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On thinking of religion as philosophy

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By Susantha Hewa

Religion is as old as the human race. It is no static entity although we have been made to feel that it is. This may be because we are not different from any of the other mortals, who are persuaded that their religion is different from all the others in that it contains the ‘ultimate truth.’ After all, it is this strong conviction that makes religion different from every other area of human experience.

Religion is not a monolithic structure. It combines several facets that are subject to change. In his book, The Religious Experience of Mankind, Prof. Ninian Smart discusses six dimensions of religion: 1. Ritual dimension 2. Mythological dimension 3. Doctrinal dimension 4. Ethical dimension 5. Social dimension and 6. Experiential dimension. Actually, all these aspects are dynamics that help the perpetuation of any religion and they seem to have some degree of independence from one another in their paths of change. For example, doctrinal dimension may be the most resistant to change, while social dimension may be more susceptible to variation. What each person experiences as ‘religion’ at any point in life is contributed to in varying degrees by all these six elements, if not more.

It seems quite probable that the quality of a person’s relationship with his religion is determined by how he relates to each of the above six aspects. Obviously, almost all children are more influenced by ritual and mythological dimensions than by doctrinal or ethical dimensions because their first experiences with religion come in the form of rituals and narratives, they being cognitively unready for the intricacies of doctrine and ethics. However, there is no wonder if many of them are more influenced by the ritual dimension while being subliminally fed on the second, the mythological dimension. Later, as youth, most of them would take an interest in the doctrine and ethics-the philosophical aspect. However, in their sunset years, most would relish engaging in rituals and enter the experiential realm, with other aspects influencing them in varying degrees, depending on their faith and personal, social and circumstantial factors.

If religion is to be a boon and not a bane, it would be better for us, living as we are in a multi-religious society, to be more sensible about religion. The more the people are interested in their religion’s doctrinal dimension, the more they tend to be more sober and ‘philosophical’ about it. Incidentally, it is a fact that many people, some Buddhists among them, like to think of their religion more as philosophy than ‘religion’. However, most of them seem to forget that such a view results from focusing too much on the doctrinal and ethical aspects, forgetting the crucial role played by the other four dimensions: the ritual, mythological, social and the experiential in making any religion, an organised and functional ‘religion’. In other words, what makes your religion a ‘religion’ or ‘philosophy’ is subjective; it is determined by what you make of it. If you are objective and dispassionate about it, nobody would quarrel with you for calling it a ‘philosophy’.

However, it is altogether a different story if you, like other devotees, get involved in the routine and culturally transmitted habits and practices of your religion. Merely saying that yours is not a religion but a philosophy, you are not going to convince or impress anybody, if you follow the crowd yourself. No religion exists in a social vacuum. It is people’s perceptions and ‘religious’ behaviour that defines and situates it.

You may begin to entertain doubts about many things you have trusted all your life but not religion. Our ancestors were no different. However, thousands of ancient religions that were once held in awe and reverence by millions of ancient people in different eras have fallen off the radar, giving place to the present-day religions. There isn’t an iota of evidence that our remote ancestors were any less believing than us. After all, they were much closer to and more dependent on their religions than us living in the 21st century. As anthropologists say, religion was closely woven with every aspect of their life. For them, it was a matter of life and death.

As such, the degree of people’s faith in religion in a given historical context is no guarantee of its perpetuity. Not many of us- excluding, perhaps, those who are taking Anti-Aging supplements, would be there to quarrel with our posterity for favouring their newfangled religions! And, what justification is there in being offended with future tenants of Earth for following our own example of discarding archaic religions? Wouldn’t our primitive kith and kin curse us if they happened to materialise here to find us devoted to our present-day faiths? Surely, none of us would think of laughing at primitive people for thinking that they knew best.

Surely, we cannot be faulted for thinking that our religion is superior to the rest. We feel it equally strongly when we compare it either with primeval religions or contemporary religions. The only difference is that when it comes to primal religions, we can afford to be uninhibited and up-front in defending the superiority of ours. However, when the comparison happens to be between ours and other contemporary religions, we tend to be rather discreet and tactful. You know why.

Robert Frost says, “A diplomat is a man who always remembers a woman’s birthday but never remembers her age.” The diplomacy with which we circumvent the awkward subject of religion whenever we find ourselves in ‘mixed company’ is not any less impressive than that of a diplomat’s studied absentmindedness of a woman’s age, which Frost found amusingly clever.

A glance at the tacit social ‘covenants’ we mutually respect would reveal that “diplomacy” is the name of the game in manipulating a tricky ‘religious’ bend. Here we go:

1. It is wise to avoid “religion” in polite conversation.

2. You are justified in being offended at the slightest coldness, let alone disrespect, shown to your religion.

3. You make it a point to say that all religions are equally good when you are in culturally diverse company.

4. You are damn sure that your religion is the one and only true religion (Come, come! No one is asking you to say so to your next-door heretic.)

5. You make sure you are out of earshot of someone about whose religion you want to be a little dismissive!

If you truly considered religion a philosophy, you wouldn’t have to be so ‘clever’, would you?



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Impact of security considerations on foreign policy crafting

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To be sure, Sri Lanka is in a tight policy bind as a result of initially granting the Chinese high tech vessel, ‘Yuan Wang 5’, permission to dock at its Hambantota Port for a week, beginning today. The decision did not prove divisive until India objected to it; apparently, over questions relating to its national security.

Consequent to India raising objections, Sri Lanka has requested China to defer its vessel’s Hambantota Port visit, but quite understandably the Chinese side has taken offence at this change of stance by Sri Lanka. Among other things, China has called on India to ‘stop pressuring’ Sri Lanka over the vessel’s visit, which it claims is for purely scientific exploration purposes.

Essentially, the Indian position is that its security interests could be compromised as a result of the Chinese high tech vessel being in a position, once it docks in Hambantota, to bring under close surveillance vital Indian infrastructural assets on the country’s southern coast in particular, such as nuclear power plants and ports. Sri Lanka reportedly received messages of protest by India to the effect that the Chinese vessel possessed the capability ‘to track satellites and intercontinental ballistic missiles’, besides other strengths.

China, for its part has explained, among other things, that the vessel’s visit is part of ‘the cooperation process’ between China and Sri Lanka, which is ‘independently chosen by the two countries and meets common interests. It does not target any third party.’ It added that: ‘Sri Lanka is a sovereign state. It can develop relations with other countries in the light of its own development interests.’

Sri Lanka is bound to see the merit in China’s argument but given its regional policy compulsions it cannot afford to be seen as being at cross purposes with India either. India and China are number one powers and considering Sri Lanka’s geographical proximity to both states, besides its dependence on them in a number of vital areas, it cannot be seen by either of these global powers as being insensitive to their best interests.

A classic small state dilemma, the commentator is prompted to observe. Bluntly expressed, however, Sri Lanka is in a state of utter helplessness in this situation where it cannot afford to offend either of these major powers. But in fairness to Sri Lanka it needs to be said that she has tried to be as ‘Non-aligned’ as possible while relating to the big powers concerned; it’s simply that, given her degree of dependence on them, she is in no position to say ‘No’ to either of them.

Sri Lanka’s damage controllers, if there are any, may need to act swiftly, positively and proactively. They will need to use their best diplomatic skills to facilitate an empathetic response from China in particular to the policy quandaries confronting Sri Lanka in the Yuan Wang 5 connection. Essentially, the message to both countries should be that no wilful harm has been intended to them by Sri Lanka.

This is not going to be the first occasion on which a worrisome tangle of this acuteness in the regional policy sphere is likely to confront Sri Lanka. Going forward, how will it manage quandaries of this magnitude? This is an issue of the highest urgency and complexity. It is compounded by the fact that being in an utterly helpless economic situation, Sri Lanka does not possess any rescue options worth speaking of. While the country needs to persevere with Non-alignment as best as it could, and as the saying goes, be ‘a friend of all’, it would be only working against its best interests by being unaware of the priorities of its closest neighbours and shaping its relations with them accordingly.

Needless to say, India is our closest neighbour and merits extra-carefulness and sensitivity on Sri Lanka’s part when dealing with it. The lessons of the late seventies and early eighties should be fresh in the minds of Sri Lanka’s policy and decision-makers, lest past regional policy blunders are repeated. Put briefly, security concerns prompted India to figure prominently in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict in those times.

Ideally, Sri Lanka should have been left alone to sort out the issues that grew out of its ethnic conflict. But Sri Lanka’s then rulers opted to seek the assistance of some Western intelligence agencies in their fight against the LTTE, which was seen by India as posing a threat to its security interests. Thus, was set in motion a period of antagonistic relations between India and Sri Lanka. This troublesome spell was defused somewhat with the signing of the 1987 Indo-Lanka peace accord.

There are some fundamental truths in foreign policy formulation that need to be addressed by Sri Lankan policy and decision makers, along with the local public, as the country moves into the future, particularly in the face of the current crisis situation. These truths need recalling particularly on account of the fact that some local sections see China and India as dealing with foreign policy questions in basically different ways. For example, China is seen as non-interfering in the internal affairs of countries in this context, while India is perceived as taking ‘a political stance’ on the relevant issues.

This is a misleading understanding of the reasons that compel these countries to adopt the seemingly different stances on the issues in question. To be sure, China is generally ‘non-interfering’ in the affairs of countries but this policy position grows out of what it sees as its best interests.

China prefers non-intervention in the internal politics of countries, for example, because it wishes the world to adopt a hands-off policy with regard to its own affairs as well. That is, China’s policy of non-involvement in the domestic affairs of other countries is dictated by its self-interest, which translates into its national interest. A country’s foreign policy is best understood as an instrument that serves its cherished interests. In China’s case its foreign policy revolves around ‘non-involvement’.

On the other hand, it is in India’s best interests to be concerned about developments in the South Asian region, since being the largest country in the region, it has a phenomenal and wide-ranging asset base to look after. Thus, national security is very much an integral part of India’s foreign policy. Accordingly, an ideal foreign policy is non-existent. Foreign policies are as diverse as the numerous states’ best interests are diverse. Thus, facile labeling of countries is difficult when it comes to foreign policy.

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Right Thought (Samma Sankappa ) in Buddhism

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by Dr. Justice Chandradasa Nanayakkara

Buddhism rests on the pivot of suffering. Lord Buddha declared ‘the world is established on suffering, it is founded on suffering’ (Duke loko patititthhito).

All problems in life bring about suffering (Dukka or unsatisfactoriness) and as we attempt to put an end to them, they give rise to another. Solution of one problem leads to another problem, in many other diverse ways. We are constantly confronted with fresh problems, in our daily life, and problems go on incessantly and interminably. Such is the nature of suffering, and it is the universal characteristic of sentient existence. Suffering can be either physical or psychological. Dukka is inescapable and ubiquitous and it constitutes the first of the four Noble Truths in Buddhism. The Four Noble Truths, which the Buddha himself discovered, and revealed to the world, are the chief characteristics and unshakable foundations of Buddhism.

In the first Noble truth, the Buddha defines the truth of dukka, thus. “What monks, is the Noble Truth of Dukka? Birth is dukka, decay is dukka, death is dukka, sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure and despair are dukka; union with the unpleasant dukka, separation from the pleasant dukka, not what one wants is dukka; in brief, the five aggregates of clinging are dukka. These monks, is the Noble Truth of Dukka”.

The solution for the aforesaid problems of dukka (unsatisfactoriness) of life is the Noble Eightfold Path, propounded by Lord Buddha more than 2600 years ago. This is the only way to the cessation of suffering and also a vital step in emancipating ourselves from an interminable cycle of rebirths.

It is said that the Noble Eightfold Path leads to the cessation of dukka. This path consists of a set of eight interconnected factors, or conditions, that when developed together, leads to the cessation of dukka.

The eight factors of the paths are 1. Right Understanding (sammaditthi) 2. Right Thought (sammasankappa) 3. Right Speech (sammavacca). 4. Right Action (sammakammanta) 5. Right Livelihood (sammaajiva) 6. Right Effort, (sammavayama). 7. Right Mindfulness (samma sati) 8. Right concentration (samma samadhi).

These eight factors aim at promoting and perfecting the three essentials of Buddhist training and discipline. For the purpose for coherent and better understanding of, the eight divisions of the path have been grouped according to the under-mentioned three headings.

The first two are classified as Wisdom (panna), the second three as Morality (sila) and the last three as Concentration (samadhi). These three stages in the Eightfold Path are encapsulated in a Buddhist stanza (sabba papassa akaranan – kusalassa upa sammapada – sacitta priyo dapanan – etan buddhanu sasanan). To cease from all evil to cultivate good, in order to purify one’s mind, that is the advice of all Buddhas.

The eight steps of the path are not expected to be realised in sequence, one after the other. Rather, they are considered a unity and an organic whole. They are interdependent and interrelated. All eight factors are preceded by the word “Right” classified as Right, which means perfect. It is a mode of transcendence that leads to sotapanna sakadagami, anâgâmi and arahant. No doubt, it is a difficult feat to be achieved. The Noble Eightfold path is in effect the path to Nibbana. It is a path which avoids the extreme of self-mortification that weakens the intellect and the extreme of self-indulgence that retards moral progress. Although it is generally spoken as a path to be treaded, in actual fact the eight steps signify mental factors to be practised. All eight factors should converge simultaneously, each supporting the other in order to reach a sufficient level of development to experience of sotapanna, sakadagame, anâgâmi or arahant. It is said that the path proceeds from a lower state of purity to higher state and factors of the path should coalesce at a certain level of perfection. Path is not meant to be practiced a little each day.

The Buddha taught the eightfold path in virtually all his discourses, and his directions are clear and practical to his followers, today, as they were when he first disclosed them.

According to Walpola Rahula, the divisions of the Noble Eightfold Path should be developed more or less simultaneously, as far as possible, according to the capacity of each individual. They are linked together and each helps the cultivation of the others.

The second factor of the noble Eight-fold Path, with which this article deals, is called in Pali; samma sankappa, (Right Thought) which is sometimes identified as “Right Intention” in Buddhist literature. In this instance, the word specifically refers to the purposive or conative aspect of mental activity, as the first factor in the Noble Eightfold path (samma ditthi or right understanding) encompasses cognitive aspect of the mental activity. Nevertheless, no clear demarcation can be made between these two divisions because, from the Buddhist perspective, the cognitive and purposive sides of the mind intertwine and interact in close correlation, inducing them into activity. Right Thought is important because it is one’s thoughts which either defile or purify a person. It is one’s thoughts and nature that control one’s destiny. Evil thoughts tend to debase one just as good thought tends to elevate one. Sometimes a single thought can either destroy or save a world. Right Thought serves the dual purpose of eliminating evil thoughts and developing pure thoughts.

Our thoughts are as important to us as our actions because they make up who we are, thus it becomes imperative that we keep thoughts pure.

Buddha, emphasising the value of Right Thought, declared “Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded. But once mastered, no one can help you as much, not even your father or your mother”.

Right Thought (right intention) is threefold. It is comprised of 1. Nekkamma: Renunciation of worldly pleasures, which is opposed to attachment, selfishness and self-possessiveness. 2. Avyapada: Loving Kindness, goodwill, or benevolence which is opposed to hatred, ill will or aversion and 3. Avihimsa: Harmlessness or compassion which is opposed to cruelty and callousness. In a moment of insight, the Buddha, at the time of his enlightment, saw that everything contains all these opposites. He saw the duality in nature and realised that everything can be replaced by the opposite. For instance, each kind of Right Thought counters the corresponding kind of wrong thought or intention, the thought of renunciation (Nekkama) counters the intention of desire, the thought of goodwill counters the intention of ill will and the thought of harmlessness counters the intention of harmfulness.

Buddha declared if one acts and speaks with a pure thought, happiness follows him like a shadow that never leaves him and if he acts or speaks with an impure mind then suffering follows as the hoof of the ox. Right thought means avoiding desire and ill will. The importance of wisdom is evident from this, as the cause of suffering is described in terms of desire, ill will and ignorance. Right understanding removes ignorance and Right thought removes desire and ill will.

Renunciation (Nekkama) is often a difficult task. Grappling with the power of desire and attachment may require a great deal of personal struggle, as the mind does not want to relinquish its hold on the objects to which it has become attached. But that struggle yields many benefits, as putting an end to dukkha depends on eliminating craving thereby directing the mind to renunciation. We develop the inner strength to overcome temptation and compulsion. Attachment coupled with ignorance are the chief causes of all evil prevalent in this deluded world. One can either be attached to desirable objects or is repulsed with aversion if the objects are found to be undesirable. The word “Nekkamma” generally conjures up the idea of leaving your household life for the monastic life by discarding all sensual pleasures completely. But it is not so, as renunciation can apply to lay practice as well. Real renunciation does not require you to give all things inwardly cherished but changing our perspective on them so that they no longer bind us. It is letting go of whatever that binds us to ignorance and suffering. It is only an abandonment of overly material comforts for spiritual enlightment. The degree to which a person renounces depends on his disposition and situation.

It is the attachment or desire that put us on an endless cycle of grasping and keeps us unsatisfied. Therefore, it is important that we maintain an attitude of detachment from worldly pleasures and realise the ephemeral nature of our possessions and to not be selfishly attached to them.

The Buddha says unfulfilled desire is the root cause of unhappiness and dissatisfaction, and the way to overcome such unhappiness is to eliminate the craving or desire by eradicating the root of unwholesome desire through renunciation. The Mind is in the habit of grasping. We have to break this habit and strive to let go of grasping.

When we look realistically at the desire and unhappiness that eventually follows in its wake, it is constantly shadowed by dukkha (unsatisfactoriness). When desire is not fulfilled there is always frustration, disappointment, sometimes despair. Even if the desire is fulfilled it does not a guarantee of happiness and it might not last long and sometimes we lose the object of desire. This is called grasping. When we hang on too hard this becomes a cause of unhappiness. It is important to realize the fulfillment of desire is impermanent, nothing lasts whether it be height of sensual delight, or the achievement of wealth or fame or power. The pursuit of such pleasures brings the pain of separation from the object of desire, which increases in intensity in proportion to the degree of attachment.

Our mental states such as happiness or sadness and consequent actions are determined by our thoughts. The cause for endless suffering, conflict, discontent and injustice does not lie outside the mind. They are all just manifestations of intentions, outcroppings of thoughts propelled by greed, driven by hatred and delusion.

Right thoughts can mean different things and it is essentially directed towards shunning away from the vicious cycle of craving and desire by committing to a life style of self improvement and ethical conduct. The Buddha identified two types of thought: wandering thought(vicara) and logical or directed thought. Normally our mind is filled with scattered, random and wandering thoughts. For instance, when we are asked to perform a task our thoughts are directed towards in a particular direction. Once that task is over our thoughts are directed towards another direction and begin their erratic wandering again. The Buddha making an important observation in this connection and declared “Whatever one thinks about and ponders on often the mind gets a leaning in that way” (M.I)

The Buddha broadly defines Right Thoughts as thoughts of detachment, of love and of helpfulness. Therefore, an important aspect of Buddhist training is to cultivate Right Thought, not to let negative thoughts persist in our mind and to encourage positive thoughts.

Right Thought basically refers to wholesome thoughts, which is closely linked to Right Understanding because it results eventually through the practice and attainment of wisdom.

The first two verses of the first chapter of the Dhammapada by the Buddha would also be relevant in this connection. “All we are is the result of what we have thought. It is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him like a shadow that never leaves him”.

Avyapada as the second constituent of Right thought literally means non-enmity and corresponds to the most important virtue of Metta. In Sanskrit Maittri is loving kindness or goodwill towards all without any distinction or discrimination. The Pali word Metta also connotes loving kindness, goodwill, benevolence friendliness. A person whose mind is full of loving kindness can harbor no hatred towards anybody just like a mother who makes no difference between herself and her only child and protects it even at the risk of her own life. Metta is the strong wish for the welfare and happiness of others and devoid of self interest. It is indeed a universal, unselfish and all-embracing love. Metta is opposed to hatred, ill will or aversion. A person who radiates metta refuses to be offensive and renounces bitterness, resentment and animosity of every kind. It is a love that has no ulterior motive. Metta does not make a distinction among beings. It embraces all and no one falls outside of its domain. Ill will is countered by Metta. The kind of love implied by Metta should be distinguished from sensual love and also from the love involved in personal affection.

The third and the last of the three constituents of Right Thought is Avihimsa or Karuna. It is guided by compassion (Karuna) which is opposed to cruelty, aggressiveness and violent thoughts. Like Buddhist Mettta, Karuna too is limitless and boundless. Karuna (compassion) is a virtue which makes the tender hearts of the noble quiver at the sufferings of others. The characteristics of Karuna are comparable to that of loving mother whose thoughts, words and deeds always tend to relieve the distress of her ailing son. (Narada). Karuna complements loving kindness (Metta). While loving kindness has the quality of wishing for the happiness and the wellbeing others, Karuna (compassion) has the quality of wishing that others be free from suffering. Bhikkhu Bodhi describing the thought of harmlessness (avihimsa) in the context of Right Thought states “The intention of harmlessness is thought guided by compassion (Karuna) aroused in opposition to cruel, aggressive, and violent Thoughts. Compassion supplies the complement to loving kindness. Whereas loving loving kindness as the characteristic of wishing for happiness and welfare of others, compassion has the characteristic of wishing that others be free from suffering, a wish to be extended without limits to all living beings. Like Metta, compassion arises by entering into the subjectivity of others, by sharing their interioty in a deep and total way. It springs up by considering that all beings, like ourselves, wish to be free from suffering, yet despite their wishes continue to be harassed by pain, fear sorrow and other forms dukkha.

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Can Priyanka Chopra do it for Sri Lanka!

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Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra is one celebrity who has actively supported, and worked with charities, and nonprofit organizations, throughout her adult life.

Most recently, the 40-year-old actress completed an emotional trip, working with UNICEF to help mothers and children, in Poland, who fled from the war in Ukraine.

In 2010, Priyanka became the National Ambassador of UNICEF and played a significant role in fostering awareness of children’s needs in India. Additionally, she raised funds, advocated and educated people on UNICEF’s goals, and featured in numerous videos to create awareness about child rights.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Priyanka and husband, Nick Jonas, donated to several organisations, to help fight the outbreak of coronavirus.

Since both Priyanka and Nick Jonas are internationally known celebrities, and their charity work is generally connected with children, it certainly would be a good idea to try and get their attention focused on the situation, in Sri Lanka, especially where hundreds of children are reported to be going without meals, on a daily basis.

If we can get them involved in our scene, I’m sure we would have more support coming our way, from other well-known celebrities…especially those big names, in showbiz, who have been appointed as Ambassadors for UNICEF.

And, who knows, we may have another ‘Live Aid’ concert, put together, very specially for Sri Lanka!

Sri Lankans, based in Australia, are very concerned about the situation, in their land of birth, and some are working on projects to help the needy, back home.

I’m told that a few individuals are trying to work on the possibility of sending some bicycles to their friends, in Sri Lanka, to help them overcome the fuel crisis.

In the meanwhile, Chopra used her social media presence to deliver an emotional message on Instagram about her trip, to Poland, shared alongside photos of herself spending time with refugee children.

A few pictures show Chopra laughing and doing activities with the kids, while the rest focus specifically on the children creating art, or blowing bubbles outside.

The accompanying message focused on the psychological impact of war on refugees, especially children, describing how UNICEF made teams of psychologists available to the refugees.

Chopra wrote: “One of the most effective tools in helping children regain a sense of normalcy is playful interaction. It sounds so simple, but through play, children can find safety and respite, while also being able to explore and process what is happening in their lives.”

She continued by describing specific ways the children use play and art as therapy, saying, “The kids I met, on this mission, love working with art. Coffee beans, salts and regular household items are used for art therapy and sensitivity therapy. When they work with different materials, as well as paints and colours, the therapists are able to understand their emotions.”

Chopra also mentioned the handmade dolls the children made and gifted her, which are “believed to have the power of protection.”

The actress shared another post, on Instagram, soon after, telling the story of one mother who was forced to leave behind her husband, and parents, in Ukraine, to get her son to safety.

Perhaps, UNICEF Sri Lanka can make Priyanka Chopra’s visit here a reality.

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