Religious Landscape of Sri Lanka

According to a recent survey conducted by Gallup Consultants, (an international consulting body Lanka is one of the top religious countries in the world. This survey was based on few simple questions such as “is religion an important part of your daily life?” asked from a sample of around 1000 individuals from each country. The analysis is published on to this survey, Sri Lanka is at 2nd place where 99% of the participants acknowledging that religion is an important part of their daily lives, just behind Egypt where the percentage was 100%. It is also interesting to note that according to this survey, United States of America has unusually high religiosity among the developed countries of the world. However when you take the world as a whole, the median religiosity is around 82% and USA is well below this mid point being at 65%. Almost all the topmost religious countries belong to “developing/underdeveloped” category of nations in the world.


A survey when conducted by neutral professional body, usually derives accurate representation of the reality. Although we can argue about the accuracy of this data, I do trust this organization to have used sound survey techniques; and figures in general seem to be solid. Also the terms “developing/underdeveloped” usually draw scorn from those who like to argue against the parameters used to determine such. I am also going to leave that debate outside the scope of this memo. Also we should not read too much in to the implications of the question “is religion an important part of your daily life?” What matters here is the answer people give to the question rather than whether they are giving a genuine answers or not. I can think if two reasons for getting a “Yes” answer (a) They are genuinely religious (b) They think that “Yes” is the most appropriate answer in order to look good. Either way “Yes” is indicative of the religiosity in the air. Speaking of the state of being genuinely religious, there can be different interpretations too. What do we really mean when we say an individual is genuinely ‘religious’? Having a good understanding of core tenets of a religion, and deriving the personal value system based on religious values is probably the ideal state of being religious. However, in a casual sense, being “religious” does not mean more than the desire of an individual to be identified with a religion. Such a religious person seeks comfort, sense of belonging and an identity by getting attached to religion.


What do above poll results tell us? It seems to tell us that when the socio-economic status of a country improves, the religiosity drops! Does this mean religion is a phenomenon associated with something that goes away when the socio-economic status improves? In support of that theory, aggressive evangelical religions such as Jehovah's Witnesses seem to flourish mostly on socio-economically “challenged” layers of the society. Their biggest follower base seems to be consisted of individuals from troubled” social classes even in their home base in USA. Even in a rich country like USA, unusually high religiosity may have something to do with the inequality in wealth distribution, that creates the perceived poverty. We can contrast that with countries such as SwedenDenmarkand Norway where the socio-economic conditions are favorable for the majority, with less inequality in wealth distribution. These countries have the lowest religiosity among developed nations.

I hope the readers won’t misinterpret the simple analysis that “when the socio-economic conditions improve, religiosity drops” as a claim for “when religiosity drops, socio-economic conditions improve”. That indeed is a logical fallacy. A implies B is not an argument for B implies A.

Although the correlation between religion and socio-economical status is an interesting topic, I am more interested to find out what religious people think how their religion should affect others; Especially “others” that do not follow their religion. The above survey does not tell us much in that regards. I would have been more interested in the results of a survey, where a poll questions were as follows:

  1. Is religion an important part of your daily life?
  2. Should your government amend existing civil law based on the religious views of your denomination?
  3. Do you think that active measures should be taken and new laws should be passed to stop followers of your faith considering adopting other faiths, or letting go of all faiths?
  4. Should religion be a mandatory subject in primary and secondary school education?
  5. Do you think someone not following any religion can be a moral person?


My fear is that from what I hear in the religious discourse of present day Sri Lanka, there can be a significant percentage of people answering …

  1. Yes
  2. Yes
  3. Yes
  4. Yes
  5. No


… to above questions respectively. Now, such an outcome would indicate that the country is sliding down the slippery slope of religious extremism. Eventual outcome of such slippage is a country where personal freedoms are curtailed in the name of religion. We have seen several Islamic nations going down this path and ending up in utter chaos in the recent past. History has seen many such instances of oppression by Christianity although the numbers are less in the recent period of time. In my opinion, Sri Lanka is the only country in the world, where the same can happen based on Buddhism. Likelihood of such is much less due to the inherent tolerant nature of the Buddhism, where onus is mostly on personal choice rather than divine mandate. However, over the course of its history, we have seen Sri Lankan Buddhism adopting stereotypical artifacts and props of other major world religions, in order to compete and retain the follower base. I cannot rule out Sri Lanka ending up being a Buddhist-government in the same sense Afghanistan was an Islamic-government under Taliban regime.


Secularism in Sri Lankan context


One of the first things I realized when I wrote the first cut of this article and gave it out for review, is that there are significant number of Sri Lankans who are proficient in English language yet have not heard the term “secular”. As for me, despite Sinhala being my mother tongue, I am not aware of a proper Sinhala word that conveys the same meaning. This is indicative of lack of a public discourse around those concepts in any language. Looking up a dictionary for this term will not help much since it has so many meanings with subtle differences. Let me start by stating the meaning as applicable to this article


Secular (adjective) – not favoring any particular religion and/or not taking religious views in to account.

Secularism (noun) – Keeping an equal distance from all religions


We are in a culture where there are no clear distinctions between religious activities and non-religious activities. Buddhism being primary religious tradition, we don’t have clear definition for what it means to be an ‘atheist’ as well. Buddhism not having a central deity in its core, and hence theoretically all Buddhist are atheists to begin with. The widely accepted virtue of good citizenship is the religiousnessMorality and Religiousness are taken as synonyms. We do not have many role models who are leading a secular lifestyle yet being well respected in the society. The famous personality Arthur C. Clarke who lived and died in the island is known for many good things within Sri Lanka, but not for his atheism. Many Sri Lankans might have thought he is Christian or something like that since he is white skinned person that came from Britain.


In such a setting, “separation of religion and governance” is a difficult topic! The traditional wisdom dictates that for good governance, the state and religion should go hand in hand.


Understanding the change of value systems


The starting point of the new wisdom should be the realization we are not governed by a monarch anymore. We should stop living in the past and look forward for positive changes fitting to the new governance model of parliamentary democracy. Even after living more than half a century in a parliamentary democracy with universal suffrage, most of our self-proclaimed moral leaders and self-styled guardians of the heritage seem to think that we are still ruled by a king and are fond of dolling out governance advices fitting only to a medieval kingdom.


However, if you are one of those individuals who believe that moving from current democratic setup to 13th century Sri Lankan Monarchy is actually an upgrade, then of course I will be surprised you got this far in to the this essay. There are many pundits and politicians in Sri Lanka that promote this ideology. Some of them have named this ideology as “Maha sammatha Wadaya”. This however is commonly knows as “Feudal System” (“Weda wasam kramaya”)


One of the key issues that I see in Sri Lankan Buddhist institutions is that the traditions around those institutions are still aligned with a non-existent feudal system. The head of state is still assumed to be a “King” by the clergy who were trained within these institutions. The advices of the clergy to the lay followers are mostly based on a 13th centenary value system designed to keep the peasantry in their place. We often hear clergy and other conservative scholars bringing examples from the time of ancient kings to draw parallels between contemporary situations. Their basic assumption is that something ‘good’ from that era is unquestionably good and fitting in current times as well. This is very wrong! The value systems changed drastically. The value system the majority of Sri Lankans subscribe today is very different from value systems prevailed at the times of Devanampiyatissa or Dutugemunu or Prarakramabahu. For example, if we are to go by those ancient value systems, we will not see anything wrong with nepotism or use of government property for image building purposes of the ruler. However, these days those deeds are viewed as crimes.


Buddhist clergy often refers to ‘Dhasaraja Dharma’ as a set of timeless advices for governance. The ‘Dhasaraja Dharma’ could well be timeless due to the abstract nature of it. Those abstract concepts should be mapped to concrete concepts using contemporary value system to make any use of it. The problem with the clergy is that they go by some book written hundreds of years ago which actually documents the interpretation of ‘Dhasaraja Dharma’ as applicable to a kingdom that existed thousands of years ago.


Tbetter understand abstract nature of Buddhist values and the need to map them to contemporary value system is aptly demonstrated in the third precept “Kāmesu micchācāra veramaī sikkhāpada samādiyāmi” (I undertake the training rule to abstain from sexual misconduct.). The term “sexual misconduct” is such an abstract concept, any interpretation could be given, starting from one of the basic sexual ethics “Do not make sexual advances unless you are given the mating signal” (Satanism) to “I refrain from having any other forms of sex other than sex in missionary position with my legally wedded wife/husband” (Conservative Catholic).

Ethno-religious nationalism

Political forces all over the word successfully employ the Ethno-religious nationalism as means of energizing their vote bases. In Sri Lanka, this phenomena has many faces and I choose only one example “Mahasammatha Wadaya”. I am treading carefully here not to provide examples of main political parties using the same ploy. I am being extra careful of an unwanted backlash and too much politicalization of this essay. I hope the educated reader can read between the lines and extrapolate on these examples.

Ethno-religious nationalism often uses hate-speech as part of their propaganda. Mahasammatha ideologists usually avoid direct public hate speech against Tamils, Muslims and other minorities. Instead they carefully isolate racist elements in those minorities to direct their criticism at. However, as far as criticizing western nations are concerned, they are not that careful. Usually they attack the west indiscriminately.

When one greedy political force energizes the majority using ethno-religious nationalism; other greedy political forces go after alienated minorities for the votes, this vicious cycle has been continuing in Sri Lanka for a while now and it will continue for a while.

Mahasammatha Wadaya

Something more need to be said about the attempt to popularize an ancient value system and bring back ancient governance model as the way forward forSri Lanka. I earlier dismissed this concept as a mere re-dressing of Feudal System (Weda Wasm Wadaya) and nothing more. However judging by strength of the fan-base for this concept, it is obvious that they have seen something attractive in it. Therefore I thought that concept should be given little bit more respect than outright dismissal.

It is not an uncommon trend for communities in former colonies to feel that they have “lost” something good in their past, that their former colonial masters took away or destroyed.  It is also not uncommon to associate anything that came from outside after the subjugation to the colonial powers as something thrust upon them. In that sense, I can understand the mindset of Mahasammatha fans where they see that parliamentary democracy and modern values associated with it as “alien western concepts”. They feel that whatever was there in the past should have been better since what we have now is less than perfect. A cult formed around this type of nostalgia can be quite harmless. Unfortunately due to strong appeal the Buddhist institution has for this ideology, (for the reasons mentioned above) this is far more than a mere cult. It is almost a political force.

These type of ideologies are harmful in the same sense the Eelam (Eezham) ideology was harmful to the North Eastern Tamil community. The entire community was taken for a very expensive ride by the LTTE who themselves must have been convinced that Eelam was achievable. If we take step back and have an honest look at Eelam concept in its ideal implementation. It does sound quite appealing not only to North Eastern Tamils but also to Sinhalese in the south. Provided that fair division of land and water resources is possible, what we will have are two nations with strong inner coherence (relatively free from internal conflicts) and have strong feeling about the land they live. Tamils with newly achieved land and Sinhalese with newly lost territory both eager to make the best out of the circumstances. I am sure we all agree that this utopian state is not achievable and Tamils are only harming themselves and entire Sri Lanka by pursuing this dream.

I am not even interested in going deep in to Mahasammatha concept and see what if offers. Even if someone manage to convince me that is it the best thing that can happen to Sri Lanka, it is a tough ask to rally people around a concept of this nature. This concept has very strong Sinhala Buddhist perspective to it. This immediately alienates more than one-third of the population. At best it can only help in taking the whole of Sri Lankan in a very expensive ride similar to the Eelam ride north eastern Tamils were taken.

 As we have overcome a difficult war of our own making, it is time to seek ideologies that promote reconciliation; not further division. We should not leave any room for another war.

conspiracy theories

After reading the propaganda pieces of Mahasammatha and similar ideologies, I have learnt two key tenants in this type of thinking.

1. They offer a conspiracy theory regarding new imperialism by ‘western powers’. According to the theory, the ‘western powers’ are having a focused effort on weakening the third world nations in order to have control over them.

2. Heavy dependence on Sinhala-Buddhist base, with a lot of emphasis on Buddhism being the glue to provide the cohesiveness of this unit.

These conspiracy theorists would not go in to details as to whether this alleged conspiracy is by governments with particular political ideology (for example it is democrats or republicans in USA?), or whether it is orchestrated by the state regardless of ruling party (e.g. CIA), or whether it is a private enterprise. It is up to the imagination of the believer to fill the gaps in this story.

I can’t assert or deny the existence of such evil conspiracies. I simply do not have information. However, there are things that I can assert. Having lived among peoples of these western nations briefly and having exposed to their media, it is evident that that their collective consciousness is not evil. Western communities are as diverse (or even more diverse) as our society in terms of ideologies. If such conspiracies exist, then our best bet would be to work hand in hand with western ideologies that oppose such evil elements in their societies. It is extremely naïve to (a) put entire ‘west’ in to one bucket and reject them (b) to think that we can survive on our own without allies in the west.

In fact, I do believe that the political leaders of such tribal ideologies (e.g. Mahasammatha) cannot be so naïve. I believe they use these naïve theories to keep the individuals that support them close-minded. It is same ploy used by contemporary religious leaders as well. It is not a coincidence that religion also plays a major part in tribal ideologies.

European Age of Enlightenment


To be fair by the religions, it should be noted that medieval kingdoms with a feudal setup must have been benefited a great deal by having a close association between religion and governance. In most civilizations, synergy between the religious leaders and the civil rulers has helped the advancement of literature, arts, architecture and civilization in general. This situation is not something unique to Sri Lanka or to the local Buddhist civilizationImagine Christianity in the pre-enlightenment era in Europe. Everything was so closely knitted around Christianity that a separation was almost unimaginable.


However, the progressive movements in the history of Western world that transformed those civilizations to center around humanitarian ideals are all characterized by the break free from religious hegemony; most significant of such events being the Age of Enlightenment in 17th and 18th century AD.


Enlightenment was a desire for human affairs to be guided by rationality rather than by faith, superstition, or revelation; a belief in the power of human reason to change society and liberate the individual from the restraints of custom or arbitrary authority; all backed up by a worldview increasingly validated by science rather than by religion or tradition

- Dorinda Outram, commenting on 18th Century Age of Enlightenment


“It’s man's release from his self-incurred tutelage”, tutelage being “man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another”

-         Immanuel Kant, commenting on Age of Enlightenment


Of course religion did not ever go away from influencing governance. It clawed back in but this time only after transforming itself to be aligned with the humanitarian ideals of the Enlightenment era.