|Saturday, 3 August 2002|
Religious and ethnic amity in pre - modern Sri Lanka
by Dr. Lorna Dewaraja
Paper presented at the New Year Celebrations of the Sri Lanka Federation of University Women - 20th April 2002
Robert Knox was a ship wrecked British sailor who was kept as a prisoner in the Kandyan Kingdom Court for 19 years 1650-1669 when Rajasinha II (1635-1687) was king of Kandy. At this time the Dutch East India Company had replaced the Portuguese in the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka outwitting Rajasinha. Knox and a few companions were not prisoners behind bars, but were allowed considerable freedom to roam within the kingdom.
Finally he managed to escape and having reached England wrote the most fascinating account of Sri Lanka giving lively accounts of the lives of the ordinary people. As could be expected he
was no admirer of the king who was keeping him as a prisoner and had no regard for the Sinhalas who were 'heathens'. Yet the statements he has made on certain occasions show the very harmonious relationship that prevailed between the Sinhalas and the other religious and ethnic groups who lived in the Kandyan Kingdom. For instance, Knox writes -
"The Christian Religion he does not in the least persecute or dislike, but rather as it seems to me esteems and honours it."
To prove his point he relates an incident which took place in his time. The king's beloved sister died on Christmas Day 1673. In his grief the king announced a period of mourning for the entire nation.
All feasting and merry making had to stop and no signs of joy should be displayed. The Dutch living in his kingdom observed their usual feasting and drinking. Everyone though that these violators will receive severe punishment. But because it was a religious festival the king took no notice of it. This is a total contrast to the situation in the Christian dominated maritime provinces when all public display of any other religion was prohibited.
In a very discerning statement Knox gives the attitude of the Sinhala people to other religions and ethnic groups. The paragraph is quoted below in the same 17th century English style and spelling found in Knox's work:
"Their opinion aboute Religion:
As they are not biggotted in theire owne religion, they c[are] not of what religion straingers dwell amounge them are of. They doo beleve there is a plurality of Gods and more than they know of, therefor all nations have a free liberty to use and injoy their owne Religion with all or any man[ner] of Cerimonies thereto belonging without the lest oppositio[n] or so much as Riduculing.
The Mallabars and the generall inhabitance next the Sea one the nothern parts and theire Religion differ much from the Chingulaies, yet all the majestrates in those parts are onely Mallabars and I have seene A Mallabar that was an Adigar in the Kings Court, which is one of the two Chif Judges that are over the Kings whole dominions; he could not well speake the Chingulay language but was faint to use (an) interpreter.
Here are many other sorts of Religion, as Banians, Bramins, gentuos, who all differ very much from the Chingulaise relig[ion], yet have full freedome to Worship God their owne way and man[ner]. Likewise have the Christians, wheather papest or protestant. This King, Although he hath absolute power one earth, yet dreadeth the omnipotent power of the Gods, whome he knoweth he should provoke if he should stop the mouths of his worshipers and pull downe thire vengance one his owne head.
Neither doth diff[erence] in religion in the lest disqullifie any man from serving in gre[at] places (as I have before noted) under him, for many Christians have bin so employed boath before and in my time of being there, but never any did or were eithere desired or required to chagne or forsake theire owne Religion It seemed to me he takes the man[ner] of people Worshipping their God (tho in his dominian) above his Juridiction(Ms.), which is onely over seculare affaires; therefore he never intermedles in divine Worship."
These quotations are taken from "An Historical Relation of the isalnd of Ceylon". The Second Edition by Robert Knox (ed) by J. H. O. Paulusz Vol. II. Tisara Prakasakayo 1989. pp 220-221. After the first edition was printed Knox added copious notes, handwritten, and inserted them between pages of the earlier edition. This was found in the British Museum. It was edited by Paulusz.
By these incidental statements Knox is stating a lot about the ethos that prevailed in the Sinhala Kingdom.
The idea of West that the religion of the rulers should be the religion of the ruled was never operative here. The fact that Buddhism was the religion of the rulers earlier, or has been given prominence in the constitution today has never been nor will ever be inimical to the interests of any other religion.
The only evidence of religious intolerance in the long history of the island, is recorded in the reigns of two non-Buddhist rulers. Rajasinha I (1582-92) who embraced Saivism and Don Juan Dharmapala (1551-1597) who was converted to Catholicism. Knox's statement that religion is not a disqualification to join the highest ranks of the king's service is an eye opener and a model to be followed even today. In the maritime provinces occupied by the Portuguese and Dutch the situation was diametrically opposite.
Anyone who wished to serve the Portuguese had to receive Holy Baptism and later anyone who wished to serve the Dutch even as school master in a parish school had to be re-baptised in the True Reformed Faith! In 1709, Narendrasinha (1707-1739) of Kandy raised Pedro de Gascon, a French Calvinist as Chief Adigar.
It is noteworthy that in the Kandyan Kingdom the Head of the king's Betge or Physicians had always been a Muslim minister of high repute. A reputed Tamil historian S. Arasaratnam wrote in 1958. "Islam and Hinduism existed side by side with Buddhism, and Tamils and Muslims enjoyed equal rights with the Sinhalese as the king subjects.
Some Muslims and Tamils served in the king's administration in high positions and were used as important missions to the Dutch and to Indian kings. Rajasinha seems to have been in a fit position to unite all races and religions of the country under his leadership with the result that he was served equally by all peoples without distinction. In this he was following the Hindu Buddhist ideal of monarchy."
It is well known that the Buddhist kings of Kandy gave land to Muslims, Hindus and Christians to build places of religious worship. This example was followed by the Sangha, the chiefs and the people. The Bhikkhus of the Asgiri Vihara donated lands belonging to the vihara to the Muslims to build a mosque. This mosque known as the Katu Palliya still stands in the city of Kandy - a monument of the religious harmony that prevailed within the kingdom. A striking example was the Ridi Vihara in Kurunegala. There were Muslims living in the lands belonging to the Ridi Vihara.
They occupied the Patavili Pangu or transport shared and performed service to the vihara by transporting grain and other things whenever their services were needed. The bhikkhus of the Ridi Vihara had given land to the Muslims to build a mosque in their village and another portion of land for the maintenance of Muslim holy man to look after the spiritual interest of the Muslims.
The British Service Tenure Commissioner who saw this remarkable example of live and let live have recorded that this was unique in the annals of religion. When the Hollanders prohibited Roman Catholic priests from entering the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka, Father Joseph Vaz the Roman Catholic priest was based in Kandy and the king gave him land to put up a structure from where he could minister to his flock. We have only to compare the situation in the neighbouring sub-continent where the Hindu Muslim wars were raging and the situation in contemporary Europe where more blood was being shed in the name of God than in any other name.
Kusumasanadevi the Kandyan princess later baptised as Dona Catherina by her Portuguese protectors became by a stroke of destiny, the queen of two Buddhist kings of Kandy, Vimala Dharma Suriya I (1692-1704) and Senarat (1704-1735). She lived and died a devout Roman Catholic. The magnanimity of the kings was such that they build a chapel in the place for her benefit. Is this possible in the British Royal family even in the 21st century or for that matter in any other royal family. Portuguese sources mention that Franciscan friars were allowed entry to the royal palace very likely at the queen's request, to teach her children. They including the warlike Rajasinha could read, write and speak fluent Portuguese.
It must be emphasised that this was at a time when the Portuguese in the lowlands were the inveterate enemy of Kandy. Later when the Kandyan kings invited princesses from South India to be their queens, we see the emergence of Hindu shrines within the precincts of the Buddhist temples so that both the king and queen could indulge in their respective religious observances. The practice of building Hindu shrines in Buddhist temples continue to this day and the devotees are unaware that they are passing on from one belief system to another. This does not mean that there is a dilution in their faith but that among the Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka religions were always regarded as complementary and not confrontational. There had never been any cut throat competition to gain numerical converts.
It was the tradition in ancient Sri Lanka that the king was the Defender of Faiths. Arab authors record that the court of Sri Lanka was particularly noted for the religious tolerance. Idrisi writing in the 12th century mentions a Council of 16 at the royal court, consisting of 4 Buddhists, 4 Christians, four Muslims and four Jews showing that the people of all faiths were welcome and respected. The Council referred to was probably summoned to advise the king on matters of trade. Very significant is the fact that Pandukabhaya, the pre-Buddhist ruler and founder of Anuradhapura who ruled in the fourth century B.C. built within the city shrines and chapels for all the deities who were worshipped by his people and also provided dwellings for all wandering ascetics and monks such as brahmins, nighanthas and ajivakas who belonged to rival sects. This information is found in the Mahavamsa.
It is clear from our history that the kings of Sri Lanka who emulated the Asokan model of kingship were not only tolerant but supported every other religion. The Great Indian Emperor Asoka has left his ideals as stone for all to read. He condemns atma pasanda puja or praising one's own sect and para pasanda garha, condemning the faith of others. Both he says will lead to disharmony in society. In Asoka's realm which extended from the Himalayas to the southern tip of India there were people of all persuasions and ethnic groups. The king who was a convert to Buddhism did not try to impose his personal faith on all his subjects as it has always happened in history.
In addition to the brahmins or priestly caste who dominated society, there were the sramanas or recluses which is a term used to denote all other religious teachers and philosophers, some of whose teachings were opposed to Buddhism. Asoka supported all these religious groups and in his Edicts scattered throughout the length and breath of India he admonishes his subjects to honour all sramanas and brahmanas. This was the example that the Sinhala rulers followed.
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