pali and other Indian languages and 'elu' was an attempt to weed the Sinhala language of sanskritisms. However this linguistic reform did not produce a great literature comparable to the classical Sinhala. If Hela is indeed derived from Elu its followers should properly be termed 'Helu' which at least shows that they are bereft of any kind of covering! However modern Helas do not like to be called Helus so we will have to discount the Elu connection. This leaves the origin of the word unexplained.

Some helas, particularly those who have migrated to the UK, use the term 'Sinhela'. This seems etymologically an even greater monstrosity. While we can take the 'hela' part to mean what it says what does the 'sin' refer to except perhaps the "original sin" of the Helas! These Helas are also in favour of abandoning the classical name of the country as Lanka[3] in favour of something like Heladiva.

Even though the term Hela is a recent concoction we may use it retrospectively as a convenient term to designate what we have termed 'neoSinhala'. In this sense the helas go back to the birth of the neo-Sinhala movement under Portuguese influence. The present writer has referred to the spread of the hela mentality amongst the Sinhalas as the 'helanisation' of the Sinhalas. This helanisation movement has been unfortunately one of the most successful movements in Sinhala history. It has brought the Sinhala people veritably to their knees.

We must now consider the two components of the hela movement.

The Jesuhelas
The Jesuhelas are those helas who flocked to the Christian banner hoisted for the first time in Sri Lanka by the Portuguese invaders. The Jesuhelas were originally all Catholics and despite several centuries of Protestant rule the Catholics still account for the overwhelming bulk of modern-day Jesuhelas. To this the Catholic Jesuhelas have actually to thank the Boduhelas. However in the modern context the difference between Catholic and Protestant is of little importance. We shall treat all hela Christians as Jesuhelas.

Sometimes a distinction is made between fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist Christians. But as far as the Jesuhelas are concerned they are all fundamentalist in the sense that they adhere to the most literal form of Christianity. They are today even more enthusiastic Christians than even the white missionaries who converted them (or their forebears) in the first place. They in turn have become missionaries engaged in evangelical work in several countries outside of Sri Lanka (as well as within it).

A good idea of the mentality of the Jesuhelas can be gained by studying the activity of those Jesuhelas who have migrated to Western countries. Here they are the most enthusiastic members of church congregations.[4] In fact many Christian churches in Western countries will not be able to function (due to the declining interest in Christianity amongst the native population) but for the influx of Christian migrants from Asian countries. Of all such migrants the Jesuhelas are perhaps the most enthusiastic.

In Sri Lanka very few Jesuhelas have abandoned their Christian faith even though their forebears who first embraced this religion did so for unethical reasons. Far from bringing the Jesuhelas back to the Buddhist fold the Sinhalas are hard put to prevent more Buddhists from joining the Jesuhelas.

The Boduhelas
Along with the betrayal of the classical Lankan values the Boduhelas have also betrayed their Buddhist heritage. The Buddhism they observe is a far cry from the dhamma that the Buddha Gotama preached. In fact the arahants of old would be astonished if they were to observe what the Boduhelas are doing today in the name of Buddhism. We may begin by examining a few of the practices which are really innovations (or burrowing from other religions) which are passed off as authentic Buddhism. We cannot go into the full range of the devotional practices of the Boduhelas, but the following seven aspects should be familiar to all Sri Lankan Buddhists:

(1) The Puja
The Buddha Puja has become the central devotional activity of the Boduhelas. This consists of an offering of food (rice, curries, fruit, cakes, etc.) before a statue of the Buddha and asking the Buddha to have compassion on the devotees and partake of what is offered. If the puja is done after mid-day the items offered will usually include fruit juice, mineral water or tea.

What these devotees do not seem to understand is that Gotama had reached the state of nibbana "without remainder" (anupaadisesa nibbaana.m). In that state he cannot partake of these mundane food offered to him! The puja concept was imported into Buddhism from Hinduism. It has nothing to do with the teaching of Gotama.

There is some similarity with the Christian communion. Here bread and wine are consecrated to the Deity are consumed by the devotees in honour of their "Lord".[5] What the Boduhelas seem to be doing is to imitate the devotional acts of their Jesuhela compatriots by making some changes to the Christian ritual. There is also some similarity with the Hindu practice of prasadam. Whether this practice came from Christianity or Hinduism it has little to do with the Buddha's teaching.

(2) Relic Worship
The worship of relics have been elevated into a major devotional activity by the Boduhelas. The relics are said to be the remains of the Buddha after his cremation some 2500 years ago. Usually when a person is cremated any unburnt material is very small and we are told that in the Buddha's case this small quantity was divided into several portions many leaving the human realm altogether. Many relics were lost in the destruction of Buddhist stupas in India during the past thousand years. So how the Bodhuhelas of today manage to produce the large amount of "relics" that they worship in various places, some even in Western countries, is something of a mystery. To explain this away they have even concocted the story that these relics magically multiply themselves!

There is nothing in the Buddha's teaching which requires relic worship. The Dhammapada says that a dead body is like a log to be cast aside, not something to be venerated even if it is supposed to be the remains of the Tathagata.

The Catholics are also noted for relic worship. The items they worship are related to Jesus or the Christian "saints". The hoax of the shroud of Jesus is well known. So this is something that the Boduhelas and the Jesuhelas have in common even though neither religion seem to have endorsed the practice.

(3) Bo-Tree Worship
This is also a major activity of the Boduhelas. The basis for this seems to be the respect the Buddha showed to his "Tree of Enlightenment" in the weeks after the sambodhi. But the Buddha put it behind him after this initial respect. In fact during the last 43 years of his life he never returned to Uruvelaa (as Buddha Gaya was known in his time). The Buddha never asked any of his followers to worship Bo-trees.

The Bodhi-puja is considered particularly important if a relative falls ill. Then the devotees pour bucket loads of milk at the root of the Bodhi. Milk is animal fat and is harmful to vegetation, so actually they may be killing the tree.

There does not seem to be support for this practice from the Jesuhelas. Jesus is said to have cursed the fig tree. The Bo-tree belongs to the fig tree family, so Jesus may be considered as cursing the bo-tree. Certainly the Jesuhelas hold this practice of their Boduhela cousins with great disdain.

(4) Transference of Merit
Passing merit to deceased relatives is a major part of Boduhela practice. Once again this practice was unknown to the Buddha. According to the Buddha merit can only be done by oneself. In fact if we allow the transfer of karma it makes a mockery of this teaching of the Buddha. This practice however is greatly promoted by monks.

The practice of passing merit to devas is also peculiar. The devas are supposed to have done a lot of good karma to be reborn in the deva realms. So they should be having a greater accumulation of merit than those who offer more merit to them. If the purpose of merit transference is to equalize the distribution of merit then it is the devas who should be giving merit to humans, not vice versa.

The Christians are also known to pray to deceased persons so that they may fare better at their "day of judgment". Some sects like the Mormons make elaborate genealogies of dead people in order to confer on them the blessings of Christianity. The continuance of the practice of merit transfer may be in imitation of this Jesuhela practice, even though its origins may be pre-Christian coming from some Mahayana practices.

(5) Pirit Chanting with Thread and Water
Boduhelas are great supporters of the practice of pirit chanting even if they do not understand what is chanted. It is said that there is some support for this in the Commentaries which claim that the Buddha recommended it to overcome a plague in the city of Vaisaali. However there is no mention of thread and water which have become essential components of modern pirit chanting.

Jesuhelas are also noted for reading sections of their holy scriptures and some orders of monks require a communal reading. This has some similarity to the Boduhela practice. Also holy water is used extensively in Catholic ritual. The Christians are noted for the communal singing of hymns. The Boduhelas have also copied this in the bhaktigeeta they sing communally, appropriately in the hela language.

(6) Rite and Ritual
Christianity is a religion of "rite and ritual" and Jesuhelas feel that these rites have to be conducted by duly ordained priests. Buddhism considers rite and ritual (siilabbata paraamaasa) actually as an impediment. But Boduhelas have obliterated this distinction and transformed their Buddhism into a system of worship and ritual..

(7) The Political Monkhood
This is the latest development and one which the Boduhelas have burrowed from their Jesuhela cousins. Jesus called himself the "King of the Jews" an indiscretion that earned him the death sentence for treason from the Romans. This idea of holy Kingship was perpetuated by the Popes who came to exercise temporal power. Gradually due to the progress of what historians call the "Enlightenment" the political power of the clerics were trimmed.

The modern Boduhelas have moved in the opposite direction of giving their monks a political power they had abjured when they "went forth" in the dispensation of Gotama. The heroes of the modern Hela supporters are clerics like Paisley, Tutu, Cardinal Sin, Makarios, etc. In SL the Catholic Bishops have come out in support of the political monks even as they deny this role to their own priests. The latter position may be because the Christians are in a minority and lay Christians like Ranil Wickremesighe are doing a good job for them..

There are several other aspects of the Boduhelas that link them to the thinking of the Jesuhelas which we do not have the space to explore. What it does show is that these two arms of the Hela movement present a threat not only to the territorial integrity of Lanka but also to its Buddhist heritage.

Christianity cannot be effectively fought unless we go back to the teaching of the Buddha.

Royal Patronage of the Helas
In Sri Lanka both sections of the Hela movement can claim royal patronage The patron of the Jesuhelas is Don Juan Pandar (alias Dharmapala) the King of Kotte, while the patron of the Boduhelas is Don Juan of Austria[6] (alias Konappu Bandara), the King of Senkadagala. These are the two greatest traitors to Lanka in its entire history of Kingship spanning two millennia. They are the only baptized Christians to have worn the crown of the Sinhalas, and thereby desecrated it.

The first named Don Juan not only became a faithful lackey of the Portuguese but also bequeathed his Kingdom to the King of Portugal, a bequest which was solemnly ratified in the Malwana convention. He spend that last decades of his pathetic like virtually like a prisoner of the Portuguese in their fort in Colombo.

The second Don Juan (Konappu Bandara) had an even more notorious career. Unlike Dharmapala who is not known to have actively participated in the atrocities of the Portuguese Konappu was an active and willing participant. He exercised his sword against many Sinhala Buddhists joining Portuguese expeditions sent to ravage Buddhist temples in the West and South of Sri Lanka. His defection from the Portuguese was done to escape the punishment he would have suffered at the hands of the Portuguese if he had returned to Colombo with a record of failure in the military expedition of Gomez de Souza. With Konappu the shadow of the Cross fell on the Udarata which had managed to ward it off until his assumption of power. Konappu introduced his misconceived notion of "tolerance" under which the Catholics were later protected from the vengeance of the Dutch..

It is an indication of the depth to which the modern helas have descended that they are actively engaged in promoting these two traitors as heroes of the Sinhala nation.[7]

The Current Situation
Sri Lanka is now placed in a critical situation. It is faced with two threats, one from the LTTE and the other from a resurgent Christianity. Actually even the LTTE threat is a Christian threat not only because most of the LTTE leaders are Christians but also because of the support they receive from Jesuhelas like the Christian clerics and bishops.

In the contest between Boduhelas and Jesuhelas for the leadership of the hela movement the Boduhelas seem to be losing. The Jesuhelas are rapidly appropriating all the symbols of the Boduhela.[8] They have adopted Sinhala terminology for their priests and even modern churches are built in the style of traditional Buddhist temples. Sinhala translations of the Bible are written in the hela (or elu) language and often use Buddhist terms to translate Christian concepts. Ignorant people may well mistake them for Buddhist sutras. We have shown that in their religious practice there is a close similarity between the Boduhela and the Jesuhela. Recent leaders in the propagation of Hela values like Solomon Bandaranaike are Christian converts of doubtful sincerity. Many lay leaders of the hela political parties are said to be Christians.

The Jesuhelas will actually welcome the disintegration of Lanka and few of their leaders have spoken against it. The Boduhelas have joined the current "Peace movement" in droves and they constitute the most ardent of this breed of peaceniks. As reasonable person will realize the peace process is simply a surrender process. The Boduhela opposition to the peace process is purely rhetoric and designed to mislead voters.

A confluence between Boduhela and Jesuhela under the Hela banner will be as great a threat to Lanka as is the terrorist insurgency of the LTTE. We know that the LTTE insurgency has now been given respectability by the Helas despite the worldwide campaign against terrorism. Will the two branches of the Hela movement unite under an alien banner and provide as greater a threat as is now provided by the LTTE?


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[1] The process may actually have commenced in the period before the arrival of Western colonizers. The gradual drift of the capital of the nation from Anuradhapura to Kotte marked various stages in the decline of Lanka. But it needed the arrival of the Portuguese and the Christian religion to provide neo-Sinhala with a distinct ideology.

[2] Philippines was the only Asian country to be completely Christianized during the period of classic colonialism. But before the colonial occupation the Philippines had a very backward cannibalistic culture. It was not surprising that the Christians had success there as they had with other primitive peoples like those of the South Pacific. The people of Lanka had a glorious civilization behind them, so Christian success there is something that can be explained only by the neo-Sinhala hypothesis.

[3] The historic name of the country was simply 'Lanka'. This was the name by which the country was introduced to Vijaya some 2500 years ago, and is clearly a pre-Vijayan name. In the current official name of 'Sri Lanka' the epithet 'Sri' has been placed before the traditional name for which there is absolutely no justification. In these CCs we shall use the official name of Sri Lanka to denote the current context but shall refer to the traditional name of Lanka when the context so demands.

[4] It is curious that despite their enthusiasm for their religion the Christian authorities in their countries of emigration have not allowed them to form a Sinhala (for Hela) church unlike the Chinese Christians who have been allowed to form Chinese Christian churches. Despite this the Jesuhelas follow the white Christians tamely.

[5] In fact the Christians think that the bread and wine are magically turned into the flesh and blood of Jesus! This is a remnant of the cannibalism that underlies this central act of Christian worship. It is interesting to note that the first Sinhalas who observed the newly arrived Portuguese reported that they consumed blood.

[6] There has been no explanation why Konappu chose Austria as part of his baptismal name. Perhaps the village he was born in had a similar sounding name. But clearly the man had no knowledge of European political geography. (The only place Konappu visited outside Lanka was Goa).

[7] We are told that a statue is planned to be erected in the memory of Konappu, while exhibitions on him have been planned by Boduhela expats in Canada!

[8] It has been claimed that there is group led by two people simply called 'Siriwardena' and 'Swarna' (the full names have not been revealed) advocating either a Christian version of Buddhism or a Buddhist version of Christianity. It must be reiterated that Buddhism and Christianity stand in complete opposition to each other. That is why the mutual rapprochement that has been going on between Boduhelas and Jesuhelas, simply because they are both aspects of the same Hela movement must be strongly deprecated. It is hoped that this CC will go some way in refuting this mutual accommodation between these two branches of the Hela movement.



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