The Buddhist Visnu: Religious Transformation, Politics, and Culture

The Buddhist Visnu: Religious Transformation, Politics, and Culture

The Buddhist Visnu: Religious Transformation, Politics, and Culture

The Buddhist Visnu: Religious Transformation, Politics, and Culture


John Holt's groundbreaking study examines the assimilation, transformation, and subordination of the Hindu deity Visnu within the contexts of Sri Lankan history and Sinhala Buddhist religious culture. Holt argues that political agendas and social forces, as much as doctrinal concerns, have shaped the shifting patterns of the veneration of Visnu in Sri Lanka.

Holt begins with a comparative look at the assimilation of the Buddha in Hinduism. He then explores the role and rationale of medieval Sinhala kings in assimilating Visnu into Sinhala Buddhism. Offering analyses of texts, many of which have never before been translated into English, Holt considers the development of Visnu in Buddhist literature and the changing practices of deity veneration. Shifting to the present, Holt describes the efforts of contemporary Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka to discourage the veneration of Visnu, suggesting that many are motivated by a reactionary fear that their culture and society will soon be overrun by the influences and practices of Hindus, Muslims, and Christians.


The religious traditions we study are not boxes of texts, commentaries,
and interpretations passed from hand to hand through generations, but
dynamic traditions, more like rivers, gushing, rolling, converging, and
branching out to water and transforming new lands, or sometimes dying
out completely in the desert sands. These traditions have always changed,
sometimes gradually and sometimes in ways that would be considered
quite revolutionary. (Eck 2000:137)

Indeed, religions do change sporadically or dramatically over the course of history, but not always in the same manner as the natural ebb and flow of water. the trajectories of religious change, more precisely, often stand in reflexive relation to dominant social and political forces in play. Moreover, religious change may be carefully engineered or even consciously contrived, in a manner that may serve the political interests of the state. At other times, religious change may be an unintended consequence of other types of evolving social dynamics, such as shifts in demography or reorientations of political economies.

This study demonstrates how the transformation of Visnu, one of the most important deities of Hindu tradition, became manifest within medieval and modern Sri Lankan Buddhist culture and society, and how a transplanted and integrated Visnu came to be understood within emergent Sinhala Buddhist literature and ritual. It illustrates, moreover, how Visnu’s assimilation engendered periodic expressions of resistance. While this resistance may have been a consequence of intermonastic disputes, at least in the contemporary era, such resistance may have been politically inspired. Historically, it is sometimes impossible to separate religion from politics in Sri Lanka. To understand the current controversy in Sri Lanka about whether Buddhists should worship deities, especially deities of Hindu origins, it is important to remember the sometimes incestuous relationship that obtains between religion and politics in this society.

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