Children, On Religion

When one speaks of religious diversity in Sri Lanka today, the key word that comes to mind is tolerance. What does religious diversity mean in Sri Lanka today and how do we practice it? In light of all the growing intolerance against the Muslim and Christian communities, it’s a significant question that all Sri Lankans must attempt to answer. Photographing religious diversity can be done through the colourful festivals and rituals, the places of worship, the multi ethnic multi religious communities living together and praying side by side, the various temples and churches and kovils and mosques scattered all around the island, a testament to our religious diversity in its most obvious sense. In this feature, photographer Sharni Jayawardena looks at religious diversity in Sri Lanka through a different lens – through the eyes of children, the younger generation that will define what religious diversity means for the future.

Lakni, 11 (female, Tamil/Hindu/Buddhist). I have two religions. I follow both the Hindu religion and the Buddhist religion because my father is Tamil and my mother is Sinhalese. I know there are four religions in Sri Lanka. Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. I can’t really tell them apart when I see people from different religions. They don’t look different. But Muslim women cover their heads with a black cloth. I don’t know why they do it. I don’t like it. I would never wear it. I don’t like Islam because women have to cover their heads. It’s scary. It’s much better not to wear it.

Lakni, 11 (female, Tamil/Hindu/Buddhist). Hindus and Buddhists celebrate the same New Year in April. Muslims celebrate Ramazan and Haj. They send us watalappan and Biriyani when they have festivals. In Hinduism we have lots of gods: Sivan, Parvathi, Murugan, Pillayar, Lakshmi, Saraswathi, Hanuman, Sita, Krishna. Pillayar tells us to study well. Saraswathi likes the arts. Buddhists worship Saraswathi, Lakshmi. Pillayar and Murugan. They ask help from the gods when they are ill or in trouble. Sometimes people have disagreements or fights when they talk about religion. A Buddhist may say something bad about Muslims and a Muslim will say something bad about Buddhists in return. But this doesn’t happen all the time. Tamils and Muslims fight about religious things too. They insult each other’s religions. Politicians also say things and cause trouble.

Subash, 13 (male, Tamil/Hindu). I am a Hindu. We worship many gods. Siva Perumal. Parvathi. Pillayar. Murugan. I like Pillayar best because he helps us improve our minds. I know a bit about Buddhism. I think it’s a good religion. The Buddha teaches the Buddha dharma. It teaches us good things. So does Hinduism and Christianity. Hindus wear pottus and you can make out Sinhalese because of the way they speak. You can say they are Buddhists when they wear white. I wear vesti and shirt for special religious occasions. Muslims dress differently. The men wear a cap the women cover everything leaving a small opening for the eyes. That’s their tradition but I don’t know why they do it. It must be something good. I learnt religion at school. I study in the Sinhala medium so they teach only the Buddhist religion. Christian children learn their religion in church. I learnt Hinduism from the kovil. I learnt about the other religions from my parents.

Subash, 13 (male, Tamil/Hindu). Muslims believe in Islam and Tamils in the Hindu religion so there have been disagreements. Now it is mostly the Sinhalese and Muslims who disagree with each other and fight. They don’t know enough about each other’s religions. They get hurt when they hear bad things said about their religion and so they get into big fights. People speak ill of other religions. All religions are good. I don’t think my religion is better than other religions. I like the Hindu gods. We talk to the gods about our problems. They help us in different ways. I work at the goddess Kali kovil on Tuesdays and Fridays and help in the poojas. Even Buddhists and Christians come there. They ask for relief. Goddess Kali is good. She helps people. She punishes those who have done bad deeds. When I am big I would like to be a policeman and keep people safe from those who do bad.

Nayomi, 10 (female, Tamil/Christian). I’ve learnt about the Bible and about Jesus Christ. Jesus forgives those who have sinned. The Buddha punishes those who have sinned. Muslims are good. They don’t eat pork. Islam talks about a God and how important it is to do good things. Hinduism is also like that. They punish those who have sinned. I am not sure whether Allah is from Hinduism or Islam. God created the world. The Bible includes true stories about what happened a long time ago. We have been taught not to sin. Not to lie. I like the Christian religion best because God is Great. He is true. My father brought a bible home and he showed us how the Hindu word ‘Om’ appears in the bible. They teach us every religion in school but Christians are only taught Christianity. I’d like to learn about other religions too. Buddhist girls don’t learn about Christianity. They learn Buddhism separately.

Nayomi, 10 (female, Tamil/Christian). In our country some people from different religions fight with each other. I have seen that happening even in television dramas. When a girl from one religion wants to marry a boy from another religion their parents don’t like it. But I have seen people like that happily married. I might marry someone from another religion. My father is a pastor. I am not sure what he will say. He works out of town and teaches the Bible. I would like to serve God. I’d like to be in a choir. Some people don’t know the truth. They worship images. Buddhists are good but they also worship statues. We follow the bible. If Sri Lanka has to become a better place people need to learn the truth according to God. There is also some truth in Islam. They too don’t worship images. They have a symbol. Ours is the Cross. Buddhism has the dharma chakra, Islam has half moon and star and the Hindu religion has the Om symbol. Every religion teaches good things. But not everyone follows it. I think if we followed our own religions well we could all be friends.

Sangeeth, 13 (male, Sinhala/Buddhist). The Buddha asks us to do good. Our school is a Buddhist school. I learnt about other religions from my mother and father. They are both Buddhists but they know about other religions too. Christians celebrate Christmas. Hinduism has lots of gods. They also tell us not to sin. I don’t know much about Islam. I think they worship a big black rock like a box. More recently people are saying that Muslims and their religion are bad. That Muslims aren’t very good. I believe what those aiya’s say. Muslims do bad things in other countries too. So some Buddhists are angry with Muslims. But I have one Muslim friend who is a good person. I know his parents. They are good people. They don’t scold or hit their child. But my parents hit me on and off. My friend’s mother makes really tasty food. I really like their beef broth. We don’t eat beef or pork at home. We only have the beef on that special day. I think people in our country don’t live peacefully because of religions. People say things. Even Buddhist monks say things that they shouldn’t be saying.

Kiyara, 7 (female, Sinhala/Buddhist). My mother told me that I was born on Ramazan day. She sings me the song – “Ramalan sanda balanna enna Fathima…” (Come to see the Ramalan moon, Fathima). Now I can sing it myself. I know the names of other religions but I don’t know much about them. I know about Buddhism, which is my religion. I know about Prince Siddhartha, his father, mother, wife, teacher, his friends. But I don’t know much about the dharma yet. The Buddha tells us to be kind. Be peaceful. Be calm. Be happy. Not to hit others. Not to be angry. Muslim girls wear something that covers their face. The boys wear only a white cap. Hindus speak differently. They speak another language. I can say what religion a person belongs to by how they talk and how they dress.

Kiyara, 7 (female, Sinhala/Buddhist). I think all religions are good. I like that we have lots of religions in Sri Lanka. There are Muslim children and one Christian child in our school. There are no Tamils and Hindus. We are only taught Buddhism in school. We are only taught the religion of our family so we don’t know much about other religions. I have heard about the Bible. Buddhists do poojas. They respect the Buddha. Muslims follow Islam. I like Christmas decorations and Christmas trees. I like Vesak lanterns. Religion makes people behave. The police punish people when they misbehave. Religion is better.

Husna, 10 (girl, Muslim/Islam). I follow Islam. I learnt a little about other religions in school. I have no friends from other religions. Islam shows us how to behave, the right path to take. That we must not lie. In Islam there are five important precepts. We need to believe in Allah. Say our prayers five times a day without fail. If we have money to spare we must give a small part of it to the poor. We must fast for Ramazan. And go on a Haj pilgrimage. All religions say that their religion is the best. We say that our religion is the best. Other religions worship statues. We don’t do that. That’s why our religion is the best. The Buddha is not a god so he can only help one person at a time. But Allah can help many people at the same time.

Husna, 10 (girl, Muslim/Islam). I like Sri Lanka a lot. There is so much to see and do here. But we had problems recently. People are trying to prevent us from living our lives according to our religion. They don’t want to let us wear the clothes we want to wear. My friends and I talked about how the Body Bala Sena is working against us. We felt angry. We decided that we must find a good way to protect our religion. I would like to tell Buddhist children that we must be friends.

Irfana, 11 (Girl, Muslim/Islam). Islam doesn’t have a god we can see. Other religions have statues. Those statues don’t help us. Allah helps us. There’s life after death. Even then, when we die, the statues can’t help us. Only Allah helps us. We have to pray five times a day. And follow other things that the Koran says. If people don’t pray without a reason they can even be put to death. If I don’t pray five times a day I am not a real Muslim. The Buddha is a person so he could only help one person at a time. But Allah looks at everyone. He can help everyone at the same time. Statues too, don’t have any power.

Irfana, 11 (Girl, Muslim/Islam). Ashwini is my friend from school. She is from the Hindu religion. I asked Ashwini why she was following the Hindu religion. She went back to her mother and said that she wants to convert to Islam. But her mother refused. We told Ashwini become a Muslim and we will look after you. Say La-Ilaha-IllAllah-Muhammadur-Rasulullah and we will give you the name Fathima and we will take good care of it. Although she follows the Hindu religion I love her a lot. But I teased her saying that if she didn’t say La-Ilaha-IllAllah-Muhammadur-Rasulullah that I will not talk to her. So she said it. Then the boys in the class said that couldn’t be counted. I am not angry with her. It was only a joke.

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