Religion in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is the spiritual heartland of Theravada Buddhism, and also plays host to three of the world’s other major religions...
Reclining Buddha at Isurumuniya Temple, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. Photo: Shutterstock
Reclining Buddha at Isurumuniya Temple, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. Photo: Shutterstock

Reclining Buddha at Isurumuniya Temple, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. Photo: Shutterstock

Religion plays a crucial role in Sri Lankan life, irrespective of race and creed. Central to the island’s religious life is Buddhism, the faith of the vast majority of the country’s Sinhalese. Hinduism is the dominant religion of Sri Lanka’s Tamils, though significant numbers are Christian. The fourth of the island’s faiths, Islam, is professed by Muslims living mainly along the west and, particularly, east coasts.

The presence of four such diverse religions squeezed together in such geographical proximity has resulted in a significant blurring of boundaries in places. Hindu deities are commonly found in Buddhist temples, while Hindus reciprocate by declaring the Buddha to be an avatar or incarnation of Vishnu. Catholic saints are easily accepted as further additions to the accumulated clutter of religious images, and are accorded due reverence by adherents of other faiths careful not to miss out on any spiritual merit, wherever it might be found.

Followers of all four religions visit one another’s festivals and pilgrimage places. This state of cheerful cohabitation is summed up by the revered pilgrimage town of Kataragama, where a Hindu temple, Buddhist stupa and mosque sit side by side; and by the sacred mountain of Adam’s Peak, whose mysterious “footprint” has been claimed in turn by Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians, all of whom assert that it was made, variously, by the Buddha, Siva, Adam and St Thomas.


Buddhism

Buddhism is central to the life and beliefs of the island’s Sinhalese. Almost more than a religion, it has also given the Sinhalese a sense of national identity, and fostered a view of their island as the so-called “chosen land” of Buddhism, as the island’s more extreme monks like to put it – it’s said that the Buddha himself pronounced a blessing on the island from his deathbed, and claimed it as a future stronghold of the faith. In addition, Sri Lanka was one of the first places converted to the religion, meaning that, since Buddhism has now virtually disappeared from India, Sri Lanka has the distinction of being one of the world’s oldest Buddhist countries, as well as preserving the faith in its “pure” original form, the so-called Theravada tradition. It was also in Sri Lanka, at Aluvihara (see page for more information, click here), that the most important Theravada texts, the Tripitaka, were first written down, while the Tooth Relic at Kandy is perhaps the world’s most venerated Buddhist relic.


The life of the Buddha

The future Buddha, Siddhartha, was the son of King Shuddhodana of Kapilavastu and his queen, Maya. He was born at Lumbini in the Himalayan foothills, in what is now Nepal. His family name was Gautama and he belonged to the Shakya clan, hence his alternative name, Shakyamuni (Shakya Sage) or Shakyasimha (Shakya Lion). Among his other epithets are Amitabha (Infinite Light) and Tathagata (He Who Has Arrived At Perfection).

Queen Maya died a week after delivering the prince. At Siddhartha’s birth, the royal astrologer prophesied that he would one day become disillusioned with worldly pleasures and become a mendicant in search of the wisdom to overcome suffering. Siddhartha grew up into a handsome youth, gentle and compassionate, skilled in all the arts. The king, remembering the astrologer’s prophecy, tried to save his son from unpleasant sights. He was surrounded by luxury. The king found for him a lovely wife, Yashodhara, princess of a neighbouring kingdom. Yashodhara bore him a son. But the seeds of disenchantment had already sprouted in Siddhartha’s heart. He named his son Rahula (Impediment).


Suffering and enlightenment

As prophesied, Siddhartha saw the three signs of suffering: sickness, old age and death. On the night of the full moon in the month of Vaisakha (or Vesak, as it’s called in Sri Lanka), Siddhartha prepared for the Great Renunciation. He stood at the door of his bedchamber, looked at his sleeping wife and son for a few moments, and then left the palace.

Siddhartha sat at the feet of famous masters, but none of them could explain to him the cause of sorrow. For a while he joined a group of ascetics and performed severe physical austerities. He became extremely weak in body and mind, and realised that wisdom could not be attained through self-mortification. At last, meditating under a Bo tree near Gaya, he attained Bodhi (Illumination). Prince Siddhartha had become the Buddha, the Enlightened One.

After becoming enlightened, Gautama the Buddha could have immediately released himself from the cycle of rebirths and attained nirvana, supreme liberation. But the compassionate side of his nature prevented him from tasting the fruit of liberation so long as a single living creature was in pain. His first sermon was preached in the Deer Park at Sarnath, near the holy city of Varanasi. According to legend, deer from the forest listened enraptured to the Buddha, sensing that his message was for all living beings. It contained the Four Noble Truths, which form the basis of Buddhist thought (see box).

As the number of his followers increased, the Bhikshusangha (Order of Monks) was formed. At first, only men were admitted. But later, urged by his foster mother Gotami, the Buddha admitted women and an Order of Nuns was formed.

After a few months the Buddha visited Kapilavastu and met his father, wife and son. He had left as a prince: he returned as a mendicant. He was hailed as a hero, a conqueror in the spiritual realm.

During the remaining 40 years of his life the Buddha travelled from village to village, preaching the message of love, compassion, tolerance and self-restraint. He led a humble life, and died in 483 BC, in his 80th year, at Kusinara, not far from the place of his birth. His last words were to his favourite disciple, Ananda: “A Buddha can only point the way. Become a lamp unto yourself. Work out your own salvation diligently.”

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Photo: Shutterstock


The Four Noble Truths

The Buddha preached his first sermon in the Deer Park at Sarnath, where the ascetics from whom he had parted company a few months earlier became his first audience. The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths outline the key problems underlining man’s existence:

1. Life is suffering.

2. Suffering is caused by desire and attachment.

3. If you extinguish desire and attachment, suffering will cease.

4. The Middle Path leads to the end of desire and attachment (to be steered between the extremes of sad and useless asceticism and ignoble hedonism).


The Buddha’s teachings

The Buddha’s first sermon is called the Sermon of the Middle Way and steers between two sets of extremes: on the ethical plane, the extremes of self-indulgence and asceticism; on the philosophical plane, the extremes of naive acceptance of everything as real and the total rejection of everything as unreal. While Hindu thought was preoccupied with the essential nature of Absolute Reality, the Buddha avoided metaphysical controversies. “The arising of sorrow, the termination of sorrow, that is all I teach,” he once said.

The starting point of Buddhist teaching is the Four Noble Truths: that life is suffering; that suffering is the result of craving; that it is possible to put an end to craving and thus suffering; and that there is a path which leads to the end of suffering. This path is summed up in the Noble Eightfold Path, a kind of Buddhist Ten Commandments comprising a simple set of rules to encourage one to live virtuously. These are right conduct, right motive, right resolve, right speech, right livelihood, right attention, right effort and right meditation. By following this path of restraint and self-perfection, one can conquer craving and put oneself on the path towards nirvana, the transcendental state of complete emancipation.

Shortly after the Buddha’s death, his oldest disciple, Kashyapa, convened a Council at Rajagriha. The master’s oral teachings were classified into three sections, known as Tripitaka (Three Baskets). These, along with later commentaries, became the principal scriptures of Buddhism, and it was in Sri Lanka that they were first written down on palm leaves, then loosely bound to make books (at the monastery of Aluvihara, just north of Kandy).


Buddhism in Sri Lanka

Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka, according to tradition, in 247 BC, when the missionary Mahinda, sent to the island by the great Indian Buddhist emperor Asoka, converted the king of Anuradhapura, Devanampiya Tissa, and his followers. Buddhism quickly established itself as the state religion, giving the Sinhalese a new-found sense of self-identity.

Buddhism and the state remained closely linked throughout the Anuradhapura period. The city’s kings were seen as upholders of the faith, judged by their piety and commitment to raising great monasteries and other religious edifices – the origins of the great sequence of monasteries and stupas that still dominate the ruined city. The successful network of irrigation works constructed by the city’s rulers also provided an agricultural surplus which allowed it to support a large community of monks, giving the early city the character of an enormous theocracy.

Buddhism gradually disappeared from India but continued as the pre-eminent religion in Sri Lanka, despite repeated Tamil incursions and the growing influence of Hinduism during the Polonnaruwan period. As the state religion, Buddhism suffered following the collapse of Sinhalese power in the north, with the island’s increasingly enfeebled kings no longer able to support the huge monasteries of previous eras, or to discipline errant monks. The religion further suffered with the arrival of Europeans and missionary Christianity from the 16th century onwards, while the throne of Kandy passed into Tamil hands, leading to renewed Hindu influence on Sinhalese affairs.

The lowest point arrived in 1753, when it was discovered that there were not enough monks left to ordain any new clergy. The king of Kandy sent to Thailand for qualified priests, who duly arrived and ordained a fresh set of monks, the first members of the so-called Siyam Nikaya, the Siam Order, an exclusive Buddhist sect which survives to this day.


The Theravada tradition

Sri Lankan Buddhism preserves the religion in its original and “purest” form, the Theravada tradition, or “Law of the Elders”. This is also the dominant form of the religion in Southeast Asian Buddhist countries such as Burma and Thailand, who look to Sri Lanka as the traditional heartland of the religion, thanks to its geographical proximity to India and the fact that Buddhism has been established there for so long. The Theravada tradition stresses, as did the Buddha himself, that one is personally responsible for one’s own spiritual welfare, and that the only route to nirvana is through constant spiritual striving – a long and difficult path that will usually require millions of lifetimes to achieve. As such, the Theravada tradition contrasts markedly with the far more populist Mahayana tradition that subsequently developed in Tibet, China and Japan, which holds that nirvana can be achieved, not through personal self-knowledge, but through devotion and prayer to the various deities, or Bodhisattvas (Buddhas-to-be) of the Mahayana pantheon. Despite the fact that Mahayana Buddhism promises a much swifter and less challenging route to nirvana, it enjoyed only a brief and limited period of influence in Sri Lanka, and had more or less disappeared by the 10th century.


Buddhist pantheon in Sri Lanka

Buddhism in Sri Lanka has become deeply intermingled with Hindu beliefs over the centuries, and many of the gods of Hinduism have been co-opted into the Sri Lankan Buddhist belief system. This isn’t as inconsistent as one might think: the Buddha himself accepted the existence and powers of the myriad gods of India (and according to tradition even ascended to the heavens to preach to them), but simply argued that they were subject to the same laws of karma and rebirth as all other creatures.

Vishnu (often called Upulvan) is regarded as a protector of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and his image can often be found standing next to the main Buddha image in Buddhist shrines – he also often has freestanding shrines dedicated to him, or even complete temples, as at the Vishnu Devale in Kandy.


The Sangha

Although much reduced in number since the days of the great Anuradhapuran monasteries, the community of Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka – the Sangha – still plays an important symbolic and practical role in the country; there’s also a small order of Buddhist nuns. Young boys are recruited into the Sangha if they show a particular interest in religious matters, and if their horoscope is propitious. Practical considerations can also be an important factor, since boy monks are guaranteed an education and a basic level of material security which the island’s poorer families would not always be able to provide for them. Suitable candidates are first initiated into the Sangha as novices around the age of 10, with full ordination occurring at 20. Monks are supposed to enter the Sangha for life; there is no tradition, as in Thailand and Burma, of laymen entering monasteries for a short period before returning to normal life.

On entering the Sangha, the boy monk shaves his head, dons the characteristic orange or red robes and takes the vow to commit himself to the stringent monastic code of behaviour, whose 250 rules will henceforth govern his existence.


Chosen land

One unfortunate by-product of contemporary Sri Lankan Buddhism has been its monks’ increasing involvement, since Independence, in ultra-nationalist politics. Many of the more conservative monks regard Sri Lanka as the “chosen land” of Buddhism, and their attitudes to their fellow Sri Lankan Tamils is often disturbingly reminiscent of the anti-Arab rhetoric of hardline Jewish rabbis in Israel. In 1959, Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was shot dead by a Buddhist monk in revenge for making modest concessions to the Tamils. Monks have regularly taken to the streets throughout the civil war to demonstrate against peace initiatives, recalling the example of the legendary King Dutugemunu, who went to war accompanied by 50 holy men who sought to legitimise the trail of slaughter he left behind him in his conquest of the island. The Sangha now have their own political party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), or Heritage Party. The first monk was elected to parliament in 2001, and the party was part of Mahinda Rajapakse’s ruling coalition, using their popular support to push an intransigently pro-Buddhist, anti-Tamil agenda.


Poya days

The Buddha urged his disciples to undertake special spiritual practices on every full moon (Poya) day, and the practice has stood the test of time. Buddhists still venerate Poya days, which the more devout spend in worship. The most important is Vesak Poya (May), while the Esala and Poson Poyas are also associated with major festivals. All 12 Poya days are public holidays, and Sri Lankans often travel around the island on pilgrimage or to visit family, particularly if the Poya day falls on a Friday or Monday. Hotels and transport get very busy and no alcohol is supposed to be sold, though some tourist hotels will discreetly serve foreign guests. 


Daily Buddhist ritual and belief

Unlike Islam and Christianity, Buddhism has no organised form of worship – devotees simply visit their temple whenever they wish, to pray, meditate and make offerings of fruit, food, flowers or other items, or to light oil lamps. Temples are busiest on Poya (full moon) days (see box), which are traditionally regarded as particularly important and when more devout Buddhists will dress in white and retire to the temple for the day to muse on religious matters or recite scriptures. On special occasions, lay people may also arrange for the chanting of Buddhist scriptures by monks, a practice known as pirith, and the nearest Buddhist equivalent to the traditional Hindu puja.


The Ramayana

The great Hindu epic, the Ramayana, tells the story of the epic battle between Rama, the eldest son of King Dasharatha of Ayodhya, northern India, and Ravana, the demon king of Lanka, who abducts Rama’s wife, Sita, before being finally defeated by Rama, his brother, Laksmana, and an army of monkeys led by Hanuman. Rama is revealed to be an avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu himself. Several places in Sri Lanka are popularly linked with the great poem: rival locations at Ella and Nuwara Eliya both claim to be where Ravana imprisoned the unfortunate Sita, while Adam’s Bridge – the chain of islets that runs between India and Sri Lanka – is said to have been built by Hanuman to facilitate the passage of his monkey armies. A trio of rocky outcrops also stands as testament to Hanuman’s mighty powers. Hanuman was sent by Rama to the Himalayas to search for a rare medicinal herb to save the life of Laksmana, wounded in battle. Arriving at the Himalayas, the absent-minded monkey-god realised that he had completely forgotten which type of herb was required, so decided to uproot an entire mountain and take the whole thing back to Sri Lanka in the hope that the required plant could be found somewhere upon it. The specific herb was found, and Laksmana recovered, to fight another day. The rocks at Hakgala, Ritigala and Unawatuna are popularly believed to be fragments fallen from this peak.

A section of the Naga Pooshani Ambal Kovil on Nainativu Island in the Jaffna region of Sri Lanka. The temple is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Ambal. Photo: Shutterstock


Hinduism

The complex and disparate collection of beliefs known generically as Hinduism has been long established alongside Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Buddhism was born from Hinduism, and the two religions share many assumptions about the world: that we are born over and over again; that our present deeds and accumulated karma determine the course of our future lives; and that we may one day hope to escape the endless cycle of rebirths, a longed-for deliverance which Hindus call moksha. In Sri Lanka, the exact boundary between the two religions has become decidedly blurred, and many gods from the Hindu pantheon occupy important positions in Sri Lankan Buddhism.

Hinduism in Sri Lanka is the exclusive preserve of the island’s Tamils, who practise a form of the religion similar to that found in Tamil Nadu on the Indian mainland. Tamil Hinduism has little time for the complex metaphysical speculations which have characterised some schools of Indian thought, and tends to express itself instead in shows of ecstatic personal devotion towards the chosen deity. During Sri Lanka’s great Hindu religious festivals, such as those at Kataragama and at the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple in Jaffna, devotees affirm their love of the god by performing gruesome (to Western eyes) acts of self-mortification, driving skewers through the flesh of their cheeks, limbs and back – though they assert that their god protects them from all feelings of pain. Other devotees express their devotion by walking barefoot across burning coals – perhaps a distant folk memory of the events narrated at the culmination of the Ramayana, whose heroine, Sita, is forced to walk over fire at the end to prove her purity to her husband Rama. (Firewalking has also caught on in Buddhist parts of the island and now forms an integral part of the nightly dance shows put on around Kandy for tourists.)

Most Sri Lankan Tamils are followers of Siva, one of the great three gods of Hinduism, or his son Skanda. Skanda (also known as Murugan) has particular local significance, having become hopelessly muddled up with the Buddhist god Kataragama, and is now worshipped under both names by both faiths, particularly at his shrine in the pilgrimage town of Kataragama. Siva’s other son, the elephant-headed Ganesh, is also popular, as is the south Indian goddess Pattini, the paragon of wifely devotion. Kataragama, Ganesh and Pattini are also often found in Buddhist temples, or in independent shrines, such as the devales at Kandy, although these are visited mainly by Buddhists.

Temples dedicated to the other great Hindu god, Vishnu, are few and far between – ironically, you’re more likely to find images of Vishnu in a Buddhist temple than a Hindu one, given that he’s regarded as the protector of Buddism in the island (while according to some schools of Hindu thought, the Buddha was actually an incarnation of Vishnu). There are, however, a number of temples associated with Vishnu’s human incarnation Rama and his wife Sita, the hero and heroine of the great Indian epic the Ramayana, significant parts of which are set in Sri Lanka.


Temples

Important Siva temples can be found all around the island – at Chilaw, Colombo, Trincomalee, Jaffna and many other places. Sri Lankan temples follow the plan of their Tamil cousins, although only the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple in Jaffna rivals the great temples of the subcontinent in size. The principal gateway is usually marked with a soaring tower, or gopuram, usually garishly painted and covered in hundreds of tiny carvings of gods and goddesses – a symbolic representation in stone of the sacred Mt Kailash, the Himalayan home of Siva and myriad other deities. Most Sri Lankan Hindu temples have a simple interior plan, with a central shrine (cella) in which the temple’s principal image is kept, surrounded by an ambulatory, which is usually lined with further subsidiary shrines. In Siva temples the god is symbolised by the lingam, a traditional phallic symbol, and a yoni, a symbolic representation of the female sexual organ, placed at the base of the lingam. Skanda’s principal symbols are his mount, the peacock and the vel (spear); during festivals worshippers often carry kavadis: paired pieces of semicircular wood or metal decorated with flowers and peacock feathers. 

Temples are at their most vibrant during the island’s myriad Hindu festivals. Most feature processions in which enormous, colourfully decorated and illuminated chariots are pulled around the streets by hugh crowds of bare-chested devotees – a more free-form alternative to the classic Buddhist perahera (parade). The most famous chariot procession occurs during the Vel festival in Colombo (see page for more information, click here), though there are many others across the island. Outside festival times, the chariot can usually be found parked somewhere in or outside the temple.

Anglican All Saints' Church is located in Galle Fort, Sri Lanka. Photo: Shutterstock


Christianity

Unlike Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, Christianity is the one religion in Sri Lanka which crosses ethnic lines, at least to a small degree. There are no Buddhist Tamils or Hindu Sinhalese, but a small number of Sinhalese and a significant number of Tamils profess Christianity, as do the island’s Burghers.

According to local tradition, Christianity was first brought to Sri Lanka by St Thomas, one of the original disciples, who is believed to have introduced the religion to India, where he was martyred (at Mylapore, in modern Chennai). According to local Christian tradition, it is his footprint, rather than the Buddha’s, which is imprinted into the rock at the summit of Adam’s Peak.

The real history of Christianity in Sri Lanka, however, begins with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505. The Portuguese were ferociously zealous missionaries, and converting the local population to Roman Catholicism was one of their most cherished missions – one which, sadly, was accompanied by the widespread destruction of Buddhist and Hindu temples. The preferential treatment accorded Christians by the Portuguese encouraged the conversion of many local people, ancestors of the large number of Christians who live along the west coast from Colombo all the way to Jaffna and whose Portuguese surnames – Perera, Silva, de Soysa and so on – remain common to this day.

Following the Dutch conquest of the island, Roman Catholicism was banned and the Calvinist form of Protestantism introduced, with the establishment of the Dutch Reformed Church – although compared to the Portuguese, the Dutch were more interested in making money than in saving souls. Missionary Christianity revived somewhat under the British, who established the Anglican Church of Ceylon and introduced other denominations – including Baptist, Methodist and Pentecostal – to the island.

Christian churches developed an enviable network of schools – today, many of the island’s best schools and colleges carry the names of Christian saints, even if nearly all their pupils are Buddhist or Hindu.


Christianity today

Perhaps not surprisingly, the proportion of Christian Sri Lankans has fallen since Independence from over 9 percent to the current 7.5 percent; conversions to Christianity are now rare, except occasionally amongst Plantation Tamils. Ninety percent of the island’s Christians are Roman Catholic, and their florid churches and wayside shrines are still a major feature of the landscape along the west coast between Negombo and Jaffna. The island’s foremost Christian centre of pilgrimage is in the north, at Madhu, whose church is home to the miracle-working statue of Our Lady of Madhu, images of whom can be found in churches all over the country. The statue’s power to protect devotees (against snakebite, in particular) appeals to members of all faiths – the annual Madhu festival (August) regularly attracts half a million visitors.

The decorative red-and-white facade of Jamiul Alfar Mosque, built in 1908, in the heart of the bazaar of Pettah, one of the oldest districts in Colombo. Photo: Shutterstock


Islam 

Islam has a long history in Sri Lanka. The religion arrived in the island soon after its foundation, brought by Arab traders and settlers to the coastal regions – the Kachimalai Mosque in Beruwala is said to mark the spot where the first Muslim settlers landed, sometime in the 8th century. A string of large Muslim trading settlements subsequently grew up all along the western coast from Jaffna to Galle. The Muslims had a virtual monopoly on trade on the island until the Portuguese conquered the coastal provinces and began to persecute them. This forced them to seek protection from the king of Kandy, who offered them refuge in inland towns such as Gampola, Mawanella, Welimada and Akuressa where many of their descendants still live today, the men instantly recognisable thanks to their distinctive skull caps and beards.

This long-established community of Arab-descended Muslims (formerly known as the Moors, though the term is no longer much used) were subsequently joined by further co-religionists. A wave of so-called “Malay” settlers arrived during the Dutch period from Malay and Java, most of them soldiers brought over by the Dutch. Further Muslims arrived from India during the British period, including soldiers and merchants from Tamil Nadu and Kerala who came to the island searching for business opportunities and never left, while other Indian Muslims to arrive during the 19th century included groups of Memon Muslims from Sind (in modern Pakistan) and Bohras and Khoja Muslims from Gujarat in India. 

Muslims now make up around 10 percent of the island’s population, mainly settled along the west and east coasts in places such as Galle, Aluthgama and Hambantota. Most Sri Lankan Muslims follow the Sunni sect of Islam, although there is also a small number of Shi’a Muslims (descended from the Bohra and Khoja settlers from Gujarat). Mosques are a common sight around the coast (there are around 5,000 in Sri Lanka in total), and the call to prayer is a distinctive feature of local life in many places, often competing for attention with amplified chanting from nearby Buddhist temples. All the major Islamic festivals are also observed, including Id-ul-Fitr (see page for more information, click here), Milad-un-Nabi (The Prophet’s Birthday) and Id-ul-Adha (The Festival of the Sacrifice), although these remain largely private affairs within the Muslim community, and aren’t celebrated with the public flamboyance of major Buddhist and Hindu events.


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