Buddhist Influence on Governance of Sri Lanka

Overflowing religiosity of the country has always influenced the shape of politics and governance of Sri Lanka. This is demonstrated by how any presidential candidate with significant chances of winning the election conducts his/her campaign. Receiving the ‘blessings’ of Maha Sanga and other religious prelates is a must. They also spend a lot of time participating in the religious ceremonies of various faiths and then those sessions are given a wide publicity in media. Even after winning, constant appeasement of prelates of every religion with clear favoritism to Buddhists is the norm. Much of the broadcast time in government run media is spent on showing the president offering flowers, participating in pririth chanting ceremonies, Bodhi Puja etc. This has been the case ever since presidential system was introduced to Sri Lanka in 1979. Pledge to protect Buddhism from unnamed enemies is a usual election promise. Lip service to other religions is also made in the sides. All this appears pretty normal to us in Sri Lanka who has not seen anything different for the last 30 years or so. All this presidential antics is quite ridiculous in my opinion where less attention is given to candidates’ stance on important issues related to economy, foreign policy, law and order.


Somewhere in the 90s, a ministry of “Buddha Sasana” (Buddhist Church/Affairs) was introduced in to the cabinet. And there were ministries for other religions too. I always wondered how tax payers of other faiths felt about having to maintain these ministries out of their tax money. Intentionally or not, President Mahinda Rajapasksa made a good move by consolidating Ministry of Buddha Sasana with ministry of Religious affairs in 2006 cabinet reshuffle. A better move would have been to abolish ministry of religious affairs altogether.


Again during the 90s, the Buddhist pressure groups successfully campaigned against and managed to dismantle government initiative to support inland fisheries industry. Their claim was that livelihood of raring animals for food is against Buddhist principles. This is an example of religion seeking help from government to instill religious moral code on to the followers and affecting the country’s economy and much needed protein intake for rural under privileged. Fortunately, flying kites, producing movies and playing cricket were not against Buddhist principles or we would have seen an outcry to withdraw of government sponsorship for those as well. Taliban in fact banned all those during their regime.


To draw another parallel with Talibanism where change of Islamic faith was punishable by death; sometime ago the Buddhist pressure groups campaigned for a new law that prevents “conversion of faiths”. Although this campaign is low key at the moment, it is just in the backburner and at a suitable time it will be brought in to the front again. This so called anti-conversion law is the Buddhist lobby’s solution for preventing aggressive evangelical religions (e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses) from eating in to Buddhist follower base. The nature of the proposed law is not quite clear and is subjected to many interpretations. However at the surface, it sounds really a bad idea. First of all, such a law can be abused not only to control evangelical groups but also any secular group campaigning for free thought. It can create an environment where anyone that goes against the wishes of the Buddhist leaders can be prosecuted. For example, under such a law, writing this kind of an article might become illegal. This article forces the Buddhists that read it to rethink their thoughts. Since what I am trying to do here is to change them to more sensible people, which might count as a “conversion”


Unethical conversions


Constitution of a country should serve the wellbeing of its citizens. The law of a country is not a tool for one religious camp to retain or increase their numbers. The big fuzz about unethical conversation in my opinion a non-issue that lot of people have been spending lot of time and energy arguing and counter arguing. Well organized evangelical groups with money have a worldwide network to increase their headcount. They come to every country that offers a degree of religious freedom conducive enough for them to operate. It is true that they are a nuisance. However, using legal means what can we do to stop them that does not involve curtailing of freedoms that we enjoy today? I have heard of this argument that what Buddhist activists suggest is not a ban of ‘conversion’ per se (which will be outrageously unconstitutional) but a legal barrier for evangelical groups to engage in ‘unethical conversions’. I have seen lot of people trying to define what ‘unethical conversion’ means. I have never seen anyone successfully showing how something ‘unethical’ can be made ‘illegal’ without ridiculous sounding clauses of law, breach of which that cannot be proven conclusively in a court of law. Preventing conversion attempts that involve threats, harassment, intrusion into rights of privacy, deception etc are already covered in the existing law. I like somebody to show me how conversion attempts that involve material inducements (which is said to be the ploy of the culprits in question) can be prevented by law without harming the ability of a well-meaning religious organization (Buddhist, Christian, Secular or otherwise) to engage in charity work with no ulterior motive.


I wish success to those who attempt to draft such laws since I too like the evangelical invasion stopped. What I don’t like to see happening is that we are ending up “OK, that is difficult, this clause does not seem to work. Why don’t we just say that it is illegal for someone to get converted to another religion? That will do just fine. Saudi Arabia has such a law and they are not such a bad country, are they?


What I feel about the whole drama of unethical conversion is that a few religious leaders who have lost a few followers are blowing the whole thing out of proportions and taking the whole country for a ride. What I would like to say to those religious leaders is that “please go back to your bases, start engaging with your followers, try to cater to their needs in whatever way you can. You will win some, you will loose some. Try to understand that an individual may adopt a new faith based on whatever criteria they deem fitting. It is not within our rights to stop that In fact trying to stop a poor family in need from receiving material inducement from whatever organization that dole out such inducements is a very unethical act of anti-conversion.

License to “Do anything”


The leniency of the law enforcement towards religion of any kind is another big issue in Sri Lanka. Religious organizations or groups operating with a religious backing are often given a license to do whatever they please. The religious activities demand outrageous level of immunity from criticism. For example, until very recently, religious institutions had a “license” to use blaring loudspeakers at any time of the day for any duration of time. It was a timely and commendable move by the ministry of environment to give police the mandate to enforce the law. As a person constantly victimized by blaring loudspeakers from nearby temples, mosques and Thoranas during festival seasons, I have had firsthand experience regarding how these issues used to be handled by police. The cases were handled based on the personal tastes of the police officer in charge. The compliant of such nature is first greeted with the forceful query “Mahaththaya mona agameda?” (Translates to “Sir, what is your religion?” read “what the hell is wrong with you? Don’t you know that these are important religious rituals?”)

Now that there is a clear-cut law against abuse of loudspeakers, the police officers are lot more courteous in receiving such a complaint. Unless there are clear-cut laws that removes these ‘immunities’, it is difficult to expect things to be improved in few other areas as wellJust like all other freedoms, religious freedoms should also have their limits. As the proverbial saying goes “Your freedoms end where my nose begins”

Buddha statues and other religious statues in every corner and every junction of public roads: It seems corresponding municipals have no control over this. I have seen many new statues that are ‘strategically’ placed in such a manner that no further improvement to the road is possible. Whatever public real-estate that could have been used for future improvement of infrastructure is hijacked by whatever the majority religion in that area. Once established, no one dares to remove these statues and in that sense, it is far more dangerous than any other structure. All religions are given immunity to commit those atrocities. It is one thing to protect historical structures/trees no matter how awkwardly they are located; it is another thing to allow new constructions to be awkwardly located.

I have seen Buddha statues and places of worship that have been constructed within government institutions such as municipal counsel premises. I hope that those were built using private donations, and not out of the tax money. However the land they occupy is not the property of the local businessman that fancied his name inscribed in the structure, but the property of the public. Such a wasteful use of public property is outrageous. It should also be noted that these structures does not serve any useful purpose other than satisfying the ego of religious camps. More often than not, a new statue is built 25m away from a one that is already around the corner.

Blocking of public roads: In every country, certain degree of tolerance is there with respect to festivals obstructing the public roads. However, in Sri Lanka, religious institutions seem to have runaway freedom to block any road at any time they please.

It should also be noted that although the loudspeaker law is in effect and despite the fact few clergy has been charged and found guilty under this law, violation of the law continues in many parts of the country. Religious places ignore this law if they are confident that no one is going to file a complaint. When the blaring loudspeaker is located in a place where majority of the people living in the neighborhood are OK with it, then there is less likelihood of a compliant. The handful of individuals who find this noise annoying has to silently suffer due to the fear of communal backslash if they try to do something about it. The religious institutions thus reserve the right to pick and choose which laws they like to adhere to.

Religion in public schools


Regarding growing lack of discipline and prevalence of irresponsible behavior in our society, which is also manifested in schoolchildren of all age groups, the common solution we hear is that “we should teach them more religion”. For generations, we have been pouring more and more religion on them haven’t we? Should we just continue to pour religion on our children in a mechanistic manner, and see if things improve magically by themselves, or should we take a step back and see what we should really do to improve the situation?


If am to give an analogy here; I think most people will agree without argument that a 7 year old is too small to have an political opinion (communist/capitalist, conservative/liberal etc) and a child need not be taught their parent’s political opinion, and for that matter, public schools should not teach politics to little children. However, I know that most people will find it offensive that I even tried equating religious beliefs with political beliefs. Although I respect the opinion of those parents who believe that their children should be introduced to, and indoctrinated in a religion of parent’s choice; I do not necessarily agree that the regular school hours is an appropriate time or place to do so. I would argue that there are religious schools as an alternative for those parents, and also Sunday schools are available for most mainstream religions. I could argue that parents should be advised that religion should be taught outside of regular school hours.


Most parents will bring forth the argument that they want their children to be ‘disciplined’ and good values be instilled in them by making them religious. They might even ask “How do you teach your child what is good and what is bad without religion?” Above is a very popular rhetorical question asked by the proponents of institutionalized religion all over the world. It just shows our reluctance to recognize that morality has an existence outside of religion. If I may quote Sir Arthur C. Clarke again here; for the second time in this essay "one of the greatest tragedies in human history was the hijacking of morality by religion."


For the starters, I do not believe that morality and good values can not be instilled without institutionalized religion. When we have children from multicultural and multi-religious backgrounds, the best way to instill good values in them is to have a common classroom subject to teach them morality and social values, rather than segregating and dispatching them to different religion classes to learn different and sometimes conflicting ‘versions’ of morality. I feel very strongly about the need of having a common classroom subject on ethics, morality, and good citizenship. For example how much we can teach children by the simple concept of a “queue”? Here are some examples of social values that can be developed around a proper queue (1) Leadership – form a queue when there is none (2) Corporation – join the queue when there is one (3) Respect – leave enough space for others and make them comfortable. Do not peek over the shoulder (4) Patience – wait for your turn (5) Compassion – give that pregnant lady the priority (6) Courtesy - Be nice to others in the queue and person serving behind the counter, Create a pleasant atmosphere. Smile and Nod (7) … and many more


I am not sure where we are on this issue currently. In the mid 90s there was a dialog about making attending Sunday religious schools mandatory for all schoolchildren up to age 15. This was partially implemented at that time by banning private tuition classes on Sundays. I think that initiative had a natural death after several years. I hope this scheme will not be brought forward for discussion again. Whether to send the child for religious indoctrination or not should be a decision of the parents, rather than the government. Under such law where would children of atheist parents go on Sundays? I guess they have to go to a religious school of government’s choice, and parents would have to go to jail?

Laws based on religion vs. scientific reasoning

Blanket opposition to birth control and abortion and indirect support or indifference towards capital punishment is a surprisingly common stance among conservative religious institutions of any kind all over the world. In Sri Lanka, the religious institutions are no different. However, there is no organized outcry as yet by the Buddhist lobby to withdraw government support for birth control or to totally ban abortion. The views related to birth control and abortion seems to be personal opinions of individual clergy. However, there are many other aspects in Sri Lankan society that the Buddhist clergy feels government should directly intervene and control using new laws.


It should be made clear that I am not against introducing new laws to ban things that have been liberally practiced by the society for a long time. I am not advocating anarchy! On the contrary, I am in favor of new laws that ban harmful practices in the society. The issue with religious-scripture-motivated laws is that scripture is not something subjected to scientific inquiry. Religious scripture is not something continuously challenged and changed based on new knowledge. In that sense, a religious scripture is highly unscientific. For that matter, any concept that is accepted as an unchallengeable and unquestionable truth can never be a scientific concept. Science is all about continuous learning and continuous improvement to theories and models that we create about the universe. And science boldly discards models that have been held as ‘truth’ for generations when those models fail to explain new phenomena and new knowledge about how the universe works. That said, I am sure Buddhist scholars would now point me to “Kalaama Sutta” and assert that Lord Buddha himself advised that his teaching should not be accepted without inquiry, and promoted healthy skepticism as a virtue. (Probably the only religious leader to praise intelligence, promote skepticism, and advice inquiry). However, my point is slightly different. It is true that Lord Buddha promoted skepticism and inquiry. However that does not mean Buddhist church in Sri Lanka today is willing to accept any other interpretation of Buddhist scripture, other than what is accepted and institutionalized already.


For example, if we are to analyze the current drive to ban Alcohol, which is said to inspired by the fifth of the five precepts “Surā-meraya-majja-pamādaṭṭhānā”, it is evident that other than going by the popular interpretation of the fifth precept, there is no other scientific inquiry into the pros and cons of such a ban on liquor. There is no public discourse on the outcome of such bans tried by other countries of the world. How many of us even know that several countries in the world, including CanadaIcelandNorwayFinland, Soviet Union, and USA tried banning alcohol in the first half of the 20th century with disastrous outcomes that prompted lifting of such bans? When society is not ready for such a substance ban, what happens is that rather than substance going away from use, it goes underground and gets associated with criminal culture. This situation is aptly summarized by following comment from a then-supporter of the alcohol prohibition in USAA quote from a letter, written in 1932 by wealthy industrialist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., states:


“When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.”


Mathata Thitha (translates to Full Stop to Liquor)


If the “mathata thita” prohibition drive on alcohol is not motivated by religious scripture, but by the economical and social evils associated with it; then it occurs to me that may be the food containing loads of saturated fat and sugar do equal (if not more) harm to the health and wellbeing of the populace. Should we also start a campaign to ban such foods as well? (Kottu Roti could be banned!?). I am a person with very high cholesterol levels in my blood stream owing to the bad food habits during my young adult years. This definitely has reduced my life expectancy; and I am not joking here but dead serious and feel very strongly about this. But wait a minute… should we rather work on educating the masses on good food habits, and give the individuals the onus of choice of food, rather than try baby-sitting grownups who can decide for themselves? Besides, different people have different tolerant levels to saturated fat, sugar and alcohol. What is bad for me is not bad for everyone and I certainly do not want to take the freedom of gorging on a tasty Kottu Roti away from Sri Lankans just because I had a bad experience of it. I would rather become an activist and educate younger generation, than campaigning for a government imposed ban.


That said; I do understand the peculiar issues related intoxicating substances. Throughout the western world, strict laws prevail around alcohol and those laws often stricter than what we have in Sri Lanka today. Moreover, they are enforced effectively. (E.g. in USA, legal age of consuming alcohol is 21 (not 18!). Sale of alcohol to someone below this legal age is strictly prohibited, public consumption of alcohol not allowed, drink and drive laws are severeLet alone drink and drive; in most states it is illegal to have an open (unsealed) bottle of liquor in a vehicle. Those laws are not inspired by religious scripture, but by scientific reasoning. It is evident that Sri Lanka legal system is lagging behind in this regards, and new laws are needed to prevent harmful effects of alcohol. The proponents of such new laws will be benefited by aligning themselves with scientific reasoning, rather than religious scripture. Wider public support from all corners can be obtained for this cause if government can disassociate themselves from religion in this regards.


Another sin the committed by the champions of this cause is to bring their personal values to the table rather focusing on the real issues. If you are personally against alcohol, you need to understand that it is your personal taste. If your thoughts are tainted too much by your personal opinion, you will not see the difference between strict control and a blanket ban. By “controlling” you are not taking away the right for someone to consume alcohol in a responsible way. In USA, liquor lovers are not affected by any of the above laws, yet liquor is not a social problem in USA as the consumers are forced by the law to be responsible both regarding society, and as well as regarding themselves. (Side note: one of the two authors of this article does not consume alcohol)


If you are a vegetarian, will you be campaigning for a blanket ban of meat? If you are still not clear about the difference between strict control and a blanket bando you agree that people should not have sex in public, but they can do so in private?


If the “Mathata Thitha” drive is not about a total ban but about control, then whether the inspiration came from religion or not does not matter; but how you position the initiative matters. In the political world, perception is the truth. No matter how pure your intentions are, if the Catholic/Christian crowd perceives this as another attempt by the Buddhist hegemony to curtail their freedoms, there will be an unwanted backlash. Also there are many liquor loves from all faiths in the country who silently protest this, mainly because they don't know what "mathata thitha" comprise of. If the government highlights the actual need, and actual plan of implementation, rather than paying lip service to the "fifth precept", they will be able to get wider support. It should also be noted that most Buddhist activists does not know what they want to implement, other than the fact that it is inspired by the "fifth precept"