Minority Christian Identity in the Context of Majority Buddhist Identity in Sri Lanka
Introduction, Scope of Study and Method
In this short paper it is expected to examine the identity issues of Christian minority in the surroundings of Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka. This is done by considering sociological realities connected to Buddhist and Christian identity with theological inputs that have been necessarily associated with the identities of these world religions. Hence this paper highlights theological issues as long as they are empirically intertwined with the identity concerns of the people of these two scripture-based religions in Sri Lanka.
Although this study mainly discusses the issue of Christians in the context of Sinhala Buddhism, to enhance the scope of this research other realities such as Tamil ethnic presence are taken into consideration appropriately. Through scrutiny an effort is made to investigate the possibilities of contributing to ethno-religious harmony in Sri Lanka by understanding the identity of Christians in the bosom of Buddhism. Yet it is not the intention of this paper to have an extensive analysis of the Buddhist and Christian communities and post-war situation in Sri Lanka.
This brief research is done by placing Sri Lankan context in the global realities and research appropriately. The substance of this paper is obtained from the written literature and the living experience of the writer of this research. Other necessary information and views have been accessed from the writer’s previous research of similar vein in Sri Lanka and the UK.
A very brief introduction to the social history of the Christian community in Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka Buddhism is the majority religion (69%) and Christianity is one of the minority religions (7.6%) of the people of this land. Although almost all the native Buddhists in Sri Lanka are Sinhala people the reverse is not the case. About 4% out of the 7.6% Christian minority are Sinhala. Approximately 3.6% are of Tamil ethnic origin. 
The continuous existence of the present day Christian community in Sri Lanka can be traced to the arrival of the Portuguese at the beginning of the 16th century. This was followed by the Dutch in 1658 CE and then the British in the year 1796 CE. The Portuguese introduced Roman Catholicism while the Dutch established the Dutch Reformed Church, and under the British colonial rule many so-called Protestant denominations such as Methodist and Baptist were initiated along with the religion of the colony called the Anglican denomination.
Although all these colonial powers protected and used their brands of Christian denominations for their own benefit to run the colony, there are some unique features which need to be recognised to create the background for the present research. The Portuguese were involved in mass conversion and used many visual aids and symbols in proclaiming Roman Catholicism. Their priests were celibates and did not depend on the salary from the colonial government. They led a simple life and got involved with the common people in their everyday activities. The Dutch introduced the Dutch Reformed Church by prohibiting all the other religions including Roman Catholicism. They were particularly against Roman Catholicism as the Dutch belonged to the reformed camp who were against the Roman Catholics whose head was the Bishop of Rome (the Pope). Under these circumstances the Portuguese persecuted the Roman Catholics, which created pandemonium among the Roman Catholics in Sri Lanka. The British allowed the flow of many denominations and gave religious freedom to all religions, although special privileges were granted to the Anglican Church. 
In 1948, after political independence, Christians lost the many privileged positions that they enjoyed under the colonial regime. Under these circumstances some Christian denominations initiated processes such as indigenisation and inculturation to face the challenges of the postcolonial era. Generally until the mid 1970s the foreign contacts of the Christians were very much restricted. After that time, with the introduction of the market economy in the context of so-called globalisation, once again Christians were able to have a close connection with their foreign counterparts. In this background many new Christian denominations have been introduced to Sri Lanka.
The main problem unearthed by this research paper is identified as the tension between universality and particularity of two major religions existing in an island nation called Sri Lanka at the southern tip of India. To understand this problem the following explanation presented by Gunasekara, explaining the characteristics of a universal religion, can be considered useful.
Universality of Principle. There must be nothing in the basic beliefs of the religion that confine it to a particular nation, race or ethnic group. Thus if there is a notion of a "chosen people" then this characteristic is violated.
Non-Exclusiveness of Membership. Any person could be an adherent of the religion concerned, and be entitled to the same privileges and obligations as every other person. This of course does not require every follower of the religion to be of the same level of achievement, but only that some external factor like race or caste prevents individuals from full participation in the religion.
Wide Geographical dispersion. The religion must have demonstrated an ability to find followers amongst a variety of nations or ethnic groups. Thus even if a religion satisfies the first two requirements but has not been able to spread beyond its region of origin it may not qualify to be a universal religion. Thus Jainism is not generally regarded as a universal although its principles are universal in scope and it is non-exclusive.
Non-Exclusiveness of Language. The practices of the religion which require verbal communication should be capable of being done in any language. The authoritative version of its basic texts may be maintained in the original language in which the original expositions were given, but translations of these should be valid, provided that they preserve the sense of the original texts.
Independence of Specific Cultural Practices. The practices of the religion should be free from the cultural practices of a particular group in such matters as food, dress, seating, etc.
Each one of these criteria raise problems but they have to be satisfied to a significant extent if the religion is to be deemed a universal one.
Although in Sri Lanka these two religions, Christianity and Buddhism, basically endeavour to abide by these factors, in creating the identities of the adherents they have the tendency to shift from these features. Dynamics of this inclination create a variety of issues integrally connected to the identities of these religious categories. Hence through this paper it is expected to elaborate this phenomenon to contribute to the area of this research.
Basic Theoretical Framework
The nexus between ethnicity and religion is the foundation of the theoretical framework of this paper. This is done by taking precedence from the theory created by Yang and Ebaugh from their extensive research done on this subject. According to these two scholars the nexus between ethnicity and religion can be identified in three main categories. They are the “ethnic fusion” in which religion is considered as the foundation of ethnicity, “ethnic religion” where religion is one of the many foundations of ethnicity, and thirdly “religious ethnicity” in which case an ethnic group is associated with a particular religion shared by other ethnic groups.  This framework in enriched by the theory presented by Hans Mol and others on boundary maintenance and change handling of the religious groups.  This is done to examine the creation and recreation of Christian identity in the context of dynamic Buddhist identity in Sri Lanka.
In a country like Sri Lanka, where beliefs and philosophies are taken seriously, in all endeavours, these aspects play a vital role in determining behaviour patterns of people in society. In this background it is indisputable that these features have been an integral part of the happenings in Sri Lanka. Hence folk beliefs and organised religious beliefs amalgamated with ethnicities have become the key factors in both fuelling tension and also showing the capacity to reduce tension to have a better understanding of each other in society.
Up to the present day Buddhism has existed for almost 22 centuries in Sri Lanka. Along with Buddhism, rituals, ceremonies and practices connected to Hindu religiosity have been surviving in this island land. As Middle Eastern and South Indian traders have been visiting Sri Lanka for a very long time, with the rise of Islam in the seventh century, gradually Islam also was established in Sri Lanka.
Beginning from the 16th century with the introduction of Christianity under the colonial regime, the well-established Buddhist identity has been undergoing drastic changes in Sri Lanka. To face the challenges posed by the colonial powers Buddhists have progressively been strengthening their identity on ethno-religious lines. This process, which began as a colonial reality, has been developing in many directions to recreate the denied honour of the Sinhala Buddhist under colonial rule.
Sociologically speaking, Buddhist revivalists came to have a “love-hate” relationship with the Christians, which became prominent after mid 19th century. Bond has explained this in the following manner.
Protestant Buddhism the response of the early reformers who began the revival by both reacting against and imitating Christianity……….
In this process Buddhist revivalists started establishments such as schools and organisations by adopting and adjusting the structures of the Protestant church. Buddhist worship, rituals and ceremonies went through drastic changes. For instance, Buddhists revivalists started Buddhist carols or Bhakthi Gee by adapting the form of Christian carols.
On the other hand, after political independence in 1948 CE, Christians have been trying to become effective by adopting, adjusting and adapting many phenomena from the Buddhist philosophy and culture in Sri Lanka. These are aspects such as church architecture, music and cultural symbols from the traditional Buddhist context in this country.
After political independence in 1948 CE, slowly but steadily the majority Buddhists have been strengthening their identity with the Sinhala ethnicity. Over the years the consciousness of Buddhists as the chosen people of the soil and of Buddhism as the foundation of their Sinhala ethnicity have been increasing, creating many decisive issues in Sri Lanka. This has contributed towards the creation of an identity crisis for Sinhala Christians who do not share the same philosophy, although they share many cultural elements with Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka.
The encounter of Buddhism and Christianity over five centuries have been a theologising experience for both these religions in Sri Lanka. However, the very word “theology” in Christianity has raised many issues for Buddhists who believe in a religion where God or gods are not at the centre of their faith. Regarding this Smart has noted,
The thought that you could have a religion which did not in any straight sense believe in God was a novel thought in the West and still has hardly been digested.
Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka have been strengthening this position to claim that the saving power according to Buddhism is within human beings without necessarily getting assistance from any supernatural entity.  Davies has explained this in the following manner,
deepest kind of mystical experience and quest can exist independently of theism…
This belief at times directly and indirectly has been used to counteract Christianity in which theologically God is the centre of all realities. Consequently Buddhists have been working hard to achieve their goals with human efforts, often reminding themselves of a famous saying of the Lord Buddha: “One’s own hand is the shade to his own head.”
.Although it is not required to believe in God or gods to be a Buddhist, the pantheon of gods has a very significant place in popular Buddhist worship. However in Buddhist belief these gods are “much lower than the Lord Buddha.”  At the same time, according to Buddhist belief these gods are lower than human beings as well.
Yet the interaction of ordinary Buddhists in certain Christian worship activities is a visible reality in Sri Lanka. In this regard it is highlighted by some scholars that anthropologists have misapprehended the certain behaviours of ordinary Buddhists. The following observation by Gunasinghe highlights this reality,
A Buddhist Sinhalese who takes a vow at a Catholic church will not imagine that he is taking a Buddhist vow, for there are no such vows in Buddhist practice. A Buddhist who wishes to benefit from the laying on of hands by a Catholic priest does not look upon the ritual as a Buddhist act. The distinction that a Buddhist makes in such situations is not a matter of form: it is a matter of fundamentals. Anthropologists seem to deal often only with form and not fundamentals, and to that extent their findings call for caution. 
Not only anthropologists but also some Christians have not been grasping this issue of form and fundamental of the conduct of these Buddhists in Sri Lanka. Although in the purview of this study it is not possible to elaborate this matter, for better understanding between Buddhists and Christians this needs to be studied carefully.
In the recent past Buddhists have been accusing Christians, saying that they convert Buddhists through unethical means. In this regards, apart from inflammatory writings, there have even been physical assaults on Christian churches. Efforts have even been made to bring legislation to prevent this so-called unethical conversion. Although in a short paper of this nature it is not possible to elaborate all the issues related to this reality, let us highlight some important concerns.
First of all the fact should be taken into consideration that today the Christian minority as a community does not enjoy significant political or military power in Sri Lanka. Then the question is why some Buddhists are threatened by some of their activities? Today the Christian minority is about 7% and is geographically well spread in Sri Lanka. They use all three main languages of Sri Lanka (Sinhala, Tamil and English) equally in their activities. Ethnically Christians are comprised almost equally of Sinhala and Tamil, the two main ethnic groups of Sri Lanka. Among Christians the literacy rate is almost 100% and the knowledge of English, the international language, is higher than in the other groups in Sri Lanka. The percentage of international relationships of Christians is also better than the other groups in Sri Lanka. These realities clearly show that Christians have a disproportionate representation in Sri Lanka. In other words it can be said that the Christian minority has been living with a majority psychology owing to these facts.
On the other hand Buddhists mainly confine themselves to the Sinhala language for their activities, and almost all the Buddhists ethnically belong to the Sinhala category. Unlike Christians, the majority of the Buddhists in Sri Lanka live in rural areas where they are not much exposed to international realties in the world. These circumstances have caused these Buddhists to develop a minority psychology in this country.
The tension between Sinhala and Tamil ethnic groups has been making Sinhala Christians vulnerable in the area of boundary maintenance for the identity making of this group. These Sinhala Christians were often forced to have a dichotomy in their identity in Sri Lanka. In this dichotomy this Sinhala Christian group has been identifying religion-wise with Tamil Christians while ethnically they were doing the same with Sinhala Buddhists. Therefore this state of affairs has created an identity crisis for the Sinhala Christians in the bosom of the Sinhala Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka.
The brief analysis shows that Christians and Buddhists have been living with a kind of xenophobia in Sri Lankan society. Christians have been expanding their boundaries with the international realties, perhaps with little attention to the contextual realties around them. On the other hand Sinhala Buddhists have been strengthening their local identity with Sinhala ethnic group that have developed phobias for many groups including Christians. This shows the necessity of keeping both global and local realities in proper balance and tension by both Buddhists and Christians in Sri Lanka.
Hence it is clear that the mutual enriching and enhancing of these two world religions both sociologically and theologically could inspire “xenophilia” instead of the prevailing xenophobia in Sri Lankan society.
 Somaratna, G. P. V.(1992), Sri Lankan Church History (In Sinhala) , Marga Sahodaratvaya, Nugegoda. Sri Lanka.
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 Yang, F. & Ebaugh, H.E. ( 2001), ‘Religion and Ethnicity Among New Immigrants :The Impact of Majority/ Minority Status in Home and Host Countries’, Journal for Scientific Study of Religion, 40:3 p.369.
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 Davies, D.J. (1984), Meaning and Salvation in Religious Studies, E.J. Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands. P.1.
 Smart, N. (1984), ‘The Contribution of Buddhism to the Philosophy of Religion’, in Buddhist Contribution to World Culture and Peace, Edited by N.A. Jayawickrama, Mahendra Senanayake, Sridevi Printing Works, 27, Pepiliyana Road, Nedimala – Dehiwala, Sri Lanka, p. 90.
 de Silva, L.(1980), Buddhism : Beliefs and Practices in Sri Lanka, Ecumenical Institute, 490/5, Havelock Road, Colombo 6, Sri Lanka , p.63.
 Gunasinghe, S. (1984), ‘Buddhism and Sinhala Rituals’, in Buddhist Contribution to World Culture and Peace, Edited by N.A. Jayawickrama, Mahendra Senanayake, Sridevi Printing Works, 27, Pepiliyana Road, Nedimala – Dehiwala, Sri Lanka, p.38.