Sri Lanka And India: Cultural And Religious Ties – Analysis


By N Sathiya Moorthy

The ‘Kapilavastu relics’ brought to Sri Lanka from India for Buddhists across the country to pay their respects should further underline the long and continuing cultural and religious ties that have existed between the two South Asian neighbours. Indian Culture Minister Kumari Selja, who brought the relics at the initiative of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, also launched the Indian-funded renovation work at the Thirukeetheeswaram Kovil in Mannar. It’s again a reflection on another facet of cultural and religious linkages that have existed between the two countries for centuries now.

India - Sri Lanka Relations
India – Sri Lanka Relations

President Rajapaksa who was barefooted was on hand to receive the relics at the Katunayake Airport, where it arrived by a special Indian Air Force (IAF) aircraft. Sri Lankan Ministers were likewise present at the Mannar Kovil function. The Indian initiative in the latter case is a part of the post-war reconstruction effort in Tamil areas. It had begun as far back as 2005, during the ceasefire period. It found mention in the June 2010 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the two countries when President Rajapaksa visited India in June 2010.

Before the relics came, India had donated an eight-foot statue of Buddha, modelled on the one in Sarnath. The two countries have together celebrated various religious ceremonies that are of great importance and relevance to the island-nation. For centuries now, Buddhists in Sri Lanka have made it their life’s duty to go on a pilgrimage to India. Ordinary men and women have spent their life’s savings for this purpose, and often at an advanced age. Recently, the Indian Railways introduced a special pilgrims’ train for their benefit. As and when rail linkage to Sri Lanka’s North is restored, they can hope to travel across India, as their earlier generations had done, using what then used to be called the ‘Boat Mail’ train. A road-link between the two countries, as and when it happens, would make it easier still.

Tamils in Sri Lanka have their places of worship in Tamil Nadu. So have the Upcountry Tamils. Like Sinhala-Buddhists, they have not shied away from acknowledging their Indian ancestry or their native villages in Tamil Nadu, where the information has been handed down through generations. Muslims likewise have their places of worship, in India too. Christians in Sri Lanka have begun visiting Indian pilgrim centres. Hindus and Buddhists alike also worship at the Tirupati kovil in Andhra Pradesh, to seek divine blessings, earlier from Satya Sai Baba, either in his native Andhra Pradesh or his Whitefield abode in Bengaluru, Karnataka. They have also been seeking blessings from Sri Sri Ravishankar, a Karnataka State Capital god man with a contemporaneous approach to the philosophy of life.

The Sri Lankan elite go to Chennai for super-speciality medical care. The Sri Lankan professionals’ reservations to CEPA detract from the need for making similar expertise available to the common man of Sri Lanka at a lesser cost. Sri Lankan politicos and businessmen in particular go to Kerala, among other south Indian States, for astrological consultations. India is also becoming an attractive investment destination for Sri Lankan businesses. The housewives, irrespective of religion or language or ethnicity, do trousseau shopping for their daughters at Chennai or Bengaluru. Informal trade had existed between the two countries before Independence. It continues unabated. It is not one-way traffic. Before the ethnic war spoiled the environment, Indian pilgrims used to worship at Kataragama in the South and Nallur in the North of Sri Lanka. The Adam’s Peak is venerated by pilgrims from all major communities in South India as it has been done by their brethren nearer home in Sri Lanka. Post-war, tourist arrivals from India has peaked all over again. It was so pre-war. At the time of anti-Tamil Pogrom-83, many Indian pilgrims had harrowing tales to take back home – not only about what they had seen and heard, but about their own selves. Rioters had targeted them and burnt their passports.

It is all in the past. Buried deeper in the pages of history should be the Sinhala nationalists’ contemporary campaign against Indian rulers who had come calling with their navies. The twenty-first century world has no time for history. It revolves around technology and investment, strategy for a peace environment rather than tactics for winning wars.

Experiences from the past should thus prepare the newer generations about what went wrong in the time of their ancestors, for applying correctives, and for nations and peoples to live in a milieu from where they have moved away decades and centuries ago. It may be good politics to keep harping on the past, but not good policy, to help nations and peoples to progress.

In the country of origin, Buddhism, like Jainism that came afterward, vegetarianism is a creed among followers in India. Gandhiji’s ahimsa was borrowed from Buddhism. In secular India, the Constitution celebrates symbols of Buddhism. The Lion symbol of Sarnath is the official standard of the Indian State. Ashoka’s ‘Dharma Chakra’ has the pride of place in the Indian tricolour. Buddhists are a miniscule minority in the country now, as it was when the Constitution was drafted. It was about the enjoining principles, not population-count. More contemporary Indian politico-religious discourse on ‘pseudo-secularism’ dating back to Independence and the Republican Constitution has never ever contested this aspect of nation-building in any way. The conscious and consensus decision of the Indian Nation and the Indian State remains.

The ‘Saiva Siddhandha’ in southern Tamil Nadu too preaches vegetarianism. Among the Buddhists and Saiviites in India, the social elite of the times identified with the practice. It is argued that the south Indian elite may have adopted ahimsa as a creed from Buddhist and Jain principles when the new faiths ruled the roost between 4th and 7th centuries AD. Not so in Sri Lanka, where geography and circumstances may have demanded otherwise. It has remained so, since.

It has however not diminished the faith that the Buddhists and Hindus in these parts have for their religion and culture, and for the religious practices handed down by their ancestors.

It is a fact that the Sinhalas and Tamils alike in Sri Lanka acknowledge India as the home of their religion and language. To the contemporary generations, India also offers cultural inspiration to varying degrees. They are proud of their lineage and of the linkages.

Yet, to push it aside at times of political convenience or ideological confusion, and replace their positive imagery of the northern neighbour with military interventions by Rajaraja Chola, for instance, ties down us, all South Asians, to a past where we do not belong in political terms, any more. Whether it was Rajaraja or anyone else, whether he was in or from India or elsewhere, kings and rulers across the world in another era had made military conquests their life’s ambition, achievement – and royal duty.

Alexander became ‘the Great’ after he came all the way up to the banks of the Indus centuries before Christendom – and on horse-back. Genghis Khan and others, rulers or ruffians, had likewise travelled across Asia, and not as travellers. Possibly Vasco da Gama, who found a new sea-route to the Indies, and Columbus, who landed at the wrong place but on the right pursuit, were possibly the only exceptions in medieval Europe, where legitimate trade disguised ambitions of territorial conquests – where possible, without always having to fire the gun endlessly.

Today, after centuries of Islamic invasions and occupation from across the Khyber, India is home to the world’s second largest population of Muslims. No one is talking about how the plunder from the country constituted the non-existent GDP of north-western neighbours in the closing centuries of the first millennia after Christ. Today, India has had uncompromisingly good relations with Afghanistan and Central Asia, from where the plunderers had come. Nor has the ruling Talibans’ destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in more recent years impacted on the Afghan relations of India or Sri Lanka.

When the British ruled India and Ceylon, they were not the most liked people or nation. When they left, both New Delhi and Colombo joined the British Commonwealth, voluntarily. Up to a point in time after Independence, Ceylon, now Sri Lanka had no problem giving to Britain the possession and use of military installations in the Katunayake Airport and the Trincomalee Harbour. When ownership was reversed, it was more for political reasons, and not out of strategic considerations. The IPKF that came at the instance of the Sri Lankan Government left without loss of time when a successor Government in Colombo wanted it out.

The Indian culture has been a seamless amalgamation of various regional and sub-regional practices that have survived generations and centuries, and influenced one another in varied ways. Political India is a ‘Union of States’, which again acknowledges – and celebrates – this ‘unity in diversity’. Decades after Independence and a Republican Constitution, India has constantly reviewed the concepts, through Executive action, legislative means and judicial pronouncements – with media intervention in this era of information technology – adding to the progress and progression. The success of Indian democracy lies in its readiness to review the processes constantly, and willingness to adapt to changes quickly. And adapting ‘cultural nationalism’ that India was for millennia to make it an acceptable form of ‘constitutional nationalism’ in a world after two World Wars is what has made India what it is today – a nation that lives in the future, with past experiences directing the present course, and not dictating the same.

India thus provided for affirmative action at the birth of the Constitution, to make the governmental scheme more inclusive. It did not fight shy to amend the Statute in the first year itself, when it was found that such affirmative action as reservations in education and employment would have to cover larger sections of the society than had been thought of. In the first year itself, it acknowledged the need and demand for linguistic States, which is what had made India the population, India the country first and India the nation-State, later. It also meant that separatist tendencies like those in Tamil Nadu got mainstreamed faster than may have been expected.

Where the physical and psychological gaps between the Centre and the periphery remained, as in the North-East, where the freedom movement had not reached, uniting the nation as one, insurgent tendencies did arise. They have all mostly been addressed, squarely, with the ruling party at the Centre, deliberately and after great deliberation, and thus the locals have been allowed to have their electoral say in ways they would understand.

This has made greater assimilation, faster. New gaps do appear, and the Maoist militant movement is a product of class differences, with the caste component adding to the woes of the affected population.

The Indian State and the component State Governments have time and again been called upon to address this. Where the hotbed of Naxalism had existed in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, there is not much of it any more. Where it has cropped up afresh, as in Central Indian States, the Governments in India have not fought shy of dismissing them, or disassociating themselves from the ground realities. They have addressed militancy and democratisation together, thus taking development to the door-steps of those who have badly been in need of it all along. This has added greater meaning to the decentralised scheme of Panchyat Raj than would have been otherwise possible, by taking development first, and expecting democracy to follow.

((The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

Courtesy: The Daily Mirror, Colombo

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

One thought on “Sri Lanka And India: Cultural And Religious Ties – Analysis

  • August 31, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    I admire you , Mr. N Sathiya Moorthy for this valuable analysis . The divide and rule policy of our colonial rulers still force us to concentrate more on our differences than on our obvious similarities. Failure to capitalize on this homogeneity not only between Sri Lankans and Indians but also among the Asians has been a great and unfortunate loss of opportunity.
    However, the world order is slowly but certainly changing. Time has come for all in Asia , including India and China to try using this opportunity to keep the momentum of their growth. Hope your work will be able to initiate this change .


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