by Dr Prasanna Cooray
A case for spiritual health
The world renowned Zurich based market research cum polling firm Worldwide Independent Network/ Gallup International Association (WIN/GIA), in its latest report on world religiosity, ranked Sri Lanka as the second most religious country in the word. Indeed, this would come heartening news to many Sri Lankans, on this Christmas eve.
According to the survey Sri Lanka sits in the second slot next to the West African nation Niger.
The survey assessed the level of religiosity among the countries based on the responses of the participants for the questions whether one would consider himself religious and how important one would place the religion to be in their daily life. Next to Niger and Sri Lanka, Malawi, Indonesia and Yemen are placed in that order in terms of religiosity. According to the survey, China, Japan, Estonia, Sweden and Denmark are the world’s least religious countries in that order.
Sri Lanka’s religiosity claim may be perceived with mixed reactions by the people. One can always turn back and ask “then why so much of crime in the country?”
We know among various forms of crime, those inflicting harm on humans is a great impediment to human health. However, according to the Numbeo, one of the world’s largest databases, Sri Lanka sits around middle, in the 58th place out of 118 countries in terms of Crime Index. Thus, half of the world is more violent and heinous than Sri Lanka, as per the available statistics.
However, our concern in today’s article will be limited to spiritual health. As Sri Lanka is a country rich in religious sentiment and practice, hand in hand goes the scope and practice of spiritual health. In other words, Sri Lanka is a hotbed for spiritual health.
From time immemorial people were involved in spiritual practices when faced with difficult situations in life, especially when they are sick. Depending on their beliefs and religious affiliations they indulged in different spiritual practices and rituals. The wide array of these practices include aspects such as prayer, wows and sacrifices. Some of these practices remain to this day of modern technological advancement, unchanged or in different permutations.
As Rev. Fr. Ravin Perera, the parish priest of Catholic Church Moneragala describes, “Today spirituality has entered into almost all the spheres in the world. For example we today speak not only about religious spirituality, Buddhist spirituality, Christian spirituality, but even about things like feminist spirituality. Spiritual healing is just one aspect of the broader domain of spirituality”.
The importance and impact of these practices, collectively coined “spiritual health” or “spiritual healing”, on human health and wellbeing was not to be undervalued. In 1983, twenty two Eastern Mediterranean member countries proposed a draft resolution to the World Health Organization (WHO) to include reference to spiritual health in the broader definition of health, to redefine it as “a state of physical, mental, spiritual and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.
Although the WHO did not amend the original definition that was adopted in 1948, a resolution was passed in the 37th World Health Assembly, in 1984, calling upon the member states to consider including spiritual dimension in accordance with their own social and cultural patterns, thus recognizing that the spiritual dimension plays a great role in motivating people’s achievements in all aspects of life.
That was a great leap, both in terms of the WHO and the worldwide concerns on spiritual health. The much looked forward to endorsement by the WHO stamped the notion of spiritual health, officially. At the same time, an intangible spiritual element came to encompass the tangible, material physical health, adding muscle to its composure.
Rev. Fr. Perera, with a PhD on spirituality is well versed on the aspects related spiritual healing associated with Christianity and Catholic Church.
Touching on historical aspect of spiritual healing Fr. Perera said, “Spiritual healing in Christianity derives from both the old testament as well as the new testament. Especially Jesus’s life is portrayed as a healer. This is seen very often in St. Luke’s gospel. St. Luke himself was a physician. So time and again he highlights the healing powers of Jesus. Not only his powers of physical healing, but also of inner healing. Bible tells about how Jesus cured the lame walk and the blind to see. How lepers were cleansed. The dead were raised. These are the aspects which are usually touched by the Catholic Church”.
Fr. Perera speaking on the popular culture, “There are even certain fames in our popular aspect that are associated with healing. When people are sick they pray to St. Sebastian. For cancer they go to St. Peregrine etc. There are many other saints who are associated with healing powers”.
Fr. Perera further commented, “Even the present Pope, Pope Francis has taken the issue of spiritual healing in a big way. He emphasizes the joy of spirit. He not only talks about the joy of spirit at individual level, but also at community level. If there is no inner joy among the individuals, then not only they will be sick, even the whole community they live in will be sick”.
If the Catholic Church, under the stewardship of Pope Francis, should make some headway in this aspect, that would be for the common good of word health.
Ven. Gawaragiriye Pemarathana Thero, an internationally acclaimed Buddhist missionary, speaking on the Buddhist aspect of spiritual healing described how Lord Buddha described the processes of falling sick and the ways to avoid and overcome it.
“There is a clear analysis about physical and mental ill health in Buddhism. Lord Buddha describes how one falls sick in the Girimananada sutta. Salleka sutta delivered by Buddha speaks about 42 mental illnesses. Nakulapitta sutta, bhaddali sutta, anuguttara nikaya roga sutta, sabbasava sutta and maha rahulovada sutta are some other suttas that speak about health and illness”.
“Likewise there are number of references in scripture to health and illness, and ways and means of obtaining good physical, mental and spiritual health. In fact Buddha had set great store by preventing disease than treating them”.
Pemarathana Thero identified a significant development in Buddhism in Sri Lankan history related to transformation of Buddhism from a philosophy to a religion.
“The arrival of Arahat Mahinda heralds this transformation. Buddhism is practiced as a religion than a philosophy in the country. In that are found practices like bodhi puja, atavisi puja and pirith sajjayana, all carried out to invoke blessings on the sick persons”, argued the Ven. Thero.
Pemarathana Thero further lamented, “Since developing into religion Buddhism began findings solutions to people’s day to day problems as well. Chanting seth kavi, bathing bo tree with sacred water, conducting bodhi pujas for seven consecutive days all found way into the popular culture associated with Buddhism since its transformation into a religion”.
Ven. Thero further observed, “Chanting of suttas like ratana sutta and angulimala sutta entered the popular culture with modifications to the original forms. All these are expected to perform sattyakriya to invoke blessings on the sick person (athuraya) and to cure him. At the same time, these will relish the mental state of the patient”.
Swami P. Shanmuga Sunderam, the chief priest of Sri Muttumari Amman kovil in Mawathagama spoke of the Hindu viewpoint on spiritual healing. He identified Goddess Pattini (Pattini Meni) as the patron goddess of fertility and health in Sri Lankan Hindu spirituality, who is worshiped by both Tamil Hindus and Sinhala Buddhists with equal veneration.
“In case of illness we prey to Pattini Meni and make wows to her, seeking blessings from her. We call her mother. Here the mother figure comes forward. Mother looks after us, and cares for us during illness, as in other times”.
According to Sri Lankan history Pattini worship is thought to have entered the popular culture during the reign of King Gajaba (113 – 35 AD).
Swami also observed, “Pattini worship is also done by women seeking remedy for infertility. Pattini Meni is also the goddess of fertility”.
Pattini worship is also commonly done in connection with infectious diseases such as chicken pox and measles, which are referred to as “deviyange ledé” (the divine afflictions) in the common Sinhala parlance. “Kiri-amma dhana” (Milking-mother’s alms-giving) is a common ritual, practiced by the Sinhala Buddhist to invoke blessings of Pattini Meni, especially in protection from illnesses.
Sheik Fazil Farook, Media Secretary of All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama joining the discussion expressed some valuable ideas to “The Island” about the Islamic viewpoint of spiritual health.
“According to Holy Quran God Allah has created death and life, and He will test people to see which person perfect himself in good deeds. So the world that we live in today is understood as the world of test and tribulation”.
“People will be challenged with many types of tests in their life. It could be physical illness or financial difficulty or whatever. Quran and the life of Prophet Muhammad have given examples of how to come out of such situations. The purpose of life is to get close to Allah”.
“If you study Islam, spirituality is everything. You have to make salat (worship) five times a day. You have to go to mosque every Friday. Spirituality is of utmost importance in Islam. During difficult times we need to get close to Allah, seek help from Him by means of prayer. Thus, you connect yourself with God Allah”.
Elaborating further on different practices of spirituality Sheik Farook said, “There are different types of prayers encouraged in Islam. There is the Tahajjud prayer, where you get up early in the morning, around 3, 3.30 or so and do this salat. You put your situation forward to Him. You cry and you supplicate. As Prophet Muhammad had taught us you go in prostration before God”.
“There are many such supplications taught by Prophet Muhammad. In one you say, “Oh Lord Allah, You are the curer. There is no cure, but by You”.
“You also say, “Oh Lord Allah, everything comes from You. Even during this sickness, my heart is content with You, because this sickness and goodness has come down to us with Your knowledge”. In all conditions we try to keep our heart and mind connected with Allah.
Sheik Farook putting things in a nutshell described, “In times of sickness or in difficult situations, there are three cardinal things in terms of spirituality. One is prayer. The other is supplication. And third is charitable activity. These aspects are equally important”.
“Allah says “I am with the broken hearted”. You be with them, help them, calm them, give them moral support by praying for them, supplicating for them, and God Allah says you would find me by helping the people who go through pain and agony. For us, in our spirituality we turn to Allah, prey to him, supplicate to him, and during difficult situations do charitable work”.
Sheik Farook further said, “You have to remove pain of another person. You have to remove tears, remove hunger and remove worry of another person. When you remove pain and agony of another person, the Quran says, Allah will remove pain and agony we are subjected to”.
Bringing in another dimension to the discussion Sheik Farook summed up “Prophet Muhammad had specifically said “When you are sick or in pain, don’t ever ask for death. There is a supplication, “Oh my Lord, if life is best for me you give me the life”. Life is there for you to live, and that is not to be taken away willfully. Therefore, there is absolutely no place for euthanasia or suicide in Islam”.
This will be real food for thought for the proponents of euthanasia, which has entered the realm of medical science in a big way in some countries.