Sinhalese - Religion and Expressive Culture

Sri Lanka is remarkable in that almost all major world Religions are practiced there (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity), but Buddhism has received special state protection under Sri Lankan constitutions since 1973. Nearly wiped out by Christian conversions and neglect in the late nineteenth century, Buddhism was revived by reformers who borrowed techniques of proselytization and political activity from Christian missionaries—and in so doing altered Buddhism by expanding the role of the laity and emphasizing a rigid Victorian morality.

Religious Beliefs. More than 70 percent of Sinhalese are Theravada Buddhists, but there are substantial (and largely non-Goyigama) Roman Catholic communities in the Maritime provinces. Often thought by foreign observers to contradict Buddhist teachings, the worship of Hindu gods in their temples ( devale ) meets religious needs bhikkus (Buddhist monks) cannot address, and the pantheon's structure symbolically expresses the pattern of traditional political authority. At the lower end of the pantheon are demons and spirits that cause illness and must be exorcised.

Religious Practitioners. In Theravada Buddhism, a true Buddhist—a monk, or bhikku—is one who has renounced all worldly attachments and follows in the Buddha's footsteps, depending on alms for subsistence. But few Sinhalese become bhikkus, who number approximately 20,000. Buddhist monastic organizations are known collectively as the sangha, which is fragmented into three sects ( nikayas ); most bhikkus live in the sect's temple/residence complexes ( viharas ). The largest and wealthiest sect, the Siyam Nikaya, is rooted in the precolonial Kandyan political order and is still limited, in practice, to Goyigama aspirants. The smaller Amapura Nikaya emerged from the nineteenth-century social mobility of the Karava, Salagama, and Durava castes of the maritime provinces. The smallest sect, the Ramanya Nikaya, is a reform community. Traditionally, the sangha was interdependent with Sinhalese kingly authority, which both depended on and supported the monastic orders, which in turn grew wealthy from huge land grants. The veneration of the famed Tooth Relic (a purported tooth of the Buddha) at Kandy was vital to the legitimacy of the Kandyan king. Bhikkus continue their tradition of political action today and are influential in right-wing chauvinist organizations. At village temples of the gods ( bandaras and devas ), non-bhikku priests called kapuralas meet the needs of villagers in this life.

Ceremonies. Holidays include the Buddhist New Year (April), Wesak (May), the anniversaries of the birth, death, and enlightenment of the Buddha, the annual procession ( perahera ) of the Tooth Relic at Kandy (August), and the Kataragama firewalking pilgrimage (August).

Arts. Classical Sinhalese civilization excelled in Buddhist architecture, temple and cave frescos, and large-scale sculpture. In colonial times artisans, now few in number, produced fine ivory carvings, metalwork, and jewelry. A mid-twentieth century school of Sinhalese painting called "The Forty-three Group" sparked an impressive renaissance of Sinhalese art, expressed in a traditional idiom in the temple paintings of George Keyt. A twentieth-century tradition of Sinhalese fiction and poetry has attracted international scholarly attention. A government-assisted Sinhala film industry produces many popular films, and a few serious ones have won international awards.

Medicine. The Indian-derived traditional sciences of Ayurveda (herbal medicine) and astrology, taught and Elaborated at Buddhist schools ( piravena ) and practiced by village specialists, provide a comprehensive traditional explanation of health and illness.

Death and Afterlife. The possibility of enlightenment and freedom from rebirth is restricted to those withdrawn from the world; a layperson hopes for a more advantageous rebirth based on a positive balance of bad against good acts (karma) and performs meritorious acts (such as supporting the sangha) toward this end. In popular belief a person who dies without fulfilling cherished dreams may become a spirit and vex the living. The dead are cremated, unless Christians.

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