Religious History of Sri Lanka
THE IMPORTANCE OF RELIGIONReligion is very important in Sri Lanka, playing a powerful role in politics and within communities. A 2009 Gallup Poll rated Sri Lanka as one of the world’s most religious countries, finding that 99% of Sri Lankans say that religion is important in their daily lives. Over 70% of the population identify as Buddhist, nearly 13% identify as Hindu, 10% are Muslim, and the remaining 7% are predominantly Christian, with less than one percent practicing other religions, or no religion.
Even though the various religions often celebrate the same festivals and feasts, each group has its own beliefs, pilgrimage sites, heroes, legends and even culinary specialties. Much of Sri Lanka’s cultural richness comes from this religious diversity.
Buddhism, brought to Sri Lanka around 250 B.C., is the religion of the Sinhalese majority. The Buddhism that is practiced here is one of the oldest forms, often referred to as “Theravada,” whereas many other parts of Asia have adopted a newer form known as “Mahayana.” Within each of these two larger categories are many individual sects and belief systems, but the main distinction is how the Buddha is perceived.
In Theravada Buddhism, the Buddha is not considered to be a god, and people do not “pray” to him. He is seen as an enlightened teacher who has shown how all beings can free themselves from the cycle of earthly suffering, and it is up to each of us to do the work required for our own enlightenment. In Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddha is treated as a god and there is an entire pantheon of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and other deities who can help us in times of need.
Hinduism likely pre-dated Buddhism in Sri Lanka, but was displaced by Buddhism when it arrived in the third century B.C. Today, Hinduism is practiced primarily by the Tamils, an ethnic group that is divided into two groups. The Sri Lankan Tamils have lived on the island for centuries but have origins in south India. A separate group of Indian Tamils were brought by the British from India to work in the tea and coffee plantations in the 1800s. Most Tamils live in the north and the east of the country, and over 80% are Hindu. They worship a wide variety of traditional gods as well as numerous regional or village gods.
With such distinct divisions along religious and ethnic lines, one might expect there to be conflict based on these religious differences. However, the worst conflict in Sri Lanka’s recent history was fought for secular reasons.
CIVIL WARFrom 1983 until 2009, Sri Lanka was embroiled in a terrible civil war between the Sinhalese majority and the “Tamil Tigers,” a rebel army formed within the Tamil ethnic minority. The roots of the conflict are complex.
Over time, the British colonial government built better schools for the Tamils and appointed them to official posts, favoring them over the Sinhalese majority. This is a very typical colonial “divide and conquer” approach. Unfortunately, it creates tension between the majority of the population who are treated as lower class citizens, and the minority who are reaping benefits from their colonial patrons. After independence in 1948, power shifted into the hands of the Sinhalese majority.
The new government created policies–like making Sinhala the official language–that shifted the balance of power in favor of the majority. To further cement their control, the new government passed the Ceylon Citizenship Bill in November of 1948, which made it nearly impossible for Tamils to become official citizens of the new country. Out of over 700,000 resident Tamils, only 5,000 were able to gain citizenship.
Tension continued to build until 1983, when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, better known as the Tamil Tigers, started a rebellion against the government of Sri Lanka.
Throughout the 26 years of the civil war, terrible atrocities were carried out by both sides of the conflict, often against innocent civilians. Over 100,000 people were killed in the fighting, including two heads of state. Rajiv Gandhi, the ex-Prime Minister of India, was assassinated by a Tamil suicide bomber in 1991 while campaigning for re-election. Then in 1993, the Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa was killed by a suicide bomber.
There were five broken peace agreements over the course of the war, until the government decided there could be no diplomatic solution. The Sri Lankan government increased its attacks and finally declared victory over the Tamil Tigers in May of 2009.
Despite this difficult recent history, Sri Lankans are known to be incredibly welcoming to visitors. Approximately 10% of all jobs in Sri Lanka are supported either directly or indirectly by tourism, and almost $10 billion USD enter the economy annually through tourism. It is to be expected that the industry will only grow as the infrastructure develops to make it possible for more people to access the cultural and natural wonders of this amazing island.