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Mihintalava - The Birthplace of Sri Lankan Buddhist Civilization

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Globalised fundamentalism versus tradition

(Presentation by Indrani Devendra at South Asian Dialogue/Society for International Development - Kathmandu, Nepal - 17-20 November 2003)

"Globalization" is a process where everything we associate with it flows down from the "Western world" to the far poorer "Third World" where most of us live. Under the comforting phrase that 'globalization' is nothing but 'modernization' we are told that this is only 'progress' or 'evolution' and should not, therefore, be resisted or opposed. According to this interpretation, globalization is the road leading our world towards a universal civilization and a universal identity.

Most of us, gathered here today, are from countries at the receiving end of this globalization and, as such, would roundly reject its onslaught on the national traditions we have preserved in South Asia for several thousand years. We must not be complacent just because, in the course of history, our ancient civilizations have interacted with other civilizations and have been revitalized with new knowledge and new technologies.

But the pace of today's globalization/modernization is so rapid, so powerful and so over-whelming that our civilization and cultures are on the verge of losing their strength to resist or to integrate this into our native traditions and way of life.

Let us face the unpleasant fact that our cultural diversity is being destroyed by the cultural 'westernization' that is at the core of 'globalization'. Just look around us - we see the same clothes, the same forms of greetings and expressions, the same food, and the same musical tastes from Kathmandu to Kampala. And these trends are dictated by the USA. Our civilizations, our nations, must develop strategies to counteract this avalanche, and work to preserve our cultural diversity - not as museum exhibits but as cultures that can also learn and absorb only those elements of value in 'globalization'.

My presentation will be about one example from Sri Lanka where a small group of determined women successfully mounted a challenge against one particularly insidious form of the USA's agenda of globalization.


The defining culture of Sri Lanka has been Sinhalese and Buddhist ever since its history was recorded around 250 C.E. Even today Buddhists far outnumber other believers. Close interaction with South India led to a substantial later settlement of Tamil Hindus in the north of the country. As these two faiths have much in common, both groups lived without religious conflict. Little settlements of Muslim Arab traders clustered round ports and their environs.

They were free to practise Islam. The invasion of Sri Lanka by the Portuguese in 1505 radically altered this scenario. They hounded the Muslims, who were then given refuge in the regions yet ruled by the Sinhalese king.

Many Buddhists and Hindus in the maritime regions under Portuguese rule were brutally 'converted' to Catholicism while their temples were looted and destroyed.

In due course the Dutch defeated the Portuguese and ruled the maritime areas. They attempted to impose their Calvinist faith on the natives but had little success even with the native Catholics, now anchored in their faith.

The British ousted the Dutch. Overt conversion was not in their agenda but it was the sure path to appointments and advancement in government. The Anglican faith, naturally, was enthusiastically accepted by a stratum of society who now become the naive elite in Colonial Ceylon.

With the achievement of Independence in 1948, together with universal suffrage and free elections, politicians had to cultivate the majority, the Sinhalese Buddhists who had remained steadfast in their traditional faith in spite of almost 500 years of foreign occupation.

It must be emphasised that during all these centuries these four major religions - Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam - lived alongside each other with no massacres or attempt at mass conversion from one faith to another.

The primacy of Buddhism and the duty of the state to protect and foster it is enshrined in the Constitution which, however, also guarantees the freedom of worship for all its citizens. While religious rivalry and public debate had free play, the traditional faiths, and the related life-styles of their adherents, existed side by side, with minimal friction, for the fifty years since Independence as they had done for many centuries before the trauma of colonial persecution. Impact of insurrection and 'free market'

Two major factors radically altered this scenario. The first was the violent insurrection launched against the State by an armed group demanding a separate homeland for Tamils. The inevitable bloodshed and brutality took its toll on civilians and has led to several thousands of victims seeking safety in State-run refugee camps, where most of them yet live in poor conditions.

The insurrection put tremendous pressure on the financial resources of the State. Its first priority became the strengthening of the security forces.

The rehabilitation of refugees and devastated villages came a poor second. Traditional social service organisations, more accustomed to running homes for orphans, elders and the handicapped, had neither the experience nor the resources to assist the State in a human disaster of this magnitude. As a result, the State threw an open invitation to international organisations, both official and non-governmental, for assistance in this task.

This 'open-door' policy brought in a host of NGOs whose credentials the government was not inclined to verify. They all flew the flags of rehabilitation and poverty alleviation. Among these were many well-funded fundamentalist Christian organizations whose real motive was to convert 'heathens' or 'lost souls' using this sugar-coated pill or 'poverty alleviation'.

On another front, the Government took a radical swing to the right in the early 1980s. It jettisoned the long-entrenched concepts of egalitarianism and the welfare state, replacing them with an 'open economy'. The President is reported to have said "Let the robber barons come!" -and so they did. In the wake of the influx of foreign ventures, came another influx of fundamentalist Christian organisations re-establishing themselves as commercial companies, taking advantage of the 'open door'.

Trashing tradition

There was now an unprecedentedly rapid influx of these 'new' Christian groups whose emphasis was on the rapid spreading of their faith and the gaining of visible 'converts'. This was unheard of among the old Catholic and Protestant Churches who had lived amicably alongside Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims without trying to buy them over to their faith. This tolerance was anathema to the new fundamentalists. Their determination to extract as many 'lost souls' as possible from their traditional faiths to their own brands of fundamentalist/evangelical Christianity.

This campaign is being carried out using all the techniques of waging a war - against non-Christians. It is coordinated by the "Joshua Project" which publicises road maps for these fundamentalists to target their unsuspecting victims. It produces maps and profiles peoples on the basis of ethics, tribal and racial groups who are targeted as being in need of conversion to their particular variety of fundamentalist Christianity. India, Nepal and Sri Lanka have been thus mapped and profiled.

What is objectionable in this fundamentalist campaign is not its desire to gain adherents, but in its determination to totally alienate their converts from all their traditions and all 'non-believers'.

Many cases have been documented in Sri Lanka of new converts being urged to publicly destroy symbols of their earlier faith, such as images, pictures and prayer books. These public actions serve to alienate them absolutely from their family and community and,, unfortunately but inevitably, provoke violent reactions.

In the globalised economy there is an ever increasing need for competence in English. This need has played right into the hands of the fundamentalists bank-rolled by their American foundations. They now attempt to insinuate themselves into traditional villages "un-reached" (by them) as teachers of English. Once a foothold is established, benefits begin to flow to teachers and students - salaries, clothes, excursions and scholarships. 'Conversion' then seems an attractive material option.

It means 'modernization' with the globalised world and the US as the magnet. None of these resources are ever available to the monks in the old village temple.

It is an unequal and frustrating struggle and becomes yet another focus for violence. Foreign enterprises too have been chipping away at tradition in a variety of ways. Many new firms are from South Korea, a hotbed of fundamentalist Christianity. They strongly influence their workforce to convert. New foreign companies are establishing abattoirs and animal husbandry projects in areas where animal slaughter was traditionally anathema to Buddhists.

They are being won over by the offer of lucrative employment.

The latest inroad into tradition has been via tourism. Sri Lanka's magnificent monument of Sigiriya, site of a Buddhist monastery and royal palace, is being 'tarted up' to be the venue of a Sound and Light Show.

Seaplanes are being brought in to land on an ancient reservoir nearby which irrigates hundreds of rice fields, provides livelihood for a fishing community and also is the source of drinking water for the town and surrounding villages.

There is suspicion that Norwegian fundamentalists are behind this project A cash hungry government turns a blind eye to the untold damage it will wreak on traditional communities and the ecology that nurtures them.

I now come to a subject relevant to this Conference - women, fertility and family planning. Where do the fundamentalist Christian groups come into this? The answer lies in the USA where the so-called 'moral majority' (of WASPS) is vigorously against family planning and any American assistance to such programmes in our 'Third World'. President Bush is himself a committed fundamentalist Christian and actively supports this agenda. As such, the fundamentalist groups that come into our countries oppose all family planning programmes and encourage their converts to have larger families to expand their flock.

As far as Buddhists are concerned the planning of a family is an individual's decision, and is not hedged in by religious taboos. This has been a major factor in the success of Sri Lanka's campaign to encourage smaller families. The activities of fundamentalists opposed to F.P. programmes has begun to provoke a backlash. Buddhist activists have raised the cry that if this goes on, the offspring of procreating fundamentalists will swamp Buddhists altering Sri Lanka's demography and, in time, destroy its ancient Buddhist civilization.

A community once receptive to E.P. programmes is, thus, now under pressure to change its stance - as reaction to the so-called 'pro-family' programmes of SU based fundamentalist Christians.

One step forward

In view of their grassroots contacts certain organisations of Buddhist women became increasingly aware of the threat posed by the activities of fundamentalist Christian groups to their poor village sisters and the even tenor of their traditional lives. On the one hand, violent antagonisms were being ignited within the village by 'parachuted' pastors and their converts. On the other hand, material inducements and employment in fundamentalist funded enterprises were attracting village youth away from traditional faith and values.

These women's organisations now field teams of activists who visit villages reported to be under threat from fundamentalist incursions.

These teams are multi-disciplinary and comprise doctors and teachers as well. They enter into dialogue, instead of preaching, and educate them how to best utilise the resources already available at village or division level. They also speak frankly to the village monk and suggest how he could straighten his people to withstand the blandishments of fundamentalists.

Foreign funded fundamentalists are increasingly aware of the rising opposition by tradition-centred groups. (Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka) to their activities and endeavour to camouflage their activities with a cloak of legitimacy. In Sri Lanka this has taken two forms. One is the presentation in Parliament of Acts to incorporate assorted fundamentalist groups so that they can pursue their subtle proselytization as a legal activity. The other is to use the 'carte blanche' given by the open economy to register their organisations as commercial enterprises.

The All Ceylon Women's Buddhist Congress (ACWBC) decided to face the legal challenge head on.

Two such Christian groups, based in Norway and Austria respectively, attempted to get their organisations incorporated in the laws of the country.

The ACWBC contested both cases in the Supreme Court and won landmark decisions rejecting their applications. It should be understood that this was no mere reliance on the duty of the State to protect Buddhism.

The point made by the Supreme Court was that while it upheld the freedom of worship of all citizens it could not countenance the establishment of bodies that would extend material and other benefits to those who converted to their set of beliefs.

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