Being a Christian in Sri Lanka

Historical, Political, Social, and Religious Considerations – Book by Leonard Pinto

Reviewed by Basil Fernando, ‘diasporaasianvoices,’ July 29, 2016

Being a Christian in Sri Lanka is a book with a striking cover, showing the view from theSigiriya Rock Fortress (built 477 – 495 AD, a UNESCO World Heritage Site).

Leonard Pinto, an ecologist and an author of works on ethics and social justice, has taught and researched at universities and industry in Australia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. In this enjoyable book, he has put together a vast amount of information on historical, political, social and religious matters with lucid analysis and sober reflections.

Book_ReviewThe theme of the book is the contemporary Sri Lankan situation. In the recent decades, Sri Lanka has received global attention as a place of explosive violence. Conflicts have mainly arisen from the nation’s inability deal with its internal tensions, which have been caused by economic and political inequalities, as well as ethnic, religious and cultural divisions. The Sri Lankan-born author Leonard Pinto demonstrates a profound concern about the nation’s plight and considers that Sri Lanka can become a stable and prosperous nation on the basis of its people arriving at a common national identity while accepting, or in fact celebrating, diversity as part of its rich historical heritage, which goes back over 2500 years.

This book is a timely reminder of the traumatic impact of the national identity crisis caused by a discourse created by a group of narrow-minded ‘intellectuals’ for political gain. That discourse is known infamously as the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist cultural identity’, created with the view to achieve a few advantages at the cost of pushing the nation as a whole into a kind of ‘social schizophrenia’. Pinto gives some examples of the teachings of these so-called Sinhala Buddhist intellectuals, who talk about ‘Buddhist mathematics, the need to reject western philosophy and that Christianity has been born out of Buddhism’, along with other rhetoric against minorities. This cultural identity today contributes to the economic, social, political and cultural ruin of the country as a whole. It has also caused international disrepute to Sri Lanka. It is sad that some of the writings and pronouncements promoting this identity contain so much historical misinformation, which should have been treated as what the common Sinhala parlance would call ‘wachalakatha’ (garrulous talk), and that it has caused this much damage to a nation. What should have been treated as trite has somehow gone viral in the imagination of some people and even much more sober people consider it politically incorrect to reject such talk outright.

The book consists of the following chapters: Historical Aspects of Christianity in Sri Lanka; Western Christianity and its ‘Inculturation’ in Sri Lanka; Sinhalese and Tamil Christians; Service through Christian Institutions; Unity in Diversity: Freedom in Christian Thought; Teachings of Jesus and the Church; Does God Exist?; Ethics and Christian Morals; Buddhist Sinhala Nationalism; Propaganda against Christians; Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam in a Pluralistic society; Marxism and Materialism; Science and Religion; The Power of Prayer; and Future of Christianity (Catholicism) in Sri Lanka.

Pinto argues against the rather narrow-minded criticisms and false propaganda against Christians that have arisen mainly out of the type of nationalism that emerged after Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, when there were attempts to build narratives about the greater importance of one ethno-religious group against all others. He demonstrates the falsity of this narrative and the depth of the damage this has caused to the unity of the nation. The underlying theme of the book is to argue for a saner approach to understanding and appreciating each other, thus creating a firm basis for generating internal strength, which should be the aim of developing an authentic narrative about the nation.

As one continues reading, one cannot help but be sad about the pathetic plight that Sri Lanka has gotten into, mainly due to its inability to transcend petty disputes and generate a nobler moral and ethical sensibility for the foundation of the nation’s stability and prosperity. The author exposes the nonsensical nature of the misinterpretations of many elements of history, and the type of argumentation that ‘misguided nationalists’ have pursued in the past decades.

The book documents the early origins of Christianity in Sri Lanka, as demonstrated by authentic historical sources.

“The study of contemporary history and archaeology shows that Christianity reached Sri Lanka through different sources, at different times in different scales. In his monumental work, the Greek author, Nikephoros Xanthopulos2 refers to St Thomas the disciple of Jesus, preaching in Taprobane (Sri Lanka) in the first century. According to Prof. G. Menacherry, by the third century, Christianity has spread through India as far as Sri Lanka. The Persian traders, who arrived in Sri Lanka little later, were Christians with links to St Bartholomew, another disciple of Jesus. There were Christian communities in Mannar and Trincomalee and later Christian faith reached the royal palace in Sigiriya4 in the fifth century. Sri Lanka was a destination of Nestorian Christian traders in the sixth century as evident from the account of the travelling Egyptian monk Cosmos Indicopleustes. By the fourteenth century Catholicism was in Sri Lanka, as the Dominican Friar Jordanus was appointed the Bishop of Colombo by the Pope to look after the needs of Nestorian Christians and Catholics. Hence, there was Christianity in Sri Lanka long before the arrival of western colonisers, a fact that needs to be reflected in Sri Lankan history books. Conversions to Christianity in large numbers occurred during the Portuguese period.”[p.478]

Pinto also tries to correct a common misconception in attributing all that is evil to ‘videeshiyaakramana’ (foreign invasions), meaning the occupations by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. He points out that these invasions “in reality happened after the Sri Lankan Kings invited them.” The Kings had little understanding of the western colonizers and were willing to sacrifice the long-term stability of the country for the sake of short term gains, as they were more interested in staying in power during their lifetime. He points out the absence of a vision or a strategy among the Sinhala Kings during these times to ward off or defeat the colonial powers altogether. Perhaps one of the problems of those who try to create the narrative of ‘Sinhala Buddhist identity’ is their inability to deal with the deep internal dissentions among those who claim power as Sri Lankan rulers and those who benefitted from such rulers, who are usually referred to as the ‘radalayas’. After the Anuradhapura period, a rather desolate period began, spanning many centuries, where petty quarrels of the so called ‘Kings’ created the path for the ruin of the nation. Modern interlocutors who are unable to critically self-examine their own past history naturally look for external sources to explain the causes of all their miseries. The kind of discourse created by unexamined beliefs has created a false national narrative of which contemporary Sri Lankans have become victims.

The following passage of how the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka is quite illustrative of the manner in which the self-interest of the Sri Lankan Kings led to colonial domination. “The Portuguese came to Galle, Sri Lanka by accident in 1505 after a storm. According to a Buddhist text, after king’s advisors spied on the Portuguese in the Colombo harbour, the king decided not to fight them, but to give them a welcome audience and establish friendship with the Portuguese and the king of Portugal’ (Upham 1833). They met the king in Kotte, Colombo in 1506 and returned to Goa. Thereafter, King ViraParakramabahu VIII (1487-1509) and his son Dharma Parakramabahu IX (1505-1509)9 made overtures to Portuguese in Goa, requesting them to build a fort in Colombo to protect the country from the exploitation of Arab traders, offering elephant tusks, gems and cinnamon as gifts. Although initially the Portuguese disregarded the offer, in 1518 a significant Portuguese force arrived in Sri Lanka from Goa and built a fort in Colombo with trade concessions from the Sinhalese king of Kotte. In establishing a fort in Colombo, the Portuguese found an opportunity to control the sea-lanes and get the monopoly of trade from Arabs. Portuguese involvement in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka was at the request of Bhuvanekabahu VII, Sinhalese king of Kotte to fight his ambitious brother Mayadunne, king of Sitawaka, who had already annexed the kingdom of Raigama. It was the disunity among Sinhalese royal brothers that gave the Portuguese an opportunity to provide military assistance to the King of Kotte and thereafter have a free hand in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka. The Portuguese did not show respect for other religions and plundered Buddhist and Hindu temples.” [p.480]

Talking about what the Sri Lankan identity needs to be, Pinto writes that the basis of this identity should be ‘culture’. By culture, what he refers to is the refined way people think, act, communicate, make decisions and demonstrate their values and taste. Pinto says, “cultured people, do not look down on others, because of their status, origins, religion, colour or the language they speak. Cultured people value humanity, as a whole and practice, ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. So the cultured people can be found among different ethnic groups, as well as among religious groups. They can be found among the rich and the poor and those who can and cannot speak English. Culture refers to values, and civilisation to organisation.” [p.491]

He goes on to speak about the importance of encouraging the universities to become centres that impart such a culture, which includes passion for truth, justice, integrity, honesty, accountability, reconciliation, and respect for others. From these values flow a strong commitment to duty, good principles, sound ethics and a disgust for politicization, bribing and receiving commissions, which are great evils against the society.

Lamenting about the ethnic conflict, he notes, “…As Sri Lanka has gone into the international arena, because of the ethnic conflict, there is a greater need to think and act as cultured people, to be at par with the international standards. This means, abstracting the noble cultured values out of an ancient rich culture, if that is still possible. It is then, and only then is the depth and elegance of an ancient culture begins to shine before the world. It is not in the boasting of the past or the size of temples and statues built that manifest the values of the cultured, but in the honourable way Sri Lanka handles issues.”[p.492]

He then refers to the importance of justice: “ Though often overlooked, the most significant morally degraded areas in the country are related to justice, integrity, responsibility and accountability. Because justice in the country is partly determined by influence (i.e. party, friendship, relatives, ethnicity etc.) it tends to be subjective and undermines the rights of the individual. Much work needs to be done to improve the confidence of all citizens in the legal system and in the manner in which justice is dispensed by the lawmakers.” [p.485]

Like the universities, “…the parliament is also a seat of culture of the nation, “…as it builds the ethical backbone and the consciousness of the nation through the laws it promulgates. A president who is accountable and responsible to the parliament and the people, and a robust legal system that cannot be manipulated by the President are hallmarks of a modern cultured society.35 In many democracies, Lower and Upper houses (House of Representatives and Senate) exist to ensure that through checks and balances the best decisions and policies, in the interest of the country are developed. All citizens should be able to have confidence in the judiciary and the governing systems. Sri Lankan constitution and legislation need a genuine change. The Executive Presidency in Sri Lanka has been a failure, as it had supported dictatorship and corruption. There is an urgent need to restore the independence of the judiciary and the police. The Chief Justice and the Supreme Court must be above politics, President, Prime Minister, MPs, monks and thugs, and must be beacons of integrity to the nation.”[p.493]

People who are in search of such a culture can be found in all religions: “A starting point would be to identify the common elements of all religions and attempt to build a common Sri Lankan ethos based on them. For instance the states of mind expounded in Mead (kindness), Karuna(compassion), Mudita(empathetic joy) and Upeksha(equanimity) and the meditative search for truth and justice in Buddhism have common grounds with the yearning for truth, justice, love mercy, tolerance, compassion, humility, forgiveness and reconciliation in Christianity and in other religions. Similarly, scholars, experts and intellectuals in Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam can bring common features of their religions together on a common platform to display unity in diversity of religions. This could be a regular feature on TV and other media to educate and build a nation of righteousness, where every citizen is committed to truth, justice, kindness, compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation. In no way should this dilute the aspects unique to each religion, such as their beliefs, rituals and historical foundations. The people need to be informed and accept that politicization of religion or the use of history to justify violence has no place in a cultured Sri Lanka.” [p. 495]

Among such people of goodwill, there are some well-educated, morally sound and broad-minded Buddhist monks in the country, who are currently playing an important role in trying to undo the corruption and mess that Rajapaksa government created, and those monks should also be called upon to play a major role.

A careful reader would note the importance that the author attaches to religious diversity as a source of strength in consolidating a nation based on values common to all these religions. Thus, the criticisms that the author makes against the so-called Sinhala Buddhist discourse is a call to return to the powerful original teaching of the Buddha himself. Buddhism and Jainism were movements based on philosophies which at one time were able to generate a culture in India, unify the people and bring them out of the chaos created by the divisive influence then prevalent in India due to Brahminical teachings. The social power that was created out of these new philosophies has such an overwhelming influence on the people that forced an emperor-like Asoka to take cognizance. Pinto’s call is to use the force of religion not to divide people but to unify them.

This is thus quite a timely book. It is not only the work of a seriously concerned citizen, but also of a scientist, who has seriously reflected on his nation’s crisis and thought it fit to devote many hours to writing this comprehensive book to place before his people and the world his thoughts for their kind consideration. One can only hope that sane counsel will prevail in Sri Lanka and that this committed Sri Lankan intellectual is given the consideration that he deserves.

Basil Fernando is the director for policies and programmes of the Asian Human Rights Commission and Asian Legal Resource Centre, based in Hong Kong. He was awarded the Gwangju ( South Kore) Human Rights Prize in 2001 and the Right Livelihood Award ( also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize) in 2014. This review has originally appeared on AHRC’s website. 

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