Some folks in Sri Lanka were at church this Easter morning.
Others were at luxury hotels, starting another day’s work or enjoying breakfast.
About 250 didn’t return home. Their deaths were headline news for the next 24 hours:
- “40 dead as explosions rock churches, hotels in Sri Lanka: Report”
- “Cardinal Dolan urges parishioners to stay hopeful after Sri Lanka bombings”
New York Post
- “Sri Lanka bombings: At least 207 people killed by explosions in Sri Lanka capital of Colombo, churches and hotels targeted — live updates”
- “Sri Lanka church, hotel massacre victims include TV chef, mother and son, Americans”
Apart from its location and climate, I hadn’t known much about Sri Lanka before this week’s news.
What follows is part of what I’ve found.
- An island’s long story
- In the news
- Now what?
(From Astronomyinertia, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
Folks have been living on Sri Lanka for upwards of a hundred thousand years. Its one of those places folks in my part of the world have called ‘a tropical paradise.’
At least some of them were probably ancestors of today’s Vedda.
Robert Knox, a 17th century Englishman, called them “wild men” — par for the course in those days. I’m pretty sure they predate Prince Vijaya, although the Mahavamsa says they’re his descendants. That they’re related, that seems likely enough.
The Mahavamsa and other chronicles say Prince Vijaya led the Sinhalese people to Sri Lanka, establishing the island’s first kingdom. Scholars, Western ones at any rate, often say he’s legendary; so maybe his Kingdom of Upatissa Nuwara is, too.
Or maybe one of Vijaya’s ministers founded the city of Anuradhagama/Anuradhapura, laying groundwork for the not-quite-so-legendary Anuradhapura Kingdom.
King Pandukabhaya lived in Aristotle’s day, give or take a decade or so. He reorganized Sri Lankan government, resolved conflicts between locals and Sinhalese, and is remembered as a good king.1
Rulers and Stupas
Around the time Wu of Jin unified China and Diocletian retired as emperor — no small feat in the third and fourth century — Mahasena of Anuradhapura was running Sri Lanka.
Mahasena tried suppressing Theravada Buddhism. Unsuccessfully. Manhesena’s father, Gothabhaya, had done pretty much the same thing when he was king.
Gothabhaya was the surviving member of a trio who’d seized power from Vijaya Kumara.
Gothabhaya’s sons, Jetthatissa and Mahasena, inherited the throne. Mahasena lived longer, and built the Jethavana stupa. Or maybe it’s the Jethawana stupa.2 Transliterating from another language’s writing system is tricky.
He didn’t lay the bricks himself, of course. Other folks did the hands-on work and his son finished the project. It was the third highest structure in the world in its day.
Mahasena wasn’t Sri Lanka’s first king, or the last. His Ruwanwelisaya Stupa has been better-maintained, and that’s another topic.3
Sri Lanka was “British Ceylon” on maps made in my part of the world before 1948.
It was the “Dominion of Ceylon” for a few decades, and I’m getting ahead of the story.
Leonardo da Vinci was painting the Mona Lisa when Portuguese traders came to Sri Lanka. They got involved in the island’s politics when royal coup in one of the kingdoms, Kotte, threatened their cinnamon trade.
When the dust settled, much the island was part of a European empire. Portugal held the Kingdom of Kotte — one of the island’s many kingdoms, roughly where Sri Lanka’s Northwestern, Western and Southern Provinces are today.
That let Kotte’s tributary state, Kandy, become independent. Or at least semi-independent. Portuguese-held Kotte was still a problem, though, so Kandy asked the Dutch government for help.
It was an effective ploy. Portugal lost control of its part of the island, Kandy kept at least some of its turf, and Dutch Ceylon lasted until the British moved in. British Ceylon lasted until 1948, and I talked about that earlier.
“Ceylon” is what happened when Sanskrit’s “island of the Sinhala people” got passed along through Pali, Persian and Arabic before getting to Portuguese and English.
Can’t say that I blame a new administration for changing their island’s name to Sri Lanka in the 1972 constitution.4
Legends, Lore and Myths
The “lanka” in Sri Lanka started as a Tamil word meaning “to shine” or “to glitter.”
Or maybe it’s a regional word for “island.”
Wherever the name comes from, Lanka’s story is very old.
In Ramayana, Vishwakarma made Lanka for Kubera, the Lord of Wealth.
Then Kubera’s stepbrother Ravana flew in on the Monara, and the plot thickens.
I’ve read that the Ramayana is mythological. I can see why.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ramayana is a mix of myth, history and literary embellishment; a south Asian analog to Homer’s Iliad. (May 12, 2018)
The Ramayana dates back at least a dozen centuries, probably longer. My guess is that parts of it are based on lore passed along by Vedda, Tamil, and everyone else who has called Lanka home.5
“Complicated” barely begins to describe it.
“Grief and Sorrow”
(From Vatican News, used w/o permission.)
(Broken statue at St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo.)
“Pope Francis laments Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka”
Devin Watkins, Vatican News (April 21, 2019)
“‘…The Holy Father said the multiple attacks on churches and hotels around Sri Lanka ‘have wrought grief and sorrow’.
“I entrust to the Lord all those who have tragically perished,’ he said, ‘and I pray for the injured and all those who suffer as a result of this tragic event.’…
“…[Archbishop of Colombo] Cardinal Ranjith said, ‘I condemn – to the utmost of my capacity – this act that has caused so much death and suffering to the people.’
“He also called on Sri Lanka’s government to hold ‘a very impartial, strong inquiry and find out who is responsible behind these acts’….”)
Most folks killed on Easter Sunday were Sri Lankans. Some were at work, like Shantha, Sanjeewani, Ibrahim and Nisthar. Some were celebrating Easter with their families.
Bennington Joseph, Subramaniam Arumugam Chandrika, Bevon, Cleavon and Avon were at St Anthony’s.
Rangana Fernando, Danadiri, Biola, Leona and Seth died at St Sebastian’s.
Ramesh Raju saved dozens of lives when he delayed one of the suicide bombers at Zion Evangelical Church.
Two victims were in or near a guest house near the National Zoo. Three were police officers who were searching suspects’ homes in a Dematagoda housing complex.6
I didn’t know any of the victims. My home is about as far from Sri Lanka as you can get and still be on Earth. A few were celebrities or professionals, but most were ‘just ordinary people.’ Why should I care about them?
There’s the emotional angle, of course; and that’s okay. Feelings are part of being human. Emotions connect “the life of the senses and the life of the mind.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1763–1766)
I felt surprise, sadness, anger and more after hearing news about the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka.
Apart from surprise, I’m still experiencing the emotions.
Again, that’s okay.
Emotions happen. By themselves, they aren’t good or bad. They’re just ‘there.’ (Catechism, 1767)
What I decide to do, how I respond to the feelings, that matters. Choosing a good response is easier when my feelings and my reason are in sync. But even if they’re not, I’m still expected to think. (Catechism, 1765, 1767–1769, 1777–1782)
Deciding how to see events and people in Sri Lanka depends partly on how seriously I take what Jesus said.
Our Lord boiled “The whole law and the prophets” down to a few simple rules. I should love God, love my neighbor — and see everyone as my neighbor. No exceptions. (Matthew 5:43–44, 22:36–40; Mark 12:28–31; Luke 6:31, 10:25–27, 29–37; Catechism, 1789)
The ‘Good Samaritan’ parable in Luke 10:29–37 lacks the shock value it did two millennia back, and that’s yet another topic. (February 1, 2017)
Churches and Hotels
(From BBC News, via Reuters, used w/o permission.)
(“Guards outside St Anthony’s Shrine in the Kochchikade area of Colombo, where one of the explosions occurred”
Two of the three churches hit being Catholic got my attention, too.
I don’t think St. Anthony’s, St. Sebasti’s and the Zion Evangelical Church were picked at random. Whoever planned these attacks probably had religion in mind, since Easter mornings are generally busy times at Christian churches.
But the other three targets were high-end hotels or luxury resorts.
All six Easter morning targets arguably represented foreign occupation in Sri Lanka. Mix rabid religion and cultural chauvinism, and you’ve got claims like this:
“…IS said online that it had ‘targeted nationals of the crusader alliance [anti-IS US-led coalition] and Christians in Sri Lanka’….”
(BBC News(April 24, 2019))
It’s likely that the Easter Sunday suicide bombers had outside help.
Or maybe someone in Sri Lanka was unusually competent at planning and carrying out mass murder on this scale.
The odds are pretty good that the attacks had a religious angle. That’s assuming that an like Sri Lanka’s Tamil Eelam isn’t responsible.7
I’d be surprised, pleasantly, if nobody’s responded to the Easter Sunday attack by saying “Islam is evil.”
I don’t see the situation that way.
Recognizing and respecting the many ways folks have been seeking truth is part of being Catholic. (Catechism, 839–845)
Some self-identified Muslims have done very bad things, apparently with faith-based motives. But I’m pretty sure that most Muslims aren’t terrorists.
And that most Christians, even those of us living in America, don’t see the Ku Klux Klan as ‘good guys.’
I’m relieved to see that Sri Lanka’s government is acknowledging that some officials knew an attack was likely, and didn’t act properly.
‘Let not your left hand know’ makes sense in a particular context.
But not when the ‘right hand’ is supposed to be kept in the loop.8
I’m not sure what to think about the Sri Lankan government’s blocking of social media after the attacks.
Maybe some official thought keeping folks from sharing information was a good idea.
Maybe it really did make sense, given the circumstances.
My guess is that we’re in for a long and loud discussion of social media, freedom of speech, and who gets to decide what ‘the masses’ see. The good news is that at least a few folks seem to be thinking about the issues. Not just reacting:
Nothing I do or say will change what has happened. That’s part of being human.
So is deciding what I do in my “now.”
And trying to do what’s right, which isn’t necessarily what’s easy.
It’s not that human nature, or this world, is rotten to the core.
We were made in the image of God and still are. We, and our world are still “very good.” We’ve been living with consequences of making a choice the first of us made. But we aren’t doomed to make bad decisions. What we do is our choice. (Genesis 1:27–31; Catechism, 295-301, 396–406, 1701–1709, 1730)
Loving my neighbor is easier when my neighbor is being neighborly. But it’s a good idea, no matter what my neighbor has done.
Acting with justice and mercy are important, too. (Catechism, 1805, 1829, 1861, 1991–2011)
I’ve talked about that before:
1 Sri Lanka, background:
2 Rulers and beliefs:
3 Eras and monuments:
5 Sri Lanka, remembered:
6 Places and people:
7 News, mostly: