Colombo Telegraph

Religion For reconciliation: Is It Feasible?

By Ven. Galkande Dhammananda

Ven. Galkande, Dhammananda Thero

Most Ven. Professor Bellanwila Wimalaratana Thera, the Chancellor of the University of Sri Jayawardhanapura, Rev. Father Benedict Joseph, all the other respected representatives of the religions of our country, Mr. Chairman, Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne and all the other respected speakers, ladies and gentlemen.  I am privileged to have this opportunity to address this distinguished gathering at this prestigious institute which is founded to take forward the good message of one of the finest human beings produced by our motherland, Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar.

Since the war ended in May 2009 four years and two months have elapsed.  Now we are in July 2013. The topic of the conference is the ‘Role of Religion in Reconciliation’. The organizers of the conference seem to expect to take the outcome and recommendations of this national conference to the national level, to feed them into the development of an action plan which will facilitate in addressing fractures in the social fabric of the Sri Lankan society. Let me explain how I understand the context of this conference. First I understand that the theme of the conference itself suggests that we have yet achieved reconciliation, although some four years have slipped away without much notice of that historical responsibility. But forget about the reconciliation. Tragically, today, whether you may accept it or not, we are on the verge of another social crisis or conflict. This is the context in which we are having this conference on the role of religion in reconciliation.

If you ask me to point out the most important message that I can derive from Buddhism for reconciliation in our society, I would like to remind you of this verse in Dhammapada.

Jayam veram pasavati – Dukkham seti parajito

Upasanto sukham seti – Hitva jaya parajam (Dhammapada, Sukha vagga verse 5)

This means, “[v]ictory breeds hatred; the defeated sleeps in sorrow; the peaceful sleeps happily, abandoning victory and defeat”. Accordingly, I can say any sort of victory celebrations certainly negatively affect the idea of reconciliation. As long as we keep ‘the victorious and the defeated’ dichotomy in the society, we are keeping alive the ‘hatred and anger’. If we want to have reconciliation and a peaceful country, we need to get our people away from the ‘victory and defeat’ mentality. It is not my word. It is the word of the Buddha.

Can we do it? Do we have examples of doing so? Yes, we do. The way the Asoka the Great reacted after the Kalinga war is one such example. I am not going to elaborate what he has written in his 13th rock edict about the war. The way the King Duttagamani reacted after his war, according to the Mahavamsa narration, is another example. In any of these occasions the victory was not celebrated. Instead they felt remorse. I accept the fact that none of those wars that I mentioned above can perfectly be compared with the war that we experienced in the recent history of Sri Lanka.. But, are we not ready to forget, forgive and move ahead?

It is difficult. But it is not impossible. We have examples for that too. Nelson Mandela, after 27 years of his imprisonment, after so much of violence against his people for about 5 decades, chose to forgive. Why can’t we forget that past and move forward then?

If I come to the main theme of the conference ‘the role of religion in reconciliation’, the role played by the religious institutions in South Africa in post-apartheid time is an example for all of us. The anger the ‘black’ people had against the ‘white’ was extremely deep rooted after so much of violence, torture, discrimination, insults and exploitation for  five decades. Therefore, to eradicate that anger at a point when the ‘black’ people had the political power on their hand is far more difficult. In such a circumstance, the role played by religion is extremely commendable.[1]

However, it does not mean that the religious establishments in South Africa were totally free from internal political divisions and purely bound by their own noble religious teachings.. I am quoting from (Audrey R. Chapman and Bernard Spong edited book titled) RELIGION & RECONCILIATION IN SOUTH AFRICA: Voices of Religious Leaders;

“The Dutch Reformed churches, particularly the largest of them, the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Klerk (NGK), served as pillars of apartheid, actively promoting and supporting the apartheid system. These churches were infused with a conservative theology that preached it was contrary to the laws of God for whites and blacks to be put on equal footing or even to have close social relationships. The belief that people of different races should be kept apart motivated the NGK to establish separate churches for its converts and eventually to advocate for the political process of separate development. Like the apartheid society, the structure of the NGK was officially segregated. It set up parallel religious structures for whites, blacks, coloureds, and Indians. After, when the Afrikaner-dominated National Party came to power, the NGK urged the government to implement the policy of apartheid and actively supported the adoption of many of the laws that were central to the system.

[Some] Other religious communities also gave the apartheid state tacit support through such means as propagating theologies that neutralized dissent and/or promoting obedience to the existing political leaders. In contrast, some religious communities and ecumenical bodies opposed apartheid’s principles and policies, most notably the South African Council of Churches (SACC).”[2]

Now, what can we learn from this South African experience? That is, religion does not exist as something pure or something that remains above the existing society.Instead, it is very much interwoven with the political and social fabric of the society. Hence, it can be used as a tool to make war or create reconciliation, under certain circumstances and conditions.

In this circumstance, the commendable role played by religion in post-apartheid South Africa represents not only the will of the religious institutions but the will of the political houses as well. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa which worked as the catalyst in reconciliation process was set up in terms of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act , No 34 of 1995 in the South African Parliament. It wasnot something purely thework of religious establishment but the work of the government and religious establishments working together.

As pointed out above, during apartheid rule in South Africa, there were churches that represented both the communities who took part in the conflict. Particularly, South African Council of Churches (SACC) and some ecumenical bodies opposed the apartheid’s principles and policies while aforementioned NGK and other churches were working with the government. Further, in all these church organizations there were members who held dissent views and ideas. A similar situation can be seen during the conflict time in Sri Lanka from 1987-1990. There were certain sections among Buddhist clergy sympathetic towards the insurgents and there were certain sections of the monks sympathetic towards the government. Therefore, there was no anger against Buddhist establishment commonly from any section.

However, it is a notable fact that except for the Catholic and Christian churches, hardly any other religion, Buddhism or Hinduism, represented both the parties of conflict of the last 30 years of war, commonly. Buddhism almost represents wholly the Sinhalese community and hardly any of the Tamil community; on the contrast Hinduism represents Tamils and hardly any Sinhalese. This will be the major hindrance when the religion is used as a means of reconciliation in Sri Lanka. There will be a tendency to look at Buddhist establishment as purely representing the Sinhalese community and the Hindu religion as representing Tamils only. All the prejudices may surface then. My proposal here is to create an apex body of dedicated representatives of all the religions who can work to eradicate suspicion and work to build trust and understanding. That will be the solution to address this issue.

What can be the common ground for religious institutions that hold different views to work together to achieve reconciliation in our society?  I would like to draw your attention to this video that I have uploaded in the internet to address my countrymen when I saw my country is again leading towards a conflict to find out this common ground.

Playing the video (4mnts 14 seconds)

In this video the underlying message is that we all Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese are defeated; one way or the other. The whole country has diminished in many ways. The catastrophe that tormented the young generation of our society is irreparable. I think we all can agree on these lines.

Listen to the lines that the voice of the lady in this video: “ළමයි මහත්තය ඕන. Most important thing is the children, හැමෝටම ජීවිතයක් ඕන, හැමෝම ජීවත්වෙන්න ඕන”: everyone wants a life; everyone wants to live”.

Just after coming out from the confined area of war to the army controlled area, with boney face with ragged clothes, she addresses our hearts, shattering all religious, political, ideological boundaries that keep dividing humane society.  I propose this is where we all can agree upon and create a basis on which we can work together, which is to work towards ‘universal humanity’.

To conclude, I like to quote from Mr. Lakshman Kadiragamar; “the battle for peace, [has to be] fought in the hearts and minds of people. It is won or lost there. One can win wars but lose the peace”.

We are yet to achieve that peace.

Thank you.

[1] Creation and Mandate The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa was set up in terms of the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act , No 34 of 1995.

[2] Audrey R. Chapman and Bernard Spong ed. Religion & Reconciliation in South Africa: Voices of Religious Leaders,     Templeton Foundation Press, Philadelphia and London, 2003, p. 6-7.

*Ven. Galkande, Dhammananda Thero -Lecturer, Department of History, University of Kelaniya. Speech delivered by Ven. Galkande, Dhammananda Thero at the National Conference ‘the Role of Religion in Reconciliation’ on July 23, 2013.  

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