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Religion, end to discord?

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Imagine that your religion, like most religions, does not consider changing faith as a punishable offence – say, Buddhism. If one of your family members changed her religion, for example, to Hindu, but continued to live the same good life she had been living till then, would you have any objections regarding her change of faith? Is it likely that you would condemn her for what you call a disloyalty of sorts?

There is no reason why you should feel bad about it unless you think that changing one’s ‘faith’ is improper. If this family member starts living an immoral life after changing track, you have reason to be worried. However, if she does not show any decline in her conduct, you have no basis for worry unless you are unjustly biased against anyone changing one’s religion. However, most families, irrespective of their faith, would at least try their best to dissuade her from taking up a new faith. And, surely, the resistance of the family would depend on various factors including the intensity of your faith in your religion, the levels as well as the nature of education of the family members, your general outlook on life, how open-minded you are about sensitive issues and the binding nature of the decrees of your religion. The pressure your family would bring to bear on the nonconforming member would be the net result of all these factors.

If the majority were more tolerant the objection from the family is likely to be minimal and the ‘rebel’ would make the transition with no loss of face. Further, the less stringent your religion was regarding codes of discipline, the less disquieting the defection would be for everybody concerned. Now, think of a whole family changing faith. The situation would be equally disconcerting, or much worse this time, for they would incur the displeasure of a larger religious community, be it neighbours, friends or relatives. The disapproval would once again depend on the factors mentioned above and, perhaps, more. Besides, their displeasure, if not censure, would be immediate and, what’s more, it would certainly not come from any fear of the nonconformist family becoming immoral.

However, this sort of negative reaction flies in the face of what we are frequently made to believe about the civilizing nature of all established religions. Priests and laymen tell us frequently that all religions are set to make us behave more virtuously and hence we should not show any disregard to other religions. This sounds great. If these claims were genuine, no one – priest or layman – could have any difficulty whatsoever in readily consenting to any person of any faith switching allegiance at any point in his life. Sam Harris, the neuroscientist, philosopher and writer expresses the same sentiments more pointedly and with no trace of ostentation when he says, “Just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, we will see that there is no such thing as Christian or Muslim morality” (The Moral Landscape). In sum, morals are useful recommendations for good conduct no matter whichever religion you inherited from your parents. It’s a plea for scores of humans who remain haplessly divided by historical circumstances despite their capacity to agree on codes of behaviour based on love and compassion, which we all are capable of feeling, whichever religion we were initiated into as children by circumstances.

Suppose, religion, at its best, is a way of helping people to realize their best selves, through which they can maximize their sense of togetherness, collective well-being and happiness. As we may all agree, morals prescribed by any religion can stand on their own without reference to other religions. This is true of all religions, be it Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc. What if one were to ask why not distil the morals of all the religions practiced in your society and formulate a common schema agreeable to all? He would say that it would enable our next generation to live in a society which will not be compartmentalized by religions imposed on them by their parents whom they didn’t choose. However, such a proposition would be summarily dismissed by many of those who profess the uniqueness of each religion. Why?

The reason is, for an overwhelming majority of us religion is much more than a manual for a good life. In addition to the ethical aspect, there is, in every religion, an intricate web of worldly as well as supernatural features that engage us both physically and emotionally. Ninian Smart in his book The Religious Experience of Mankind sums up the many-sidedness of religion when he says, “it is a six dimensional organism, typically containing doctrines, myths, ethical teachings, rituals and social institutions, and animated by religious experiences of various kinds.” As the title of the book indicates, the ‘experiential’ element plays a significant role in tying us to our religion. It seems that the bewildering variety of all the above features of religion that creates the deep divisive lines between one religion and another, which we cannot circumvent easily despite our efforts to bring about religious reconciliation. Ironically, this goes against the avowed mission of all religions to make the world a better place for all humans. Our obsession with the ‘other world’ enunciated, differently, by each religion eclipses the brotherhood they seek to promote. This is sad, isn’t it? However much we reject it, don’t we have the deep-rooted feeling that our religion holds the key to truth and ‘ultimate salvation’ and thus the moral precepts of our religion have more authority compared with those of other religions? Our early indoctrination makes us feel reluctant to look at ethics as useful and modifiable standards of behaviour. It is not open-mindedness but an attitude of insularity and fussiness that robs us of the opportunity of uniting under one banner.

Let’s take the following scenario to help us understand our self-indulgent blinkeredness more objectively. Imagine that all living beings and plants were to be wiped out from this earth one of these days either by a chemical mishap or a much more virulent pandemic than the current one. It will perhaps take millions of years for intelligent beings to evolve again on earth. They will never have heard of any of our religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Hindu, Islam, etc. However, they are sure to develop their respective religions that are likely to interpret things like good and bad which could not be detached from their irreconcilable interpretations of ‘after life.’ Now, being millions of years distanced from them, we would be able to better understand their predicament as ‘outsiders’ without sharing their emotional attachments to their religions. What advice can we offer them to make their world a place of less turmoil? The best instruction would be to urge them to formulate their morals free of religious tones so that they would avoid endless frictions that are likely to lead to disunity and enmity. We may tell them that morals work best without religious stamps on them, if our experiences are anything to go by.

Now take the train back to the present moment. If example is better than precept, what will be our first step towards a more peaceful world? It will be to encourage people to, firstly, understand the applicability of morals devoid of their religious flavour and, secondly, go easy on the non-verifiable and mutually exclusive claims about ‘after life.’ Will science be able to help us in this project?

Although science has constantly been taking over spaces occupied by magic and religion in the past, many people remain pessimistic about science ever coming to throw light on ‘after life.’ However, Yuval Noah Harari, renowned historian and philosopher, says, “In premodern times religions were responsible for solving a wide range of technical problems in mundane fields such as agriculture…when an agricultural crisis loomed…, farmers turned to the priests to intercede with the gods. Medicine too fell within the religious domain… if you were ill you were likely to go to the witch doctor rather than to the doctor…” (21 Lessons for the 21st Century)

Surely, unlike our ancestors, we are far too enlightened to trust religion any longer to solve our day to day problems. However, with regard to ‘after life’ we don’t seem to be that much better informed than our ancient cousins. As such, the confusion about what happens after death has caused human beings the world over to be more divided than united. All religions, as we said previously, claim to know the ultimate truth about where we would ‘go’ after death. As religions don’t rely on empirical methods of verification of this claim, it is unlikely that they will be any wiser in this regard even in the next millennium. Let’s hope science will throw some light on the issue sooner than later and save us from being divided on the basis of unverified claims till the cows come home. If consensus on ethics can unite us why let unearthly and nebulous issues thwart it?

 

Susantha Hewa



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Opinion

Norochcholai Power, and the Rajapaksa reality

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The CEB Chairman’s claim that Sri Lanka would have been facing daily power cuts if not for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s initiative to build the Norochcholai coal-fired power plant prompted this comment. Credit should be given to those who deserve. Let’s see how the Norochcholai project came into being.

According to the Long Term Least Cost Generation Plan of the CEB, a coal plant was to be commissioned in the year 2000. However, all governments refused to grant approval due to an objection by the then Bishop of Chilaw, saying it would have adverse effects on the Holy Shrine – St. Anne’s at Talawila, 13 km away from Norochcholai; despite the fact that local and foreign experts allayed the fears of Bishop and those who supported him.

The weak governments fearing loss of Catholic votes, (Chilaw and the western coastal belt having a significant Catholic population) did not take a political decision. It must be stated that the CEB Engineers Trade Union, carried out a vigorous campaign to educate the masses by holding a series of seminars, and panel discussions over the electronic media. The Sri Lanka Institute of Engineers, – Electrical Division, headed by Engr. B. R. O. Fernando-held a very successful convincing seminar where Industrialists, Mercantile Organizations and domestic consumers were present. At this seminar, papers were presented by eminent electrical engineers — to name a couple, Dr. P. N. Fernando, who retired from ADB, Dr. Tilak Siyambalapitiya, and yours truly too, handed over a letter to Karu Jayasuriya, the then Minister for Power and Energy, the chief guest. With much expectations we waited for a favourable response but to our utter dismay and disappointment, he wrote back to say it cannot be allowed as a policy matter.

By that time, the country faced a six-hour power cut and the situation was grave. Undeterred, the CEB engineers carried out a relentless campaign. The press too supported and the then Editor of The Island, Gamani Weerakoon, in a hard-hitting editorial, had this to say,’ if political leaders cannot take decisions in national interests, they are not fit to be leaders’.

At the general elections, held in 2005, the UNP government was defeated, mainly on this issue, and the SLFP formed the government, with Mahinda Rajapaksa as President, and Susil Premajayantha appointed Minister for Power and Energy. The CEBU and others went on pushing the new minister, to the wall, so to say, and it came to a climax that Minister Premajayantha, had no other alternative but threaten to resign his portfolio unless Cabinet approval was granted to go ahead with the Norochcholai 3×300 Mw. Project. At last, it was granted, but by that time it was too late to call for worldwide tenders, and the government had to call countries to come to its rescue. It is here that China came in with a proposal to fund and construct.

If timely action was taken by governments, since 2000, to approve the project, worldwide tenders could have been called and selected the best, state-of-the-art coal plant which would have relieved us for the constant break-down plant put up by Chinese, gaining the jocular term ‘Always break down’ as it is well known, the first plant was a refurbished one, which yet gives unsatisfactory service.

It will be seen from the above that it is not MR who should get the credit, although the approval was given by his government, as President, but the CEB engineers, and those of the public, the press – especially The Island – for having a rather steady supply of electricity today.

The Chairman CEB Vijitha Herath could be excused for giving credit to MR without knowing the facts, and at the same time as present-day public servants are political appointees, for their existence, boot-lick, say and act giving praise to those who do not deserve. Do not forget MR, too, was in the Chandrika Bandaranaike government as a cabinet minister when this subject was the hot topic then. I must honestly and sincerely state this is not to discredit MR but to state facts.

While on the subject of Coal Power Generation, the present Minister for Power, Dallas Alahapperuma should forthwith undertake the construction of the 4th additional coal plant at Norochcholai, not as a joint-venture, but one operated by the CEB as desired by the CEB engineers; and also take immediate steps to undertake the construction of the coal plant at Sampur, to make CEB a profitable state venture, as coal generation is much cheaper, while at the same time encouraging renewable sources of energy though expensive.

Having written about the history of the Coal Plant at Norochcholai, let me turn to the sordid history of this LNG plant, which was ceremonially inaugurated. Tenders for this plant were called for, as far back as four years as far as I could remember, and the lowest tenderer was the local Lakdhavani, which the tender board recommended for acceptance. This recommendation of the tender board was not accepted by the then Minister for Power and Energy, Ranjith Siyambalapitiya, who is at present the Deputy Speaker to the House of Representatives, and on instruction of the Minister, the Secretary to the Ministry Dr. Suren Batagoda , requested the tender be awarded to the next highest tenderer — a Chinese Construction Company. Having no response to several appeals by the local firm- Lakdhavani – to the Ministry, it filed legal action seeking redress. It is at this stage, the present government, on the direction of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, that the court case was withdrawn and the award made to the rightful tenderer, Lakdhavani. Else, the government would have had to face a very unpleasant situation.

To me, there appears to be a very anomalous situation as it makes no sense in undertaking the construction of this LNG plant without a terminal. Hence, it is suggested that immediate action be taken to call for tenders for the construction of a terminal to be completed when the LNG plant is ready for commissioning. It is strange why the CEB has not pointed out this requirement, if my suggestion is valid.

All in all, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa should be congratulated for taking action to right a wrong. However, it will be seen that political interferences delay essential projects. Who suffers? The country and its people.

 

G. A. D. SIRIMAL

Retd. Assistant Secretary, SLAS

Ministry for Power and Energy

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Opinion

An island of Pain and Destruction?

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When there are several ‘tivus’ in the North, why was Iranativu selected for Muslim Covid burials? Why select an island with people living there, with Catholic priests, too? Why not an island with no humans at all: Is that so difficult for the Burial Experts in the Covid management?

Looks like the disposal of dead bodies, if they happen to be of Covid-infected Muslims, is the biggest problem Sri Lanka is facing  today. This is bigger than any economic issue, or any other aspects of development the country and people may be facing. It looks like there is no possibility for a “Saubhagye Dekma” or Vision of Prosperity & Splendour if any Covid Muslims are buried in this Sinhala Bauddha Dupatha.

We tried to send these bodies all the way to the Maldives, on an official request. But failed. This time it is Iranativu – and once again a failure.  So why not keep trying at Neduntivu, Sampaltivu, Vidataltivu or any other ‘tivu’ in the North or East; and till a suitable place is found, keep the dead bodies frozen at taxpayer expenditure? 

Now that the US has decided to take some un-Trump moves about Saudi Arabia, why does not the former and present US citizens  that rule Sri Lanka, think of sending all Covid Muslim corpses to Saudi Arabia, for sacred burials? With the Saudi leaders thinking of new plans for investment, Sri Lanka could become a new target of Saudi funds pouring in. But will this lead to the Sri Lankan Muslims getting any stronger than they are now?

Or, will we wait till we discover or develop a new “Gotativu or Nandasenativu” off Sri Lanka, an Isle of Saubhagya?

Are the Indian Aircraft flying in the special  70-year celebrations of the Sri Lanka Air Force an assurance of new Indian warmth  in Sri Lanka-India relations?  Did the power of the Indian Air Force, displayed over Galle Face Green, make the government take a quick pro-Indian decision on the West Container Terminal (WCT) in the Port of Colombo? 

Can President Gotabaya or PM Mahinda give any explanation why handing over the development of the WCT to the same Indian company, involved in the ECT, could be any better for Sri Lanka? Apart from the Port Trade Unions  that are likely to launch a new protest, will the Weerawansa-Gammanpila-Vasudeva team also carry out protests about the WCT? Or, will they be silenced by the realities of pro-Gotabaya Politics? 

Has Gotabaya Team’s new position that the Provincial Council elections will be held under the new Constitution, an assurance given to India  that the 13h Amendment will remain part of the structure of governance in Sri Lanka? What happened to all those voices of the Pohottuva political players who had virtually written off the 13A? Have they been silenced by the flight of Indian aircraft in the Air Force celebrations?

The Nandasena Gotabaya Team of the Rajavasala had better think of how the yellow robes of sections of the Maha Sangha would react to the WCT deal with India? 

The problems of Iranativu and the WCT or Muslim burials  and the Port of Colombo are certainly pushed back by the realities of Geneva. The Sri Lankan TV stations that have been very strong in their criticism of Michelle Bachelet, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, about her handling of Human Rights, have given big coverage to her statements critical of the Myanmar coup and its military leaders. Will Michelle Bachelet have a big score against Sri Lanka? Keep guessing.

The issues facing Sri Lanka in Geneva are more about the policies of the present Gotabaya-Mahinda Rajavasala, than issues involving the defeat of the LTTE and matters of responsibility and accountability in the post-war period. 

The Easter Carnage that took place, long after the end of the war against LTTE terror, and under the previous Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Yahapalana regime, is certainly at the height of the Rajavasala problems today. Having promised the people that the truth about this carnage will be found and revealed, and the planners and manipulators identified and punished, the Rajavasala is trying to escape its promises and responsibilities. 

This is certainly no easy task as it involves the hopes and expectations of many thousands who voted for the Gotabaya and the Pohottuva at the last Presidential and General Elections. Just look at the thousands in the Wattala-Negombo area who turned away from the UNP, did not support the Sajith Premadasa – Telephone, – and voted for the Pohottuva. It was the biggest Catholic turn away from the UNP, as took place in votes for the left in 1956.

We are now moving to a Black Sunday, when Catholics have been asked to wear black in protest at church services, seeking divine intervention to reveal and punish the Easter Sunday killers nearly two years ago. The response that divinity will provide remains to be seen, but with the voice of the Catholic Cardinal echoing the pain of hundreds who have suffered in this carnage, we are certainly moving to a period of much sorrow and even disaster.

Black Sunday may come and go, but by April this year, when black flags are to fly over houses, mainly Catholic, throughout the country, we certainly face a new rise of a major Majority/Minority conflict. Do we have to think of the possible revival of all the pains of the war against the LTTE terror, or think more in terms of peace and cooperation among people, with or without divine intervention.

This will certainly not be easy in the coming months, as we see so much of nature destroyed, forests cut down, sand mined and transported without permits, the greenery of the country rapidly vanishing and only hearing the call of a painful Saubhagya! 

Will the call for Divine Help bring us to be an Isle of Peace and Understanding, and not a large Isle of Pain and Destruction?

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Opinion

Go forth boldly against global enemies

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At the UNHRC meeting the true friends of Sri Lanka emerged to speak and defend the country battered mercilessly for defeating the world most brutal terrorist organization, i.e., Tamil Tiger terrorists in 2009, who held 20 million Sri Lankans to ransom for well over 25 years.

Leading the Sri Lanka bashing were the UK. Germany. Canada, Switzerland, the Netherlands. Belgium and the USA, all of them having a chequered history in violating human rights at different times. India, our friendly neighbour, while thankfully taking a fair distance from the punitive stance of others, opted to emphasize on “the rights of Sri Lankan Tamils and their ‘aspirations’ insisting on the FULL implementation of the 13 A”. India should be requested to point out whether any Tamil person in Sri Lanka is deprived from enjoying a basic right because he or she is being purely a Tamil. On the 13th A, which was thrust on Sri Lanka along with the so-called Indo-Sri Lanka agreement, most Sri Lankans are of the view that it was a faulty restructuring effort of Sri Lanka’s government by India, and the Police and Land powers under the 13 A are a direct threat to the sovereign Sri Lanka. Further, the Provincial government system has not benefited Sri Lanka in any measurable manner, and has been an exercise in colossal wastage of hard-earned funds of the central government.

As regards aspirations, we are amazed how we can consider ONLY the aspirations of Tamils, as all other ethnic groups and the individuals too have aspirations, and it will be impossible to walk that talk. We need further training in the recognition of aspirations of different groups from India, and we pray for further comments from the HR specialists in India how they have reconciled the aspirations of other than Hindu religious groups — Sheiks, Kashmiris and other minority groups in Northernmost India.

But, many nations at UNHCR rejected the proposition of the Sri Lanka bashers who directly and indirectly were supportive of the LTTE armed insurrection and the separatism, threatening the unitary Sri Lanka. They also rejected the ‘the preventive prescription’ of the Secretary General Bachelet. The nations who supported Sri Lanka stood for the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a democratic country. Any weaknesses in Sri Lankan affairs should be allowed to be rectified domestically, in keeping with the constitutional provisions of the country, rather than to be dictated and decided upon by the holier than thou sloganeers. Most of the nations who attempt to foist their plan on Sri Lanka are from the Western bloc who killed and maimed millions of persons living in the colonized countries and subsequently destroyed other nations as pawns of the world power games. Their “adherence”to human rights are completely at variance with their practices on the ground.

Now, Sri Lanka should re-examine their directions and resolve to work with the friendly nations who supported her to extricate from the trap laid out by the countries who desire an unstable Sri Lanka. The Government and the people should resolve to reduce our dependence on Sri Lanka bashers, and re-design our imports to suit the geo-political reality and to avoid any plot to impose sanctions by the wounded nations. Time has arrived to consider the nation’s priorities by curtailing the luxuries even for a given period. We should try to get our requirements from the friendly nations, and try to improve our trading relationship with our friends.

This the ONLY way to extend our hand to REBUILD a new world order, to be less dependent on the predatory countries who always insist on their pound of flesh from the developing nations. While we thank the President, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, and the Government for having rejected co-sponsorship of resolution 30/1 at UNHRC, we urge the Government to plan to reshape our trade and foreign relations, to play our role as an independent member of the international community.

 

RANJITH SOYSA

 

 

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