Independence of Religion

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66 years after we received independence from colonial rule, it is unfortunate that we have to ponder if we do really have the independence and the freedom to believe in and practice our own faith and religion, in Sri Lanka.


Our constitution provides us this freedom, perhaps better than in most other countries.


Chapter II provides "The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Articles 10 and 14(1)(e)." (Article 9)


Article 10 "Every person is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice."


14 (1)(e) "the freedom, either by himself or in association with others, and either in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice or teaching;"


If we are to be truly independent in our religious practices, then we should never have to declare our religion for official matters. It should never be a label on a human being. Today in most parts of the world, we do not label human beings by their caste, or by their mother tongue. We do not ask a person for his political views and label them accordingly, even though once it was done in the United States, the country which claims to be the guardians of democracy, by victimising people who were labelled as communists.


If a person is free to become a citizen of another country, and give up his claims to the country of his birth, if a person can give up his mother tongue and accept totally an alien language, if he can change his political views, he should have the same freedom to change his religious views. We should not consider a change of religious views as a conversion, and no one should have the power to prevent it.


The concept of conversion came along with the Western religions. In India it was the Muslim invaders who left only two choices to the conquered people - conversion or death. In most of the Asian and African countries, it was the missionaries who tried to convert people to Christianity. There is no record anywhere of any attempt to convert people of other faiths to Hinduism, even after the Vedic faith was labelled as Hinduism by Weber. We could make the same observation about conversion to Buddhism. Reciting the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts could give a person a mock label as a Buddhist, but a follower of Buddha Dhamma does not have and does not need a label, as does a follower of Vedic or Jain Dharma. A person could follow the Buddha Dhamma, while practicing any religion and belonging to any creed.


Before man began to group all belief systems as religions, the pre-historic man would have been truly independent and free to practice what he believed. The religious conflicts probably arose when leaders of countries or communities took over the control of religions, or when the clergy became too powerful. The other reason probably was due to man's ego, always believing that his religion was the only truth, his God was the real god, the most powerful. Then the priests believed it was their duty to bring all other "heathens' to the correct path, even with the sword or the gun.


It is probably for this reason that the eastern philosophies were labeled as 'isms', to degrade them, just as they labelled the ideas of Marx and Lenin as Commun-ism, and even Sartre's views as Existansial-ism. before the Europeans invaded our countries, there was no Hindu-ism, no Buddh-ism or Jain-ism. There were only followers of the Veda, Buddha or Mahavir Dhamma. Asoka did not try to propagate Buddh-ism, but he tried to take the message of the Dhamma to the people


One major instance religious discrimination in our country is in school admissions. There are schools in our country, which are exclusively for students of a particular religious faith only. There are other schools, where children of other faiths are admitted on a limited quota system. This is discrimination and thus a violation of a basic human right to education.


Swami Vivekananda had said, "That universal religion about which philosophers and others have dreamed in every country, already exists......I believe in acceptance, not tolerance. Toleration means that I think you are wrong and I am just allowing you to live. I accept all religions that were in the past, and worship with them all." Religious conflicts are the result of the intolerance bred by man's psychological insecurity and his fanatical attachment to the symbols of his religion. This fanaticism he mistakes for the religion itself, and which, because they are exclusive to his own religious culture, he looks upon as superior.


"We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to love one another." Jonathan Swift had written in Thoughts of Various Subjects. Chandra Muzzafar explained that "Religious doctrines and practices, however different they may be, have seldom given rise to actual conflict..... for most of Asian history the different religious doctrines, practices and symbols have co-existed without too much antagonism or enmity....not all who participate in religious riots are religious, in the conventional sense of the term. ...many rioters who shout religious slogans are often totally ignorant of their religious teachings."


That is why Gandhi also said "Rama, Allah and God are to me convertible terms". If we are to truly celebrate independence, we should have the freedom to believe and practice whatever faith we wish to, and also to change our views if we so wish, as long as we do not hurt anyone else in body or mind.



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