(Following is the speech by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, as the Chief Guest, at the International Buddhist Festival which was held in the city of Aurangabad, India by the Dhammayana Educational and Charitable Trust)
Venerable members of the Maha Sangha, Buddhist representatives from other nations and distinguished guests, it is my honour and privilege to stand before you today, as the Chief Guest at this important gathering, for the second time. Maharashtra is also the birthplace of that great son of India and the most important Indian Buddhist leader of the last century Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.
Buddhism is India’s greatest gift to the world and it is only fitting that the National Flag of India features the Dharmachakra of Buddhism. The State emblem of India is an adaptation of the lion of the capital of Emperor Asoka which also prominently features the Dharmachakra. There is no doubt that India’s golden era was the period of the Mauryan Empire and particularly the reign of Emperor Asoka which is why the national symbols of India all hark back to that period. Even though Sri Lanka was never a part of the Mauryan Empire, Emperor Asoka is as important to us as he is to India. It was under Emperor Asoka that Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka. Since that time, Buddhism has been the religion of the vast majority of our population.
Buddhism is the link that forever binds India and Sri Lanka. To us in Sri Lanka, India is the land of the Buddha described as ‘Jambudeepa’ in our ancient texts. An unending stream of pilgrims comes from Sri Lanka to India throughout the year to worship at the holy Buddhist sites in Eastern India. It is indeed one of the great ironies of history that Buddhism declined in the land of its birth while it flourished in other parts of Asia and spread as far as Japan. Today, Buddhists account for less than one per cent of the population of India with a significant concentration of Buddhists being present in the State of Maharashtra where over 17 per cent of the population are Buddhists.
This once again is one of Dr. Ambedkar’s legacies. The reasons for the decline of Buddhism in India according to scholars have been the fragmentation of the Mauryan Empire after Emperor Asoka, the loss of patronage for the Buddhist establishment and foreign invasions.
We in Sri Lanka will always be grateful to the Arahant Mahinda and Emperor Asoka for the gift of Buddhism which has down the centuries defined the character of the Sri Lankan nation. Sri Lanka became a centre of Buddhism in its own right by having a written version of the entire Thripitaka by the third century BC. It is believed that Sri Lanka has preserved Buddhism in its earliest form and the ancient Buddhist texts available in Sri Lanka have been of much interest to international scholars.
At a time when the concept of religious tolerance was unknown in Europe, Sri Lankan rulers were practising it, thanks to the influence of Buddhism. In the first few decades of the 17th Century, when the Portuguese who had captured the coastal belt of Sri Lanka expelled all Muslims from areas under their control, the Sinhala Buddhist King Senarath who ruled over the central highlands gave them refuge in Eastern Sri Lanka where they continue to live. Later, when the Dutch captured the areas controlled by the Portuguese, they set about persecuting and expelling all Roman Catholics from the territories under their control. It was the Sinhala King Wimaladharmasuriya II who gave them refuge in his Kingdom and allowed them to practice their religion in peace.
He was also the royal patron of St. Joseph Vaz who came to Sri Lanka from Goa as a mendicant missionary to rebuild the Catholic Church that had been banned and destroyed by the Dutch. India too has a long history of religious tolerance. Even in the time of the Buddha many religions and philosophies co-existed in India. While there may have been debates and arguments about whose views were correct, society in general was tolerant of the existence of diverse religious views. This is one of the greatest legacies of India which has become a legacy of Sri Lanka as well through the influence of Buddhism.
This easy intermingling of ethnic groups and religions in Sri Lanka is a living reality even today. In the city of Colombo most of the population does not belong to the majority community, and so is an example to the entire world of the co-existence of religions and ethnic groups. In Sri Lanka Hinduism also finds acceptance within the fold of popular Buddhism. Every Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka features shrines to certain Hindu Gods particularly Lord Vishnu who is seen as one of the guardian deities of Sri Lanka.
When India and Sri Lanka started out as independent nations in the latter half of the 1940s our Constitutions were silent on the question of a secular versus religious State. Our countries moved in opposite directions in the 1970s. In 1972, Sri Lanka included in its new Republican Constitution a provision according the foremost place to Buddhism and making it the duty of the State to protect and foster Buddhism while assuring followers of other faiths the right to freely practice their religions. This same provision has been included in Sri Lanka’s present Constitution as well.
India however, chose the path of secularism and in 1976, the 42nd Amendment to the Indian Constitution declared India to be a ‘Sovereign, Socialist, Secular Democratic Republic’. Sri Lanka is not described as a ‘Buddhist Republic’ the way Afghanistan for instance is described as an Islamic Republic, but the provision in our Constitution according foremost place to Buddhism is interpreted by some to mean that Sri Lanka is not a secular State. In recent times in Sri Lanka, certain parties have advocated the removal of the Constitutional provision which accords the foremost place to Buddhism. I am completely opposed to the removal or dilution of this Constitutional provision because that would destroy the very fabric of our society.
It is the influence of Buddhism that provides the ground for the co-existence of various religious and ethnic groups in Sri Lanka.
Despite any rhetoric that politicians may spew forth, each Sri Lankan individual knows deep down that we can live together as a nation. Today, if you come to Colombo, you will see many high rise residential buildings that have come up in the past two decades. This condominium boom in Colombo was in fact started by Tamil people resident overseas, who spent enormous sums of money buying up flats in Colombo even at the height of the war that was waged to carve out an independent Tamil state in the north and east. Even after the war, the Tamils resident overseas have not invested in the North and East to the extent they have in Colombo.
I see this as a case of voting with one’s feet. The condominiums in Colombo are not cheap. Property values in Colombo are almost the same as in some Western capitals and nobody would invest large sums of money in Colombo if they thought it was not possible to live among the majority Sinhala Buddhist population.
In fact, the majority of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka permanently live outside the North and East, among the Sinhala people. It is the tolerance and the peaceful nature of Buddhism that gives our nation this strength. The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Sri Lanka, His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith has gone on record opposing any move to deprive Buddhism of the foremost place accorded by the Constitution and to turn Sri Lanka into a secular State.
Despite all attempts made by certain politically motivated parties to destroy this harmony, it has held.
This is the legacy of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. I wish to commend the Dhammayana Educational and Charitable Trust for its efforts to revive Buddhism in the land of its birth and the Chief Minister of Maharashtra Shri Devendra Fadnavis for the interest he has shown in this matter.