Religion in Sri Lanka
As Sri Lankan population is
composed with multi-ethnic group, the religion in Sri Lanka is
inevitably diverse. Various communities in Sri Lanka recognize
four of the world's major religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam,
and Christianity. The majority people of the country, the
Sinhalese are adherent to Buddhism while other ethnic groups like
Tamils, Moors, Burghers, and others practice Hinduism, Islam and
Experts say that religion in Sri
Lanka is syncretism bending elements of Buddhism, Hinduism and
spiritual beliefs of indigenous people, creating then the
uniqueness of religious character of Sri Lanka. Undoubtedly,
religion became an inseparably integral part of Sri Lankan
society; it is the basis of social management, politics, as well
as the spiritual guidance represented as the caste system, laws,
and other traditional rituals. The flourishing culture of the
country throughout its history is a result of religion
Buddhism among other religions in
Sri Lanka seems to be the most important as it was claimed to be
the religion of the majority Sinhalese who hold sway the country's
power. In Sri Lankan history, Buddhism has played the significant
role in the establishment of Sinhalese kingdoms since the early
times, dating back to over two thousands years.
The first confrontation of the
Sinhalese king named Devanampiyatissa and Arhat Mahinda,
the celebrated missionary of Buddhism in 306 B.C. (237 years after
the death of the Buddha) paved way for the establishment of
Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The Arhat Mahinda was an own son of
Emperor Asoka of India. The Emperor had completely
converted to Buddhism and consecrated himself as patronage of
religion. He intended to establish Buddhism in the island of Sri
Lanka, Arhat Mahinda was then sent for this mission.
When Arhat Mahinda came to
Sri Lanka, he brought with him the Theravada canon or orthodox
Buddhism, regarded as the most ancient sect of Buddhism using the
Pali language unlike the Mahayana Buddhism which embraces
Sanskrit. Arhat Mahinda preached the Buddha's teaching not
only to rulers but also directly to common people, making Buddhist
education spread out rapidly. Together, constant patronage of the
succeeding kings allowed Buddhism to flourish throughout the
island while the numerous religious edifices soon spotted the
island. Among those monasteries, the most outstanding one is the Mahavihara
monastery which became the historic center of Theravada
Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
Mahinda's arrival in Sri
Lanka marked the significant development of Sri Lankan culture; he
brought about not only a new religion, but also the whole
civilization of Buddhist India, be it arts, architecture, and
literature. Not only culture which was graced by Buddhism,
political ideology based on Buddhism had, through the course of
times, embedded in the island so profoundly as well. Since the
time of King Devanampiyatissa, the political state and
Buddhism has been merged together according to the adoption of Asoka's
strategy. The religious and the temporal institutions were closely
related to one another that the support of Buddhist monks was as
indispensable as that of kings had to offer to the religion. The
constitutional position of Buddhism became so strong that the act
against the religious institution was treated as a high treason;
meanwhile, kings conduct well to gain the monk's favor for the
sake of peaceful and successful government.
Buddhism was regarded the highest
ethical and philosophical expression of Sinhalese culture and
civilization, becoming later the significant influence on national
identity among the Sinhalese Buddhists. The consciousness of
Buddhist identity of the Sinhalese was so strong that they claimed
Sri Lanka belonged to the Buddha, and the Sinhalese people
themselves were then designated to be the "protector of
Buddhism" according to the most important chronicle of the
early Sinhalese-Buddhist in Sri Lanka, Mahavamsa.
Particularly, for the kings, they were the "head" as
well as the "defender of Buddhism". The suitable king to
assert the throne must be Buddhist, and he was responsible for
supporting religious institutions while constructing and restoring
monasteries and other Buddhist shrines.
In times gone by, the flourishing
Buddhism encountered the great change from the foreign occupation
which resulted in the savagely persecuted Buddhism and
introduction of Christianity into the island. Despite that, the
faith in Buddhism steadily grew at the same time of nationalism
against the invaders among the Sinhalese-Buddhists.
The movement of nationalism made
efforts to assert the Sinhala Buddhist identity and to legitimize
Sinhala control over the country's polity by reviving many
elements of the "origin mythology" to reconstruct an
image of the Sinhala past. The chronicle of Mahavamsa was
thus served as the testament of Sinhala rights to reestablish
Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony of the island over non-Sinhala and
non-Buddhist groups. With the ideology that the Sinhalese were the
protector of Buddhism and that Sri Lanka was belong to the Buddha,
the animosity towards the foreigners and other minorities was
reinforced, leading to a discrimination against non-Sinhalese and
Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka
itself can be divided into three different sects.
-Siyam Nikaya (the
Siamese order): In the 18th century, the official line of monastic
ordination had been broken since monks at that time no longer knew
the Pali tradition. The Kandyan king invited then the Theravada
monks from Thailand to ordain Sinhalese novices; it was set up
later as a reformed sect that enlivened study and proliferation of
Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
This sect was initiated by members of rising low-country castes
discontent with monopoly over the monastic community by the upper
castes in the 19th century. The sect was subsequently slit along
the caste lines.
This sect was established in the late nineteenth century as a
result of disputes over some points of doctrine and the practice
Along side Buddhism, Hinduism is
an important element in embodiment of Sri Lankan society. It is
practiced by the Tamils in Sri Lanka whose origins trace to south
India where Hinduism was predominantly practiced. Around the fifth
and the sixth century A.D., the Tamil king from the south Indian
kingdom named Chola usurped the throne of the Sinhalese
Kingdom and conquered the island, leading to the considerable
number of immigrants from south India into the northern Sri Lanka.
Undoubtedly, these immigrants brought with them Hinduism to the
island. During the reign of Tamil kings, Hindu shrines were widely
Unlike any other religion in the
world which mostly holds monotheism, Hinduism endows a complex
pantheon of gods and goddesses. A decentralized religion Hinduism
is, it has no hierarchy of clergy and no supreme authority.
Hinduism beliefs seem very complicated due to its countless gods
and goddesses. However, the core of Hinduism is just simple; it
believes in the only one "Supreme God", called Brahman.
It is the "Supreme" in which every being in the universe
originated; it is one unchanging and everlasting spirit. The soul
or the "atman" of every being is part of the
"Supreme". Gods and goddesses in Hinduism are also come
from the same origin; they were only the attributes of the
"Supreme". After death, every soul will reunite with
this ultimate soul of the universe that means the ultimate goal of
Hinduism with the vision of gods
and worship regained its popularity in 1000 A.D. after Buddhism
has been in its prevalence since the third century B.C. Tamil Nadu
State in south India was a major center of Brahmanical culture at
that time, leading to the subsequent transmission to the Tamils
immigrants in Sri Lanka Island. This type of culture strongly
attaches to rituals and worship to the gods, also known as "puja".
In Sri Lanka, there are several
popular gods predominating in many myths, legends, and styles of
worships. The major ones are:-
preserver or sustainer. He is usually depicted with four arms
holding a conch shell indicating spread of divines sound "Om";
a discus, a reminder of the wheel of time and to lead a good life;
a lotus representing an example of glorious existence; and a mace
symbolizing the power and the punishing capacity of the Lord if
discipline in life ignore. He is much revere due to his utmost
mercy and grace to his devotees. Whenever, his devotees are in
difficulties, he descends to the earth in various forms of his
incarnations to help them. His incarnations numbered ten, among
which the Rama and Krishna incarnations are the most popular. He
has a consort named Lakshmi, regarded as the Goddess of beauty and
wealth. His vehicle is Garuda, a half-bird half-beast creature.
-Shiva: The God of
destruction is the second major Hindu Gods and the most important
god among the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Shiva is symbolized by the
lingam (phallus) which represents abundance. The Lord appears as
yoga in meditating posture with a third eye on his forehead
indicating wisdom, a serpent coiling around his neck, and a
trident in his one hand. He has his vehicle as the bull Nandi. His
consort Parvati can take many forms as well. His worshippers
envisage him as a comic creator who will save those who pay him
totally their respect.
-Kali: Known as the
"black one", Kali is the most fearsome of the Hindu
deities. She is believed to be an incarnation of Parvati, Shiva's
consort who provides Shakti, female energy. She is often depicted
dancing on Shiva's corpse and garlanded with human skulls.
elephant-headed god, a son of Shiva and Parvati is much adored
among Hindus. He is worshipped as the god of knowledge and the
remover of obstacles. In his fours hands, he carries rope, an axe,
and a sweet dessert ball; his fourth hand extends to bless people.
The second son of Shiva and Parvati, Skanda is also known
as Subramaniam, Guha, Shadannana, Murugan, Kartikeya or
Sanmukha. He is worshipped as the war God, equivalent to Mars
or Ares in western mythology. Skanda bestows the spiritual powers,
particularly, power of knowledge. Ironically, he is also regarded
as a protective deity by Buddhist Sinhalese; they incorporated him
with the battle in ancient times against South India's Tamils.
Hinduism in Sri Lanka nowadays
still exits along with the mainstream of Buddhist majority, the
Sinhalese with little interaction. The Hindu shrines and temples
in Sri Lanka are separately managed by the Hindu Tamils; the
Brahmin priests still play an important role in directing the
sacred rituals as ever.
Comprising 7 % of total
population of Sri Lanka, Muslims and their Islamic culture have
been the integral part of Sri Lankan society for thousand years.
History records that Arab traders from the Middle East visited the
southern part of Sri Lanka for their business and later settled in
the island. The Muslim community in Sri Lanka came to its dominant
growth by the 10th century A.D. Muslims in Sri Lanka has preserved
the Islam doctrines derived from Arabia while adapting some social
conditions of South Asia.
The religion of Islam was founded
in the seventh century A.D. by the Prophet Muhammad who
experienced a series of messages from God in Mecca, a trading and
religious center of Arabia. The word islam in Arabic means
"submission" or "surrender"; that means people
who are adherent to Islam summit to the law and the will of the
only one God, Allah.
According to Islam, the God is
eternal, and he endowed both men and women with immortal souls.
All human beings have only one life, and at death, their souls go
to either heaven or hell depending on their behavior on earth. The
decent behaviors for ascending heaven were determined by the God
and were sent through his messengers (Prophet) who in turn
revealed the divine will for people to follow. The religious text
of Qur'an is believed to be the revelations of the God
transmitted through Prophet Muhammad. The Qur'an is then
not only religious text rich of theology and moral system, but at
the same time includes a body of laws and customs for Muslims to
All Muslims share a belief in the
five pillars of Islam which are the basic duties: the recitation
and acceptance of the Creed (Shahada) (by saying
"there is no God but Allah, and Mohammad is His
Prophet"; daily prayer (five times a day ideally);
paying ritual alms (Zakat or Zakah); observing the fast of
Ramadan; and making the pilgrimage to Mecca (Haj).
By the fifteenth century, Arab
traders dominated the trade routes through the Indian Ocean and
South East Asia. Many of them reached Sri Lanka, and decided to
settle down in the Island, making them detaching from Islamic
culture in the Middle East, their homeland. Although they still
preserved the basic doctrines and Islamic law, they also adopted
some local social customs, particularly language. Instead of
speaking Arabic language, they adopted Tamil as their spoken
language. Probably, Tamil was the language used widely in business
and trade along the southern coast of India and northern coast of
Sri Lanka during that time; they abandoned their own language for
the matter of their trades. Hence, Muslims in Sri Lanka were not
part of early Islamic society in the Arabian Peninsula, but
developed in its own way under the different circumstances.
The community of Muslim traders
was dramatically persecuted when the Portuguese took control over
the Island in the sixteenth century. Many of them had to relocate
from the southwest coast to the Central Highlands or the east
coast, and still retained their religious identity separately from
the other ethnic groups. The growing ethnic consciousness during
the last two centuries resulted in the Islamic revivalism which
appealed for their identity. The movement included an interest in
the Arabic roots of the community as the basis of understanding
the Qur'an and the separate schools for Muslim children.
There emerged occasional agitation among Muslims against the
government's attempts to regulate Muslim marriage and inheritance.
So far, the conflict of Muslims and the other ethnic groups is
in Sri Lanka
Christianity firstly came to Sri
Lanka upon the arrival of the Portuguese in the sixteenth century.
Under their rule, Roman Catholicism was spread out in a mass scale
of the Island with many Roman Catholic schools for the Sinhalese
and the Tamils. The missionary activities ran well, especially
among communities on the western coast of the island.
With the attempts of the
Portuguese to Christianize native people, Buddhism and Hinduism
were severely affected. There were an increasing number of both
Sinhalese and Tamils converting to Roman Catholicism, perhaps on
one reason of social mobility.
When the Portuguese was driven
out by the Dutch, Protestantism and the Dutch Reformed Church was
introduced, coming to the prominence particularly in Colombo than
During the British Rule, more
conversions could be seen among minor minorities as well.
Christian churches were than the normal sight throughout Sri
Lanka. However, due to the nationalism movement among the
Sinhalese who held sway the political power, Christianity in Sri
Lanka was somewhat restricted.