The way towards ethnic harmony in Sri Lanka: A spiritual perspective

Saturday, 7 December 2019 00:04 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Diversity can be one of the greatest strengths for a country – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara



By Rohana Ulluwishewa and Suryamithra Vishwa

We often perceive ethnic diversity as a problem, as a source of conflicts. When we are fed-up with conflicts between different ethnic populations in our society, some even say how nice it would be if there is only one ethnic population in our society! 

Let’s look at ethnic diversity from a positive perspective. Each individual is gifted with a unique talent and ability which is necessary for many others to meet their needs. This makes humans social beings, because no one can survive in isolation from others. Likewise, each ethnic population possess a set of unique resources that they have inherited through the ages from their ancestors, such as a unique culture that is part of their language, knowledge, technologies and skills passed on as part of their heritage. We call this indigenous knowledge.

Strength in diversity

For instance, most ethnic populations possess a unique knowledge system pertaining to local natural resources, healthcare, food preparation and various forms of arts, music, and dance. They also have some unique characteristics unique to themselves; in Sri Lanka many to date say how they miss the Burghers and their happy go lucky ways and hospitality in sometimes inviting the whole street or neighbourhood to their parties. Then there is the thrift and the perseverance in matters of education attributed to the Tamils of Lanka and also the Muslims. We refer to these in our day to day parlance at times and say how we should learn from such and such a community. 

This shows how wonderful it is to live in a society with people of different characteristics which are attributed to their ethnic heritage. So, ethnic diversity of any country means richness if all ethnic populations share their resources and knowledge with each other and work towards the common goal of taking their country towards prosperity and if there is a governance pattern that allows this attitude to grow from childhood through adulthood.

Clearly, diversity can be one of the greatest strengths for a country. This is one of the reasons why some Western countries promote ethnic diversity by encouraging immigrants from a wide range of cultures. In Sri Lanka, we already have several ethnic populations that are very rich in cultural resources. For centuries, all ethnic populations have lived in harmony. But, unfortunately this is not true anymore. The sad reality today is such an ethnic harmony is far from reality. 

Living in harmony

Why can’t we live in harmony? Let’s look into this question from a spiritual perspective. The science of spirituality tells us that though we see ourselves as separate individuals in the material realm, in the quantum realm, we all are integral parts of an indivisible single field of conscious energy – Universal Consciousness/God, and we all are connected. According to recent discoveries in neuroscience, this connectedness or Oneness is hardwired in our brain. We are designed to be guided by the Oneness and act, not as separate self-centred individuals, but as integral parts of the whole and share our resources with others in order to ensure happiness and prosperity of all.

If we act as we are designed to act, our actions bring well-being and happiness to ourselves as well as to others. On the other hand, if we act selfishly, we suffer and our selfish behaviours brings suffering to others. Why can’t we act as we are designed to act? Our brain’s neuroplasticity allows our attachment to what we like and aversion to what we dislike and our sense of ‘I’ to be ‘soft-wired’ in the brain. Our behaviour is guided, not by the hardwired Oneness, but by the soft-wired attachments, aversions and I-centeredness. When we are attached to our ethnic identity, we develop an eversion to other ethnic populations. Then, our behaviour, even without our conscious awareness, causes ethnic disharmony. 

This is what prevents us from living in harmony with other ethnic populations. This is the root-cause of ethnic disharmony. However, the good news is that the same neuroplasticity which allows attachments and aversions to be soft-wired in the brain, allows us to remove them if we want to do so. Because, the attachments and aversion are not hardwired but soft-wired, they are not intrinsic but extrinsic, they are external phenomena that are internalised. We can re-wire our brain by spiritual means and reduce the influence of attachments and aversions. From this perspective, spirituality means re-wiring the brain to reduce or eliminate attachments and aversions that have been soft-wired. 

The founders of all great religions have taught different methods to achieve this goal. However, there are non-religious science-based methods too. Whatever the method is, once the soft-wired attachments are dissolved, there won’t be a feeling of aversion toward other ethnic populations and all ethnic populations can live in harmony. 

Spiritual growth 

So, the ultimate solution for ethnic conflict is spiritual growth. As we grow spiritually, when soft-wired attachments and aversion become weak, the hardwired oneness gain control over our behaviour. Then, different ethnic populations feel free to share their cultural resources with others. However, dissolving one’s attachment to his/her ethnicity does not mean dissolving one’s ethnic identity. 

One can preserve one’s ethnic identity without getting attached to it. It is the attachment to one’s ethnicity which causes aversion towards other ethnic groups and leads to ethnic conflicts. 

What are the factors which make us attached to our ethnicity? Children first learn about their ethnic identity from parents and then from teachers and the society. The perceptions they develop such as ‘I am Sinhala/Tamil/Muslim’, ‘we are superior to others’, ‘our religion is the only true religion’, and ‘this country or this part of the country belongs to us and others should stay away’ are soft-wired in the brain and they are further strengthened by some religious leaders and media.

Due to the ethnically segregated school system and the geographical distance between the areas where different ethnic population live, they hardly get an opportunity to interact with the children of different ethnicities and to verify the truth of perceptions soft-wired in their brain. So, not surprisingly, as they grow older, these soft-wired perceptions make their behaviour racist. 

(Rohana Ulluwishewa PhD is a Visiting Professor/Director (Education and External Relations), Center for Spirituality in Sustainable Business Management, Faculty of Management Studies and Commerce, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Sri Lanka. In his thirty years of academic career he has worked as Associate Professor at University of Sri Jayewardenepura, as Senior Lecturer at the University of Brunei Darussalam, and was Visiting Fellow at Wageningen Agricultural University in the Netherlands, Leeds University in UK, Leiden University in the Netherlands and Massey University in New Zealand. For last decade, the focus of his research and publications has been on spirituality and sustainability. While his first book on this subject Spirituality and Sustainable Development (Palgrave Macmillan, UK) was honoured as a Finalist of the International Book Award 2014, the second book, Spirituality Demystified: Understanding Spirituality in Rational Terms won the AWCT awards (the highest prize annually awarded in New Zealand for books on Body, Mind and Spirit) in 2015.)

(Suryamithra Vishwa is a Sri Lankan who strives to transcend beyond inherited birth identity. She is the founder of the thought movement Earth Life Water Knowledge Trails Lanka and has a keen interest in comparative spirituality and indigenous knowledge. Her academic training has been in sociology and she is a curriculum writer and visiting lecturer in Mass Communication at a national university in Sri Lanka under her inherited family name. She has for over 20 years worked as a writer for local and international publications and has been associated with the peace building/training sector. Her library of 20,000 books, of which a large number is on global literature, science, comparative religions and secular spirituality has been opened up for the public free of charge. Those interested in borrowing any book could contact 0812494285.)

Ethnicity-based political parties

The leaders of ethnicity-based political parties further strengthens these soft-wired perceptions. Their behaviour is often guided by their attachments to the ethnicity as well as to material wealth, power, social status, publicity and fame. So, most such politicians are spiritually underdeveloped. Their attachment and connectivity to the spirituality preached by their religious founders maybe very weak because they politicise ethnic diversity in a negative manner as one of the easiest ways to get votes. 

They tend to use the wrong perceptions already soft-wired in the voters’ brain for their advantage. In various ways they generate fear and suspicion in the voters’ mind to further strengthen these wrong perceptions. Most voters are also spiritually underdeveloped and are guided by attachments to their ethnic identity which the politicians use for the purpose of generating suspicion of ‘the other’. 

Being unable to see the hidden selfish motives of the leaders, the voters blindly follow the leaders’ words when they vote. Consequently, not surprisingly, ethnicity appears to reflect in the pattern of voting. Then, the leaders who ‘create’ the ethnicity-based voting patterns use their own ‘creation’ to justify their leadership and to present themselves as the ‘people’s voice’. 

If spiritual underdevelopment is the root of ethnic disharmony, the solution is spiritual development in all ethnic populations and their leaders. This is the long-term sustainable solution for the wellbeing, happiness and prosperity of the individual, communities and the nation. 

It would be distressing for all Sri Lankans if a full economic assessment was made of the result of spiritual under development in this country which has seen ethnic riots that have cost individuals and the country millions of rupees and have caused mass destruction of business enterprises and a massive brain drain where minds which could have uplifted their birth country have left their motherland. 

True spirituality

How can we imbibe true spirituality? It needs a long term strategy. Perhaps, integrating spirituality (not religion) as a scientific discipline into formal education would do this. Such a strategy will enable children to understand the falsehood of the perceptions planted in their brain by parents, teachers, leaders and the society and to see the humanity as the force which minds all ethnic populations. However, spirituality should be taught, not as a conventional classroom-based subject, but as a practical-oriented subject similar to swimming, music, dancing and sports. 

Theories of spirituality can be taught in the classroom followed by practical sessions such as meditation, yoga, prayer, community service, spirituality-based music, dance, sports and spiritual-oriented psychotherapy. Also, a parallel comparative religion subject could be taught to teach children the origin of religion from a historical, anthropological and cultural lens that also includes the core teachings of love that is central to all religions. 

In these subjects the students’ progress should be evaluated, not by conventional written examinations, but by assessing their spiritual growth by observing their character development: how spiritual qualities such as loving-kindness, compassion, generosity, truthfulness, honesty, the capacity to stay calm in stressful situations and emotional balance reflect in their character. Now psychologists have developed methods to assess spiritual growth in individuals. Spirituality-based leadership training can be introduced to higher grades and also to the higher educational institutions. It should be essentially introduced to all teachers.

Abolish ethnic-based segregated education

In Sri Lanka what is essential is for ethnic-based segregated education to be abolished so that students of different ethnic affiliations and religions can interact with each other and gain an understanding of other’s ethnic populations. Ethnically and religiously segregated education systems are the breeding grounds of racism. If we are to pave the path for ethnic harmony within a couple of generations beginning with children is the first step. Probably, this should begin in LKG. A proper plan should be drafted where teachers and parents who feed racism to kids are taught to rewire their brains and to consider the spirituality within their religion and others and to look at spirituality from other lenses such as quantum physics. 

To set the base for the long term it is compulsory for spirituality-based leadership training to be made compulsory for all prospective leaders and existing leaders. As voters grow spiritually, they vote only spiritually evolved leaders who have transcended narrow ethnic boundaries and act for the well-being of all citizens. Then, the majority will take care of minorities like how an elder brother taking care of their siblings. So, spirituality is the long-term sustainable solution. However, short-term and medium-term solutions are also necessary. 

In short-term, economic prosperity in all parts of the country is essential to address the issue.