Buddhism: The large majority of the Singhalese, 64% of the population, is Buddhist. This means that they are followers of Siddhartha Gautama, a prince who preached a unique gospel around 2500 years ago in Northern India that was intended to reform the rigid Hinduism of the time. During his life, he reached enlightenment, and is remembered as the Buddha. His preachings proclaim that the existence or non-existence of a god is actually not of significant importance to Buddhists. Following Hinduism, the Buddha claims that everything that exists is an eternal reiteration of birth and death, a law nobody can escape: neither the gods, nor the universe, nor the people. However, he, the Buddha, did actually succeed in breaking loose from the eternal wheel of reincarnations. His teaching is a way to escape into nirvana, a state of timeless rest and unity with everything. The first great Buddhist truth is that all living is suffering. This suffering is caused by our lusts. By releasing these lusts, one can end suffering. The last great truth refers to the way to release those longings; this is called “taking the right way”. The right way is a system of thinking and acting which ensures that the person who takes this way, will have his karma improved. Karma is the sum of all good and bad thoughts and deeds from this and all previous lives. It is a reckoning for lives lived. As the karma improves as a result of taking the right way, one expects to reincarnate into cleaner forms. Ultimately, one will reach the state of bodhisattva, in which one doesn’t long for anything apart from the happiness of all others. Subsequently, one will dissolve in the nirvana, the state of enlightenment in which one realizes that everything which exists is an illusion and a mere mirage of the undividable unity which rests within itself.
Hinduism: Most of the Tamils in Sri Lanka are Hindus and this is the second most important religion on the island. Although Hindus live mainly in the north and east of the country, their holy places are widespread, each dedicated to one of the many gods venerated in Hinduism. Just like Buddhism, Hinduism began in India and later migrated to Sri Lanka.
The pantheon of Hindu gods is impressive. On the one hand, there is one god, Brahma, a sort of universal soul outside of time and space from which everything once emanated and into which everything will one day return. However, Brahma has a multitude of manifestations, represented by individual gods in Hinduism. Brahma presents himself to the world in the form of a trinity, made up of Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the perpetuator who is often portrayed with a blue skin, and Shiva, the destroyer. These three gods, representing the male element, all have a female side, in the above order, Sarasvati, Lakshmi and Shakti. Each one of these six gods and goddesses in their turn have their own appearances, which exist under a separate name. Hence, Shakti, or Mother Earth, is also Parvati, the dancing goddess of fertility, but also Kali, the sombre goddess requesting human offerings, and Durga, the terrible. Each of these manifestations rides an animal which in turn is a god. Likewise, Durga rides a tiger, while she carries weapons in all her ten hands. Vishnu’s ride is the Garuda, a mythical bird. The gods have children. Thus, Parvati and Shiva are blessed with Ganesha, the god of wisdom with an elephant’s head and one of the most popular gods of Sri Lankans, both Hindus and of Buddhists. The elephant among the gods rides a rat. However, the most important Hindu god in Sri Lanka is their second son, Skanda, the god of war who in his free time fights the daily problems and illnesses of the island-dwellers and is hence very favoured. His most important temple is in Kataragama, which you will visit. This god is venerated by Buddhists and by Muslims. Bringing daily offerings and prayers to the gods is an obligation called puja. Another such ritual is the tikka, the wearing of a red dot between the eyes. As a third eye, it is meant to keep a constant focus on the godly world, the world behind our reality, which is a reflection of higher worlds. The most important pujas that are held in the temples take place during sunrise and sundown. Accompanied by drums, bells, wind instruments and the reciting of the Vedas, an offering is brought representing the four elements, air, earth, water and light. The Buddhist temples are visited most frequently during full moon, and the Hindu temples during new moon.