The freedom to choose and express religious affiliation is guaranteed under the Sri Lankan constitution. Buddhism is the major religion followed in Sri Lanka, with 70.2% of the population identifying as Buddhist. Of the remaining Sri Lankan population, 12.6% identify as Hindu, 9.7% identify as Muslim and 6.1% identify as Christian.
The social landscape of the country tends to show an association between ethnicity and religion. The Sinhalese majority generally follows Buddhism, which has seen the faith gain special status over other religions despite not being the official religion of the country. Those who identify as Hindu tend to be ethnic Tamils, while those who identify as Muslim are generally Sri Lankan Moors. Christians are typically Burghers. That being said, identifying with a particular religion is not necessarily connected to one’s ethnicity. For example, there are some Sri Lankans who identify as Christian that are of Sinhalese or Tamil ethnicity. Moreover, it is common to find the various religions coexisting. Buddhists may visit Hindu temples to pay homage to the Buddha, and churches may be in close proximity to mosques.
The 2011 Australian census recorded that 38.1% of Sri Lankans living in Australia identified as Buddhist, 29.1% identified with some denomination of Christianity and 17.8% identified as Hindu. A further 2.7% did not identify with a religion.
Buddhism in Sri Lanka
The majority of Sri Lankan society identify as Buddhist, with the main form of Buddhism practiced in Sri Lanka being Theravāda Buddhism. The most important and sacred Theravāda texts, the Tripiṭaka, were first written in Sri Lanka. Among some followers, this fact adds weight to the view that Sri Lanka is the ‘chosen land’ for Buddhism, and potentially the future stronghold of the religion. Sri Lankan Buddhists (and followers of Theravāda Buddhism more generally) take refuge in the ‘Triple Gem’: the teacher (Buddha), the teaching (dharma/dhamma) and the monastic community (the Sangha).
In Theravāda Buddhism, the Buddha is not considered a ‘God’ as understood in the Judeo-Christian sense of the term. Rather, devotion towards the Buddha is akin to the respect a student has for a teacher. Veneration and reverence towards the Buddha is an important principle for followers of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. In terms of the teaching, the core doctrine (‘dharma/dhamma’) of Buddhism is the ‘Four Noble Truths’, which put forth the notion that underpinning all existence is suffering that one can be liberated from through practising the ‘Eightfold Path’. The Sri Lankan Buddhist laity has generally accepted a large body of other beliefs and practices that have since been integrated into the Sinhalese interpretation of Theravāda Buddhism.
The Sangha (the Buddhist monastic order that includes ordained monks, nuns and/or novices) is an important institution in Sri Lanka. While there is no central Sangha in Sri Lanka, the country is home to a number of monastic orders, each with different styles of discipline and recruitment. In both historical and contemporary Sri Lanka, the Sangha have a significant influence in society. For example, monks perform important roles for the laity during times of crisis or accomplishment, as well as practising public philanthropy.
The Sangha has also played a significant role in Sri Lanka’s political sphere – reflecting the cross over between religion, Sinhalese nationalism and politics. For example, radical sangha communities disapprove of inclusion of Tamils in national politics and modifying the current unitary state system. Although individual monks and sects have involved themselves in national politics, seldom do entire monastic orders unite behind a single party or policy.