Tamil of Sri Lanka - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Sri Lankan Tamils are predominantly Hindus, but there are significant enclaves of Roman Catholics and Protestants (mainly Methodists), who consider themselves to be full members of the Sri Lankan Tamil Community. Discussed here is the Hinduism of Tamil Sri Lanka, a Hinduism that is at once utilitarian, philosophical, and deeply devotional. Shiva is the supreme deity but is not worshiped directly; Shiva bestows his grace by running your life so you aspire to nothing other than reunification with him. The perspective taken toward the other deities is frankly utilitarian: they are approached for help with mundane problems, such as illnesses, university exams, job applications, conflicts, legal problems, or infertility. Commonly worshiped deities include Shiva's sons Murukan and Pillaiyar, the several village goddesses (such as Mariyamman and Kannakiyamman), and a host of semidemonic deities who are thought to demand sacrifices. Of all deities, most beloved is Murukan, who bestows boons even on those who may be unworthy, to the extent that they devote themselves to him.


Religious Practitioners. In temples that conform to the scriptural dictates of the medieval temple-building manuals (called Agamas), the priests are Brahmans. A small caste of non-Brahman temple priests called Saiva Kurukkals performs the rites at non-Agama temples, particularly shrines of the goddess Amman. The officiants at village and family temples, called pucaris, are ordinary villagers with whom the temple's god has established a spiritual relationship, often through a form of spirit possession. Here and there one finds temple priests who open a shrine to the public and try to solve medical, legal, and social problems for all comers, without regard to caste. The very few holy men are revered but may attract more foreign than indigenous disciples. Astrologists are Numerous and are routinely consulted at birth, marriage, and times of trouble; Hindus believe that one's fate is "written on one's head" ( talai viti ) and cannot be fully escaped, although some intelligent finessing and divine assistance can help one avoid some problems or calamities.


Ceremonies. Households celebrate a rich repertoire of calendrical and life-cycle rituals that bring the family together in joyous, festive holidays. Village temples offer annual "car" festivals, in which the deity is carried around the temple atop a huge chariot; these ceremonies occur on a much larger scale in regional pilgrimage, which used to attract visitors from all over the country.


Arts. With its utilitarian ethos, Sri Lankan Tamil culture does not encourage young people to pursue careers in the arts. Even so, young people today may receive instruction in traditional Tamil music or dance as a means of impressing on them the antiquity and greatness of Tamil culture; music and dance were formerly associated with low-caste status.


Medicine. There is a pronounced division of labor Between scientific medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, which is thought to be more effective for mental illness, snakebite, paralysis, and listlessness.


Death and Afterlife. Westerners who believe Hindus are focused on a better life after reincarnation are inevitably surprised by the almost complete disinterest that Tamil Hindus show in the afterlife. It is thought, though, that someone who dies without having fulfilled a great longing will remain to vex the living. Cremation is the norm and is followed, for most castes, by a period of death pollution lasting thirty-one days; subsequently there is an annual death observance with food offerings. For the few highly educated Hindus familiar with the Saiva Siddhanta tradition, an oft-expressed goal of afterlife is reunification with Shiva.

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