by Vijaya Chandrasoma
The terms “Freedom of Religion” and Freedom of Worship” are often used as interchangeable concepts. They are not. The difference in the meaning of these concepts is responsible for much of the religious strife and violence in the world today.
Freedom of Worship is practiced where the government and society will protect the rights of all citizens to practice their religions, so long as they confine their worship to the religion of their birth; a nation whose government or society “encourages” its citizens to believe in the dominant religion, and penalizes those who wish to embrace other beliefs and faiths.
The most extreme examples of this practice of Freedom of Worship are the Islamic nations, which stigmatize, persecute and penalize citizens who convert to a faith other than Islam. A custom which prevails, in varying degrees, in many nations in the world.
Freedom of Religion, according to a 2012 study by George Moses, is the “more expansive term. It includes freedom to worship their own religion, but also protects the rights of believers to evangelize, change their religion, have schools and charitable institutions and participate in the public square”.
As President Obama proclaimed on Religious Freedom Day, 2017, “Religious Freedom is a principle based not on shared ancestry, culture, ethnicity or faith but on a shared commitment to liberty. Our nation’s enduring commitment to the inalienable human right of religious freedom extends beyond our borders as we advocate for all the ability to choose and live their faith.”
The words “ability to choose and live their faith” illustrate the difference between Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Worship.
America’s confusing religious history began with the arrival of the English Pilgrims on the Mayflower in 1620, fleeing religious persecution in England. The constitution of the United States, subsequent to the establishment of a sovereign nation in 1776, provided the framework for the government of the Commonwealth of the 13 colonies.
Separation of Church and State is a legal principle in the United States, but the phrase appears nowhere in the constitution, the closest being “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of (any) religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, as part of the First Amendment.
Although Christianity is the dominant religion in the USA, representing 73% of its population, with its motto “In God We Trust” in US currency and the phrase “One Nation Under God” in its Pledge of Allegiance, no one is persecuted or penalized for converting to another faith, or indeed, for practicing no religion at all – which may not be apparent in today’s religious landscape. Politicians of every stripe are outshouting each other as being true, God fearing Christians publicly, while breaking every commandment in the Bible in private. No politician will be elected to the US Presidency today unless he holds a Bible in one hand, an AK 47 in the other, all the while professing enduring support of Israel.
Strangely, American evangelists have also demonstrated their religious hypocrisy in their devotion to a president who has had five children with three wives, been convicted of multiple financial frauds, accused of pedophilia and sexual assault, and broken just about every commandment in the Good Book. They continue to revere such an evil man as “The Chosen One”, in spite of his self-serving dalliance with science and truth, which has cost tens of thousands of American lives through climate change and a global pandemic.
When Russia established a Communist state, Marx’s theory about religion being the opium of the people was embraced. The USSR, in 1922, was the first nation to officially eliminate religion, and to prevent the propagation of religious and spiritual beliefs, with the ultimate goal of establishing an atheist state.
“Atheists waged a 70-year war on religious belief in the Soviet Union. The Communist Party destroyed churches, mosques and temples; it executed religious leaders; it flooded the schools and the media with anti-religious propaganda; and it introduced a belief called ‘scientific atheism’, complete with atheistic rituals, proselytizers, and a promise of worldly salvation”. But, in the end, “a majority of older Soviet citizens retained their religious beliefs and a crop of citizens too young to have experienced pre-Soviet times acquired religious beliefs.” (G. L. Mosse).
Communist China took a different route. The Communist Party of China is officially atheist. Party members are discouraged from publicly participating in religious ceremonies, on the basis that religious beliefs are tantamount to “spiritual anesthesia”. However, China does recognize five religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam and Protestantism. While the practice of religions is prohibited, any offence is honoured more in its breach than its observance. The US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report estimates that there are 650 million religious believers in China, primarily made up of Chinese Buddhists, followed by Christians, Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists. With China’s modernization and economic boom, China’s religious believers are, perhaps ironically, on the increase.
Which goes to prove that there’s no propaganda machine in the world with the capacity to successfully combat infantile and adult brainwashing.
To quote Buddhist scholar and translator, Dr. Alexander Berzin on the Buddhist view of other religions, “Just as there are billions of people in the planet, there are also billions of different dispositions and inclinations. From the Buddhist point of view, a wide choice of religions is needed to suit the varied needs of different people. Buddhism recognizes that all religions share the same aim of working for the well-being of mankind”.
In other words, a person of faith should welcome the world to challenge that faith. Whether the universe was created and designed by a Superior Being, or originated billions of years ago in rapid expansion from a single point of nearly infinite energy density, and evolved to its present state, is a decision to be made by individual faith, reasoning and logic. A free nation, where people are sovereign and encouraged to practice their own religion in all its diversity, is a nation with no official religion at all. Challenging thoughts, beliefs and faith is not meant to be easy or popular. It is meant to make us free.
Just as a newborn child is pure and innocent, with no prejudices of race, caste or creed, it is brainwashed and corrupted from the day it is born. It is a fact that 90% of the world’s population believes in the religion of their parents. If your father is a believer of Islam, you will, almost certainly, adhere to the teachings of the Qur’an. If your mother is a Christian, you will believe in the tenets of the Bible. As the Catholic Church says, “Give us your child till he is seven years old, and we’ll have him for life”, a maxim enshrining infantile brainwashing credited to St. Ignatius Loyola himself. And so with Buddhists, Hindus and every other religion practiced in the world. Not even the sage advice of the Buddha, that every religion should be respected and honoured, has been able to stifle the power of brainwashing, which almost every child in the world has been subjected to, and etched in their subconscious for life. Any doubts that may arise will be overcome by the power of their initial and continuing brainwashing, which is rampant, influencing every age, at every turn; in schools, in places of worship and business, in society at large.
All religions have one goal in common. They have the spiritual well-being of humanity and an orderly, just society at their core; they teach their adherents to follow a path of ethical behaviour, of love, compassion and forgiveness. It is just the reward that awaits you if you follow the path, and the punishment if you don’t, that form the basis of the main differences of all religions.
The need for an afterlife is caused by the denial of the ego to accept the finality of death. The final destination is a testament to the human imagination, and includes a surfeit of virgins, the Pearly Gates, and rebirth. Why is there so much strife, anguish, even violence over a concept that can never be conclusively and logically proved? Science has proved that the light at the end of the tunnel is the figment of one’s own faith. But then, the best minds in the world once thought that the earth was flat, so what do we know?
At least 4.5 billion people in the world identify with one of the four organized religions, and the numbers are rising. Religion remains the most powerful force in society today. And the crimes committed in the name of these religions are also increasing in many countries, democracies and authoritarian regimes alike.
No government has yet been able to quell the human need for faith, a belief in a deity or a spiritual law which has been instilled into the human psyche from birth. As long as people continue to be brainwashed from their infancy, religions will thrive. As will religious wars and crimes in the name of religions.
On the bright side, the concepts of atheism and agnosticism are gaining currency in Scandinavia and Northern European countries, where there is a preponderance of “heathens”. And these countries are known to be the most economically developed and socially just countries in the world. Not coincidentally, they are also recognized as countries where their citizens are happy, healthy and cared for, “from womb to tomb.” The fact that they also have some of the highest substance abuse and suicide rates in the world is another one of those quaint paradoxes of human nature.
Perhaps the evolution of these nations has achieved the “herd immunity” necessary to ward off the twin plagues of brainwashing and organized religion.
Strong on vocals
The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!
Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.
At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).
The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.
However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.
Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.
Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year
Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.
It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.
The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.
The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.
The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.
Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.
This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.
Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.
The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.
Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.
Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.
New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations
Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.
Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.
A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.
Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.
Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.
Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.
Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.
Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.
The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.
Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.
Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.
This is the verse sung while playing the game:
“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,
Olinda thibenne bangali dese…
Genath hadanne koi koi dese,
Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”
Six nabbed with over 100 kg of ‘Ice’
Happy New Year!
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