By Salma Yusuf
The release of the publication titled Faithing the Native Soil: Dilemmas and Aspirations of Postcolonial Buddhists and Christians in Sri Lanka, authored by Dr. Shanthikumar Hettiarachchi, specialist in religion, conflict and community engagement, is timely for its potential contribution to the ensuing discourse on post–war reconciliation in Sri Lanka.
Admittedly, reconciliation has a distinct and distinctive kaleidoscopic characteristic being multi-sectoral and multifaceted. The key aspects that have been hitherto highlighted are the political, economic, social, and ethnic. However, the much overlooked aspect is the often nuanced and occasionally startling tension that exists between the religious communities in Sri Lanka. It is in such a context, that this publication will contribute both substantially and substantively, to the current post–war nation-building enterprise. It serves a purpose of shedding perspective while providing historical narration of the arrival and development of two of the key faiths practised by the peoples of Sri Lanka and the interactions thereof.
Further, what is remarkable is the manner in which the author has sought to elucidate, how the interfaith and interreligious aspect has a significant bearing on the national issues of the conflict. Logically, following from this, is to distil the message that reverberates throughout the text, that being, how such a paradigm ought to be seriously considered in any attempt to forge solutions between the ethnic communities of the country.
The publication focuses on two of the three major faiths practised in the country, namely Buddhism and Christianity, as it is within the areas of expertise and professional experience of the writer. However, a focus on two of the major faiths immediately creates a gap to be filled in the discourse – that of the two other religious communities in Sri Lanka, namely Muslims and Hindus. The interactions of the Muslim and Hindu communities with the two faiths under consideration ought to be seen as a necessity, and an aspect that would have benefitted from focus.
The author engages the critical aspect of what he calls the ‘otherwardness’ where the majority treats ‘others’ as historical subjects with implications that it sees itself as more important in comparison to the minority voices. The exposition of the ensuing suspicions between the two religious communities, which has been peddled by the political instability since independence, is shown to have had adverse and far reaching ramifications on the faith-based institutions in the country. The gravity of the issue is summed up by the author with a frankness, which is both realistic and bold: “At different levels and degrees, both communities continue to dwell on socially agonizing, culturally alienating and mutually suspicious positions with uneasiness yet to be diffused.”
The multifaceted and somewhat complex nature of the relationship between the two faiths considered is further underscored by the writer, when he declares that “Territoriality, history and politics, social and economic change, religion and culture, have all played their part in the country’s predicament, aggravated by the 30-year war fought on many fronts, which ended in May 2009, complicating the ethnic and religious strife.”
Yet another aspect that is critical to reconciliation, and which is manifest in several incidents of violence and animosity in the current context, is traced to the origins of the desire for power and security: “Sri Lanka’s national issue, and the most recent religious uneasiness between the majority and the minorities, is symptomatic of historical power bases being forcibly shifted and a dire psycho-social desire to hold on to those bases which provided security, identity, role and meaning.”
The penny drops when the reader arrives at the following statement, “Both the majority and the Christian minority have collectively created suspicions towards one another and have obscured the roles and identities of one another when dealing as religious groups.”
A remarkable feature of the book is how the local is contextualized within the global. In the current era of interconnectedness, which is unavoidable, for both good and bad, the text reaches fruition by providing a case study of the inescapable reality of the influence of the global on the local in the sphere of not only religions and religious practices, but more importantly, on the relationships between the religious communities.
Through the journey of expounding a historical narrative, the writer takes readers down a path that spans a period of 500 years, the since country’s colonization by three separate European dominions. This would undoubtedly make the publication of interest to both the historian as well as the patriot.
The sphere of foreign and interactional relations has not escaped the writer in his consideration of the relationship between the two faiths selected for study – the inextricable link between the domestic stability and international foreign positioning is highlighted where the writer calls for the rectification of current views of states from the global south being termed ‘failed or rogue’ states. The hegemony that exists is linked neatly to the conflict between local and foreign. The book, while being rooted in local realities, will have appeal to an international audience as it embraces in the discussion a dominant malaise that continues to plague the international domain in recent times, namely the hijacking of religion for the furtherance of political agendas and goals. This is particularly, important for the national reconciliation agenda and while it must be highlighted that it is a minority who use and indeed abuse religion in such a manner, it is also the voice that attracts the most attention. For this very reason it becomes dangerous, if not neutralized by an equally amplified voice that resonates with moderation, toleration and coexistence.
It is evident that the seriously dented relationship between the two major religious communities may take years to reconcile. The silence on the ‘religious issue’ between Buddhists and Christians as majority and minority is no indication of resolution, but a dormant spark waiting to catch fire on a dangerous scale.
Turning a few ‘seemingly settled’ points of historical narrative on its head makes the writer exhibit a veneer of revolutionism through his work. The publication must be used with caution: seeds of dissent which can be misconstrued by the varying narratives laid in the text must not be capitalized upon by extremist elements in any way to detract from the purpose it can serve.
The absolute frankness when dealing with what is generally considered a sensitive subject, is commendable by an author who does not seem to tiptoe around the crux of the issue, as he sees it, an example of which is illustrated by the following: ‘ Claims to be ‘native’ are yet to be fully owned both by the majority Buddhist and the minority Christian institutions. Hence, these institutions have a serious in-house agenda alongside their natural disposition as interlocutors of peoples’ native faith traditions. The desired ownership needs to be earned by their willingness to serve not only one’s own, but also ones in ‘other folds.’
Despite no explicit mention of the notions, as a reviewer of the book, I can’t help but conclude that moderation, toleration and coexistence is and should be the chosen path in any attempt to resolve the issues raised for consideration in the text. An approach contravening the idea of moderation can be a slippery slope to tread.
This makes the text relevant to the larger aspect of reconciliation and nation – building that the nation is striving towards – loyalty to unity in diversity should be the ultimate goal where there remains no place for misgiving, discrimination or discontent. The need for sensitivity towards others is central to any endeavour aimed at fostering peaceful coexistence and harmony. Masterfully placing such a sentiment in the context of interreligious discourse, the writer says, “Faithing is not planting of one’s beliefs in a given setting with less or no sensitivity, or flashy buildings and erudite preaching alone, rather an incisive option taken on behalf of citizens’ dilemmas and aspirations, because they form the social self and political life of a nation.”
Faithing the Native Soil: Dilemmas and Aspirations of Postcolonial Buddhists and Christians in Sri Lanka will undoubtedly be a valuable addition to the literary collection of the scholar, the practitioner and the student.