The Spirituality of Sri Lanka

There is no doubt about the fact that Sri Lanka is a very spiritual country but I wanted to look into the history of their spirituality and where it comes from. Here is what I learnt...

There are approximately 21 million people in Sri Lanka and approximately three quarters of them belong to the Sinhalese group. The Singhalese use and Indo-Aryan language and writing and they trace their origin back to the legendary Prince Vijaya. The first Singhalese probably migrated from the northern part of India a good 2500 years ago. King Devanampiya Tissa embraced the religion of Buddha in the third century BC and laid the foundations for the highly developed Sri Lankan culture in the Cultural Triangle and they have regarded themselves as the guardians of this religion and the leading national group on the island since that time. With exception from a few Christians most Singhalese are Buddhists. The second largest demographic group (around 17%) are the Tamils who originally came from South India. They speak a language that belongs to the Dravidic family and is not at all related to the Singhalese. These are two large groups with very different histories. The Sri Lankan Tamils, who make up about 12% of the population, have their settlements in the North and East of the island. There are also almost 1 million Tamils in the mountains, who mainly live on the tea plantations. It turns out that their forebears were brought to the island as cheap labour by the British in the 19th century and to this day are still at the bottom of the income ladder. More than 80% of the Tamils are Hindus and the remaining percentage are Christians.


The overwhelming majority of the Singhalese follow the 2500 year old teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. Born into a noble family in North India, Gautama undertook a search for meaning following a young life of self indulgence. Meditating under a fig tree he became the Buddha, the Enlightened, who  recognised a casual connection between desire and suffering that can only be changed by a removal of desire and a longing of immortality. Man can reach the state of Nirvana, the complete extinction of desire, by following the 'enlightened path' and in this way end the cycle of reincarnation. The faithful strive to achieve as much good karma as possible by making donations, giving alms to the monks and following the five moral laws; Do Not Kill, Do Not Steal, Do Not Commit Any Sexual Transgressions, Do Not Lie and Do Not Take Any Intoxicating Substances. The Dagoba is a massive Buddhist religious building, usually in a bell or semi-spherical shape. The origin of the Singhalese word dagoba can be traced back to the Sanskrit and means reliquary shrine. Reliquaries are objects that, actually according to legend, have connection with Buddha.


The Young Tamil girl smashes the fibrous coconut on the floor of the temple with all her force and the coconut water flows out of the broken shell. What appears to be an outburst of violence has an ancient tradition in Hinduism where the coconut symbolises human existence and shattering it represents inner cleansing. Around 15% of the entire population embraces Hinduism; most of them are Tamils. The Indian religion is especially prevalent in the northern and eastern parts of the island. Some of the Hindu Gods also play an important role for Buddhists as protectors of the island and there is hardly any Buddhist monastery that does not also have a small Hindu shrine, known as devale, on it's grounds. The Hindud are united in their belief in the principle of the eternal cycle of creation and destruction. they are also convinced that their individual self takes on a new form after death. What they are reborn as depends on their karma and deeds they preformed during their lifetime. The abstract idea of a supreme God represented by an army of gods, spirits and demons that are honoured as the individual chooses. Shiva is by far the most popular Hindu god; in the form of a lingam he is the symbol of fertility, as a cosmic dancer he represents destruction but he is also revered as an ascetic. Many temples are also dedicated to his son Skanda, who is known as Murugan and Katagaram as the god of war and is considered the powerful protector of the island.

Information gathered from various sources including Marco Polo Guides