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

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

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  1. 1.

    LIVE@8 television news broadcast, Swarnavahini television, Colombo. Aired October 21, 2010.

  2. 2.

    Throughout this chapter I use the terms “evangelical” and “Pentecostal.” As I use them, “evangelical” simply means a Christian who is committed to “spreading the Good News” (subaramciya prawaraya karannawa). Pentecostals (or Pentecostal-charismatics) are by definition evangelical Christians. However, not all evangelicals are Pentecostals. Within Sri Lankan Protestant and Roman Catholic churches there are strands of evangelicalism as well as liberal non-evangelical Christianity. Also, although some classify Pentecostalism as a subset of Protestantism, the practices and ideologies of Pentecostal and Protestant religious practice are substantially different. See Martin (2002a).

  3. 3.

    According to the 2001 census, Buddhists constitute approximately 76.7 % of the population, in comparison with the roughly 6 % of the population claiming to be Roman Catholics, and significantly less than the 1 % of the population was categorized as “other Christian.” Not only are these figures dated, given that the census was taken during the civil war, they fail to consider predominantly Tamil areas, which were under control of the LTTE rebels, and which include large populations of Hindus, Muslims, Christians and only small numbers of Buddhists. As a result, the census figures grossly underestimate the number of religious minorities, and specifically Catholic, Protestant, and especially Pentecostal citizens of Sri Lanka there are. There appear to be no accurate sources for this data, in part because the numbers themselves are so easily attached to political agendas.

  4. 4.

    Not only Buddhists but to some extent Hindus, Catholics, and Muslims in Sri Lanka also feel threatened and have reacted to evangelical Christian practice and preaching.

  5. 5.

    The Commission on Unethical Conversions Report (2009, in Sinhala) by the All-Ceylon Buddhist Congress—a Colombo-based Buddhist lay organization—is one recent example.

  6. 6.

    In efforts by a political party consisting of Buddhist monks who were elected to the Sri Lankan Parliament for a single term in 2004, they drafted. As stated in the draft legislation to ban what Buddhist nationalist activists deemed to be “unethical religious conversions,” such conversions were allegedly induced by “force, allurement and other fraudulent means.” Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Act was publicized by gazette notification in Sri Lanka, May 28, 2004. See also: Owens (2007).

  7. 7.

    There has been some scholarly disagreement as to whether propagation or proselytism was crucial in the establishment of Buddhism in India and in other parts of Asia, including Sri Lanka. Ashok Kumar Anand suggests that “conversion by evangelical method marks out Buddhism as making a radical departure from the traditionary lines on which the Indian religions brought new adherents into their fold” (in Anand 1996). However, in (Walters 1992), Jonathan S. Walters has convincingly challenged these received histories of Buddhist propagation, arguing that there was no foundational validation of “Buddhist missions” congruent to Christian evangelical ideas of “the Great Commission”—contrary to what Anglo-American discourses of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries projected onto them. Although Protestant Christian missionaries with their evangelical preoccupations misunderstood foundational Buddhist texts about the development of the monastic community, as well as the Ashokan history about the proliferation of Buddhism, as proof of a highly developed Buddhist missiology, Walters argues Buddhists in the pre-modern era themselves did not view them as such. It is only in the colonial encounter that Buddhism was characterized as having a highly-developed missiology.

  8. 8.

    Pentecostalism was first established in Sri Lanka in the 1920s. See Somaratna (1996).

  9. 9.

    See: De Silva (2005), Malalgoda (1976), Spencer (1990), and Peebles (2006).

  10. 10.

    K.M. De Silva (2005); Stirrat (1992)

  11. 11.

    Article 10, 11 and 14 in the Sri Lankan constitution: See also: Bartholemeusz (1999), Tambiah (1992), and Schonthal (2012).

  12. 12.

    According to the Indian constitution here are, however, provisions for religious-based personal and family laws that are to be upheld by the state; this entails that differential codes are in effect according to one’s religious affiliation. See Chatterjee (1995). Also Larson (2001).

  13. 13.

    Silva (1986); Spencer, History and Roots of Conflict; Tambiah, Buddhism Betrayed?; Bartholomeuz and DeSilva (1998); Seneviratne (1999); Obeyesekere and Gombrich (1988); Little (1998); Roberts (1990); and Stirrat, Power and Religiosity in a Post-colonial Setting.

  14. 14.

    Berkwitz, “Resisting the Global in Buddhist Nationalism,” 76. Berkwitz suggests that “rather than searching for the origins of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism or mapping out its genealogy, it makes sense, in David Scott’s words, to change the problematic and to refuse ‘the past’s hold over the present’ in order to see how specific articulations of the relationship between Buddhism and the nation arise and are wielded in response to present contingencies,” (Scott 1999).

  15. 15.

    See Hresko (2006).

  16. 16.

    Kao (2008). Kao has typified several premises for anti-proselytization.

  17. 17.

    Sri Lankan Christians use “anti-conversion” as common shorthand for the proposed “The Prohibition of Unethical Conversions” bill and other practices meant to curb proselytism.

  18. 18.

    (Rohde 2005); See also (Matthews 2007).

  19. 19.

    (de Alwis 2009, 122). Making a similar observation about the wounding capability of charity, Korf, et al., point to various reports by social scientists diagnosing that post-tsunami aid in Sri Lanka created conditions in which beneficiaries felt “humiliated,” as they were rendered passive “victims” in the process of recovery from humanitarian crises (Korf et al. 2010, 60).

  20. 20.

    (Korf et al. 2010). See also (Matthews 2007), which discusses how evangelical groups have often been conflated with both non-proselytizing faith-based and secular NGOs in the post-tsunami humanitarian context.

  21. 21.

    Assembly of God is the most prominent of the Pentecostal denominations in Sri Lanka.

  22. 22.

    Other perspectives also inform the debate over religious freedom from the margins. For example, secular social justice activists in Sri Lanka are generally ambivalent about charitable conversions, often conceding that conversion is a “natural” response to charity that is packaged with religious teachings and implying that it is inconsequential that the new faith is adopted genuinely or for pragmatic reasons. See also Caspersz (2002). Such lines of argumentation are typically regarded by staunch Buddhist nationalists as dubious rebuttals put forth by Christian apologists.

  23. 23.

    The allegations that charity allures converts away from Buddhism bears a resemblance to allegations by Hindutva activists in India that Christians use “trickery” and “bribery” to convert Hindus, as described by Menon (2003).

  24. 24.

    Egge (2002) and Findly (2003). The karmic development of spiritual adeptness has been discussed by Bechert (1992).

  25. 25.

    Bechert (1992); Premasiri (2003).

  26. 26.

    Egge (2002) Premasiri, “The Ultimate Goal of Early Buddhism and the Distinctive Characteristics of Buddhist Meditation.”

  27. 27.

    Egge (2002); Findly (2003).

  28. 28.

    Although dana is archetypically the donation of provisions to the Buddha and mendicants monks, who are generally viewed as the appropriate recipients of meritorious giving (Findly 2003), scholars have shown that under certain conditions Theravada Buddhists also give charity to, and perform services for, the poor—reinforcing the ethic of compassion toward all who are suffering. See: Bowie (1998) and Hallisey (2007).

  29. 29.

    Allahyari (2000). See also Hughes III (2005) and Robbins (2007).

  30. 30.

    Ibid. Harris shows that during British colonial era missionary encounters in Sri Lanka, Christian missionaries viewed the “laws” of karma as contributing only to moral depravity and selfishness. She demonstrates that while Christian missionaries and Western Buddhologists in Theravadan countries during the early phase of British colonialism tended to be unconvinced that Buddhism was an effective moral system, there was a positive attitudinal shift in favor of Buddhism among those who arrived in the latter phases of colonialism.

  31. 31.

    Southwold (1985); Bond (1988); Premasiri (2003).

  32. 32.

    Obeyesekere (1968). This karmic causality (theodicy) was often used to explain the misfortune of the tsunami in Theravadan Thailand and in Sri Lanka. For instance, see: Merli (2005).

  33. 33.

    The former position, a kind of karmic-neoliberalism, tends to only be expressed in among certain social circles. Many Theravada Buddhists engage in social service and charity work, valorizing the alleviation of suffering as compassionate action consonant with Buddhist principles. Since the renewal of the concerns about “unethical conversions,” many Buddhist protectionists are newly engaging themselves in charitable work, stating their aim to ensure that poor Sinhalese Buddhists do not become swayed to Christianity by evangelists bearing charity.

  34. 34.

    See Scott (1994) for a useful critique of this translation of “yaksa.” These ritualists are considered to be Buddhist, because although they call upon other powers to remove evil spirits and Lord Buddha is not central agent in the yaktovil ritual, within the wider cosmic order Lord Buddha reigns supreme. However, since “protestant Buddhist” reformers under the British colonial period considered these practices syncretic or pre-Buddhist accretions that don’t correspond with “true” Buddhism, the practices are viewed with much ambivalence (Obeyesekere and Gombrich 1988).

  35. 35.

    After all, possessing agents have future rebirths in which they could potentially be less malevolent. (Stirrat 1992, 78–98), clearly describes how Catholic belief and Sinhalese-folk belief differently categorize these spirits.

  36. 36.

    Pieris (2005: 26). Bruce Kapferer makes a similar point about the psychological release enabled by laughing at the demons in these Sinhala Buddhist rituals in Celebration of Demons: Exorcism and the Aesthetics of Healing in Sri Lanka. See also (Berg 1991).

  37. 37.

    “Demons in Divine Garb Carry on Merrily,” in The Buddhist Times online, February 1, 2010., accessed April 17, 2011. Also Kannangara (2009).

  38. 38.

    Some of the staunchest Pentecostals indeed refuse medication and stress reliance only on the healing power of God. This aspect of Christian devotionalism is rare in Sri Lanka, though not unknown. Most denominational and non-denominational Pentecostal healers, like the pastor in question, see God as working through the medical technologies and treatments sought by Christians who have access to the Holy Spirit through their devotion.

  39. 39.

    Kannangara, “JHU Vows Legal Action against Prayer Services.”

  40. 40.

    Stirrat, Power and Religiosity in a Post-colonial Setting, describes comparable phenomena in particular Catholic folk ministries that existed in certain regions of Sri Lanka between the 1970s and 1990s.

  41. 41.

    These Sinhalese folk-Buddhist customs are described by Kapferer (1983); Scott (1994); Brow (1996).


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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.

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Mahadev, N. (2014). Conversion and Anti-conversion in Contemporary Sri Lanka: Pentecostal Christian Evangelism and Theravada Buddhist Views on the Ethics of Religious Attraction. In: Finucane, J., Feener, R. (eds) Proselytizing and the Limits of Religious Pluralism in Contemporary Asia. ARI - Springer Asia Series, vol 4. Springer, Singapore.

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