Importance of Religion in National Identity
Posted on May 20th, 2019

N. A. de S. Amaratunga Courtesy The Island

A high ranking minister has said Sri Lanka is not a Sinhala Buddhist country though the majority belongs to that ethnic-religious community. He may or may not be showing his ignorance and may have been trying merely to attract the non-Sinhala Buddhist voter. Lot of piffle is uttered for political gain and we need not worry about it if not for the wrong view he creates by such foolish utterances and the damaging effect it would have on the historical importance and civilisational consciousness of our nation. Fortunately we have educated Christian priests in the calibre of Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, who has put the matter in its correct perspective.

National identity is not a matter to be decided by one single criterion like the religion of the majority community. A Nation cannot be created overnight by putting together on a piece of land a group of people who believe in one religion or speak one language. A nation is built, nurtured and protected in history by its people resulting in the development in their mind a civilisational consciousness which provide the cohesive values of existential importance. And in this civilisation there would have been one or two driving forces which motivated, guided and moulded the people and made them distinct and identifiable as a nation. Buddhism undoubtedly was the single most important factor that created Sri Lanka. Further Sinhala was the language of communication used by the people when building their civilisation. Therefore it is nothing but right to identify Sri Lanka as a Sinhala Buddhist country.

Recent events in Poland and Iran show that religion provides the cohesive values and could play a dominant role that seem indispensable in times of social upheaval. This view is further strengthened by the findings of a study that revealed in 18 countries across Central and East Europe, an average of 66% of people had said religion is important for national identity (Pew Research Center, 2015- 2016). Religion provides values that delineate national identity. This role may not be universal but it applies to great variety of societies including secular ones. In such countries people are more likely to see religion and national identity as entwined. Nationalism that seems to be on the rise in West European countries like Britain, France, Germany, Italy etc., has religion as its cohesive force though not overtly. Though these countries apparently have secular states religion forms a strong base for their people to unite in adversity and the governments in turn support the religious institutions. Their national symbols like the anthem and the flag carry significant religious elements. Hence integrative values are essential to hold a nation together particularly less developed unstable countries like Sri Lanka.

Modernisation, which had brought in a separation of religion and state and created secular societies had not been able to prevent a recourse to religion when the state fails. In such situations it is the religion that had been made the rallying point as happened recently in Poland. That country is an industrialised modern state that had broken away from the shackles of Russian dominance and aligned with the West. Now, Poland seems to have realised that the Western shackles may be worse with globalisation and overarching EU, threatening to destroy its identity. In this crisis it seems to be their religion that holds the people and the nation together. On the other hand, in highly modernised countries like the US and Western Europe where apparently secularism is strictly adhered to, morals have declined and it is turning into a huge social problem. As cohesive values are said to be unnecessary. In these countries too it is probable that the people will have to turn to religion, and its cohesive character and move away from secularism sooner than later.

When Ven Mahinda Thera brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka he also brought the seeds for an entire civilisation. Consequently, the language, arts and crafts, literature, social values, attitude to life, etc. sprouted and grew on this land. It is the tenets and the morals of Buddhism that built the civilisation in this country. People built, nurtured and protected this civilisation for centuries and it is this civilisation that nourishes and perhaps moulds all who inhabit this land.

The Cardinal has expressed a similar viewpoint recently. This may be why Sri Lankan Christians, Hindus and Muslims may be somewhat different from their counterparts in other countries in their attitude to life and values.

Buddhism in Sri Lanka has also looked after other religious believers including those who came in search of trade. A well-known instance is the protection extended to Muslims by the Kandyan King when they were persecuted by the Portuguese. He did not do it to get their votes but out of compassion.

Though the Minister concerned says that the Buddhist majority must not forcefully burden the minorities with their dogma and view this has never happened throughout history. Espousing the truth and reality and attempting to repulse unethical advances should not be misconstrued as Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism.

Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country which belongs to everybody who lives in it.

N. A. de S. Amaratunga

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