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The Aftermath of Empire – Reappraisal and Reconciliation – (Part 2)

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by Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe*

Continued from last week

The author is an Honorary Professor at the University of Buckingham, UK, at the University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka, and also at the National Institute of Fundamental Studies in Sri Lanka.

He was a former Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, Staff Member of the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, and former Professor at Cardiff University. He is a pioneer of the discipline of Astrobiology and the author of over 450 scientific papers and some 35 books.

 

Several generations of British historians, archaeologists and naturalists devoted their entire lives to tirelessly exploring the multiplicity of wonders of India. Studies of the subcontinent’s natural history, archaeology and anthropology are just a few scientific disciplines that enormously benefited from the imperial encounter. The introduction of greenhouses, zoological and botanic gardens to the Western world and much else came directly as a result of the colonial venture.

One discovery of great importance is worthy of mention. A large number of stone pillars and columns bearing mysterious inscriptions in a hitherto undeciphered Brahmi script had been scattered across the length and breadth of India and, rather strangely, gone unnoticed for centuries. In the 1830’s it was an English Philologist and scholar James Prinsep (1799-1840) who successfully deciphered these inscriptions. The edicts written in the Bhrami language mentioned a King Devanampriya Piyadasi which Prinsep had initially assumed was a Sri Lankan king. He was later to discover a Pali text from Sri Lanka from which he was able to connect the title Piyadasi with Ashoka, and thus was revealed for a first time a long-hidden secret of Indian history – the life and times of Emperor Ashoka who had reigned between 268 and 232 BCE. Ashoka is famous as the Indian monarch who became a Buddhist and unified a vast part of the Indian subcontinent into a single empire ruling it according to Buddhist principles. H.G. Wells in his “Outline of World History” said of Ashoka that amid tens of thousands of names of monarchs, “Ashoka shines, shines almost alone, a star”.

In the 1920’s it was again thanks to British archaeologists that we owe the next major discovery – the unravelling of the great Indus valley civilizations of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro which represents another long-hidden chapter in the prehistory of the Indian subcontinent stretching back to the third millennium BCE. We already had knowledge from Mesopotamian records of a vigorous trade in lapis lazuli that existed between empires in the Mesopotamia and India, but now we could link this precisely with the Indus valley civilizations.

 

Unravelling a Buddhist heritage

A few British Civil Servants who were posted in Ceylon in the 19th century became assiduous students of Buddhist texts and wrote extensively and enthusiastically about Buddhism. Thomas William Rhys David (1843-1922) was one such scholar who found himself posted as Government Agent near the historic ancient city of Anuradhapura. There he became actively involved in archaeological excavations that led to the discovery of a vast number of inscriptions and manuscripts relating to Buddhism and this triggered his interest. He soon became a formidable Pali scholar, translated many Buddhist Pali texts into English and also wrote extensive commentaries on Buddhism that are still being read today.

The colonial response to Buddhism on the whole had been positive throughout the time of the Empire. H.G. Wells (1866-1946) in his “Outline of World History” writes of Buddhism thus:

“Many of our best modern ideas are in closest harmony with it. All the miseries and discontents of life are due, he (the Buddha) taught, to selfishness. Selfishness takes three forms – one, the desire to satisfy the senses; second, the craving for immortality; and the third the desire for prosperity and worldliness. Before a man can become serene he must cease to live for his senses or himself. Then he merges into a great being. Buddha in a different language called men to self-forgetfulness five hundred years before Christ. In some ways he was nearer to us and our needs. Buddha was more lucid on our individual importance in service than Christ, and less ambiguous upon the question of personal immortality.”

The amazing degree of concordance between Buddha’s view of consciousness and modern post-Jungian ideas in psychology were discussed by me and Daisaku Ikeda in our dialogue many years ago. The practice of Buddhist meditation is becoming increasingly popular in the West today because of its potential to yield mental and physical health benefits. Such practices, however, are looked upon with suspicion by many – now and in the past – as heathen primitive rituals that challenge the cannon of Christian faith. Such a narrow view cannot be interpreted as being any other than a component of racial thinking that prevailed throughout the period of British imperialism and filters down even into our post-colonial modern era.

 

Buddhist cosmology

In matters relating to cosmology and life in the Universe ideas from Buddhist as well as earlier Vedic traditions have run contrary to the canonical Western world-view. For instance, in the cosmology described in the Anguttara Nikaya (a Buddhist text dated at around the 1st century BCE) it is stated thus:

“As far as these suns and moons revolve, shedding their light in space, so far extends the thousand-fold world system. In it there are a thousand suns, a thousand moons, a thousand inhabited Earths and a thousand heavenly bodies. This is called the thousand-fold minor world system….”

It then goes on to define a hierarchy of world systems, referring to the entire universe as “this sphere of million, million world systems”. Similar views do not dominate scientific thinking in Europe until after the Copernican revolution in the 17th century of the common era. Today, with the recent discoveries of exoplanets in the past decade, the total number of exoplanetary systems in our Milky Way galaxy alone is estimated to exceed 100 billion.

As far back as the first millennium BCE a school of atomism similar to that of Democritus was founded in India, the most important proponent of this school being a philosopher named Kanada (600 BCE). The idea was that atoms are point-sized, indivisible and eternal, each possessing a distinct property and individuality. These concepts were developed further by a burgeoning Buddhist school of atomism that flourished in the 7th century CE.

Aryabhata (476-550CE) was perhaps the first Indian astronomer in the modern mould who discovered an approximation of pi to six significant figures and also correctly maintained that the planets and the Moon shine by reflected sunlight. He also correctly inferred from observations that the daily motion of the stars in the celestial sphere is due to Earth’s rotation about its axis.

From both archaeological and later historical evidence there is no doubt that high levels of advancement in science and technology had been achieved in India long before Aryabhata going back to at least the second millennium before the common era. Vedic Sanskrit texts dated at the 8th century BCE refer to Pythagorean triples (eg. (3,4,5 (5,12,13), (8,15,17)) and display a knowledge of Pythagoras theorem. One of the earliest Indian astronomical texts (Vedānga Jyotiṣa) dates from 1400–1200 BCE, with the currently extant form dating possibly from 700–600 BCE. This latter timespan also corresponds to the dating of the most ancient known “university” in the world, Takshashila in India, which was a centre first of Hindu and later Buddhist scholarship.

 

Ayurveda and plant-based pharmaceuticals

Developments in the field of ayurvedic plant-based medicine, and including reports of surgical interventions, have been recorded in a variety of sources from the earliest times. In one of the Ashokan pillars (272-231BCE), to which I have already referred, an edict reads: “Everywhere King Piyadasi (Ashoka) erected two kinds of hospitals, hospitals for people and hospitals for animals. Where there were no healing herbs for people and animals, he ordered that they be bought and planted.” There also exist many thousands of ayurvedic texts both in India and Sri Lanka with extensive lists of medicinal herbs and their alleged benefits for curing various ailments. The result of four centuries of colonial rule has unfortunately been to relegate this vast legacy to the “archive of curiosity”.

The few ayurvedic physicians who now practice in India and Sri Lanka still rely on time-hallowed anecdotal accounts of the efficacy of their plant-based medicines. The correct procedure will be for western science to fully explore these claims with chemical analysis and trials, but this has not yet been done. It should be recalled in this context that many drugs currently used in western medicine are indeed derived from plants – aspirin, quinine, digitalis, morphine, codeine – are just a few. It is hard to imagine the medical legacy that would follow from a complete investigation of the thousands of claimed herbal remedies that still remain unexamined.

 

Transition from ancient to modern science

I have already mentioned the knowledge of land surveying technologies and irrigation schemes that was evident in the Indus valley civilizations of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa; and these and other technological developments have also been found elsewhere in India and in neighbouring Sri Lanka throughout the period from the beginning of the common era until the time of the arrival of the British in 1600CE.

When the British arrived in India the difference in technological development between Britain and the subcontinent was arguably marginal. Handlooms and weaving technology that were developed and used in Bengal made India (run by the Moghuls) one of the richest countries of the world at this time. In a real sense it could be maintained that the technological advancement of the West took place at the cost of the continued impoverishment of India.

From the beginning of the 20th century many Indian scientists who were trained in British Universities and laboratories made highly significant contributions to the progress of science furthering the dominant scientific paradigms of Western science. A common feature of all these scientists is that their corpus of work supported and did not in any way challenge the major accepted paradigms of the day. Their achievements were thus thought to be a continuing tribute to the prevailing and predominant traditions of western science, and so were readily acknowledged and rewarded. However serious difficulties can arise whenever an ethnically non-European scientist hailing from an ex-colony dares to challenge a reigning paradigm of Western science.

 

Clash of Orthodoxy and Heresy

It should occasion no surprise to find that most important advances in science with regard to fundamental of issues concerning the Universe and Life have always been subject to cultural and religious constraints. Thus, in the 19th century the unfolding facts of geology that yielded an age of the Earth of some 4 billon years came into sharp conflict with Biblical chronologies of mere thousands of years, and this had initially caused great angst in some circles. Likewise, the facts of biological evolution that were unravelled after Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859 continued to disturb conventional beliefs for several decades.

As already mentioned Buddhist and earlier Vedic cosmologies can be interpreted as being consistent with many aspects of modern and post-modern scientific thought. There are also fundamental differences that can cause consternation in a Western scientific context. In Vedic cosmology the universe is thought to be infinite in spatial extent and cyclic in time– strikingly reminiscent of the modern versions of oscillating universe models. In this context it is worth noting that the currently favoured Big-Bang theory of the Universe with an age of 13.8 billion years is by no means absolutely proved. The very recent discovery of a galaxy designated GN-z11 located at a distance of 13.4 billion light years (implying its formation just 420 million years after the posited Big Bang origin of the Universe) poses serious problems for the current consensus view of cosmology.

Recently Nobel Laureate Roger Penrose has come in among the select band of dissenters from the standard view of a unique Big Bang origin of the Universe 13.8 billion years ago. In a theory called the “conformal cyclic cosmology” Penrose postulates that the universe undergoes an infinite number of cycles in which the Big Bang event 13.8 billion years ago is the most recent cycle of which we are a part – a result strikingly in accord with ancient Vedic and Indian cosmology.

 

The inescapable fact of Panspermia

Finally, I turn to the age-old problem of our own origins – how we, humans and indeed all of life, came to be. This question has been approached in a multitude of different ways, embracing superstition, religion, philosophy and eventually science. The ideas that prevailed throughout ancient India involved the concept of life being an integral part of the structure of the universe – a view closely aligned to the ideas of panspermia discussed in the West by pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Anaxoragas of Clazomenae who lived around 500BCE. Panspermia implies that “seeds of life” are eternally present in the cosmos and take root whenever and wherever the condition permit.

This concept was vigorously rejected in the Western tradition in favour of the ideas of the more influential Greek philosopher Aristotle in the 3rd century BCE. Aristotle proposed instead that life must arise from non-living inorganic matter whenever the right conditions prevailed, and he cited many instances that were incorrectly regarded as supportive evidence, the most graphic being the statement of “fireflies emerging from a mixture of warm earth and morning dew”. Over a millennium and a half later Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1272) essentially co-opted Aristotelian philosophy into church doctrine, so that dissent from any component of it thereafter was effectively construed as heresy. The Aristotlean doctrine of “Spontaneous Generation” was transformed into “Abiogenesis” in modern terms and continues to dominate Western science almost to the present day.

Attempts to re-examine panspermia in the West began in earnest with the French biologist Louis Pasteur in the early 1860’s. Pasteur showed in the laboratory what was already known for larger visible life forms – that life is always derived from pre-existing life of a similar kind. This casual chain of events – life-from-life – is true not only for lifeforms existing today but it is also true throughout the entire record of fossilised life on the Earth. The question that next arises is: when and where this connection cease to operate. The answer could be never – so this then naturally leads to panspermia.

Following the experiments of Pasteur, panspermia came at last to be championed by many contemporary physicists in the late 19th century.

Lord Kelvin declared: “Dead matter cannot become living without coming under the influence of matter previously alive. This seems to me to be as sure a teaching of science as the law of gravitation….”

And the German physicist Herman von Helmholtz wrote in 1874:

“It appears to me a fully correct scientific procedure, if all our attempts fail to cause the production of organisms from non-living matter, to raise the question whether life has ever arisen, whether seeds have not been carried from one planet to another…”.

A similar position was also championed a few years later by the Nobel prize-winning Chemist Svante Arrhenius in his 1908 book Worlds in the Making. But all this enthusiasm was transient. On the basis of poorly designed experiments concerning limits to the viability of microbes in space, the situation soon reverted, and spontaneous generation and abiogenesis came back into vogue.

In the past five decades abiogenesis was confronted with a formidable array of new facts from astronomy, geology, space science and molecular biology, all of which challenged its validity. On the other hand, an ever-increasing number of predictions of panspermia has come to be verified to an astounding degree of precision. Wrong theories do not perform in this way, so it soon became amply clear that panspermia’s star was on the ascendant! The sociology of science now took over: the triumphs of panspermia over rival models began to irritate an ever-increasing body of scientists. This was aggravated by the fact that all attempts to demonstrate the validity of abiogenesis in the most advanced laboratories in the world consistently led to dismal failure.

The trajectory of panspermia from its early roots in the Vedas through to Anaxoragas in the 5th century BCE and into modern times is sketched in Fig.4. The last phase following on from Pasteur led up to the work of the present writer, Fred Hoyle and many collaborators. This unfolding scientific drama is well-documented in a very large number of scientific papers and recent books.

What I would like to reiterate by way of conclusion is that the body of objective scientific evidence in favour of cometary panspermia and against abiogenesis is now compelling and overwhelming. The main reason that this new world view has yet to enter mainstream thinking, and even become more widely known, may be simply because its principal proponent (the present writer) is seen as a heathen and a former colonial subject. In what could be seen as the most egregious travesty of justice serious attempts are being made to “steal” our well-documented priority on these ideas in recent publication of similar ideas but with a deliberate omission of any reference to pioneering work over the past 40 years. In my view overt racism including antagonism for what is seen to be an alien concept is the only conceivable explanation for this conduct. This explanation also provides the only reason for why a long-overdue paradigm shift from planet-centred life to cosmic-centred life – a paradigm shift which is potentially of the most profound importance across the whole of science – is being delayed.

The long colonial encounter between “West” and “East” that began in the 15th and 16th centuries ending barely seven decades ago has in every sense shaped the modern world. Many scars have been left, however, and a priority of the ongoing decolonisation process must not only be to expand on the legacy of this long experience but also to heal its wounds.



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Features

Rise of Dual Power amidst Covid 

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We had so many kings in our Sinhala Balaya of many centuries. There were many questionable deals on succession by members of this royalty, and others who came to those realms. But we have yet to hear of any brother of a ruling monarch rushing abroad in the midst of what may have been a national crisis, moving to a disaster.This is the stuff of Sinhala Power in the 21st Century. It is a show of the Raja Keliya – the power game, where dual citizenship is the dominant factor. The Sri Lanka, Mawbima home, is of lesser importance than the Videsha mawbima, especially if one’s health has to be handled by foreign medical sources; even if the Videsha Mawbima is the biggest affected by the Covid pandemic.

The appointment of Task Forces to deal with important issues facing the country and the people is the substance of the current Saubhagyaye Dekma – Vision of Prosperity and Splendour. Appointing a brother to head task forces of key importance is the show of dominant family power that prevails in this country today. But brotherly feelings are certainly not important when a dual citizen thinks of the greater importance of the Videsha Mawbima. The tasks of Economic Growth, Eradicating Poverty and Assuring Food Supply, as well as the more recent Green Socio-Economy must all be pushed aside, when the call of the Videsha Mawbima for healthcare is the stuff that matters.

This is the brotherly Vision of Prosperity and Splendour, or the Sahodara Saubhabyaye Dekma.

The Covid pandemic has certainly brought much contradictory thinking, especially in the government, on how the health of the people in this country, non-dual citizens, could be assured. Minister Udaya Gammanpila, a Cabinet spokesman too, is certain that mixed vaccinations of different brands and qualities, is the means to protect the people. 

Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle, State Minister on the subject, thinks differently, on the lines of the WHO specialists, who have stressed there is no evidence so far to authorize mixed vaccinations. The other minister of health and vaccination issues is somewhat silent on this confusion in official thinking. Is a new pandemic syrup to be promoted by the power handlers?

Thank heavens that the Cabinet Minister of Health, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, is so far silent on this matter. She could come up with a new Sri Lankan Deshamanya scientific solution, such as throwing some of the Sinopharm and Sputnik (Chinese and Russian) into the nearby river, and using the mixed and river blended vaccine for people of the related province. She is sure to obtain the support of Ministers Udaya Gammanpila and Prasanna Ranatunga for such a crafty thinking of science, just as they shared her belief in the Charmed Pot Game or Mantara Kala Keliya to fight the Covid-19.

  We are now in the midst of what is known as a Lockdown. It is not a “Vasaa thabeema” in Sinhala, but a limit on travel – a ‘Sancharana Seemava’. The Police are very clear that anyone who breaks the lockdown rules will be arrested and brought to justice. We have seen the great joy that policemen showed in carrying non-mask wearers and other violaters of Covid safety guidelines, to be shoved into buses. How much more of such delights would follow when Covid increases its hold on Sri Lanka? What was the related Task Force, and its ceremonial uniformed head doing, when Indians were brought to Sri Lankan hotels for quarantine before travel to some Middle Easter countries? What foreigner from the Covid battered India was carried or courteously conducted to a place where lawbreakers are detained?

As we keep wearing our masks and distancing ourselves from others, there is much cause for concern, even beyond the Covid pandemic, on how persons arrested and detained by the police are killed by or in the presence of the  police. Two suspected and arrested persons have been killed while in police custody this week.  They are Melon Mabula or ‘Uru Juva’ and Tharaka Perera Wijesekera or ‘Kosgoda Tharaka’ These are persons with records of major crimes, possibly with much strong evidence, but not presented in court and any punishment order through the judicial process.

The police spokesperson, a person with a legal background, too, tells the people the details of all the terrible crimes these persons are supposed to be guilty of. It is a contemptible move to get public support for the killings. The Bar Association has raised concerns about these departures from justice. There must be much more protests, even with the Covid dangers.

One gets the impression that the prevailing dangerous situation due to Covid, is being used to carry out increasing violations of the law and the judicial process. This is certainly a major step back to the earlier years of Rajapaksa Power, when many such suspects were killed in Colombo and elsewhere, showing off police escape power. It also brings back memories of the killing and attacks on journalists by similar police and official forces of crooked power.

Are we moving to a new sense of Dual Power — where the judiciary is ignored and official power is the Rule of the Day? Is the power of Dual Citizenry to be the dominant force once Covid puts down the people’s power?

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Should ASEAN Free Trade Area be considered model for SAFTA?

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By Dr. Srimal Fernando

Economic integration is more important today than it has ever been for South Asia’s development. When comparing the impact of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)s South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN ) Free Trade Area (AFTA) in promoting trade amongst its member states, AFTA has been more effective in integrating the economies of its member states. SAFTA , on the other hand, has yet to make significant contributions to the integration of the economies of SAARC member states. The Success of ASEAN’s economic integration can be attributed to the willingness of Southeast Asian countries to embrace the tenets of regional integration. In contrast, SAARC’s model has failed to create a secure regional environment that is conducive for economic growth since its formation.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN ) member states signed the AFTA agreement on 28 January 1992. After the establishment of AFTA, the member states of ASEAN succeeded in signing trading protocols within the organization. The ASEAN model succeeded in creating one of the most successful free trade areas in Asia as well as globally. The establishment of AFTA has been an important milestone in Southeast Asia as a factor that facilitated the economic integration of ASEAN member states.

In the case of the SAARC, the signing of free trade protocols under the SAFTA agreement has been faced with several tariff and non-tariff barriers. Although both SASRC and ASEAN member states face unique challenges that affect trading within these organizations, it can be said that, unlike the SAARC, the ASEAN economic integration model has been far successful in promoting trade amongst its member states. For the SAARC, the liberalization of the economies of SAFTA signatories has been a crucial challenge. On the other hand, ASEAN has made notable progress with regards to trade liberalization, policy alignments, and intra-regional trade among Southeast Asian nations.

The specific trade liberalization challenges faced by the SAARC member states include concerns over SAFTA revenue allocation from member states, restrictive rules of origin, and negative sensitive lists. The sensitive lists adopted by SAARC member states have proven to be a significant hurdle to exportation amongst SAARC member states. This has particularly made it difficult for exports from small member states of the SAARC to enter into large markets such as India and Pakistan. Having failed to grant the application of  most favored nation (MFN) status that would have seen a significant reduction in the sensitive lists maintained by both countries, trade between these two regional powers has been problematic over the years. Notably, the trading commodities that are in the sensitive lists of a majority of the SAFTA member states have high export potential. Despite the various commitments made by SAFTA member states, countries continue to maintain long sensitive lists hence the dismal performance of SAFTA. 

In the case of ASEAN, the establishment of the AFTA agreement has provided ASEAN member states with a platform to exploit their export potential. The AFTA agreement has boosted the economies of ASEAN countries through its trade liberalization policies. AFTA has also entered into several free trade agreements with regional powers such as Australia, China, South Korea, India, and Japan. The ASEAN countries are now focused on creating an Economic Community for their member states. Notably, several countries have shown interest in being a part of the proposed ASEAN Economic Community.

It should however be noted that the massive success achieved by ASEAN’S AFTA as opposed to SAARC’s SAFTA is not flawless. For example, although ASEAN has made significant steps in eliminating tariff barriers amongst AFTA member states, Non-tariff barriers are still a key challenge to the AFTA agreement. However, when analyzing the progress made by ASEAN’s AFTA since its formation, the achievements and evolution are undeniable. ASEAN was formed in an era when interstate relations amongst Southeast Asian countries were characterized by political mistrust and strained interstate relations. Years later, the organization has succeeded in unifying its member states for a common course, an aspect that the SAARC still struggles with. 

Way Forward

If SAFTA is to become more effective and emulate AFTA’s success, the myriad of issues mentioned above needs to be addressed. First, downsizing the sensitive lists of countries in a time-bound manner will be necessary. Secondly, the issue of para tariffs needs to be squarely addressed. A starting point could be to reduce and accelerate the elimination of para tariffs on items not on sensitive lists and include para tariffs in SAFTA negotiations. Also, the non-tariff barriers to trade facing SAFTA member states need to be equally addressed like the tariff barriers. Finally, strengthening economic relations can be used to reinforce improving political relations in the region, particularly between India and Pakistan. To an extent, the success of ASEAN in achieving effective economic integration and its experience can be used as an external driver of SAARC and its SAFTA agreement.

About the author:

Dr. Srimal Fernando received his PhD in the area of International Affairs. He was the recipient of the prestigious O.P. Jindal Doctoral Fellowship and SAU Scholarship under the SAARC umbrella. He is also an Advisor/Global Editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa in partnership with Diplomatic World Institute (Brussels). He has received accolades such as 2018/2019 ‘Best Journalist of the Year’ in South Africa, (GCA) Media Award for 2016 and the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) accolade. He is the author of ‘Politics, Economics and Connectivity: In Search of South Asian Union’

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Ramazan spirit endures amid pandemic

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This will be a sombre Ramazan, indeed, with the country under a lockdown. But the spirit of Ramazan lives on in all Muslims. Ramadan, also referred to as Ramazan, Ramzan, or Ramadhan, in some countries, is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and Muslims the world over dedicate this holy month for fasting, prayer, reflection and community.

Although most non-Muslims associate Ramazan, solely with fasting, it is believed to bring Muslims closer to God and inculcate in them qualities such as patience, spirituality, and humility. Those of the Islamic faith believe that fasting redirects one away from worldly activities, cleanses the inner soul and free it from harm. It also teaches self-discipline, self-control, sacrifice, and empathy for those who are less fortunate and encourage actions of generosity and charity. It is a time of self-examination and increased religious devotion.

Ramazan is a commemoration of Prophet Muhammad’s first revelation, and the annual observance of Ramazan is regarded as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The Five Pillars are basic acts, considered mandatory by Muslims, namely Muslim life, prayer, concern for the needy, self-purification, and the pilgrimage. Prophet Muhammad’s first revelation is believed to have taken place in 610 AD, in a cave called Hira, located near Mecca, where Muhammad was visited by the angel Jibrīl, who revealed to him the beginnings of what would later become the Qur’an. The visitation occurred on Ramazan.

Ramazan lasts from one sighting of the crescent moon to the next and the local religious authority is tasked with announcing the date. The Colombo Grand Mosque announced on Wednesday (12) that Sri Lankan Muslims will celebrate Ramazan on Friday (14). Because the Muslims follow a lunar calendar, the start of Ramazan moves backwards by about 11 days, each year, in the Gregorian calendar. Fasting from dawn to sunset is considered fard (obligatory) for all adult Muslims who are not acutely, or chronically, ill, travelling, elderly, breastfeeding, diabetic, or menstruating.

During this month, Muslims refrain not only from partaking of meals, but also tobacco products, sexual relations, and sinful behaviour, devoting themselves to prayer or salat and recitation of the Quran. The pre-dawn meal is referred to as suhur, and the nightly feast that breaks fast is referred to as iftar. During Ramazan, Muslims wake up well before dawn to eat the pre-dawn meal. This is considered the most important meal, during Ramazan, since it has to sustain one until sunset. This means eating lots of high-protein food and drinking as much water as possible, right up until dawn, after which one cannot eat or drink anything. The day of fasting ends at sunset, the exact minute of which is signalled by the fourth call to prayer, at dusk.

It is believed that spiritual rewards, or thawab, of fasting multiply during Ramazan. Muslims do not Fast on Eid, but Sri Lankan Muslims believe that observing the six days of optional fasting, that follows Eid, multiplies spiritual rewards.

Eid-Ul-Fitr is the Festival of Breaking the Fast, also simply referred to as Eid, and marks the end of the month-long dawn-to-sunset fasting of Ramadan, as well as the return to a more natural disposition of eating, drinking, and marital intimacy. In Sri Lanka, this Festival of Breaking the Fast is also referred to, colloquially, as Ramazan. Eid begins at sunset, on the night of the first sighting of the crescent moon. Muslims hand out money, to the poor and needy, as an obligatory act of charity, before performing the Eid prayer.

Globally, the Eid prayer is generally performed in open areas, like fields, community centres, or mosques in congregation. In Sri Lanka, the prayer is performed annually in Galle Face Green and mosques. The Eid prayer is followed by the sermon and then a supplication asking for Allah’s forgiveness, mercy, peace and blessings for all living beings across the world. The sermon encourages Muslims to engage in the rituals of Eid, such as zakat, almsgiving to other fellow Muslims. After the prayers, Muslims visit relatives, friends, and acquaintances, or hold large communal celebrations.

After prayer, Muslims celebrate Eid, with food being the central theme. Sri Lankans celebrate Ramazan with watalappam, falooda, samosa, gulab jamun and other national and regional dishes. The festivals were said to have initiated in Medina, after the migration of Muhammad from Mecca.

This year, as well as last year, Sri Lankan Muslims will have to forgo the custom of communal prayers, and celebrations, due to the ongoing pandemic, and will have to settle for private prayers and celebrations of Ramazan during this period of curfew. While these preventive measures are in place, during this year’s Ramazan, the principles of this holy month remain the same. Devout Muslims all over the world, will still be honouring this pillar of Islam, albeit from the security of their homes.

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