by Kamalika Pieris
(Paper presented at Royal Asiatic Society Seminar on "Panadura Vaadaya")

There were three Buddhist-Christian debates in Sri Lanka during the post-independence period. The first and most important of these was the report issued by the "Buddhist Commission" in 1956. The Catholic Church replied through two publications, "Education in Ceylon, a commentary on the Buddhist Commission Report" and 'Companion to the Buddhist Commission Report'. The Buddhist Commission contrasted the entrenched position of the Christian Church with the disadvantaged position of Buddhism. It indicated the strong legal position of the Church, the support received by the missionary schools and the privileged position held by the Christians. The Christians were only about 10% at the time, but they were "a powerful group with a commanding position in public life." The Buddhist Temporalities Ordinance created problems for the Buddhist temples and made the religious structure weak. Buddhist education was obstructed, difficulties created.

However, the Buddhist Commission achieved its major objectives. State aided missionary schools were taken over in 1961, despite fierce resistance of the Catholics who organised 'sit-ins' in the schools. The Catholic nursing sisters left the government hospitals. The government appointed a Buddha Sasana Commission. Section 29 of the 1948 Constitution was removed in the 1972 Constitution. In 1962, the Catholic and Anglican 'top brass ' of the army and police organised a political coup which failed. The Buddhists formed the Bauddha Jathika Balavegaya. It published Catholic Action in Ceylon written by Gunaseela Vithanage. The Catholic Church replied with Catholic Action according to the Balavegaya.

The third debate is the now forgotten discussion on rebirth held in the halls of residence of the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya in 1962 or 1963. I attended these talks as an undergraduate. Rebirth and karma are not concepts exclusive to Buddhism, but this debate most certainly was one between Buddhism and Christianity. Discussants were Prof K. N. Jayatilleke, Father Lakshman Wickremasinghe (later Bishop of Kurunegala) and Father Pinto, a Catholic priest who was a lecturer in history at the university. Evangelist infiltration The Buddhists relaxed after the success of the Buddhist Commission of 1956. They thought the Christian threat was over. They became less militant and started dozing. The Christian groups, on the other hand, had started on another strategy. Evangelist groups, known as 'fundamentalist' or 'born again' churches started to come in during the late 1960s. Lighthouse Church was in Kandy by 1965. These churches initially established themselves quietly in the major towns and thereafter started pushing into the interior. Evangelist infiltration increased steadily, accelerating in each decade, until there were an estimated 350 by the year 2000.

Buddhists woke up to the threat only when Dr C. de S. Wijesundera made a formal statement regarding unethical conversion and destabilisation before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into NGOs, in the 1990s. He also wrote to the newspapers. Dr. Anula Wijesundera referred to the matter in her talk to the All Ceylon Buddhist Women’s Congress at its 50th anniversary in 1999, where she 'shocked and jolted' her audience. The Sinhala Commission Report Part 2 also drew attention to the matter. It exposed the sources of funding, and, examined the sort of Christianity peddled. Newspapers like Island and Buddhist Times featured references to unethical conversions.

Complaints started coming in from town and village. Concerned Buddhists met together and formed associations such as SUCCESS to combat the situation. They called meetings, held conferences, wrote reports, set up a data base, alerted the public and finally went to courts. This evangelism is political and subversive. Converts are not simply asked to exchange one religion for another. They are made to repudiate cultural practices, local traditions and even parental authority. Therefore there is friction in the family. They are specifically made anti-Buddhist. 'Healing Centers' engage in the manipulation of hysteria. The Buddhists are converting reluctantly, for economic reasons. The purpose of this is to create a pliant, obedient set of Sri Lankans who are both anti-Buddhist and anti-national.

From the beginning there was opposition to these evangelistic activities. The evangelists reacted aggressively and with confidence. Since theirs was a covert operation, they initially avoided publicity about the numerous attacks on their churches. But with the increasing wave of physical attacks on the churches in 2003, the Christians started to take a sanctimonious stand and call for state action against the violence. They spoke of 'hate crimes' and 'religious strife’. Political activity Repeated allegations have been made that some segments of the Catholic Church is supporting the separatist Eelam programme. Wijesoma's cartoon in Island 2.4.2000 showed a Catholic priest, together with two others, holding back the army as it tried to shoot at the LTTE. It is alleged that certain journalists are supported by the Catholic Church. Ambassador Dixit stated that 'Tamil Catholic clergy kept arguing in favour of the LTTE throughout my tenure in Sri Lanka".

Catholic priest inside Buddhist temple

Buddhist monks have accepted this intrusion. The Ven Hikgoda Saddhananda of the Hendala Purana Viharaya accepted the 'aktha pathra' holding hands with two Catholic priests.

This temple also got the gift of a baby elephant from Interior Minister John Amaratunga. Associated with him were Chief priest of Hunupitiya Gangarama and the chief Sanghanayake of Ratnapura.

Dr. Jayalath Jayawardene and Father Ranjan Silva handed over the pinnacle of the Naga Vihara Chaitya to the Viharadhipathi at Nagadipa. The Buddhists protested. Then we have the other side of the picture.

The Buddhist Association of Bingiriya distributed school equipment to needy students 'with a view to celebrating Christmas" The Catholic church had a 'Sadaham Charikawa" where the statue of the Madonna was taken from Fatima Church, Colombo to Anuradhapura, visiting Buddhist temples, mosques and kovils on the way. It was blessed by a Buddhist priest who said that the Buddhists worship the Virgin Mary as 'Pattini Amma".

Buddhist monks had chanted pirith for the statue and a Buddhist monk had gone in the procession.

Insidious methods to undermine Buddhism

There were Wesak cards resembling Valentine's Day cards. One card has the Buddha holding a lamb. Buddha has been substituted for Christ.

There is also open contempt shown to Buddhist beliefs. Sunday Observer ran two articles questioning the validity of the Tooth relic. Section 291 b of the Penal Code (Cap 25) makes it an offence to speak or write anything which insults or attempts to insult a religion.

Therefore the Buddhist lobby should consider making complaints to the newly constituted Press Complaints Commission, and also report the matter under the Penal Code.

Bhikkhu bashing

The Sunday Leader acquired a reputation for bashing Buddhism "Even the slightest transgression is pounced upon and turned into a news item" The caste divisions in the sangha are emphasised.

Buddhists have discussed the possibility of 'rogues who purposely don Buddhist garb in order to bring the religion into disrepute on payment from interested agencies'. There are the allegations that monks are induced to discard robes and that persons are sent to seduce them.

No foremost place to Buddhism

Though the 1978 constitution gave the 'foremost place' to Buddhism, it is now occupying the lowest place.

It is just another religion. in Sri Lanka. The state has given equal recognition to all four religions. Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. State religious ceremonies consist of all four religions.

Religious ceremonies in embassies abroad are the same

The Ministry of Cultural Affairs has shrines to each of the four religions. It should not have any shrines at all. The War Memorial at Mailapitiya, Kandy district has four equal shrines for the four religions. There are four separate ministries for the four religions, each headed by a Minister of cabinet rank. This means separate staff and overheads.

There is no justification for the creation of three ministries for Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. All three have less than 10% of the population as adherents, and two of them are declining in numbers. After 450 years of Christian rule, the Christian population is less than 10% and declining.

The figures are: 9.15% (1946), 9% (1953), 8.36% (1963), 7.9% (1971), 7.6% (1981).

The breakdown for 1981 is: 6.8% Catholics and 0. 767. Protestant. (Dept of Census and Statistics)

Hinduism is also declining in Sri Lanka. 18.5% (1963) 17.64% (1971) 15.48% (1981).

Islam is on the increase, 6.84% (1963), 7 11% (1971) and 7.55% (1981).

The need for a second Panadura Vaadaya

The second Panadura Vaadaya will have to return to the theme of the first Panadura Vaadaya - Christian conversions. It will have to examine the place of Christianity in the modern world.

The United Nation's International Bill of Rights recognises a variety of religions. It does not give first place to Christianity. It specifically prohibits coercion when selecting a religion.

The confidence and arrogance of the Christian Church has been eroded through various exposures, such as the sexual abuse of Catholic boys. Church attendance has been declining in the west. "In Italy only 87% declared themselves Catholic and only 29.3% regularly attended mass. In Germany 4.5% attended church, 4% in Norway, 4% in France and 10% in Britain.

Christianity was not a popular sought after religion. It has many bitterly hostile and rival sects. It has an ugly history of forcible conversion using brutal means and involving the total elimination of indigenous beliefs. Conversion was also seen as a means of political control. The most contemptuous and virulent critics of Christianity have been the Christians themselves. The negative aspects of Christian society have been discussed in western films, novels and religious studies.

Fifty years after independence, a strong, educated Buddhist middle class has emerged in Sri Lanka. The recent threats to Buddhism in Sri Lanka have generated a strong sense of community in the group. They are perfectly capable of handling a second Vaadaya.

They have continued to examine the Bible critically. Jesus could not have gone to the Sea of Galilee passing Sidon since they lie in opposite directions. (Beyond Belief: A Buddhist Critique of Christianity by A.L. De Silva 2003).

The appeal of Buddhism lies in its lack of dogma and compulsion, the wide freedom of thought, the acceptance of personal responsibility for action and the absence of the notion of punishment and rewards. Buddhism encourages questioning and experiential wisdom before acceptance. Buddhism fits into modern thinking.

Call for Buddhism to be the state religion

The second Panadura Vaadaya must make a firm, formal call for Buddhism to be the state religion of Sri Lanka through a Buddhist lobby and continue to agitate for it, till the matter is successfully completed. It should be noted at this point that the Buddhist Commission of 1956 decided that Buddhism should not be the state religion. The Commission wanted to see a secular state, with a sharp distinction between religion and state, with a separate Buddha Sasana Commission for Buddhism. This was a serious set back for Buddhism and indicative of a serious lack of vision. Buddhist associations have now started asking for this, as explicitly mentioned in the Buddha Sasana Commission of 2002. It is also advisable to ask that the four separate cabinet level ministries for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam be dropped and a single government department attached to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs attends to any state matters relating to religion.

The Buddha Sasana Ministry and its Minister have been strongly criticised for inaction.

A 'state religion' is an accepted part of modern government. Many states have official religions. Vatican is a Catholic state. The Church of England is the official religion in Britain. Lutheran Christianity is the official religion in Norway, Sweden and Finland. The Sovereign must be Lutheran and the religion is compulsory in school. The United Nations Human Rights Committee General Comment 22 (48) Article 18 of 22.7.93 Section 9 states, “the fact that a religion is recognized as a state religion …”.

Buddhists are increasing:

The figures for Buddhists are;

66.18% (1963),

67.27% (1971),

69.3% (1981) (Dept of Census & Statistics).

Even after 450 years of Christian domination, the majority of the population is solidly Buddhist and Sri Lanka is a major center for Buddhism today as well. Its philosophy has entered the scientific discourse in the west. Buddhism is increasingly receiving respect, internationally as a nonviolent religion with a valuable orientation.

Buddhism is on the increase in America, Australia and Britain. It is getting established in Scandinavia and Africa. It is also gaining ground in Latin America. Argentina, Brazil and Chile have shown an interest in Buddhism. Buddhism is recognised by the UN. Wesak is a UN holiday from 2000.Buddhism is taught in prestigious western universities. Its philosophy is increasingly used in exploring contemporary issues. It is an emerging world religion and may well be the dominant religion of the 21st century.

Open religious audit of persons

The notion of reservations for religious categories has emerged. Christians are speaking of a 7% reservation for them in government and education. There is also the notion of a 'Muslim region' in the Eastern province. Over representation of non-Buddhists, particularly Christians in parliament, Cabinet, public and mercantile sectors is openly discussed. It is alleged that the Port is full of Muslims. It is alleged that the senior staff at Lake House are mainly Christians. Therefore, there must also be a demand for a permanent, open religious audit of persons in the state sector and public institutions. Religion is a recognised census category. Therefore a religious audit can be seen as a routine activity.

This paper finally suggests a rallying slogan for the Buddhists “I AM .PROUD TO BE A BUDDHIST "



Copyright 1997-2004 www.lankaweb.Com Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.
Reproduction In Whole Or In Part Without Express Permission is Prohibited.