Conversion and Anti-conversion in Contemporary Sri Lanka: Pentecostal Christian Evangelism and Theravada Buddhist Views on the Ethics of Religious Attraction

  • Neena MahadevEmail author
Part of the ARI - Springer Asia Series book series (ARI, volume 4)


Over the last decade Buddhist nationalist activists have pursued various measures to curb proselytism by Christians who strive to “unethically convert” Sri Lankans born as Buddhists. Sri Lankan Buddhist nationalist discourses reveal suspicions that the act of becoming enculturated into Christianity is detrimental to the person and to the nation in a number of ways. What can such nationalist discourses about “unethical conversions,” and about the instruments used to engender religious attraction, tell us about the politics of perception that inflame antipathies over proselytism, conversion, and apostasy? Analysis of ethnographic material reveals that Buddhist protectionists tend to regard two forms of Christian “gift” to be operative in securing conversions. First, gifts of Christian charity are perceived to be material “allurements” that serve to induce conversions and religious patronage among vulnerable Sri Lankans. Comparatively examining Christian and Buddhist forms of giving (charity and dāna respectively), which engender radically different types of ethical sensibilities about the use of gifts and care as modalities of conversion and religious attraction, helps to illuminate why charity is a significant point of contention between these religious communities. Secondly, Pentecostal Christian charisma—or the notion that God's Grace is a gift which can be evidenced through miracles of healing—appears to Buddhist skeptics as dubious and harmful means of manipulating Sri Lankans into committing apostasy. Using ethnography to depict how adherents and detractors alike have made spectacles out of charismatic Christian promises of miracles, this essay describes how recent controversies have played out between Buddhist nationalists and Christian evangelists within the Sri Lankan public sphere. Focusing on charity and charismatic miracles as modalities of conversion, this paper illuminates key aspects of the anxieties over new Christian forms of religious propagation, proselytism, and devotion as they have entered into a milieu marked by ethno-religious nationalism, religious protectionism, as well as established ethical sensibilities and religious conventions.


Religious Freedom Spiritual Development Religious Conversion Buddhist Monk Nationalist Discourse 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



The author would like to thank the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research for the generous support of her dissertation research, without which this article would not have been possible. She would also like to thank Thushari Dinusha for her assistance. Finally, thanks to Juliana Finucane and Michael Feener for starting a very productive conversation about proselytism and pluralism in Asia, and for substantive comments on this paper.


  1. Allahyari, R. (2000). Visions of charity: Volunteer workers and moral community. Los Angeles: University of California Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Anand, A. K. (1996). Buddhism in India: From the sixth century B.C. to the third century A.D. Delhi: Gyan Publications.Google Scholar
  3. Bartholemeusz, T. (1999). First among equals: Buddhism and the Sri Lankan state. In I. Harris (Ed.), Buddhism and politics in twentieth century Asia. London: Continuum.Google Scholar
  4. Bartholomeuz, T., & DeSilva, C. (Eds.). (1998). Buddhist fundamentalism and minority identities in Sri Lanka. Albany: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  5. Bechert, H. (1992). Buddha-field and transfer of merit in a Theravada source. Indo-Iranian Journal, 35, 95–108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Berkwitz, S. C. (2008). Resisting the global in Buddhist Nationalism: Venerable Soma’s discourse on decline and reform. The Journal of Asian Studies, 67(1), 73–106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bond, G. (1988). The Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.Google Scholar
  8. Bowie, K. A. (1998). The alchemy of charity: Of class and Buddhism in Northern Thailand. American Anthropologist, 100(2), 469–481.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Brow, J. (1996). Demons and Development. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.Google Scholar
  10. Caspersz, P. (2002). Sri Lankan Christians in a plural religious system. In M. Hussain & L. Ghosh (Eds.), Religious minorities in South Asia: Selected essays on post-colonial situations. Delhi: Manak Publications.Google Scholar
  11. Chatterjee, P. (1995). Religious minorities and the secular state: Reflections on an Indian impasse. Public Culture, 8(1), 11–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. de Alwis, M. (2009). A double wounding: Aid and activism in post-tsunami Sri Lanka. In M. de Alwis & E.-L. E. Hedman (Eds.), Tsunami in a time of war: Aid, activism and reconstruction. Colombo: International Center for Ethnic Studies.Google Scholar
  13. De Silva, K. M. (1986). Managing ethnic tensions in multi-ethnic societies. Lanham: University Press of America.Google Scholar
  14. De Silva, K. M. (2005). A history of Sri Lanka. New Delhi: Penguin.Google Scholar
  15. Egge, J. (2002). Religious giving and the invention of Karma in Theravada Buddhism. Surrey: Curzon Press.Google Scholar
  16. Findly, E. B. (2003). Dana: Giving and getting in Pali Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.Google Scholar
  17. Hallisey, C. (2007). Religion in Southeast Asia (Lecture series). Madison: University of Wisconsin/Southeast Asian Summer Language Institute.Google Scholar
  18. Harris, E. J. (2006). Theravada Buddhism and the British encounter: Religious, missionary and colonial experience in nineteenth century Sri Lanka. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  19. Hresko, T. (2006). Rights rhetoric as an instrument of religious oppression in Sri Lanka. The Boston College International & Comparative Law Review, 29(1), 123–133.Google Scholar
  20. Hughes, R. D., III. (2005). The holy spirit in Christian spirituality. In A. Holder (Ed.), The Blackwell companion to Christian spirituality. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.Google Scholar
  21. Kannangara, N. (2009, November 14). JHU vows legal action against prayer services. The Sunday Leader. Accessed 5 July 2011
  22. Kao, G. (2008). The logic of anti-proselytization, revisited. In R. Hackett (Ed.), Proselytization revisited: Rights talk, free markets and culture wars. London: Equinox Publishing.Google Scholar
  23. Kapferer, B. (1983). A Celebration of demons: Exorcisim and the aesthetics of healing in Sri Lanka. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Korf, B., Hasbullah, S., Hollenbach, P., & Klem, B. (2010). The gift of disaster: The commodification of good intentions in post-tsunami Sri Lanka. Disasters, 1(1), 60–77, Special Issue: “The Politicisation of Reconstructing Conflict-affected Countries”.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Larson, G. J. (2001). Religion and personal law in secular India. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Little, D. (1998). Religion and ethnicity in the Sri Lankan civil war. In R. Rothberg (Ed.), Creating peace in Sri Lanka: Civil war and reconciliation. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.Google Scholar
  27. Malalgoda, K. (1976). Buddhism in Sinhalese society: 1750–1900. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  28. Martin, D. (2002a). Pentecostals: Their word their Parish. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.Google Scholar
  29. Martin, D. (2002b). Pentecostalism: The world their Parish. Oxford: Riley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
  30. Matthews, B. (2007, Fall). Christian evangelical conversions and the politics of Sri Lanka. Pacific Affairs, 80(3), 455–472.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Mauss, M. (1990). The gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. London: Routledge (1950).Google Scholar
  32. Menon, K. (2003). Converted innocents and their trickster heroes. In A. Buckser & S. D. Glazier (Eds.), Anthropology of conversion. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.Google Scholar
  33. Merli, C. (2005). Religious interpretations of Tsunami in Satun province, Southern Thailand: Reflections on ethnographic and visual materials. Svensk Religionshistorisk Årsskrift, 14, 154–181.Google Scholar
  34. Obeyesekere, G. (1968). Theodicy, sin and salvation in a sociology of Buddhism. In E. Leach (Ed.), Dialectic in practical religion. London: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Obeyesekere, G., & Gombrich, R. (1988). Buddhism transformed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Owens, A. (2007). Using legislation to protect against unethical conversions in Sri Lanka. Journal of Law and Religion, 22(2), 323–351.Google Scholar
  37. Peebles, P. (2006). The history of Sri Lanka (p. 178). Westport: Greenwood Press.Google Scholar
  38. Perera, J. (2009, April 26). Joint committee of Buddhist organizations says inter religious council a farce. Asian Tribune.
  39. Pieris, A. (2005). Prophetic humor in Buddhism and Christianity: Doing inter-religious studies in the reverential mode. Colombo: Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue.Google Scholar
  40. Premasiri, P. D. (2003). The ultimate goal of early Buddhism and the distinctive characteristics of Buddhist meditation. In A. M. Blackburn & J. Samuels (Eds.), Approaching the Dhamma: Buddhist texts and practices in South and Southeast Asia. Onalaska: Pariyatti Publishing.Google Scholar
  41. Robbins, J. (2007). Anthropology and theology: An awkward relationship? Anthropological Quarterly, 79(2), 285–294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Roberts, M. (1990). Noise as cultural struggle: Tom-Tom beating, the British and communal disturbances in Sri Lanka, 1880s–1930s. In V. Das (Ed.), Mirrors of violence: Communities, riots, survivors in South Asia. Delhi: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Rohde, D. (2005). In tsunami area, anger at evangelists. The New York Times. January 25, 2005.
  44. Schatzmann, S. S. (1987). A Pauline theology of charismata. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers.Google Scholar
  45. Schonthal, B. (2012). Ruling religion: Religion, politics and law in contemporary Sri Lanka. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago.Google Scholar
  46. Scott, D. (1994). Formations of ritual: Colonial and anthropological discourses on the Sinhala Yaktovil. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  47. Scott, D. (1999). Refashioning futures: Criticism after postcoloniality (p. 105). Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Seneviratne, H. L. (1999). The work of kings: The new Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  49. Somaratna, G. P. V. (1996). Origins of the Pentecostal mission in Sri Lanka. Nugegoda: Margaya Fellowship of Sri Lanka.Google Scholar
  50. Southwold, M. (1985). The concept of nirvana in Village Buddhism. In R. Burghart & A. Cantlie (Eds.), Indian religions. London: Curzon Press.Google Scholar
  51. Spencer, J. (1990). History and roots of conflict. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Stirrat, R. L. (1992). Power and religiosity in a post-colonial setting: Sinhala Catholics in contemporary Sri Lanka. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Stirrat, R. L. (2006). Competitive humanitarianism: Relief and the Tsunami in Sri Lanka. Anthropology Today, 22(5), 11–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Tambiah, S. (1992). Buddhism betrayed? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  55. Uyangoda, J. (2007). Soma thera: The significance of his life and death. In J. Uyangoda (Ed.), Religion in context: Buddhism and socio-political change in Sri Lanka. Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association.Google Scholar
  56. Walters, J. S. (1992). Rethinking Buddhist missions. Dissertation, University of Chicago, Chicago.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyJohns Hopkins UniversityBaltimoreUSA

Personalised recommendations