Religion is a problem in Sri Lanka; can it be a solution?

Saturday, 17 August 2019 04:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

If the religions can move forward by paying lesser attention to the social and political issues and pay more attention to the spiritual aspect, which is the main reason of their existence, religions will be solutions to the problems of the people rather than becoming problems itself  

– Pic by Shehan Gunasekara



Generally, it is expected that religion should be a solution to a problem. Ironically in Sri Lanka religion is the problem. Therefore, what would be the solution? When religion becomes a problem of a country, responsible citizens of that country, including the religious leaders, should seriously find a solution for that. Over the years of human history, religion was used as a political tool to suppress the masses. Religions were responsible for number of deadly wars during the mediaeval times and to date. 

Sri Lanka today is divided in the lines of religion and ethnicity. The members of the respective religions with deep introspection should contemplate how religion is used in the society by the followers in order to have an interreligious reconciliation. Sometimes the social backgrounds of the founders of the respective religions at the time they preached may not be in line with the present-day context. 

For example, the Buddha prior to his death in Maha Parinibbana Sutta said: “After I am gone, the Sangha — if it wants — may abolish the lesser and minor training rules.” Chullavagga, a Vinaya Pitaka book reported that in the First Council Ven. Ananda said that he neglected to ask a clarification from Buddha what these lesser and minor rules were. Hence at the First Council and at the Sixth Council held in Rangoon at the Buddha Jayanthi the Vinaya Pitaka was not amended. It is an issue of Bhikkus. If it affects the general public in relation to any religion, people should have the right to pressure for a change since the religions are for the people and not the other way around. The Buddha suggested for his disciples to work for the welfare and happiness of the masses. This dictum is in Rigveda as well. 

This essay is written in Sri Lankan context analysing the present state of Buddhism and Islam in Sri Lanka. It look at the issues from the viewpoint of the general public and not from the viewpoint of the religious authorities. 


In ancient Sri Lanka Bhikkus who practiced Buddhism were divided to two sectors, scholarly Bhikkus and practicing Bhikkus – grantha dhura and vipassana dhura. Those days Buddhist texts were memorised, and it was passed from teacher to the pupil. Scholarship serves better than practice in preservation of the text but the Buddha emphasised on practice. Buddhist texts were taken into paper in the first century BC. At present these texts can be found on the internet. 

This scholarship of the Buddhist texts was later expanded to scholarship of other subjects as well such as literature and history since during the last two and half millennia prior to the arrival of Christian missionary education, Sri Lankan education was centred in the temples at Pirivenas. In 15th century scholarly Bhikkus like Totagamuwe Sri Rahula was engaged in highly-reputed Sinhala literary work which was not recommended by the Buddha.

In the British period with the arrival of Christian missionaries education started moving from Buddhist Pirivenas to Christian missionary schools. As a result, Buddhist children were compelled to get modern education under Christian atmosphere which created a pressure to change their religion. 

After the Panadura debate in 1873 between the Christians and Buddhists and when the contents of it reached Henry Steel Olcott in USA he came to Sri Lanka to support Buddhists in 1880. Olcott started Buddhist schools throughout the island. Anagarika Dharmapala continued the work of Olcott. These were the milestones of the Buddhist revival in the 19th century. As a result, Buddhist monks who were suppressed by the British rulers came forward against the suppression. 

This politicisation of the Bhikkhu order was continued and established with the Vidyalankara declaration on 13 February 1946, which justified social and political work of the Bhikkus for the benefit of their dayakas. This continued after the independence. When the British left the country, animosity was directed at Tamils. As a result, the country was not able to have a political solution for the ethnic problem even after a war of 30 years. Now this animosity is directed at the Muslim community.

In 1956 the world celebrated completion of 2,500 years after passing away of the Buddha. With this there was a Buddhist revival worldwide on the spiritual side. Vipassana meditation techniques which were passed on from teacher to pupil by the Thai and Burmese Bhikkus were passed on to the lay persons by way of 10-day meditation retreats. This was spread to the West as well and in 1970s Western physicians started prescribing mindfulness meditation as a therapy for mental stress. 

Later a series of studies was conducted by the Western researchers with the support of Dalai Lama using serious vipassana meditators and they found that mindfulness meditation reduces mental stress and it leads to calmness of the mind. These results were below the religious expectations of Buddhists by engaging in meditation, but those results were measurable. Today mindfulness meditation has spread wildly in the West, and it is taught in the schools as well.

These two revival processes of Buddhism are in operation in the contemporary Sri Lankan society. First revival is directed towards social and political progress of the Buddhists and the second revival is directed at the spiritual progress of the Buddhists. 

The first Buddhist revival was primarily against the colonial masters and secondarily against the other ethnic and religious groups. Hence it failed to mobilise all ethnic and religious groups in independent Sri Lanka even though it served a timely purpose prior to the independence. Now we are an independent nation and need no hostilities towards fellow citizens and if so, it would be contrary to the development of the country. Majority Buddhists and Sinhalese are in control of the country unlike in the colonial era. 

The effects of the second Buddhist revival can be seen in the enthusiasm of vipassana meditation in the society. Practicing of vipassana meditation or loving kindness are secular practices which have no connection to religious rituals. Loving kindness – metta bhavana – can be practiced extending loving kindness to Sinhalese, to Tamils, to Muslims, to Christians to Hindus and to all. This would be the beginning of healing. This can be practiced by the members of all religions and all ethnicities. It would be a healing process as well as a process of self- realisation, individually and collectively.

Therefore, it is more logical if the Buddhist society and the Bhikkhu order in Sri Lanka can align to the second Buddhist revival process rather than to the first one. 


There is an issue of the dress code of Muslim women related to Islam. During the time when Islam was preached not only in Middle East but also in other parts of the world, women were not treated equally. Women got franchise to vote after men. Now the situation is different. Fifty years back the dress of the Sri Lankan Muslim women was the same which is worn by prominent Muslim ladies such as Jezima Ismail, Ferial Ashraff and Sheikh Hasina, Bangladeshi Prime Minister, today. However, no one have the right to force another group to change their dress. It is the right of that group to decide. 

A Muslim friend of mine told me that the change of the dress of Muslim women has taken place after Muslim female youth visited Middle East including Saudi Arabia for jobs after 1977. There is some truth to this. It is also true that spreading Wahhabism, which was originated in Saudi Arabia in 18th century, in Sri Lanka has created an alienation of the Muslim culture that prevailed in Sri Lanka for centuries, from the dominant Sri Lankan culture. 

Muhammad was born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia which is the most prominent Muslim country in the world today. Therefore, it is pertinent to inquire the present status of Saudi Arabia in relation to religious domination.

Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman alias MbS is taking forward the reforms initiated during the time of King Abdullah. In 2005 King Abdullah implemented a massive initiative to send Saudi students both male and female to study abroad. Even young people who did not pursue a degree abroad grew up with access to the Internet. Unlike China, social media is not banned or discouraged in Saudi Arabia. CNN which attacks, more rightfully of course, MbS for killing of Jamal Khashoggi, can be viewed freely in Saudi Arabia. 

King Abdullah took steps to issue national ID cards to women, allowed women to register in hotels, and to travel in the countries of Gulf Cooperation Council without their guardian’s permission. Moreover, he appointed women to the Shura (consultative) Council in 2013. MbS takes this reform process forward. Recently he gave permission to women to drive. Religious police, known as the mutawa or the hay’a, that once roamed the streets to enforce rules like gender segregation and women covering is absent now due to the directions of MbS. 

I suggest that the Muslims who followed Saudi Arabia should follow the reforms initiated by King Abdullah and spearheaded by MbS and King Salman as well. 

At present in Sri Lanka amendments to the Marriage and Divorce (Muslim) Act of 1951 (MMDA) are being discussed. Muslim women were agitating against the provisions of the Act for more than 30 years. Successive governments appointed different committees. Committee headed by Justice Saleem Marsoof was appointed in 2009 and the report was issued in July 2019. Although Muslim Parliamentarians agreed to 14 recommendations, it is reported that All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) was against these recommendations. ACJU President Rizwi Mufti reportedly said, “Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act is perfect in its present state.”

In the Sri Lankan Act the minimum age for marriage for a Muslim girl is 12 years. In January 2019 it was reported that Saudi Arabia approved regulations which prohibit marriage for children under 15 years of age. The ban on child marriages came following a ruling by the kingdom’s Shura Council, which saw two thirds of the advisory body vote in favour, according to Arab News. However, teens under the age of 18 can marry if approval is granted by a specialised court. ACJU President should follow Saudi Arabia at least in this respect. 

Muslim women request that the minimum age of marriage for all Muslims must be 18 years without any exceptions; women should be eligible to be appointed as Quazis, as Members of the Board of Quazis, Marriage Registrars, and Assessors (jurors); the MMDA must apply uniformly to all Muslims without causing disadvantage to persons based on sect or madhab; signature or thumbprint of bride and groom is mandatory in all official marriage documentation to signify consent; registration should be required for legal validity of marriage; adult Muslim women are entitled to equal autonomy and need not require the ‘permission’ by law of any male relative or Quazi to enter into a marriage; Talaaq (divorce) and Faskh (annulment) rights between women and men must be equal; Procedures for divorce initiated by men and women must be the same, including appeal process ; and to revise the Quazi court system to ensure a competent system with improved access to justice for women and men.

These requests are basic in present day context and I am at a loss that how this Act was approved in 1951. These are in line with the United Nations Human Rights Convention. Therefore, I believe that ACJU should approve the recommendations.

Therefore, the Islamic community in Sri Lanka, considering the reforms taking place in Saudi Arabia and in the context of contemporary human rights of the world, should think progressively about the social reforms.


The Christian Church is gradually embracing the local Sri Lankan culture. It was a conscious decision taken by all the sectors of the Christian Church. Sadly, the Sri Lankan Mosque is trying to move away from the local Sri Lankan culture. By this act the Sri Lankan Mosque is trying to identify itself with Islamic civilisation which is different to the religion of Islam and which would lead to a clash of civilisations as Samuel Huntington suggested. 

On the other hand, militant Buddhists aligned with the first Buddhist revival are hostile towards other believers and ethnicities. It should be noted that prior to the first Buddhist revival Muslims were settled within the interior areas of the country by the Sinhala Buddhists and by their kings in order to protect them from European invaders. 

If the religions can move forward by paying lesser attention to the social and political issues and pay more attention to the spiritual aspect, which is the main reason of their existence, religions will be solutions to the problems of the people rather than becoming problems itself.