Sri Lanka needs to encourage faith, not ‘the’ faith

Friday, 20 February 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

I think we may be in danger of squandering yet another good opportunity. Whilst there is a flurry of activity to embrace good governance, heave out corruption – squealing and screeching – by its ear, and pen spanking new additions to the Constitution, there is a giant shush about provisions for religious equality. The general vibe seems to be that all is well, thank you very much. Of course we have our fair share of kovils and temples and churches and mosques, and everyone is free to practise whatever religion they fancy. And this includes worshipping mushrooms or elves, if that is what floats your boat. But is it right – or fair – that a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society has one religion singled out and given foremost place in its Constitution? If the argument is that the majority faith should prevail, then we need to wrench out of our oyster shells and take a good hard look at the world around us. The Singaporeans, the Indians, the Brazilians, the Americans, they have all snubbed their noses at the idea of religion playing a role in the law of the land. Chauvinism and extremism Alas, it this very stamp of approval that has – directly and indirectly – nudged the country towards Buddhist chauvinism and, now, extremism. The past couple of years have been disturbingly eye-opening. Just as though a gigantic vacuum cleaner was gently rolled over the country, we saw all sorts of undesirables come whizzing out into the open, their stench nearly shoving the nation into an abyss. We’ve seen Buddhist temples sprout up in areas where there are no practising Buddhists; we’ve seen deluded creeps attack minority communities in a frenzy; and we’ve heard, loud and clear, racial slurs that ought to be taboo in any civilised society. I am not sure if Sri Lankans have now become numb to this sort of behaviour but striving for such religious supremacy is reminiscent of medieval times. Particularly when the goal is to ensure that the reins of power remain firmly and exclusively within a selected ethnic group. Extremism aside, an official sanction also throws the doors wide open for the clergy, however moderate they may be, to dabble and meddle in State affairs. And, as world history shows, any whiff of politics tinged with religion is too heady a scent to resist. In Sri Lanka, this becomes all too apparent when election season comes knocking. As you may have noticed, these are generally heralded with the candidate, Cheshire cat grin and manifesto in hand, posing for a photo with senior Buddhist clergy. By and large, these photo-calls and the implied blessings area strategy to woo our rural friends – a demographic within which religious observances resonate much better than sound economic principles. Unholy alliance Such an unholy alliance between the ruling class and the clergy mucks about with people’s emotions. It personalises the debate. It breeds the notion that office-bearers in this country should be practising Buddhists. And as there is a tendency to bundle up race and religion in Sri Lanka, this prejudice sadly extends to ethnicity as well. Since our grand constitutional design was to “protect and foster” Buddhism in Sri Lanka, it may be fitting to ask the inevitable: has it been successful? If this preservation refers to an ethnic monopoly on the key affairs of the country, I suppose we can all pat ourselves on the back. If it means a bloated sense of superiority amongst some sections of the clergy and the rural masses, then it is time to twirl our moustaches with a flourish. And if it means to split communities along religious lines, we can gleefully rub our hands together. Time for soul-searching Fact is, it is time to step through the looking glass and do some serious soul-searching. Which is more important? Values or religion? Spirituality or fanaticism? The values that I’m talking about tend to be universal; when it boils down to the basics, almost all mainstream religions are very much aligned. Big hearts, kind words, good deeds: these should be the tenets that should be upheld and cherished and nurtured. Although places of worship and rituals thrive and survive in Sri Lanka, where do we stand on the things that really matter? All the greed and corruption and violence of our post-Independence history should be telling. The task before us is very simple. If there is a genuine desire to make things more democratic, a secular Constitution is a must. It is far better to be a country that bows down to strong values – no matter which text these principles are gleaned from – than to fight for faith and lose out on morals. Now is not the time to be shush-shushing; now is the time to blow away barriers to create a truly equitable society.   (The writer can be followed on

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