Religions For Responsible Governance Building Bridges

The Ven. Galkande Dhammananda, Swami Guttianada Saraswati, Sheikh Syed Ibrahim and Bishop Duleep de Chickera leading the prayer and meditation on February 2.

It was an unprecedented event; a Buddhist Monk apologizing, on television, to the war affected people of Sri Lanka in the North and East for any wrongs done to them by Buddhists.

The Monk, the Ven. Galkande Dhammananda of the Walpola Rahula Institute was participating in a live TV discussion on Rupavahini on February 4, this year.

Dhammananda Thero was one of four religious leaders who reflected on the role religions had played in post-independence Sri Lanka in this TV talk show. The others were Imam Sheikh Syed Ibrahim from the Colpetty Mosque, Swami Guttiananda Saraswati from the Chinmaya Mission and Fr. Joseph Christie of the Anglican Church of Saints Mary and John.

In his intervention Dhammananda Thero said that he was not a Mahanayake of any temple but wished to extend an apology. He bemoaned the fact that the Buddhist clergy had failed to intervene to help those whose lands had not yet been released or in assisting those in jail for war time activities. That, the Thero said, would be better than the building of temples in those areas.

The talk show was the first media exposure for this group that has come together as Religions for Responsible Governance. On February 2nd they held a prayer and meditation at the Sri Lanka Foundation institute reflecting on the role that religion has played in public life in Sri Lanka in the past 71 years. Clergy leading the gathering emphasized that the various ethnic and religious groups had come together to win independence from our colonizers but had,  since then failed to build on that unity. Dhammananda Thero told those gathered that no one was born with evil in their heart; it is society that fosters such persons.

Members of the clergy and lay persons who participated at the February 2 event.
Members of the clergy and lay persons who participated at the February 2 event.

Bishop Duleep de Chickera, who was one of the clergy leading the mediation, prayed for forgiveness, for not using religion in a productive manner to bring about national cohesion. Imam Ibrahim echoed these sentiments and asked the deity to guide us through the future on the correct path. He expressed regret that religious bodies have not been more transparent about each other’s rituals and practices.  Indeed, that failure to be open about ones beliefs and practices have led to suspicions and myths about the other, with disastrous consequences, as we have seen even in the recent past.

The Colpetty Mosque has, of late, been open to those of other faiths to visit and learn about Islam.

Swami Guttiananda made an important point. He said that religion is only an internal identity and must never be an external identifier. Divisions in society came about, when religion takes on that external form, he pointed out.

As a nation, we have become more alienated with politicians in particular endorsing (emphasizing) the divisions and playing to both religious and ethnic sentiments, with the sole idea of staying in or grabbing power. They rarely act swiftly and decisively to douse the flames of rivalry between communities. The same can be said of some clergy who actively promote hatred of the other.

There was an opportunity for everyone to get to know the other, after the meditation.
There was an opportunity for everyone to get to know the other, after the meditation.

The reflection is timely.

We claim to be independent, but are still slaves to the divisive ideologies that are spewed out by religious and political leaders.  If we claim to be independent from colonizers we accuse of adopting a divide and rule policy, it is time to reflect whether current politicians and even religious leaders are doing anything different.  If they used methods for a more harmonious existence, would we be the fractured society we are today?

We have failed to build a Sri Lankan identity, where every person is treated equally and people are proud to call themselves Sri Lankans. Looking through a divisive lens we cannot even conceive of anyone other than a Sinhala Buddhist becoming the Head of State. Neighbouring India, a predominantly Hindu country, has had Muslims and Sikhs as their Presidents, while we continue to live inside our ethno-religious compartments of Sinhala Buddhist, Christian, Christian Sinhala, Muslim, Tamil, Tamil Christian and so forth.

Let’s hope that the first steps taken by Religions for Responsible Governance would be successful in breaking these man-made barriers.

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