14 April, 2024


Religion, Politics, Morality

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan –

Prof Charles Sarvan

Epigraph: The highest expression of religion is in the practising of morality (Gandhi)

Writing is sometimes an attempt at righting, but the intention here is only to share some thoughts on the inter-relation between religion, politics and morality in (non-private) life. In an earlier article, I suggested a slogan: “Religious doctrine is divine; religion is human.” More clearly but less neatly, religious doctrine is either divine (Jesus Christ) or from a very special human being: neither the saintly Buddha nor the Prophet Mohammed claimed divine status. Since religion with its hierarchy and rituals, ceremonies and myths is an edifice erected and elaborated over time by humans, is it surprising that it is deployed to serve human ends – secular, political and economic? Is it surprising that religion, supposed to be ‘other-worldly’, is used as a fig-leaf by humans to hide their very ‘this-worldly’ wishes and ambitions? Is it strange that religion as practised often (most certainly not always) contradicts, indeed is in conflict with, religious doctrine? The memoir of Bloke Modisane (banned in apartheid South Africa) is titled Blame Me on History. Borrowing that title, some who follow religion, rather than religious doctrine, implicitly say: “Blame me on God. It’s the wish and will, if not the command, of God. I have no choice but to obey. My obedience proves my piety”: one definition of ‘religiosity’ is, “an intense, excessive, or fervent religiousness”.

For centuries, the West claimed their conquest of other peoples was in order to carry out God’s wish that they be civilized. Kipling in his poem, ‘The white man’s burden’, urged the USA to conquer the Philippines – for the sake of the latter! The “natives” were, in Kipling’s words, but half devils and half children. Often, to be civilized meant that one was Christian; to be a Christian was to be civilized. Religion was the cloak under which imperialism hid its real nature and purpose. As for the civilizing mission, I turn to Mark Twain’s Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World (Chapter XX1): “In many countries we have chained the savage and starved him to death; and this we do not care for, because custom has inured us to it; yet a quick death by poison is loving-kindness [compared] to it. In many countries we have burned the savage at the stake; and this we do not care for, because custom has inured us to it; yet a quick death is loving-kindness to it. In more than one country we have hunted the savage and his little children and their mother with dogs and guns through the woods and swamps for an afternoon’s sport, and filled the region with happy laughter over their sprawling and stumbling flight, and their wild supplications for mercy; but this method we do not mind, because custom has inured us to it; yet a quick death by poison is loving-kindness to it. In many countries we have taken the savage’s land from him, and made him our slave, and lashed him every day, and broken his pride, and made death his only friend, and overworked him till he dropped in his tracks; and this we do not care for, because custom has inured us to it; yet a quick death by poison is loving-kindness to it […] There are many humorous things in the world; among them the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages” (end of quote).

In the days of the British Raj, Richard Congreve, Bishop of Oxford, declared: “God has entrusted India to us to hold it for Him, and we have no right to give it up”: see, Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism, Oxford University Press, 1983. It’s as if the British wished to bestow freedom on India but were prevented by the will of the Almighty. Similarly, Prime Minister Golda Meir asserted that Israel “exists as the fulfilment of a promise made by God Himself”. God made a promise and, after centuries and much suffering, fulfilled it. Such using of heavenly sanction for earthly ends is not uncommon. The popular religious belief among many Sri Lankan Buddhists is that the Buddha miraculously visited the Island thrice, and decreed that it should in its entirety become the land where his doctrine would be preserved in its pristine purity. Therefore, Sri Lankan Buddhists have no choice but to turn this wish into reality: the wishes of the immortal become convenient commands for mortals. Blame us on the Buddha. Unfortunately in Sri Lanka, Buddhism is not a universal religion, available to all, but associated with one particular group, the Sinhalese. Religious doctrine turned into religion has been racialized. In a personal message to me Graham E. Fuller, author of A World Without Islam, says that despite his Christian upbringing, “it is ultimately Buddhism which has contributed to my personal, most basic world and spiritual views today”. However, he now finds that Buddhists are not “an exception to the bloody link between religion and violence”.

All religious doctrines teach and uphold lofty ideals such as love, compassion, kindness, generosity. They enjoin inclusion, rather than exclusion and subordination. Far more than the beauties of nature, what makes a country truly beautiful is the degree to which religious doctrine is practised; the nature and state of its political and civic society: see, among others, Israeli Avishai Margalit’s book titled The Decent Society’. Since all religious doctrines teach a moral life, those who follow and practice religious doctrine lead good and decent lives. On the other hand, those who practise  ‘religion’ rather than living by religious doctrine, can lead immoral, even cruel and destructive, lives. In all religious doctrines, crimes are also sins but, ironically and unfortunately, in religion itself crimes such as expropriation and expulsion, assault and murder – even rape – can become signs of one’s righteousness. The religiose interpret, distort and pervert religious doctrine to suit their attitudes and actions.

What the Buddha preached was the product of intense thought and analysis, leading to understanding. That which is now practised and expressed as a religion was originally taught as a behavioural code: lucid and rational; moral, ethical and philosophic.  In simple and simplistic terms, the Buddha worked back from effect to cause, and then forward to the eradication or amelioration of (negative) effects. Christ, in his Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, stressed mercy and the making of peace. A Hadith of the Prophet Mohammed is: You will not enter paradise until you believe. And you will not believe until you love one another. In other words, salvation is through love. Of the Five Pillars of Islam, the Third is Zakat, the giving of alms. The compassion and generosity of Islamic doctrine also urges men to marry widows, thus extending to them protection and support in a difficult and dangerous world. To Gandhi, religion and morality are inseparably bound up with each other: “God is Truth and Love. God is Ethics and Morality”. All religious doctrines stress morality but morality and ethics are often absent in religion. In the folk tale ‘Monkey’ by Wu Ch’eng-en (CE 1500-1580), the Buddha deplores: “greed, slaughter, lust and lying have long prevailed. There is no respect for Buddha’s teaching, no striving towards good works” (translated into English by Arthur Walley, Grove Press, New York, 1970, page 283).  The Buddha also admonishes that it’s better to save one life than to build a seven-storeyed temple in his honour: pages 194 and 256. But why turn to a folk tale when the Buddha himself said: “Many who wear the saffron robe have evil traits and lack restraint” (The Dhammapada)?

One definition of ‘religiosity’ is that it’s “an intense, excessive or fervent religiousness”. This kind of religiousness creates convictions and feelings which can lead to intolerance, even to violence, and so to the contradiction between ‘divine’ religious doctrine and (human-created) religion. The religiose can violate the doctrines of their own religion. For example, yet another Hadith of the Prophet says that he is not a believer who eats his fill while his neighbour remains hungry by his side. Yet extreme Islamic groups are filled not with mercy and compassion but with anger and hatred, leading to injury and death. Their main concern is not with those who suffer but with “infidels” and with Muslims who think and believe differently.

The ostensible and ostentatious glorification of god can be nothing more than a vaunting of one’s own wealth and power. I was once shown a temple in India built by a wealthy family. It was entirely of marble, and stood surrounded by mass, abject, poverty – a poverty so ubiquitous in some countries that one no longer sees, much less reacts to, it. In a poem titled ‘Inside of King’s College Chapel’, William Wordsworth, radical turned arch-conservative, urged we must not reproach the architect with “vain expense” because God rejects those offerings made after careful financial calculation. Here one sees the alliance between religion, and the powerful and the wealthy. Pope John fought against Communism in Eastern Europe but turned away from people’s liberation movements in South and Central America. Earlier in time, there are pictures of nuns and priests giving the Nazi salute at parades. To ask whether Jesus Christ who lived in the first century, CE, was a socialist is to fall into anachronism but his greatest love and concern were for the poor, the disadvantaged, the marginalised. Indeed, he saw material wealth as a hindrance to spiritual salvation. Feed the starving, clothe those in rags, give shelter to the homeless. The Buddha too in ‘The Dhammapada’ advises us to lighten our boat of material things and desires so that it travels better. From my reading, it would appear that many  (I do not say all) extreme Christian groups in the USA have no objection to excessive wealth. The Christian-right supports ‘big business’; is against the termination of pregnancy, gun-control and measures to protect the environment. They object to the state stepping in to help the disadvantaged in spheres such as medical-care, schooling, housing and transport, seeing in such measures the bogey of “socialism”. Christ was a radical, and that is why the Jewish establishment, led by the priests, had him crucified. But those on the religious-right turn him into a conservative and a capitalist. (The Stoic philosopher and emperor, Marcus Aurelius, noted that what was bad for the bee-hive cannot be good for the bees, but selfishness and the greed for immediate gain override such consideration.) In Sri Lanka, the clergy urge the crowning of Buddhism: power and prestige for the religion means power and prestige for its clergy. I cite from my article, ‘Waving the flag’: “In a certain context Karl Marx said: If this is Marxism, then I’m not a Marxist. Similarly, one can imagine Christ saying that of Christianity or the Buddha, ‘the Soul of Utmost Compassion’, sadly saying, if this is Buddhism, then I’m not a Buddhist.”

Since it’s mentioned above, I turn to the environment and quote from Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home by Pope Francis. The earth is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor (page 7). To commit crimes against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and God (page 10). We no longer speak the language of fraternity with the world but one of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on our needs (pages 11-12). “Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years” (page 28). My article on it appeared on 6 September 2015 both in ‘Colombo Telegraph’ and in the Sunday Times, and I quote from it:

“Pope Francis is the head of the largest religious denomination, numbering about 1.2 billion people, and this appeal has been translated into several of the world’s languages. His wish and attempt is “to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (italics added). The violence in our hearts is “reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life” (p. 7). What the Pope attempts is a conversion, an ecological conversion though, as I will attempt to show later, the Pope implicitly argues that a truly religious life, whatever the religion, is one in harmony with nature and the environment. He defines ecology as the study of the relationship between living organisms and the environment in which they develop (p. 69). With characteristic modesty, he does not claim to dispose of questions here ‘once and for all’ but accepts they will be “reframed and enriched again and again” (p. 14). I see Pope Francis as coming within a noble tradition, one which goes back to the Buddha and to Christ; to Gandhi and the Dalai Lama. (I am not a Catholic.)”

The religiose (again, as distinct from those who follow religious doctrine) tend to think that atheists, having no hope of reward; fearing no damnation or unfortunate rebirth, are immoral. This, of course, is naïve and incorrect: the highly religious can be very immoral while some atheists have led noble, exemplary lives. (The Buddha believed in nobility but this ‘nobility’ was not by birth and caste but one that was earned through character, conduct and contribution.) Professor Louise Antony has published statements by some leading thinkers who happen to be atheists under the title Philosophers Without Gods, Oxford University Press. One definition of “humanist” is that it’s  “an adjective relating to a philosophy asserting human dignity and man’s capacity for fulfilment through reason and scientific method”. It has been noted that countries which are not overtly religious – Scandinavia, Holland, New Zealand etc. – have a far better humanist record than those which loudly proclaim their religious piety. They are superior in human rights, in care for their citizens, in providing health and social care, public transport, in minority rights and others that enable a decent and good life. In the USA white supremacists crudely and violently proclaim that they are Christians, followers of Gentle Jesus. In Sri Lanka, what incenses and mobilises Buddhist monks is not widespread poverty and misery; not domestic and state violence; alcoholism; the degradation of the environment; crime and corruption but non-Buddhist, non-Sinhalese population-groups.

Epilogue. If the highest expression of religion is in the practising of morality (Gandhi), the best form of worship of God or the gods is to try to live by religious doctrine, actively caring for our only home, the planet.

Sri Lanka’s national anthem was composed by Ananda Samarakoon who had been a student of Rabindranath Tagore at Santhiniketan, ‘The Abode of Peace’. Born in 1911, Mr Samarakoon committed suicide in 1962. One recalls with deep regret and sorrow (not to mention irony) the following lines from his anthem

In wisdom and strength renewed,

Ill-will, hatred, strife all ended,

In love enfolded…

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Latest comments

  • 13

    “the best form of worship of God or the gods is to try to live by religious doctrine, actively caring for our only home, the planet.”

    How many of Sri Lankans live by religious doctrine? How many of Buddhist Monks live by religious doctrine? How many Buddhist politicians live by religious doctrine?
    In other words, are we caring for our only home?

    • 1

      Buddhist monks and Sinhala Buddhists demonstrated that they live by religious doctrine by not harming Tamils who lived in the South while Hindu and Christian Tamil terrorists went on slaughtering Sinhalayo, bombed ‘Dalada Maligawa’ which is the most sacred place for Buddhists, massacred people who were worshipping at ‘Sri Maha Bodhiya’, butchered ‘Samanera’ monks at Arantalawa to name a few out of a long list.
      Hindu and Christian Tamil terrorists committed barbaric acts against Native Sinhalayo to grab their land that no other terrorist group in the world has done. Despite the nasty experience Native Sinhalayo had, after Tamil terrorists were defeated in 2009 Sinhala Buddhists sent lorry loads of food, clothing and other items to Tamils in the North.

      “How many of Sri Lankans live by religious doctrine? How many of Buddhist Monks live by religious doctrine?”

      • 12

        “How many of Buddhist Monks live by religious doctrine?”
        A Buddhist monk has also been arrested for raping the 15 year old who was raped by the Navy doctor Ranaviruwa too. Some politicians have also been arrested. Mostly good Sinhalayo like you.
        So, as the title says, “Religion. Politics, and Morality”.
        But why is the media being so reluctant to publish names, unless they are Muslim? Is a Rajapaksa among them?

        • 4

          Old C,
          Fearless (Ranjan Ramanayaka) RR was the only politician to have exposed how many buddhists monks are among the aids patient list – hat off to Ranjan as always.. but Karma is seen today, those who should long have been in a jail is the head of state, while the RR is jailed….. miracles in SRILANKA no ?

          Fearless RR was the one to have revealed how many buddhist monks molest their child monks in the temples across the country
          I believe over 80% of sanga community are criminals or crime supporters.
          Alone bringing RAJAPAKSHES back to power should be seen as a HIGH crime. That was led by SO CALLED BUDDHIST CLEAGRY who was misled by MaRa et al.

      • 4

        Eagle Eye
        How about get the facts strait
        Singa Leys terrorists immolated a hindu priest alive in 1958 and took the position of role model for V.P, One of the Singa Leys terrorist thero shot and killed our country’s dearest leader S.W.R.D Banda, why you people still haven’t proclaim these saffron robed thugs are one of the ruthless terrorist oraganization in Asia region …?

        Let me add some spices to your cooked up stroy.In 2009 Singa Leys not only sent lorry loads food, they sent two big ships of Kiribath,katta sambol and shit loads of Rabana, don’t you know

    • 3

      Living by religious doctrine is reduced to wearing a pirithnoole today ( thread around their wrists- that will become thicker, depending on the person’s grade of crimes – please look at what MaRa- that will give you lot more info about it).
      As I repeat it – SINHALA BUDDHISM is not based on true teachings of buddha but more of jathaka stories. Even ones heading to do their duties as ” contract killers” are seen wearing a “pirith noole ” today. And they would leave you saying ” budusarnayi”: Buddhagama monks have become decorative animals or the like to crook politicians.
      The list:
      -Alle Gunawansha
      – Abhayaramaya Muruththettuwa
      – Iththakande CHeewaradhariya
      – Maedagoda Abeythissa (who did not want SEX education is part of school syllabus)
      Tattoo man -sinhala
      – BBS pissu balla who is kept silent/but talk high about his V8 gotten by a philanthropist
      to be continued

  • 7

    Poignant and necessary message from Prof. Sarvan.

    The clarity is astounding! Needs to be translated and published in Tamil and Sinhala to get much of our multi-religious citizenry thinking.

    I think what ails much of the world, both religious and non-religious societies, is that there is little self-driven or individual pursuit for answers (‘enlightenment’) as that embarked by Siddhartha Gautama and others like him.

    Also seems that there was such great void in the lives of humans in that age of human history so much so they drank up the teachings by Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad et al. Did Jesus, Mohammad, and Buddha want to be idolized and worshipped?

    One’s own self-driven journey as opposed to conditioning within a ‘herd’ makes the all difference.

  • 9

    Religion and Politics is like Fish and Chips. Both are entrenched entities.
    Religion is what keeps the Poor from murdering the Rich opined Napoleon Bonaparte.

    Starting in the days of Colonialism, Religion was used to prevent granting India its Independence.[ Bishop of Oxford ].
    Prime Minister Golda Meir thought Israel was the creation of God! Politics!

    Similarly, in Srilanka we do not have Buddhism but Political Buddhism. A Variant [ Like alpha, Beta, Delta, and Gamma of the covid-19 ] introduced by Anagarika Dharmapala and which has to this day disoriented the country.!

    It would be easier to travel to the Black Hole [Prof:Stephen Hawking ] than to dislodge the Buddhist Clergy from the Political Affairs of the Country. In recent times there is also another entity- The Military!

    So, we have to manage with Fish and Chips for many more Moons.

    • 1

      If Sinhala Buddhists who provide food and other necessities do not have a problem with monks playing a role in political affairs of the country what is the problem you have?
      “It would be easier to travel to the Black Hole [Prof:Stephen Hawking ] than to dislodge the Buddhist Clergy from the Political Affairs of the Country.”
      “Political Buddhism”. S.J.Thambiah’s BS!

  • 8

    I may change the order of the subject from the sublime to the ridiculous – Morality Religion and Politics, craving indulgence from the erudite author.
    Morality is best if sincerely adopted as one’s code of ethics. Religion OK if practiced sincerely and adherence to the core of the Teaching (not the distortions of the entrenched hierarchy for their own ends). And Politics – little to say about that, which will sell religion and pretend to be moral for selfish greed for power and money.

  • 8

    …..Mr Samarakoon committed suicide in 1962. One recalls with deep regret and sorrow….
    And a matter of deeper sorrow and heavy heart is because Ananda Samarakoon committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping tablets, and the motive is said to be because the lyrics of the Sri Lankan National Anthem were changed without his consent.
    Any wonder this Island is cursed when the one who composed the anthem is maltreated..

    • 3

      I have heard the story of Ananda Samarakoon’s suicide.
      The change was minor: Sri Lanka Maathaa instead of Namo Namo Maathaa.
      It has done minimal damage to the beauty of what I consider is the most secular national anthem that hails a nation as a whole.
      Yet it was unquestionably unethical to implement the change without desirably consulting him or at least letting him know.
      BTW, do you seriously think that everything was all right before the composer of the national anthem was belittled?

      • 4

        Dear SJ
        … BTW, do you seriously think that everything was all right before the composer of the national anthem was belittled?……
        Not at all. But may be going downhill accelerated.
        … It has done minimal damage to the beauty….
        But to the Composer it was more than a minimal damage because the stringing together of the phonetical components, is according to his view, of bringing in benefits of sound therapy to the verses. In Sinhala it is called “Gana pihiteema”. Many will not subscribe to this thinking but now there is more attention on smell and sound therapy for patients with disorders.
        As far as AS was concerned it nullified his whole effort.

        • 2

          I agree that what was done was most insensitive.
          Certainly the beauty of the rhythm of namO namO mAthA is breached in srI lankA mAthA.
          Had they sought Ananda Samarakoon’s advise, he may even have come up with a neat substitute.
          What I meant was that there was no other tampering, and the poetry of the anthem was thus no further harmed.
          Even if the revision of the opening line was an improvement, any change without reference to the composer would have been most unethical.
          Sad that, although there was fairly strong criticism in private about the change, to my knowledge it was not taken up at a higher level.

      • 4

        The inspiration of Ananda Samarakoon as a student at Shantiniketan was Dr Rabindranath Tagore and Bengali religious verses.

        Many Bengal religious verses commenced with the words, “namo, namo”

    • 1

      Are you saying the National Anthem of Singa Leys is a cursed song ….?
      Now I get it ..its too good not to sing it in Tamil
      Thank you somuch Rajapussies for restraining to sing the Song in Tamil

  • 1

    “Prophet Mohammed claimed divine status.”
    I am not sure if claiming to be Allah’s messenger is far off.
    There has been a succession of founders of religions who claimed to have been God’s messengers.
    Hinduism was never a religion in the way religions are understood for lack of many features that are common and unique to a religion. Manusmrithi and Gita, two of what are often claimed to be its codes are Brahminist codes that uphold caste (strictly, Varna).
    The ethics of Tamil Hindus draw more on Buddhist and Jain values (especially Thirukkural).
    The observation
    “Since all religious doctrines teach a moral life, those who follow and practice religious doctrine lead good and decent lives. On the other hand, those who practise ‘religion’ rather than living by religious doctrine, can lead immoral, even cruel and destructive, lives.”
    is valid only for those who claim to profess a religion.
    Moral values are often socially determined. Confucian ‘moral’ (I would rather say social ethical) values have been adopted across East Asia without reference to religion.
    I doubt if indigenous societies of Africa, the Americas and Australia with various systems of belief, derived their ‘moral’ values based on any religion.
    Right and wrong are often socially dictated.,
    Even where ‘moral’ values are offered in the name of a religion, it is most likely that most of them already existed in the society in which the religion was born.

  • 1

    “neither the saintly Buddha nor the Prophet Mohammed claimed divine status.”

    • 5

      Mahawamsa the Sinhala/Buddhist Bible attributes ……………………….. all kind of magical powers to Buddha, just like the Maoist claims of ……………….

    • 1

      Your observations on religions are spot on.

  • 5

    Essence of this article is to say how the Sinhala Buddhist Fundamentalists (Politicians Monks and people like EE) aren’t True Buddhists.
    In the name of Religion they do more evil.

  • 3

    I say Blind Eagle, can you tell me when did you discover sinhalayo in Illankai baang? Only thing you are lucky to have gone away as a refugee and other wise you will be waiting in a pang polima.

  • 3

    Prof. Sarvan, Thank you for your thought provoking article which collates many sayings across the spectrum. It should be discussed in a class of religious studies. Goats and sheep, tares and wheat shall ever be as taught in the little parables of Jesus. Sad that in Sri Lanka nearly all are horned goats.

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