The Sunday Leader

Whom the ‘Temple’ beckons

By N Sathiya Moorthy

In a nation where the majority community has its own most important of all its annual religious functions changed through a Government fiat, for someone or the other to periodically quarrel about the need for (more) Buddhist ‘temples’ in Tamil-majority areas in the North and the East, is sad and laughable at the same time. It’s more so in post-war Sri Lanka, where greater efforts should be on to be more and more-than-accommodative to the ‘sentiments’ of the minority communities, which did suffer over the long run, post-Independence, than continue to treat them as ‘push-over’ and push religion and gods that they claim are not theirs.

If nothing else, Buddhism as a religion and Lord Buddha as the Preceptor of the ‘Dhamma’ faith said and did everything that is being said and done, millennia after His time, that too in His very name and in purported defence of his Teachings. It’s all political, at best sociological, and there is nothing theological and spiritual to it all.

It’s even more so about the avoidable counter-reservations that were silently being spread in the name of Hinduism, especially the ‘Saiva Siththantha’, the ‘Tamil form’ of Saivism that is claimed to be being practised in the name of the ‘Jaffna Tamils’, especially. There is nothing ‘Hindu’ or ‘Saiviite’ about it, either. For, all religions preach Eternal Peace, far removed from ‘existential issues’, where alone religion and temples have a place – not otherwise.

True, God created man, and Man in turn created God, or gods! Man also created religions and philosophies in the name of those god or gods. Most definitely, it was Man who created ‘temples’, and other places of worship. Even here, there is no ‘definite’ description of ‘temples’. There are no fixed designs to such structures. If someone said that Christianity and Islam are ‘monolithic religions’ with fixed designs and structural use for their places of worship, post-War Europe and petro-dollar Gulf-Arab region both have different stories to tell.

Vihara and kovil

In Sri Lanka alone, a ‘temple’ refers to a place of Buddhist religious worship. Across the seas, in neighbouring India, where Gauthama Buddha founded the religion and where there are pockets where the faith is still being practised, the term ‘temple’ ordinarily refers to a ‘Hindu place of worship’. There, Buddhists have their ‘viharas’ in most places, languages and contexts – and India has a lot many of all of them and more!

In Sri Lanka, the Tamil term, ‘kovil’ is used to denote a Hindu place of worship, even in the English language, including Government records and documents. Ask the average Tamil, be it in Sri Lanka or Tamil Nadu, where the language is widely spoken than in the island-nation, the term ‘kovil’ ordinarily stands for a Hindu place of worship, yes. But among the local Christians, it also stands for a church. Likewise, the term ‘Iyer’ denotes a Brahmin priest in the Hindu temple context.  To a Christian, an ‘Iyer’ is his parish priest.

There is a Tamil proverb that means that one should not reside in a town/locality where there is no ‘temple’, ‘kovil’, or a ‘place of worship’, to be precise: “Kovil-illa ooril kudiyirukka-vendam”.But there is no near-saying, possibly in any language or community, caste or religion, that says that every place of worship is worthy of religious observances, for all. Or, that one should keep on building places of worship, by whatever name called and to whichever religion it belongs, just because one felt like it.

The success of a victory is in keeping it. It applies to war and elections, in the contemporary, democratic context. But the success of a temple is not in building one, or one more, but having enough people of offer prayers and at periodic intervals, of hours and days, not months and years. A new Buddhist ‘temple’ in the Tamil area may come with a monk or two for its upkeep and for performing the daily rituals – but it may not be able to attract the locals to pray their even more regularly.

Love and faith

Love and faith do not flow from the barrel of the gun! And he or she who loves his faith would rather give his or her life for it, than be subdued – and forever! It is this tendency in the preceding generations of Buddhists and Hindus, not Buddhists and Tamils, as is being often made out to be in public and political discourses, in this country that is otherwise ‘blessed’, that is at the core of the nation’s continuing problems.

The hard-line Sinhala-Buddhist wanting to ‘impose’ his religion through the mechanics of the Sri Lankan State, if it came to that, needs only to look his own face in the mirror, to learn the truth. Take all the ‘de Silvas’ and ‘de Costas’, ‘Pereras’ and ‘Fernandos’ across Sri Lanka, whose ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity by the Portuguese colonisers centuries ago, did any of them actually practice Christianity, then or now?

Surnames of families have a history of their own to tell future generations, and the ‘forced conversion’ part may only be one of them. But start disturbing the environment, who knows tomorrow, an even more self-styled ‘puritanical group’ of ‘Sinhala-Buddhists’ may emerge, wanting all the de Silvas and Fonsekas to give up their ‘family names’ and adopt something more earthy in form and Buddhist in content.

Other religions across the world have had a new crop of ‘fundamentalists’ insisting on a return to the religious roots of the populace concerned. Some have also taken to ‘modern’ guns to make the faithful take the orders. The Al Qaeda and the ISIS, more recently, began controlling territory and minds all at the same time, just as the LTTE nearer home did, but more so only in political terms.

For reasons of inter-religious cross-currents maybe, the LTTE kept religion out of its equations, and thankfully so. But even they did not stay away from ‘Muslims’, whom they targeted, but in the equally undefined idea of ‘ethnicity’ and consequent issues flowing from such identities.

All of them have fallen by the way side, with the ISIS still hanging out in parts of Syria, fighting for physical survival than political existence, leave aside a religious persistence of any kind. It is another matter that stories flowing from ISIS-controlled parts of Syria and Iraq talk about their gun-toting cadres using their own Muslim women, bearing another ‘ethnic’ or ‘political’ identity, as worse than chattels — as objects to expend their lust for less worldly things that they wanted the rest of ‘em all to give up!

Lord Buddha and his preaching asked people to give up ‘lust’ of every kind – starting with one in the name of the very faith! Had it not been so, even the Great Ashoka would not have let his Hindu subjects retain their religious identity after he himself had taken to the ‘Dhamma’ in a very big way.

There is an aside to the Sri Lankan religious narrative, yes. There are those in the country who argue that the ‘ethnic differences’ between the Tamils and the Sinhalas owe (also) to the ‘fact’ that the former are Saiviites, or worshippers of Lord Siva, and the Buddhists acknowledge Lord Vishnu alone from the Hindu Trinity, and are ‘Vaishnaviites’ otherwise.

They also refer to the shrines for Lord Vishnu in most Buddhist temples in the country, but then, there is also another shrine invariably for Ganesha, or the ‘Elephant God’, who otherwise is acknowledged as the son of Lord Siva. Ask practising Hindus, they would also tell you how Lord Siva married the sister of Lord Vishnu and how the two are brothers-in-law, and never ever fought a war between them.

In India’s Odhisa region/State, where Emperor Ashoka had held sway in his time centuries ago, Gautama Buddha is considered the ninth avatar of Lord Vishnu, in a total of ten. Elsewhere in the country, and across Hindu faith, Lord Krishna is the ninth avatar. Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka have a shrine for Goddess Patni, and Tamils claim that they call Her, Kannagi,the woman protagonist of the (non-religious) Tamil epic, ‘Silappadikaram’, which again is centuries-old. None of it means anything to the present-day generation, other than the contexts to which they had once belonged, from which one can derive spiritual inspiration, not political aspirations.

Today, in the land of its origin, Buddhism thrives as much as Hinduism, which is incidentally the mother-religion, and alongside, too. Every Buddhist in Sri Lanka aspires for a pilgrimage to those holy Buddhist shrines in what is present-day India and Nepal. Every poor Buddhist man and woman collects every rupee that he or she could save through his years, for undertaking that very pilgrimage before he or she is dead and gone.

The Buddhist pilgrim is not saving that money either to build more ‘temples’ in the rest of the country for the Buddha, especially the Tamil areas where they may not exist, especially in ‘adequate numbers’, leave aside for buying guns, to target a fellow-religionist from another faith, who worships his god or gods in a ‘kovil’, which to him is still a ‘temple’!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi.

5 Comments for “Whom the ‘Temple’ beckons”

  1. gamarala

    Hundreds of Buddha statues dotting the northern landscape, many in places devoid of Buddhists, do not help in promoting Buddhism, neither do the new Buddhist temples erected and planned.
    If at all, they appear to “enforce” Buddhism.

  2. srilana is country of many religion, some fanatic trying to fool the people of srilankan .going to put up in tamil areas it fooling the people LEET not die they destroyed the buhhist temple in north and east ,uneducated politician some monks did not no what is buhhism

  3. Robert

    Religious fanatic thinking is an inbuilt thing in Sr Lankan constitution, which was adapted by the Sinhala Buddhist majority parliament.

    Chapter II of Sri Lankan constitution is solely given to Buddhism; It says Buddhism should be given foremost place beyond anything on the land.
    ( Other minor religions can co exist and bow to Buddhism and survive).

    In reality Maha sangha, the Buddhist religious higher achy can over rule any thing that happens in the country. President, who is always a Sinhala Buddhist will check with these so called Maha Sangha before agreeing for anything non Buddhist people would request.
    Such a grip the toxic brand of Theravada Buddhism has on helpless others; Tamils, Hindus, Christians, Muslims.

    I have spoken to many Sinhalese friends and non of them feel giving Buddhism a fore most place is an infringement on other,- Such is the brain washing or in grained fanatic thinking in this country. They also do not agree that others( Non Buddhists) are suffering by these inequality.

    I have no doubt that Sri Lanka is only a Buddhist country by name; It is NOT A BUDDHIST COUNRTY, because real Buddhism is preaches kindness and acceptance of others as equal. With a Buddhist majority state Army and other members of forces, internationally stand accused of extremes of violence
    people like me see this as Buddhism in Sri Lanka is equal to Wahabi Islam in Saudi Arabia.

    • robert

      This is an update with DOCUMENTED EVIDENCE after the above article appeared in your paper.

      On 17/05/2018, yesterday, PRESIDENT SIRISENA attended as chief guest at BMICH, COLOMBO. Large number of Buddhist clergy were present.

      In his speech Sirisena stated the following

      ” I will fulfil the duties and responsibilities to Bauda sasana without any delay”

      He promised that he will expedite all the projects and activities to the expectations of Maha Sanga and will take actions immediately.

  4. Maha sangara

    Buddhism become a poison in Sri Lanka. If someone say anything bad about Buddhism they will suffer later.
    Lanka Buddhist are blind. Because they support the Buddhist priest ,
    They do not practice buddhism.

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