Four years ago, on April 21, 2019, scores of Christian worshippers were bombed in 3 churches in Sri Lanka who were attending the Easter Sunday services. In addition, suicide bombers also attacked people in 3 luxury hotels the same day altogether killing at least 359 people and injuring some 500. Many people have pointed fingers at the corrupt, predominantly Buddhist, politicians saying that they masterminded the attack to gain the upper hand in the election that was to follow. The commission of inquiry appointed to investigate the attacks said that “criminal proceedings” should be brought against the president at the time Maithripala Sirisena, who left office in November 2019, for “criminal liability on his part”. Sirisena has threatened to expose the coup if he was linked to the attack which he is yet to carry out. A Christian member of the parliament was interrogated by the Criminal Investigations Department after he said that his father, a former minister in the parliament, warned him not to attend the church services on that fateful Sunday. Four years later, those who were behind the attacks are still at large and/or in the parliament. This is Sri Lanka which is predominantly a Buddhist country.
Vesak, the Day of the Full Moon in the month of May, will be here soon too. It is the most sacred day for millions of Buddhists around the world. The full moon day in May is considered the day Buddha was born as a little prince in the year 623 B.C in Lumbini, what is now Nepal, then attained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, what is now India, and finally passed away at the age of 80 in Kushinagar, also in India. This triple event is celebrated with various religious ceremonies in Buddhist countries around the world including Sri Lanka.
There are two major traditions of Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism emphasizes attaining self-liberation through one’s own efforts. Theravada is the more conservative (the other being Mahayana) and is practiced mainly in Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. Mahayana followers, on the other hand, aspire to not only liberate themselves from suffering but also lead other people toward liberation and enlightenment. Mahayana is more commonly practiced in Northeast Asia, in places such as Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Mongolia.
The 2012 national census of Sri Lanka lists 70.2 percent of the Sri Lankan population as Theravada Buddhists. Sri Lankan and other Buddhists are supposed to live their lives according to five basic precepts. These precepts are refraining from taking life (killing) and taking what is not given (stealing), refraining from the misuse of sensual pleasures (adultery), refraining from wrong speech (lying), and not taking intoxicants that would cloud the mind (substance abuse). These practices have faded over time both among the rulers and the ruled alike. For example, the murder/homicide rate in the predominantly Buddhist Sri Lanka for 2019 (latest data) was 3.48 per 100,000 population, a 43.72% increase from 2018. Corruption has played a major role in Sri Lanka which includes large-scale stealing and lying. The Rajapaksa brothers and their family members and friends are accused of having looted over $52 billion during the last 16 years through various scams. The Rajapaksa family fell for China’s pocket diplomacy and pocketed large commissions from the high-interest loans. Some rulers are also accused of killings and other violations of these precepts as well.
Current drinking has been reported as 48.1% among males and 1.2% among females in Sri Lanka, with a higher prevalence in urban areas. Per capita consumption in drinkers in 2016 was estimated at 14.9 L which is higher in men than in women (18.9 and 6.7 L, respectively). It is hard to measure how many people lie, steal, or commit adultery in Sri Lanka. That number is sure to be very high too.
Unfortunately, there are known and convicted killers, thieves including those who snatched gold chains from the passengers in trains, rapists, George Santos-like liars, and alcoholics and/or bar owners in the current Sri Lankan parliament. Current and former members of parliament own more than 2,000 liquor stores out of the 4,910 registered liquor stores in the country, MP Dullas Alahapperuma said in December 2022. Yet, Sri Lankans proudly claim that they are a Buddhist country while, lying, stealing, killing, engaging in racist activities, promoting gender inequalities, and sexual discrimination.
Unfortunately, these same behaviors are found to some degree among those who wear the sacred saffron robe and are supposed to teach basic precepts to the lay public, some of whom are in bed with corrupt politicians for personal gain. Given the current economic crisis in Sri Lanka, one wonders how a country that should follow those basic teachings of good and moral behavior fell so far down the drain.
Can a religious law bring an end to Sri Lankan troubles? The Sharia law regulates all human actions and puts them into five categories among Muslims. Some categories are obligatory, recommended, permitted, disliked, or forbidden. Among the examples of prohibited actions are giving and receiving of interest, extremely risky investments, gambling, prostitution, and alcohol consumption. The five major goals of the Sharia are the protection of sound religious practice, life, sanity, the family, and personal and communal wealth. Other major religions in Sri Lanka have similar goals and guidelines to follow. Since there is no law and order or an independent judiciary in Sri Lanka currently, which has been ruled for 75 years since independence by corrupt rulers of all religions aided by the corrupt religious leaders, perhaps the people should turn to their religions once more to find a way to move forward without the corrupt politicians continue to rule them with the help of the saffron-clad corrupt monks.
When I was small, something that fascinated me was the wall paintings in the village Buddhist temples that depicted the ‘Hell’ where there were pictures of Satan’s guards pulling the tongues out of those who have lied, pouring molten lava in the throats of those who abused alcohol, and making those who committed adultery climb a tree full of thorns naked. That left an indelible mark in my little mind. As an adult, I saw sculptures of the same scenes in a park in Khon Kaen, Thailand. Maybe we should start emphasizing these moral behaviors from a very young age once again, now using the omnipresent multimedia platforms. The alternative would be barbaric punishments such as the amputation of hands etc., of those who steal, or stoning other criminals to death, medieval remedies still meted out by courts around the world.
Professor Ananda P. Dasanayake is a Public Voices Fellow of The Op-Ed Project in partnership with New York University.