Jaffna, Srilanka. I am near the end of my two weeks in Srilanka, and post here my fourth blog, from the very northern tip of this island - Ceylon as we used to call it - off the coast of India. You can read the first, second, and third too.
While the rest of my ten-week travels in South Asia – Chennai, Kolkata, Pune, and later, Kathmandu, Nepal – take me back to more or less familiar places, Srilanka is entirely new to me. This is by majority a Buddhist country with a predominant Sinhala language (derived from Pali, the ancient Buddhist language). The earliest forms of Buddhism in Srilanka date back to the early years of the Buddhist era. In Anuradhapura, for instance, there is a venerated tree that by tradition sprang from a branch of the bodhi tree under which the Buddha reached enlightenment. When the original tree, in Bodhgaya, died, a branch was returned to Bodhgaya to help regrow the tree in its original place.
Srilanka is also home to a large number of Tamil-speaking people, some who have been here from ancient times, and some brought over by the British to work – perhaps “slave” – on the plantations that have made the country famous for “Ceylon tea.” The majority of these people are Hindu. Particularly since the start of the early modern colonial period, Srilanka has also been home to a Christian community, including many Tamil-speaking Christians. There is a Muslim community as well. Wikipedia reports: “As of the 2011 census 70.2% of Sri Lankans are Theravada Buddhists, 12.6% are Hindus, 9.7% are Muslims, and 7.4% Christians, a majority of those being Catholic.”
Srilanka is also a beautiful country, with a varied landscape; as an island, it is blessed with a long and varied coastline (which however made it vulnerable to some of the devastation of the December 2004 tsunami). The first impression one gets, even in the airport, is that Srilankans are a gentle and welcoming people. Sadly, though, it is also a country that has witnessed terrible violence over the years. Some of the major Buddhist sites carry the memory of internecine Buddhist warfare, and the rather awesome Sigiriya (Sihigiriya) Rock was turned into a fortress as kings battled for control of the center of the island. The Portuguese took over major parts of the coastline during their invasion, and destroyed many a famous temple in their religious zeal. The British too invaded and conquered the island, adding it to their Asian empire and learning to grow tea here.
Most recently, there was been the terrible civil war that pit the north vs. the south, Sinhala community vs. the Tamil, Jaffna vs. the rest of the country. The Tamil Tigers, as they were known, battled fiercely and violently for a Tamil homeland, until their final and utter destruction in 2009. The island is only beginning what will be a long period of recovery, even as the underlying political and economic and linguistic issues remain to be faced. I spent much of my visit here in Jaffna, the northern, Tamil area. Since I have been here a short time and had never been here before, I can hardly offer any deep insights into the politics of the situation, or what is likely to come next. Yes, restoration is occurring; and yes, in the aftermath of such a terrible war, instances of violence will surely recur; and yes, healing will ensue, but over a long period, more slowly than the quick restoration of roads and railways, houses and public buildings.
What I can speak to, based on my visits in Colombo, the capital, and in Jaffna up north with old friends and new acquaintances is the very impressive work now being done by people of faith – in all religions, I am told, even if my contacts were primarily Christian – to assess the situation, find projects on which people of faith can work together without acerbating old religious differences and without attracting unwanted attention from political figures and governmental agencies. These projects deal with the environment, health care and education, the well-being of orphans and widows, and other urgent works that are recognized by almost everyone as today’s priorities. There is much that has to be locally invented, so to speak. Pastors and other religious leaders are overwhelmed with the tasks facing them and also hampered by their limited resources. And this is the Srilankan challenge, the Jaffna challenge, which cannot be thought merely to replicate what happened, was needed and ultimately worked in South Africa or Guatemala or anywhere else in the world. But these women and men are in this for the long haul, and I do believe that their work will pay off.
Finally, it was somewhat daunting that any number of times in my brief travels around this multi-religious island, people would ask me to tell them about interreligious dialogue, the theological grounding of dialogue today, the work that needs to be done for interfaith understanding and, even, how to do comparative theological work. They were being polite, to be sure, but more than polite as well. They really did want to know what I think and do, to inform what they should be thinking and doing. Now it is not uncommon for me as a professor and a Jesuit to be asked about such matters, and to hope that what I’ve worked out in my own life and situations will be useful to others, elsewhere. But I was particularly impressed – daunted, worried, humbled – here in Srilanka, since in many ways my work relies on the leisure and luxury of a peaceful setting at an affluent university in a wealthy country; and these are people of all faiths rebuilding their society from the ground up. What they are already doing here could keep us up late at night, studying, thinking, praying, just to catch up with where they are.
But they did really want to know, since they see that in times of stress and great challenge, clear and clearer thinking is still needed, getting right the substance and style of dialogue is all the more important, and the work of studying and understanding others’ religious traditions powerfully and purely becomes more and not less important when there is important primary work to be done on the ground. How are theologians in the West thinking about pluralism today? What are the kinds of interreligious dialogue, and which seems most fitting in Jaffna? How can the poor, the traumatized, the widows, of all traditions, take a serious role in the dialogue rather than being simply the object of concern? In which ways will it be useful for Christians to learn what about which strands of Hinduism in Jaffna? What should follow for how we in Srilanka think about the meaning of being companions of Jesus, engaged in his healing ministries? And so on.
Coming to the end of my visit to this lovely and sad island, I am grateful to have learned much, in a short time, about Srilanka, but also about how we need one another globally, offering our small gifts when we can, in service of those undertaking the great works of faith and justice and mercy in very particular places.