Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 19 May 2013





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

Peace and harmony within religious diversity

Religious diversity is not a new feature. It is as old as the history of humankind. Within the same region, within the same culture there have been and there are to be seen diverse faiths, different beliefs and varied religion and there are also different groups of adherents. It has to be admitted that, at times, this diversity has led to conflicts, more often that not, leading to destruction of millions of innocent human lives and devastation of unaccountable amount of material wealth.

Diversity of faith has led to battles between factions of the same ethnic group: varied cultures have been ruthlessly wiped out of the face of the earth by those who considered diversity as a threat. Diversity becomes a menace when one fails to look at it positively, but consider it as meaning 'rivalry' or as 'opposing to each other' it is this inability to see diversity as a natural feature, a positive one, that becomes extremely harmful.

If viewed properly one would see diversity as beautiful, if so viewed and admire religious diversity and use it for the good and benefit of all humankind. And this is the purpose aimed at by all religions. All religious teachers were concerned about the good of their fellow beings. There is no religion that preaches against man, that encourages conflicts and rivalries. It is the failure of the followers, often the over-enthusiastic, over-committed followers to understand and appreciate the primary aim of religious founders that has caused diversity to turn into a problem, which is conflict generating and emotion igniting. This failure to see diversity positively and make use of it for bringing about unity that has impelled many to see it as a highly inflammable state. This really is not so, and this truth has been proved beyond doubt. And I can cite many an instance to prove this.

Total integration

All agree that Sri Lanka began to develop as a united nation after the advent of Buddhism. Introduction of Buddhism put an end to factionalism in Sri Lanka. The rulers very cleverly used Buddhism to bring about total integration of all people, in spite of the different faiths they followed. Buddhism was made the rallying point, yet giving due importance to other religions. Since the advent of Buddhism Sri Lanka rose to great heights in all spheres: cultural, social, political, economic etc.

Perhaps this trend of bringing about unity in diversity was initiated by the great Emperor Asoka of India. Though he may have had his own inclination towards a particular religion, he appreciated diversity of religions. He saw effectiveness of religion as a cohesive force. So, he picked up features that are conducive in religions to promote peace and harmony among the subjects. He gave up the traditional practice of subjugating territories through war. Instead, he used the peaceful message contained in religions to win support and establish his authority through righteousness.

He strongly urged the people to appreciate the diversity of religions. He dissuaded people from praising their own faiths and making disparaging comments on other faiths. He put up rock inscriptions stating that one who praises one's own religions and disparages other religions is unwittingly harming his own religions. Thus he directly rejected religious fundamentalism.

Evidence from both Korea and Japan too support this view. Buddhism was introduced to these countries as a uniting force. At the time of introduction of Buddhism, Korea comprised of three warring states: Koguryo, Packche and Shilles, Buddhism was used to unite these three kingdoms, and gradually Korea developed into a great power.

Japan was also torn by factionalism among various powerful clans such as Soga, Monobe and Nakatony and Buddhism helped to bring about peace among these conflicting clans. Later Shotoku Thaishi, who is popularly considered as Japanese counterpart of Emperor Asoka, made full use of Buddhism to fuse unity among different faiths by using Buddhism as a base for unification.

In all three instances cited above Buddhism was used as the unifying force because Buddhism has this coalescing characteristic. Buddha strongly believed that one should not blindly cling to one's own religion and condemn other religions. The usual tendency to claim that "only what one says is right and all the rest if false" is never encouraged in Buddhism. Such a tendency is the basis of religious fundamentalism. It is this fundamentalism that blinds one from seeing and appreciating religious diversity, and seeing the beauty in diversity of religious thought.

To be a committed practitioner one need not to be a fundamentalist. In fact fundamentalism blinds one to the truth. It limits his vision. A fundamentalist is led by his emotions, and this is very dangerous, for emotions are highly inflammable fundamentalist usually succumb to the demands of the heart, and this is very chaotic. One should have faith in the heart without abandoning, discriminatory knowledge which is a part of the intellect.


This is the attitude encouraged by all religious teachers. The Buddha very openly upholds this attitude. His aim was not to just convert, but to guide others to see and know things by themselves. The well known discourse called the 'Kalama Sutta' delivered by the Buddha to a group of people who were utterly perplexed by the claims made by different religious teachers who separately maintained that only their teaching is the right one and the rest false. In this discourse the Buddha did not say that his teaching is the right one instead he gave criterion to judge which teaching is more beneficial.

This kind of open-minded objective attitude towards religion is a must in modern societies. At least, metaphorically the world is shrinking fast turning into a global village. In a global village all have to confront diversity. If we are not ready to see and understand diversity properly we are bound to mistake diversity to be rivalry; to take diversity as opposition. If we understand diversity in this manner, then our immediate reaction will be to confront it, to fight against it and to reduce it into smithereens. This is what is happening in certain areas as far as religious diversity is concerned. Such a reaction will certainly be most destructive and, perhaps, even suicidal.

In the present global context, whether, we like it or not, we have to face diversity as diversity, we should not get irritated when we are told that modern societies are multi-cultural, and multi-religious. These are realities and these have been realities for long in our histories. No longer can people live in total isolation, completely insulated from various cultural, religious and other influences.

Harmonious world

And what is wrong with this. While living in conditions of diversity one could maintain one's own identity. This is so even with regard to faiths, religions and beliefs. This becomes a problem only if one were to carry his faith, his beliefs or his religion on his head and not in his heart. Carrying religion on the head is the attitude adopted by exhibitionists, propagandists. It will go well with fundamentalists.

If we are not ready to do this, then our aspiration for a peaceful and harmonious world will be only a dream; and not even a dream but a figment of imagination. We should be awakened to the ground realities.

All religionists should be open-minded, without having hidden agendas. All have to adopt a 'live and let live' policy if we really desire peace and harmony. Religion should be treated with the device, the instrument for peace and harmony. It should never be turned into a weapon to destroy peace, mutual understanding and trust.

A religion is a personal thing. Everyone has the right to follow the faith that he likes. To serve a particular religion is to practise that religion faithfully. No religious teacher says that there should be one common religion for all. Religions are different attempts, made by religious teachers to bring happiness and good to the followers. So, why make any religion a source of misery, conflict, unhappiness.

Buddhism admonishes its followers to cultivate and spread friendliness, compassion, altruistic joy and equanimity to all. This cultivation of equanimity is important. It enables one to view everything objectively, without any bias, and appreciate what is good and very detachedly put aside what is not good.

It is this kind of enlightened awareness that we should adopt to live without any conflict and confrontation.

This is the way to co-exist peacefully in a world full of diversities. This is the one and only option available if we wish to live in peace and harmony.

The writer is the Chancellor of the Sri Jayawardhanapura University



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