The Legacy of the Controversies: The Continuing Impact on Interfaith Encounters in Sri Lanka of Nineteenth-Century controversies between Buddhists and Christians

Vasanthakumar, Michael Solomon (2001). The Legacy of the Controversies: The Continuing Impact on Interfaith Encounters in Sri Lanka of Nineteenth-Century controversies between Buddhists and Christians. MPhil thesis The Open University.



The Buddhist-Christian encounter of the late nineteenth-century Sri Lanka was an important episode in the history of the country. The nineteenth-century Christian missionaries who were influenced by the eighteenth-century Enlightenment legacy forced the Buddhist monks to engage in debates with them on the relative merits of both religions with the view to demonstrating the superiority and authenticity of their religion and Christianising Sri Lanka. However, it became counterproductive and inspired a revival in Buddhism instead of winning Buddhists to Christianity. The outcome of those controversies still affects the Buddhist-Christian relationship in Sri Lanka. Since the major hindrance to the harmonious co-existence of the Buddhist and Christian communities was the continuing impact of the nineteenth-century controversies, this dissertation makes an attempt to discover the causes, origin, and consequences of those controversies, and to analyse them in order to trace its legacy and impact on the development of both religious communities and their faith to the present day.

In Chapter One, the British missionaries’ encounters with the Buddhists are described in order to highlight the dramatic changes that took place in the Buddhist attitude towards Christianity. The inclusive and tolerant spirit of the Buddhists was provoked to such an extent that they abandoned their traditional approach to other religions and adopted the methodology of the missionaries in condemning Christianity and eventually met the Christians in public debates. A critical analysis of the subjects that were debated in the controversies is given in the second chapter. Each party criticised and ridiculed their opponent’s religions. Both parties used their intellectual skills and religious knowledge to demonstrate that their religion was superior and authentic.

The Buddhists with their oratorical skills and knowledge of Western biblical criticism defeated the Christians in the public debates. Since this victory gave tremendous confidence and enthusiasm to the Buddhists, they began to revive and reform their religion by utilising the methods used by the Christian missionaries while undermining Christian faith and mission. This development in Buddhism is analysed in the third chapter. In the fourth chapter, the contemporary Buddhist attitude towards Christian doctrines and mission is analysed since the nineteenth-century controversies conditioned the Buddhist perception of Christianity even to the present day. The dissertation concludes by reflecting on the controversies and their continuing impact upon contemporary Buddhist-Christian relationship in Sri Lanka and recommending a context-sensitive attitude and approach in contemporary interfaith encounters.

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