Buddhism in Sri Lanka
Buddhism in Sri Lanka has its roots deep in one of the earliest variants of Buddhism that survives in the world today, Theravada, or "the doctrine of the elders." This tradition preserves a clear understanding of the Buddha as a man who achieved enlightenment and developed monks (arhat) as accomplished followers of his teachings.
This tradition differs from the more widespread Mahayana ("great vehicle"), which often treats the Buddha as a superhuman being and fills the universe with a pantheon of enlightened figures (bodhisattvas) who help others achieve enlightenment. In Sri Lanka, people do not officially worship the Buddha, but show reverence to his memory.
The most striking expressions of public reverence are dagoba or thupa (stupa), large mounds built over sites where relics of the Buddha or a great monk are buried. The dagoba in Sri Lanka preserve a spherical shape and a style of architectural embellishment that link them directly to the monuments originally erected over the Buddha's remains in ancient India. The traditions of the Sinhalese indicate that their oldest dagoba are at least 2,000 years old, from a period when genuine relics of the Buddha came to Sri Lanka.
The conservative nature of Sinhalese Buddhism is strengthened through the preservation and living tradition of ancient scriptures in the Pali language. A dialect related to Sanskrit, the classical language of India, Pali is probably close to the popular language in northeastern India during the Buddha's time. The monks of Sri Lanka have kept alive an unbroken Pali transmission of monastic rules, stories of the Buddha's life, and philosophical treatises that may constitute the oldest body of written Buddhist traditions.
For people who do not become monks, the most effective method of progressing on the road to enlightenment is to accumulate merit (pin) through moral actions. One who performs duties faithfully in this world, who supports the monastic order, and who is compassionate to other living beings may hope to achieve a higher birth in a future life, and from that position accumulate sufficient merit and knowledge to achieve enlightenment.
Meritorious activities include social service, reverence of the Buddha at shrines or at dagoba, and pilgrimage to sacred places. Gifts to monks rank among the most beneficial meritmaking activities. Lay devotees invite monks to major events, such as a death in the family or the dedication of a building, and publicly give them food and provisions. In return, the monks perform pirit, the solemn recitation of Pali Buddhist scriptures. Some wealthy donors may hold giftgiving ceremonies simply for the public accumulation of merit. The monks thus perform important roles for the laity at times of crisis or accomplishment, and they serve as a focus for public philanthropy.
There is no central religious authority in Theravada Buddhism, and the monastic community has divided into a number of orders with different styles of discipline or recruitment. The broad outlines of the modern orders originated in the eighteenth century. By that time, monastic personnel came entirely from the upper levels of the Goyigama caste, and enjoyed easy lives as recipients of income from monastic estates worked by lower castes. The official line of monastic ordination had been broken, since monks at that time no longer knew the Pali tradition. In 1753 the Kandyan king fulfilled his duty as a protector of Buddhism by arranging for Theravada monks from Thailand to ordain Sinhalese novices. These initiates set up a reformed sect known as the Siyam Nikaya (the Siamese order), which invigorated the study and propagation of the ancient Sinhalese heritage. The order remained a purely Goyigama enclave. By the nineteenth century, members of rising low-country castes were unhappy with Goyigama monopoly over the sangha, and rich merchants arranged for Karava youths to receive ordination from Thai monks. These initiates formed a new sect called the Amarapura Nikaya, that subsequently split along caste lines. Disputes over doctrinal matters and the role of meditation led to the establishment of another order, the Ramanna Nikaya, in the late nineteenth century. In the 1980s, the Sinhalese sangha of 20,000 monks fell into three major orders, subdivided into "families": the Siyam Nikaya contained six divisions; the Amarapura Nikaya, twenty-three; and the Ramanna Nikaya, two. Each family maintained its own line of ordination traced back to great teachers and ultimately to the Buddha. Caste determined membership in many of the sects.
Popular Religion in Sri Lanka
Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka preserve the doctrinal purity of early Buddhism, but the lay community accepts a large body of other beliefs and religious rituals that are tolerated by the monks and integrated into Sinhalese religion. Many of the features of this popular religion come from Hinduism and from very old traditions of gods and demons. Sinhalese Buddhism is thus a syncretic fusion of various religious elements into a unique cultural system.
There is a thin boundary between reverence for the Buddha's memory and worship of the Buddha as a god, and the unsophisticated layperson often crosses this line by worshiping him as a transcendent divine being. The relics of the Buddha, for example, have miraculous powers; the literature and folklore of the Sinhalese are full of tales recounting the amazing events surrounding relics.
During the construction of a Buddha image, the painting of the eyes is an especially important moment when the image becomes "alive" with power. At the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, where the Buddha's Tooth Relic is enshrined, rituals include elements from Hindu temple worship, such as feeding and clothing of the Buddha. In general, devotees believe that the Buddha's enlightenment makes him an all-powerful being, able to control time and space and all other supernatural beings.
The Buddha is so pure and powerful that he does not intervene personally in the affairs of the world. That is the job of a pantheon of gods (deva) and demons (yakka) who control material and spiritual events. The Buddha never denied the existence of the gods or demons, but said that attention to these matters simply detracts from concentration on the path to enlightenment. The Sinhalese believe that the all-powerful Buddha has given a warrant (varan) to a variety of spiritual entities that allows them to regulate reality within set boundaries (sima).
For help in matters of everyday life, the Sinhalese petition these spiritual entities rather than the Buddha. Near many dagoba, or shrines of the Buddha, there are separate shrines (devale) for powerful deities. After reverencing the Buddha, devotees present prayers and petitions to the gods for help with daily life. The shrines for the gods have their own priests (kapurala), who practice special rituals of purification that allow them to present offerings of food, flowers, or clothing to the gods. Propitiation of demons occurs far away from Buddhist shrines and involves special rituals featuring the assistance of exorcists.
The popularity of different deities changes over time, as people come to see particular deities as more effective in solving their problems. The principal gods include Vishnu (also a Hindu god, identified by Buddhists as a bodhisattva, or "enlightened being," who helps others attain enlightenment), Natha, Vibhisana, Saman (the god of Adams Peak and its vicinity), and the goddess Pattini (originally an ordinary woman whose devotion to her husband, immortalized in poetry, elevated her to divine rank).
During the 20th century, the god Vibhisana declined in popularity while the god Kataragama, named after his hometown in Moneragala District, has become extremely powerful. The annual Kataragama festival brings tens of thousands of worshipers to his small town, including Hindus who worship him as a manifestation of the god Murugan and Muslims who worship at the mosque there. This common devotion to sacred sites and sacred persons is one of the most important features of popular religion in Sri Lanka.
Another example of this religious syncretism is the cult of Sri Lanka's leading oracle, Gale Bandara Deviyo, who originally was a Muslim prince slain by the Sinhalese to prevent his accession to the throne. He is revered by Buddhists and Muslims alike at his shrine in the town of Kurunegala (in Kurunegala District).
As transportation and communication facilities have expanded in modern Sri Lanka, there has been a big expansion of major pilgrimage sites that are jointly patronized by Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims, thus providing a commonality that may lead to closer cultural cooperation among competing ethnic groups.
Christianity in Sri Lanka
According to Christian tradition, the Apostle Thomas was active in Sri Lanka as well as southern India during the first century AD. Small Christian communities existed on the coasts of Sri Lanka during the succeeding centuries, flourishing on the edges of the Indian Ocean trade routes as Islam did in later times.
Christianity made significant inroads only after the fifteenth century, as aggressive Portuguese missionary efforts led to many conversions, especially among the Karava and other low-country castes. When the Dutch took control of Sri Lanka, they encouraged their own missionaries of the Dutch Reformed Church. Under their patronage, 21 percent of the population in the low country was officially Christian by 1722. The British, in turn, allowed Anglican and other Protestant missionaries to proselytize.
The relative number of Christians in Sri Lanka has declined steadily since the end of colonial rule. In 1900 a reported 378,859 people, or 10.6 percent of the population, were officially Christians. Although in 1980, the number of Christians had increased to 1,283,600, the percentage of Christians in the total population had declined to approximately 8 percent. This decline occurred primarily because the non-Christian population expanded at a faster rate. Emigration abroad, conversions of some Christians to Buddhism and fewer conversions to Christianity among Buddhists, Hindus, or Muslims also were reasons for the decline. In the 1980s, Christians still were concentrated heavily in the low country in the southwest. They comprised 30 percent of the population in Colombo.
Some 88 percent of the Christians were Roman Catholics who traced their religious heritage directly to the Portuguese. The Roman Catholic Church has a well-established organization that encompasses the entire island. In 1985 there were 9 dioceses comprising 313 parishes, 682 priests, and 15 bishops (including two archbishops and a cardinal).
The remainder of Christians were almost evenly split between the Anglican Church of Ceylon (with two dioceses) and other Protestant faiths. The Dutch Reformed Church, now the Presbytery of Ceylon, consisted mostly of Burghers, and its numbers were shrinking because of emigration. Other Christian communities--Congregationalists, Methodists, and Baptists--were small in number. Since the 1970s, there has been a movement of all Protestant Churches to join together in a united Church of Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese community, however, has strenuously opposed this movement.
Article by U.S. Library of Congress Country Studies (1995). Last updated: July 26, 2013.