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Who are we?


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In the aftermath of the Easter bombings there have been scores of calls to come together as Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus. While such sentiments are heartening, they nevertheless reinforce the very narrow identities that continue to divide us. Rather than responding to this crisis from our own little corners, why not come together—quite simply—as human beings? – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara 

Faced with a tragedy of the scale we have just witnessed, I don’t believe it’s enough to ask how it happened, or what happens next. We must ask a much more fundamental question, which is, who are we? The easy answer is to say we are Sri Lankans, united as citizens of a country. But I think we must go beyond that. 

During my teenage years, I was fortunate enough to come into contact with Bala Tampoe, Secretary-General of the CMU, a leading trade union at the time, and he told me something that has stayed with me throughout my life: “We teach our members to think of themselves as human beings first; then as working people; and only after that as members of the CMU.” As a result of those words, I never thought of myself in terms of race, religion or even nationality.

In the aftermath of the Easter bombings there have been scores of calls to come together as Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus. While such sentiments are heartening, they nevertheless reinforce the very narrow identities that continue to divide us. Rather than responding to this crisis from our own little corners, why not come together—quite simply—as human beings? 

Can we use this moment to imagine something bigger? To inculcate the next generation with a broader consciousness of themselves as a tiny part of a much greater whole? I believe this is the only way we will begin to uncover the kind of humanity required to weather this storm.

At a recent forum, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith spoke of Buddhism as the predominant and prevailing culture of this country, and went so far as to say: “We look upon Buddhists as our elder brother.” 

While I may not have formulated the issue in these exact words, the analogy nevertheless gives us a portrait of the nation as a single family, which then raises the question: what is the role of an older sibling in a family structure? 

In my own family, being an older sibling involved a measure of sacrifice. I was only four years old when my father passed away, leaving behind a nearly destitute family of 12 people and only my mother to provide for us. As a result, the older siblings had to sacrifice their careers and higher education to sustain and nurture the family, and hold us together during a very difficult time. 

In particular, my elder brother became for me not only a provider of material necessities but also a spiritual and political mentor. He guided me away from institutionalised Catholicism and introduced me to Liberation Theology, the branch of Christianity which embraces social justice as its core value. 

So if we were to run with the Cardinal’s analogy a little longer, we can look upon the “elder brother” not as someone occupying a position of power, but as a humble guide.

And this is indeed a time when we are in need of guidance for it seems to me that fundamentalism has infected not one but all religions in this country. Now more than ever there is an urgent need to return to the core of every spiritual tradition in this country, which embraces human liberation above all other virtues. 

Few have captured this sentiment better than the great Sufi poet Rumi, who wrote that god resides not in mighty fortresses or grand houses of worship but within ourselves, within our very hearts. 

Rumi is a particularly poignant reference at this time, for it was Sufi communities on the east coast that first bore the brunt of Mohamad Zaharan’s emerging strand of extremism and first stood against the violent messages in his preaching—a courageous stand that was largely ignored by political and religious authorities alike.  

So I’d like to leave you with the words of Rumi, in the hope that it might inspire us all to look for and find answers first within ourselves, and then within the larger community, which is to say, humanity itself:

Going to Mecca

O pilgrim who visit the Holy Land

I’ll show you heaven in a grain of sand

Why traverse the deserts, why confront the storm

If within you resides the formless form

Of the Beloved? If he’s in your heart

Your pilgrimage has ended where you start.

So from that garden did you bring a rose?

You saw the house of God

Now just suppose 

Arriving at a house unoccupied

Will leave the pilgrim’s thirst unsatisfied

Remember Haji wherever you roam

His love will have to make your heart his home


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