Religion in Sri Lanka

Four great religions share the allegiance of the people of Sri Lanka: Buddhism (70%), Brahmanism (15.%), Christianity (8%) and Islam (7%).


The real history of Sri Lanka begins with the introduction of Buddhism, and the life and civilization of Sri Lanka cannot be properly understood without some knowledge of its teachings. Buddhism was born in India, in the country of Magadha, on the borders of Nepal in the north-east of the peninsula.

The Buddha

Siddartha Gautama, who became the Buddha, was the son of a petty king of the Shakya tribe and belonged to the warrior caste of the Kshatryas. He was born about 568 B.C. in the town of Kapilavastu, near the present frontier town of Nautanwa, in the north of the Gorakhpur district (Bihar). His mother died in giving birth to hini, and he was later much struck by this fact: his life had been paid for by the death of another human being. He was brought up by his father’s second wife, to whom he was much attached.

The young Gautama was instructed in the principles of Brahmanism, and was to retain in his own teaching some of its doctrinal features: the reincarnation of souls and the cycle of rebirths (Samsara) in accordance with the ineluctable law of the causality of human acts (Karma); the progress of all souls towards a divine Absolute, a sovereign and indefinable Good in which all beings can be dissolved (Nirvana); the doctrine of non-violence (ahimsa) and the respect for all life.

Brought up in the lap of luxury, Gautama was nevertheless disturbed by men’s sufferings and concerned to achieve spiritual development. After marrying Princess Yosodhara, by whom he had a son named Rahula, Gautama left his father’s court and his family to lead the life of an ascetic under the guidance of Brahmanist gurus. He was soon disenchanted with his teachers, particularly with their caste system and their inability to respond to his spiritual anguish.

At the age of 30 he left them, became a beggar and lived a life of strict penances, submitting himself to fasting, mortifications and voluntary humiliations of all kinds. This Great enunciation lasted more than six years, but did not liberate him from his spiritual problems. One day, exhausted by fasting and desperate, he fell by the roadside, half conscious, and was succoured by a young peasant girl, Sujata, who fed him with delicate foodstuffs. In this incident he saw a sign, a reminder that peace of mind was not to be found in pure asceticism, and thereupon returned to a more normal way of life.

It happened that one day, at a place called since then Bodhgaya, on the banks of the Narayani, he sat down to meditate under a pipal tree (Ficus religiosa, a kind of banyan), resolved to stay there indefinitely until he attained enlightenment (Bodhi). After seven weeks his ardent quest was rewarded by the brilliant light of a new doctrine. Henceforth, he was known as the Buddha, the Enlightened One or Awakened One, though he referred to himself as Tathagata, “He who has arrived”. The Enlightenment took place about 530 B.C. (543 according to Buddhist orthodoxy). For the Sage of the Shakyas, Shakyamuni, this was the beginning of a long career as a preacher and teacher of novices which lasted more than 40 years.

The first sermon which brought him disciples was preached at Sarnath, near Benares, when he was 36, and his last teachings were murmured to his monks just before his death at the age of over 80. Departing from all Brahmanist doctrine, he converted his nearest friends and relations, as well as many nobles (Kshatryas), who were happy to throw off the yoke of Brahmanism: among them were his father Rajah Suddhodana, his step mother Pajapati Gotami, his wife and his son.

His first disciples learned his sermons by heart and from them stemmed the oral traditions which were not written down until a century later. The most famous of these disciples were Ananda, Moggallana and Maha Kassapa, whose names are still honoured in Sri Lanka. The Buddha died about 475 B.C. and was cremated at Kushinagara (near Kasia, 55 km from Gorakhpur).

His remains his ashes, his teeth and some of his hair were piously preserved by his disciples. To house these precious relics they built the magnificent stupas to be seen in northern India, the characteristic outlines of which indissolubly associated with the idea of Buddhism.

Teachings of the Buddha

Although he accepted the existence of an impersonal Divine Absolute from which all beings came and to which they all returned, the Buddha never advocated any form of worship or adoration. He taught an agnostic doctrine which had no concern with any being called God, though he recognised the existence of certain divinities (dewas), who were regarded as beings superior to men but had no power to help them.

Men were dependent only on themselves, for the law of cause and effect (Karma, Sinhalese Kamma) meant that they themselves were responsible for all the ills they suffered. The folly of men is to believe that life can bring them joy. According to the inexorable law of successive reincarnations (Samsara) men will find salvation only by annihilating their will to live in order to attain extinction (Nirvana, Sinhalese Nibbana).

Man’s salvation lies in the meditative man who has become indifferent to the whole external world. The ideal good is not so much to act positively as to avoid increasing the mass of suffering in the world. Ahimsa (non-violence) was a fundamental principle which was to extend beyond the world of Buddhism and influence all the sages of India down to the time of Gandhi.

The Buddha directed his teachings mainly to monks and nuns, and established the rules of monastic life. The monks who practised the Thelesdutanga, the “Thirteen Precepts” were favoured candidates for Enlightenment and Nirvana, but were required to become bearers of the message of spiritual liberation. A Buddhist is anyone who believes in the Four Noble Truths: the omnipresence of suffering in man’s life; the fact that all suffering comes from sensual desire; the liberating power of Nirvana; and the will to attain extinction.

The Buddhist monk, the bonze or bikkhu, undertakes further obligations, the most important of which are celibacy and chastity; the non-possession of worldly goods; abstaining from any food between noon and midnight; meditation and reading; and the teaching of the doctrines of the Buddha. The function of the bikkhu is to serve other men in spiritual matters; he is to be a kalyanamitta, an elder brother, having attained Knowledge, has by the same token received a mission to teach his fellow men.

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