14 April, 2024


Exploring Interfaith Dialogue & Cooperation: Sri Lanka’s Religious Landscape

By Vipula Wanigasekera

Dr. Vipula Wanigasekera

The essence of all religious teachings across faiths often emphasizes compassion, empathy, and the interconnectedness of humanity, transcending the boundaries of creed or doctrine.

Divisions fueled by narrow interests, whether individual or political, undermine the very fabric of religious principles. Advocating for unity over discord not only honors the core of spirituality but also fosters peace and stability in diverse societies. There cannot be a different formula  for Sri Lanka at a time the country is ailing, if not down and out already.

Recent news report i.e sentencing of Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera, General Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), to four years of rigorous imprisonment has reignited this discussion. The verdict stemmed from a statement made by the said monk in 2016, citing the importance of accountability and adherence to the law.

If not for revelation through extracts of the proceedings by a Youtuber, Bharatha Thennakoon, majority of the masses had forgotten the incident and so was the episode until aftermath of 2019 where an empire came crashing down paving way for someone in retirement to hold rains.

It’s all history now despite nationalistic and religious nuances that led the campaign then which included the story of Snake emerging from Kingdom of Snakes that ended in a basket of humor being brought out from time to time. This shows that Governance is driven by a sincere strategic vision than short term gains through nationalistic MARCOM approaches.

The retrospective examination of what is reported in the court proceeding, sheds a light on an aspect where it is essential to acknowledge the significance of Ven. Gnanasara Thera’s apology to the Muslim community, albeit belated, as it signifies a departure from conventional political rhetoric towards a message of forgiveness and reconciliation, aligning with Buddhist principles.

While this is expected to be a forerunner, there are broader concerns particularly in the involvement of some Buddhist monks in politics in Sri Lanka. The historical involvement of monks in nationalist movements, such as the “Sinhala only” campaign in the 50s, highlights a complex interplay between religion and politics where the people had to pay a high price with isolation from rest of the world in many ways.

Having realized this cardinal error, we are yet to see Buddhist institutions taking a lead role to rectify this blunder by encouraging politicians to improve English education in the country while the affluents and their children have no issue in this, not to mention that those who advocated the Sinhala only Act, had sent their children overseas for studies.

The clergy should pay attention to critical economic and social issues including poverty, crime rate, corruption, narcotics and the women languishing in the middle east waiting to return to a better Sri Lanka, which often go unaddressed in their discourses. Just two days ago, while writing this, a monk was seen blaming Muslims in a press conference for the judgment given by the court of law.

For instance, here are two areas that religious leaders could address effectively.

Alcohol consumption – In 2018, the per capita consumption of alcohol in Sri Lanka amounted to 4.1 litres per annum, a dramatic increase from 2.6 litres from 2005. It is found that 40% of all alcohol consumed by Sri Lankans is illicit, which carries health effects arising from its toxicity.

Consuming alcohol is a violation of a precept in Buddhism. After Panadure Ariyadhamma Thero in the 80s, there isn’t much emphasis in discourses to stop people from consuming excessive alcohol and illicit liquor at the cost of their savings and health respectively.

Child  abuse: The article says it all, not to mention that these are reported cases, and in Sri Lankan culture, it is often considered better to remain silent than to have one’s name tarnished in society.

As Sri Lanka approaches upcoming elections, it is crucial to reflect on the role of religion in politics and strive for a society guided by compassion, tolerance, equality and justice. This may well be the final task of the present President, if he is desirous of doing something worthwhile for the country at this age,  bearing in mind the consequences of 83. The recent events should serve as reminders for religious leaders to prioritize addressing real issues facing the country rather than engaging in divisive politics unless they are valid and rational.

Traditional media with agendas cannot support this role hence the social media platforms that are relied upon by people which seem to be providing alternative avenues for expression and engagement. 

At the same time some readers may expect authors on this topic to come hard and thrash out the reality through what they believe in proper language’. It is however essential for writers on this topic, as done in this article,  to navigate these discussions firstly in good faith and secondly with sensitivity and caution considering the possibility of mis- interpretations of the viewpoint, deliberately or otherwise as unpatriotic or anti-Buddhist.

*Writer is a former diplomat, Head of tourism Authority and currently a Lecturer for ECU, Meditation teacher and Youtuber on Spiritual discussions

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Latest comments

  • 1

    It is the fourth day since this article has been published and there still isn’t a single comment.
    If the author has taken a slightly different position and stopped at blaming the buddhists without taking the position of advocating reconciliation even while holding buddhists responsible for their actions, his efforts I am sure would have been readily celebrated.
    Like I said before no one is interested in genuine reconciliation. Reconciliation is just pretext for a different agenda.

    • 1

      PS: On second thoughts perhaps it is the author’s background. Perhaps such advocacy to be recognized, they should come from parties with a different ethno-religious background?

  • 5

    The author’s intended good faith in manoeuvring the topic is evident and very much appreciable.

    In a true democracy, religious faith, spirituality, atheism, agnosticism, etc. are individual choices. A democratic state has no business upholding special status to one religion over all others and advancing a singular religious hegemony. This is what we need to fix if we really want Sri Lanka to be a true democracy where all citizens are equal.

    Irrespective of the need for the state to (1) purge itself of religious favouritism and sponsorships thereof, and (2) assure equitable rights independent of ethnicity, religion, gender etc, ——— it is imperative for the religious communities and the religious institutions which they sponsor to foster religious harmony. Hence, cannot disagree with the author on “Exploring Interfaith Dialogue & Cooperation” in Sri Lanka’s religious landscape.

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