Temporal benefits win converts only temporarily

By: Professor Bertram Bastiampillai - An Opinion

Over the years Sri Lanka has emerged as a multi-religious society. Though there is evidence of nature worship as well as of Brahmanism or Hinduism in the early period of Sri Lanka’s history, the country witnessed a rapid expansion of Buddhism after its arrival from India, its popularity stimulated by the conversion of King Devanampiya Tissa. As a rule subjects followed the royal example.

Hinduism grew in the land when Indian Hindu rulers, mercenaries and traders visited Sri Lanka. Islam, after its birth in Arabia, came to the island along with traders and settlers and grew as yet another religion. Thus long before the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505, the island had practically turned into a multi-religious community.

As a survey reveals Sri Lanka became multi-religious owing to historical events such as initial conversions following conquests, and proximity to India. According to ancient chronicles, Buddhism, today the religion of the majority community, continued to flourish as a consequence of initial conversions.

From 1505 till mid-17th century the Portuguese managed the coastal belt of Sri Lanka and introduced Roman Catholicism amongst the maritime populations of Sinhalese and Tamils. Generally the Portuguese have been blamed for religious persecution and the use of force, as well as for luring converts by giving them material benefits. They are alleged to have been harsh, and compulsorily converted people and vandalised other religious centres in order to establish their own religion.

Nevertheless it is paradoxical that the converts to Catholicism have been steadfastly faithful and strongly active in the social and educational history of Sri Lanka. They resisted attempts to be converted to Protestantism either forcefully or through material gains, especially by the Dutch, the colonial successors to the Portuguese. It is naïve to believe that material inducements can make one easily and readily abandon his or her religious beliefs. Many Catholics remained steadfast to their religion. Our British imperial masters evicted the Dutch in 1796.

The British now turned to spreading Anglicanism across the island, which they ruled after gaining mastery over the independent Kandyan kingdom in 1815. Strangely, every white imperialist seemed to have believed that the heathen or pagan native’s soul had to be saved by inculcating in him the Truth, which his religion alone monopolised. This was so in spite of the perhaps esoteric, arcane and erudite nature of the teachings of Buddhism, Hinduism or Islam. It is more likely our imperial overlords believed that converts to the newly introduced system of belief would assure docile, subservient and reliable subjects, who could be easily ruled. This probably is the reason that some, especially upper class folk who were earlier Catholics, became Dutch Reformed and Anglican Christians. Similarly, descendents of certain Sinhala leaders who had become Anglicans under British rule reverted to their ancestral faiths such as Buddhism with no qualms of conscience.

This phenomenon reinforces the enduring verity that temporal benefits may capture converts only temporarily. Ambition and avarice may for a while build up followers of those who wield power, but their conscience or expediency may drive them to return to their earlier faith. Conversion hence can be fickle and not to be feared as a danger to a religion.

In the 1880s there was a Buddhist-Catholic riot, but in Panadura a debate between Buddhism and Christianity took place peacefully, where Buddhism came out creditably. In 1915, a Buddhist-Muslim riot occurred. These illustrate that it were only on a few and rare occasions that violent antagonisms had arisen between the followers of different faiths during colonial times.

Although at the birth of independent Sri Lanka in 1948 there were Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims, there were also a few like the Parsees who followed their own religious beliefs. Their right to profess and practice their individual faith was never in question. Religions coexisted peacefully with rare exceptions.

Of late however, as the incurable ethnic conflict continues to devastate the nation, one also fears an outbreak of religious hostilities. Alleging unethical conversions, Christian religious edifices have been damaged, vandalised and desecrated. It is naïve to believe that conversions can rob followers from religions. After so many years religions have lost hardly any worthwhile numbers of adherents. Any conversion was due more to expediency, mostly for political or for marital purposes. These too occurred rarely.

The diverse religions of Sri Lanka have for the last several decades been tolerant of one another. It is a misreading to think that there has been aggressive conversion in the past. People have converted from one religion to another only if they wanted to benefit from the solicitude and loving care that one faith offers while another does not.

Some religions have, apart from conducting rituals and ceremonies, left their human followers ignored if not neglected. Some dignitaries have become materially luxurious and distanced from the humble, ordinary follower. Even then only a negligible few have forsaken the faith into which they were born and opted to adopt a new one. In India, several have abandoned a religion where caste is an important factor for Buddhism, because it preached against caste hierarchies and emphasised egalitarianism. A religion should rely on its intrinsic resources to win over converts and not seek monopolistic status in society to conquer converts by holding them captive, almost in thraldom. Religion should grow not out of conversion but conviction and it’s stupid to believe that a faith could flourish by destroying and vandalising places of worship of other religions.

Buddhism stands foremost in espousing tolerance and compassion; therefore militant Buddhism is incongruous. And one cannot achieve anything by harking back to the violence and intolerance practiced centuries ago by Catholic Portuguese or Spaniards. In the land of the dhamma or dhammadipa such intolerance and violence are anachronistic and anathema.

The political elevation of one language and depression of another in a multilingual country from 1956 has accounted to almost a total disintegration of the island. Religious intolerance could worsen this already weak state. Above all, to politicise religion and depend on state patronage to prop it up can make religion a plaything of political expediency and convenience. Its sublime values will evaporate, as will its profound moral values.

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