About two-thirds of the natives of Ceylon are Buddhists, about one-third are Hindus, or worshippers of heathen gods, and about one-sixteenth are Mohammedans. The Buddhists are all Singhalese, the Hindus are all Tamils, and the Mohammedans are all Moormen and Malays. Many Singhalese, though they call themselves Buddhists, worship heathen gods in the dewalas, or temples, and Mohammedanism makes converts among all races, but a Tamil Buddhist is practically unknown.
Christians and Buddhists regard human life from a very different standpoint. The former consider it or into ghee, or clarified butter, for cooking purposes. Fruit and vegetables form a large part of the food of the people. For condiments and relishes they have chillies, turmeric, tamarinds, and other pungent fruits and roots ; also karavadu^ or dried fish, a malodorous and unwholesome comestible, of which they are very fond. It is said by some scientists to be a cause of leprosy. Jaggery, or palm-sugar, is eaten in large quantities by old and young to be a gift from God to be spent in the best possible way, chiefly in unselfishly helping their fellow-men. The latter hold that existence is an unhappy state, which it behoves a wise man to terminate as soon as possible. This, however, cannot be brought about simply by suicide.
Buddhists believe that all living things have souls, which, on death of their bodies, pass into other bodies. The soul of a King might occupy the carcass of an elephant in his next life, the delicate form of a woman in the third, then the diminutive body of a beetle, and so on. It depends entirely on the deeds, meritorious or otherwise, done in each life whether the next will be a good or a bad one—a step upwards or downwards. They do not recognize the existence of God, or of sin as an offence against God, or of heaven—that is, any place of everlasting bliss. All that they hope for, after passing through countless good lives, and becoming saints and demi-gods, is to enter Nirvana—that is, to become extinct.
Buddhists, when worshipping at their wihdras, repeat what may be called prayers, though they are not addressed to any divine being, and do not ask for forgiveness, or grace, or guidance, or protection. They are merely praises of the Great Teacher and pious formulas, the repetition of which, in some spiritually automatic way, confers merit on the worshipper, and helps to bring about good re-births.
A well-known missionary Bishop once asked a Buddhist, who had been worshipping, to whom he had been praying. " To no one," replied the man. "I suppose you were praying for something?" continued the Bishop. " No, I was not asking for anything," was the reply. " What!" cried the Bishop, " praying to nobody for nothing!"
One of the most stringent tenets of Buddhism is the prohibition against taking life in any form. A strict Buddhist will not kill even poisonous snakes or noxious insects infesting his house and person, for the sufficient reason that they might contain souls which had once been housed in human bodies. Singhalese fishermen salve their consciences by the quibble that they do not kill fish : they merely take them out of the water !
Strange to say, this cold, repellent religion has had during the last two thousand five hundred years, and still has, millions of adherents. The fact is, however, that to the vast majority of these it is not so much a religion as a code of morals, which no doubt influences their lives to some extent. When, however, evil befalls them, it is not to Buddhism they turn, for there is no comfort to be got from its teachings. They go and make offerings at their dew alas, or engage the services of devil-dancers to propitiate the demons, which they believe have malevolently brought misfortune on them.
The Tamils of Ceylon and the immigrant Tamil coolies from Southern India who work on the tea-estates are nearly all worshippers of heathen gods. There are said to be many millions of these "gods" in the Hindu Pantheon, but in practice worship is confined, in different localities, to particular gods and goddesses. In Ceylon the most popular god is Siva the Destroyer, in whose honour many temples have been built. It is the custom for men, women, and children, after making offerings in a temple, to mark with consecrated ashes their foreheads, breasts, and the upper part of their arms with the symbol of the god whom they have been worshipping.
The religious ceremonies performed in the kovils, or temples, cannot, however, be properly described as worship. Hindus know of no All-Father to whom mankind can look for love and protection ; their gods are merely demons, from whom no good things can be expected. The hideousness of their idols shows that these do not represent beneficent deities. Fear is the moving force of their religion, especially fear of the evils of the present life. Speculations regarding the hereafter form little or no part of their religious belief.
The Moormen and Malays of Ceylon, though Mohammedans, have combined with veneration for the Koran and the teachings ot Mohammed many of the superstitious practices of their heathen neighbours. There are a few mullahs, or priests, learned in Arabic and the Law, but as a bodv the Mohammedans of Ceylon are grossly ignorant, and at the same time bitterly intolerant. There are mosques at all the towns and villages where they congregate. Parties of them may be seen sometimes squatting in circles, all bowing together and shouting simultaneously " Allah!" (Oh, God!) at quick intervals, as an act of worship.
The different races in Ceylon live together in perfect amity except in the matter of religion, but hostility shows itself only during the processions which the Buddhists, Hindus, Mohammedans, and Roman Catholics frequently make through the streets. These festivals often culminate in riots, and are always a source of anxiety to the authorities.