Wednesday, May 29, 2024

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The mystery of hope

By Saliya Weerakoon

In the lush vistas of Kataragama, where the sacred intertwines seamlessly with the everyday, I rediscovered the enigmatic allure of hope. This year, during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, a cherished invitation from my friend Dishan Gunasekera, the Basnayake Nilame of the Ruhunu Kataragama Maha Devalaya, offered me a chance to revisit this spiritual sanctuary after decades. 

My earliest memory of Kataragama was as a seven-year-old child, with the vivid impression of the Menik Ganga’s calm waters washing over me. This time, I saw the magnificent Menik Ganga, light brown, flowing just like our lives, with men and women from all walks of life dipping into it. 

I was told that 2,300 years of history of the Ruhunu Kataragama Maha Devalaya and the Menik Ganga were interwoven and devotees used to physically purify themselves in the river before stepping into the devalaya. Amidst this, looking at the Menik Ganga, I remembered my father, whom I lost 30 years ago. Just like my mother, who is 80 now, my father battled with decades of depression and religion was the only hope we had. It was a personal reflection of a man who shaped my thinking and let his life flow like a river, despite many hurdles.

That memory was followed by one of a triumphant visit with my school cricket team 31 years ago, a reward for winning the limited-over encounter against our archrivals. A set of youthful and rebellious youth, we all were calmed the minute we set foot on the Kataragama Maha Devalaya premises. It was magical then and it’s magical now. 

Yet, this recent journey was different – it wasn’t about personal nostalgia but a more profound, communal calling. It’s a calling to serve once again.

The drive from Colombo took just two-and-a-half hours on the highway, but the transition was profound. As urban landscapes gave way to verdant groves, my conversation with my colleagues transitioned from the mundane to the spiritual, listening to evergreen Nanda Malini and Amaradeva and signature Sri Lankan calypso, touching on the nuanced overlaps of politics and societal beliefs.

True spirit of Kataragama

Upon arrival, Dishan insisted I partake in the 10.30 a.m. ‘puja,’ a morning ritual at the devalaya. Standing right in the middle of the Maha Devalaya amid the faithful – men, women, and children alike on either side – I was struck by the palpable air of devotion. Their eyes, filled with earnest hope, seemed to search for something far more significant than individual desires. It was in this collective yearning that the true spirit of Kataragama was revealed.

The bells chimed, their resonant frequencies ushering my mind into a meditative trance. This was not just a religious ceremony; it was a profound gathering of souls from diverse backgrounds – rich and poor, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and Muslims from across Sri Lanka, including Jaffna, Colombo, Kalmunai, and Matara. Here, social distinctions like caste and class dissolved into the background, overridden by a shared humanity and hope. 

People were free from the burdens of the rat race of life. The smiles were everywhere. Eyes were talking with strangers. The differences were none. For once, the world was peaceful. 

Just last week, I wrote about the ‘power of unity,’ yet standing in Kataragama, unity seemed too small a word to encompass the deep connections forged in this sacred space. I wanted to take a break from writing after the column titled ‘The power of unity’ last week, as I have been writing every Sunday since August 2023. Still, the Kataragama visit changed me and this is a story I could not have ignored because Kataragama taught me that the real ‘power of unity’ is practised at the Ruhunu Kataragama Maha Devalaya.

Kataragama is a safe space. A space to be vulnerable. A place to remove your masquerade.

The power of hope

The following day, walking barefoot around the devalaya grounds with Dishan, I felt grounded by the earth beneath my feet, unbothered by the searing heat of the sand. This physical journey mirrored our spiritual path: resilience and humility. Kataragama humbles you. There is no space for ego. You are nothing amidst thousands of people. The mystery of hope connects everyone around. 

Hope, often likened to a guide in the fog, remains one of humanity’s most profound yet elusive emotions. It is the silent engine of our psyche, powering us through uncertainty toward unseen horizons. Hope is not just an emotion but a necessary element of human survival, a psychological imperative as essential as air. 

For many, hope is born from the depths of despair. In the darkest moments, when obstacles seem invincible, hope lends us the vision to see beyond immediate difficulties. It is a testament to our inherent resilience, the psychological muscle flexing against the weight of adversity. This mysterious force does not merely float in the ether of abstract positivity; it is rooted in the cognitive processes that govern our perception and actions.

The nature of hope varies widely among individuals and cultures, shaped by personal experiences and collective histories. For some, hope is a quiet sense of possibility that things will improve, while for others, it is an active belief in specific outcomes, like the healing of a loved one or the dream of a better life. Regardless of its form, the effect of hope on the human mind is transformative.

Kataragama is not the only place in Sri Lanka that provides hope. I have witnessed this at the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil in Jaffna, Koneswaram Kovil in Trincomalee, St. Anne’s Church in Thalawila, Madhu Church in Mannar, the Basilica in Ragama, and many Buddhist temples, including Kelaniya and Gangaramaya, around the country. The mosques, too, provide hope. 

In the same way, there are plenty of people who use religion for their gains and those are the people who ruin the innocent religious beliefs of people. There are plenty of pseudo-prophets, arahats, and extremist moulavis nowadays and gullible people are flocking around them, fattening their wallets. 

Irrespective of where you worship, it’s your mind that needs to be at peace and therefore religion has a pivotal role to play. 

Where did Sri Lanka go wrong?

I often wonder why Sri Lanka, which is blessed with thousands of years shaped by Buddhist philosophy and the strong influence of Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam, had to go through centuries of mistrust and decades of violence. 

Sri Lanka is perhaps one of the few countries in the world where all religions are interwoven into the fabric of society. You cannot miss a temple, church, kovil, or mosque anywhere you travel in this beautiful country. Where did it go wrong? I often think that if religious leaders had used their power to heal the people instead of creating their empires, Sri Lanka could have been a case study for the world.

However, the mystery of hope extends beyond its psychological and physiological effects; it encompasses its ability to foster communal bonds. Shared hopes can unite disparate groups, creating communities of action. Whether through collective movements for social change or support groups for those battling illness, hope can transform individual aspirations into powerful social currents that advance collective well-being.

Intriguingly, the capacity for hope can be cultivated. Like a muscle that strengthens with use, our ability to hope can expand through practices such as mindfulness, which enhances our awareness and appreciation of the present and allows us to visualise a better future. Literature and storytelling are other vehicles through which hope is often transmitted, offering examples of endurance and triumph that expand our reservoirs of hope.

Hope, therefore, is not merely wishful thinking but a dynamic cognitive process that propels us forward, equipping us to face life’s challenges with a belief in eventual success. It shapes our perception, moulds our physiological responses, and catalyses communal solidarity and action. 

In its most profound essence, hope is the belief in the narrative of our own lives – that despite current struggles, the chapters ahead can bring fulfilment, joy, and peace. This mystery of hope, with its varied manifestations and profound effects, continues to fascinate and inspire, serving as a vital force in the saga of human resilience and progress.

Kataragama is unique because there are no barriers to entry. It is a place for anyone and everyone. It is a place for national unity. 

Practical compassion

Dishan, well before the visit, in multiple conversations, shared his vision for the Maharagama Apeksha Cancer Hospital project – a guiding light of hope that would extend the sanctuary’s healing beyond spiritual to physical realms. The initiative to allow devotees to contribute directly to this cause instead of traditional donations to the devalaya was a testament to the evolving practices of faith – a fusion of devotion and practical compassion. 

Practical compassion is key in a world where people, in the name of religion, muster millions for their benefit. Donating to the Cancer Hospital project is a path to practical compassion where a devotee can witness tangible results, providing hope for innocent people battling cancer. 

In the last few months, devotees of the Ruhunu Kataragama Maha Devalaya have donated Rs. 100 million for the cancer project. A four-storey hospital premises at Maharagama with 25,000 square feet and 76 beds is nearing completion. Many silently donated money and many more supported the hospital project in different ways. This is paving the way for an ambitious project to build a much larger hospital premises, due to the year-on-year increase in cancer incidence in the country. 

The seven-storey building with 500 beds and facilities could cost Rs. 1 billion ($ 3.3 million). It looks like a significant amount; however, it’s simple: you need a million devotees donating Rs. 1,000 ($ 3.3) each. This same formula, one day, can be adopted by any charity, which could provide transparency. Rs. 1,000 is one beer and a cigarette; half of a movie ticket in a premium theatre; one-fifth of a buffet in a hotel. 

Within five days, the core team of volunteers reached out to a few billionaires, entrepreneurs, corporate executives, and a set of people who didn’t have money to contribute but who would give minds, arms, and legs. A bank came forward to facilitate the donations; a multinational corporation committed technology to facilitate digital transactions; a digital media company came on board pro bono to build a sustainable narrative. 

Within hours, 32 powerful digital assets under our collective command committed to the cause. A few of my colleagues in different parts of the world committed to amplifying the narrative. A well-known audit firm will be called to scrutinise every transaction to create transparency. An iron-clad process is vital to uphold the sanctity of the initiative. People from all over the world are flocking. Isn’t this amazing? 

The power of unity, the power of people, and the power of Sri Lankans with the support of non-Sri Lankans were on display. 

I coined ‘Kanda Surindu Apeksha’ as a brand name for this initiative, tying the deep-seated spiritual identity of Kataragama with the tangible hope it would bring to countless battling cancer. This wasn’t just about building a brand; it was about crafting a narrative that would resonate worldwide, emphasising that hope can indeed triumph over despair.

The strategy was put into action immediately and I hope and pray that Basnayake Nilame Gunasekera will now be able to kickstart the initiative on a grand scale. The Basnayake Nilame, who is on a five-year tenure, has only 18 months left and told me that he wants to move on after 18 months and hand over the devalaya to the next Basnayake Nilame in good shape. In a world where everyone clings to position and power, I found Gunasekera to be an exception. In Gunasekara, I saw a content, powerful civic leader. I hope he will honour his word that he will not get into politics, and in hindsight, he is not cut out for the ruthless political sphere. 

A tourism story

Kataragama is a beautiful place. Yala National Park, the wildlife epicentre of the country, is around the corner. Yala heals your mind with beautiful creatures that remind you of the power of the universe. Kataragama is the place for authentic Sri Lankan food; lush green trees of different shapes and sizes; amazing people from the village; and smiles of gold. This could be a tourism story.

Sri Lanka in its good year in 2018 attracted two million tourists. I often think, why not a million more for religious tourism, backed by art, design, culture, and heritage? What would it take to pull a part of millions worshipping in other South Asian countries given the airline connectivity to Colombo? Why not direct flights to Mattala Airport, which is struggling, to make any sense of the mammoth investment often touted as a white elephant? 

I was talking to a few traders in Kataragama and they are reeling due to low business given the economic struggles of the people in the country, but a person like Kodituwakku, who has been selling sweets for decades, forgets the pain of running a business to serve customers with a smile. This is Asia’s century and this is Sri Lanka’s century too. 

The people in the world are battling with depression, consumerism, and stressful life and Sri Lanka could be the place to breathe fresh air under blue skies, in 30-degree temperature, and with eight hours of sunlight, offering healing for the mind, body, and soul. There is no other country in the world that can offer what Sri Lanka truly can offer to the world. 

Kataragama can be the catalyst. The same concept tested well can be extended to other religious places irrespective of religion. When you are willing to learn about other religions, you tend to understand why people behave as they do. When you learn about other religions, you tend to respect who they are. No religion professes violence and hate. It’s time to give space for other people’s beliefs and faith. The world will be a better place once you understand the true meaning of respect. 

I always believed that you need a face to create a movement. I suggested that Basnayake Nilame Gunasekera be the face, which he politely declined, saying it should not be about him but that it should be about the concept. So this initiative will run without a face. Instead, I urged the team to get footage of thousands of testimonies which could reach millions of people around the globe. ‘Kanda Surindu Apeksha’ will be built by the people for the people. The power of belief of thousands of people from all walks of life can create a ripple of hope. 

Faith, hope, charity

In reflecting on this profound experience, Sri Aurobindo’s teachings on the power of belief and the divinity of hope come to mind. In 2023, I visited Matrimandir in Pondicherry, which provided me with powerful learning about human psychology. He believed that our spiritual evolution was as inevitable as the blooming of the flowers around us. In Kataragama, where the sacred flame trees blossom in vibrant hues, their fiery petals are a reminder of the ceaseless cycle of life and regeneration. Just like these trees, our beliefs have roots that go deep, capable of weathering any storm.

As you read this, imagine yourself in Kataragama. Feel the magical waters of the Menik Ganga on your skin, hear the sacred bells chime, see the hopeful faces of devotees, and let yourself be moved by the powerful narrative of unity and faith that transcends all human divides. Here in Kataragama, hope is not just a concept but a living, breathing presence, woven into the very fabric of the place and its people. 

Let us hold on to this hope, nurturing it within ourselves and extending it outwards, as we build not just temples or hospitals but a future where faith, hope, and charity are the cornerstones of our human community.

In Robert F. Kennedy’s renowned ‘Ripple of Hope’ speech on 6 June 1966 at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, he eloquently expressed the idea that each small effort contributes to the grand sweep of history, asserting: “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

This sentiment resonates deeply with the story of Kataragama, where diverse groups of people, transcending their apparent differences, come together in shared spiritual practice and collective hope. In Kataragama, every prayer and every act of devotion adds to a powerful communal tide that upholds not just the sanctity of the place but also embodies a microcosm of the hope for unity and peace across Sri Lanka. 

Like Kennedy’s ripples, each individual’s hope and faith in Kataragama contribute to a larger story of communal harmony and mutual support, echoing the possibility of overcoming larger societal challenges through solidarity and shared belief.

(The Morning)

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